by TonySpencer

Copyright© 2019 by TonySpencer

Romantic Story: Brian is a simple man, who does a simple job very well, although he cannot read the manuals. He looked after his mother for years but now she is in a care home. Brian married late in life and is finding it hard to reason with his wife. He is proud of each of the three cars he has owned, one after the other, clearly regards the car as a 'she', and appears to believe he converses with it through the voice of the SatNav.

Tags: Magic   Fiction   Humor   Science Fiction  

How did we ever get by without Satellite Navigation computers in our motorcars?

Brian Mullender hadn’t really thought about it before, if he was honest, but the subject came up in a lively conversation at his workplace. One of the snooty sales managers had taken delivery of an expensive rather flash new car the day before and was going on and on about it, particularly with regard to the state-of-the-art onboard computer system.

It was quite an amusing exchange, Brian thought, held between the four employees sitting in the works canteen enjoying a cooked mid-morning breakfast. It was the boss’s rare, in fact virtually unique, treat because between them they had managed to produce and despatch an urgent order in double-quick time. It was the sales manager’s, and therefore the company’s, biggest and best account, so he sweet-talked the boss into rewarding the main contributors to the successful salvage operation. Naturally, the sales manager managed to wangle himself in on the free meal too.

Brian was just a cog in the wheel of the large plastics manufactory, though he was important in this particular instance. Brian wasn’t bright or clever, but he was an accomplished machinist. He operated a machine that moulded and punched out the particular plastic containers that the customer just had to have consigned that day. The company stores normally carried enough quantity in stock to more than cover this client’s usual weekly order, but they needed twice as many as normal and apparently the Sales Department didn’t inform the production department until just the afternoon before they were required.

If the truth ever came out, the order had been placed at least a month earlier by the client, during a rather boozy lunch, paid for by the supplier, Brian’s company. However, the sales manager who hosted the lunch, had forgotten to follow the verbal order through correctly by putting the appropriate paperwork in hand.

Brian just had time to set up the moulding tool so that it was all ready to go late into the night before. It was therefore ready to go when he clocked into work, along with a colleague to assist, a couple of hours early that morning in order to bang them out in timely fashion. A truck was standing by to take the consignment direct to the client’s door and thereby save the day. Brian had been doing the same job for nigh on twenty years, so it wasn’t difficult but he did have to put himself out at very short notice on the company’s behalf. Even so, it was unusual for the company to bother to thank their staff.

His best friend Toby Marshall assisted, of course, and they couldn’t have achieved the result without his help. He feed in the raw materials at one end, then trimming off the tines and stacking the product onto Europallets at the delivery end. Brian was left free to concentrate on keeping up the quality and speed of production.

They made a good team, Toby and Brian went to school together and always remained firm friends throughout their adult life, even though they now lived forty miles apart.

They were each other’s best man when they married, Toby to Sally Moran 17 years ago, and Brian to Marianne Edgar five years ago. Brian was godson to Harry, Toby and Sally’s teenager, along with Toby’s younger sister Alison. Toby had another child, daughter Amy, who was ten going on 18, but she had a different set of godparents.

Brian and Marianne hadn’t started their own family yet. At 29, Marianne didn’t feel ready to tie herself down to motherhood, while at 37 Brian didn’t want to wait too much longer. Nor did he want to rock the boat by pressing the matter beyond Marianne short patience fuse.

Alec, the production foreman, who had assigned his best two men to the urgent job, was also invited to the late breakfast in the otherwise deserted restaurant. Rupert Goring, the sales manager, hosted the party. They enjoyed their bacon and fried eggs, sausage and fried tomato with a round of toast, choice of white or brown, on the side. With a maximum of seven items to choose from at the staff canteen, Rupert opted for the fried bread and the black pudding, while leaving off the tomato and toast. Toby was the only one to add a tasty roundel of bubble and squeak to his plate, reluctantly foregoing the sausage option. Alec and Brian were satisfied with the standard fare.

