Are family holidays the same for everyone, not like a holiday at all? As I drove towards Truro, away from the grating friction that I had slunk away from, I determined that this was the last time that I would ever participate in family get-togethers. Never again.
When you finish university there is a reason why even the thought of living back at home is imponderable. You’ve had your independence, freedom, but it’s time to go back to being told to tidy your room and keep your feet off the furniture and what time did you get in last night? It doesn’t work. Like family holidays – or even meeting up for more than twenty-four hours – just don’t work any more. Sitting there, driving along in the bitty rain, with my shitty wipers smearing Cornish dirt over my opaque windscreen, too tired to be angry and too worn out to care, I kept asking myself: are family holidays like this for everyone?
It finished with a comment that was intended to be funny, but with everyone well aware of the undercurrent of spite. “Do you remember when . . . ?” Of course everyone remembers when Rob wet himself in the school nativity play – a pear tree with stained papier-mâché bark standing in a puddle of piss. We all knew how he’d react, none more than Jess, with my dozing two-year old niece on her lap. Little Amber had been startled awake when Rob slammed his plate hard enough on the table to break it into three pieces. But it had been nicely simmering along beneath the surface long before that.
In a way it was me who had turned up the gas by miskicking a foam football. Again during a mealtime – because what else is there to do? Monopoly on a sunny day? No thanks . . . because you know that I’ve always hated it – the ball had hit mum’s plastic plate, splattering her and dad with potato salad and chutney. He’d laughed – because, yes, he was a bit pissed at not-yet-two; because he was on holiday too, believe it or not! – but I saw the look rising on mum’s face. It looked like unbridled hatred, enough to shake the grin from my face. And then the ball came to rest on little Jack, dribbling through slumber in his pushchair.
‘Oh, who didn’t see that coming?’ she said between gritted teeth. ‘Why can’t we all just sit around the table like civilised people until the meal is finished?’ Each word was spat with greater venom. ‘And now you’ve made Jack cry.’
Or it might have been because of the serpentine scolding? No? Of course I wasn’t brave enough to say this. That tongue could cut.
‘And you can stop laughing, you old . . .’ I wondered what word she was capable of calling dad. And now his lips were tight too.
‘Look, I’m sorry,’ I said, approaching the table, hands up in surrender. ‘I didn’t mean to.’
And then a comment about “ruining it for everyone”. Which I assume meant me, but could just as easily been aimed at dad, simply for being. He could “ruin it for everyone” just for stinking out an en suite toilet.
Kicking the ball around, we’d actually been having fun. Now two of the kids were crying and we felt compelled to retreat to a corner of the garden or into one of the bedrooms to read, or to check social media, or anything else to shelter from the dark clouds that were gathering on this sunny day. Until the next blow up over some stupid board game – because somebody had to lose.
I remember once agreeing with a friend that every family is dysfunctional. He has a brother who would storm out of the room every time his sister began humming the theme song to Jackanory! We’d laughed over that, but he assured me that there was nothing funny about it when the atmosphere suddenly changes and the floor turns to egg shells.
The embarrassing difference to these youthful hang-ups is that now there are partners coupled with us around the family table, witnesses to our irrational idiosyncrasies. Am I the only one who finds it all a bit embarrassing? We all come away together; the atmosphere soon becomes hostile; someone will say that they’re going out to do their own thing that day, but we all still join them – “because otherwise why did we all come away together?” mother will question. Why indeed. As the only single one of four siblings I felt that I likely have it the most stress-free. I can creep off by myself: beer and fag and flirt in the bar with a pretty barmaid.
My youngest sister, Jen, had her boyfriend with her – who would definitely rather be off doing his own thing; Jess and her husband Ben have their little girl Amber; and Rob and Kate have to look after their two little ones: Jack and Sarah, who is about the same age as Amber – even if one narky comment from Jess makes Rob regress to that sort of age too. Me, as the oldest of the lot, am probably something of a disappointment. Single in my early thirties, never had a job for more than three years, never had a girlfriend for longer than half of that. But, Jesus, would I rather be in any of their poorly-inflated dinghies? Not a chance. Which is exactly why I booked my own place to stay just outside Truro, nearly twenty miles from their little holiday home hell. The only thing was, that I didn’t know then, I was heading into a hell of my own.
