Headlights never shine to where the darkness ends
The story of Henry and Edna

By Herman Labuschagne

12 August 2013, Glentana

 

This story was inspired by an argument that my grandfather and grandmother once had when she also tried to trick him into visiting a relative that he did not wish to see. I specifically wrote this story as a response to the Writing on the Wall discussion at www.goodreads.com where the following short story invitation was posted:

 

"Close your eyes and imagine the sound of screeching breaks , or wheels peeling out and squealing on the pavement. 
P
erhaps this will help: 
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D_lvkc... 
Now take it from there. What image or story line does that sound inspire? maybe its a chase scene, maybe its the fear of a horrid accident about to take place. GO!"

 

My grandfather's 1950 Buick

 

“You still haven’t told me where we’re going, Edna,” he grumbled.

He was leaning forward across the steering wheel as he concentrated hard to see past the low-hanging sun ahead. It was an annoying time to drive. The setting sun made the horizon melt into an amber haze. He did not like sunglasses, but the windshield was sandblasted and now he wished he had a pair.

 

Edna’s eyes brushed the landscape in-between the whooshing of the telegraph poles beside the road. She was wearing horn-rimmed sunglasses with pointed corners which gave her the appearance of a preying mantis.

 

Through the green lenses her world looked different. An endless landscape of rolling grassland. No farms. No features. Not even a windmill or a forgotten sheep. Her father used to say this was virgin country where nothing has changed since a year or so after the great flood.

 

“I told you Henry,” she sighed. “To visit a friend. It’s a surprise.”

For a moment Henry pouted in silence. His lower lip protruded slightly as his mind digested the information.

 

“Are we going to see Harold and Heather?” he asked.

Edna’s gaze did not shift from the side window as she answered absent-mindedly: “No, I told you they’re visiting their children in Estcourt. Edwina had her third baby, remember?”

 

Henry grunted. He was not satisfied, though.

“Is it Mabel Morris, then?” he persisted.

“You don’t pay attention when I speak to you, do you?” Edna replied, sounding mildly annoyed. “Mabel and Aunt Agnes are probably halfway to Southampton now on the Union Castle. If you had paid any attention at all, then you will recall that I have several times told you she asked me to water her ferns every Wednesday while she’s away. You always have to—”

 

Henry gave her no time to finish.

“It’s Albert and whats-her name then,” he pressed, now sounding somewhat agitated himself. “That new young station master who bought McRuly’s place. You know? The who had eyes like a jackal that’s peering through a chicken fence.”

 

At this, Edna turned sharply and shot her husband a reproachful look.

“Now Henry,” she squawked. “Honestly! Albert is a delightful young man. Why must you always see the negative in people? You can see he came from humble origins and he is just trying to find a foothold in life. You know, my mother was right about you in more than one respect. She never liked the demeaning side you had to your character. And she was not the only one who said that. I only wish that—”

 

“Well look Edna!” Henry cut her off. “You dragged me away from my nap and I’m going to miss my hour at the radiogram too. The least you can tell me is who we’re on our way to visit right now? I cannot understand why you always have to be like this. We’ve been married for forty-three years and you have never changed. You’re always trying to tell me what to do, and I? What say do I ever get in any of this? And your mother was a fine one to speak. Wasn’t she the one who also said that if it ever came to—”

 

Henry!” Edna spat as she angrily jerked her head to face him. “If I told you we were going to visit Stanley you never would have agreed. That’s why I didn’t—”

 

At the hearing of the name, Henry suddenly took his eyes off the road to stare at his wife.

Stanley!” he cried. “We’re going to visit Stanley?

His wife did not have to say a word. Her expression confirmed his horror.

 

The next moment the Buick screeched horribly across the road. A long, ugly protest of rubber against the tarmac that caused Helen to grab for the dashboard to avoid hitting it.

 

It took a lot of force to lock the tyres on a heavy car that had no power brakes. Helen’s muffled cry was lost in the grating sound as the car slid sideward and then came to a grinding halt with its nose pointing to an empty spot beyond the telegraph line. Henry’s hand violently jerked the gear lever at beside the steering column into neutral. Behind the car a blue cloud of smoke was slowly dissipating as the V8 engine patiently ticked over.

 

Helen was still trying to see the animal that Henry had swerved for, but he was already reaching for the door handle. Without a word he yanked it open. For a moment the rays of the sun fell into the car, filtered into organ pipes by the pungent smoke that filled the interior. Then he slammed the door shut so hard that the car rocked upon its springs.

