Huddled in the small porch of a hotel, Ben frowned at the weather and mentally measured the distance from the door to his car. Rain sheeted out of the sky, falling in a torrent that seemed ignorant of the fact that it was late June. Over the sound of the raindrops forming channels in the ground and the rivulets in the gravel drive, Ben could just make out the low rumble of thunder. One, two, three. He ran out into the downpour, one hand clutching his car keys in his pocket and his head bowed against the elements. Running seemed to make no difference – even as his smart shoes crunched and slipped on the wet gravel at his second step, he realised that he was soaked through.
He jabbed the central locking button, hoping that it worked first time; he had been meaning to get it looked at for ages, but hadn’t. Things always seemed to come up when he intended to take the car to the garage. Besides, the doors always opened eventually, and he liked to imagine that the electrical fault was actually part of the car’s personality. He liked its streak of recalcitrance. Today, however, it seemed to sense the urgency of the moment, opening up without complaint. He threw the door open, slid into the driver’s seat, and pulled the door shut. There was a satisfying click and the noise of the rain was cut in two. Ben sat, completely soaked, breathing for a moment, hands gripping the steering wheel. Water ran into his eyes and he shivered. The light in the roof that was activated by the door opening, faded and then went out.
This pre-programmed fade of the light broke his reverie, and he shook his head. Droplets of water hit the driver’s side winder and the dashboard. His hair was getting long. Another thing he had not got around to. No, he corrected his inner self as he pulled off his sodden shirt and changed into a dry t-shirt from the back seat. No, it just hadn’t seemed all the important after Jenny. Nothing had seemed that important after Jenny. Haircuts, washing up, hoovering, work, friends, love; all of that seemed unimportant. He laughed to himself at the irony of thinking about Jenny whilst he slid suit trousers off in a car in a rural hotel car park. He trusted to the driving rain to protect his modesty and others’ sensibilities. Jenny would not have approved. When they had first split up he had taken immense amounts of joy in doing things of which she disapproved – letting his hair grow long, leaving towels on the floor, drinking too much, and playing Xbox in his pants for hours at a time. After a month or so, the perverse pleasure had worn off entirely, and he was left with a deep sense of emptiness. He was not certain that even now it had gone completely.
Lightning flashed in the distance, a brief flicker without any defined form. There was only one other car in the car park and its alarm started to go off, hazard lights flashing and a siren blaring that cut through the persistent tattoo of rain on the car roof. He slipped on jeans and trainers, glad of the dry clothes, leaving the wet ones in a heap on the passenger seat. Fumbling in the glove box he fished out the sat nav, which he wasn’t sure he needed, and attached it to the windscreen. The glow as he switched it on was somewhat alien in the dark car. He could make it home without it; he knew the way vaguely, but he didn’t trust his sense of direction enough not to program the route in. He felt a brief stab of pain, or something like it, as he saw that Jenny’s address was still saved in the favourite locations.
He remembered her entering her address into it as they had sat in a different car park, just after he had bought the thing on a whim. She joked that it was the only new thing in the car, which was perfectly true. Her soft hands had tapped away, their owner completely engrossed in playing with the new toy, but also unsure and making mistakes. He laughed at her when she entered her name in all capital letters: JENNY. She had pouted. ‘At least you’ll know it’s important,’ she had said and then stuck her tongue out at him. He smiled and then shook himself, reprimanding his brain for being ridiculous over a trace of her. It was just that, a trace; nothing more. He wondered if he would remove his memories of her like he had removed all traces of her from his flat and his computer, and then had to shake himself again.
He started the car, feeling the recalcitrance again as it hesitated to start. It always did; the engine started to spring into life, faded, and then came to with a roar. He did not remember it being different. He patted the steering wheel affectionately. This was his first real car. He had briefly driven his sister’s old Beetle when he’d first passed his test, but she hadn’t looked after it and the thing had to be scrapped. He’d seen this advertised in the paper the next day and had fallen in love with it as soon as he sat behind the wheel. It had been with him all through university, even when their road had flooded and other cars had rusted or simply refused to work anymore. It had just kept going. Okay, so the radio didn’t work apart from some minor Continental jazz stations and the cassette player only worked if you stayed under forty three miles an hour. There were many quirks to the car of a similar nature, but Ben didn’t care about any of them. Nobody was perfect after all. The car – Ben had never given it a name; it was simply ‘the car’ – was a reliable companion, which got him from A to B safely. It didn’t veer wildly across lanes of traffic of its own accord, nor did parts fall of it after every thousandth mile. It just didn’t always allow music or like going out early in the winter, and Ben sympathised, if not shared, those idiosyncrasies. Jenny had not sympathised. She called the car unreliable, old, and inconvenient. Ben had staunchly defended it and refused to get rid of it.
The sat nav blinked a battery warning light. Ben plugged it into the cigarette lighter and waited whilst the car thought about this new addition to its electrical circuits. After a moment, it allowed this intrusion and the sat nav began charging. Switching his headlights to full beam, Ben reversed out of the car park and trundled down the country track from the hotel to the nearest road. The wipers made a valiant attempt to clear the windscreen of rain, but it was a losing battle. Because of this, it was the gentle metallic voice of the sat nav that told him he was approaching the road long before he could see the turning. He follow the instructed right turn and pulled out onto the waterlogged tarmac. Lightning flashed above the closed shops that lined the road. Ben swept past them, keeping his speed low, but aiming to reach the A road as quickly as was safe. He was eager for home after a weekend of endless meetings, symposiums, and colleagues at his work conference. He wondered idly if Thursday’s unwashed crockery had begun to mould yet. It would be the only living organism waiting for him at home.
