By William Gallagher
SIMON Reston: aged 38, missing since May 10, 2012.
He used to drive a lot. Until today. He drove a huge amount, until today.
Originally, he liked it.
Two or three times a week, he would drive from his home in Birmingham to London in the morning and then drive back at night. It was just a temporary job, he was just freelancing and had somehow got a month’s work at BBC Television Centre. If it hadn’t been in that building he knew so well from Swap Shop, Simon wouldn’t have taken the work.
It was too far and it didn’t pay enough to move to London. Plus it was only for a month. He was just filling in for someone who sounded like they were off on the wildest of adventures in the Amazon.
Simon never found out what those adventures were because one month turned in to a second and hopefully the Amazon is great because the BBC dropped whoever it was. Simon’s second month turned into a third but it was just while they looked for a full-time replacement.
He carried on driving down and back, doing two days in their office. Then a third day but fortunately at home. The third month became a fourth and by then Simon was starting to think he’d done enough.
But they asked him to be on staff for a couple of days a week. And it was going to be steady. Simon could work those days knowing he had them every week and then he could continue to freelance for the rest of the time.
So he got to know the roads. He’d still plan the route out sometimes, pretending he was looking for shortcuts but really just enjoying the maps. And there were no shortcuts.
M6, M42, M40.
For 12 years.
The M6, the M42, the M40. And back again.
After the first year or two, he began to see the drive as the job. It was the hardest part and it was where he spent most of his time. The mornings were easy, in fact the mornings were always great. Once he got used to leaving home at 5am, the mornings were blissful. Quiet roads. A quick, quiet drive down the Hagley Road, through Five Ways and Broad Street, around Paradise Circus and then into the underpasses that led to the motorway.
He’d listen to the BBC World Service for the first half an hour then when Radio 4 would start up he’d last until Farming Today before starting a CD.
This afternoon, he wishes he’d listened to a language CD or two. Twelve years of T’Pau and Bruce Springsteen feels like it underlines the waste of his life.
But then the pleasure he would feel maybe four trips out of five when he’d be able to park for free. Some hairy driving and rapid reversing with occasional banging on the car horn meant he could often slip into a parking space along the A40. It was at least a mile away from work, sometimes even three miles, but it was free and it was exercise too. Rare exercise but fun exercise. A good walk stretched his legs after a two-hour drive. He could’ve done with a closer loo. Once he’d had to use a water bottle, parked by a rush hour road, gulping down water in order to empty the bottle in order to empty his bladder.
At the end of the day he would make certain he’d used a BBC toilet. Consequently the walk back was never stressful or tense. It was just never as eventful, never great and it was always late in the evening. Once he walked into a bollard while reading twitter on his phone. A concrete bollard in the centre of the path. A concrete bollard at exactly crotch height.
But usually it was just late. London traffic in the evenings meant there was no difference, literally no difference, whether he left at 6pm or at 9pm. He would still reach home around midnight. So rather than spend the extra time in the car, he spent it at work. Doing nothing terribly interesting or important but doing it and getting it done and doing so much of it that he felt safe in his job.
Once he had to find out the costs of getting a postcode database. It only took him an hour and one phone call to find out that it was expensive and to relay that information. But he hadn’t known there was such a thing: a database that listed all postcodes for all addresses and that you could plot on a map. This was becoming a thing. Maps. Maps to explore, maps to hide, maps to rely on.
On particularly late evenings, maybe he’d have a meal with someone and set off home around 10pm. The good stretch of the legs would be harder then. And the M40, the M42, the M6, it was as familiar as a friend but sometimes as slow as a relative. Very often he would still be driving when BBC Radio 4 closed down and the World Service took over.
After the 12 years, he lost the job.
Freelancers lose and get jobs all the time, but after 12 years he had stopped thinking about it. He was used to being secure. He had forgotten what it was like to not be secure. But nothing ever is and a lot of his work was now automated. A lot more of his work was taken up by newer, cheaper freelancers who lived a lot closer and could be called in on a moment’s notice. And any work left over, any work that only Simon could do, they decided they could live without.
But officially Simon was on staff now so where he was once used to freelance work simply ending and you just never going back in to the office, now he had to work a notice period.
M6. M42. M40.
M40. M42. M6.
There was a slight awkwardness. On his last day, April 10, 2012, they gave him a drink and a satnav. That wasn’t awkward. Simon never liked satnavs, never saw the point when you had a good map in front of you and did immediately see that this might mean the end of his beloved maps. But it was still a nice thought from them.
The awkwardness was that after they had given it to him, after he’d made a little speech, they hired him back as a freelancer.
Just for a month, while we get your replacement sorted out.
