Sat Nav

“I know, Sarah, I’d love to come and visit… it’s just that it’s such a long drive… well it’s not that so much, I’m getting a bit forgetful, not sure I can remember the way! Sorry…? line’s a bit crackly. Well yes, it would be good to get away… I know, but driving on my own…. When Sheila… when we could travel together, well, your Mother would remind me where I was going… yes… map spread out across her knees. She knew the way pretty well of course, but she’d often take a different route, just for a change. Well I can hardly read a map and drive….. Yes I’m alright I suppose, coming to terms as they say. It was… yes…. sudden; feeling unwell, diagnosis, how can something like that be growing in a human body for so long – then it’s too late. Those three months…. complete blur – doctor’s visits; hospital appointments; friends coming round; thinking back over our years together… long, happy years. And these past three months, pretty quiet, empty… I know you can’t come… no, I appreciate that, it’s fine… David away with work, Robbie and Debs at school…..”

Three days later the package arrived. Sarah said she would fix it for me, the travelling, getting my directions right. She had sent a SatNav… Underneath the plastic wrapping, the box displayed a view from a car’s windscreen; the open road, mirrored exactly on a little screen which seemed to be suspended just above the dashboard to the right of the steering wheel.

I opened the box and retrieved the instructions before daring to inspect the contents. Reading glasses donned, I studied the tiny print thoroughly; then, when I felt I was adequately prepared, examined the device itself. It was about the size of a smart phone, just a screen with buttons along the two short edges; exactly as depicted on the box, but completely blank.

I surprised myself with the ease I fitted it into my car. Suckered securely to the windscreen, the lead inserted into the cigarette lighter socket, my SatNav came to life.

Sarah phoned that evening to offer guidance. She was impressed – surprised! I had already entered my location as ‘Home’ and her postcode as ‘Destination’. I felt I was ready to set off, so it was agreed that I should start the very next morning.

“In a quarter of a mile, at the next junction, turn right onto High Street, A435.” I really didn’t need directions for getting out of town and onto the dual carriageway heading north! She – it – had a pleasant voice, quite natural sounding really, slight American twang perhaps, very clear diction, although I wasn’t sure about the pronunciation of Bill An Ham Road (Bilenham Road).

About ten miles into my journey, something quite unexpected happened. I thought the SatNav would direct me onto the A48, but about half a mile before that junction, “In 500 yards turn left onto Leavesdon Lane, B4416,” followed shortly by, “Just here, look, turn left.” That seemed rather out of character – for a SatNav! And the voice – altogether more familiar-sounding. “It’s only a narrow lane, but it looks rather interesting and might be slightly quicker – don’t you think George?”

Leavesdon Lane gently meandered between tall leafy hedges. I glanced up at the narrow strip of grey sky above. The voice was commenting again, “Looks like rain to me, but at least on this road we won’t get spray from all those beastly lorries. There are so many of them nowadays, and they go so fast.”

I could not bring myself to glance to my left, I needed to concentrate on the narrow road ahead, that’s what I told myself, well anything could be driving towards us and there weren’t too many places wide enough for vehicles to pass. “In a little while we need to turn right, towards Emstead. Probably just round this corner.”

The road forked, I followed the Emstead sign, “Sheila, have we been this way before?” I turned my head. The passenger seat, of course, was vacant, what did I expect?

We journeyed on, crossing main roads, pottering through picturesque villages, climbing steep hills and admiring dramatic views as we descended. The directions were clear, given in good time, as they always were, accompanied by observations about the warmth of the weather for the time of year, the suitability of Sarah’s new husband and wasn’t it a shame she had moved so far away, the jobs that needed attending to in the garden, shouldn’t we think about changing the car now we were having to do longer journeys?

Soothing, comforting words flowed gently over me. The recent months of torment melted away, I slipped back into bygone years. Our conversation was familiar, predictable – simply wonderful. I fancied I saw a postman cycling on his afternoon delivery; a red, open-top tractor raking hay in a field; empty milk bottles on a cottage doorstep; a bowler-hatted gentleman in a pin-stripe suit walking briskly from the railway station. We drove on, contentedly.

“In half a mile, at the junction, turn right onto Bramdean Road, A63. You are on the fastest route and should reach your destination in forty minutes.”

And so I did, ringing the doorbell at the exact moment it was flung open by two excited, chattering youngsters. I stumbled through to the kitchen to receive a loving hug and a welcome cup of tea. Car still going alright then? Good journey? Much traffic? How was the SatNav?

Comfortably installed on the sofa, Robbie and Debs cuddled up on either side, I gave a brief, though perhaps not entirely accurate, account of my journey, concluding, “Now, don’t take this the wrong way, it’s so lovely to be here and I’m not in any hurry to leave… but I am looking forward to the drive home. That Sat Nav you bought for me is very useful. Well, it’s more than that, it’s reassuring, keeps me company so to speak…. It is amazing what technology can do these days!”

