This story, which appears in Something Was There, a new anthology of ghost stories published by Virago, has its roots in the writer, Naomi Alderman's, interest in the relationships between people and technology.by Naomi Alderman / September 21, 2011 / Leave a comment
She says: “The scariest ghost stories, those I love, are about people betrayed by some point of weakness. Personally, I can’t find my way anywhere without my satnav. I feel vulnerable every time I’m in its hands, knowing I couldn’t get home without it. So this story is about that fear.”
It’s 2.30am when you leave the party. You wouldn’t usually have stayed so late but the company was excellent, the food enticing, the wine superb. You’re not drunk; you’re careful about such things, especially when driving. You had one small glass, early on, and despite the alluring tinkle of crystal and booming pop of corks, you left it at that.
But for some reason you can’t find your car. You had to park on a side road and you’re not familiar with this part of town. It’s made up of narrow winding streets, lined with parked cars and tiny picturesque cottages. They’re probably astonishingly expensive, you think, as you turn another corner where you’re sure this time, totally sure, you must have parked. Your car’s not there.
You keep walking, looping back towards where you started. If you really can’t find it, you’ll have to beg your friends to let you stay the night, look again in the morning or report it stolen. Then a thought occurs. You pull out your keys and press the fob. Sure enough, from just around the corner, you hear the reassuring double blip of your car unlocking. You do it again, walking faster, then once more, then again turning the corner.
But it’s not your car. You press the fob again. The car in front of you unlocks. It’s a long, sleek, black vehicle—German-looking although you don’t recognise the make. The windows are dark. It’s low-slung to the ground. Its wheel-rims are black. The street lights barely seem to illuminate it at all. Mounted at the front of the bonnet is a small silver figure of a leaping wolf. You press the fob again. It locks. You glide your fingers along the black trim at the edge of the roof.
You think it through logically. You’ve read somewhere that the chances of the same infra-red key unlocking two different cars is about thirty million to one. Nonetheless, it must happen sometimes. Perhaps, earlier in the evening, the owner of this beautiful sleek black car found that their key unlocked yours too. Perhaps they stood there, amused, staring at the empty crisp packet in the driver’s side pocket and the dirty carpet and decided to slum it for an evening. Perhaps they were tired, suddenly, of their wealth and success, wanted to remember what it had been like when they were young and their mother drove them to school in a car like yours.
You could go back to your friends, file a report on your missing car, stay up until probably four or five in the morning trying to sort everything out. Or you could drive home now in this fluid-lined beast, get a good night’s sleep and deal with it fresh in the morning. You stand on the street for a few moments thinking and then you unlock the car, open the door and get in.
You turn on the engine. Is it a little improbable that your key would turn it on as well as opening it? Possibly, but you do not think about this until a great deal later; you’re grateful to be able to get home easily. You’re not drunk, but you are tired, you should remember that.
The car roars into life, settling down to a thrumming purr. The crisply-designed display glows warm orange behind the polished-to-invisibility glass. The seats are soft black leather. The car smells new. There is less than a thousand miles on the clock. You let out a little sigh of pleasure.
You find that the controls are all where you expect them to be. You’re glad to see this car has built-in satnav. You had a lot of trouble finding your friends’ house in the first place; the one-way system seemed to lead constantly away from it. You’d been a bit worried about how you’d get back. You turn on the device and programme in your address. It predicts that the journey will take thirty-five minutes. You’re relieved—it took you almost an hour to get here. You flick the indicator down—the thick snapping sound it makes is delicious—and pull away.
For a while, it’s all you can do not to keep admiring the car’s features as you drive. You wish it were daytime so you could appreciate the styling properly. The steering wheel under your hands is both soft and firm, like the welcoming handshake of a new and lucrative business partner. The satnav too is mellifluous, its inky velvet voice instructing you to “turn left,” “bear right,” “in three hundred metres, take the motorway.” You’re not familiar with the route it’s taking you, but if it’s going to be quicker that’s all to the good.
You take your eyes off the empty road momentarily to turn on the radio. A voice speaking in a language unfamiliar to you fills the car, the sound system so perfectly attuned that it sounds as if she’s sitting right behind you and you almost look back in surprise. You flick through the presets. All different languages, none that you speak fluently, although you linger for a moment over one of the more familiar tongues, hoping to pick up a word or two. At last, after another couple of turns directed by the satnav you manually tune the radio to your favourite station and relax.
