by Jenny Palmer
a pale ale
I was driving home from my writing class when it first happened. We had started the class with a warm-up exercise to write something pertaining to the night. I tried to let my imagination go, but I found it hard to come up with anything at all. I put it down to my upbringing and what my mother had drummed into us as kids.
‘You must always tell the truth,’ she’d said. ‘If there one thing I can’t abide, it’s people who tell lies.’ She could have spared her breath. I couldn’t tell lies to save my skin, not even white lies.
I managed to conjure up an image of trees, looming out of the mist, their branches stretching out like arms, but I couldn’t shape it into anything like a poem, and I soon gave up in despair. The truth was I couldn’t write to order. My writing had to grow out of me organically and that usually happened when I was alone at home and preferably in the morning before the day’s events had seeped into my mind.
During the second half of the class, we gave each other feedback on each other's writing. The evening was often capped off with a trip to the pub where we continued the discussion informally over a drink or two. It was a convivial evening, and no one wanted to break it up. So, it was almost midnight when I finally left the pub.
I enjoy driving at night. There’s a sense of liberation about being out late when everyone else is tucked up in bed. And it’s easier because there is virtually no traffic on rural roads, and you don’t have to contend with the glare of those dratted LED headlights. For the last two and a half miles it’s a single-track road but at night you can see cars coming towards you and anyway, I know all the passing places.
There was a full moon up ahead lighting the way like a lantern. I was feeling in good spirits. The pubs conversations were still running through my head when I became aware of a presence in the back of the car. It wasn’t a threatening presence or anything, just a feeling that there was someone there, looking over my shoulder. My first impulse was to turn my head, but I needed to keep my eyes on the road. I glanced in mirror, but I could see nothing.
I had just reached the top of Stubbins, the steep hill that leads down to the old mill lodge. For a hundred years there was a cotton mill there and it was a hive of activity, with mill workers going back and forth from neighbouring houses to work. But there was a terrible fire in 1882, and the mill was gutted, along with six attached cottages. Overnight the mill workers were homeless and out of work at the same time and had to move elsewhere in search of work.
All the industrial activity had ceased, and the place had become deserted and overgrown. The area was a favourite haunt for ramblers, who were fond of exploring out-of-the-way places. They thronged there in spring when the wildflowers were coming into bloom and the birds were nesting. In winter there isn’t much sign of life, just a few crows strutting around the fields and blackbirds flitting about in the hedgerows.
At the bottom of Stubbins, the road is hazardous. It narrows as it winds around the side of the lodge. When it rains, water leaks out of the lodge and runs down the side of the road forming a puddle, which you must drive through in first gear as there is a blind corner. I was slowing down in preparation for this, when I heard a voice coming from the back of the car.
‘Stop,’ it shouted. ‘For God sake, stop.’
I slammed on the brakes. Just at that moment a beast appeared out of nowhere, leapt across the road right in front of me and disappeared over the hedge. It took me a while to collect myself. I had been lucky. It was a fully-grown stag. Had it landed on my bonnet, it could have killed itself or me. I was really shaken up and was just glad to get home in one piece.
It happened a few times again after that. First the presence, then the voice. A man’s voice. A bit rough and ready. Middle-aged, I’d say. It was always in the same place, just as I was approaching that bend. In the end, I came to expect him. I called him my backseat driver. Sometimes he seemed to get very agitated.
‘Slow down, you idiot,’ he shouted.
‘Enough of your talk.’ I said, answering back. ‘Don’t you think I know what I’m doing?’
One time he called me a blithering idiot. It was all getting too much.
‘Enough’ I said in exasperation. ‘Reveal yourself, why don’t you?’
But he never did.
Some years later, I was doing some local history research when I came across a snippet of news in the online newspaper archive.
The Preston Guardian, 1855.
On the afternoon of Saturday last John Walmsley of Downham was driving a cart loaded with coal, he being at the time riding along the road at Twiston – from which he fell almightily upon his head. When found he was insensible and died shortly after. The inquest was held at the George and Dragon in Downham where the verdict of ‘accidental death’ was returned.
Questions started running through my head. What had caused this man’s accident? His cart was laden with coal, so it could hardly have overturned. Had he been drinking? Had there been foul play? Something must have spooked his horse. A stag, perhaps, like the one that had jumped out in front of me. It had shocked him, and the horse had bolted, causing him to fall to a premature death.
That was why he had started accompanying me. It was an act of charity. He wanted to warn me of the dangers. It had happened to him in that very spot. It could happen to me. He just wanted to prevent me suffering the same fate as him. It all made perfect sense.
What I didn’t understand, though, was why, some years later, my backseat driver took it upon himself to accompany me home and show up every night just as I was about to fall sleep.
 Lodge = reservoir serving the mill