With my book in hand, I left the pub alone. The same way that I had entered it. I’d had one drink; if I wasn’t driving I might have had another. Sometimes I do; this time I didn’t. Instead I planned to drink a couple more once I returned home. To continue reading. The pattern of my days. Chance and surprise were rarely a part of the fabric of the pattern, but both would soon visit.
Closing the door behind me, putting the book on the passenger’s side, I sat down in the driver’s seat and stared through the windscreen at the tall wall of the building next to the car park. The breath of my sigh misted the windscreen where it hit the cold glass, a small cloud that quickly began to disappear. I couldn’t say now why I stayed there, sitting and staring. I would guess that I was contemplating. Naturally, I’m never in a hurry anywhere. The doldrums of existence, you could call it. Lingering there was the weaving of chance. And for surprise?
The passenger door opened and a girl got in, pulling the door closed behind her. ‘Let’s go,’ she said. Looking at me, she nodded twice. Come on, let’s go, those nods said. I didn’t think that she was panicked, but looked flustered, buzzing with vibrancy. I noticed that her eyes were grey, flecked with needles of gold, an electrical storm through sheets of clouds. She gave one more geeing nod.
‘Do I know you?’ I asked. I didn’t know her.
‘What does that matter?’ she said. Still twisting to face me, she slapped her hands to her thighs. Come on.
‘Look,’ I said, putting a hand on the steering wheel, ‘someone can’t just get into a stranger’s car and demand a lift.’
‘They definitely can,’ she replied with a slight smile. I noticed that her hands, still on her thighs, relaxed a bit. ‘I just did.’
‘Well I’m going nowhere with you in the car.’
‘Then let’s go somewhere with me in the car,’ she said. She was biting her lip. ‘That makes much more sense than going nowhere.’ She looked around – at the wall in front of us; the quiet console; the early evening darkness beginning to creep along the street behind.
Straight away there was no doubting that she was a strange person. Any girl – any person – who simply hops into a stranger’s car probably earns that title. I looked at her clothes: a thin, spangly shirt beneath her denim jacket; her wrap-over skirt a mash of colours with a sateen shine; the look completed with untied boots. The natural waves in her blondey-reddish hair – which looked as though it hadn’t seen a brush since whatever escapade had led her here to the front seat of my car. As I looked at her, she pulled her hair over one shoulder. I wondered if she was appraising me at the same time as I was her – blues jeans, Warp Records t-shirt, and a haircut like every other man of a similar age that I had passed that day. My only distinguishing feature was the weary look of disillusioned misery and my widow’s peak. Her smile was hard to read; whether it was coquettish, manipulative, or simple friendly amusement, I couldn’t tell. And I couldn’t help myself. With my thumb strumming across my bottom lip I, too, smiled.
‘All conventional wisdom says that I should ask you to leave,’ I said. As I chewed the inside of my cheek, waiting for her to respond, she stopped smiling and folded her arms. I tried to continue my vague smile. I’m not sure why I had said it, really. It was supposed to be only quasi-serious. Trying to be clever.
‘”All conventional wisdom . . .”’ she said, mocking my tone. ‘Do you always talk in such an old-fashioned way? Anyway, if wisdom is conventional then it is something ingrained and repeated without free thought, so is therefore not wisdom at all, just a kind of stale mantra.’ The girl rested her elbow on the central armrest, leaning in closer to me, staring at me challengingly, and plonked her head on her upturned palm.
Allowing what she said to digest, I thought about my answer carefully. ‘Surely that means that all philosophies can only be exclusive to one person: the person who first proclaimed it. Otherwise we’re all living in designated boxes. Even if we choose which boxes we decide to live in, none of our free thoughts can ever be truly reflective of the individual. No thought can ever be unique.’
Rolling her eyes, retreating from the armrest, she slumped back in the seat. I noticed her glance at the door handle. ‘Wisdom and philosophies are nothing alike, not in modern times. Although most people claim both without true knowledge of either,’ she said, with a glance at me. ‘If we’re just going to sit here and debate senseless and meaningless nonsense then I’ll just go.’