Rupert regaled them throughout their repast with all the minute details about his fantastic new company car.

“Took delivery yesterday, a reward for the level of orders I’ve been bringing in. What this car can’t do, ain’t even been thought of yet!” According to the self-appointed Motorists’ Bible, it had leather this and titanium that and polycarbonate something else. This wasn’t just the luxury executive car of the year, according to Rupert, it was the creme de la creme of the millennia.

His audience of three looked at one another, when they thought he wasn’t looking, not a difficult task as he rarely expressed interest in the feelings of others all the while he was the centre of attention, effortlessly conveying the universal rolling of the eyeball to signify the message of “What a plonker!”

“As far the onboard computer, it exceeded all my expectations, and would clearly amaze you guys. This computer’s got more ram than the Welsh mountains, it’s nippier than Usane Bolt and more powerful than Obama,” Rupert enthused between mouthfuls. “It manages the engine performance, keeps check on exhaust emissions, oil pressure and lubrication quality. It checks water level, brake condition, reports back on road surface temperature, even the tyre pressures. It can start the engine automatically, timed to simultaneously warm it up to optimum operating temperature, defrost the car and acclimatise the interior to match my house first thing in the morning before I have even finished my early morning cuppa.

“As for the sat-nav,” he continued without interjection, “It’s so ‘super-nav’, it should have secret identities and caped-costume change when I switch it on.”

Rupert went on and on. All this superlative performance was controlled by the driver’s voice commands, he hardy needed to press more than the odd button now and then to enter passwords and destination coordinates or postcodes.

The computer even sent data back to the main dealer, so they knew exactly when the vehicle needed attention and the garage would consequently phone the driver to book the car in at a convenient time and date for the service. Rupert insisted on taking his dining companions out for a spin after their breakfast.

It did look a nice car, Brian had to concede that point, when they reached the car park. It was sleek and aerodynamic, its paintwork shone like a mirror in the sunlight. A quality-built car of European manufacture, inside it was smothered in soft leather and polished burr walnut. It smelt so new it assaulted Brian’s senses.

Brian immediately thought that Marianne would definitely love this car, she always complained that ANJie smelled a little musty, although Brian thought ANJie was fine, she certainly should be as Brian kept her clean to the level of obsession. But ANJie was eight years old and, even though Brian kept the car in immaculate condition and carefully maintained mechanically, while protecting her (he never regarded any of the three cars he had owned since he first started driving as “it”) overnight in a warm garage, she was starting to look dated style wise and she had only been a bog-standard entry-level car bought on a tight budget at the outset. In fact he had originally sought to buy a secondhand car but he got such a good deal on ANJie. She was the last of the old model the dealers had, so they included the sat-nav, alloy wheels and rubber car mats to sweeten the deal.

Brian had always looked after his cars, treating them like members of the family. He had kept his last two cars garaged. Prior to that he had shared his home with his parents, when the garage was full of their junk that they hadn’t the heart to part with.

He washed his car with shampoo every Sunday, rinsing off carefully, noting every small paint defect. He would clean all the windows and mirrors and vacuum-clean the interior, wiping down all the surfaces. Every month he would apply three layers of wax polish after washing, having touched up any chips in the paintwork the weekend before. He regularly checked and topped up as necessary all the liquids, coolants, lubricants, and checking air pressures, and tyre treads for wear. A couple of times a year he would clean the upholstery, even going as far as lightly oiling the upholstery springs. Brian’s wife Marianne’s little car, a two-seat sporty convertible, was totally impractical as a family car. Marianne only used it to get to work or for one of her regular nights out with her girlfriends; for the weekly shop Brian drove her to the supermarket to collect the groceries using the capacious and ever-reliable ANJie.

The couple had argued at length when they first got hitched, about who would get to garage their car in the single space available. This was after Brian’s Dad passed on and his Mum was placed for her own comfort into an elderly care home.

