Hitchhiker Blues – Part One
Lou Prescott had just left his Mother buried in the ground and yet his demons were still dragging their heels. He thought about turning around and retracing the few miles back to the shitty little village he had run from just three hours and fifteen years ago but there wasn’t anything there for him now. Not that there ever was. Not really. Just a tiny closed minded group of a few thousand arseholes and junkies – some of whom where both.
The bitterness of the alcohol was now a sour petri dish in his mouth and that combined with the cold now nipping at him at him through the seams of his ratty jacket did nothing to assuage his temper. Nor had previous cloy attempts at sympathy for his loss or the insistent whispers that his Mother was now at rest and in a better place, truly happy.
Not Likely. Very little made her happy in life or he suspected in death. She was a woman only truly happy when a crisis demanded her attention and even then it was the thrill of the fight more than actual happiness. The Duchess knew everything. Relented on nothing. She was the arbiter of truth her truth and woe betide anyone who disagreed.
God help the afterlife is such a thing existed.
Lou could see her now, the Duchess’s indignantly pushing past the queue at the pearly gates demanding to be served first before the righteous because She had a complaint for management and She would be seen.
No wonder the sky was grey.
The road ahead was long and exposed and as straight as any could be in this part of the world. Probably a roman road originally bastardised over the years and encroached upon by the wide expanse of arable land and stony walls that lay on either side of it’s narrow span so much so that there was now barely anywhere left to walk except for the tarmac itself and the occasional indented hedge or fallen wall.
Lou looked back to where he had come from and then onward down the road to the mysteries he so loved ahead. The road less travelled was for him was a road well-travelled and for him it was home. All he needed was his backpack and his shoes and the clothes on his back. He didn’t even need a destination. Not really. In fact it was preferable he didn’t. Where he was going wasn’t important wasn’t the point. It only mattered that he was moving. Always moving. Never still.
And it was good to be on the move again. Real good. He had never felt comfortable in one spot for too long. Felt like a dog clawing at the front door almost as soon as he had arrived. Probably the gypsy blood in him he often told himself. The stranger in the night that had broken the Duchess’s heart. The unknown father that he wished that he would someday find out there on the road but the truth was far duller. His Father bitter and worn down had drunk himself to death when Lou was barely a child and his Mother had raised him almost single handedly – or that’s what she was fond of telling young Lou. He had just two memories of the old man – a flash of a calloused hand slapping him unconscious and the torpid smell of an open casket.
The sore memories drew attention to the left strap of his unbalanced pack. It bit down into his collar bone creating a small welt under his T-shirt. He shuffled his shoulders trying to rearrange the imbalance but it was a futile attempt. He fiddled with the strap adjusters hoping that somehow he could rebalance himself without pulling out every goddamn thing that was crammed into it but all he did was cut off the circulation in his right arm.
The hastily filled bag felt like it was packed by a drunk – A drunk whom Lou now cursed.
His watch alarm bleeped and he tapped it off getting pissy with the device when it wouldn’t shut off the exact moment he struck it. He squinted ahead looking for a place to pull over and take a break but there was nowhere to unpack and reload. Nowhere he could see. Here where he was was no good – The verge on either side of the road slippery and virtually non-existent. He’d just have to march on up to the next layby or mound or break in the hedges and sort it out there.
He loosened the straps some more then took a swig of water from the cold metal bottle that lived in the corner pocket of his pack. He rolled the cool liquid about his mouth trying to get the sticky shit from around his tongue and teeth. He spat the mucus wad out onto the ground and took another gulp of water this time drinking it down then started the long walk to the next rest spot.
A mile or so down the road as Lou ate an apple he heard the familiar distant rumble of a truck or bus approaching. It was a good three of four miles away though the direction was indistinct.
He sliced off another wedge off the neatly dissected Braeburn and slipped it between his teeth. He refrained from chewing – Straining an ear trying to locate the direction of the approaching vehicle. Out here on the levels the landscape played tricks with sound. The hedges mounds and walls were sonic traps – A natural danger for the unattuned. They could hold onto a sound and release it on a whim allowing even a vehicle as large as a truck to appear out of nowhere.
Lou’s ears twitched. It was coming from ahead. Good. Unless the driver was a lunatic or drunk or both then the vehicle would pass him on the opposite side of the road to where he now walking.