‘You’re freer to go than you are to just get in my car and demand a lift.’
‘I don’t need a lift,’ she replied. I could hardly see how she had to right to become impatient with me, as she clearly was. I leaned an arm on the steering wheel, to properly turn and face her.
‘Then why did you get in my car?’ I asked, looking at the wall looming over us.
‘Because I want to go somewhere. Anywhere. Away from here.’
‘Anywhere. Yet still we just sit here.’ I watched as she rubbed the patch of skin between her eyebrows. I thought of what else I would be doing if she hadn’t arrived here, in a day of my life. With a quick look down at my door panel, I realised that the girl was probably sitting on my book. Reality like a metaphor. Maybe because of the conversation (argument?) that we’d had, my initial alarm had wavered. You could say it was dreamlike, my overriding emotion. A surreal feeling that this wasn’t really happening.
I could still feel that vibrancy that she had brought into the car. Perhaps a breeze finding my sail after an interminable time spent in the doldrums.
‘Okay,’ I said, turning the key. ‘Let’s go.’ Looking over my shoulder as I reversed the car I could sense her looking at me. I wasn’t certain what it meant. I wondered if I had surprised her; whether this was a prank of some sort, to see if I would. And there I was, doing it. I surprised myself a bit., not entirely sure how I felt at that moment: I didn’t have a clue who she was or what I was doing. I thought of films and stories where a damsel in so-called-distress flags down a stranger, only for some meaty accomplice to steal the car. Or worse. I didn’t know what I was doing. And that refrain chorused through my head as a tempestuous crowd: You don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what you’re doing. As we drove down the ramp out of the car park and into the evening I saw no one, no threat.
‘We could go to the top of the town,’ I said as we passed down the road. ‘There’s a good view there. I go there sometimes to read.’ My book. It must be quite warm by now.
‘So I get into your car just to go somewhere that I could have walked to anyway.’ She was fiddling with her phone as she answered. ‘Good idea. Creative.’
‘Why didn’t you just come up to me in the pub and say that you needed a lift?’ I asked after the silence was beginning to thicken.
‘Because I wasn’t in the pub,’ she said, huffing air through a pout. ‘And I told you already that I didn’t need a lift. You ask a lot of questions. As if you’ve got something to hide.’
‘Wha –’ Why was I the one who was left feeling guilty? And who would respond differently? I wondered which of my few friends would have just turfed her out, and who would have driven off spontaneously. I couldn’t imagine any of them keeping company. Yet this girl was talking like I was the weird one. Thinking of my every day – the regular, colourless pattern of them – perhaps I am. ‘I don’t see how anything I’ve said makes it seem like I have something to hide,’ I said, taking care not to form a question. ‘Or how you can just jump into my car and start judging me that way.’ I could have stopped then and let her out. It crossed my mind to do so. I didn’t, of course.
Ignoring me, she turned on the stereo, immediately silencing the radio. I watched her. Why not go right ahead. I watched as she tapped at the touchscreen. ‘I need the Bluetooth,’ she said. I moved my hand towards the screen, to show her where it was. Grabbing my wrist, she moved my hand back to the steering wheel. ‘I wasn’t asking for help.’
‘If you just –’ As I began to speak, the screen lit up. Would you like to connect with and then a long series of dashes and dots. ‘Semaphore,’ I said.
She laughed. A real belly laugh. I was looking at her as she put her hand to her mouth. The golden needles in her eyes sparkling. ‘Semaphore is waving flags,’ she said. ‘Making letters with them.’ She was still giggling.
My palms instantly began to perspire against the wheel. Everything that I said to this girl, this uninvited stranger, made me look like a fool. I never have enjoyed looking like a fool. Even so, irritated by myself, I attempted to smile. ‘Long day,’ I said.
‘Every day is the same length,’ she replied, her mirth immediately forgotten, it seemed. Again making me feel like an absolute dork.
