Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Black Box Recorder: A Cautionary Tale

Black Box Recorder
A Cautionary Tale

‘What does this sign mean?’

Brian Binks scrunched up his eyes, dug at the inner portion of his right nostril with his left thumb, wiped the thumb on the car seat and made a guess. ‘I dunno, do I? Black box recorder?’

An ushanka wearing man, seated next to him, held a flash-card between his fingers and thumb, and pushed it closer to the face of the driver. ‘Nyet. Try again.’ The card showed a road sign with an outer red triangle. On its white background, in bold black, was a thick oblong and a saloon car tipping over into some wavy lines.

Binksy had left his glasses at home. The whole shebang looked like a bad hair day tipped on its side. ‘Warning. Rubbish barber ahead?’

‘Nyet. Is nothing to do with barber, drivelling idiot. Try harder.’

‘How am I supposed to know what that is? Nobody taught me that at car school, Mr Shishkinov,’ grumbled Binksy. ‘Why can’t we use the computer test in the office, anyway? It tells us the answers.’

‘Nyet. I have disabled the computer. For this you must use your brain, Binks.’ Shishkinov held another card up. This time the road sign had a giant exclamation mark on it.

Binksy blinked at the punctuation two inches in front of his eyes. There was a long and uncomfortable silence. ‘Warning, performing clowns on unicycles ahead?’ he hazarded, at last.

‘Nyet. Funny, Binks. You must make joke, da? This is not joke, though, your driving test is serious. You must pass for your job. No car, no job. No job, no car.’

‘Clever, that, Mr Shishkinov, a sort of…circular logic. Not unlike that unicycling clown on your road sign.’ Binks sighed. ‘Without my glasses it looks like a great, black teardrop on a wheel. Why did you make me leave them at home?’

Shishkinov hissed impatiently and removed his leather ushanka. He used one of the hanging flaps to wipe his eyes. He then threw the remaining pile of cards on to the floor beneath his seat, replaced his hat and tied the flaps underneath his chin in a business-like manner. He did not look at Binks, but muttered. ‘In Russia there is much snow, not clowns on bicycles as you say. In such conditions driving is hard, Binks. Without your glasses it will be as though you experience the Siberian roads, da?’

‘Why would I want to do that, Mr Shishkinov?’

The driving instructor secured himself with a seatbelt and leant forward. ‘It will important for you, Binks, very important. You might say vitally so. Now. Switch on the ignition and proceed out of the car park in an easterly direction. Signal left on reaching the road, da?’

‘Da,’ said Binksy, thoughtlessly. ‘Sorry. I didn’t mean to…er…you know, say that. I meant yes. It just slipped out, Mr Shishkinov.’

‘It’s nothing to me. Proceed,’ snapped Shishkinov, impatiently. ‘Now when I slap my hands on the dashboard, so, I want you to…’ He stopped speaking and glared at the driver. ‘Binks!’ he shouted.

‘Yes, Mr Shishkinov?’

‘Why are we not moving?’ Shishkinov shook his finger at the windscreen, gesturing at the car park in anger.

‘Sorry, Mr Shishkinov. What’s the ignition? I wasn’t taught that at car school.’

‘Not  taught  at  car  school,’ said Shishkinov, with a deliberate, hanging space between each word. His hands balled into tense fists that gripped the arm rests between the seats and his face contorted. ‘Then what exactly were you taught, you pridurok?’ he spat, ‘What did that skatina driving instructor tell you to do?’

‘Well I was going to ask you about that,’ said Binksy, ‘where exactly is Mrs Whittington? Is it her day off?’

Shishkinov looked over his shoulder to where a large black tipped golf umbrella lay across the back seats, furled up. He looked at his watch. ‘Day off? Nyet. She was…taken ill at short notice, Binks. She became…unavailable for work.’

‘Oh, I see. Sorry, to hear that. She was ever so friendly during lessons, especially after a vodka or two.  She taught me everything I know about driving. I thought this test would be a doddle. Oh dear, it’s all going wrong, Mr Shishkinov, isn’t it?’ Binksy looked a little red faced and worried.

‘Get this car moving, Binks,’ ordered Shishkinov, abruptly, once more looking at his watch.

‘You want me to start the car?’ Binksy watched as his instructor nodded vigorously. ‘Car, start!’ he commanded. The car roared into life, released its hand brake and proceeded in a sedate fashion across the car park to the road. It indicated, turned right and moved at precisely five miles an hour below the speed limit down the high street. It avoided other cars and pedestrians with precision and almost immediately stopped at a pedestrian crossing to allow a party of Belgian tourists safe passage. ‘You only had to ask, Mr Shishkinov.’

‘This car drives itself?’ enquired Shishkinov.