He checked behind – just to be sure – squinting into the distance. The bend he had long passed showed no sign of another vehicle. Lou smiled and bit down on the apple slice that was waiting between his teeth and started to chew.
The apple was all but gone now. Lou took one last sliver like he was deboning shin and held the piece between the blade and his thumb just like his Grandfather used to do. His hands he saw were starting to become like the old man’s and he smiled. That was fine by him.
Lou missed the grumpy old fuck. Wished that he had said goodbye before he took off all those years ago but he knew that Gramps understood why he had to leave. Hell it was Gramps that planted the seed in the first place.
If you’re not happy you know what to do, he had told Lou. A man has to have stories. A man has to dream.
What if those dreams are a pipedream? Lou remembered.
What if? was the old man’s response
Lou’s apple now done moved from fingers to mouth and he munched the remaining core down quickly leaving only the stalk which he used as a toothpick – Just like Gramps.
He smiled and closed his eyes just as a wall of cold/hot air blasted into him from the oncoming articulated lorry. Its wake pulled at him sucking at his clothes making them ripple like flags in a storm. He held firm – Feet planted into the tarmac legs bent riding the ground like he was riding the tube.
Then the artic was gone and off roaring down the road.
Above him the clouds began to part a little and a warm crack of yellow light hit his face and body as Lou smiled – his soul warming up.
Thirty or forty minutes late he left the road and made camp at a short overgrown layby that was a little over three car lengths long and one wide. He methodically removed everything from his pack and laid it all out in neat little piles on top of three bright orange carrier bags. Once the bag was completely emptied he upended the pack and shook out some crumbs and dusted off imaginary cobwebs. The pack itself wasn’t huge – 50 litres or so – but it was enough for him. Lou wasn’t one for things. Yes he had things he liked possessions he cared for and much of that was spread out amongst his friends in attics basements and sheds all over Europe but they were really just things. Stuff. None of that mattered. Not really. His most precious items he carried with him – Camera, diary and sketchbook but if he lost them all tomorrow or they burned next week he’d just start taking more pictures or start writing or begin sketching.
As he repacked he stopped at his battered sketch book. He flipped through the pages crammed with sketches and scribbles. Barely a page was unmarked with pen and pencil sketches some large some small some fanciful some so realistic they could have been photos. He paused a moment three quarters of the way through the book then he over the page revealing a double page spread – a remarkable pencil sketch of an old lady laying in an open coffin sereen and silent. It was a good likeness. He had some skill. Years on the road with not much else had helped him hone his craft but it was off. Something was not quite right. Not that any stranger would known to look at the drawing but all Lou saw was a dead old woman. Not the Battle-axe. Not the Duchess.
He closed the book and slipped it back into the pack and since the first time he got the news of his Mother’s death Lou cried.
Two Hours and few miles later his watch bleeped again. Lou slapped it off muttering at himself with disdain. He had completely forgotten about the alarm since the last time it went off and now he was far from anywhere to do anything about it.
The road he was still on had abandoned its Roman architects and gentle curves and was now snaking into a series of twists and turns in an almost violent way. The road itself had narrowed down to one barely a lane a half wide whilst retaining the white markings that left little room for either lane of traffic. Either side of the tarmac large mounds of earth rose crowned by prickly unkempt bushes as high as a man and twice as wide – thick with blunt needles and barbed thorns.
It had been unusually quiet out here. There had been barely any traffic during his hike. Lou assumed that there must have been a by-pass built during his absence and as soon he had thought this a flash of something someone had said at the wake mocked him.
An old foul mouthed friend of the family with rotten teeth and greasy demeanour had cornered him and proceeded to fill him in all the news that wasn’t fit to print. Lou at that point was onto the second bottle of red and had blanked out whilst staring at the front door half wanting to escape half hoping that the other great woman in his life would appear…
but she hadn’t.
The memory of the girl he left behind still had bite even after so long.
Far off behind he heard a car rumble. The pitch was unmistakable, higher than the artic but fat and wide with the distinct whop-whop of a modified exhaust.
Boy racer. Mid-sized sedan, Lou thought. His ears twitching. Two litres. Japanese. Fast. Honda? Nissan.
The sound grew. Damn! It was going fast. Real fast
Barely a quarter of a mile back there was a sharp bend that he had walked from and whilst it was a small curve it was well hidden. Anyone taking that corner at speed would come out the curve wide and there wouldn’t be much of a margin of error should the driver not see him.
