|Posted on December 13, 2010 at 6:40 PM|
The Car Park
Pauline Jarvis, her shopping trolley full of tins, bottles and packets, joined the checkout queue and waited. It was going to be a long wait too. There were half a dozen people in front of her, each of them pushing a fully laden trolley. At the end of the line, a harassed-looking checkout girl sat, adding up purchases on a new-fangled computer terminal. Pauline puffed, and cursed her bad luck, as she did in the same store at the same time every Friday afternoon.
She was thirty-five, a housewife with two kids, and proud of it. Pauline didn’t have any sympathies for the modern liberated women of today. They had their problems – sure they did, it was hard for a woman on her own in a man’s world – but most of them were of their own making. Emancipated women were selfish women and Pauline had no time for them.
The lady at the front of the queue moved away and the line shunted forward.
Pauline was happy with her life. Her husband, Walter, a successful, well-established banker, was kind and gentle. Their two children, a handsome boy named Alex (whose only fault was his shyness), and Sam (short for Samantha), a toy-boy girl, were a constant source of joy and surprise. No, she wouldn’t swap her lot with anybody.
The queue shunted forward again.
She didn’t mind the cooking or the washing or the cleaning; in fact, she rather enjoyed doing them. The only chore she did detest was the shopping. It wasn’t the actual shopping itself, she minded, but the constant pushing and barging of the crowds, the hassle of trying to find a parking space (particularly now the supermarket had extended and the extension had been built on top of at least thirty car parking spaces), and the waiting in queues.
Especially the waiting.
At last Pauline reached the checkout till and smiled with relief. The checkout girl looked back blankly and began scanning barcodes and totting up her purchases. If she smiled, thought Pauline, her face would crack.
“Ninety-five-pounds-sixty-five,” the girl announced machine-gun style.
“I beg your pardon?” Pauline said, flummoxed. She hadn’t caught any of that.
“Ninety-five-sixty-five,” the girl repeated, even faster this time.
Pauline frowned, glanced at the computer screen, read the price, and passed the girl five twenty pound notes. It was a pressure job, but there was no need for that attitude. The girl seemed to take an age counting out her change. Pauline was able to pack everything into her environmentally friendly bags while she waited. Eventually the girl – who was noisily chewing gum, now – dropped the coins into Pauline’s hand and began serving the next customer before she had a chance to check her change.
Pauline pushed the trolley – containing all her neatly packed shopping – out of the supermarket and into the sunshine, vowing that she would never go there again. It was a token gesture: the store had the cheapest prices in town and its own car park.
The car park was full, as always. All the spaces were taken and more cars were weaving up and down the aisles hoping to find an empty slot. It was a hopeless situation.
Earlier Pauline had spent a good twenty minutes trying to park. In the end she had had to park at the far side of the car park, furthest away from the supermarket, front bumper nuzzling up against the brick wall that separated the car park from the main road, right next to the path that led towards the bus stop. She hoped the car didn’t get scratched by the pensioners and youths who regularly used that path as the last thing she needed was a confrontation with Walter when she got home. Walter was ultra-obsessive when it came to their cars – his pride and joy (which he drove to work and back) and her run-around.
All in all that meant a long walk. Still, any parking space was better than none these days.
Goodness only knew why they wanted to make the supermarket bigger whilst removing a fair chunk of parking spaces at the same time. A bigger shop, more shoppers, and less car parking spaces; sounded to Pauline like the logic of a University graduate with no experience of life.
It was a gorgeous late autumn day, just like summer. There was no breeze and the warm air made Pauline feel good again. The sun beat down, reflecting off windscreens in a kaleidoscope of colour. The frustrations of the checkout queue were almost forgotten – almost, but not quite.
Her car, a dark blue Vauxhall Vectra, stood exactly where she’d left it – always a relief that it hadn’t been stolen. She hurried the last few yards, pushing the shopping trolley up the slight incline. It would be a great relief to put her bags in the boot, fight her way out of the car park, and get home for a well deserved cup of tea.
She manoeuvred the trolley behind her car, adjusting its position until the wheels stopped wanting to roll it away, and fumbled in her coat pocket for the keys. It was only when she bent down to open the boot that she noticed something was wrong.
Someone was sitting in the passenger seat.
Her first thought was that she’d somehow lost track and returned to the wrong car by mistake. It was the right colour, but there were a lot of dark blue cars about. Next, she checked the name on the edge of the boot (unlike her husband Walter, Pauline had never been any good at recognising different makes of car) – Vauxhall Vectra. That was correct.
For the final test she stepped back a pace and read the registration plate. That was right too.
It was her car.
Someone was sitting inside her car.
Pauline stormed round to the passenger side and yanked the door open. In her urgency, she nearly hit the car parked alongside.
