In Roald Dahl’s Car

It was a Sunday night in 1971. The sky was black. The road was black. I couldn’t see my feet. I couldn’t see where the tarmac ended and the grass verge began. I had to get home to Aylesbury that night. I was 19.

I had lingered too long bidding sweet good nights to a girlfriend on the doorstep of her parents’ house in Bracknell. Aylesbury was 36 miles away, but it was too late for public transport and the route was an awkward, cross-country one to hitchhike. The last of a series of short lifts had left me becalmed in the silent Chiltern foothills — the worst sort of place to be, a country lane with barely any traffic.

Five miles farther on, at Amersham, there was a highway with lights and a reasonable chance of hitching a lift for the final leg. I would have to walk there through the dark, feeling for the road with my feet.

I was violently startled when a group of horses in an adjacent field suddenly sensed me passing, took fright and bolted. They couldn’t see me and I couldn’t see them, but in the explosive clamor of snorting and hooves, I fancied I was caught up in some colossal bestial panic that would crush me to death.

Then silence again. In 30 minutes only two cars passed me. I had a premonition of each vehicle a full minute before I could hear the engine, when the beam of its headlights slithered over the treetops behind me. For each car, I stopped walking, turned and stuck out a supplicant thumb, knowing how unlikely it was that a driver would pull up for a figure looming out of the cover of a dark country lane after midnight.

Then a car did stop, a comfortable, avuncular car smelling of leather and cigarette smoke. The driver was an older gent, and when he spoke, to ask me where I was going, he sounded avuncular, too. From what I could make out in the meager light, he was tall, balding and a little disheveled. I told him I was going to Aylesbury.

“Well, I live not far from here, so regretfully, I will only be able to take you part of your journey.”

I thanked him and got in, grateful to step into the comfort and security of this smoke and leather, if only for a short time.

“What takes you to Aylesbury?” he asked, as he put the car into gear.

I told him I was a reporter on the local paper, The Bucks Herald. I needed to get back for work the next day. My first task every Monday morning, as the most junior reporter on the paper, was to call on the town’s undertakers and compile a list of people who had died over the weekend. Then I had to phone or visit the next of kin. It was my job to populate the newspaper’s obituary column.

He chuckled. “Sounds grim,” he said.

“It’s not really,” I said. “Well, the undertakers are grim, but people are actually very happy to be approached for an obituary. And they’re good stories too. Obituaries celebrate whole lives. It would be hard not to find a couple hundred interesting words to write about someone’s whole life.”

“I can see that,” he said. “I also do a bit of writing.”

I’d had a feeling this was coming. In my experience of conversations with people who stopped to give me lifts, it was quite common to be told that they were also “writers.” Sometimes it would be a couple of articles in the parish magazine, or a half-finished novel in a bedroom drawer, or, more commonly, they would claim to have easily a book’s worth of fascinating ideas in their heads, just itching to become a best seller. This man had the look of a gentleman tinkerer, someone who might do a bit of scribbling in his spare time. “What sort of writing?” I asked.

“Oh, plays, film screenplays, some TV. Children’s novels seem to be taking up a lot of my time just lately. I suppose, though, that I’m best known for short stories. Stories with a macabre element — I’ve written quite a lot of them.”

His answer surprised me. I asked him his name.

“Roald Dahl,” he said.

It meant nothing to me. “I haven’t come across your work,” I said. “So … ‘a macabre element’ — are these horror stories?”

“Not exactly,” he said, “though, unlike your jolly obituaries, they can be pretty horrible. They don’t always end well; there’s often a twist in the tail. Actually, I think I’m writing funny stories, because they can be very comical. There’s such a narrow line between the macabre and laughter.” I could sense him smiling as he said it.

“I’m fascinated by the macabre. And so, too, thankfully, are my readers. It’s one of those areas that perpetually interest people, especially if there’s a mystery attached as well. They’re all dying to know the ending of the story.

“Your obituaries all have endings. In fact, we know the ending even as we start to read them. But the best stories are those whose endings we have to guess at, until they are revealed.

“It’s true of nonfiction too,” he went on. “There’s a story like that, which took place in this area we’re driving through now, to do with an incident on this very road a couple of years ago. It has caused intense speculation among locals ever since. A middle-aged woman, a local doctor called Helen Davidson, drove to a lay-by just a little farther up this road and parked her car there to walk her dog. She didn’t return home that night.” He turned his head from the road, as though to savor my reaction.

“What happened?”

“She was found the next day, nearby, battered to death. Her dog was sitting beside her body. Someone had smashed her skull with a piece of a tree branch. She wasn’t sexually assaulted. She had no obvious enemies; in fact she was well liked. The first blow must have killed her, but her attacker continued to beat her frenziedly, crushing her eyes into her brain.”

“And then?” I said. “Did they catch the killer?”

“No, that’s just it. The police investigation led nowhere. They thought it might have been a local man, but they don’t know for sure and they still haven’t found him. They didn’t have a clue. The case is closed, but the story, as we know it, has no ending.”

He slowed the car. He was pulling up.

“And that’s the end of our conversation, I’m afraid. I have to turn off this road soon, you see, but I think it will be a good idea to drop you at this little lay-by here because it will be more convenient for cars to stop.”

The car came to a halt and he bade me a polite good night as I got out. Then he was gone. The car’s taillights grew smaller and disappeared round a bend in the road, leaving me in silence again, in the pitch black, at the scene of a murder, on a remote country road, alone but for a killer on the loose, and the dark imagination of Roald Dahl.

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