Just as I was heading into Truro, peering through the cloudy windscreen, my satnav stopped working. Like my windscreen, the screen turned to grey. WAITING FOR GPS SIGNAL, it said next to a little swirling circle. Great! I couldn’t remember my route back to the guesthouse at all. My hosts had looked grim when I had returned late from a night out, by myself, in the city a couple of nights before.
‘We lock the door at eleven p.m. sharp,’ my bleary-eyed hostess had admonished. I wondered if she had children who had returned home to her after three years off freedom. It was gone half-past ten. I’d left myself plenty of time to get back to the house. But now I only had a vague direction in which I had to head.
I flicked the blank grey screen of the satnav. ‘Come on.’ My blood was already spiked from the day; I could have done without this new turbulence. ‘Come on.’ Looking down, I confirmed that the green light of the power charger was on. Still that circle span.
Heading past the Tesco superstore, I knew that I had to turn right at the roundabout, and guessed that I could vaguely feel my way towards what I could remember of the route. Hopefully the satnav would be working by then. Continuing to the Trafalgar roundabout, I then headed left towards the towering viaduct. I tried picturing the route in my mind. I knew that I had passed beneath the viaduct on my way from the house that morning. Maybe it wouldn’t be so hard. Maybe once Napoleon had passed through Poland on his way to Moscow he thought, “Hoo-hoo, this could be easy!” An hour later I would look back on my grin with disgust.
‘Turn . . .’
Glancing at the satnav, I saw that it was still frozen on the A390. Probably it was about to tell me to turn right on the roundabout by Tesco. The screen was still grey.
I was passing along a residential street, looking for which of the side roads I had turned out of earlier that day, or trying to guess. I hadn’t thought to actually pay attention as I had been following my cursed satnav. I looked at the screen: it was still grey but the arrow had moved further along the A390, between the roundabouts.
I looked up at viaduct high above me, a colossal black brick silhouette against the deep-blue and orange sky. ‘Turn around when possible,’ I heard from the satnav’s flat female voice. But when I looked it still hadn’t come back to life, just twitching where it was before. I decided that I’d take the next road. It must lead me in the general direction that I wanted. Between a row of brick walls in front of terraced houses, I saw my turning.
‘Continue uphill,’ the satnav said. I took a weary look in its direction. The screen was lit; the red road leading ahead of me – the little blue arrow. ‘Conti –‘ The screen blinked out and then back on. ‘Continue uphill,’ it said once more.
‘Making up for lost time, are you?’ I asked it with a glare. The little blue arrow stepped forward. ETA: twelve minutes. One-point-two miles. This road looked kind of familiar. I should make it back to Fawlty Towers with eight minutes to spare before lockdown.
‘Continue uphill,’ the voice repeated.
I looked at it a little longer this time. ‘Thank you,’ I replied.
It was amazing how, just minutes out of the city, it so quickly became a backwater, a typically Cornish single-lane road, with high grass verges and tangled trees, vines hanging down over the rutted road. The line marking the centre of the road had disappeared behind me. How many cities in the world could there be like that, with little suburbia to talk of – at least on this side of the city? Being a mortgage advisor who travels from the suburbs into the city was not a vocation that I would have dreamed of as a child. But to be a mortgage advisor down here? I could do that. Or perhaps a change of career completely! A surf instructor perhaps. Maybe a boat driver, whatever they’re called.
An owl flew out of the trees, right in front of the car, distracting me from my Cornish dream. I jerked in my seat, my hands leaving the steering wheel for a moment and a ‘Woah’ from my mouth. I realised then how tired my eyes were, that I had been dreaming away from the journey. The owl continued flying in front of the car, low above the road; its white-brown wings lit by my headlights. I noticed that my lights were on low beam, so I pulled back the stem.
