Travis swung the oversized steering wheel of his pride and joy; a seventy-year-old Jaguar Mark IV saloon took the loose gravel with ease. Ahead on the narrow winding road was yet another tight corner. He glanced out at the scene to his left. The hillside sloped down a steep valley of native bush to a steam barely visible in the valley below. Ahead, mountain peaks with summer snow still in the shady sections, poked out of the blue sky.
If it wasn’t so late in the afternoon and the annoying situation they were in, he would have stopped to admire the view.
“We have definitely made the wrong turn.” The young woman beside him swished a strand of blonde hair out of her eyes. “I knew we should have made that turn fifteen kilometres back.” She held up the map on her lap and switched her eyes back to the road. “Slip ahead!”
Her voice rose a little but Travis had already braked. A small mudslide of dirt and foliage covered half the road.
“It’s not too bad Jacey,” he said. “We won’t need the spade again.”
Fifteen minutes earlier they had had to shovel debris aside to give them room to squeeze through a gap between a cliff face to the left and an almost vertical drop on the outside. This cross-country orienteering drive for vintage vehicles was proving to be more difficult than he had planned. He grinned to himself as he changed down to low gear and cursed the lack of power steering as he edged the heavy car around the slip.
Jacey pouted as they increased speed a little on a small straight section beyond the slip. “Travis Crichton, why are you grinning? You have to admit that the only thing we’ll get out of this contest is the wooden spoon. What’s the bet this is a dead end road and we’ll have to go all the way back. It’ll be midnight before we reach the highway again.”
“And who is the navigator Miss Roden?” he replied, imitating the voice of one of her pupils at the local school where she was an assistant principal.
Jacey grinned. “Okay, but none of the side roads we passed are on the map. We just kept going as per the instructions and here we are.” She sighed. “At least this Jag hasn’t broken down or crashed.”
Travis nodded. Earlier, they had passed two stranded cars in the rally, one had a steaming radiator and the second was stuck in a ditch. After stopping to see that the occupants weren’t hurt, they had continued on. That was almost three hours ago and the last rally car they’d seen was a cloud of dust in their rear vision mirror about fifteen minutes later.
As they continued up another steep climb, Travis thought back to the two most important things in his life. He had bought the Jaguar three years earlier from Jacey’s grandfather and had spent most of his spare time since in his garage, renovating it. It had taken longer and cost more than he had ever imagined but it now seemed all worthwhile. In the first rally entered he had got nowhere but received a ‘commended’ ribbon for the authenticity and condition of his restored vehicle. More interesting was the offer he that had been made to him by a Japanese investor. It more than doubled the price he had originally paid and even with the money he had used in the renovations, he would have made a great profit. He had though, turned the offer down.
The second and probably more important part of his life was the young woman beside him. Jacey was eight years younger than himself but had filled the gap in his life after an acrimonious separation and later divorce from his wife. He knew their friendship over three years had grown into something more since meeting at the university where they both were studying for post-graduate degrees. She had succeeded but he’d dropped out. An MA wasn’t really necessary for his small electronic business but hers had helped for her to win a high position at a sort after intermediate school in one of the top suburbs in town.
“Watch out, Travis,” Jacey screamed. “Can’t you keep your eyes on the road?”
He braked and skidded in the loose gravel on the sudden corner but again the old vehicle responded well and they were never in any real danger. They reached the top of a saddle and ahead he could see the road winding down into a fog-covered valley below.
“We must be going somewhere,” he muttered. “I know most of these roads circle back to the main road.”
“You hope!” Jacey retorted, caught his eyes and broke into a smile. “Okay, I’m glad you persuaded me to come rather than attend that dreary teachers’ course. The Board of Trustees chairman isn’t going to like it, though.”
The BOT chairman was in his mid sixties and had grandchildren at the Wakefield Avenue School where she was the principal. The rumour was that he had no other interests and would probably die in the job wasn’t far off the truth. However, he was still respected and modern enough to only mumble about but not hinder paying for new technology that modern schools needed.
“Travis!” she interrupted. “Stop day dreaming and keep your eyes on the road.”
“Sorry,” he muttered. “Just thinking.”
“About the car?”
Travis switched his eyes to her. “No, you,” he whispered.
She flushed a little and looked away. “Yeah, okay but concentrate on the road will you?”
“Of course, Miss Roden,” he laughed as he swung the car around one more tight bend in the road.
