Spirit Of The Satnav by Keith Havers
Lillian was gone, so how could Harry be hearing her voice?
IT had taken Harry a long time to get back behind the wheel after that terrible day, and it still seemed strange to be driving without hearing Lillian’s voice from the back seat.
He had hated it at the time, but now he wished he could hear it again.
The replacement car he got from the insurance was a big improvement on the old model. The seats were more comfortable; it had air conditioning, a sunroof, even a built-in satnav.
“Shan’t need it today,” he muttered.
He glanced over his shoulder to where the cremation urn stood firmly strapped on the back seat. “Not far now, dear.” He wasn’t sure if this was the right thing to do. A year ago their holiday had hardly begun before tragedy struck.
If he could visit that spot again, perhaps he could put the events of that awful time behind him.
“Looks like it’s shaping up to be a nice day,” he said.
Large road signs warning of a traffic island up ahead brought back memories of last year.
“Straight on at the roundabout,” Harry heard in his ear.
He glanced around once more but all he could see was the urn on the back seat.
Turning his eyes back to the road, he had to brake hard to avoid rear-ending the car in front.
The voice came again. “Take the second exit.” His heart was racing. What was happening?
“Mental strain,” he said to himself. “Must be.”
He opened the sunroof and took a few deep breaths.
“I’ve been stressing about today,” he reasoned. “The whole year has been a nightmare. No wonder I’m hearing voices.”
He negotiated the roundabout and continued along the dual carriageway. The roadworks of 12 months ago had finished so his progress was uninterrupted.
He began to relax. His thoughts turned to the events of a year ago . . .
“Straight on at the next roundabout, Harry.” “Yes, dear.”
The road signs were perfectly clear but Lillian still insisted on calling out directions from the back seat.
“Shall I turn the radio on? Cheer us up?”
“We don’t need cheering up, Harry. We need to concentrate. We might miss our turn if we have music blaring in our ears.”
“I could put the classical station on,” he suggested. “Something soothing.” “No. Leave it off.” Harry sighed, softly enough so that Lillian couldn’t hear him. Why did long car journeys always have to be like this?
“Roundabout coming up now, Harry. Keep left as you get near it.”
It was a straight road. Harry could see the island up ahead and the large direction signs on the left-hand verge. Road markings clearly indicated which lane he should be in.
“Approach in about a hundred yards, then take the second exit.”
“Second exit,” Harry repeated through gritted teeth as he changed down the gears and prepared to brake.
He manoeuvred the vehicle round the island and accelerated out of the exit.
“Be careful on the dual carriageway, there are roadworks up ahead.”
“Yes, dear. I saw the signs.”
“Watch out for the red cones.”
Harry drove on in
silence. After a couple of miles the traffic slowed as the two lanes were channelled into one.
“How about stopping off at the next café?” he suggested. “We’ve been on the road for an hour and a half.”
“Best carry on. There might be more hold-ups further on.”
“So? We’re not in any rush. We could freshen up – have a coffee and stretch our legs. Then you could join me in the front seat for a change. That way I won’t have to talk to you over my shoulder all the time.”
“I don’t like being in the front. I feel safer in the back. Just keep your eyes on the road.”
Harry took that as a comment on his driving but said nothing.
It was true that Lillian had good cause to be nervous in a car. A few years ago she had sustained some nasty seat belt bruises when a lorry pulled out of a side road and Harry couldn’t avoid a collision.
It wasn’t his fault, but after that Lillian had become obsessed with getting journeys over with as safely and as quickly as possible.
This meant sitting in the back, not getting lost and having no breaks.
But couldn’t she lighten up just a little bit?
The roadworks were soon left behind and the scenery turned to open fields and wooded valleys. Harry had been looking forward to this break for months.
A few days at the seaside would enable them to recharge their batteries and return to work refreshed.
“You need to slow down now in case the traffic lights turn red.”
The rural landscape was giving way to a more built-up area. Harry had memorised the directions to their guest-house.
“You need to turn left somewhere along here,” Lillian said after they had crossed the junction. “Keep your eyes peeled for signs to the seafront.”