‘I thought you were a driving instructor,’ said Binksy, surprised, ‘course it does. It’s got a black box recorder. It does everything, Mr Shishkinov, you should know that. You just tell it something and it does it. You never get lost, you never kill anyone and you get to your destination safely.’

‘I knew that,’ snapped Shishkinov, ‘of course I knew that, I was just checking you knew that, Binks. So why have instructor at all, eh?’

‘It’s a government initiative to make sure we don’t break the ‘no smoking in cars’ law and get fined for giving our children cancer.’ Binksy looked smug, pleased that he wasn’t going to get caught out by an obvious trap.

‘Da,’ grunted Shishkinov, ‘Nyet smoking.’

The car moved forward again of its own accord and honked at the Belgians in a friendly fashion. It indicated left and glided smoothly down a one way street towards a red brick school building. Several children were skipping in the playground. The car began to decelerate and was soon negotiating the road humps adjacent to the school maddeningly slowly.

‘Do you want vodka?’ asked Binksy, ‘I do. Vodka please, car.’ The dashboard opened and without fanfare a small glass appeared. Binksy reached across his instructor to take it.

However, as he did, Shishkinov snatched his wrist away from the glass and shoved him violently back into the driver’s seat. ‘Nyet, vodka for you, Binks,’ he screamed, ‘there’s been a change of plan!’

Binksy started in alarm. Shishkinov had snatched the black umbrella from the rear seat and was now thrusting it at his exposed neck. A growing look of mistrust and fear began to creep across his face. ‘Mr Shishkinov,’ he asked plaintively, ‘why are you pointing your umbrella at me? I wasn’t intending to chuck vodka at you. Mrs Whittington and I always had a drink during this part of the circuit.’

Shishkinov tipped back his head and laughed maniacally. ‘You think that your pathetic country is the only one with advanced technology? You fool, Binks. You blind fool. This is no ordinary umbrella; this is a poison tipped umbrella. Now drive. Drive! Take me to Russia. East, Binks, drive east! Unless you want to end up dead.’

‘I can’t, Mr Shishkinov, it’s no good getting cross. The car only goes round in its pre-programmed circle. We’ll be back at the car park soon.’ Binksy looked distressed. The car, oblivious to the drama taking place within, picked up pace having passed the school. It indicated left again and started to crawl down a tree lined avenue and away from the town centre. ‘It’s the black box recorder,’ he continued.

‘Then, you die!’ snarled Shishkinov, ‘Like Mrs Whittington.’ And he shoved the point into Binksy’s neck.

Brian Binks yelped in pain. He snatched the umbrella from the enraged Shishkinov and flung it onto the back seat. ‘That hurt,’ he complained, ‘and I don’t think you should be doing that during a driving test.’ He glared at the instructor, then, hearing some commotion alongside, looked to his right. Two policemen and an angry looking woman with a red bruise on her neck were jogging beside the vehicle. They were easily keeping apace. Binks jabbed Shishkinov in his side. ‘Look. It’s Mrs Whittington.’

Her voice could clearly be heard. She was pointing at the car. ‘There he is, officer. Jabbed me in the neck with a wretched umbrella…stole my car…claimed to be working for the Russian secret service…’

Shishkinov looked aghast. ‘Damn!’ he growled, ‘how were they able to track me down so quickly? I planned everything. The last detail. Nothing was overlooked.’

Binksy looked puzzled and then understanding crossed his face. ‘Of course, Mr Shishkinov. It was the black box recorder, it tells the police everything we do and everything we’re up to at all times. Straight to government central. And thank heavens it does, da? Car stop!’

The car gently cruised to the kerb. As it did so, Shishkinov reached into his pockets and lit a cigarette in resignation. The smoke hissed out of his nostrils and he muttered quietly. ‘Da. And they complain that we have a police state. Incredible.’

The passenger side door opened and a grim faced copper, wielding a giant rubber truncheon pulled the instructor from his car. He cuffed him efficiently, took the cigarette and ground it into the tarmac. He thrust the truncheon violently into Shishkinov’s stomach and watched as he doubled up, fell to his knees and gasped for breath, winded. ‘Now then, sir, smoking is a health risk, you know. Bad for the lungs, makes breathing difficult.’

‘Da. Thank you officer. You make good joke.’

Relieved his ordeal was over, Binksy walked over to his instructor. He was holding the flash-card with the road sign. Alongside the car was the real thing, towering above them, a gigantic, black, exclamation mark, surrounded by a red triangle.

Binksy looked at Shishkinov for approval. ‘Look! I worked it out. That sign means warning! Danger ahead!’ he cried. ‘Do I pass my test?’

Shishkinov, still wheezing, said nothing.

Without his glasses, Binksy frowned. Rubbed his eyes. Scrunched them up again, blindly. Blinked. Blinked again.

‘And look, Mr Shishkinov. Are those clowns over there, on unicycles? I could swear they are, you know.’

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