The verges were lined with moss-covered rocks jutting out at angles; the trunks of the trees were gnarled, twisted and spindly, branches poised over the road as if waiting to pounce. In the lights I noticed that the road was wet, little rivulets running down each side, where a dark-green algae seemed to be thriving in the stream. The owl, with a look to one side, the lights so stark against the cover of trees that I could even make out its beak, glided to the side and into the trees.
‘Continue uphill,’ the satnav reminded me.
‘Yeah?’ I said. ‘Uphill? You mean, this way?’ I pointed ahead of the car. ‘Thanks for your help.’ I looked at the screen. ETA: fifteen minutes. One-point-seven miles. The time was ten fifty-two.
I slumped my shoulders. ‘Seriously?’ Where the hell was I? There was nothing to see behind me in the red glow of the rear lights; nothing ahead except for the winding road, glistening wet despite the summer heat. Nowhere to turn. The satnav indicated that my next turn would be left in point-six of a mile. Hopefully towards civilisation.
‘Sharp left,’ the voice suddenly spoke out of the silence.
I slammed on the brakes to stop myself ploughing straight in to a farmhouse wall. The backend of the car slid over the wet road until I stopped completely. My lights dimmed a little before coming back to life. It seemed that the road continued through the gates of the farmhouse, if it continued at all. The red road ahead on the satnav seemed to think that was the route to take.
The engine of my Peugeot 205 whirred and chugged beneath me. It seemed out of breath, and I wasn’t surprised. The incline had been pretty steep; moreover, the poor old thing had travelled more than three hundred and fifty miles in the last few days. I should have turned around then in the farmyard and headed back downhill. But what, add another twelve, thirteen minutes to my journey, and then still have at least twelve to get back to the house?
There were no lights on in the farmhouse. It is fair to say that I felt a little uneasy creeping through the pillar on one side and the remains of one on the other. I think that driving through a Cornish farmyard alone on a dark night is enough to put the fear in to anyone! At least for this little stretch the trees only leaned over one side of the road, allowing the sparse moonlight to show me a little of the yard. I noticed then that at some point I must have opened my window. I very quickly wound it closed and locked my driver’s door – one of the old-fashioned pop up locks.
Even so, my little car seemed incredibly loud, echoing against the bare walls of roofless concrete barns. Closest to the road was a ramshackle wooden hay store listing precariously to one side. Eventually it would surely come down in the road – if anyone else had ever used this little track lane. A sudden fear raced through my mind: what if the noise of the car made it came down on me, now? I eased my foot on the accelerator, leaving the eerie farm behind me. And then I . . .
Like the voice said. The road continued as before: close on each side and smothered by trees, as though they were creeping in on me. Rocks were littered on the sides, making my course slower and more meandering as I veered around them. The road wasn’t quite like before, now it was even narrower. I wondered if the rocks on the side of the road were from farm vehicles having to trample the verges, dislodging the rocks from the bank. If mechanisation even existed in whatever decade this road was last travelled. I reminded myself: this was just outside the city! If it was even worldly; if it wasn’t some ruse between farmer and satnav to lead me to . . . whatever.
The light within the car dimmed. The satnav had blinked out to grey, lost signal. That was more understandable here. The stuck screen said I had just point-three of a mile to drive until the next turn. One mile to reach my destination. Thirteen-minutes-twenty to arrival. I looked at the clock: one-minute-to eleven. When my taxi from the city had arrived back at the house the other night when I’d been told off it had been way gone one. Maybe they’d wait up for me a little while, noticing that I was . . . missing.
‘And I’m walking on sunshine, woh-oh! Walking on sunshine, who-oh!’
‘What the f – ?‘
The radio had turned itself on. Mine was an old car, but the radio had never come to life by itself before. I punched the knob; I heard a crack – something broken. I bit my teeth together. Bloody Pirate FM playing Katrina and the fucking Waves in the middle of the night. So it might be their theme song, or something. But no. Not now. I glared at the radio, daring it to come on again for my last point-two of a mile of this road. Instead, the satnav came back to life.
‘In three hundred yaards, tek a riight turn.’