You’ve been driving for about fifteen minutes now, but you don’t recognise anything around you. The satnav is probably taking you a route perfectly calibrated to minimise your journey time, avoiding traffic, roadworks, maybe even stop lights. You haven’t hit a red since you started driving, you recall. You reflect, amusing yourself, that a car like this might even have special roads which normal people like you don’t get to use.
You drive on. The lights of the town are to your right, but they seem farther away than you’d have expected. You’re on an empty road stretching out across open country. It’s lined with elm trees, each with that distinctive leaf-shape silhouette, rustling in the breeze. You glance at the few scattered buildings by the side of the road as you pass, trying to work out where you are. There’s a children’s playground, empty of course. There’s a house with dark windows. As you drive past you think you see a face observing you from an upstairs floor, but you were probably mistaken.
Only ten minutes to go until you get there, says the satnav. But you don’t recognise anything. This can’t be right. Perhaps there are two roads with the same name, and it’s taking you to the wrong one. You drive on, following the instructions mechanically; you’ll see where it’s taking you, but stop at a petrol station and ask where you are, buy an A-Z, get home. How irritating.
But there’s no petrol station. You drive on and on, along what look like main roads, but there are no shops along them, no lighted windows even. Only the occasional dark house. At least the tank is full of petrol, you notice, unable to help admiring the curved dial of the petrol indicator. If necessary, you’ll drive on. You’ll eventually find something open, or some signs. Thinking about it, it’s been a long time since you last saw a sign. Probably not since you were quite near your friends’ house.
It occurs to you that since you put in an address, a street and house number, there must be houses wherever you’re going. It’s probably a good idea to carry on.
The satnav instructs you to turn off from the main road down a single-lane track. The road is well maintained but, with the trees bowed over it, and no houses on either side, it doesn’t look like you’ll find a petrol station up there. You pause on the main road, your indicator flashing. No other vehicle around to be irritated by your vacillation. What to do?
You try to reprogramme the satnav, pressing its glossy screen, but it doesn’t seem to be responding. It just says “in five hundred metres, you have reached your destination.” Fine. If you have to drive down there to cancel this journey and start again, so be it. You turn the steering wheel and proceed down the track. You notice, as you pass, that the road has no name sign.
The road is narrow and the car is wide. As you drive, long fingers of tree branches seem to reach out and fumble at the doors. For no clear reason, without thinking about it too hard, wondering at the same time why you didn’t do so earlier, you lock the car doors from the inside. You drive slowly, with the headlights on full beam. You think you catch sight of a loping animal crossing the road ahead of you—like a fox, but lower to the ground, more like a badger but much bigger—but it’s gone in an instant. You wish it were light. It won’t be light for hours. You want to turn on the car’s internal lights but think to yourself: “no, then they’ll be able to see inside.” After a moment you realise that there’s no one else around. Who would see inside? You take a few deep breaths. You’re very tired, after all.
“You have reached your destination,” the velvety-dark voice says, at last. You look around. You have reached some kind of destination—the road only runs on for another few hundred metres before coming to an end, a line of trees beginning a dense forest.
On your right, the road is lined by forest, but on the left there’s a break in the trees. A path runs downhill, through an open gate and across a lawn to a large house, set back from the road. The house has six windows on each floor, and two floors. In one of the upstairs windows, a light is burning. It is the first certain sign of anyone else awake that you’ve seen since you got into the car. You think about climbing out, crossing the dark lawn and ringing the bell. That might be sensible. Ask directions, find out where you are, where the satnav has led you wrongly.
But as you reach for the door something in you recoils. It’s the thought of the long dark walk across the lawn. With the trees whispering in the wind, bending over to get closer to you. And when you reach the house and ring the bell, what will happen? Someone will answer, you tell yourself. Someone perfectly normal. Your hand moves towards the door handle but stops short, comes back to your lap.
This is ridiculous. You’re in a car. The petrol tank is full. The car is obviously well maintained. There’s no reason to stay here, in this wooded cul-de-sac, when you could go back to the motorway and drive on. You could drive till dawn if necessary, that can only be another couple of hours from now.