At the end of the road I indicated to turn right, towards the duck pond and away from the trendy part of the town. I tend to avoid that area if I can, sticking more to the middle ground. Also, possibly by instinct, this was my usual route home. After a glance at the dot-dash girl, I thought about suggesting that as an option. I wasn’t prepared for the answer that I would receive, so left it alone. It was an even creepier idea than getting into the car of someone you don’t know.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked, still driving along with just a stranger. ‘I don’t even know that.’
‘A question,’ she said, putting her phone between her legs. In fact, I had seen at the last glance that it wasn’t phone. An alternative device of some kind.
‘Yes, that was a question,’ I said.
Jazz started to play: skilful, chattering guitar. I looked at the screen. Grant Green Outer Space. Not a name I knew. She leaned again on the armrest between us, close to me. I had to turn to see her, intending just a glance. But something about her kept my gaze. The beginnings of familiarity? I don’t know. But with her soft smile and the gentle sapling of lines at the corners of her eyes, I noticed for the first time that she was an attractive girl, in her own enigmatic way. For all of her undeniable strangeness and brusque responses, for some reason I liked having her by my side.
‘Jazz music makes me feel good,’ she murmured.
I glanced again at her. She was smiling at me, her eyes kind of zoned out in a transcendental bliss. Almost hypnotised by her looking at me that way, as if transmitting her sudden ethereal consciousness, I was so completely distracted from driving. It felt as if we were floating on air or gliding beneath the sea in a tiny submarine. Perhaps even on a magic carpet ride, shimmering along on impossibility, with happy jazz as our theme song. The light of the setting sun found her face, lending sparkle to her soft cheeks. I was so far away from the world that I had been living in just bare moments before, I’d forgotten about the imagined potential threat –
‘The road,’ she said.
‘You should really be watching the road,’ she said softly, lifting her head from her hand and sitting back in her seat. ‘You’re on the wrong side.’
‘Jeez!’ I said, steering back onto my side of the road, from where we had been traversing the centre. I flitted back down to earth, still not really knowing where we were heading. From the corner of my eye I noticed that the girl was rubbing her arms, holding herself. ‘Are you cold?’ I asked.
‘Questions,’ she said dreamily, staring through the passenger window. She stopped rubbing her arms and placed her hands on her lap. ‘Everyone always asks so many questions.’
‘It’s how you get to know someone, isn’t it?’ I said.
‘A question,’ she replied.
The tootling saxophone – at least I think it was a saxophone – chuckled at me, wagging a finger. Moment ruined, it said, laughing in a three/four time. I turned at the next right, circumnavigating the town common. A question. I scratched my head. I didn’t really know what to say next. I didn’t really know where were going, or where we should go.
‘Jazz,’ the girl said, ‘along with classical, is the only music where the musicians are true virtuosos; where they can really make their instruments talk, tell a story. When you listen to other music, certainly any music with words, you can never really trust them. Who knows what agenda they might have, whatever they are trying to say. I don’t like being told how to think. But instrumental jazz . . .’ She turned up the music. ‘Jazz can inspire its own words,’ she said, raising her voice over the music. ‘I’ll read words if I want to.’
I don’t know when it had changed, but now there was someone called Kenny Burrell playing Chitlins Con Carne, so said the digital screen. It certainly wasn’t unpleasant. But the dreamy landscape had changed: a bit more energetic, impatient. She was right, jazz could talk. It was her that I didn’t understand.
‘I assume that you have a name,’ I said, also raising my voice and smiling at the girl. She caught me looking her up and down. It was innocent on my part, but who knows what she was thinking – which was an understatement, if ever there was. I had at least avoided asking a question.
‘I have parents,’ she said, looking down at her hands. ‘They gave me a name.’ She turned to look at me. I caught it and faced her. ‘Everyone has a name. Except, I suppose, some homeless children. But even they will be given a name by the people they meet. Something that they will be known by. People can be so preoccupied by giving names to things.’