The old woman inside didn’t stir. She just sat there: head bowed, hands clasped together in her lap clutching a handbag. The old lady appeared to be sleeping.
“What do you think you’re doing?” Pauline demanded.
There was no movement. The old woman was either asleep or deaf. Probably both.
“Excuse me.” Still no movement. The thought occurred to Pauline that the old lady might be dead. How would she explain that one away? An old lady who she didn’t know, dead in the passenger seat of her car. She didn’t even know how the old woman had got inside.
“Excuse me,” she said again, reaching over and prodding the pensioner.
This time the old woman flinched. Her head jerked from side to side, then lifted. The hands loosened their grip on the handbag, as the left one went to stifle a yawn. At first the old lady peered straight ahead, strange surroundings registering Pauline supposed, but then the pensioner’s head dropped once more.
Pauline shook her head and glowered.
She bent right over the old woman this time and hollered down her ear, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
The effect was amazing. The pensioner literally jumped out of the seat, nearly hitting her head on the roof. When she came down she was shaking uncontrollably.
Pauline asked what she was doing again.
“Where am I?” the old woman said in a voice that sounded both tired and weary. The pensioner looked around her, clearly disorientated. “Where am I?”
“You’re in my car,” Pauline said.
The old woman, still trembling, stopped looking around and faced Pauline. “I’m sorry. I must’ve dozed off.”
“That’s as may be,” Pauline said. “But what are you doing in my car?”
The old face seemed to screw up before Pauline’s eyes, wrinkles giving out to move wrinkles.
The woman looked puzzled. Senility, Alzheimer’s, Pauline wondered.
“Don’t tell me you can’t remember,” Pauline said.
“Oh, I can remember. Give me a moment.”
Pauline gave her a moment. “Well?”
“Well what?” the old woman said.
“What are you doing in my car?” Pauline bellowed. She was getting angry now. “That’s what!”
“I’m sorry,” the old woman whispered. The voice was hushed and slow. Pauline had to lean forward and strain her ears to hear what was being said.
“I was walking towards the Bus stop over there.” The old woman pointed beyond the brick wall towards the bus shelter with a shaking index finger. “I was heading towards the Bus stop when I came over all faint. I’m eighty-nine, you know, and not as fit as a spring chicken any more. It’s such a hot day, as well.” The old woman tugged at the collar of her coat for effect. “Such a hot day, humid and sticky. I was passing your car when I came over all faint. I felt flushed and could hardly breathe.
“I’m not clear what happened then; everything started to spin. I think, perhaps … now what do they call it these days? I think I may have … blackout, that’s it … I think I may have had a blackout. My old legs gave way, I’m eighty-nine, you know, and no spring chicken any more, and I fell against your car door. My hand caught the handle – you’d left it unlocked, you shouldn’t do that really, you know – it’s dangerous these days – any way, I was feeling weak so I opened the door, and sat myself down for a rest. I must’ve dozed off, you know, because the next thing I remember was just now when you woke me up.”
“Oh,” Pauline said, as if the old woman had explained everything. She understood how the heat of the sun could make the pensioner faint and in her understanding she could sympathise. It had happened to her once. She had been younger then, much younger; in fact, now that she thought about it, she had still been at school. It had been during a long summer drought and the sun had simply scorched. Pauline had been playing soft ball, fielding in the outfield. The ball was given an almighty wallop, and it was coming towards her, high but catchable. She had looked up, directly into the sun, losing the ball in a dazzling brightness. Pauline could still remember the sense of drowsiness, the feeling of nausea that had crept over her that day and, of course, the blackout. Yes, it must have happened how the old dear described it.
Yet a part of her mind wasn’t satisfied. The story had a kind of logic to it, despite the old woman’s ramblings, but it also contained a number of inconsistencies.
Pauline thought for a moment. She had never left the car unlocked before. Pauline could remember walking around the car checking the doors and the boot were locked, but was she remembering actually doing that earlier today or was she just remembering a generality because she habitually did that?
She always made certain everything was locked though: Walter, cautious to the last – possibly even an obsessive compulsive – had drilled that good sense into her. It had been a busy day, but Pauline was convinced the passenger door had been locked.
Pauline sympathised with the old woman but the flaws in the story, and the pangs of doubt in her own mind, far outweighed the sympathy.
“I’m afraid you’ll have to get out now.”
“All right.” The old woman nodded. “Just let me get my breath back first.”
Pauline returned to the rear of the car, opened the boot, and put her environmentally friendly bags inside. The old woman hadn’t moved, and continued to sit there motionless even when Pauline slammed the boot as hard and as loud as she could.
Shaking her head in disbelief, Pauline pushed her shopping trolley to the trolley bay, added it to the end of the line, and reclaimed her pound coin.