Ten minutes later they were in a belt of thick fog. Travis slowed and admired the fog lights that he was using for the first time. They cut a low beam across the road ahead whereas the headlights just reflected back and dazzled him. He edged the Jaguar forward and heaved a sigh of relief when they drove out into evening sunshine and a wider road ahead. A few moments later they arrived at a T-junction.
“Which way?” he asked.
Jacey frowned. “Nothing is on the map and there’s no reception so I can’t find maps on my iPhone.” She glanced up. “I’d say take the road to the left. It looks wider than the right hand one.”
“I agree.” Travis looked to the left. “Funny that there was no road sign. Usually, even on these backcountry roads they have them at the intersections.”
“Probably fell down years ago and locals know where to go,” Jacey replied.
Ahead, the gravel stopped and they drove onto a, still narrow but sealed road. It curved around the base of the valley with farmland around. Moments later they passed an ancient truck coming in the opposite direction but there was no problem for the road was now wide enough for two vehicles. The driver of the other vehicle gave them a wave as the truck drove by.
Travis waved back and grinned when they passed an old but well maintained farmhouse and power and telephone poles appeared along the roadside. “Civilisation!” he chuckled.
Five minutes later the road become still wider and a county store appeared. It was ancient building with a front veranda. A sign on the top was plastered with a Coca-cola add and the words Valley Store. On the footpath at the front were two ancient Shell gas pumps while further along the road verge was covered in thick clover plants that were beginning to flower. No other vehicles or people were around.
“Good,” Travis said. “I think I’ll stop for some gas. We’ve probably got enough to get back but it pays to be careful.”
“Probably!” Jacey retorted and leaned over to glance at the fuel gauge that hovered just under the quarter mark.
“There’s a jerry-can full at the back,” Travis said. “It’ll probably cost like gold out here but we’ll get some anyhow.”
“Definitely,” Jacey replied.
They pulled into the kerb by the pumps and both got out. The shop looked deserted and Travis was about to reach for the pump handle when an elderly man wandered out.
“Gidday to you folk,” he said. “Don’t see many outsiders here this late in the afternoon. I like the flash new car. You from the government, I guess?”
Travis grinned. Flash new car! The old guy had a sense of humour, “Can you full us up, please?” he asked.
The old guy tugged on his unshaven chin. “Don’t rightly know. Got your ration coupons?”
Ration coupons? Okay, he was having them on but it was becoming somewhat annoying.
A hand grabbed his arm and he glanced down at Jacey beside him. “Have you still got Grandad’s logbook in the Jag?”
Travis nodded. “Yes. It’s in the pocket on your side. Why?”
Jacey looked serious. She opened the passenger door and, a moment later produced an old leather bound folder that she opened. From one side she produced an old booklet, opened it and unfolded a page of stamps.
They weren’t stamps though but numbered coupons with an official looking government blue circle and writing on them.
The old guy’s eyes lit up, “You must be important officials to have that many or did you get them on the black market?”
“How many do you need?” Jacey asked.
“Depends on how much gas you want.” He glanced at Travis. “Fill her up, you said?”
Travis nodded and watched while the old pump dial lever swung around and made a ding just before it pointed to the twelve o’clock position. He frowned for he realised that it was registering gallons, not litres that had been used his entire life. He mentally shrugged. No doubt the old guy had some conversion table inside.
A few moments later the tank was full, the man ripped off eight ration coupons and grinned. “Come in,” he said. “The good wife and me were having a cuppa tea when you good folk came along. Want one on the house?”
“We’d love one thank you… err …” Jacey replied.
“Tom. Everyone calls me Tom in the valley.” The old man grinned. “Old Tom usually, but I prefer just Tom.”
“Hi Tom,” Jacey said and held out her hand. “I’m Jacey and this is Travis.”
Tom looked almost embarrassed as he shook Jacey’s hand but gripped his own with a powerful grip. They followed him into a museum type store with stuff everywhere and a long counter across the back. Tom led them through a rear door and into a surprisingly comfortable looking living area. A chubby woman at a sink turned, wiped her hands on a frilly apron and smiled.
“This is Mavis, me wife. Mavis, meet Travis and Jacey, two government inspectors from the city. Did yah see their car?”
“Most impressive,” Mavis replied after she shook both their hands. “But why did you come in from the upper valley?”
“We came over the hill,” Travis replied.
“The top saddle?” Tom raised his eyebrows. “You were lost weren’t you?”
“A bit,” Jacey acknowledged.
