7th June 2022


8 minutes read

Jan Němec

Panic Button

translated by David Short

7th June 2022

8 minutes read

He turned the ignition key. The concealed cameras showed him his immediate surroundings via the screen on the dashboard. The red Alfa Romeo to the left belonged to the lady next door, whom he had once quite fancied, while the Škoda on the other side meant nothing. He reversed out of their embrace without triggering a single annoying bleep and stopped briefly in the middle of the street, hands resting on the wheel. He glanced at the screen. It showed an aerial view of his car ringed by smudgy yellow blotches where the wet roadway reflected the street lights. His mobile automatically paired up with the speakers, and a Spotify podcast resumed where he’d last left off. “So it’s a kind of philosophy that doesn’t cause offence, but–” he switched it off from the steering wheel. Raindrops were trickling down the windshield, which was supposed to start the wipers automatically. He turned them on manually, took a deep breath, in, and out, put the car in gear and drove off up the familiar street.

It was almost eleven-thirty. He’d thought it best to set out at once: if he’d left it till morning, he’d never have gotten away: in the morning, you wake up, do your teeth, and just get on with life.

His hands on the wheel began to feel cold, so he turned on the heat. He hadn’t gone far before he passed the pub on the corner where the previous evening he’d met up with a girl he’d known at university.

Some things need time before they can be judged in the round, while others never gel into a whole.

The girl, who had been quite unapproachable at uni, asked him that evening if he was pleased to have achieved all the things he’d talked about ten years before, and for the fifth time in twenty minutes she ran her fingers through her hair. He was surprised that she remembered what he had talked about back then. And that she thought he’d achieved something. He had briefly wondered if sleeping together after a lapse of ten years made any sense, but rejected the idea after two beers. He’d ordered a cab, but then didn’t take it.

Several crossroads later, each marked out by a single flashing amber light, he was out of the city. Gradually fewer proper buildings, but more warehouse facilities. He stopped at the first petrol station out in the wilds. What they’d said on the news was true − petrol had gone up by almost three crowns a liter during the last week. Not that that mattered, it still had the same reek however much it cost. He thrust the nozzle down the fuel filler neck, hmm, this is about the limit to any violence on my part. He looked about him with the vague realization that he quite liked petrol stations that were open at night. Islets amid a distant void. It’s great when glass doors slide open before you in the middle of the night and you can treat yourself to coffee and a baguette and stare vacantly into the eyes of the person behind the counter.

“Number four, paying by card.” He paid for a full tank and some extra food to keep in reserve. He hadn’t had much in the house, and he hadn’t wanted to waste time packing anything. He’d grabbed a suitcase to toss some clothes in, then decided it wasn’t the best idea to arrive with a case full of washing. So he’d taken just a sports bag from the closet and stuffed it with the first items that came to mind: energy bars, thermal underwear, a sleeping bag. It was obvious from the outset that he was taking all the wrong things..

He couldn’t have said how he was feeling, but the car’s upholstery had a calming effect, so somewhere inside he must have been feeling nervous. The screen glimmered, and when he turned on the satnav it was taken over by a spider of roads. Through Poland, or Slovakia? He wasn’t bothered, it would all be the same at night, and by daybreak he’d be so muzzy that whether they were Polish fields or Slovak, it would simply pass him by.

He drove out of the petrol station and realized this might be his last chance to phone. Midnight, still okay: Zuzana goes to bed late. But if he did phone, he’d have to say something; that was the trouble with phones. He’d much rather just listen to her. If only she might read something to him the way he used to read to her when they were still living together, the way he would read to her when she was away on business and couldn’t get to sleep in hotel rooms. But that was exactly what would call for some explaining. He took out his phone and began flicking through his audio books.

He’d got himself in a muddle again.

He was forever getting himself muddled.

He moved up into top gear and switched to cruise control. His headlights dissolved the blocks of darkness, and he sailed on inside his mobile capsule, disturbed only now and again by another car. He gradually drifted into motorway mooning, a kind of slipshod hypnosis. Between Olomouc and Ostrava he tried to piece together the names and surnames of all his classmates at primary school. Alena what was it? Between Ostrava and Katowice he tried to recall all the trainers he’d worn when he was growing up. Sometime at around fifteen he’d used the money from his first summer job to buy some Pumas, ring trainers they were, Puma.

He had his first sense of malaise somewhere between Katowice and Cracow. Possibly because he knew Cracow. He couldn’t deny how easy it would be to get a bed, have a good night’s sleep, and in the morning go and have breakfast in that coffee shop overlooking the Vistula. When you wake up in the morning, there’s nothing to stop you simply getting on with life. Being oneself just isn’t a problem. That’s pretty dim, but it is the same for everyone. All this twaddle had almost left his head in disarray, but at the roundabout he did eventually make it to the right exit for the E40 motorway.

His journey continued, uneventful, and untroubled by thoughts.

Just once, in some small town or other, the lights turned red on him. A drunk set off to cross the road; goodness knows what made him toot his horn at him. The man turned towards the car and waved his arms in an odd way, something between surprise and menace. He flashed his lights at him, the drunk shaded his eyes and tried to peer inside the car. He probably thought someone he knew was trying to attract his attention. But who knew him?

Day was breaking. At first, the horizon was sucked in by light. Then, half an hour later, it was taken over by the sun. He realized that you don’t have to have slept for morning to still mean something. Inside the human eye there are cells that have nothing to do with seeing but are light-sensitive and trigger biological rhythms. He closed his eyes and slowly counted to ten. Knowing of course that just as a man’s cells don’t bother him with questions, his car’s accident-prevention systems wouldn’t let him crash.

He drove on and on. Road signs were carrying increasing numbers of UA codes. The queue at the frontier shouldn’t be too long from this side. And indeed, most cars were waiting on the other side, in the stopping lane and with their engines off. A number of stalls and repurposed shipping containers stood on a patch of concrete, and two women happened to be carrying a steaming kettle across to one stall. He hesitated. He could park up, have a cup of tea, and ask how things were looking; he might even try the internet.

He’d last seen the news the evening before. The couple who got married in a city under siege and had their wedding photos taken wearing camouflage and holding automatic rifles.

The woman who’d given birth to twins in the metro and was as happy as if she were in some clinic in Switzerland.

And again he saw that old man who had knelt down in front of a tank. It all left a nasty taste in his mouth. The news should really be about the latest draft legislation and inflation, so as to leave no one in doubt that the day’s main events are utterly meaningless.  That’s the only way life is possible.



written by

Jan Němec

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Issue 03


More about this issue

translated by

David Short

More about the translator


Panic Button by Jan Němec
While reflecting on his youth, a man decides to drive his red Alfa Romeo through the night and following day, across two borders, into a warzone.