I’ve been here before, thought Simon. And he wondered about whether to do this for another 12 years.
But this time they meant it. One month. He met his replacement, an ex-arts student named Charlotte, and she was so happy and excited to be there that it rattled him. She was thrilled to be in Television Centre, that place she knew so well from Children in Need.
He shook her hand and loudly wished her the best, quietly hoped she would have the sense and the opportunity to get out before 12 years go by.
And then he left for the last time.
Left the BBC for the last time, left London for the last time.
He stopped at Oxford Service Station and decided to try out the satnav. It was in his glove compartment, he still hadn’t read the manual, but he had a take-out tea and traffic had been so bad it was going to be a World Service night again. It might pass some time trying it.
Satnavs are rubbish. Look for yourself.
Birmingham 78.1 miles, it said.
But Simon knew that just up the motorway there was a sign saying Birmingham 76 miles. There was no possible chance that the sign was 2.1 miles away. None. He knew every sign, he knew every pixel of that motorway.
So he decided to drive with the satnav on and see just how bad it was.
And there was the sign. Simon pulled out of Oxford Service Station, back on to the M40, and immediately there was the sign saying Birmingham 76 miles.
A little while later there was one saying Birmingham 62 miles.
And – hah – the satnav said Birmingham 65.
Such rubbish. This is why we’re losing maps? Beautiful, crafted, designed maps being replaced by toys that don’t even work.
Birmingham 50 said the sign.
Birmingham 58 said the satnav.
Then there was a slightly odd thing.
Birmingham 30 said the sign and Birmingham 35 said the satnav.
The gap was closing back up, the error was getting smaller. Only by a little bit, but it was smaller.
Simon drove on.
Birmingham 20 said the sign.
Birmingham 20 miles said the satnav.
From there to home, the satnav and the road signs were precisely in step.
Simon sat in his car, engine running, parked outside his house, the BBC World Service distracting him. He swapped to his CDs and Born to Run began playing.
He looked up Wikipedia on his phone and read about how satellite navigation worked. Fine. Made sense. It’s triangulation: every map user knows about that, he’d used it a hundred times himself to find his way across new areas. There’s a cathedral over that way, there’s a water tower over there, the only spot where you could see both in those positions is right here. Find two landmarks, draw an imaginary triangle between them and you’ve got your exact spot on the map.
You can’t get that wrong.
Not by between three and eight miles, you can’t.
Simon skipped back from Springsteen to Late Night News Briefing. He put the car in gear and pulled out. Tapped a button on the satnav to reverse the previous journey and he set off again. M6, M42 and, if necessary, the M40.
It was necessary.
He compared the satnav to every sign on the motorway. He could almost do it blindfold, he knew the blue signs so well, but this was a job now, this was a mission. He noted every sign and every position on the satnav, he’d stop at every service station to make notes and to compare the data.
And he made a mistake.
He was back in London now, parked in that free spot, no much-needed water bottle with him, and realising he’d miscounted. So he tapped the button to reverse the journey again and he started back for home. He’d have nipped into the BBC to use the loos but that was over: no pass now, no admission. He found an expensive petrol station. There’s CCTV footage of him coming out of a forecourt toilet wincing at the smell.
The World Service was replaced by BBC Radio 4 starting up and Simon was back driving, back making notes.
There is no getting around it.
The road signs are lying.
Somewhere between Oxford and Birmingham, there is a gap. An eight-mile-long gap.
Simon drove slower and slower. Looking at the side of the road, looking at every exit and whether there were any other exits he somehow didn’t know about. He snapped awake as his wheels went over the cats’ eyes by the side of the road.
Stopped on the hard shoulder.
Wound down his window and let the wind and the roaring, rushing traffic in.
And then he saw it.
Simon saw the exit he had never noticed.
Or rather, the exit that he had always seen, that everyone had always seen, but nobody had noticed.
Works Unit Only.
It was the one thing he could not tell you about his motorway journey. There are many Works Unit Only exits, he’d never counted, never registered them.
This one was exactly the same as the rest. No difference.
Except it shouldn’t be there.
Nothing should be here, the road signs pretend nothing is here, the road signs make liars out of mapmakers like they’re hiding something. Something big. Something up to eight miles long and with a Works Unit Only entrance in the middle.
Simon recorded a message on his phone explaining his findings. He was a bit slurry by now but the wind and the excitement at finding something that literally is not on the map, he also gabbled.
He forgot to switch off his phone’s recorder as he got out of the car and walked up to the Works Unit Only entrance. He forgot to bring the phone with him as he found out what was there.
No phone was ever found. Just his car, engine idling, parked on the hard shoulder.
Simon used to drive a lot. That’s what his BBC boss told the police.
© William Gallagher 2016