He looked ahead and saw a patch of mound less overgrown than the others – barely enough for a skinny guy like Lou. It was a stretch but he could make it or he could stay here and climb the muddy bank and try to make an uncomfortable nest in the thorns.
Fuck it! He muttered and started to run.
A quick glance back and Lou could see flashes of cherry red paintwork streaking between gaps in far off bushes and hedges gaining ground closing the gap between himself and it.
He pushed on picking up speed – it was going to be close.
Behind he could feel the car was getting nearing – his hitchhiker’s sixth sense tingling. From the sound it had entered the corner. He caught a quick glance and he was right – The roof disappeared into the bend.
Lou ran hard trying to close the gap to sanctuary – Gravity and fatigue and his pack fighting back.
Then the sound of fuel injected engine disappeared.
For a moment there was nothing save for the sound of worn boots hitting tarmac.
The sound echoed around the stillness that seemed to envelope the road and Lou.
Then the roar reappeared as the car burst from around that last bend – It was less than a few hundred feet from his heels.
Lou swore the fucker was accelerating. It was as if the driver was trying to run him down.
It was going to be too close. It was too close!
The distance to the hollow was only a few feet and with one last yell Lou jumped up the verge and dove completely missing the gap and landing deep into the thorny hedge as the red Nissan Skyline tore past and onward to whatever party the prick was late for.
WANKER! Shouted Lou at the disappearing vehicle.
He pulled himself out of the hedge ripping another hole in his jacket and cutting a palm in the process.
Arsehole! He muttered and the Skyline skidded to a halt as if it had heard Lou. Slamming forward then wobbling along it took a couple of hundred feet for the car to stop but eventually it rested then revved it’s engine.
AND WHAT! Lou Shouted back jumping onto the tarmac arms outstretched like a wiry Jesus look a fight.
The Skyline’s red brake lights flickered in response.
Lou puffed himself up and started walking towards the car. It had been a while but he never backed down from a fight – especially a wanker in a jap racer.
The break lights flashed again – the driver thinking about reversing. Lou could see the driver no more than a shadow checking him out in the rear view mirror occasionally turning around to get a better look. The engine purred as it’s owner decided what to do.
Come on Pussy, Lou muttered through clenched teeth but the car didn’t move. Didn’t do anything it just sat there
Lou kept walking. Chest pumped. Head cocked. Traveller bravado in full effect. Truth be told he wasn’t much of a fighter but like most things in life violence was a blag. Nine time of Ten people didn’t want to fight and he was good, great in fact at convincing people that he loved it and was good at it.
And usually it worked.
Problem with a bluff you don’t know if it’s worked until it has.
Just then the passenger dog swung open and out stepped a burly man dragon tattoos up both arms head shaven circular ring through the left brow. He squinted hard at Lou and the two met just out of swinging range.
For a moment the two stared each other down then the big man spoke.
Motherfucker! Lou Prescott. Son of a bitch!
It was said with an earned familiarity and genuine joy and the shock of seeing a ghost of the Casper variety.
Fuck me! Lou Prescott.
How you doing Chris? Lou said rolling his eyes inside his mind. Great, he thought. All I fucking need. Chris J. Patton.
How am I? How are you? Fuck me! Listen sorry about… The driving. In a rush. Got to… You know… going somewhere.
Chris looked at Lou then his pack then the road ahead then back to Lou.
You want a lift?
Nah I’m fine, Lou said raising a hand to emphasise the point.
Chris looked like Lou had just shat in his mouth or insulted his mother.
and it would have been convincing if Lou didn’t know the old routine.
Come on I’m going that way… You’re clearly going that way least I can do. Get in the car you fucking fag.
It wasn’t said as an insult in fact if anything it was said with genuine love but the years away from that sleepy village and the memory of what Chris had done did little to stop it grating.
The big man continued to stare the gap between them far wider that the couple of feet that physically separated them.
Lou looked the skies at the battle between the clouds and the sun. Still too early to tell which was going to win.
He held out a hand and felt the air.
He returned his vision to Chris and Lou knew the big man wasn’t going to take no for an answer.
Besides it would rain soon.
You going anywhere the cross keys? Lou asked.
I am indeed. Hop in.
Lou walked past Chris and toward the passenger side. Chris returned to his side of the car and hopped in.
Shitty place to hitch from you know, he said. They built a bypass a few years ago.
Yeah. I heard.