‘But I would like to know your name,’ I said, looking around at the scenery. The buildings in this part of the town were Victorian, the stateliest part of the town. Not the area that I lived in. Any apartments in this area had the square footage of a medium-sized house. We drove past the place that I had first suggested with the benches overlooking the town. I continued onward, now heading out of town, away from my home. Soul Lament, the screen told me was now playing. Things had slowed down.
‘Let’s just pretend that no one has names,’ she said. It was easier now to be heard over the music.
‘But we can’t go on down this road, into the evening, as strangers.’
‘No one is a stranger,’ she said in reply. ‘Even if you don’t know what name they’re tagged with.
‘Just someone that you haven’t met yet,’ I said. Screwing up my mouth, I gave a little dismissive shrug. And then she surprised me, this girl full of surprises. I had to look to see what it was that had clamped onto my arm. Rather than disregarding what I had said as obvious, unimaginative, she was clinging to me, hugging my arm. It wasn’t that comfortable, bending my arm in an unnatural way at the elbow. But it was closeness in a way that I hadn’t experienced in a long while. I didn’t mind the pain at all. In fact I liked it. Through my jacket I could feel the slight warmth of her. I turned slightly to my left, over her reddish-blonde hair, trying to breathe in her scent. She was almost completely odourless. All I could really discern was a kind of wet denim smell, that I couldn’t say was really a part of her.
The jazz was getting a bit frisky. The girl noticed it too, and unclamped herself from my arm. She pulled the device-thing – some kind of MP3 player – out from between her thighs. She played with it, dabbing at the screen, swiping up and down, pushing soft keys. Songs started and stopped. Finally she pressed the button on the car stereo, killing the music.
‘I know where we’re going,’ I said. When I faced her she just continued staring through the windscreen. I could see that she was playing her tongue along her teeth beneath her closed lips.
What was it about this girl? Whatwasit?Whatwasit?Whatwasit?
A question. Questions.
Naturally I don’t like supercilious people. I didn’t think that she was just playing strange – she clearly was absolutely mad just to get in my car. There was plenty about her way with words that was irritating to me, and surely would be to most people. But even so, there was that whole alien mystery of her. I couldn’t put my finger on it, let alone grasp it. On top of that there was where had she come from and what did she want. Questions. And on top of everything there was what would happen when we got to where we were going.
Where would this night end?
Both of us listened to the deep sound of the engine; the wind passing by the car and the road beneath us. The sun was behind us now, a deepening orangey-red lighting us from behind and the trees to the side and in front. We travelled past and they watched us go.
For the first time I noticed how few cars and people we had passed. I couldn’t recall if there had been any at all. My thoughts began to carry me away, perhaps now spellbound by the sounds of being carried ahead, out of body and out of mind, time meaningless. When I left the pub something had happened to everyone else in the world. There was just this girl, who had managed to find the last man on the planet: me. She’d known that we had to leave, but couldn’t tell me that. That was why there were no questions: it was just simpler that way; no names, because it was a new world. All that was before had gone.
She had hung on to me, afraid of the future, needing a strong man to keep and protect her for what was to come. I had passed her tests – or at had least proved myself capable; unflustered and spontaneous. For all that I had judged myself for my lacklustre responses, I was enough. For all that she might have left behind, what would I miss, really? I just wished that I had brought more books than just the one she was sitting on. Carry only what you need for the journey . . . but make sure you to make space for at least a few good books. It was impossible that we were now living in a world in which books didn’t exist. Wasn’t it?
A car passed us by. A little boy racer in some souped-up hatchback. I could almost feel the bass of the beat as it sped past us. I laughed, at my daydreaming and at the glimpse of the first person we saw in our post-apocalyptic world.
‘What?’ the girl asked me. ‘Why are you laughing?’
‘Two questions,’ I said with a grin.
Folding her arms, she fell back against the seat. The grumpy look (mock-grumpy look?) of being caught out by her own perspective of things was quite . . . adorable. The childlike, vulnerable side, I’d tapped into it; broken through the opaque exterior. I wasn’t certain, but thought that I had seen the trace of a smile.
‘I was daydreaming,’ I said, ‘thinking that we could be the last two people in the world. It was just funny; I got carried away.’
