“Do be careful, dear,” said Marian anxiously as her husband pulled abruptly away from the kerb to the accompaniment of a blaring horn and shouted curses from the taxi he had just cut off. Thank goodness here at the airport everyone was travelling quite slowly, she thought.
“Yes, yes,” he said in annoyance, tightening his hands on the steering wheel. “These bloody young drivers have got no idea these days. No courtesy! No manners!” He glared angrily out at the world, much as he did when watching the television news every night.
“I think we need to turn just up there, Rob, see that sign?” She knew that he found it difficult driving at night, with all the glaring lights. But he had insisted on driving their daughter to the airport, despite Jane offering to get a taxi. He wouldn’t hear of it. Terrible things happened to young women in taxis. Even though Jane was in her fifties now, and divorced. It made no difference. He was going to drive her.
Rob always insisted on things, and these days often flew into a rage if he was contradicted. Marian sighed. Now well into his eighties, Rob was becoming harder and harder to live with. Not that it had ever been easy. There had been plenty of fights while they were trying to make a go of their farm so many years ago. But she always remembered the golden-haired youth she had first fallen in love with, and she found that she could forgive him a great deal.
“Turn here, Rob,” she said again, a little panicky because the turn was coming up quickly now. He made a grumpy sound, but swung the wheel over sharply, and they careered around the bend.
It was a long, long time since they had last been to the airport, and everything seemed to have changed. There were new roads, and lots more signs. Confusing signs. Gazing up at them as they drove along, Marian wasn’t too sure herself which was the best way back home. She fumbled out the street directory. But her eyesight wasn’t what it used to be, and the street lights and the shadows came and went over the book. She couldn’t make any sense of it.
“It’s this way,” her husband said. He was peering out through his spectacles. “Blackwood, see,” he said. Blackwood was the suburb where they lived now.
“No, Rob, it wasn’t Blackwood, it was Beechworth. I’m sure… Oh, dear, I think we’re getting on to the freeway.”
Sure enough, they were passing under a green sign indicating the start of the freeway, and cars were zooming by them in the lane they needed to merge with. Rob was still travelling only at the suburban speed limit. “Oh, oh, Rob… you’d better speed up a little, dear.”
He hunched down over the wheel, glaring at the speeding traffic. “Everyone travels too damn fast these days,” he said.
She couldn’t remember the last time they had driven on a freeway. They merged into the traffic, miraculously avoiding being driven into from the rear. Cars swerved out from behind them, horns blaring.
“They’re going so fast because we’re on the freeway, dear. I think we need to get off at the next exit.”
“No, no, I know where we’re going. This freeway will get us there faster, that’s all.”
She let out a long breath. “Please, Rob, I’m sure we’re not going the right way.”
“Damn it, I know what I’m doing, woman. Just trust me. Keep a lookout for a sign.”
They passed several of the huge green signs, but none read “Blackwood”.
Marian was starting to wish that they had let Jane buy them the navigation gadget she had talked about. But Marian was sure that they would have found it too hard to use. Jane was always worrying about them. The very last thing she had said to them at the airport was “Now do drive carefully, Dad. Just go back the way you came and you’ll be all right.”
But somehow they hadn’t managed to get back on the road they had come on. Now Marian had no idea where they were. Rob was going a little faster now, but still not quite matching the speed of most of the freeway traffic. There was so much traffic, even at this time of night. Where are all these people going? she wondered. Don’t they have homes to go to?
“Dear, I really think you had better take the next exit. Then we’ll have a quiet look at the street directory and work out the best way to get home. We’ve gone quite a long way already.”
Rob put on his stubborn face for a while and didn’t reply. Then grudgingly, he said “I suppose you might be right. Look out for an exit, then.”
One came up shortly, with a sign reading “Rochester. Exit 1 km.”
“Um, you’d better slow down, Rob.” He had gradually sped up to match the surrounding traffic, but now he needed to be prepared to stop.
“Stop your fussing, woman!”
But he did gradually ease off and diverged when she prompted him. They pulled up to a stop light at the end of the ramp. Marian bent down over the street directory again as Rob turned right when the light turned green. But he didn’t pull over, as she had hoped, but just kept on driving.
Marian frowned down at the map book, turning over the pages desperately, to little effect. She looked up, trying to spot an unusual street name so she could look it up in the index, but all the streets here seemed to have very common names, and those she managed to look up, squinting, had dozens of entries.
