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The Orbital Road

Not every road has its own fan club but the Great Orbital deserves one. Built for practical reasons, it is nevertheless an object of astonishing beauty; a coronet of high grade asphalt encircling the city. It has seven broad lanes in each direction, sliding like water through the gentle countryside of the river basin. The sweeping bridges and plunging underpasses, the glittering catseyes and the smooth, sound absorbent surfacing make it a pleasure to use. At night, the plentiful sodium lamps that loop above the carriageways, form a vortex of orange light and in low visibility, fog detectors flood the lanes with a lambent blue glow. There are twelve tubular service stations, positioned around the perimeter like numbers on a clock face, glass towers of calm and comfort with relaxation lounges, health centres and viewing galleries.

Fans of the road or 'Spinners', as they call themselves, are less concerned with the convenience and function of the Great Orbital, than with the pure bliss of driving on it. Their monthly magazine is full of tips for the best times to travel and the ongoing debate over which affords the most pleasure – clockwise or anti-clockwise circuits. Regular complaints appear on the letters page from 'Orbital Widows', whose husbands prefer going for a spin to spending time with their families. Occasionally, a child grumbles that he or she has become an 'Orbital Orphan' but such protests are rare. Most children enjoy taking a trip to a service station for a swim or a burger and many take part in the drawing and writing competitions inspired by the road.

The Orbital Calendar is published in panoramic format. Each month is illustrated by a photograph taken by a spinner, with a short eulogy in italics along the bottom. For instance, January last year shows a bright, frosty morning, the asphalt glimmering with dew, the lamps cooled to a pink flush. Below, the words say:

The lanes glide into the distance like promises. Concrete rainbows pass overhead and I am being carried through the hills on a glossy black halo.

March's picture is of a heavy downpour in early spring. Lightning illuminates a distant cloud and a couple shares an umbrella on a footbridge. The caption reads:

Rain beats on the roof but I am safe and warm, listening to the steady breathing of my windscreen wiper.

April shows a busy road on a grubby evening with the photographer's words:

Rush hour. We travel together. Gently, the collective headache is smoothed away by silken miles of asphalt.

August's photograph is of a heat haze shimmering in the distance. The spinner has written:

I wind down the window and the breeze washes over me, warm and leathery. The liquid road flows beneath the car and I am cruising on it, waiting for my junction like a ball on a roulette wheel.

December has an existential edge. There is an abstract impression of night driving, a sodium dusk sparkling with the starbursts of tail lights. The words say:

Catseyes glitter like primal stars in the darkness. Everything is connected and there is no god. I am spiralling off the face of the planet and into the void.

The Great Orbital had not always inspired such raptures. When the proposed route was first announced, it was vilified for being too large for the expected volume of traffic, too insensitive to the topography of the area and too extravagant for the public purse. Indignant articles booed the first bulldozers, protesters prostrated themselves before the vibrating rollers and the press photograph of the year was awarded to the shot of a campaigner being surgically removed from a steaming slick of tar like a pelican on a polluted beach. It was all in vain. The Ministry of Transport forged ahead with its project and eventually the city was collared by a smart new motorway. Yet despite the growing popularity of the road, the ministers, who could have been claiming credit for its success, were uncharacteristically silent.

Privately, they were worried. Without informing the public, the Ministry had already launched an inquiry into why, on a highway designed to be the safest of its kind in the world, there had already been so many accidents. It didn't make sense. The steadily curving lanes maintained a free flow of traffic even at peak times, yet there were frequent crashes all around the perimeter that involved no more than one or two vehicles and often resulted in fatalities. For no apparent reason, cars suddenly veered off the road like particles being flung out of orbit, taking with them whatever had the misfortune to be in their path. Although the volume of traffic had remained largely stable, the emergency services were reporting an alarming increase in the number of such incidents.

In vain, the investigation team sought to identify black spots on the road but the accidents followed no apparent pattern in location or time of day. The crashes contained all the symptoms of a driver falling asleep at the wheel but as a complete circuit of the Orbital took around two hours, this was hardly an adequate explanation. Witnesses could only describe how they had seen a car suddenly swerve off the road, not slowing down until it had smashed into the nearest obstacle. The drivers themselves were invariably killed. Those who survived were in no fit state to answer questions, for, to date, they had all fallen into a similar, vegetative state.

