Barrelling home up State Highway 1 on a Thursday night. I'm doing the agreed speed limit of 109kmh and I am as sober as, no, soberer than, any judge I've met.
Night driving's hypnotic. To either side my headlights catch hurtling fence posts. Beyond them lie unseen paddocks where stock wait out the night, mute and immobile, patient in the darkness. A glow on the horizon brightens and splits into the lights of a truck, lights that keep coming till there's a sudden roar of air and the truck is past and I'm alone again.
At night the truckies own the road. They flash indicators at each other, an acknowledgment of brotherhood. Truckies must be pleased when the sun sets and we amateur drivers, we ditherers and incompetents, withdraw to our houses to lie through the night like stock.
The journey asks nothing of me. I just sit. The road is like time. It keeps coming at me. Louis MacNeice wrote of it being "sucked in under the axle, to be spewed behind us and lost". We "haul the black future towards us". I sit as time spins under my tyres. I measure distance by the clock. I'm an hour and half from home.
To keep myself from drowsing I turn on the radio. A scientist is talking about viruses.
Viruses, it seems, are the most abundant life form on the planet. They occupy every known ecosystem. Science has identified perhaps 1 per cent of them. They are everywhere: in the sea, on the land, in plants and animals and us, slithering uninvited into cells, uncountable trillions of them, all blindly squirming and reproducing, intent only on keeping on keeping on. I'm probably lugging some up the road with me, lugging them home. They're the enemy within. My immune system is at constant war with them. I'm a barrelling battlefield.
Viruses mutate with astonishing rapidity. If we stick a road block in front of them, an antibiotic, they squirm and writhe and mutate until they find a way through it. Then they pour through the gap, a great self-replicating selfish squirming horde.
But suddenly I've got orange road cones on either side of me and gravel underneath me. I'm veering sickeningly to the right. I touch the brake and the back of the car swings. I steer into the skid, turn the wheel too far and I fishtail. I think I am going to flip and crash and I lose all control and am flung like a fairground ride and I stop trying to steer and just hope. The car spins and slides and slithers backwards on to grass and gravity grips and I stop.
I am facing the way I came from. I am half on, half off the road. The engine has stalled but the man on the radio is talking calmly about the yellow leaf virus, which is devastating tomato crops around the world. I turn him off. I sit still.
Had something been coming the other way I would have hit it and I might have died. Or killed. Killing would have been worse. It was purely my fault. There must have been signs warning of the road works but I didn't see them. I get out of the car. Mist and silence.
I am somewhere between Temuka and Hinds, flat dull anonymous land. An aptly arbitrary place to end an arbitrary 55-year journey. Death's banal surprise. I chuckle. I am surprised by how undistressed I feel. The car seems sound. I thank the unknown engineers who designed it to save fools from their folly, and the workers or robots who bolted the thing firmly together.
The engine restarts first time. The car pulls easily off the grass. I swing the nose round and resume my journey up the island towards home and wine and bed. I drive with caution, looking for signs, alert to the lurking dangers of the road, aware of my vulnerability. But as I near Ashburton I find I'm doing 109.
Inside my frame the war goes on, the immune system back at work, defending me against the viruses and bacteria and all the unseen enemies. They drop and die by the billion but they keep on coming, ceaseless, eager only to live and to reproduce.
On the approach to Ashburton a sign announces the region's slogan. "Life just gets better," it says.
- © Fairfax NZ News