When I first got the satnav I installed a few celebrity voices. Funny at first, the novelty wore off pretty quickly, so I regressed to Plain Jane with the unimaginative flat voice. At least when she is telling you to make some manoeuvre in a moment of stress in her schoolmistress way it feels like you are being helped. When you have Frank Bruno telling you that “You missed your turn, ‘Arry. Why you do that for, ‘Arry?” after a while you wanted to just throw the thing of the window. Now I had Billy Connolly telling me that I should turn right at the end of the road.
‘Not left?’ I found my self asking Billy. ‘I thought that I had to turn left.’ The highlighted road and blue arrow sign agreed with Billy.
‘Ack noo,’ Billy said. ‘Tek the riight turn, coming up now. And mek suure that there are no monkeys on bicycles already on the carriageway before you turn. I’m here to keep you safe, y’know.’ I had at least reached the end of the hill from hell. But every part of my being wanted to turn left, as had previously been indicated. I stopped at the junction and looked at the satnav, very much alive now.
‘Turn right?’ I asked it. The satnav remained silent.
I didn’t know where I was. Nothing looked familiar. Looking out from the beam of light, I could see a two lane road with a solid surface. The verges weren’t as high, just gentle slopes leading up from either side of the road; the trees lining the road were thicker and healthier. No fucking monkeys on bicycles. My destination was in one of those directions. On the satnav, the little blue pointer started out to the right, the map turning with it. It stopped a little way up the road, as if waiting for me to catch up. Looking down the road, I could almost imagine it up ahead, looking over its shoulder. What are you waiting for? It jumped back a step on the screen. Waiting.
Arching my back, I attempted to take my cigarettes and lighter from my pocket. The safety belt locked tight, almost as if trying to push me back down. Straining against it, I twisted my hand into my pocket and retrieved the packet, spilling loose change down the side of the seat in the process. Taking a moment to remind myself to keep cool, I plugged the cigarette into my mouth and span the wheel on the disposable lighter. No flame; not even a spark. I tried it again and could hear the spring grinding against the spark wheel. I went to throw the little bastard thing out of the window, but the window was closed so I only punched the glass. The lighter clattered down somewhere in to the footwell. Biting on the cigarette butt, I gripped my hair and pulled.
Back at the house, everyone would be calmed down, having retreated to their sanctuaries. They would be warm, cosy and safe. I thought about them, huddled with the one they loved – or tolerated in my parents’ case; and probably not huddled so much as exaggeratedly pulling up the covers as the other read by lamplight. In moments of great stress was it better to have someone with you? Someone to rationalise with or for you? Probably it lends a greater tension when the finger-pointing starts. “Why did you get us lost?” “I didn’t mean to get lost. You know this place as well as I do: why didn’t you point us in the right direction?” I rubbed my eyes, calming down. The little arrow blinked forward a step.
My eyes travelled down to the central console, the USB charger in the cigarette lighter. I’m not sure that I’d ever actually used it as a lighter. Still, the fuses clearly worked. With only myself to rationalise with, the first step was to get this cigarette alight. After pulling the charger out, the lighter pushed in okay, so I waited. I could feel myself salivating at the thought of a smoke. And then the lighter popped up clear of the socket, glowing a fierce orange, and rolled under the passenger seat. Moving to find it before it set the car on fire, I jerked against the seatbelt. ‘Just fucking . . . rar!’ I punched the latch, the belt popped free, and I dived after the lighter.
The burn that I received when I found the lighter wasn’t bad, just a sting, but it was nearly enough to bring me to tears. A strange and desperate sound clucked from my throat as I pulled on the wetted butt. The glow of the lighter was now gone. I looked at the tip of the cigarette. My pulling had been futile.
Pushing the lighter back in the socket, this time I kept my hand over it. It soon popped up against my hand. I put the amber-red glow to my cigarette and dragged on it. The flow of smoke travelled in to my mouth and down my throat, calming my nerves. As I removed the lighter, it pulled a plug from the end of the cigarette, sticking to the coils. I didn’t mind: the fag was still alight. It was when I drew on it a second time that I felt a sharp pain on my left thigh. Looking down, I saw a pile of tobacco smouldering on my jeans. As soon as I brushed it away I saw the burn hole, an ugly brown-ringed crater that, I saw as I picked at it, had burned right through my new Levis. I pinched the bridge of my nose. My eyelashes were damp. I punched my burned thigh. The little blue arrow had decided to join me back at the junction.
