There was no time to react
The small blue car turned across the junction when the ‘bus was barely twenty yards away. I caught a momentary glimpse of an upturned face as we hit the passenger door.
After that there are just noises and images. A huge bang and the windscreen disappeared. The blue car seemed to take off and fly away, turning a slow motion somersault as it crossed the central fence of the dual carriageway. A hurricane blasted through the space where the windscreen had been.
The seat belt held me inside the bus, but I was thrown forward over the steering wheel, colliding violently with the windscreen stanchion. Looking forward I could see a set of road barriers with a house behind. We were headed straight for the front door. I shifted back into the driver’s seat and wrenched the wheel. The van swerved across the road towards the central reservation. I stamped on the brakes and my foot hit the floor. There was no resistance, no feedback from the pedal. The carriageway fence was approaching and the van swerved again as I tried to keep it on the road
I reached for the handbrake, and found skirts, tights, legs – two girls. They were upside down, feet in the air, having been thrown forward over the bench seat from the rear of the bus. I grabbed a handful of sweater and pulled one girl away from the brake. I was vaguely aware of Brian dealing with legs and skirts. The girls in the back had begun to scream, or they may have been screaming all the time and I was just deaf to the noise. With the handbrake free I gave a tentative pull, and was relieved to be rewarded by a response from the brakes.
The steering was obviously damaged and we careered over the road for what seemed like a very long time, before finally coming to a halt by the verge. The wind stopped, to be replaced by whimpering from the back, against a background hiss of steam from the radiator.
The screams began again and Brian jumped out and ran around to the back door. Seconds later he was back:
“The door’s jammed. We need to lift the kids over the front seat.”
I looked at him blankly. He was helping the girls out of the ‘bus. Karen, one of the sixth form girls, had been sat on the front bench seat. Her face was covered in blood from a nasty cut over her eyes. Brian showed her how to pinch the wound closed with her fingers. He shepherded the rest of the kids over the bench seat and out through the passenger door. Then he came around to me.
“Phil,” he said. “You have to get out; there’s a leak somewhere, it may be fuel or something, and we need to see to the kids.”
I nodded slowly. I needed to get out of the bus. We had to see to the kids. But I didn’t move until Brian opened the door and pulled at my arm.
“For Chrissake Phil, I can smell petrol.”
A motorist pulled up and stared open mouthed in amazement. The scene must have resembled Top of the Pops crossed with a battlefield dressing station.
On the grass verge horrified girls were discovering blood on their clothes, faces, and hands. It was the Karen’s blood, transferred when Brian had passed the kids out of the bus. It took a while for the girls to realise this, and a couple of them fainted. An old lady appeared from a nearby house with a tiny first aid kit. She took one look at the tableau and fled to the safety of her living room. Her West Indian neighbour was made of sterner stuff. She came out equipped with a violent orange floral apron and no-nonsense attitude.
“One of yous needs to go up dere and bring some help down here for dese girls,” she said.
A black teenager, presumably her son, gazed around the collection of tiny skating skirts and tight tops with the air of someone who had won the lottery.
“Aaron,” said his mother. “Go find your sister, and tell her to make some tea. Lots of tea… You,” she looked surprised to see that I was still around. She took my shoulders and pointed me back at the junction, with its cluster of blue flashing lights.
“Go and get somebody to come down here.”
A gentle push between the shoulder blades sent me on the way, and I began to jog towards the junction, which seemed to be accumulating more blue lights by the minute.
It seemed a long walk. As I grew close I could see firefighters working to cut the roof off the small blue car. It was a Fiat 500. As the roof came away I saw five blood covered mannequins sat bolt upright in their seats. A policewoman pulled me away.
“Are you a witness? Did you see the accident?”
“I was driving the other vehicle. I couldn’t stop, something happened to the brakes.”
I pointed down the hill to the minibus parked by the verge. The policewoman followed by gaze.
“A school minibus? You had kids on board? How many?”
“Seventeen.” I said.
“Bloody hell,” she looked at me and began talking urgently into her radio.
At three thirty that afternoon I had just escaped the depredations of 3C; an assembly of rampant hormones for whom the word jailbait might well have been invented. Early renaissance England bore no interest whatsoever to these knowing young maidens. They were thirteen going on twenty-five and their minds were focused on make-up, gossip and men.
On the way back to the safety of the staff room, I ran into Brian the biologist: beard, glasses, lab coat, enthusiastic grin.
“Phil,” he said. “What are you doing this evening?
I hesitated. This wasn’t a social invitation, not on a Wednesday. Brian was heavily into out-of-school activities. He ran the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme and the sailing club. His midweek invitations usually involved getting wet and cold.
I’d hesitated too long.
“Oh, good,” he said. “Tracy’s got a hockey match and I need a driver.”
“I haven’t said ‘Yes’ yet. Who are you taking where? It better not be the Lifeskills group.”
Lifeskills was a course for the educationally challenged teenagers who would be leaving school in a year’s time with no qualifications. The programme involved leadership activities for kids who would never be given an opportunity to lead, alongside the kind of basic skills more privileged children mastered in primary school.
