We are sitting opposite each other in the cafe the way we’ve done 100 times. She’s having a latte, I’m drinking a flat white. Clare is my best friend from Sam’s prep-school days. We met on the playing fields of Orwell Park when our sons were on the under-10s cricket team. Actually, the fathers met first. Early on, my husband had pointed out the superior pedigree of Francis Mann, grandson and great-grandson of captains of English cricket, happily conceding that it was an impressive cut above Sam’s great-grandfather, merely captain of Oxford cricket. But what Clare and I shared was books. She’s what’s called a voracious reader, the only person I know who’s likely to have read what’s on the Booker shortlist long before it’s announced.
Our meetings are gossipy, fun, intimate. We don’t try to change the world-we just examine, usually with an astonished eye, our little patch of it. But, first, we catch up. Today, she tells me that Francis starts his job at BP in September. Georgia is still at Leeds, but auditioning for drama school. Alexander is doing A levels. ‘All things considered, they’re doing well,’ she says. ‘What I can’t believe is that it’s nearly a year.’
It’s nearly a year since Edward and Clare went on the week-long ski trip in Cortina, her early present for his 50th birthday. Just the two of them, three nights in the Aosta Valley, four nights in the Dolomites, staying in mountain huts, all arranged so they’d be back in time for half-term. And nearly a year since that perfect half-term. Quieter than usualthe Manns’ hillside house is always full of young and old, who bask in the warmth, the wit, the good food, the long games of Scrabble around the kitchen table. But this post-Cortina week was mostly family, cosy and happy, which made the drive back to school-the companionable drive there, the solitary drive back-even less appealing. Just before leaving Oundle, Edward rang to tell Clare there were roadworks on the way up, so he might be late. ‘Don’t wait up. Go to bed.’
But when he hadn’t arrived by midnight, she began making calls. You fear the worst, but even when you hear the police car, see the troubled stranger’s face at the door, you can’t believe that the worst has happened. Grief is like a foreign language that you learned at school. You know the grammar, but you can’t speak it. And all too often, a strange vocabulary emerges. For Clare, the first word was ‘unprotected’. Edward died instantly when his car crashed into the back of an HGV parked in an ‘unprotected lay-by’, a lay-by that is not separated from the main road by a kerbed island. All that differentiates such lay-bys from the road are lines of white dashes. On the A14, the lay-by between exits 49 and 50 at Stow-upland has no lights, no cat’s eyes, only a narrow, shallow stretch of pavement in an abyss.
The AA Motoring Trust is more blunt. It calls them ‘deadly’ lay-bys and urges its members to ‘avoid unprotected lay-bys, if possible’, warning that: ‘In 60% of fatal accidents involving a stopped vehicle on dual carriageways, the vehicle was parked in a lay-by and more than half were HGVs.’
Clare has spent the year writing letters to the Highways Agency, to MPs, to coroners. She includes photographs of the ‘unprotected lay-by’, one car wide, on the busiest trunk road in Britain-the road that leads to Felixstowe, the UK’s busiest container port. The replies all mutter ‘condolences’, ‘studies’, ‘not my area’.
On the stretch of the A14 from Cambridge to the M1, most of the unprotected lay-bys have large, well-lit signs warning ‘For Emergency Stopping Only’. That’s what Clare wants to get on this stretch of the A14. She’s not trying to change the world, just trying to make one patch of it less deadly. A patch where a good man died. His children will grow up without him. They will feel unprotected forever. Unless Clare’s letters are answered, so will we.