A rusty white van was coming down the aisle towards her. She let it pass by, losing sight of her own car temporarily.
There was no sign of the old woman as Pauline walked briskly back to her car. For a moment Pauline dared to hope that the old woman had already got out and was making her way towards the Bus stop but, as she drew closer, she saw the old woman was still sitting in the passenger seat.
Pauline opened the driver’s door and climbed inside.
The old woman still showed no signs of moving.
“Excuse me,” Pauline said, a little embarrassed. “Would you mind getting out please? I need to be going now.”
“Have you got far to go?” the old woman asked, shifting slightly in the seat.
“No,” Pauline said, frustrated at the old woman’s reluctance to leave.
“You live locally then?”
“Yes,” Pauline said, feeling a growing apprehension about this conversation.
“Perhaps you’d be so kind as to give me a lift home, if it isn’t too much trouble?”
Pauline looked across at the old woman, who had shifted position on the seat so that she now faced her. The wrinkled face smiled benignly, the woman’s watery eyes were warm and friendly. Pauline could imagine the old woman as the grandma she undoubtedly was, sitting with her grandchildren in rapt attention, telling them all about the ‘good old days’ of rationing and bombing and hiding under the stairs. It was funny how grandparent’s stories – especially granny’s stories – always seemed to revolve around the war. Perhaps, for those of them who had been kids back then, it really had been the best time of their lives.
The old woman was still smiling warmly and Pauline found herself smiling too. She could see no reason why she shouldn’t give this charming old dear a lift. So, why was she hesitating?
Pauline remembered her promise to Alex this morning that she would be there to pick him up from school. He was only seven and was having a particularly rough time right now. Alex had only recently started at Bent Ash Junior and, being a shy boy, was finding it extremely difficult to make new friends. Usually his ten year old sister Sam would take care of him and walk him home, but today Sam was going straight to Mandy’s birthday party. Pauline had promised Alex she would pick him up after school and it was a promise she intended to keep.
Pauline glanced at the dashboard clock.
There was plenty of time to take the old woman home, without any worry about being late picking Alex up; but still she hesitated.
“I’d really appreciate it,” the old woman said.
That amiable stare again: old eyes penetrating Pauline, delving inside. It felt weird, but it was also soothing.
What harm could a short detour do?
“Of course you can,” Pauline heard herself say. After all, she was only an old woman. Alex’s Cub Scout leader – Akela to Alex, Janet to her – was always telling him to do a good turn every day. The example Akela always used, that Alex often quoted, was helping old ladies across the road. Well this was going to be Pauline’s good deed for the day. Imagine Alex’s surprise when she told him that Mum had helped an old lady today.
The old woman smiled again and thanked Pauline. Chapped lips pulled back, revealing a gap in the middle of her bottom teeth. Pauline nearly laughed and found herself smiling too; her own mother had a tooth missing in exactly the same place.
“Where do you live?” Pauline asked.
The old woman pondered this question for a moment and then said, “Main Street, Alfchurch. Do you know it?”
“Yes,” Pauline replied. Alfchurch was a small rural hamlet about four miles from town. It was slightly out of her way, but not drastically so. “Shall we go?”
The old woman nodded.
“Let me help you,” Pauline said and reached over to fasten the old woman’s seat belt and that was when the smell first hit her nostrils. The foul odour – a mixture of nicotine, meths, and stale air.
Why hadn’t she noticed the old woman’s bad breath before?
Pauline held her breath and jabbed for the belt, eager to get the business in hand over and done with.
“No!” snapped the old woman. “I can do it myself.”
Pauline recoiled. She was relieved to be away from the bad breath, but more than a little stunned by the fierceness of the old woman’s rebuke.
The old woman fastened the seat belt with surprising ease. The smooth, efficient movements –
(I’m eighty-nine, you know)
– showed no sign of arthritis or old age.
Pauline had had enough now. She opened her mouth and screamed hysterically, GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT! but no words escaped her trembling lips. The old woman’s stare, demanding, threatening, held her in check. Pauline got the feeling that those eyes were penetrating her, not looking through her but deep inside her soul. She –
(is just an old woman)
– began to feel threatened.
The old woman looked away and the feeling was gone.
“I’m sorry,” the old woman said. “I didn’t mean to snap at you like that. I may be eighty-nine but I didn’t want you to think I was completely helpless.”
The apology was followed by that stare again, calming, soothing, and that smile – her mother’s smile.
“That’s all right,” Pauline heard herself saying. “I quite understand.”
After fixing her own seat belt, Pauline checked the rear view mirror – all clear – and pushed the gear stick into reverse.
Suddenly, as she was about to pull away, the pangs of doubt returned, niggling inside her head.