Lou climbed into the Skyline and settled into the large black bucket seat that seemed to encourage him to sit upright far more than he would have liked. It made him shuffle about trying to nestle himself into the soft cushion until he could find a comfortable position he could truly relax in.
It didn’t happen. He continued to shuffle about.
He looked around the car’s cockpit clutching his bag across his lap and marvelled at the interior – It was immaculate. The entire interior was differing shades of black- Carpets and roof liner all echoing a theme that continued onto the dash with shiny chrome trim accentuating the black carbon fibre laminate that covered the hard surfaces. The sound system and instruments were all glowing with the same cool shade of electric blue no doubt the result of multiple attempts to get just the right shade of blue.
Chris was still smiling. He was proud of his latest creation.
You want to put that in the back, he said pointing to Lou’s bag.
Lou shook his head and replied with a quiet No Thanks whilst still looking around the car. Chris had the touch. No doubt. Clearly still loved what he did. Still had a good eye and steady hand.
The Skyline’s engine revved and roared for a moment holding it’s spot on the road until it spat up gravel and smoke spinning its wheels and slamming Lou back into his seat like he was in a fighter jet.
Chris also loved to tinker under the bonnet and the two litre engine had been replaced with something with a little more kick and this made Lou smile. As much as he walked everywhere he did love a fast car the roar of a good motor.
So where were you heading? Chris asked one hand resting over the steering wheel controlling it with the palm heal. The second hand started fiddling with the radio.
On of off?
Lou shrugged. Either. He didn’t mind.
Ah fuck it! Nothing on anyway. Got some CD’s in the glove-box if you fancy it.
Nah I’m cool mate, Lou replied.
I’m sorry about your old lady… really am.
Lou waved away the apology.
Forget it. It’s fine.
He looked out the window watching rain drops run up the window in defiance of gravity but at the mercy of the onslaught of compressed air as the car pushed on through the damp atmosphere. He was about to question the water when…
She was something. Wasn’t she?
Lou looked back into the car and to Chris for a moment then turned away again.
That’s one way to put it, Lou replied.
Chris laughed loud and hard. It was a warm and friendly laugh. Familial. He didn’t need to look at his old friend to know exactly what he was thinking. The thought made him smile. He breathed out a warm breath on window creating a small patch of condensation. In it he drew a pair of angry eyes and stared into them as they slowly faded away. Before they had completely gone he rubbed them out. Yeah the woman was a real bitch.
I am sorry, Chris said.
No. It fine. Really.
And for a moment the car was quiet save for the roar of the engine and the blast of rushing wind.
I saw her last week you know, giving shit to some poor check out girl at Morrisons.
How’d she look?
Like death itself was afraid of her.
Probably was, Lou said as he went to looking out of the window.
It was weird though. She came up to me and spoke to me. Like she knew… what was…
Chris hesitated as if he was afraid to say the word or that it might be inappropriate. Lou smiled that smile that you do when you don’t know what else to do.
She gave me something you know? Chris said.
She gave me a key. This one.
He pulled out a small worn ignition key. Red paint chipped on the handle that was now one with the shaft and bit. He handed it to Lou. Lou was hesitant but he took it – he knew exactly what it was.
Yep, Chris replied. Can you fucking believe it? All this time.
Why’d she give it to you?
Well it’s mine innit? He said.
It’s not yours. You stole it.
He tried to snatch the key back but Lou was too fast. He gestured to the road reminding Chris to focus on driving.
Why she give it to you? Why now?
I don’t know. Maybe she was making arrangements. You know. Maybe she knew.
Chris didn’t need to answer.
It took a moment but it clicked for Lou.
I don’t get it. This key doesn’t operate anything. Not anymore.
Nope. Not Anymore.
Then why give you it?
I don’t know. She’s your mother. Did you ever understand her?
Lou didn’t need to answer.
He snatched the key back – this time successfully.
I thought you lost it? Lou stated.
Me too. When the cops searched us I thought I thought I was fucked but when they turned out my pockets the key wasn’t there.
I remember, and Lou did. The image of the two lads standing in the field with the farmers light on them was a clear as the speeding scenery outside the car. Lou could see it all – the fat cop being instructed by the Duchess to turn out the kids pockets. The look on the cops face when she dragged the kids off into her car scolding the cop for wasting her time. The sight of the cop and the farmer reduced to small children by the fierce old lady. The scarf with pictures of horses she used to wear to hold her hair in. The smell of hair spray and Charlie perfume.