If the problem was not with the road, it must be with the motorists. The Transport Minister commissioned an urgent survey of the driving habits of those using the Great Orbital. Their responses to detailed enquiries about visibility, signposting and surface tread yielded nothing but praise. It was the initial, routine question, 'what is the purpose of your journey?' that elicited the most unsettling replies. As expected, most people were going to work, delivering goods or on a leisure outing but a significant minority said they were, 'just driving round'. A few admitted that they simply could not resist an extra lap before turning off. In the middle of the afternoon, some of them had still not made it to work. Others claimed they had 'just missed' their junction, for the second or third time and one man, questioned in the early hours of the morning, confessed that he had finished work at five but had been 'lapping' ever since. Police traffic patrols were instructed to look out for anything unusual in the conduct of motorists on the Great Orbital and the Ministry commissioned a second, more detailed, questionnaire.

This time, psychologists were sent out with the investigation teams to ask more pertinent questions and try to ascertain if there was a clinical explanation for such compulsive behaviour. Several drivers were identified as suffering from what was privately dubbed 'Orbital Syndrome'. The following extracts from their interviews were presented to the Ministry of Transport at their next meeting:

Male, forties, Marketing Manager:

'I like to drive round twice on my way home. It relaxes me and helps keep the car running smoothly.'

Female, thirties, PR Consultant:

'It sounds silly, but I have this idea that if I don't drive a couple of laps each day, the road will go all lumpy and potholed like the other ones round here. As I pass under the gantries, I check that my speed is exactly sixty and if it isn't, I must drive another lap as a sort of punishment. I have to keep it steady otherwise the car will break down and the whole road will melt back into the fields.'

Male, twenties, Investment Banker:

'The trouble is I just keep missing my turning. And then I'm in the doghouse at home. My girlfriend thinks I'm having an affair but really, I get on the road and I want to carry on driving forever. It empties my mind; makes me feel safe.'

Female, thirties, Probation Officer:

'Well, the world's round, isn't it? And the sun, the moon, flowers, wheels, faces. One way or another, everything's circular. Even seasons and tides and blood are circulating. So when I'm driving round this road it's like there are invisible ribbons connecting all the vehicles to the clock tower in the centre of town and we're just spinning round and around, like we're doing a pagan dance (giggles). You think I'm off my head, don't you?'

Male, thirties, Van Driver:

'There's something about this road that makes me feel proud, if you know what I mean. Proud to be human, to drive a car that's faster than the fastest creature in the world, on a road that's smoother than ice. I mean, when I'm on the Orbital, no one can tell me what to do. I own this car. I own the road. I own the whole universe, dammit. That's how it feels, anyway.'

Male, thirties, Proofreader:

'To be honest, it's my life. I mean, it's the best road in the world, isn't it? I'm lucky to live in the country that built it. My taxes paid for this. I've moved nearer so that I can drive on it every day, even though I don't actually need to. It makes me feel at peace, not afraid of death or anything. It worries me that they might build another one somewhere else. Then I'd be really torn. But for now, there's nowhere else I'd rather be. I spent my holiday here last year.'

Female, fifties, Chemistry Teacher:

'I have the sense that I'm going somewhere and nobody can stop me. I know I'm not really, but I could be and it could be anywhere. On the Great Orbital (laughs), I call it the Great Possible actually, I feel as if I'm touching infinity.'

The Ministry avoided making a public statement, because they had no idea what to say. Traffic continued to pour round the Great Orbital, oblivious to the growing number of police cordons and emergency vehicles on the hard shoulder. The craze for driving round and round for no reason was escalating.

While the experts were evaluating the responses from the second survey, an incident occurred that provided the police with their first direct witness. A couple in their thirties had been on their way to visit friends one Saturday afternoon. There had been light showers in the morning but then the sky had cleared. It was just after two o'clock when, without any perceptible lapse in speed, their car catapulted across two lanes of traffic, crossed the hard shoulder, plunged down an embankment, turned over once and crashed into a telegraph pole. Despite severe injuries to her legs and pelvis, the female passenger had managed to clamber out of the vehicle just before it burst into flames. The fact that she was unable to walk and had been crawling on the ground at the time of the explosion had protected her from the worst of the blaze but her boyfriend was cremated at the wheel.

As soon as she regained consciousness, the police interviewed her. Although she was in a state of shock and heavily sedated, her account was clear and detailed. As they listened to her recorded statement, the investigation team had the ominous feeling that she was telling them something they already knew.