She looked pensive. Thinking over what I had said? No doubt finding some way of challenging it. As she thought, she was playing with her hair, running her hand to the end of the strands and then starting again at the top. Readjusting herself in the seat, she tucked the hair behind her ear.
‘I don’t know why men would want a girl to have no hair.’ She was still well-capable of surprises, it seemed. I hadn’t been expecting that. ‘Why they would want a woman to look like a little girl. I mean, I do know why. But it’s just kind of creepy. Very creepy’
‘I agree,’ was all that I could reply to that, catching up with her meaning. I did agree. I do. ‘But sometimes it’s the way that a woman would want to look for her man. To be the little girl in a strong man’s arms.’
‘In her father’s arms,’ the girl said, nodding.
‘I wasn’t quite saying that,’ I replied, stifling a laugh. And then I wondered again where she had come from, a girl of . . . twenty-five? I was reluctant to fill in parts of her background with conjecture, as much as I was curious. ‘The longest relationship I’ve had was about six months,’ I said, I’m not entirely sure why. ‘In fact, to call it relationship isn’t quite true,’ I continued anyway. ‘It was something that just started with a girl who had no interests in anything except for herself, and it never really stopped. It just sort of fizzled out, I suppose.’
‘But you miss her,’ the girl said.
‘I never really got to know her enough to miss her,’ I replied, turning off the main road. I noticed the girl looking at the road sign we passed with what I guessed was completely neutrality. ‘I never met her friends and never really knew her family. I very rarely think of her. And if I do think of her . . .’ – I care about as much as you did when you glanced at that sign – ‘it’s probably just because some shit song that I never liked and she loved comes on the radio. You’d have hated her,’ I said, smiling at the girl.
‘I don’t hate anything or anyone,’ the girl replied, her face spacey. I noticed that beneath her eyes it had started to darken. It could have just been for the absence of illumination. ‘I just have absolutely no interest in people like her, how she sounds.’
‘My point exactly,’ I agreed. ‘But, I don’t know. It left me uncertain about relationships. Is there really a perfect happy one? It sounds wrong, the way that it’s going to come out, but I’ve never really wanted to be responsible for anyone but myself.’ God, why was suddenly saying things that I had never really concluded for myself? I couldn’t say that I had ever really thought that way before. I had never really been in a proper position to contrast an alternative.
‘You’re responsible for me right now,’ she said. Sur-prise! I looked at the girl. The sun running from the day was once more taking a settling rest upon her face. Her hair was afire, the red turned to orange. The slight dullness beneath her eyes remained. As did the light within them.
‘I still don’t know why you got into my car,’ I said. My mouth was turning dry; the taste of beer was not nice. We had brought nothing to drink.
‘I wanted to go somewhere,’ she said. ‘I told you that.’ She started to stroke her face, just where the sun was lighting upon it, as if trying to paint it on to the dark patches beneath her eyes. She was staring not at me, through me. Beyond me. Into the wild, empty countryside.
‘And you’d have got out if I had asked you to?’
‘I almost got out anyway, when you started to think that you were Aristotle.’
There were so many silences on our journey. But I wouldn’t say that they were uncomfortable at all. I quite enjoyed listening to the jazz that the girl played – I hadn’t really noticed when she had put the music back on – forever waiting for what she would say next. She clearly didn’t do small talk. Like when I asked what animal she would be, if she could chose. She just told me that it was a stupid question.
The sun was racing us to the horizon. There wasn’t much further to go, but I hoped that we would beat it there. We passed by two old boys – proper country-folk in old-fashioned country clothes – sitting at a bus stop. I wondered what they would be talking about.
‘What is your earliest childhood memory?’ the girl asked me suddenly. She was staring off out of her side of the car now. At the odd cottage and the agricultural fields – some with crops growing; others with the shadows of livestock or left to the land.
‘Well, I –’ I left alone the fact that she’d asked a question, even though I’d been trying my absolute hardest not to ask one. The further that our journey took us, the more I was beginning to feel differently about the way this girl thought. My mouth was still quite dry.
