It's Halloween, it's dark outside and Jack P is collecting spooky stories. This is my bit of silliness. It is called Better Late Than Never, but it is also a little late because, in an undoubtedly related turn of events, my Internet connection was down at the point it actually got dark...
Better Late Than Never.
In one hundred yards, turn right.
Ever since I had been invited to this meeting, I had been imagining the conversation my mother and I would have had. Headhunted. I would have felt compelled to tell her about it, even though it would be a secret from almost everyone else, even though I knew that if I used that word I would invite the story about her great uncle Albert and the shrunken head he brought home from Peru and how he later came to believe it was cursed when her great aunt Henrietta had died suddenly, thirty-years to the day after it had arrived in the house. She would ask me what the move, if it happened, might mean to me, I would give her the figures and she would respond, “But what on Earth do you need all that money for?”
In fifty yards, turn left.
Well mother, perhaps I hoped that after my funeral was paid for, there might be more than five hundred pounds to show for my life's work and investment.
Continue for one mile.
It had all been rather embarrassing, that day in the solicitor's office. Not that I had any sense of entitlement - in fact, I'd half-expected for her to have left a fortune to a toad sanctuary or an overseas project to save the lesser-spotted sanguine mollusc. But I was conscious of how it must have looked like; the contrast between my clothes, my car and my business address and the picture of a poor little old lady ending her days with her terrace house mortgaged to the hilt and no assets to speak of. They might think I had neglected the woman.
At the roundabout, take the second exit.
I don't think my mother was capable of embarrassment and she certainly never understood my own. She had always tried to tell me that it didn't matter what other people thought, when in fact nothing matters more. We are social animals. All our fortunes hinge on what other people think.
Take the second exit.
So the phone had been my act of vengeance; spending my “inheritance” on an item which my mother would have considered entirely superfluous, if not vaguely oppressive.
Bear right and enter the motorway.
To me, having everything there in the one unit; my diary, my e-mail, my addresses and phone-numbers, Internet access and Satellite Navigation, avoided a great deal of time and bother. Anything which helped me to be organised, punctual and up to date with everything and everyone, helped create the right impression, the impression which had the chief executives of competing companies like Alistair Mackenzie inviting me for a euphemistic drink and a chat of a Wednesday evening. My mother would see such a device as a shackle.
Continue for three miles.
The Sat-Nav was a good example; my mother felt that a journey of any length should be considered an adventure. When I was a child, we were always on some detour or other. My mother seemed to consider every brown heritage sign to be a personal invitation: Come and look at our stone-circle. Come and look at our ruin. Don't spare a thought for the people who are expecting you or the event which you are becoming increasingly late for as you meander through the countryside. Sometimes she would take me to unsignposted places she knew about and had a sudden urge to show me. I don't think my mother had ever had a strong sense of needing to be anywhere in particular.
In five hundred yards, bear left and exit the motorway.
There were always stories attached to these places; my mother knew so much about this county's past that she could have written books on the stuff. Sometimes it was straight history, sometimes it was legend and often, especially as I grew older, I got the impression that she was simply making it up as she went along. In keeping with her life philosophy.
In one hundred yards, bear left and exit the motorway.
Thus the five hundred pounds, I suppose.
I was surprised to find myself leaving the motorway so soon. I was expecting a good hour's journey; this game had rules and the meeting was to be held firmly within their territory. I had been invited there tonight, but it was not going to be made too easy for me. Out of hours, informal, inconvenient.
In fifty yards, turn right
It was suddenly very dark away from the motorway. There were no street-lights on this road; not much of anything. The lights from a few houses set back from the road, a couple of vehicles passing the other way and the dirty orange glow of a population centre beyond the horizon. Which town or city that might have been, I had no idea; this was an unfamiliar part of the county and I had somewhat lost my bearings.
Continue for one mile.
For stretches, the road tunnelled through woodland before jutting out across unseen farmland; grassy ridges either side of me and total blackness beyond. I was startled by the sight of my breath; I hadn't noticed it getting colder. But I didn't feel I could do much about this just now; I couldn't adjust the heating without glancing down at the controls and in this visibility I didn't dare. Nor, I have to admit, was I inclined to pull over.
In one hundred yards, bear right.
There was nothing sinister about the countryside at night; I was just nervous about the meeting, perhaps especially so because I didn't really know where I was going. Of course, I didn't need to know where I was going; the Sat-Nav only ever faltered on brand new roads or in areas with many overpasses and underpasses, but a mistyped postcode wasn't beyond the realms of possibility.