"We left the house just after ten," she began, her words slightly slurred, her voice flat and mechanical. "We'd already had a bit of an argument. My boyfriend was waiting in the car, revving the engine. That really annoyed me because we had loads of time. Anyway, when I got in the car, he drove off at top speed in a huff, slamming the gears and over braking at the lights. We joined the Great Orbital at junction seven but instead of heading south for junction five, he took the northbound carriageway and began driving the wrong way without saying anything. At first, I was furious because he'd rushed me just to sit in a car but he said it was a lovely day for a drive and told me to stop nagging. I was pretty upset. I mean, we get on all right, usually. I'm not a nag and he's never accused me of that before. So I shut up and decided not to say a word unless he did, even though I was dying to point out that it wasn't a nice day at all. It was miserable and overcast, drizzling. But I didn't want an atmosphere all day so I kept quiet and actually began to enjoy the drive. We sat in silence but the silence grew friendlier, if you know what I mean. What I'm trying to say is that he wasn't angry or upset or anything when, you know, it happened."

Here, the tape was turned off to allow the witness time to compose herself before she could resume her statement.

"Thank you, I'll be all right. It must have been around noon when we reached junction five. I had cheered up by then, humming, looking out of the window and crunching sweets really loudly. We still weren't talking much. Not at all, in fact, but as I said, he wasn't annoyed anymore. As we approached our junction, I checked my watch to see if we'd be late. That's how I know what the time was. It was nearly twelve so he'd been going some, I know, but you can get away with it on that road. I was fine and he was fine but then, without saying anything, he just whizzed right past junction five. 'That's our turning,' I said. I think I tried to make a joke of it, like, 'whoops, there she goes. Now we'll have to drive all the way round again!' I expected him to laugh or curse. I wanted to say, 'What's going on? Get off the road, you silly arse, I've got better things to do than sit in a car all day' but I didn't want to upset him. I thought, perhaps he's pretending it doesn't matter. He's irritated because he's missed the junction. You know what men can be like about directions. When he didn't slow down at junction six, either, I thought he was sulking and was going straight home. In that mood, I wouldn't put it past him. I decided I could drop him off and drive back in the car myself. They're my friends, you see. He doesn't really get on with them."

"But then we sailed right past junction seven as well and this was when I started to worry. He seemed kind of tense, crouching over the wheel and staring into the distance like a zombie. He didn't blink or anything. I tried to reassure myself that he was having a joke with me, driving twice round the Orbital because I didn't want to go round even once. Not a very funny joke but anyway. I looked at the time and saw we'd be about two hours late, which, unfortunately, isn't that unusual for us. So I deliberately made a big thing about settling back and pretending I was having a great time to show that I couldn't care less but if he noticed, he didn't let on."

"So we drove for another whole circuit. I think he even slowed down a bit, just to annoy me. We were probably still breaking the speed limit but not by much. It took us about two hours and in all this time, he didn't move or speak, just stared ahead. It was ten to two when we approached junction five again and by now, I was pretty anxious; frightened, to be honest. I was quite scared of him. All I can say is, he was right out of character. It wasn't like him at all but I suppose everyone says that, don't they?"

"You can guess what happened next. We stormed right past junction five again. I totally flipped. I started yelling that I wanted to get out of the car. I waved my hand in front of his eyes but he didn't react. Not a flutter. It was like he'd gone into a coma. And the next thing I knew, he drove straight off the road like he wanted to kill me."

At these words, the witness broke down and sobbed. An off-mic voice could be heard trying to comfort her. Only a few more phrases were audible, as if she had her hands over her face.

"He wanted to kill me! He must've hated me! It wasn't him driving. It was like somebody else." With an effort, the witness succeeded in composing herself enough to blurt out the last few sentences and it was these that chilled the investigators the most. "He wasn't even that badly hurt," she whimpered. "He was sitting upright in his seat when the car exploded. His eyes were still open. If I'd have known he needed help, do you think I would have left him there? I would never get out of a car if I thought he was too hurt to walk. I didn't want him to die. I love him! What am I going to do without him? He wasn't injured in the crash. When the car overturned, he didn't even bang his head like I did because he was sitting so rigid, I don't think he even came off his seat. I didn't know the car was going to explode."

Another voice cuts in from behind the speaker. "That's enough now, please," it says and the tape ends.