Marianne had all the advantages in the argument, she thought. She worked in a local office, while Brian faced at least an hour’s drive both ways and set out for work much earlier; so he always left first and mostly returned home last. Also, Brian natural inclination was to avoid arguments, preferring a quiet life to one of conflict. So it looked on paper like Marianne would easily win the day over possession of the garage hands down. Marianne certainly thought so as she had initiated the discussion of the subject herself just weeks before their impending nuptials. Although she had moved herself, and her substantial wardrobe, into Brian’s little house some months before, she realised that he had regarded his ugly old-fashioned automobile with unnatural regard, so she hadn’t felt quite sure of her ground before this time.

But argue, cajole and threaten dire consequences as much as she dare, Brian was adamant. Her car had never been garaged, either round her Mum’s or Brian’s house, while ANJie had always been garaged from the day she was brand new, which was why she still looked, to Brian’s eyes at least, in showroom condition. What Brian did concede, was that he would carry her spare car key on his keychain and move Marianne’s cabriolet each time he needed to and would scrape the ice and snow off as winter dictated, before leaving for work.

He also undertook to wash and polish her car just as regularly and thoroughly as his own, including checking essentials like tyres, oil and water, but he was not prepared to clean out and vacuum the interior. He did check the fuel and filled it up every three or four weeks, her local mileage being merely a fraction of his.

Brian loved his car and thought his sat-nav was near perfect. He had only two minor reservations about the device, both of them being roads that ANJie had clearly been pre-programmed to avoid. One of them was a feeder road which went by a scrap metal yard in the middle of a series of tight S-bends, just off the ring road which by-passed Brian’s home town.

Brian had to admit that the route was hazardous, particularly first thing on Mondays when there was often a queue of heavily-laden recycling trucks alongside the road with car transporters loaded with old wrecks for crushing. Sometimes bits of debris would fall off these trucks, some as large as car panels, old exhausts or as small and destructive as nuts and bolts which could damage tyres, windscreens and chip paintwork. However, Brian always drove carefully with his full attention on the road and he decided the risk was acceptable.

The other area the programmers conspired to force him to avoid was the south-west quarter of the ring road on the clockwise direction. That was the last phase of the ring road that was completed about ten years earlier. Brian assumed that the version of the road network loaded into his sat-nav was quite an old one. He had never felt the need to buy an update in the eight years he had driven ANJie.

Alec naturally sat in front with Rupert, being management, for their test drive in Rupert’s car. Brian and Toby piled into the back. Rupert started the engine and was prompted by a disembodied voice to tap his password into the computer which took a moment or two thereafter to load up and get ready to receive input. Rupert tapped in a post code destination, which was the petrol station on the other side of the ring road, apparently. The computer whirred, a box with a slider on it appeared on the screen indicating the progress of calculating the route, then it declared with a beep that it was finished, thereafter commenced instructing the driver verbally, and by arrows on the map, to turn left.

In the earlier animated discussion held in the canteen, Rupert had said the voice on the sat-nav sounded sexy, very much like Joanna Lumley. Brian smiled to himself without commenting, it sounded to his ears like it could only be Joanna Lumley if she was playing the role of a Dalek. It was nothing at all like the smooth much sexier dulcet tones of his own sat-nav, which sounded much more feminine and expressive, definitely unmetallic. Admittedly, both voices seemed to have trouble with numbers, making them sound oddly sing-song-like, as if each individual number had been recorded in a wildly different combination.

Also, ANJie had more than a hint of an oriental accent to her English, which Brian had always found somewhat endearing, attractive, oddly ... stimulating even. Yes, ANJie had a very pleasant voice that he could listen to all day, every day. He looked forward to any opportunity to insert and twist his ignition key again and again. Rupert’s computer voice, Brian was certain, would grate on him in a very short time indeed. Rupert’s computer certainly didn’t have a voice that Brian could tell his troubles to. His journey to work each day was generally 55 minutes to an hour on the outward leg and up to 70 minutes in the evening, longer on Fridays.