The only place to meet anywhere round here would be a village pub. Men like Alastair Mackenzie do not do business in village pubs. In any case, Gaston's didn't sound very much like a village pub.
Destination in fifty yards.
A still white mist hovered above the road ahead, appearing luminous in the headlights. The mist rose and curled around the car as I drove on, its movement and silence seeming inconsistent. The seatbelt felt inexplicably tight across my chest. I approached a junction and when I arrived, the Sat-Nav told me
but this was so not my destination. This was a crossroads. Without hesitating, I continued straight on for a hundred yards or so, but there was nothing there. I turned around at the first farm track I found and returned to the crossroads.
I stopped the car and summoned up the phonebook. My fingers, made clumsy with the cold, struggled to navigate the tiny keys as I tried to find Alastair Mackenzie's number, so much so that I inadvertently clicked through to Weather Forecast. I eventually found the number, clearing my throat in the hope of feigning calm. The phone did nothing for a moment, before a new screen came up informing me
No signal. Noteven a poor one; none at all. Christ. I couldn't imagine Alastair Mackenzie setting foot in an area not covered by the major mobile networks.
The voice seemed to say it louder this time, perhaps because the car was stationary. I abandoned the phone, turned left and drove for a while up that road, but again, there was nothing there, no pubs, no houses – or at least nothing with any light coming from it – and no phone signal. There wasn't the faintest glimmer suggesting civilisation in any direction. Again, I turned around and went back the way I came. I didn't pause as I passed through that accursed crossroads
but found exactly the same in the other direction, so I came back.
I didn't want to be in this place for another second, but these roads were so similar that I was no longer sure from which direction I had arrived. I began to fumble with the phone again, trying to locate the e-mail from Mackenzie with the details for this evening, to check the postcode I had entered. This time my fingers were shaking, hopeless.
I managed to press the mute button at least it wouldn't speak to me again, placed both hands on the steering wheel and tried to take deep breaths.
My driving about had disturbed the mist, or perhaps it was clearing by itself, so that I could now see more beyond the edge of the roads. It was then that I noticed the grave. It was the colour of the flowers that had drawn my eye; a posie of vivid blue and yellow fresias, laid in front of a small grey stone cross, about two feet high and a foot wide, on the verge diagonally opposite from where I sat. The cross was unmarked. It wasn't easy to tell from here, but I knew. I had been here before. My mother had brought me here before.
Usually such graves were attributed to gypsies, my mother had told me. Someone continued to keep the grave tidy and lay flowers even after a few hundred years. But she added that in fact, all sorts of people who could not be buried in consecrated soil, tiny babies who had died without baptism or those who had committed suicide, were buried at crossroads. My mother had explained that this was because such unhappy souls were believed to rise from the dead and the crossroads would disorientate them, preventing them from reaching the villages and homesteads.
For a moment, my feet seemed to be glued to the floor of the car, my pulse drumming the back of my throat. Then at last my foot found the accelerator and I turned right so fast and hard that the tires screeched. I sped away, glancing in my rear view mirror as if expecting the swirling mist to take shape and chase me.
I knew I hadn't turned a great many corners, and after a few lucky guesses, the lemonade light of the motorway came into view, more welcoming than I had ever thought of it before. Immediately, my terror not only faded, but began to seem a little ridiculous. I had just been lost. People get lost. Machines make mistakes. Haunted crossroads, indeed; more likely than being concerned with ghostly spirits, those who could not bury their loved ones in consecrated soil saw a substitute holy place at the mark of the cross.
The fact that the motorway traffic appeared to have ground to close to a halt in my absence did little to sink my spirits. As soon as I had pulled into line, the phone began to vibrate with an incoming call. It was Alastair Mackenzie. I pressed receive.
“Alastair, I'm so sorry; I was just about to call.”
“Thank God!” he exclaimed. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, fine," I replied, quite baffled at his concern.
“It's just that you're always on time for everything and when I heard – five minutes ago, on the radio – I thought you must have been there then and when I tried to call there was no answer. Where are you?”
“I'm in a queue on the motorway,” I said. “Where did you think I was?"
“The bridge, Blackwater Bridge, it collapsed. The whole thing came down, they don't know why or how many people... I thought you simply must have been there. Are you running late? Thank God!”
“Yes,” I said, pausing as a police helicopter passed overhead. “I took a little detour.”