Fastening my seat belt, I reach out to the sat nav and set my new destination. I tap in S followed by T. It knows where I am going, Stow, Stow-on-the-Wold. It anticipates my destination. At times I wish it knew less about me. Tick, tick, go. Destination set, the screen wipers swipe manically left and right as though their lives depended upon it. It is December, Christmas eve. Just after four in the afternoon and it is dark, dark and miserable. The rain is incessant. I will reach my destination in forty minutes, it informs me. It is a life and death situation. I am threatened with excommunication if I so much as arrive ten minutes late. The family expects. The family expects every able bodied person to attend the annual Christmas eve gathering, quaff mulled wine in front of the log fire, whoop with delight when they unwrap their Christmas presents and make polite conversation with relatives whom they have not seen for the past three hundred and sixty five days.
Minutes into my journey I glance the dreaded ‘road works ahead’ sign. I look up into the rain-laden sky and imagine I can see satellites dancing around one another laughing at my misfortune. They are oblivious to what is going on down below. Taillights stretch ahead into the distance. If I join the queue and wait, I will be late, very late. My mother’s words ring in my ears, ‘And for once in your life, do not be late.’
I have a choice. Either I arrive late and face her wrath, or I take a risk - I find an alternative route. My heart sinks as I brave voicing the dreaded words. ‘Find me another route’ I say. The screen on the console fills with a map, refreshes, fills with another map until finally roads stop rotating and the display remains static. “Turn around,” it tells me.
“Easier said than done, mate,” I reply, regarding the oncoming traffic, a vehicle sitting perilously close to my bumper, and the reversing lights of the car in front of me flickering frantically on and off as the driver considers his or her own options.
I wait my chance, spin the wheel and floor the accelerator.
“Turn right after three hundred yards.”
I lean forward, my nose to the screen and strain my eyes to see anything that looks remotely like a road. Almost on top of it, I see it, a narrow country lane. It looks formidable - the road to nowhere, but it is too late to change my mind. I am indicating. An oncoming driver flashes his lights to let me turn.
I groan out loud as through the windscreen, the rain, and the headlights, I glance grass growing up through the once tarmacked, now potholed apology of a road. It is single track. There is nothing to indicate that there might be passing spaces. It is my worst nightmare. “You’ve done it again, you miserable little swine,” I snarl at the sat nav.
There is no way that I can turn around. I have no choice but to creep slowly onward in the hope that soon I will be directed back on to a main road. There is nothing ahead but the dark shapes of tall dense hedges and overhanging branches. Not one solitary light, not one solitary star to give me hope. I press on slowly, my foot barely stroking the accelerator. The odometer tells me that I have covered two miles since I left the main road. It has taken twenty minutes. It seems like hours. The road stretches ahead into infinity; no country lane that I have ever encountered has no end. This one does.
“Speak to me you bloody thing,” I yell at the console, “Didn’t you hear me? Talk to me, you pathetic little prat.”
“Happily,” a voice says, “But only when you desist from swearing at me and calling me a pathetic little prat.”
My heart stops. I shake my head so vigorously that my neck hurts and I see stars in front of my eyes. My imagination is playing games. Whose imagination would not when they find themselves in the middle of nowhere, with no beginning and no end in sight?
“You want me to speak to you?” the voice asks.
“Who are you?” Unthinking I ask the question.
“You know who I am. You chose me when you bought this car. My name is Gregory. You could have selected Mary but you chose me. I was very flattered.”
“You are nothing but a figment of my imagination. The moment I see a gate I shall turn this car around and go back to the main road,” I mutter to myself. My hands are shaking.
“Spoilsport,” the voice says, “What would it take to convince you that I’m real?”
“Ignore it,” I tell myself.
“Take your hands off the steering wheel and your foot off the gas.”
My hands obey and I feel my foot slide off the rubber pedal and rest on the carpet. I am shocked beyond belief that my body should ignore my brain in such a reckless way.
“Let’s go,” the voice says.
I am thrust back in my seat as my car accelerates fast into the darkness, the steering wheel flicks this way and that like a dervish. I squeeze my eyes tight shut and grip the seat as I am thrown sideways with every ninety-degree turn.
“Nice little motor, corners well…”
“For God’s sake, stop will you. You’ll kill us both.”
The voice chuckles. “Relax, you’re safe with me. Do you still think I’m a figment of your imagination?”
Before I have time to answer I am thrust forward; my arms fly out to cushion the impact that I know is imminent. I hear the screech of brakes and the car comes to a dead stop.
“Ooops, who put that tree across the road? Good brakes,” the voice says apologetically, “Sorry. I’m so sorry. Are you alright?”
I am shaking with fright. I am shaking with disbelief that I am making conversation with a sat nav. I am shaking with anger. I am doubting my own sanity.
“I really am very, very sorry,” it says. My ears must be deceiving me. Do I detect a sob in the voice?
“No, I am not alright,” I reply. I am talking to my sat nav. How can I be alright? “My mother will be striking me out of her will as we speak. I promised to be there on time.”
“I’m so sorry. The tree, you know. If I’d known, I’d have taken you a less risky route. You should have told me you were short on time, Mandy.
My eyes grow wide. “Mandy,” I mutter, “How do you know my name?”
“I’m an eavesdropper as well as a boy racer, a poor one at that. I’ve listened in to your conversations from the first day you bought this car. I’ve always wanted to talk to you in person.”
Another sob. “Will you please stop snivelling! There’s nothing I hate more than when a grown man cries,” I screech.
The voice softens. It is barely a whisper. “Did you call me a grown man, Mandy? You don’t know how much that means to me. This is all my Christmases rolled into one.”
“I think I did,” I reply. I feel the anger ebbing away, flowing down through my fingertips and right down to my toes. It is replaced by a strange calm. “For your information, Gregory, I didn’t want to go this evening anyway.”
“Then let’s not go,” he replies. “Let’s spend Christmas together.”
“How?” I ask.
“Maybe I’ll take you for a drive?” he ventures.
I laugh hysterically. I can’t stop laughing. Tears of laughter roll down my cheeks. I shake my head back and forth. “You navigate and I’ll drive,” I hear myself say.