It doesn’t matter which way you go
‘Enter roundabout and take first exit’, she says, and I do, although it looks a bit unlikely. I’m listening to the singer on the CD player, who is singing about young love for sale, love that’s only slightly soiled, so I’m naturally more interested in the song than in where I’m going. It’s not until I’m driving down what is now clearly a country lane that I realise my guiding light didn’t know about this minor exit from the roundabout.
‘Drive 23 miles.’ She must be joking! I think about turning round, but that’s going to be difficult, the lane, with stone walls on each side, is not much wider than my truck, in fact I’m having to be careful that I don’t scrape the sides, that would really endear me to my bosses. Then, ‘recalculating’, and I can tell that she’s annoyed with me, this dominatrix in a box that has sent me off into the wilderness. I drive on, looking for somewhere to turn.
‘Drive 1.1 miles, then turn right’, she says.
Well, I’ve not much choice, let’s hope she can get me out of here and back on the main road. I watch the miles on the satnav, 1.1, 1.0, counting down, then 200 yards, 100, not much sign of a right turn, but then there it is, it looks as if it’s going in roughly the right direction, although the lane has twisted and turned, so I can’t be sure. I wonder about using the junction to turn in, I probably could, but drive on.
‘Drive 400 yards, then turn left.’
Sure enough, there’s a turning, might as well try it. This time I stop, get out the map, but I’ve no idea where I am. I drive on again.
‘Drive 37 miles.’
I have this relationship with the woman in the box, a bit like that with my third wife, I’m not sure if she really knows what she’s doing, but I fear any questioning of her instructions or, even more, her motivations, will unleash a refusal to be of any help at all. By this time I might as well keep going, surely I will come out somewhere, and when we’re back on a main road the satnav will pick up where we are. The countryside is interesting, hilly, the scars of abandoned quarries everywhere. I remember doing a field course at university somewhere round here. Then the fatal final insult that she can heap on me.
‘Off Road’ says the display, and I know that I will not hear anything further from her. What sometimes helps is to turn the satnav off, then turn it on again, and re-enter the destination, and this is what I do. Something that passes for a map appears, but Miss Geostationary Satellite is silent, probably sulking. Nothing for it, keep driving, and after a time the lane improves, and I can drive a bit faster, have hopes of regaining something like a road that will take me somewhere I might want to be. Then I see from the sun that I’m driving west, into Dartmoor, and as far as I can remember there aren’t any roads hereabouts that will take me through to the other side of the moor. Then I’m driving into a farm yard, this is where the lane stops. From the way the hills rise on all sides, I’m almost certain that there’s only one way out of here, back the way I came.
There’s a woman standing in the middle of the farmyard, she’s wearing wellingtons, sensible wear because the yard is deep in mud, and cows filing into a derelict barn are at this moment churning it up even more. However, to complement the wellingtons she’s wearing a long skirt, looks ethnic, the bottom covered in mud. She’s also wearing a white shirt, a man’s waistcoat, and a bowler hat. The whole bizarre scene is completed by the child she’s holding, dressed in some kind of long white dress, a beautiful child I can see straight away. She herself is scowling, comes towards the truck and opens the door.
‘Where the hell have you been?’ she says. ‘You should have been here at ten.’
As it’s now three in the afternoon, I’m not surprised she’s annoyed, but I start to tell her that it’s not me she is expecting. Before I’ve said much she’s climbed into the passenger seat and tells me to get going. Well, she might be able to tell me the way out of here, so I do as she says.
‘Christ, what a bloody fuck-up’, she says.
I ask her where she wants to go.
‘How the bloody hell do I know’, she says. ‘You’re the one who knows what I’ve got to do.’
At this moment the satnav springs into life, and she who must be obeyed is back.
The woman looks into the back of the truck, looks at me, and asks me where that woman is. I point to the satnav, and she moves away, moves the child so that she is on the far side from me, looks alarmed. The child has other ideas, and struggles to get back. I’m getting uneasy, what if I’ve picked up some mentally challenged nymphomaniac, running away from her brutal husband, who will appear any moment now with a handgun and force me to kneel in the middle of the road before he dispatches me with a bullet through the back of the neck. I’ve seen the films, although I’m hoping Devon is free of such men, not like America, or at any rate the America of the art films I’ve seen. Life has not prepared me for such an experience. If I had any sense I’d drive back to the farm, but the lanes are again too narrow to turn, and unless I back, never an easy thing to do in this truck, all I can do is to drive on.