His journey hadn’t always been a daily round trip of such magnitude. Brian and Toby joined the company straight from school, when the plastics plant was in an industrial estate on the edge of their town. That was before the ring road about their home town was even started. However, the local plant was closed down about eight years ago and selected staff had the offer to take the redundancy payments to which they were entitled or move to the other plant, forty miles away. The offer came with some assistance with relocation costs, or contribution to commuting expenses for a reasonable, though limited period.

Toby immediately upped sticks and moved house lock, stock and barrel with his young pre-school family, Brian was unable to do so. He was still living with his widowed and disabled Mum at the time. Although his Mum was now cared for in a home and he was relieved of the daily efforts he had been used to putting in all his adult life, he wanted to live in his old family home and be able to see his Mum regularly and be situated close by for any emergencies. His wife Marianne moved in with him about six years ago and she had her work, family and friends locally and didn’t want to relocate either.

So he spent long hours in his car, singing along to the radio or a Blues CD and telling all his troubles to ANJie, who was the ideal listener. As he sat in the back of Rupert’s car, cruising around the ring road of this distant town, Brian smiled at the recollection of ANJie and lost himself for a few moments in pleasant reminiscence.

He had originally personalised his first car, an ancient vehicle, already 15 years young when he had acquired it. The previous owner had put a knob on the steering wheel so he could steer it with one hand as he apparently had limited movement in his other arm due to a stroke. The one previous owner from new covered very little mileage and so the car was in good condition despite its long life. Brian instantly thought his first car had a personality of her own so he christened her Betsy, silly he thought, but he did. And she seemed to fit her name, somehow, being mature, unexciting and eminently reliable.

Brian may not have been particularly bright or well-educated, but he was never stupid. He sensed he would be ridiculed, he only ever told Toby and his Mum that he called his cars by personalised names. They held Brian in such affection, that they understood his action without question or ridicule, they smiled, that was just so typical of Brian. He was crazy, sure, but he was also nice, at the very least harmless, anyway.

That very first Betsey only lasted two years. Although the paintwork was immaculate, the underlying rust had already eaten into the steel chassis and when the implications came to light she had to be compulsorily retired.

Brian then purchased a multiple-owned vehicle that was already six years old when it came into his possession. It brought with it a high mileage but Brian nursed that machine, which he christened “Betsey 2”, for a further eight years, giving him almost trouble-free motoring for the period.

When the threat of redundancy or commute materialised, Brian was forced to consider purchasing his third vehicle. He had enjoyed driving Betsey 2 so much that he had already planned ahead for the inevitable and had saved enough, he thought, to buy a similar model perhaps only one or two years old.

So it was about six months before the time he had planned on upgrading anyway, that he received notice that his plant was to close. Brian weighed up the options and he decided to commute to the alternative factory. He had a few months’ grace before the move but he was very aware that the old reliable warhorse would have to be retired before the move.

So he visited the main dealers to see what they had on offer. His old model was 14 years old by then, was still being manufactured and, although it had gone through an evolution of re-stylings in the meantime, it was still recognisably the same type of car.

His timing couldn’t have been better. The style had just changed once more, the transformation of bodywork so radical that the older models looked boxy and dated compared to the broad, spacious and curvy new design. This was despite the fact they were almost identical under the new pressed and painted shell. The dealers were having difficulty offloading the remnants of the old style that they still had untidily clogging up the lot.