The road is narrow, but you’re a skilled driver. You’ll be able to turn the car round. Quickly, almost tipping over into panic but not quite, you find reverse gear and start to back round, turning the wheel clockwise so the boot of your car almost touches the trees behind. You find yourself thinking “don’t touch the trees,” but you don’t know why.
You’ve made a quarter-turn. You turn the wheel anti-clockwise, and start to move forward a little, so that the car is facing the old house with its single lit upstairs window. You straighten up. The car is at right angles to the little road, its back next to the trees, its front facing the house. You prepare to start backing round. That is when the engine cuts out.
The radio is still working. Your favourite station is still burbling on quite happily. The car’s lights are still on, illuminating the stone steps down the embankment to the path across the lawn. But the low throaty rumble of the engine has ceased.
Instinctively, you turn the key, turning everything off, planning to restart the engine. You hadn’t thought that when you turned the key you would be plunged into darkness. For that moment, the only light you can see is in the upper window of the house. You think you see other things too. There is something on the lawn, something creeping slowly across it, illuminated only by the light from the window. You think you hear something moving in the woods behind you. You scrabble for the key, pumping the accelerator to try to bring the engine back to life. The lights turn back on, the radio comes back on, but the engine is dead. You don’t want to try turning it off again.
You try to think rationally. You can’t stay here all night. The car’s battery will run down, and then you will be left in the dark. You reach for your mobile phone but there’s no signal, no matter how many different directions you turn it in. But the comforting tiny light of the screen makes you think—that’s all you need, more light. Maybe there’s a torch in this car. A flood-light, even. A car like this, the owner would surely be prepared for all emergencies.
Using the faint beam of your mobile phone’s light, you sweep across the back seat. There’s nothing there. You look in the footwell, as far as you can without getting out of the car. There’s a noise from the wood, a low hiss. You crane round, trying to see what’s there. You can’t see anything unusual. The trees are bending in the wind, reaching towards the car.
You open the glove compartment. Your heart rejoices! There’s a torch. You turn it on. Good. It’s heavy-duty, with a powerful beam. You heft the thing in your hand. It makes you feel better. You shine the torch into the glove compartment. Is there anything else there? Yes. There’s something at the back, wrapped tightly in a piece of soft black fabric. You put your hand into the glove compartment and pull the thing out. You unwrap it. Your heart is beating so loudly in your throat that you can scarcely bear it.
The thing is a hammer. With a flat head and a claw head. You shine the torch on the flat head. There are red splashes, with some hairs stuck to dull metal.
As if your head were being pulled on a string, you turn around to stare at the dark back seat. You swing your torch in wide terrified circles, poking into the corners behind you, then suddenly back to the passenger seat, then back to the seats behind. You cannot make enough light to keep everywhere in view at once. Outside, the wind stirs up the trees and they rustle as if whispering to one another.
The back seat is empty. But you cannot stop staring back. Behind the back seat, right behind it, is the only place you haven’t looked in this car. The boot. Right there.
You do not want to open the boot. You do not want to get out of the car.
You turn back to look at the house. The light on the upper floor is moving. You watch it waver in the upstairs room, moving from side to side, and then pass to the next room, then to the middle windows, where the staircase must be. It is coming downstairs.
There is a soft click from behind you. The boot has swung open.
There is the sound of movement. You can see something moving. You say to yourself it must be the trees. But you know what it is. You have known for a while now. You know what you did.
Something is moving. It has the jerky precision of a marionette. It is climbing out of the boot. You thought no one had ever known the truth. It has been twenty years and you thought you were free. The radio softly fades away. The headlights of the car begin to die. You are holding the torch in your hand and you could turn it towards the back of the car to see what is coming but you cannot.
You turn back, forcing yourself to stare at the old stone mansion. In the house, the light has reached the ground floor.
There is a tap, tap, tap at the window of the car. You do not turn your head.
You sit, staring forward, as the headlights of the car finally fade away. It is dark, and in the darkness things are creeping slowly across the lawn. They are coming for you. The satnav begins to speak. “Be sure,” it says in its smooth, dark voice, “be sure your sins will find you out.”
The tapping at the window begins again. You wait. It will not be long.