He’d had a cat, black with white feet, which went by the name Ozy. The name had been a reference to the poem Ozymandias by Shelley, inspired by the cat’s natural strut and Jenny’s obsession at the time with the Romantic poets. Already ridiculed for his possession of a cat whilst living alone, he had told them that the cat was named after the Black Sabbath vocalist, Ozzy Osbourne. In either case, he tended to just call it ‘the cat’. It had been nice, all misgivings about naming aside, to spend time in his flat with Jenny and Ozy. He had thought about asking her to move in with him, but the time had never been quite right and then it had been very wrong. Then it had all been over and Jenny had come to collect her possessions from the flat, including Ozy, who, it turned out, was her cat even though he paid for its upkeep. At the time he had been too tired of arguments to start a new one over a cat, and that had settled the matter.
As Ben pulled onto the A road that would take him most of the way back the roads he knew by heart, lighting flashed ahead of the car and thunder followed soon after it. He was getting closer to the storm. He hoped that it would burn itself out before he reached his flat.
“In five hundred yards, turn left,” the sat nav said, flashing up a left turn arrow.
Ben glanced at it and frowned.
“What are you talking about? We’re on the right road.”
He checked to see that he had input the destination properly; had he accidentally placed it on the route to the hotel? It didn’t appear so, but he re-entered his destination as ‘Home’ and it ceased to direct him to the left turn. Stupid machine. He turned his attention away from it, trying to see through the rain. There were street lights up ahead, so visibility was vastly improved, though the rain was still heavy. It seemed to be getting worse as Ben and the car approached the storm. He drove on like this for a few more miles, and then the check engine light came on.
“No, car. No,” he said, rubbing the steering wheel as if to urge the car onwards. The check engine light coming on had been the start of his final argument with Jenny. She’d been driving the car, something which she didn’t do very often, and the light had come on. He advised her to do what he did, which was to slow down, because he knew that the car didn’t like going fast for too long and it did strange things when it did. She had taken his advice as an indictment of her driving skills and the whole thing had escalated from there. He didn’t blame the car, of course; the end was coming before the journey began and the outrage over accusations of driving too fast were simply an excuse to bring up other seething resentments. Now, he slowed a little and kept his speed down. The check engine light went off and he smiled to himself, feeling a little vindicated.
“In two hundred yards, enter the roundabout and take the third exit,” the sat nav piped up. He frowned at it again. The third exit would take him to a collection of countryside villages miles from anywhere. He had no intention of going there at any time; Jenny’s parents lived in that area. He ignored the box, took the second exit to head straight on, and was rewarded with a metallic “recalculate” from the machine.
“You do that,” he said and left it to its working.
Lightning flashed ahead of him and thunder crashed above him. He must be coming up on the eye of the storm, which meant he’d soon be through the worst of it. The street lights had ended at the roundabout as the A road gave way to a smaller carriageway, and the flashes of lightning left spots of light dancing on his retinas.
“Turn around when possible,” the sat nav announced, and then: “make a U-turn.”
He reached over to it and turned it off, grumbling under his breath that it wasn’t possible, that the box was a useless waste of money, and with dire threats about return to the manufacturer or abandonment on a scrapheap if such behaviour continued. Lightning flashed above him now and thunder roared over the sound of the engine. As a child he’d eagerly watched the lightning flashing over the fields from the window of his house, forks striking down like the tongue of some ferocious sky-beast. He looked at the lightning and saw the gods of early man. Occasionally it would cause a black out and then there’d be the blind fumble for the candles and torches, trying not to stumble over the family cat in the confusion. Jenny didn’t like the lightning – he was struggling now to find anything that they both liked – it made her jump when it struck and tense when it didn’t. He thought about all the storms he’d missed because he was comforting her. All those times he could have had his nose pressed against the glass, enjoying the tempestuous beauty of nature and reminiscing about his childhood. How many other opportunities had he missed because of Jenny?
Lightning struck again, but a different noise followed, softer than the thunder. A crack like an arm snapping and then he saw the shadowy shape of a tree. It was falling into the road. Ben slammed on the brakes but the wheels span on, surface water stopping the brakes from taking effect. The car swerved in the road, beyond his control now. The falling tree struck the front of the car and it pivoted around the impact, flipping onto its roof. Metal twisted, glass shattered.
Ben opened his eyes. His head hurt and it felt slick with something like water. He tried to reach an arm up to see what it was, but he couldn’t; there was something pinning his arm. It looked like a metal spike. Shards of glass littered the car’s interior, shimmering by a small light. Where is that coming from? He turned his head and was met with an explosion of pain, but he could now see the sat nav still plugged into the cigarette lighter. The screen was lit up, its glow somewhat alien in the dark car.
“You have reached you destination,” it said.
Ben laughed. Outside the car, beyond the little box, the rain seemed to be falling the wrong way. He felt faint and his eyelids began to droop. There was a flash of lightning, half-seen through his closing lids. He thought he heard the gentle metallic voice add “I’m sorry, Ben” before his eyes closed. Thunder rolled.