Brian was a godsend to the salesman. Here was a customer who actually quite liked the old style, it was still a vast improvement in looks on his old model. He assumed that he could not afford a new car, he had intended selecting one of the best of the used models. However, he was surprised that the price of a new unfashionable version was so reasonable. He took into account the salesman’s comments that he would have three years of manufacturer’s warranty compared to just one year’s dealer warranty on a used one. Added to that, he could delay having to take a Ministry Of Transport safety test for three years with a new car. As further sweeteners to the deal, the salesman was prepared to throw in a set of smart alloy wheels, rubber mats throughout and the latest Satellite Navigation Kit containing integrated radio and CD player with surround sound speaker system into the basic model, which normally only came with a rather basic radio/cassette model. Brian sat and thought it through. He fully accepted that he may have been a bit on the dim side educationally but he was always careful, never did anything rash or unconsidered. He had already taken a test drive in the car, which he felt very positive about. He quite liked the colour, a conservative blue that looked very attractive with its showroom shine. Weighing it all up, it cost only a few hundred more than the cost of a used one on the lot, which was easily outdone by the near grand’s-worth of additions. To be honest, Brian had no real need of the alloy wheels, although he understood that they would be less likely to look unsightly over time if he was to maintain it as long as the previous model had motored on for. The sat-nav meant absolutely nothing to him, in fact he had trouble programming his VCR and setting the clock on the cooker was, frankly, beyond him, he left it flashing zeros after the first power cut. He was useless with computers at school and only forced to use the factory one to log on for his time sheet.

However, as he had recently replaced most of his vinyl Blues and Bluegrass records with CDs, that part of the entertainment package greatly appealed to him. The salesman was also prepared to offer a good trade-in on Brian’s old car which solved the problem of what to do with her once Betsey 2 was replaced.

“Sold!” Brian smiled to the salesman, who grinned even broader back at him, and Brian happily signed the papers put in front of him and handed over his debit card. Two days later, after the registration had been completed and the wheels, mats and sat-nav unit had been installed, Brian proudly drove away the very first brand-new car he had ever possessed.

Brian had to admit to himself that he wasn’t the sharpest chisel on the workbench. Everybody had always told him that anyway. Even at school they didn’t think he had the remotest chance of getting an engineering apprenticeship, so he settled for his first job as a packer and loader at the local plastics factory. He was a good reliable worker, so much so that one day the foreman asked if he would try out on a plastics extruding machine and, Brian thought, why not? He took to it well and had been doing the same job ever since.

If someone physically showed him what to do, he was fine, and was practically-minded enough to run with it, and able to sort out any problems which arose. He just wasn’t too good at reading instruction manuals. He had to admit that he had some misgivings about what to do with the dreaded sat-nav in those two days leading up to handing over his old car and taking over the new.

So when he was sitting comfortably in Betsey 3 and had adjusted his mirror and fastened his seat belt, he found he couldn’t delay the inevitable any longer and so he switched the unit on. He was delighted that, in addition to the radio, which was already tuned in to a popular music station, a map instantly appeared on the screen showing his route towards towards the by-pass, and he hadn’t even had to punch any buttons yet. He liked this. He’d not slept very well the last couple of nights wondering how he would get the device to work and there it was working without having to do anything.

When he picked up the car, the salesmen were all too busy to show him around his new acquisition. They were inundated due to an enthusiastic response by the public to the flashier new models, and Brian was almost shooed out the door. He went without complaint, never liking to make a fuss.

He had two possible routes home around the ring road from the garage, which was situated quite close to the main road running east. The southward clockwise route around the ring road was fractionally the shortest way around and that was the way he had decided on travelling. However, as he approached the main road, the ring road appeared on his little screen, showing the northbound route as bright yellow and the southbound as a foreboding black, which looked ominous. Brian was uncertain how to proceed. He was a careful driver and hated to be in two minds. He needed help. Then he spotted a button, in a bank of buttons to one side of the unit, that was marked “Voice”, so in desperation, Brian pushed the button, more in hope than conviction that he had any clue what he was doing.

A voice said, “Congestion delays ahead, please take the third turning off the roundabout and head ... North, along the A-three ... seventy ... nine.” The voice was commanding, insistent even, and Brian obeyed without a second thought and even said “Thanks, Betsey 3”.