I think your Mum Picked my pocket, Chris said.
No for real. Giving it back was a message.
What was the message?
I wasn’t always a bitch. Maybe. Maybe she you just wanted to get back to bed that night. Think about it… She saved us from a night in the cells. She saved my bacon. Both of us. You remember that tractor?
Ride on Mower.
Fuck you! Tractor.
Alright. Alright. Whatever you say.
You remember though… right? It was fun little ride.
Lou remembered. The memories came flooding back replete with the smell of freshly cut grass and late summer evenings. He could see the little ride on mower/tractor sitting in Old man Smithies yard. Our in the open. Daring to be nicked. He could see Chris wedged in the crook of an apple tree stoned and drunk trying to make Lou feel better about himself after another fight with that other fierce woman in his life.
He remembered the little tractor cherry red paintwork illuminated by the pale blue moon light shining through the yards trees and old Narnia lamport that stood watch over the yard. It was as if it the machine was calling out to the boys to come and play. As if it was daring Lou to nick it. He could still smell the fresh wet grass mingling with the heady aroma of petrol and oil like it was there with him in the skyline. Like it was right under his nose.
Then for a moment She pushed into the memory. Not the duchess. The other one. At first it was more the smell then the image. The back of her head. Her hair. The same color as hay and just as warm. He breathed in her fragrance he could smell her as if she was in the car with him. He felt his hand reached out to touch the gentle slope of her exposed neck. Her head tilted away from him long hair swept over the far shoulder. She turned to face him and…
He pushed the thought out of his head.
What have you been doing all this time? He asked Chris.
This, he indicated to the car that both sat in. Fixing cars. Drinking too much. Living… You know?
You ever move out? Did you ever… you know go anywhere?
You mean leave? The town?
Chris looked perplexed at the question or the very thought.
Nah man. I’m happy, he said. Mostly.
Lou was now looking at him at his profile. They were so very different. Two people that in any other town and other circumstances wouldn’t have even talked to each other and yet somehow they were best friends. Or were. A long time ago.
I’m sorry I should have written or something.
Yeah you should’ve you prick… but I knew you wouldn’t. It’s OK. Couldn’t read your fucking handwriting anyway.
Lou chuckled a little and Chris kept staring ahead focused on the road. For a moment nothing more was said. Then Lou reached out and pressed play on the sound system
Out of the speakers Elton John Rocketman played.
Lou looked to Chris.
There something you want to tell me? Lou said with a deadly straight face.
What? I like Elton John.
Oh I can see that.
Lou just stared at him long and hard the corner of his mouth trying real hard not to curl into a smile.
Hey I’m not saying anything. It’s fine mate. It’s the twenty first century. Anything goes.
No really. Whatever rocks your boat. It’s all good.
Chris was not happy. Not in the slightest. He struggled to stay focused on the road and turn off the CD player.
I can drop you off right here you now. Or you can tuck and roll. Your choice.
Lou couldn’t hold it anymore and he roared with laughter. Chris looked at him his own face hot and flushed. Lou tried to hold in the laughter but the sight of Chris’s enormous red face was too much for him forcing the laughter so hard that he blew a snot bubble out of his nose.
The bubble grew and grew as if in slow motion until it was the size of a large grape and as clear as a soap bubble. It hung there just under Lou’s nose making Lou go cross eyed – the bubble refusing to go anywhere. With each breath the bubble expanded and contracted like an electric lung in a toy robot with both men falling as silent as children watching a magic show.
For two miles the two drove on laughing so hard that the windows might have shattered or that anyone hearing them might have had them committed.
Eventually they calmed down and gathered themselves. Steadfastly refusing to look at the other. Making a point of being serious but not quite getting it right.
Then Chris took his eyes off the road for a moment and turned to Lou who was staring at him with a look that was obviously failing to be serious.
Chris broke first. Lou milliseconds behind him. The tears streamed down their faces and their ribs ached – not really laughing anymore but making whining breathless noises like wounded cats occasionally managing to grab a lungful of air before descending back into madness.
I gotta stop the car, Chris tried to say through the fits.
It didn’t take too long until he found a small patch of dirt barely wide enough for his car. He skidded the Skyline to a halt and the two old friends continue to laugh for another ten minutes whilst another large truck blared past and the windows steamed up.