Harry tried to shut out Lillian’s voice but failed.
“You’ve missed your turning,” she announced. “The sign for the promenade was back there.”
Harry sighed. He had feared this would happen.
“Turn round at the next junction, and this time keep your wits about you.”
Harry slowed down, waited for a lull in the traffic and managed to perform a U-turn without too much bother. Soon they were back on the right road and only a few minutes from their final destination.
“The e-mail said we couldn’t check in till two o’clock,” Harry said. “We’re far too early. That’s why I suggested having a break earlier.”
Lillian fell silent. She didn’t like being proved wrong.
“Carry on to the seafront,” she said at last. “We can find a place to park up till two o’clock.”
Harry did as he was told. At least now he would be able to get out for a stretch and some fresh air.
He drove on until the road swung around to the right and he found himself travelling parallel to the beach.
With double yellow lines either side there was no option but to continue along the coast road.
Eventually a cliff-top car park came into view. He pulled up facing the sea.
Harry got out, breathed deeply and extended his arms out wide. It felt good to be out of that seat.
“Look at that view! Are you not getting out?”
“I’ll stay here and have a snooze. Just leave the door open.”
Harry shrugged and walked away. If Lillian was determined not to enjoy this holiday, what could he do? Maybe things would improve after they had settled in at the hotel.
“Shall I see if I can get us some coffee and a sandwich?” he called, but there was no reply.
If only she had got out of the car.
If only he had put the handbrake on properly.
The last sight he had of the car, it was rolling towards the cliff edge. The wooden barriers splintered like matchsticks as the hatchback disappeared on to the rocks below.
“Traffic lights ahead. Slow down.”
Harry was brought back to the present as the road became busier.
The voice seemed clearer. Harry looked for the nearest place where he could pull over. He opened the window and closed his eyes.
“Maybe I should see a doctor,” he said. “Or a counsellor? I’m obviously suffering from some sort of bereavement stress.”
A thought occurred to him. He looked down at the dashboard controls and pressed a button.
“Of course! I must have left the satnav on.”
Relieved that he wasn’t going mad after all, he pulled out into the traffic and continued his journey.
“What a fool I am,” he scolded. “I must have knocked the button when I turned on the air conditioning.”
Soon he was driving through the car park entrance and rolling to a halt in almost the exact spot of a year ago.
This time he made sure the handbrake was securely engaged before switching off the engine and getting out.
He’d thought he might find this hard, but actually he was feeling quite calm.
Just as before, the car park was deserted. He noticed the wooden fencing had been replaced by metal barriers and wire netting.
Harry walked halfway towards the cliff edge and then stopped for a few moments to take in the view.
Of course! He must have left the satnav on!
“Let’s get this over with,” he said aloud.
Returning to the car, he took the urn from the back seat and marched down as far as the barriers would allow him.
He checked which way the wind was blowing before removing the lid and letting the airflow carry the ashes on the breeze.
“Bye, bye, dear,” he whispered as he emptied the container. “I’m so sorry.”
After a few minutes of silent contemplation he walked back, threw the empty vessel into the passenger seat well and started the car. There was no point in hanging around.
He was feeling much better. He was also getting hungry, and a transport diner he had noticed on the way into town seemed the ideal place to head for.
Harry retraced his route back through the town, looking forward to some lunch. He didn’t realise the freight truck was bearing down so fast as he began to pull out on to the dual carriageway.
“Stop, Harry! Brake! Brake now!”
Harry’s hands were still shaking as he gently placed his tray on the table and sat down in front of his burger and chips.
The screech of the lorry’s horn still rang in his ears. It had been the closest of close shaves.
Also resounding in his head was the warning cry. If it hadn’t been for that, he would be, well . . .
“I daren’t imagine what might have happened,” he said to himself.
Through the diner window he could see his car in the parking area. He would have to get that satnav checked out.
True, it had saved his life. But there remained something odd about it. Wait a minute . . . It occurred to him that satnavs wouldn’t be capable of foretelling an accident. Neither would they call you by your first name.
“Lillian?” he whispered. n