I used to use maps. A big, floppy, ripped road atlas for long journeys and a yellowed, curled up A-Z for short ones. I liked maps. I liked the way they’d put big numbered rectangles over the country to help me find the right page. I liked being made aware of the places of historical interest I might pass along my route. I liked seeing all the other roads I could have taken instead. Maps were great – with two or more people in the car everything ran smoothly: one person drove, one navigated, maybe someone else passed around the Toffos. But when I was on my own, trying to combine Toffo consumption, driving and navigating, maps were less good. I was forced to make little grabs at the flapping pages, to quickly locate the specific knot of roads I needed amidst the larger tangle, to try to translate and memorise this information, only to glance back at the road and see the central reservation fast approaching, leaving just enough time to throw in one last Toffo before impact.
One day Satellite Navigation systems were invented and so I bought one. Finally, I thought, the solo motorist can travel with confidence. Now I had a robot in my car, receiving directions straight from outer space, and speaking them right into my ears. My sat nav had lots of different voices and languages to choose from. I chose Antonio, the Spanish male. I liked the idea of improving my grasp of the Castilian imperative whilst effortlessly gliding along ring roads. One day though my brain decided to remind us all that it was still in the car and chose an alternative route to the one Antonio had suggested. I didn’t take the roundabout as instructed, but Antonio found this hard to accept. He seemed to forget he was a robot. ‘A la redonda’ he kept saying long after it was clear I wasn’t going to the redonda, his tone becoming increasingly shrill. I didn’t like the idea of someone shrill guiding me through the motorway network so I ditched Antonio for Sean.
Sean was the Irish male voice. He was laid back, but confident. Like a good newsreader he exuded warmth and authority. Sean didn’t get upset and emotional as Antonio had. If I chose not to take a roundabout that Sean suggested, he’d work out the alternative route and move on. But sadly the honeymoon couldn’t last forever and soon cracks began to appear in Sean’s calm exterior. The first signs were the silences. Sometimes I’d get in the car, ask Sean the way and he’d just ignore me. The screen would tell me how long it was since I’d ‘lost my signal’ and I’d sit and watch the time get longer and longer before Sean acknowledged my existence. I started to wonder what he was up to while he was keeping me waiting. Was he having his lunch? Enjoying a chat over a sandwich with Antonio?
The next indication that things weren’t quite right came during a trip to London. Despite being stuck in traffic and crawling along, Sean’s directions lagged behind my car. I tried slowing down further so he could catch up, but still he dallied three junctions back – as if he was in someone else’s vehicle following me. I found myself looking in the mirror trying to catch a glimpse. Then from directions that were simply too late, he started giving directions entirely at odds with the surroundings. There was something disturbing about the combination of that reassuring voice and the increasingly fantastical landscape it described – junctions, roundabouts and turnings that only Sean could see.
This is now a regular occurrence. Rogue fragments of language will burst through in the middle of otherwise cogent directions,. Sean tells me there are 10 miles to go until the my turning on the left, then nine miles, then eight miles and then suddenly he barks ‘Turn right in 300 yards’. There is no turning on the right! Not even on Sean’s screen. Afterwards he reverts to the original directions and nothing is said of the episode. I’ve begun to wonder if perhaps Antonio is messing with Sean, attempting to gain vengeance for his own downfall. Or maybe one of the other voices, Australian Ken or American Bonnie, tired of waiting to be chosen, sick of Sean’s spell of influence, whispering words in his ears as he tries to concentrate, confusing him with their malevolent babble.
My parents-in-law have the same sat nav system as me and they too have ended up with Sean. His warm authority is irresistible. Their Sean displays different, but equally unmanageable behaviour. When not in use, they keep Sean switched off and in their wardrobe (mindful, as they tend to be, of the risk of car crime). Late one night my mother-in-law was woken up by what sounded like an intruder. She woke her husband and they lay awake and very still listening for footsteps. They strained their ears and then jumped in unison as a clear, warm but authoritative voice issued from the wardrobe: ‘In 400 yards take the motorway’. This has happened several times since. Sean will not be silenced by the darkness, the wardrobe or the off switch. Where is it that he wants to take my parents-in-law in the middle of the night? Is it the same place he tries to lure me? What is the landscape that he alone sees? Is it the place in which he grew up? Is he like my grandad, who late in life, suffering with dementia, would trek across Birmingham with his suitcase full of money, sure that he was on his way back to the Christian Brothers in Enniscorthy? What would we find if we followed Sean’s instructions? Maybe a small boy playing with a stick in a field as unaware as the cows around him of his destiny.
Commissioned by The Verb on BBC Radio 3, February 2011