The voice was mechanical, the road numbers sounded curiously stilted, but Brian got used to the slight idiosyncrasies and in time grew to love the voice. It was a warm definitely female voice, a little on the bossy side and sounded a little annoyed, like the parent of a wayward child whose patience was being tested, on the few occasions he ignored her commands or missed his turning in error. The language spoken was English, but it seemed like the English used wasn’t the first language of the woman who had input all the phrases. To Brian’s untrained ear he thought perhaps she was Japanese, no surprise really as the car was Japanese-designed, although built in Europe, and the installed Satellite-Navigation unit appeared to be of Japanese manufacture.

He signalled in plenty of time and safely moved his new car into the righthand lane and took the turning to the right as he had been advised or instructed. He enjoyed a safe and uneventful journey home to his Mum’s house, a house he later took possession of when his Mum had to go into care. Brian never found out what the problem was with the alternative clockwise route and never gave it a second thought. He put his trust in the machine and everywhere he went his journeys appeared to be much more often smooth ones than otherwise.

So trouble-free were his trips that he was minded to recall that only two years ago, he and Marianne holidayed in Scandinavia for a fortnight. Motoring through Norway and Sweden mainly, with a couple of days in Denmark and then a swift drive through Germany and Holland leading to the ferry home. The sat-nav performed perfectly on the trip, as it had promised to so when he had pre-planned the trip, running through all the proposed routes with ANJie beforehand.

So it was when Rupert started espousing the claim that only the top sat-navs included Western Europe along with the usual UK maps that Brian took exception and spoke up for the first time. This was out of character, he normally never allowed those boastful types to get his rancour up but this time Rupert touched one raw nerve too many.

“Look, there doesn’t appear to be anything special in your new sat-nav that is any improvement over my standard eight-year-old one. I have Europe maps on mine, too, as I took a trip through five countries just a couple of years ago. Mine has a much more natural speaking voice, she also warns me about road temperature, accidents and planned maintenance hold-ups, tyre pressures and brake wear. She even points out where I can find parking spots in unfamiliar towns. I don’t even have to press any buttons to give her instructions or a password. She is so user friendly, she even calls me Brian.”

Well, that reallyput the cat among the pigeons!

“Brian,” Rupert said, angrily, “You better put up or shut up!”

So, as soon as they got back to the company car park, they all bundled into Brian’s HN05 ANJ and Brian put the key in and started the engine in anticipation of amazing his carful of Doubting Thomases. And ... nothing happened. Nothing at all. This was not at all as Brian had expected. The engine started with no problem, the battery and ignition system was in excellent condition, the fuel and air mixture tuned to near-perfection and the car’s electronics performed almost as it always did. Except for the sat-nav. ANJie displayed the map showing the roads but her voice didn’t kick in to greet him as he had told his guests that she always did.

“Hello, ANJie,” asked hesitatingly, ever since he’d pressed the “Voice” button on his first day, he had always chattered away to ANJie as if she was a best friend. And she always greeted him as soon as he turned the key. Today, though, nothing.

Nor did she answer any of his increasingly desperate attempts to communicate with her. He even turned her off and on again to get a response, but to no avail. That had never happened before, ever.

“Well,” said Rupert, “Amaze us, Brian, tap in the destination, your own town for example, and show us what she can do.”

Brian had never tapped in any co-ordinates before, of course, he had never had to and didn’t even know how. ANJie always knew where he was going by talking to her, often narrowing down the destination by a number of questions and answers. He had never once read the manual or even take it out of its shrink-wrapped covering. Of course he had never read the manual, Brian had never read any manual.

After Brian hesitated, Rupert, who had jumped into the front seat, sighed and started tapping the screen, located the library of destinations and found it completely empty. Of course then he decided to take the piss out of Brian and openly laughed at him.

“Brian, you are a joke, you stupid thick bugger!” Rupert laughed, “This sat-nav is a non-starter, it doesn’t work and you have clearly never even used it. You are either trying to make fools of us or else you are delusional, or completely off your trolley!”