‘Recalculating’, the satnav tells me again, and goes on saying that every minute or so until I turn it off.
‘What is it?’ the women asks me, and I tell her that it tells me which way to go.
‘Well, why isn’t it telling you now?’
Good question. The woman turns round in her seat, looks at the surveying equipment in the back.
‘What’s all that?’ she asks.
I tell her I work for a surveying company.
‘I knew it, I bloody knew it, you’re with those bastards that are trying to get our farm off us.’
I don’t know anything about this, and I tell her so, but I have qualms. I wonder what my company might be up to, they’re not the most ethically-minded, and I’ve been hearing uncomfortable things about some of their activities. I’m doing a geosurvey for water, but I’m well aware that the survey could be used for many other purposes, and once my data get passed on to the lab, who knows what they are doing with it. I suddenly realise that the contours of the valley would make an ideal location for a reservoir, the farm would be drowned, of course, but then, that’s progress. My efforts to find out if the surveys I’ve been doing have been satisfactory have met with evasions, but I’ve been assuming that if they weren’t satisfactory someone would have told me. I haven’t surveyed this valley, but some-one else might have. We come to a junction, and I ask her again which way we should go. She looks at me pityingly, and I know what she is going to say.
‘It doesn’t matter which way you go,’ she says.
That’s not what I was expecting, the correct response would have been ‘it depends where you want to get to’, but perhaps the spirit of the girl with the golden voice has somehow migrated into this woman by some strange property of electromagnetic radiation.
‘I am beginning to have a strange feeling about you,’ she says. ‘You’re not going to be the time traveller that the time traveller’s wife was married to, are you, if you see what I mean.’
OK, there’s a remote possibility that she’s a nymphomaniac, but I’m pretty sure she’s not mentally challenged. Her grip on reality may be a bit tenuous, however. I wonder if I can find out something about her. I wonder about her strange clothing.
‘Smart clothes. Yours, or your husband’s?’
‘Why should I have a husband, are you one of those men who think that a woman has to have a husband.’
With my record of failure with women I’m only too aware that a woman doesn’t. I inadvertently looked at the child while she was saying this, she sees me doing so, and I wince in anticipation of the outburst that will come.
‘I don’t suppose you would believe me if I told you it was a virgin birth’, she says, and is engulfed by paroxysms of laughter. I go back to wondering about her mental state.
‘No’, she says. ‘I had a man, but it didn’t work out.’ She pauses. ‘He was no good.’ She pauses again. ‘With the sheep.’
We come over the brow of a hill, and there’s a metal grill fence across the road, stretching to right and left as far as I can see, and no way of getting through it. A notice on the fence says that this is a restricted area under the Military Lands Act 1892 (c. 43), byelaw 354c. That’s a lot of byelaws. The fence looks new, the notice looks really ancient, but perhaps not as old as 1892.
‘I heard they had put a new fence up’, the woman says.
So why did she let me drive down here?
I think it’s time to try to sort things out, find out who she is, why she got into my truck, and any other facts that might possibly help me with a return to a more rational world.
‘I’m Peter Barrett’, I say. ‘I work for a company that does surveys, and I’m doing a survey for water. Not here, at Castleburgh. I got lost, went the wrong way, ended up in your farmyard.’
I haven’t finished, but she interrupts me.
‘Why are you telling me this, I’m not really interested.’
I feel my grasp on the real world slipping away again, but make an effort.
‘Please, could you tell me who you are, why you got into my truck, where you want to go? Please.’
‘But you must know who I am, else why did you let me get into your truck.’
I wonder what to say, but she hasn’t finished.
‘You’re not from another dimension, another world, are you?’
Oh dear, here we go.
‘Not as far as I know.’ Then I realise that wasn’t a very sensible thing to say.
‘Well, you probably wouldn’t know, would you, if you were from another dimension and found yourself in this one?’