Walter had often warned her not to give a lift to strangers; but her husband had meant hitchhikers – especially male hitchhikers – not little old ladies. She –
(is just an old woman)
– tried to shake the doubts from her head, but they wouldn’t be shaken.
The reflection of a green estate car appeared in the rear view mirror. Pauline knocked the gear stick back into neutral and let the vehicle pass. She was surprised to find her hand was trembling.
Pauline tried to think of other things, hoping to banish her mounting suspicion, but her mind kept straying back to Walter. He was far too careful and over cautious for his own good sometimes. Pauline felt the frustration and embarrassment she always felt when Walter parked the car return. Walter didn’t trust the new-fangled key fob electronics and insisted on locking the car the old fashioned way. He would climb out – Walter always drove when they were both in the car – and lock the door, rattling the handle half a dozen times to make sure it was secured. Then he would go to the boot, place both palms flat on the lid, and bounce the car up and down on its suspension, up and down, making sure it wouldn’t come open. Next he would go to the passenger door, jiggling the handle a number of times – and woe-be-tide Pauline if she was the passenger and hadn’t locked it – but that wasn’t all, oh no, Walter was nothing if not meticulous. Her husband still wouldn’t be satisfied; he would walk around the car one more time for good measure, bouncing the boot, rattling the door handles, while Pauline cringed with embarrassment. She –
(is just an old woman)
– was nowhere near as careful herself, but she had checked all the doors were locked before leaving the car earlier. She was certain of it – well, all right then, maybe if pressed by a barrister in a court of law she was not quite a hundred per cent certain – but sure enough. The doors had all been locked.
How had the old woman got inside?
Pauline checked the rear view mirror again. Nothing was coming; but Pauline was reluctant to jostle the gear stick out of neutral. Her doubts had increased considerably. Only it was more than doubt now. It had gone beyond worry and concern. It was almost –
– trepidation. In the past, Pauline had considered Walter’s caution to be bordering on – madness – obsessive compulsive disorder but now she reassessed that thinking. Could you ever be too careful? Now, for the first time in her life, Pauline thought not.
Old ladies don’t pick locks.
Pauline surprised herself. She –
(is just an old woman)
– could feel the panic bursting inside her. A scream was roaring out of her churning stomach and charging up her throat like a freight train, but then the train emerged from the darkness of the tunnel and she found the courage to suppress her urges and stay relatively calm and relaxed.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Pauline said, without the slightest tremor in her voice, but I always have trouble reversing. Would you mind getting out and making sure I don’t hit anything?”
The old woman simply stared at her, saying nothing.
“Please,” Pauline stressed in her best little-girl-lost voice, the one that always won her own mother over, even now.
The old woman nodded reluctantly and unfastened the seat belt with that surprisingly smooth and efficient movement of hands and fingers again. The old woman stepped outside and slammed the door firmly.
Pauline reacted quickly. No sooner had the door closed than she jabbed a button on the dashboard and listened as the doors automatically locked. Glancing to her right she made sure the catch on the passenger door was down and then she wrenched the gear stick into reverse, slammed down on the accelerator. The car leapt backwards. Pauline turned the steering wheel hard and the Vectra’s front end swung into the car parked alongside. She didn’t let up though. Metal screeched against metal as the car continued its backward journey. Hearing a crunching noise, as a vehicle behind was hit, Pauline braked hard.
If she’d looked up, Pauline would have seen the old woman running like a spring chicken towards the bonnet, arms waving, screaming obscenities, but she was far too busy to look up.
Pauline engaged first gear and pressed the accelerator to the floor. There was a grinding noise, as the bumper was torn off the car behind and dragged along.
The old woman stood her ground in front of the car.
Pauline kept her foot to the floor.
Pauline thought she –
(is just an old woman)
– was going to hit the old duffer, but at the last moment the old woman dived to one side, narrowly avoiding the car, and rolled over. Staring straight ahead, Pauline didn’t see the old woman stagger to her feet and shake a fist.
Pauline braked a little but kept driving. Only when she was about to pull out of the car park did she risk a glance in the rear view mirror. She thought she saw the old woman – if that was what she really was? – open a car door and climb inside.
But she couldn’t be sure.
Shaking uncontrollably, it was a wonder Pauline could drive at all, but she could. She drove for about twenty minutes before the shakes finally subsided and by then she was on the dual carriageway with no recollection of how she’d got there.
Only then did she glance down at the speedometer. Surprised to find the needle at ninety, Pauline stepped on the brake far harder than she’d intended, and her speed reduced dramatically.
The sudden deceleration caused something to slide out from underneath the passenger seat.
Pauline looked over and gasped.
Underneath the passenger seat, sliding into view, was a carving knife and a coil of rope.