Bill Evans was playing, whoever he was. It had a barroom piano feel. Cosy. Friendly. A Portrait in Jazz. It was apt in the circumstance of recollection.
‘If ever I release a jazz album – and that’s a massive If, with a huge Ever, seeing as this is probably the first I’ve ever listened to any knowingly, and I’ve never been a musician – I’d call my album Apt in the Circumstance of Recollection. And the first song would be called The Question.’ I smiled at her. She stared at me.
‘You’re avoiding telling me about your childhood,’ she said. Her device was in her hand again. Facedown. She was running her thumb over where the logo had been dug out.
‘Actually I was just a bit distracted.’ I had thought that I was being clever. ‘My first memory.’ I wondered about it. What could I remember? How far back. There were a few things that I remembered. They were all clear; all distinct. ‘Being on my own,’ I replied. ‘All of my earliest memories are of doing things alone. I’m an only child, and I didn’t really have friends until I was older.’
‘Does being alone scare you now?’ she asked.
‘Why is it alright for you to ask questions?’ I replied, changing down a gear. We were cruising towards our destination. If it were earlier in the day we’d have been able to see the sea.
‘I’m not forcing you to answer,’ she said. She was stroking her arms again, pulling in close to herself. I turned on the heating. She watched my every movement. She didn’t contest. ‘No one can ever force anyone to do anything. Out of the two of us, out here, it’s more likely that you can force me to do something against my will.’
‘Well, if you will get in cars with strangers . . .’ Immediately I wished that I hadn’t said it. Even the jazz was telling me that it was a bit wild. ‘That was supposed –’
‘In my earliest memory,’ the girl began, stopping me short, ‘I’m with my sister and we’re beside an old barn. We were on holiday somewhere. Somewhere in the French countryside. It was only our first day there and we were out exploring. She ran away from me, around the side of the barn. She’s bigger and older than me. Faster. I ran after her but couldn’t see her round the other side of the barn either. I called after her, but she didn’t answer. There was nowhere else that she could have gone. I started walking along beside the barn, looking everywhere. And then I looked up and saw the biggest bird that I had ever seen. A golden eagle. If I had been with my sister it would have been exciting, but instead – I don’t know, maybe by the way that it was looking at me – I thought that it was going to swoop down and pick me up, fly away, and feed little bits of me to its chicks.
‘I can still remember staring at its sharp, hooked talons gripping onto the old rotten wood. Going into the wood. I tried to tell myself to run away. Just run away. Run away! But I was frozen there. And the eagle just continued to stare down at me. I remember how it flickered its eyebrows – or whatever they have for eyebrows. It was telling me that if I didn’t run away it was going to eat me. It was going to pick me up and fly away, rip me apart with its beak and feed me to its chicks.’
As I was watching her, the girl had closed her eyes. She was looking up, picturing the eagle on the roof of the barn. All of sudden she opened her eyes, but she was still staring, still seeing. I could hear her breathing, matching bar to bar with the pace of the jazz. She was transfixed. I wanted to step into her memory, shoo away the eagle and carry her back to her family – she looked that vulnerable, lost and helpless. Terrified.
‘And then, all of a sudden, the eagle looked left. Just near to me. Something hit my leg, with a crack.’ She jolted and grabbed her leg low on the back of her thigh. ‘I spun around and my sister was standing there with a horse whip that she’d found. She’d whipped my leg! “Run little pony,” she said to me. “Run or I’ll whip you!” She swiped at me, just missing my leg. So she swiped again and hit me. My sister,’ the girl said, looking at me and smiling; it was darker now, so I could only make out the parts of her face that the late light decided to show. It took my breath away. I felt that I’d come to know her a little bit. And with that little bit, a little bit more had grown inside me, inside my stomach. It could see the white in her smile. ‘I knew that she would keep whipping me. So I started to run, being whipped all the way. The next day my legs were covered in red welts. But anyway,’ she said, readjusting herself and picking up her MP3, ‘better that than being eaten alive by an eagle.’