What the hell was I doing? It was after ten-past eleven and I was a wreck in my wreck of a car in God knows where. I didn’t even feel the sting when smoke travelled up in to my eye as I dragged. I didn’t even bother to open the window, just let the ash fall where it would – both my jeans and car were ruined anyway. The engine blatted and spluttered beneath me. I wound down the window and flicked the cigarette out. The red road led to the right. I looked to the left. Left made more sense. It felt left. So I turned left.
And it felt like a relief. The road was open and clear, the macadam a sleek black ahead of me. The trees alongside kept their distance, less claustrophobic. I could still feel the taut line of tension like a tightrope between my eyebrows. As the road burred beneath me, I just felt immensely sad. This was a holiday. The question of whether it was like this for everyone rose again. I suppose that everybody’s different; you make your own luck; fill in idiom here . . . But I wasn’t having any luck at all.
‘Tonight, I’m gonna have myself a real good time
I feel ali-i-i-ive . . .’
At first I thought that Freddie Mercury’s voice was coming from the satnav. But no: it was coming from the cracked screen of my crappy radio – Pirate FM again. But this time I didn’t turn it off. I really don’t think that it would have been my choice of pick-me-up song, but immediately I found myself wanting to sing along. Stupid bloody radio, cheering me up.
‘And the world, I’ll turn it inside out yeah
I’m floating around in ecstasy
So, don’t stop me now
Don’t. Stop. Me.
‘Cause I’m having a good time
Having a good time . . .’
I pushed the cigarette lighter down, mindful of the energetic pop up, and plucked a cigarette from my door compartment. Lighting it was easy, even with the cool Cornish breeze. I didn’t even feel the need to put my foot down, just me and Freddie cruising along. The red road on the satnav weaved on before us. Point-seven of a mile to go. Eight minutes. My weariness and worries were left back on that track lane now. Sometimes the downs are worth it for the highs to come.
‘That’s why the call me Mister Fahrenheit,’ I sang at the top of my voice, bumping around in my seat. ‘I’m travellin’ at the speed of light. I wanna make a supersonic –’
‘Turn around when possible.’ The radio had clicked off. The red road on the satnav stopped after a hundred yards where a green arrow was pointing back the way we had come. ‘Turn around when possible,’ Plain Jane repeated. The smoke-taste in my mouth suddenly became bitter and filthy; my throat was raw from singing. The cold air continued to pour through the window but my skin was heating up. One-point-seven miles, the screen told me. Eighteen minutes.
As my lips quivered, I scratched my head. ‘It’s not possible,’ I whispered. ‘It’s not possible!’ I punched the steering wheel. ‘What the fuck is going on?’ I could feel my breaths come staggering into my throat. The tightrope between my eyebrows tightened. What could I do out here? There was no service station to go and ask; no houses where I could stop. It was just . . . nothing. There was nothing at all. One-point-eight miles. Freddie and I had been travelling at the speed of light in the wrong direction. A sign up ahead said that Idless was the next turn to the right. It meant nothing to me.
The headlights picked out an entrance to a field, so I pulled in to think about what to do.
‘Sharon,’ the satnav spoke out, breaking the silence. ‘One of the fuckin’ dogs has done a shit in the car, Sharon,’ Ozzy Osbourne mumbled. ‘I don’t know what to do, Sharon. I’m fuckin’ lost. Ehgeoutofit, yershit.’ Ozzy’s satnav instructions had used to make me and my friends howl with laughter. I couldn’t see the humour at all now. It couldn’t be less welcome, or less helpful. ‘Sharon?’ Ozzy spoke one more time before the satnav blinked out completely, leaving not even a grey screen. My eyes were sore; my spirits were nil. I plucked the satnav from the windscreen and tried the power button. Nothing. Following the cable down, I realised that I hadn’t plugged the charger back in after I had used the lighter. I lit one more cigarette and then replaced the charger.
