I took my car for a wash at the garage this morning. It’s one of those suburban SUVs, built for climbing hills (the parking on-ramp at Hyde Park Mall), traversing dongas (the potholes on Louis Botha) and clambering over boulders (the pavements in Randburg). So a little bit of dirt never did it any harm.
But the layers build up, and it causes friction in the household, and sometimes an hour at the carwash is as good as a holiday.
So I took it to the Engen on Beyers Naude, and I chose the No 5, which is the Full Valet, including dash and tyres.
I pulled into the bay, switched off, gave a thumbs-up to the carwash guy, and settled back to read an e-book on my iPad.
Then, just as the high-pressure hose began spraying, I heard a rumble and a clattering, and I looked up to see a big white delivery truck careering down the highway.
It looked like it was going too fast to stop, which is normal for delivery vehicles on Beyers Naude. Then it stopped. But first, I saw a small passenger car peeling away from it, and bulleting onto the forecourt of the petrol station, coming to a halt in a crash of metal and glass.
“Oh my goodness,” I said to the carwash guy, and I dropped my iPad and opened the door and ran.
It was Sir Isaac Newton who said that he did not believe in a universe of accidents. Then again, he didn’t live in Johannesburg. But he also said, in his Second Law of Motion, that a body acted on by a force will accelerate in such a way that the force equals mass times acceleration. He was right about that.
The truck was stuck in the middle lane, just before the robot. Its fender had been pulled up into a scowl, and the left side of the cab had been punched in, and the windscreen was webbed and buckled, but mostly intact.
From the undercarriage ran a river of diesel, specked with shards of glass.
I saw now that there were two smashed cars on the edge of the forecourt, the white VW Golf that had been shouldered off the road, and a silver Toyota Corolla that had been gored from behind, its boot scrunched, its rear windscreen gone, its nose resting against a No Entry sign.
On the shelf behind the headrests, lying still amidst the glass, there was a…what was it, a labrador puppy? I looked closer and saw it was just a plush toy.
There is a moment after an accident – an unplanned, uncontrolled event of any kind – when you freeze, just for a heartbeat, as your brain tries to process what your eyes have just seen. And then you either stay frozen, or you move.
People were dashing out of their cars at the pumps, and spilling out of the garage shop, and strolling from shops across the road. The traffic was backing up behind the truck. But there was no hooting, no shouting. Just a stunned, quiet aftershock.
I saw the driver of the Golf, her head on her hands, sitting behind the wheel. There were a couple of people already at the door of the car, and a lady rushed to the shop and came back with a bottle of Coke and handed it to her. She was shaken, but fine.
The driver of the truck, and his passenger, stood in front of the cab and tried to figure out what had gone wrong. They shook their heads. They too were unscathed.
Then I saw the third car, on the other side of the truck: a small Fiat, the colour of blood, a trail of scratches and scrapes along its wing.
A Netcare 911 car pulled up, and a couple of paramedics got out, cases in hand. A tow-truck screeched onto the scene, gleaming black metallic and chrome.
The driver was a man with a big boep and beefy, illustrated forearms. Another man, an eyewitness, his face aglow with excitement, briefed him: “Hy’t met ’n moerse spoed so afgekom.” And he demonstrated the moerse spoed and the multiple impacts with his hands.
People were snapping pictures with their cellphones, some for the record, some just because they had their cellphones with them.
Here were a knot of individuals whose only previous connection had been their sharing of a short stretch of tarmac in vehicles that happened to be heading in the same direction, and who were now bound to each other by one degree of chaos and the naming of names on forms.
But we all had something in common, the drivers and the onlookers and the petrol-pump attendants and the garage-owner who was quietly fretting about the damage to his forecourt.
We were all members of a species whose first instinct, whose first response, is a pang of concern, a driving need to know whether anyone was hurt, before we need to know what happened.
These moments of crisis, these accidents – car-smashes, hurricanes, random acts of violence – shatter the barriers between us and bind us in a common spirit of humanity. We are wired to care about each other, and to help each other if we can.
I think this is our default impulse. Everything else is an exception to the rule, and a reminder of why we need the rule in the first place.
So, an accident, a mess, some smashed-up cars and a pranged-up truck, some paperwork for the cops and some payouts from the insurance companies.
But nobody hurt. Not a scratch or a cut or a bruise. That’s all that matters. And you should see how clean and sparkling my car is.