 

 

 

Alarmed, Helen turned herself around to see Henry walk past the rear of the car. His figure seemed distorted through the curiously curved rear window. He was obviously going to check the damage to the rear, she thought to herself. And to see what he had hit. But Henry did not stop. He just kept on walking.

 

Still breathless from fright, Helen laboriously rolled the window down and stuck her head out the window.

“Henry!” she shouted at him. “What’s wrong? Where are you going, Henry?”

 

Henry made no reply. He did not even look back. Henry just kept on walking. She craned her neck and pressed her sunglasses lower on her nose so she could peer across them.

“Henry-y-y-yyy!” she screeched.

 

Henry just kept on walking. For a moment Edna faced the front and allowed a few seconds to compose her thoughts. Then she turned around again and peered through the rear window. Beyond the yellowish glass the road made an almost perfectly straight line. There were two or three humps across a patch where the landscape rolled, after which it disappeared across the furthest ridge.

 

Henry’s figure was beginning to form a receding bead into the distance. He was walking fast. The way a man walks when he has had enough of everything. His was the stride of a man who was on a journey that he had been dreaming of for years. And it showed.

 

As the realization of what happed began to dawn, Edna’s sense of indignation began to manifest himself. “That’s exactly like him!” she shorted inwardly. She leaned forward and felt for her small white handbag that had been thrown onto the floor. She drew it onto her lap and then folded her hands together neatly. “He’ll be back,” she told herself. “He’ll calm down soon and then get behind the wheel without a word. Henry is Henry, after all…”

 

In front of Edna the sun slowly continued sinking. It seemed to be heading for a rendezvous with the vanishing point of the road on the horizon. The khaki coloured grassland rippled gentle beneath a cooling breeze that chased the shadows. Edna adjusted the rear view mirror so she could see he road behind her. Henry was still there, but he was now just a dot. Like a flyspeck on a windshield, she thought. The idea was almost funny.

 

The Buick was still idling peacefully, dutifully bubbling forth a thin wisp of vapour from its tailpipe. Edna was a little bit concerned. The Buick had half-slid off the road but its rear end was still slightly in the road. “Just now somebody comes by and hits the car,” she told herself. But Edna was not sure what to do about it. She had never learned to drive. It had never been necessary. Henry always did the driving.

 

Still, she did not like the thought of wasting so much petrol. Maybe it was best to switch the engine off, he thought. She leaned over slowly, found the key and gave it a gentle turn. The engine died away instantly. And then there was silence. “Silence is so precious,” Edna thought to herself. “Ours is such a busy world…”

 

She was not going to panic. After all, she was known to be a practical woman who always had advice for others. Surely Henry would come to his senses in a little while and come back. Besides, Stanley and Gertrude will start to worry if they don’t show up soon. Really, Henry can be so stubborn sometimes…

 

The breeze that washed through the open window was beginning to feel unpleasant, and Edna drew her thin white jersey tighter against her bosom. “I do hope Henry doesn’t stay away too long,” she told herself. Suddenly she thought about the spectacle. “What if a car should stop to see whether something was wrong,” she wondered? How was she going to explain the embarrassment?

 

She quickly opened her little handbag and selected a tube of lipstick. When she adjusted the rear view mirror, she quickly checked whether Henry was on his way back yet. He wasn’t. The road was empty right up to the horizon now. Tilting the mirror back to her own face, she slowly touched up her crimson lipstick. “There now, that’s better,” she thought. “Now if someone stopped I wouldn’t look so dishevelled sitting here…”

 

Twenty minutes later, Edna looked upon the small golden wristwatch that her mother had given her at their engagement. She looked behind her one more time. Still nothing. Edna was now starting to feel alarmed. She couldn’t have imagined that this great landscape could ever be so still. Not even the rustling grasses seemed to count as sound. She had travelled this road for forty-five years and she had never known it could be so deserted.

 

She was beginning to worry about Henry now. He wasn’t a young man anymore, and the doctor did speak to him about is heart before. He knew better than to get himself so worked up. “What if he should have had a stroke across the ridge?” she wondered. “What if he was at this very moment, lying face down on the tarmac, while she was sitting here like the queen of England, waiting for his return?”

 

As if to reinforce the thought, she noted with concern how the sun slowly melted into the tarmac in the distance. There must have been grass fires somewhere, for the sun hung like an inflamed eye and bled the last of its life out across the lonely line that divided earth from heaven.  

 

 

After a while Edna got out the car and stared behind her. The wind was stronger now, and she pulled her jersey even tighter. Around her the world was dissolving fast. She hesitated for a moment, and then fumbled for her handbag to retrieve a small cotton handkerchief. With this she dabbed at the corners of her eyes softly.