After holding the button down with unnecessary force the screen lit up and chimed. Was this thing the cause of my problems, or would it be the solution? As it loaded, I gripped my temples, trying to think about what I could do. I could retrace my path, heading back down Hell’s Own Lane until I reached the city, wait for the satnav to work or ask somewhere if it didn’t – it might come to that. I could turn around and head back down this road, as Billy had suggested, and hopefully the satnav would finally talk some sense – that would be the preferable option. See: rational thinking. I wondered if I should phone the B&B to let them know that I was lost, but on my way. After a look at my phone, it was laughable to think that I might have had reception.
Thinking back to my grin at my Napoleon in Poland joke, I bit through my bottom lip until I could taste blood.
The screen was up now, but remained grey. I’d finished my cigarette but wanted another one. I wasn’t about to remove the charger again, so decided that I’d reward myself once I had recognised a familiar place.
Tapping the screen, I first went to voice settings to ensure that my only guide would be Plain Jane. I searched next for service stations near to where I was, just in case. The closest were two in Truro and another five miles away in Tresillian – not exactly en route, then. The thought made me look at the fuel gauge: flirting with the red; or about thirty-five miles. If it came to that, I would probably have already killed myself. In fact, I decided then that’s that what I would do: if I didn’t reach my destination before the fuel ran out then I would gas myself senseless. I would run through radio stations until I found Freddie singing ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ and then I’d drift away with a smile on my face, knowing that I’d done my best.
‘With me Freddie?’ I asked.
‘Turnaround when possible,’ Plain Jane answered, the map jerking around a bit as she pinpointed my location. With the fact that I had a plan, however morbid, with a huff I was keen to get going. I checked again that the green light was showing on the charger and span around in the dark road.
I kept half an eye on the remaining distance, ensuring that it was decreasing as I advanced. Thankfully it was. I did think of a third potential eventuality: that I could always drive back down to the city and stay out all night. I mean, why not? I was in dire need of some form of entertainment – other than the ghostly workings of the radio – so why not go and get obliterated. I don’t suppose that my host could scold me for that; it was kind of a better option than an overdramatic suicide. In my part-tired, part-wired state, could I really stay out all night, though? One-point-five miles. Hopefully it wouldn’t come to choosing between options.
Maybe I could just drive home, all the way back to West Sussex. A day at work in a stuffy office with people on the edge of a breakdown seemed like a dream option at that moment. I simultaneously kept my eyes on the road and the satnav screen, lest I should miss a turn or familiar sight. I passed the road that I had come out of, partially obscured by the scrubby brush. No wonder that it looked like a road less travelled. One mile to go. A left turn coming up on this road, the satnav told me. Nearly there. Not knowing the area, I hadn’t known that I was booking a guest house this far outside the city – at least by this circuitous route – but why hadn’t I just booked one in the city? It was a tale to tell, I suppose; “You will never guess what happened to me . . . on holiday.”
As relief poured from me, I was becoming more exhausted; I suppose from the adrenaline and anguish leaving my body. I don’t suppose that the road that I’d passed really counted as a familiar place, but I did still kind of fancy that cigarette; even with a raw throat I craved that nicotine. But no way was I going to compromise my satnav now. This road was starting to feel familiar as the one that led to the guest house.
‘Turn left in three hundred yards,’ Plain Jane said. On the screen I could see the road that I was to take. I slowed down, my leg feeling like a phantom limb. There was no road sign indicating to where this road led. I couldn’t recall if the road that the guest house was on had one. But the satnav was behaving now, so I dutifully turned.
This road soon became just like the one that I had travelled on uphill: a single lane track – barely a thoroughfare. The trees quickly became looming presences again all around me – little wonder when any vehicle wider than an ancient Renault 205 would struggle up here. I couldn’t fathom why Plain Jane had taken me this route. I assumed that it was a shortcut.