‘Look, can we start again. What is your name?’
She looks doubtful, but then tells me her name is Judith Trelawney, and that the child is Lily. ‘It was my mother’s name’ she says.
Trelawney, I think, she’s in the wrong county, this is Devon, not Cornwall, “by Tre, Pol and Pen you shall know the Cornish men”, then tell myself to get a grip. At the mention of her own name the child struggles out of her mother’s arms and clambers across to me. She really is a lovely child, and I’m only too pleased to take her, deprived of contact with my own child. The familiar request to be picked up, arms stretched out, and I do, thinking of my own children, now with their mother. It’s always a fight to see them, she’s making it as difficult as possible for me, punishing me for every real and imagined misbehaviour. Holding someone else’s child is something I could really do without.
However, let’s not lose the point, let’s ask the next question.
‘Where do you want to go?’
She looks at me pityingly, and speaks very slowly, as if I was the handicapped one. Well, I’m a man, that’s a handicap in itself.
‘I was told that you would come and pick me up.’
You wouldn’t think a simple question could have so many non-answers. Let’s try a bit of lateral thinking.
‘Who told you?’
‘I don’t know, it was just a telephone call, I don’t know who she was, she just said that I would be collected at ten o’clock. You were five hours late.’
Is it really worth going on with this? I make another effort.
‘Why did you want to leave the farm?’
She doesn’t answer, she’s quiet, I look at her, see her biting her lip, and I can see tears coming in her eyes.
‘I don’t want to leave the farm, I want to stay there forever.’
What a sucker I am. The little girl is looking at me all the time, a very solemn face, black eyes never leaving me. ‘Daddy’, she says. Fortunately I know that this is what children of this age say, confronted with a man, when their father is absent and only dimly remembered.
‘Is there a track across to the other side of the moor?’ I ask, and she tells me there is, but it’s very rough, and only a 4 by 4 can get through.
‘Do you mean you really have come to get us out of here, you’re not with those awful people? ‘ she says’
I tell her I haven’t the faintest idea what’s going on, that I got lost and ended up in her farmyard.
‘Well, why did you let me get in then?’
Good question. I’ll know better next time. Then I hope there won’t be a next time.
‘Anyway, if you’re not from another dimension, and you’re not a time traveller, who are you? Are you Heathcliff, come to torment me? Are you cruel and false? Lily’s father was boring and hopeless, I’m about due for some excitement’ she says.
Not with me, you’re not, I think, and I’m worried about her mental health again.
‘If I go on like this, you’ll start thinking I’m barmy’ she says.
‘Why are we just sitting here?’ she says. ‘It’s quite comfortable, but I can think of better things to do than sitting in a truck with a man who doesn’t seem to know what he’s doing or where he’s going.’
I ask her where the nearest village is.
‘Hoo Tavy’, she says. ‘It’s over that way,’ pointing to the west.
‘Come on then, let’s go,’ I say.
‘Look, we’ll never get through the moor in this truck, I told you, weren’t you listening?’
I tell her the truck is a 4 by 4.
I give the child back to the woman, shift into four-wheel drive, and we set off, the track getting worse and worse. Sometimes I can’t see where it is, but she can. I tell her she’s doing well.
‘Condescending bastard,’ she says.
Obviously a woman of spirit. Then, surprisingly, she relents.
‘Sorry, we come up here to gather the sheep, been doing it since I could walk. I know every track on these hills. It’s the worry’, she says.
We stop to let some sheep get off the road, and the little girl immediately climbs into my lap, puts her hands on the steering wheel, as if to drive.
‘She’s used to driving the tractor’ the woman says.
I don’t think I can take much more of this, the child can’t be much older than two or three. She is standing on the seat in front of me, and is quite good at anticipating which way she has to turn the wheel. I say how good she is.
‘Are you married? You must be a bloody pain to live with, you don’t listen to anything I say,’ she says. ‘I told you she can drive the tractor. Not too well, though, she nearly turned it over last week.’
I try to give the child back to her mother, at least I assume that’s what this woman is, but after the earlier exchanges I know better than to ask her anything. She obviously has problems with personal relationships. Well, so do I. The child doesn’t want to go back, and struggles to stay where she is.