We carried on for the little left of the journey again in silence. Both thinking of what we had shared. Well, I can only speak for myself. But I had been thinking about what both of us had said, perhaps trying to make a puzzle out of triangles and squares.
‘We’re nearly there now,’ I said. Even so, she changed the jazz to something new. Something . . . surprising. Something unnamed on the screen. Trance music, dark and trippy. She shimmered in time to the music. Her whole body was pulsing.
‘Sometimes I just like to put this on,’ she stated matter-of-factly, turning to me, her body still rippling through with the psychedelic electronic sounds. She was now moving from side to side, her head as loose and wobbly as a new-born’s.
I pulled up and looked out at the sea, a dark slick moving in half-time to the music. There were a few fishing boats out there still, their lights gently moving with the surface.
The girl stopped moving when the car did. ‘Let’s go,’ she said, opening the door and grabbing her bag without a glance at me. My book on the seat was revealed. It reminded me that I was more than half-an-hour from home, in the midst of an infinitely more interesting evening than we could have spent together, just me and my book.
I caught up to her, striding along the front. ‘We could get a drink if you like,’ I said.
‘I don’t understand why people do that so much,’ she replied, looking over her shoulder at me with the easiest smile that I yet seen from her, but with a little questioning frown. ‘So many people would rather be inside intoxicating themselves than outside in the free air. I never have understood it. It’s like putting the words social and media together. I don’t find anything particularly social about media. They’re two horrid, conflicting words. This way,’ she said. I was struggling to keep up, both physically and with what she was saying.
We had arrived at the coast at just about the same time as the last light of the day, even though the last of the sun had disappeared. The sunset had won our race. I followed the girl directly to an old row boat. When we looked into the boat, we saw that the bottom had rotted out, just the husk of the hull left there. I was watching her as she looked around at the inside, her hands on the edge of the boat, peering in. She continued to pore over every inch of it, as if someone was trying to trick her, or working out how it might come to work again. I was grateful for the fact that the boat had no bottom as I could imagine what she was thinking; for what she might suggest if it was in one piece.
‘Let’s skip stones,’ she said, and trotted off towards the seafront. As with the bottom of the boat, she surveyed the ground with purpose, seeking out the best stones. ‘Wait,’ she said, grabbing my arm with one hand and cupping stones with the other. She stepped up close to me. Height-wise, she was about level with my chin. I went to swallow. My dry mouth had returned. Looking into each other’s eyes. This girl was a crazy one, no doubt. I wondered what spending any focused amount of time with her would be like. We were just too . . . I don’t know. Maybe I could do with someone like her in my life. Perhaps she needed someone like me, a bit more down to earth. Or we could just be too different.
Clearly I was getting too far ahead of myself.
‘You can only throw the stones with your weak arm,’ she instructed, wiggling my arm. ‘Because I’m a girl.’
‘I’m a feminist,’ I replied with a shrug. ‘So all things are equal.’
Still looking at me, she laughed. She stroked my arm. ‘You’re strange,’ she said. With a pat of my chest, she laughed again and then turned and threw one of her stones into the sea, pretty dramatically – it was all flinging hair and swirling skirts. We could hear the plop when it hit the water, but the water was too dark to see the ripples.
I picked up a stone and propelled it into the sky. Both of us watched its arc into the night, but lost it as it hit the dark horizon. Moments later it splashed into the water.
‘Good throw,’ she said. In the car she had seemed ready to fall asleep, maybe in need of someone to lean on. Out there she was completely, well, like she had said: free.
After a while of throwing stones, she came over to me, standing close again. And again thoughts that most single men alone in the presence of this girl would have began to bubble to the surface of my mind. She put her arms around me. ‘I’m cold,’ she said.
I retracted my waist a touch. The girl pressed in.
‘I have a hot water bottle,’ she said.
‘I haven’t got any hot water,’ I replied. I could feel her shivering. With my arms around her, she felt so small. This stranger. This tender contradiction. ‘I still don’t know your name,’ I said.