Brian was red-faced and had no response to the insults, none at all. ANJie’s lack of response had rocked him to the core. He switched the engine off, mumbling incoherent apologies and excuses for the temporary non-performance of his computer and everyone got out.

Alec and Rupert walked off laughing.

Toby squeezed his friend’s shoulder and told him not to worry about it, that Rupert was full of hot air and not to let him get to him. At least, he pointed out the bright side, they got a free breakfast out of the whole exercise. Brian was a little upset about the result and even more concerned that he had upset ANJie, there was no other explanation, but he had to get back into work. Angrily, he slammed the car door, regretting the petulant action immediately, he never lost his temper like that. Brian never showed any sign of petulance, even Toby noticed, waiting to walk into the factory with him. But Brian did dwell on the events throughout the rest of the day. His production rates were down as a consequence.

Brian noticed but couldn’t lift himself out of the malaise he was in.

The production foreman Alec, looking at the time-sheets and production outputs for the day, also noticed. He knew his man, liked Brian, and respected his attitude to the work he did. On the other hand that Rupert was an arse. OK, Rupert was a good salesman, and like all his kind he was full of crap, but the arrogant bugger didn’t have a clue what went on in the factory to get his important orders out the door.

The last complaint about quality of the crates supplied to Rupert’s important client was seven years ago. That was while Brian was on annual leave and another operative had to produce them. The next time Brian took a holiday he spent time producing extra quantities on a number of runs over a period of several weeks, for holding in stock. Thus trouble-free orders were filled without needing to produce any during his absence. He had done the same each year since without problems.

Alec felt a little ashamed at the way Rupert treated Brian and was guilty that he should have given his worker more support. This afternoon Rupert also had thought about the incident and called Alec and asked if he had overstepped the mark. When Alec agreed, Rupert said he would make time tomorrow to take him a cup of coffee and apologise. Alex agreed that was a good idea, pleased that the suggestion came from him and then put him straight about what efforts Brian had put in over the years to keep Rupert’s account sweet. Rupert was chastened, said he hadn’t been aware and would definitely make it up to him. Maybe, Alec thought, Rupert wasn’t such an arse after all.

Alec remembered when the old West County Factory closed down several years earlier and he was informed he to take on a proportion of the staff and fit in all their machines, most of which were worn out. Brian was not the brightest candidate and performed poorly in the interview process. Ordinarily, Alec would have rejected him out of hand but old George, the outgoing foreman of the old plant, had told him that Brian was his best worker and to take him on regardless, with the words, “You’ll never regret it”, and Alec never had. Old George also told Alec not to waste his time offering Brian overtime on Saturday mornings, it wasn’t going to be worthwhile him travelling all that way for four hours’ work, but he would happily work late or come in early any day during the week. Alec realised that he hardly ever spoke to Brian, he really never needed to. He came in, got on with the work on his own initiative without any problems and left at the end of the day. Not only had he been George’s best worker, in a short time he had become Alec’s best. As soon as the old kit from the other factory turned up on the flatbed for reinstalling, he could tell which was Brian’s. It was as spotless as his car was. In fact, of all the kit offloaded back then, Brian’s was the only one of that model still going, it was twenty years old at least and was only designed to last ten.

Alec knew Brian had a sick mother, which is why he wouldn’t relocate, but until he sat behind Rupert and noticed that Brian was wearing a wedding band on his left ring finger, he hadn’t realised that he had married since he started working at the new plant and had no idea how his mother was.

Alec realised with a jolt that he knew more about his daughter’s new boyfriend than he did his best worker, and his daughter’s first date wasn’t due to happen until Friday! He had found out all about the boyfriend’s past by accessing the Internet through Facebook. If Brian was on Facebook, he would have to invite him to be a friend. In any case he decided he needed to speak to Brian more regularly, find out how his mother was for a start.

