We call her Vera, and she takes us where we want to go. Or, perhaps, where she thinks we need to go—like the Tardis whisking the Doctor around the universe.
Vera says: Prepare to turn right in two hundred yards.
She says: At the roundabout, take the third exit.
And we obey, because she’s in charge. We type in postcodes and allow her to dictate our every move. When we stop for lunch, veering from her chosen path, she throws a bit of a tantrum, telling us to take U-turns at the first opportunity.
Vera says: Take the first left, then the first right.
I peer out of the window. The town is behind us, fields and rolling hills ahead. Breaks in the hedgerows reveal clumps of houses and sheep munching grass.
“I’m not sure she knows where she’s going.”
“Of course she does,” Robbie says. “There’ll be a jam or something—she’s taking us a back way, that’s all.”
He scowls through the windscreen; he’s not happy about going to this wedding. His tie is digging into his neck. He pulls at his collar and tuts at the slow car in front.
“Mmm.” I check Vera’s screen—thirty-nine minutes until we arrive. There’s no signal on my mobile, so I can’t text to let them know. I bounce it against my thigh. “We’re going to be late.”
“I told you we should have left earlier. We should make it in time for the reception.”
“Stace is my oldest friend, I wanted to be there for the whole thing.”
Vera says: Take the next left and follow the road for five miles.
“Five? Where the hell is she taking us, Outer Mongolia?”
“You sound like your mother when you say that.” He leans forward to check for traffic, the curve of the road making it difficult to see. He edges the car forward.
I watch the white lines down the centre of the road disappearing beneath us. The gentle grind of the tyres on the tarmac is annoyingly soothing.
I reach for my bag on the back seat.
“What are you doing now?”
“Getting the invitation—it’s got a map in it. I want to see if I recognise any landmarks.”
“Well, can you sit still? I’m trying to concentrate.”
“On what? It’s a straight road.”
The directions are printed on the back on a picture of the hotel. The Wilder Hotel and Golf Club is a sprawling, white building, fronted with several bay windows and a columned porch. The grounds are immaculately landscaped, with a fountain in the centre of a majestic drive. We’re travelling through newly-manured farmland, nowhere near anything tended enough to be a golf course. The hedges are unkempt; the road is peppered with potholes that send us rocking from side to side. Occasionally, we slow to a thirty miles per hour limit as we wind through stone-built hamlets. Robbie speeds up abruptly once the restriction is lifted; the polyester of my dress causes me to slide in my seat.
I’m silent. Sullen and annoyed. I seek out road signs, clues. The sun vanishes behind thick, leaden clouds. “It was supposed to be sunny.”
Vera says: Turn right and take the next left.
We happen across the edge of a village. Houses with their lights switched on to combat the rolling gloom, expensive cars parked outside. It’s large enough for a church and a general store and a pub.
“Why don’t we stop and ask someone?” I stare at the directions in my hand. None of the place names are familiar; we haven’t passed near any of them.
“We don’t need to ask.”
“Get a satnav, you said. We’ll never get lost again. You said.”
Robbie stares at me. “Finished?”
Vera says: Take the next right.
Our conversation hunkers down into soft grunts which say everything from “I’m sorry” to “I’m hungry” to “I’m worried.”
“I’m scared,” I whisper, as the road becomes a lane. The trees pack tightly together, towering up and forming a canopy which curls down on top of us like clawing fingers.
Vera says: Turn right.
We peer into the leaf-shrouded shadows, drawing level with the spot Vera’s indicating.
“Is that it?” Robbie points to a small indentation in the hedge where countless cars have pressed against it to make room for oncoming traffic.
“Of course it isn’t. The Wilder Hotel entrance won’t look like that.” I hold the picture of the venue close to his face; he pushes it away with irritation.
He drops his hands from the wheel and leans back, surveying the road ahead, glancing back over his shoulder.
The wind picks up, sighing through the trees like several voices merging together.
“Okay,” he says cautiously. “I’ll nip in here to turn around. We’ll go back the way we came, back to that village. We’ll ask for directions.” He bows his head in acquiescence.
Robbie squeezes the car through the hedge. Splintered twigs scratch along the sides; waxy ivy sucks us in, embraces us. The only light comes from the dashboard and Vera’s screen, our faces glowing ominously red. The foliage thickens, interlocking its branches and leaves like long-lost lovers. It tangles around us, holding us fast. Robbie revs the engine. Glass cracks.
Vera says: You have reached your destination.