She didn’t reply.
I was reluctant to suggest again going in to one of the nearby beach cafés. If she’d wanted to I had no doubt that she would have told me. So how do you stay free when the cold comes? I wasn’t sure where we’d find the wood for a fire in the dark. I was getting hungry, too. Surely it wouldn’t be too stereotypical to go for a snack. We had been at the beach for only a short while, though with enough stones thrown to make my arm ache. I thought of suggesting going back to my place. Perhaps after being free for a little longer.
‘I have a blanket in the back of my car,’ I said instead. ‘We could get that.’
She nodded into my chest. With my arm around her shoulders, I went to move away. ‘Would you bring it to me?’ she asked.
‘I want to wait here.’
‘I . . .’ I leaned in an inch or so from her hair. ‘Sure.’
I ran over the stones. My keys were ready in my hand long before I reached the car. The light in the back of car showed me that the blanket was none too clean. It had been in there for a good while without being washed. I grabbed it and began back towards the beach. Looking out at the fishing boats, with a sudden flash of inspiration, I jogged back to the car and got a torch from the glovebox. I don’t how long I had been away. Minutes.
When I returned, the girl wasn’t there. I was certain that I was in the right spot. Or near enough.
With the lights from the bars, buildings and cafés I couldn’t see where she could possibly have gone. Where she could have disappeared to without me seeing. Just like her sister and the barn. I don’t know how I hadn’t heard her untied boots scrunching the stones. Flicking on the torch, I shone it down towards the water and along the front. Nothing and no one.
‘I’ve got the blanket,’ I called out, waving it around in the air. A part of me stayed certain that she would jump out at me. A free spirit, with a weird way about her. And a one for surprises.
I couldn’t call out her name.
‘Hey, I’ve got the blanket,’ I called out again. I spun around. All the way round. ‘I’ve got the blanket,’ I spoke.
After shining the light around a bit more, I wondered back to the boat. In the same way that she had, I looked around the bottom of it. I tried to think as I thought she would. Even in the short time that I had known her she had proved to be just a bit unpredictable. I even shone the light into the boat. With the blanket brushing against my leg I walked back to the car, the pebbles rolling and crunching beneath my shoes. The breeze conveying cold air from the night sea.
I felt deflated when I saw that she wasn’t there by the car. Hope beyond hope. Still, I waited. I could see my breath clouding into the air. It was really cold now. I was concerned, upset, and felt foolish. So far ahead of myself I had allowed my thoughts to travel. She had drawn me to her. Her magnetism. Mysticism. Whatever it was. Elasticity.
I rubbed my forehead. Pinched the bridge of my nose. I couldn’t just drive home.
For a while I walked along the street and the beach, looking into the bars and cafés that were still open. Shining my torch into the night. Always looking around me. Looking over my shoulder.
Eventually I went back to the car and drove home. Alone. With my book on the passenger seat beside me.
On the drive homeward I could only picture her finding someone who had just got back to their car. Her climbing in the passenger side. Let’s go. I felt like going back, just to make for final certain that I hadn’t left her alone in the cold. To make sure that she was safe. And then I’d picture it again. Let’s go. And again. What does that matter? Let’s go.
Can you lose something that you’ve never really had?
For a little while I did wonder to myself quite a lot if that night had really happened. Whether that chance meeting, that surprise visit, had happened at all. I had convinced myself, certain that it hadn’t. I simply couldn’t have. I’d been to the same pub every evening, fitting the fabric to the usual pattern. And then, a few weeks later when I was connecting my phone to the car stereo, the list of connected devices popped up on the screen.
One of them with the name …. .- …- . ..-. ..- -. All I had ever really known of the girl’s alternative identity.
I copied it down and when I got home looked up the Morse alphabet. I looked at the words that came up on the screen for quite a while before I smiled. I’ll never know what it really meant. Whether it was message for anyone who found her device, for herself, or for something else. For the little that I learned about the girl, it was just another part of the mystery of her.
It’s still on the list of devices in the car now. The encrypted words HAVEFUN.