“This way,” Rob said, and turned left at the next major intersection. Marian had no idea on what basis he had made the decision. “But where…?” she asked.
“Damn it, just be quiet. I’ll get us home.”
She sighed again, and subsided back. They were on a wide, dual-carriage road, passing through a suburb full of similar-looking houses. Then they passed through a small shopping strip. She squinted out, trying to spot a surburb name on one of the businesses. But nothing made sense.
After a while, the road became narrower and narrower. Street lights were few and there were less houses.
“Rob, we’re lost. We should pull over and ask somebody for directions.”
He only grunted and kept on driving.
Marian looked at the dashboard clock and was shocked to realise that it was just after midnight. They had both been up early, and she was becoming very tired. She knew that Rob must be feeling the same way, and she kept glancing at him to make sure that he wasn’t dropping off to sleep. That really would be awful.
“Rob, please, dear, we must stop and get some help.”
“No, no, we’re right now, I recognise the way.”
Marian peered into the darkness. She couldn’t see anything, let alone any landmarks.
He just grunted. After a long, long while, he said, “Besides, there’s no one to ask, see for yourself.”
It was true. There were no street lights or house lights any more.
“I’ll just keep going for a bit,” he said. “We’re bound to see a petrol station or something. We can ask there, if you’re so fussed.”
But there were no petrol stations. From time to time Rob’s head drooped and then snapped upright again. Finally, Marian realised that she had to put her foot down.
“Rob, you have to stop. You’re going to fall asleep at the wheel and we’ll both be killed. Do you want me to be killed?”
“No, no,” he said wearily, seeming to be quite confused now. “Where are we?”
“I don’t know, Rob. But please pull over and stop.”
“But…” he said, and tears glinted in his eyes. “What are we going to do? We can’t sleep in the car.”
“Yes we can,” she said. “We’ve done it before, remember, when we were young?”
“Yes,” he said faintly, as he pulled the car well off the asphalted road and turned it off. “Yes, I remember. Oh God, Marian, I’m so tired.”
“Put your seat back, love. Just lie back. We’ll find someone to help us in the morning.”
“Yes, yes, you’re right.” He closed his eyes and lay back. After a moment he said, “I love you, Marian.”
This, from Rob, was very rare. Fighting back her tears, she said quietly, “I love you too, Rob.”
She put her own seat back and tried to go to sleep. It wasn’t so easy. Rob began to snore, and it was a little cold in the car. It was pitch dark outside, with no moon. She could hear all kinds of little animal noises, snickerings and whistles. And the car seat, even tilted back, wasn’t at all comfortable. Still, she eventually went to sleep, though she woke up several times. Rob finally seemed to have stopped snoring.
Marian was wakened at last by the morning sun. She opened her eyes and looked out her side window, away from the glare of the sun.
“Oh!” she said, “How lovely!”
Beyond a ploughed field, a beautiful green hill rose up high before her, delicately lit by the rising sun. It was densely planted with some kind of verdant crop, and textured with the path of a tractor. Birds sang brightly. Marian felt a deep sense of contentment after the anxiety of the night before. She felt truly at peace.
“Look, Rob,” she said, turning to him, “isn’t it…” Then she was silent.
Rob had stopped snoring in the night. And he had stopped breathing, too, she realised. She put her hand on his arm. It was startlingly cold.
“Oh Rob,” she said, and sat quietly, holding his arm, crying a little. Then she turned back to the beautiful landscape. Just up ahead was a farmhouse. It didn’t look too far for her to walk. She would do that presently. But not just yet.
“It’s all right, Rob,” she said, with a lump in her throat. “It’s all right. You’ve brought us home.”
by David R Grigg
© Copyright David R Grigg 2013. All rights reserved.
Photo via My Science Academy, creator unknown.
Notes on the story
This story was prompted by two things: a flash fiction challenge by Chuck Wendig based on the choice of a photo, and this news story I read about a year ago about an elderly couple getting lost for hours in similar circumstances (though with a much happier ending than the one here).
Elderly couple’s marathon 20-hour airport trip
By Megan Levy (The Age 29/5/2012)
A DRIVE to the airport turned into a 20-hour Victorian road trip for an elderly Melbourne couple, who sparked a statewide police search after getting lost on their way home.
Ivan and Catherine Fry, aged 86 and 84, reached the far eastern town of Bairnsdale while trying to return to their home in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs after dropping their son at Melbourne Airport on Sunday night.
Of course, as usual I’ve gone well over flash fiction length.