Brian had persuaded some fund raising body that a sailing course would develop the group's self-esteem. I had joined him the previous month for three long hours on a windy reservoir, and I wasn’t keen to repeat the experience.
“No, it’s not Lifeskills,” said Brian reassuringly. “It’s the DofE group. They are doing ice skating as their summer activity; we’re going to Silver Blades in London. Tracy was going to drive, but then her hockey team got through to the county final.”
Brian’s DofE group were some of the most civilised kids in the school and, half an hour later, I was waiting by the minibus as the group assembled. There were two minibuses; Tracy had taken the shiny new ‘bus to the hockey final, leaving us with the older, rickety vehicle. I had passed the county minibus test a month earlier, and this was only my second outing.
As the kids arrived I could not help but notice that they shared a common and obvious characteristic.
“They're all girls,” I pointed out, as Brian arrived with the keys.
“Well spotted,” he said. “That was why we needed Tracy to drive.”
“So who is the female member of staff?”
“There isn’t one. I told you. Tracy has a hockey match.”
I pondered this for a second. There are rules about male members of staff taking all-girl groups on trips.
Brian gave a snort of impatience. He leant towards me so that the girls wouldn’t hear.
“Fer Christ’s sake, Phil. There’s nobody else. The kids have paid. If we don’t go, they don’t get their hours for their logbook. We cant re-arrange, it’s the end of term next week. They will all fail their DofE - and look.”
He pointed across the courtyard to a curvaceous sixth former who was walking towards the ‘bus. Brian grinned.
“I’ve asked Karen to come and be a chaperone.”
And so we set off. Sixteen girls ranging from 12 to 16, plus Karen squeezed in the front between Brian and the handbrake. I looked at her short skirt and wondered whether a court would accept the word ‘chaperone’ as an accurate description of a nubile seventeen year old. It seemed unlikely.
The journey into town should have taken about forty minutes, but an hour after leaving school we were still some way from the rink, due to a combination of rush hour traffic and road works on the A127. Brain was all for carrying on and we stopped at a phone so that the girls could ring parents with amended schedules.
The problem with arriving late was apparent as soon as we got to the rink. A five o’clock arrival meant a quiet rink with mainly school age kids. Arriving after six meant an altogether different clientele. As the kids walked through the foyer a group of older boys stopped and took in the school uniforms and short skirts. When the girls exited from the changing rooms in their skating kit they were greeted by an appreciative crowd of onlookers.
Most of the attention came from a hunting pack of Greek Cypriot boys in their late teens. The combination of the age difference, extravagant clothes, and dark good lucks would have received a distinctly frosty reception from the girls’ parents, but the kids were purring. Competent skaters suddenly found they needed extra help on the ice, and no-one was left unattended for long.
Brian and I watched the activity from the balcony.
“There’s not a lot of skating going on,” I pointed out.
“Oh, they’ll be fine,” said Brian. “Sure and they’re having a great time.”
And so they were, but we had to be home by nine thirty, a deadline that required the kids to be off the ice at half past eight. Achieving this simple task was a nightmare. We agreed that the girls could travel home in their skating kit, so all they had to do was hand in their boots, and the older ones didn’t even have to do that.
But the boys had other plans. They saw an eight forty departure as wholly unreasonable, and prising them away from the girls was like trying to separate Siamese twins. The boys were not rude or aggressive; they simply ignored us, and at one point we had more boys inside the minibus than girls. It was quarter past nine before we pulled away from the rink.
“Belts on,” said Brian, making one last check to ensure we didn’t have an olive faced Apollo hidden under one of the seats.
The restraints didn’t stay on for long, lapstraps interfering quite unreasonably with kneeling on the seat to share salacious detail with the person sat behind. Some of the girls were changing back into their school clothes. The view in the rear mirror was so distracting that I turned it upwards to face the roof of the bus.
Brian and I decided to avoid the roadworks and take an alternative route home. I decided to go back via the docklands and we headed out through the deserted streets of the City.
I looked at my watch. It was half past nine. Tomorrow was a heavy day: end to end teaching and a lunch time duty. I’d eaten virtually nothing since breakfast and I had a pile of books to mark. On clear roads we should get to the school well before eleven, but we would still have to wait until all the kids had been picked up by their parents.
The good news was the empty dual carriageway ahead; if I put my foot down I might get to bed before midnight. I pulled away from a roundabout onto a long straight stretch of orange lit road. A red spark of traffic lights waited at the top of the hill.
Brian was discussing university options with Karen, whilst one of the girls in the back told an appreciative audience about Dmitri and his plans to come out to Essex that weekend. The lights ahead turned to green.
“He kept putting his hand on my bum,” said one of the kids. “I slapped him twice, but he wouldn’t stop.”
“But weren’t they gorgeous,” said one of the thirteen year olds at the back. “Not like the spotty cretins we have to put up with at school.”
Two of the kids behind were leaning forward to listen to Karen’s plans for university. I half turned towards them.
“Sit down girls, and do put the belts on.”
Turning back to the road I realised with shock that the green lights had turned to amber. The junction was less than a hundred yards away. In a split second I made the decision to drive through. It was a clear road, we'd be fine. A small blue car appeared from my right.
There was no time to react.