The case of the phantom cars on the B1249

Every four to six weeks my two girls and I travel up north to visit my parents in Scarborough, a seaside town located 250 miles or so from London. No matter what time of day I set off, I’m blighted by one or more of the following: traffic jams, speed restrictions, a puking child, or a child complaining that a body part hurts (usually her neck). On the way back from the last trip I was hit by torrential rain, my younger daughter (once upon a time, the personification of calm) screamed for two hours before vomiting as we reached the outskirts of London. Crawling through the capital in a car stinking of sick, fully aware that my Better Half was at a work dinner, I called him up to, let’s just say, let off steam.

“What do you want me to do?” he said.

“Clean the car when you get home,” I replied.

This time I decided to leave later in the evening, knowing that both children would be knackered and would fall asleep as soon as I rolled out of Marylebone. It also meant avoiding a loo stop at a service station reeking of fries and Kentucky Fried Chicken.

That was the only good thing about the trip.

It rarely crosses my mind that as a woman travelling on my own with two small children, I’m particularly vulnerable. Most of the journey follows three major motorways and then picturesque rural lanes for the last fifty miles. While it sounds lovely, the reality is that this final stretch makes you lose the will to live. Cutting through some of the most beautiful countryside England has to offer, during the day, if stuck behind a tractor or a lorry, you might as well add another hour (or two) to your ETA. At night it’s a different story and so long as you don’t career into a deer or fox, you should be able to motor along, arriving in Scarborough in no time at all.

Picturesque in the sunshine... Not so much at night when covered with fog

Inviting in the sunshine…

Returning to the journey in question: some bright spark at the Highways Agency decided it was a good idea to close two lanes of the motorway for ‘”late night” roadworks. What work this involved I’ve no idea as there were no workmen (or women) repairing whatever it was they were meant to be repairing. Rather than breeze along the M1 and M18, we crawled. Worse, within the first two hours of our road trip, my younger daughter had developed a fever. To add to my woes, my older daughter woke up and started to yell alternately, “I want Papa,” and “My neck weh.” Her propensity to mix German and english and omit words often turns her sentences into something more like the Enigma code. To translate: her neck hurt. If I made it to those country roads with my sanity in check, I’d be just fine.

Except I wasn’t. Having stopped at a deserted petrol station to administer Calpol and massage an apparently sore neck, we ventured deep into the countryside. And into the thickest fog that I have ever experienced. I couldn’t see beyond three metres. Fog lights, full beam, nothing could help me navigate the mist. Forget crawling, we were limping around bends, down dips and hills which appeared out of nowhere. For most of the way, my heart was in my mouth. More disconcerting was the silence all around us, seeping into the car as if the drifting white mass muted any sound. A series of what ifs entered my head: what if my younger daughter threw up, forcing me to stop and clean up her vomit, here, in the middle of nowhere? What if we had an accident? Who would come and help us? What if we broke down and a psychopath came along? My mind raced on: how would I, carrying my two girls, run from a raging psychopath with the shoes I was wearing? Why on earth didn’t I just put on my trainers? It’s not as if anyone would have taken a blind bit of notice and at least I would be able to run in them… The doubts kept coming against a soundtrack of whimpering from my precious cargo at the back.

About twenty miles in, the fog lifted. Apart from a decrepit truck with an engine coughing up lead-infused fumes, no other traffic graced the road. As we drew nearer, the truck slowed down, signalling for me to overtake. Rather than thinking how helpful the driver was, the only thing to enter my mind was whether the driver was a mad axeman or someone, something more sinister. Not daring to look up at the driver’s window I put the pedal to the metal and soon the lorry was no more than a speck in my rear view mirror before eventually disappearing. My heart settled down and I found myself humming a song loved by my older daughter about a fine prize cow. The humming didn’t last long.

As I headed onto the B1249 (and still a good 17 miles away from my parents’ home) the fog rolled in again, more impenetrable than before. In an attempt to stop the what ifs re-entering my mind, I focused on avoiding hitting the voles and rabbits scampering around the road’s edge. But even they resembled little imps with their eyes transformed into something more demonic by the car’s headlights. And although I had my daughters for company, their on-off moaning wasn’t exactly comforting. In truth, I’ve never felt quite alone as I did then.

Yet close to the tiny village of Langtoft, twice I heard the distinct sound of a car engine rumble past me. Here’s the funny thing: No cars physically passed us. There were no other vehicles directly in front or behind. It was just my girls and I in the car, on this solitary road, shrouded in fog. And for the record, what with my precious cargo and the weather, I was so alert, it was like I had downed several double espressos.

The following day (safe and sound at my parents), I relayed this story to three loved ones. My sister’s response was:

“I believe you.” While she sounded sympathetic, I think she was just trying to get me off the phone; placating me was the best approach.

“Amna: don’t be stupid, you imagined it,” said my brother, choking back his hilarity.

Unable to hold back his laughter, my Better Half said, “You’ve got your topic for your next blog.”

He joined us on Saturday and drove us back home that night. As Sod’s Law would have it, the roads and weather were clear, constellations jewelled the night sky; there were no strange noises or sights along the way. We did the trip in three and a half hours – almost record time. What’s more, for the duration of the journey our girls were comatose, until, that is, we pulled up outside our door. Opening her eyes, my three year old said in a croaky voice… Take a guess.

I’m ashamed to admit that I later googled accidents which happened outside the village of Langtoft. In the last four years there have been three fatal accidents on the stretch of road where I heard the sound of the cars passing by me. I prefer to think my ‘research’ is a blatant example of confirmation bias as opposed to a too-close-for-comfort coincidence. Certainly, Max Gissing, my protagonist in The Silent Children, would draw that conclusion; but after the things he experiences, perhaps he wouldn’t be so quick to judge.

Until next time!

Amna

The Silent Children  - Amna K. Boheim