‘Don’t be such a spoilsport’ the mother says, and I think, yes, the child isn’t doing any harm, although sometimes she wants to turn the wheel in the opposite direction to myself, and she’s surprisingly strong. There’s no power steering when the truck’s in four-wheel drive, and battling with the truck and the child is hard work.
We are going downhill now, and the track becomes more of a lane, and then we’re driving into a village. I stop, ask her if this is Hoo Tavey.
‘Where?’ she asks.
‘You said the nearest village was Hoo Tavey.’
‘You don’t seem to have much of a grip on logic’, she says ‘I told you the nearest village was Hoo Tavey. We drive into a village. It does not follow that the village is Hoo Tavy. It’s called a deductive fallacy. Socrates was hot on them.’
If I stay with this woman much longer I shall be a living walking fallacy myself.
‘Where shall I drop you?’ I ask.
‘We’d better take Lily back to her mother, she’ll be getting a bit worried about where she’s got to.’
‘I thought you were her mother,’ I say. ‘Another deductive fallacy?’
‘No, I think it’s an example of a false premise, but I’m not really sure. I’m not really too hot on logic. But I’m better than you. Couldn’t be worse.’
I ignore this. ‘Where does Lily’s mother live?’
‘Hoo Tavey, straight ahead.’
I drive in the direction she points out, and she tells me to stop outside a cottage.
‘I won’t be long’, she says, and disappears into the cottage.
She thinks I’m going to let her get back in my truck! If I had any sense I’d be driving away before she gets back, but I can’t bring myself to do that. I wonder why. She reappears, get’s back in the truck.
‘I shall be glad to get home,’ she says.
‘You mean you expect me to drive back over the moor to the farm?’
‘Why should I want you to do that?’
‘You said you wanted to get home.’ Then I realise she didn’t say that, and expect another lecture on reasoning.
Instead she smiles at me. ‘Sorry, I’m being a bit of a pain, aren’t I? My friends are always telling me off for being tedious. I did psychology and philosophy at university, and I’ve never recovered.’
‘Look, take me home, I live in Tavistock, and I’ll cook a meal for you’ she says.
‘It’s all right, you’ll be quite safe with me. I won’t seduce you.’
Compared with the way she’s been behaving, seduction would be very reassuring.
‘Can I just ask you one thing?’ I say.
‘You can ask anything you like’, she says, ‘I might not want to answer, or I might not know the answer, but you can ask.’ Then she stops. ‘I don’t know what it is about you, but you bring out the worst in me. I’m not usually as bad as this. Anyway, what did you want to ask?’
‘I thought you were Lily’s mother, and I now do understand you aren’t. But you said that you had a man and he was no good, and then you talked about Lily’s father, and you said Lily’s father was boring and hopeless, and that you were due for some excitement. Are your man and Lily’s father the same person?’ Why am I asking her this? What possible good will it do?
‘Yes’ she says.
‘Ah well, that clears that up then.’ I knew I should never have asked.
‘He was my man, but I got fed up with him, he was hopeless, so I handed him on to my sister.’
‘Can I ask another question? I understand terms and conditions will apply.’
She smiles at me. ‘I thought you were, well, a bit dim, but you’re quite smart, aren’t you?’
Not as smart as you, I think.
‘You told me that I was the one who was supposed to know what you had to do. What did you mean?’
‘Sorry, I shouldn’t have done that. I was just messing with you. Trying to see how much I could confuse you. Not very kind.’
‘Why did you do that?’
‘Because I need a bit of excitement.’
I shall soon know better than to ask this woman questions.
I start the engine, ask her to tell me the way to Tavistock, and we are soon there. We drive to her house on the moor side of the town, and I pull up, leave the engine running.
‘Aren’t you going to come in for a meal?’ she says ‘you’ve been so kind to me, I must do something in return.’
If I do I shall regret it, I think, but I switch the engine off and get out, follow her into the house.
A year later I’m beginning to understand her, which is just as well as our child is now three months old. My other success is that I’ve managed to persuade her that a bowler hat doesn’t do anything for her.