 

In her mind she could even see him now – he always looked so dapper in his white trousers and smartly-oiled hair when he came to visit her back then. That’s when he still had hair, of course. “He always was the handsome one. To me at least,” she thought. But now Henry was gone, and only the gathering loneliness of an infinite landscape surrounded her.

 

“Perhaps I could have told him where we were going,” she began to think. Henry had never liked his cousin, but she thought he was just being stubborn. If she had known that he felt so strongly about it, then… well, maybe…”

 

It was starting to get hard to see the end of the road now. By this time Edna had almost grown convinced that some disaster had befallen Henry, and she was deadly worried. It was at least seven miles back to their home, she estimated. Surely Henry wouldn’t just walk away and leave her here?

 

At that moment a sequence of happy memories began to flash through her mind. The day when Bernie as born, when Henry was too scared to hold him, lest he should break anything. A holiday at the beach when the kids were older. The proud day when Henry brought her to see their first new home. Henry smiling in a photograph with Bernie on the day of his graduation. And later, when he took his hands away from her eyes and laughed as she saw the brand new Buick parked beside the children’s swing on the lawn. Her Henry – the only genuine friend she ever had.

 

Edna was not wearing shoes that were meant for walking. They cost three shillings at Adendorffs last year, but right now she did not care. Her Henry was out there, and she was going to find him, whatever it might take. She was hardly aware of the sound of her own footsteps as she walked across the warm tar surface into the whispering darkness.

 

All she could think of was Henry. Henry who might be needing her right now. Henry, whom she was thinking of in a way now that she hadn’t thought in years. There was no other traffic on the road tonight. But it did not matter. Henry wouldn’t have left the road. And if he was out there, she would find him – even if she had to walk until the sun came up again.

 

It is interesting how the last remnants of a dying day can hold an afterglow that can light the western horizon long after the darkness had already settled. But even when that was gone and the southern stars began to stud the sky, Edna kept up her pace.

 

She was walking as fast as she possibly could, and even though she could no longer see the road before her, it was not hard to stay on it. At least the stars provided some sense of orientation and shed just enough light to make out the outlines of the tarmac. “Henry can’t be far now,” she started thinking. “With his heart he would have slowed down after a while. I’m bound to find him soon.”

 

It was very dark already when she finally heard a sound ahead in the distance. For a moment she thought she was imagining it, but when she stopped, she could tell that they were footsteps. She hesitated for a moment longer, just to be sure. Her heart was beating at her eardrums. But now she knew. They were footsteps and they could belong to only one man.

 

“Henry?” she softly whispered. “Henry is that you…?”

For a moment there was silence.

And then he spoke: “Edna… Yes its me…”

 

They were simple words, but sweetly spoken. She could tell that by the sound of his voice. At that, she could not contain herself any longer, and quickly started running. Even though she could not hear his footsteps clearly, in her heart she just knew that he was running too. It took just a few more heartbeats until they reached each other. They hardly slowed down.

 

One moment they were still running, and the next she was in his arms. She was laughing, he was crying – or maybe each was doing a bit of both.

“I thought I lost you,” she sobbed, while he hugged her fiercely, pressing her so tightly that it hurt.

 

“I thought I lost you too!” came his hoarse reply.

She had not heard his voice like that in years. And when her mouth searched for his, she felt the warmth of his tears. Henry had never cried before. She didn’t know he could.

 

“Oh Henry, don’t ever leave me again,” she sobbed.

“No my sweetness, I will never leave you! I’m so sorry Edna. I will never, ever, ever go anywhere without you with me,” he replied. “As long as I’m a live. I promise. I really, promise…”

 

It took a long time to find their way back, while the night was cold. But it did not matter. They had all the time in the world. In the darkness he was no longer a slightly overweight, mostly bald old man with a sagging lower lip. And she was no longer a thin old woman with a little white handbag, a nagging soul and powdered wrinkles.

 

Beneath the stars upon an endless landscape, that night they were young again. He was proud and handsome, and she was sweet and shy. Time rolled back that night. Everything rolled back to many years before. When eventually the Buick’s tail lights came on, followed by the muffled start of its engine and the searching beams of headlights, it turned around slowly. It turned around and went the other way.

 

Headlights can never shine to where the darkness really ends. But they do not have to. You only need to drive to where they end, and when you get there, you keep on going. That’s how you find your way home in the dark. It has always been like that. People just forget sometimes.