Alec let today’s production figures ride, knowing that Brian would get his head together in a day or two and more than make up any shortfall.

Alec looked around his office before switching off the light, realising that he had left his digital camera and connecting lead on the desk. Damn, he nearly left it behind.

When Brian got into his car at the end of the working day, he inserted the key and said, as he always said,

“Hi ANJie,” adding, “What happened to you today then? You really showed me up in front of my friends, you know,” and he awaited a response, but nothing was forthcoming.

Brian was a simple man, but he had feelings and, if Rupert and Alec had hurt his feelings, he realised that his actions and words may have hurt his ANJie even more. He realised that, in a moment of rash thought, a display of arrogance and showmanship that was so out of character for him, that he had taken ANJie for granted and, by trying to get her to perform like a pet monkey in front of strangers, and that must have upset her.

He tried “Sorry, ANJie,” twice, but there was no response. He sighed as he buckled his seat belt and prepared to move off.

As he pulled out of the car park and headed on the usual road home, he found he really missed the voice of ANJie. There was silence where he was used to ANJie talking to him, giving him an estimated time of when he would get home or reminding him when to turn his lights on, or refuel. He had become accustomed to being comforted by her, warning him of traffic build-up en route and he missed her guidance around obstructions.

He had also used ANJie as a sounding board, telling her of his feeling that his relationship with Marianne was deteriorating by degrees, including her reluctance to start a family that he had desired for so long. ANJie usually calmed him during these moments, helping him relax and think through ways of improving things at home.

All the way through that journey home the sat-nav was utterly silent. Brian was held up in heavy traffic about ten minutes down the road due to a HGV shredding a tyre and hitting the central barrier, thereby shifting his load in its container. A recovery truck had to squeeze through the trapped congested traffic and Brian was stuck totally immobilised for a further 20 minutes until the police turned the traffic around toward the previous junction and forced the vehicles down a diversion along narrow, winding, twisting roads that Brian had never travelled down before.

“Help, ANJie, I am really sorry,” he pleaded aloud, “I’m lost and I could really do with a hand here, please?”

Still the sat-nat was silent, sulking, showing all the routes in every direction as solid black lines on the map.

“All right, ANJie, I get the message, have it your own way.”

For the first time since he bought the car, some eight years earlier, he contemplated switching off the unit. He called Marianne first using the hands-free Bluetooth utility, informing her of the accident and warning her of his delay in getting home. She did not appear to be too worried.

“Your dinner’ll be in the microwave,” she said, “I am going out as planned with my friends Jenna and Martine from work.”

At the end of his conversation with his wife, Brian let out a deep sigh. Then he switched the sat-nav off. That was a first, he thought, hoping it would not be a last.

When he got to his home town, he was running nearly half an hour late, and he automatically moved into the outside lane to turn right, to go the anti-clockwise way around the ring road that ANJie always sent him on, without fail.

However, today Brian thought he would take the shorter route that ran southward, in the clockwise direction, which went past the old Gasworks next to the car breakers yard that ANJie always seemed so anxious to avoid. He was thinking that, if she was going to be stubborn, then so would he.

He chuckled as he remembered her stubbornness. Early on in their relationship he had called her Betsey 3 and she had replied,

“Change of username to Betsey 3 ... unacceptable.”

So Brian had thought on the subject for a short while and, because her registration index number, which started with HN05, and ended in ANJ, that the name ANJie might be a better choice than Betsy. So he tried it and awaited the response.

“Change of username to ANJie ... acceptable.”

Brian remembered being amused at the time, but he was so happy that he was able to communicate with her verbally. He so wished that relations would return to normal, he hated this silence in the car. He was so depressed, he didn’t even turn on the radio or the CD player.

Possibly, reminiscing on such matters from their past, his mind was a little distracted, although the police were later satisfied that he hadn’t contributed one iota to the crash. They were later satisfied that it was completely out of his control.

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