He became increasingly preoccupied with trying to avoid murdering someone. This came later, after a small car accident—not totally his fault—that lightly fractured the wrist of the driver of the other car. As they waited on the kerb for an ambulance to arrive, the woman sighed and clutched her arm and complained bitterly about her inability to do her job (a courtroom stenographer) with a broken hand. Later he realised, after the waves of guilt had subsided, that she could not have known for certain that anything was broken at that time; it might have been a slight sprain. But the insurance report did later confirm that her wrist had been fractured, and that a certain amount of work-compensation was being paid to her on his behalf. The insurance company, which happened to represent both cars, had ruled in her favour. But again, the crash was not entirely his fault.
His discomfort with driving did not manifest immediately after the accident. For a number of weeks afterward he commuted quite happily, mentally dismissing the incident as a one-time event. A rather lucky escape, overall, that would remind him to keep his attention on the road and improve his form, generally. The insurance report that arrived in the post triggered a small amount of residual remorse, but the woman was being fairly compensated, and a small penalty would undoubtedly be added to his premium as a result.
It was only the next month, when he had an experience common to most drivers at one time or another, that his unease began to grow. Travelling home from work, pulling away from traffic lights on the outskirts of town, it occurred to him that he had no recollection of the previous ten minutes. During that time he had evidently passed through three sets of traffic lights, one roundabout, and at least four miles of ring road, but he was unable to remember any part of it.
While it was entirely possible that during this time he was a careful and attentive driver, if he could not remember any part of it then he had only his newly-formed habits to trust. Without memory of the event, verification was impossible, as was any ability to register and address any faults that occurred during memory lapses. And so, by degrees, his fear for his ability to drive safely ratcheted up towards the ultimate consequences of this fear: that he would kill a person or persons in a car accident.
It seemed obvious, after some thought, that while if he were to kill a person it would not be premeditated, and would not in most courts be considered “murder” by the true definition of the word, he would still in his own mind be guilty of murder. Not due to premeditated malice, but as a result of a lack of premeditated caution. To him these amounted to one and the same.
It seemed equally unavoidable, were he to murder someone, that he would in turn have to murder himself. While he was aware that many people killed, intentionally or accidentally, and lived onward with varying degrees of guilt, he was quite sure that this option would not be available to him. He would take his own life, and his family would have to deal with his suicide. It was picturing his family’s reaction to his death that was probably the root cause of his preoccupation with what appeared to him to be an entirely plausible sequence of events. Since he was very young he had been almost pathologically incapable of disappointing or worrying his family, and death by his own hand seemed the most dire and unthinkable disappointment possible.
Without thinking it very extreme (although he was, on some level, aware of the extremity of his reasoning), he began to consider giving up driving. He worked within seven miles of his home, and his city was well-served by public transport. He bought a cheap bike, and used it to commute for a full week to test its suitability. Finding it quite adequate, he put his car in the garage next to the house and stopped driving altogether. Within three months he had sold the car in order to pay for a new, lighter bicycle.
His preoccupation with accidentally killing someone did not disappear, however. While the potential of a car accident had brought this anxiety to the surface, once that potential was removed he was still conscious of the possibility of death through other means. Other accidents.
He serviced his bike very regularly, testing the brakes every morning and evening, and replacing the brake pads and cables far more often than any mechanic would have deemed necessary. He also took to periodically changing the tubes in his tyres after hearing stories of blow-outs causing high-speed crashes. He never really reached high speeds, however, having decided that a slow, cautious pace was his best defence against lethal collision.
All the literature told him that the possibility of a cyclist causing the death of a pedestrian or road user was so rare as to be negligible. According to the statistics, when a cyclist crashes the only death remotely likely is her own. But, having made the transition from car to pushbike, it seemed sensible for his caution to carry from one transport to the other.
The more he thought about it (and he thought about it a great deal), the more he realised that the greatest potential for accidental death came from stored energies. The car was only the most obvious manifestation of a wider imbalance in our physical interactions with the world around us. A combustion engine allows us, with almost zero physical effort, to accelerate a tonne of metal to one-hundred kilometres an hour, then fall asleep and drift into oncoming traffic.
Attempting to tease out this train of thought, he considered the gun, the most effective and effortless way to kill, and one employed as often accidentally as deliberately. All the power of the gun game from its stored energy; its gunpowder. This gunpowder allowed the smallest physical mistake to have instant, lethal consequences.
While he didn’t own a gun, he had many amenities that made use of potentially lethal stored energies. He took a thorough inventory of his house and garage, and decided that his most dangerous remaining tools, now that the car was gone, were the power tools he used for woodworking. He elected to get rid of his circular saw and drill, knowing that if he kept them that some friend would eventually borrow one, and run the risk of fatally injuring themselves. This would be his own fault as clearly as if he’d cut through their artery himself, or so he reasoned. He kept the electric sander and his engraver, deciding that it was almost impossible to accidentally kill oneself with these, outside the realm of blown fuses and electrocution.
By this time he had become aware that, were he to sell a tool that ultimately ended up killing someone, he would still be open to feeling responsible. He had sold the car before developing this line of reasoning, and had taken to cycling past the new owner’s house every other week to make sure the vehicle was still intact. Because of this worry, he disassembled the power tools himself and dropped the components, neatly separated into plastic and metal, at the recycling centre. He bought hand tools to replace those he destroyed, and was able to continue his woodwork, albeit at a slower, more methodical pace than before.
He read up on domestic accidents, attempting to identify potential risk areas to others in his own home. He kept his cooker, reasoning that ovens and hobs were rarely involved in accidents fatal to anyone except infants. He had no children, nor were there any in his circle. He decided that he had adequate time to prepare once his friends and family began to have babies.
An electrician came and audited his house, sending him into paroxysms of anxiety while he pictured the man’s accidental electrocution as a consequence of his summoning him. The electrician replaced a few sections of wire and one light switch, and announced the house to be as electrically safe as it could be. He relaxed, for a time.
A new avenue of concern was raised by a depressingly familiar article in a Saturday newspaper. Two men had drunkenly entered into an altercation outside a local pub on a previous evening. One had lashed out, causing the other to stumble backward and crack his head on the kerb, an accidental blow that turned out to be fatal.
A lot of killings involved alcohol and the chaotic city street interactions that came with it. Whether these killings could be considered wholly accidental or wholly malicious was somewhat of a grey area, but he immediately recognised the danger in losing control. While he had been quite fond of getting drunk—he found it relieved his general anxieties—he stopped immediately, limiting himself to a maximum of two drinks in twenty-four hours. He also cut back on going to pubs, and whenever he did so he left early so as to avoid the disorderly closing time.
By degrees he cut away parts of his life that he deemed a risk to others. He never confided in his family or friends, never told anyone his reasons for these changes. To them these steps appeared to be lifestyle changes, nothing more. The teased him affectionately about his increasingly alternative behaviour. One month he became a staunch cyclist. The following month he began woodworking with hand-tools. Now he had given up drinking. To everyone these appeared affectations, and generally healthy, positive ones at that. It would be a long time before they noticed that something was going wrong.