‘Continue uphill,’ my companionable voice told me. I didn’t think that there were any mountains in Cornwall, but I would definitely have to check. The fuel needle had passed into the red. I sucked at my lip; it was becoming sore where I had bitten into it. I was itching to get to where I wanted to go. It was way past half-eleven now. When had I set out from the family, just before ten o’clock? It was supposed to be a half-hour journey, yet here I was, slaloming up a nearly impassable road.
‘Uh, Sharon,’ said the satnav, plus a few expletives. I glared at it.
There was something in the road up ahead. Slowing down I noticed that it was two things, two large things. As I crawled forward I noticed that they were badgers, or more correctly, two corpses of badgers. They were right in the middle of the dark road, both with their snouts pointing towards the precarious verges. It was like they’d been placed there.
I knew that there were places in Cornwall that still held a reputation for being backward, a little bit stuck in their time. I’d seen films like Straw Dogs and The Wicker Man, so I had a preconceived idea of the behaviours of isolated folks. You don’t expect to stumble upon it right outside a city, however. But these two dead animals were like sentries. Or warnings. Or they’d made a suicide pact, or something. I wished that they’d waited for me.
I had come to a complete stop. I checked that all of the door locks were down. I could just picture strange men in dungarees and masks come loping out of the woodlands. The badgers didn’t look like they had been run over. What the heck? I pressed on my horn, just in case they were sleeping. They didn’t move. The forest was only getting darker to me as I idled there. I regretted sounding the horn.
I looked at the satnav screen, but all I saw was grey. Should I just reverse back down the lane, back to the main road and then the city? Or alternatively my guest house could be just up this hill. Screw it. I drove forward and tried to avoid the badgers as best I could – not very well, I realised, as my car bumped over them. With the thought of potential murders and man-rapists hiding in the trees, I rasped on as best I could.
The lights on the road were reflecting, again from the water running down the sides. Luminous moss was growing on the rocks jutting from the verges. I thought that I had probably stumbled upon the strangest road in the entire country. Or I’d been led here. By the frozen screen, I still had just under a mile to go. My tongue was sliding along the split in my lip, the sweet warm feel of the cut. This road would end, I surmised. And when it did, if I wasn’t finally near to where I was supposed to have been an hour before, I would stick only to main roads and feel my way towards the city, where I would either go and get immensely drunk or drive straight in to the River Truro.
It’s then that I wished I had stayed back with the family, not that I really wanted to but I desperately didn’t want to be stuck where I was. Lost. I could tolerate any level of tension in that place, but not this. I hate traffic jams – or any kind of queue – and I hate being lost. I can stand to be afraid, but I am terrified of the unknown. I had never known the unknown quite like this, the feeling of spectres closing in all around you; the feeling of being led towards a trap. I hate wild speculations too! I’m a suburban man. I’m not moving here, I decided then. Relaxed pace of life, are you kidding me? I was going to die this night, no doubt about it.
‘Sharp left,’ the voice suddenly spoke in through the noisy ramifications in my head. I hit the brakes, my previous tiredness now a wildly alert and veritable madness. I squealed, and so did my tyres as they slid to a stop next to the farmhouse.
I sat there for a moment, looking through the gates that led through the yard; the one standing pillar and the one in ruins. Beyond that, the dilapidated hay store was somehow still upright. It was like some eerie painting come to life, as if I’d ventured Alice-like into some wonderland of horror. The satnav was now awake, the red road running through the yard and beyond. This was impossible. I had not gone back downhill – I had just passed the road that I had earlier come out of. Yet here I was.
At least it was familiar place, so, as promised, I unplugged the cursed satnav and popped the cigarette lighter in. On the windscreen, the light on the screen of the satnav went out, the battery dead. I unwound the window and blew the smoke out. I no longer cared. If I had been lured there, come on then. I’d have fought anyone with the superhuman energy that I was feeling right at that moment.
The engine muttered and the headlights rose and fell, as if breathing heavily. A bat darted through the headlights, and then back on itself and out of view. The trees lining the left side of the yard swayed in time, pointing out the territory of the forward route, beckoning. A breeze brushed past the open window with a sigh. The satnav, unplugged and empty of juice, came back to life all of a sudden.
‘Continue uphill,’ Stephen Hawking said in his speech synthesized voice.