Winner of MADhurst short story competition a couple of years ago

© Steve Redshaw ~ February 2020

Alice’s Dream

Alice shuffled painfully across to the window and drew back the grubby lace curtain. Her 2nd floor flat, her perch as she liked to call it, overlooked the residents’ car park, and a little further on, the playground. The sun was trying to penetrate the thin grey cloud, but could only manage a pale, watery version of its true self. All things fade, she thought. That’s what I’m doing up here, slowly fading away. She wondered which would deteriorate and crumble away first, her body, or the wheel-less, once-white estate car dumped in the corner of the car park; long abandoned, continuously vandalised, rusting away, slowly, surely, steadily. All things fade…

At least her eyesight remained keen and sharp, and the one pleasure she could still partake of was watching the children in the playground, rushing from swings to roundabout, clambering up the witch’s hat, dangling from the monkey bars. She heard them squealing with delight, loudly demanding mums, dads, grannies, child-minders to look their way and acknowledge their bravado. She liked to watch the children, so carefree, so active, so alive. She also kept an eye on the adults, calling encouragements or warnings to their offspring, and then chatting and passing the time of day with one another.

And always, within in a short while, Alice drifted back to her time as a young mother, proudly walking out with her twin boys, not that there were such adventurous places as playgrounds to visit when her boys were youngsters. But she would stride out with the double pushchair, to the shops, along the canal towpath, past the field with the horses… and now, many years hence, in far off corners of the world, her boys had boys of their own now. Sometimes she tried to imagine them out and about, laughing, playing – perhaps in a playground like the one she watched over from her window.

And when her mind wandered, as it invariably did, she would let the lace curtain drop, turn and shuffle back to her armchair and retreat into her memories of those long, lost years, where treasured recollections and bittersweet thoughts were her only refuge. Before too long she would sink into a fitful, self-pitying sleep; alone, isolated, supported and sustained within the confines of her threadbare chair.

Today though, all she could see was a huge advertising billboard, fastened to the playground’s sturdy, green railings. It was not there when she last peered out from her perch; yesterday, or was it the day before that? Well that wasn’t going to fade away any time soon. She could see nothing of the playground – swings, slides, climbing frame, see-saw, all completely hidden from view. The obtrusive billboard loudly declared NEVER BE AFRAID TO REINVENT YOURSELF. Below this was a rough outline sketch of a human figure which looked as though it had been left half finished. To the right, a dinosaur, wearing a brightly coloured crash helmet, was leaping out of the advertisement. It could have been a dragon though, thought Alice, it had wings and a forked tail. Anyway, the whole thing looked ridiculous! What on earth was it all about? And what was it doing there? Who gave permission for it to be put up? Reinvent yourself – what do they think we are, robots, machines, computers? What is the world coming to? Alice remembered her recent hospital appointment. The young doctor wanted to put artificial bits into her, replace one of her hips. The doctor said that would get her mobile again, free her from pain. No thank you. Nobody’s meddling with my body. I’ll make do with what the Good Lord gave me.

Alice was surprised by how angry and frustrated she felt. Her one glimpse of the outside world, her one pleasure in life, hidden from view, denied to her. She let the curtain fall, turned away and shuffled back to her armchair. As she slumped down, she sighed deeply. She wondered how many children were scrabbling, sliding, swinging and squealing in the playground today – behind the billboard. And how many adults were watching over their sons, daughters, grandchildren? And what could she do about the blocked view? Nothing. One lonely old lady, painfully fading away in her 2nd floor flat. Deflated and demoralised, Alice drifted into sleep.

And as she slept, Alice dreamed. She was gazing out of her window, it was night-time and the billboard was glowing. The dragon’s head was swaying from side to side and it was wildly thrashing its tail. The human figure outline had been coloured in and resembled an elderly, but sprightly lady. This figure jumped right off the billboard and walked to the entrance of the playground. It pushed open the gate and stood on the path inside, gazing towards the play equipment, which of course was still hidden from Alice’s view. The figure then disappeared behind the billboard. That’s where the benches were, for the adults to sit, while they watched their children play and chatted together. And now the words were lighting up, pulsating one by one – NEVER (a fiery red), BE (grass green), AFRAID (vivid orange), TO (turquoise), REINVENT (sky blue), YOURSELF (as golden as the summer sun). As the final word faded, the first was illuminated again. Over and over the message played. Alice could not recall how many times she saw it repeated by the time she awoke.

It was morning, Alice had dozed off in the afternoon and slept right through the night in her armchair, and very surprisingly, felt completely refreshed. The sun was shining upon the car park from a cloudless sky. She stood up, slowly, carefully, crossed the room to her tiny kitchen and made herself a cup of tea. She rummaged through one of the drawers and fetched out her address book. As soon as she had finished her cuppa, she was going to phone up that nice doctor at the hospital.

Steve Redshaw ~ 31st December 2019