“It was closed last winter with a massive wash-out. I thought the county council weren’t going to bother reopening South Road.” He shrugged, “Looks like they did. Us locals are always the last to find out about what’s happening.”
Travis frowned. County councils had been abolished and replaced over thirty years before. Everything was now district councils! This was the second strange thing. He was about to reach in his pocket for his credit card to pay the bill when he again felt his arm being squeezed; Jacey caught his eyes and lifted her eyebrows a little.
“I’ll pay, Travis,” she said. “I need a few groceries and perhaps one of the bags over there.” She nodded at a row of colourful cloth bags hanging from a hook.
“They’re good value,” Mavis said. “One of the valley ladies makes them herself. We sell quite a few to outsiders.”
“Thanks,” Jacey said. She selected some grocery items from the shelf behind the counter, added a small box of chocolates and produced some money from her purse to pay Tom.
“Whoa there! That’s way too much,” he said, took less than half that held out and handed her some change. “We aren’t that much dearer than the city, you know?’
“Sorry,” Jacey replied.
“So how about that cuppa?” Mavis cut in as she held up a steaming teapot. “Do you have sugar and milk?”
The elderly couple chattered away about the weather and other nondescript items that strangers have in common as Travis sipped his tea and bit into a newly baked bun. He noticed that Jacey looked quite pale and was unusually quiet. Usually she was the chatty one with strangers and he’d follow on. Neither of them mentioned the rally or their trip there. Travis wondered why his partner was so coy but decided to follow her lead and say little. The two shopkeepers did most of the talking and he added a few words here to keep the conversation going.
“Well we must be off,” Jacey said a few moments later. “Thanks for the afternoon tea. It was lovely.”
“No problem,” Mavis said. “On a weekday the locals drop in after the mail van arrives and I usually have two or three having a cuppa. In the weekend, though we are usually by ourselves. I told Tom we should shut at noon on Saturday and Sunday but he insists on staying open.”
“We’re here for more than just the profit, Mavis,” Tom replied.
The pair walked out with them, admired the car again and were seen waving in the rear vision mirror as they drove off.
“What’s with you?” Travis asked. “And don’t tell me nothing. Why did you want me to clam up about the rally? Also, you look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
Jacey glanced across at him and her chin quivered. “Perhaps we have,” she whispered,
Travis frowned. “Something’s seriously wrong isn’t it?”
Jacey nodded. They were travelling past a line of old but well kept houses with cut lawns and well tended gardens. To the right was a building that looked like a pub, another closed shop and a tiny church.
“Is the garage out of sight?” Jacey asked.
“Good, now ahead is an intersection. Turn left, the next left and about a kilometre along a final left.”
“So we end up where we started?”
Jacey nodded. “We’re avoiding the garage and going back the way we came in. I don’t want that Tom and Mavis to know we’re going back up the valley.”
Travis slowed as the intersection came into view but nodded at the well formed sealed road that went straight ahead. “But why? There’s obviously a better road out of here.”
“Bear with me, please,” Jacey now looked almost frightened.
He changed down and turned left. This crossroad also had a sprinkling of houses on each side. A man mowing his lawn out the front of one house waved and a couple of children who were pushing a homemade cart stood and just stared as they drove by.
Moments later they made all the other left turns and now turned right and reached the gravel road beyond the village. It was only when they began ascending the windy road that Jacey relaxed a little,
“We’ll reach another belt of fog soon. Don’t stop but use our fog lights again.”
Again Travis frowned. It was now after eight but in mid-summer there was still an hour or so of daylight but the sun had disappeared beyond the western hills. There was not even the slightest sign of any fog.
That was until he drove the car around another tight bend, Ahead was a blanket of fog that, if anything looked thicker than the one they’d come through on the way in.
“How did you know?” he gasped as he slowed to a crawl and switched on the fog lights.
“Just keep going. Don’t stop!”
The fog swirled around but the fog lights gave enough light for him to be able to drive up the centre of the road and navigate two more S-type bends, The temperature dropped so quickly he reached across and turned on the heater; these old cars were designed well before air-conditioning was in vogue. The whine of the fan heater jolted him out of a lethargic feeling that he realised was overcoming him. He glanced at Jacey who was holding onto the dashboard so tightly her knuckles were white and appearing to keep her eyes open.
Suddenly they were out of the fog, a ray of sunlight shone though a gap in the hills and Jacey burst into shuddering tears. “We made it!” she cried and turned to him with tears running down her cheeks. “Thank you for trusting me. It’s okay now. We’re back!”
“From where?” Travis asked.