A medical advisor to the investigation team was adamant that, if the woman's account was accurate, the symptoms she described were nothing like epilepsy or heart failure. When pushed, he admitted that the victim might have suffered a narcoleptic fit, but stressed that this was extremely unlikely in one who had never displayed any previous tendencies and was not on any drugs or medication. Unfortunately, the body was so badly damaged that the post-mortem could throw no further light on the case. The coroner agreed that, in this instance, a verdict of accidental death should be recorded. There were no reasonable alternatives. Nobody wanted unpleasant rumours to leak into the public domain before they knew what they were talking about. Much as they would have liked to dismiss the crash as a freak accident, the people at the Ministry knew in their hearts, that it was part of a wider pattern and the statistics were inexorably rising.

The alerted traffic patrols were reporting frequent sightings of motorists hunched over their wheels, tense and unblinking, apparently in a stupor similar to the trance that the crash survivor had described. If they tailed them, they invariably drove for several laps round the Orbital Road before turning off or stopping at a garage to refuel. But since they were not breaking any rules, the police couldn't follow every suspect vehicle indefinitely. They did, however, begin to compile a list of the registration numbers of 'at risk' cars and within a month, or a week, sometimes that very day, a disturbing proportion of them were involved in an accident. Since membership of the Spinners Club was still accelerating, The Ministry of Transport realised that it would be immoral to avoid warning the public about events on the new motorway any longer. If the crash survivor had known about Orbital Syndrome, she might have been able to take some kind of preventative action. They issued the following statement:

'In the interests of safety, we would like to advise motorists against driving for multiple laps around the Great Orbital Road. Such behaviour is irresponsible and potentially dangerous. Recently, there has been a spate of accidents caused by tiredness resulting from this trend. If you feel yourself compelled to drive more often than is necessary or know of anyone suffering from such a condition, please consult your doctor or contact the helpline number below. Help us to help you to keep your roads safe.'

The press accused the Ministry who had made the announcement of scaremongering and vagueness. Furious, the Spinners protested that their harmless hobby was being treated as an illness and jammed the helpline with complaints about the infringement of their human rights.

It was not until an article from a medical journal found its way into the national press, that people began to take the situation seriously. Particularly disconcerting was the tone of the author, who referred to a condition, called Orbital Syndrome, as if it was a well established disorder that the professional subscribers to the journal were already familiar with.

Sufferers were all survivors of crashes on the Great Orbital Road, who had sunk into a similar, cataleptic state. Neither awake nor asleep, they sat all day, faintly rocking, their right feet at a forty-five degree angle from the floor, their arms stretched out rigidly before them, their hands clamped to an invisible hoop. If their clenched teeth, profuse sweating and occasional moans were anything to go by, they were in severe physical discomfort. The specialist who had written the article described how he had succeeded in relieving his patients from some of their pain by seating them in softly vibrating chairs. He also advised using a strobing orange light during the hours of darkness. Although the author admitted that, throughout this treatment, his patients had made no progress towards regaining consciousness and seemed to endure intense cramps when the chair was turned off, he had discovered a temporary alleviation from their immediate distress. His charges remained incapable of speech, sleep and rational thought but for as long as their chairs vibrated gently under them, they seemed to be comfortable, even at peace, with their condition.

The report spread deep concern throughout the populace. The Ministry of Transport lost control of the public mood and could no longer protect its precious motorway. People began to worry about a strange virus that was infecting them, or a pollutant that was contaminating their drinking water. Many motorists developed an irrational phobia of the Orbital Road, as if its graceful curves had the power to erase their minds and entice them to their deaths. But the Spinners scoffed at the news and continued to enjoy the gradually emptying road with gusto.

Almost nobody ever uses the Great Orbital for its intended purpose anymore. Terrified motorists are unable to drive on it without being spooked by visions of flaming cars, smashed windscreens, scorched bodies draped across crumpled bonnets, slow motion crash test dummies of real flesh and blood and row upon row of blank faced casualties, nodding to themselves in their specially vibrating chairs. Instead, they are taking long and circuitous routes to avoid the jinxed motorway at night or alone or altogether. The traffic that should be flowing freely in and out of a clean and prosperous metropolis is congesting the suburban roads so severely that access to the city has become even more difficult than it was before the road was built. But the Great Orbital is still full. It has become a destination in its own right, somewhere to go for people who have nowhere to go. A steady stream of cars cruise round and around it, their drivers looking neither left nor right, intent on the distant horizon while within its circumference, the once great city languishes and fades. Slowly, its blood supply is being cut off by an implacable asphalt tourniquet.