It was the piece of cardboard with ‘Birmingham’ scrawled on it. It pulled me like a magnet. Then he was in the car, sitting beside me, smelling of rain and wet wool, my haven of dryness splashed with mud and relief.
No sensible woman picks up a hitch-hiker. I never did. But I had now. Yes, I’d told him. I was heading for Brum. Yes, I’d said, no problem to drop him off on the outskirts. I pulled back on to the motorway.
‘God, I’m wet. Been standing there half an hour. Mind if I take my coat off?’ He didn’t wait for a reply and threw it on the back seat, a shower of droplets splashing the back of my neck. I was invisible as he rolled up the sleeves of his sweater, brushed his trousers and removed his boots. Steam rose from his socks as he stretched out his feet in the warmth from the heater.
Could he hear how fast my heart was beating? Could he feel the swathe of fear surrounding me? I gripped the steering wheel to stem the imminent shaking. If only I could turn back.
I said nothing as he sorted himself out. Just the wipers swishing and squeaking, fighting the cascade that poured down the windscreen. He wriggled around, adjusted the seat position to recline it and move it further back. His glance said, ‘Hope you don’t mind?’ although he didn’t ask. Then he picked up his canvas bag and rummaged in it. He wasn’t looking for a weapon, was he? Don’t be stupid, I told myself. Surely he wouldn’t take his shoes off if he was about to attack.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw him extract a pencil case. The sort children use, oblong with a long zip. He undid it and took out a penknife. I gasped. I didn’t mean to but the sound escaped. He made a noise, a cross between a laugh and a sneer.
‘Do you think I’m going to attack you?’ He mocked innocently. ‘Just going to sharpen a pencil.’ And he did.
‘Most people use a pencil sharpener,’ I muttered.
‘Not me. I like the shape a knife creates. Anyway, couldn’t do much damage with this knife.’ He waved it around, causing me to swerve.
‘Bit risky, picking up a stranger. A bloke. And it’s getting dark. I’m grateful, of course. Do you often pick up hitch-hikers?’
I was now feeling seriously worried. ‘It was Birmingham,’ I said. ‘I used to live there and I’d stopped before I realised what I was doing. I’ve never picked up anyone before. I should have driven past.’
‘Rubbish. You’ll have a story to tell now. Of this guy with a knife.’ He laughed at his joke and at me, a single ‘Hah’.
Then there was silence. He was making sure I was thinking about it. That’s what he was doing. More knife brandishing, a few more pencils sharpened. I tried to glance across, aware of his every move, but not wanting to lose my focus on the river that was the road.
He put his hand back into his bag. ‘Do you know what else I’ve got here?’
I hardly dared to look. He had a small box in his hand.
‘Stolen goods. Gold earrings. A birthday present for my girlfriend.’
He waited for my reaction; I could hear him listening.
‘I can’t afford stuff like this so there’s only one way to get it. Don’t go in for much theft. Just when necessary. No violence. Just a little sleight of hand.’ I sensed the broad grin on his face, the enjoyment my discomfort was giving him. I wondered if he was inspecting the contents of the car, prospecting for his next free gift.
‘Want a mint?’ He waved a tube at me.
I shook my head.
‘It’s okay – it wouldn’t be receiving stolen goods. I paid for these!’
The smell of peppermint wafted around me. I felt sick and had an intense desire to visit the toilet.
‘Nice jacket you’re wearing.’
It was. Leather. Cost more than I could afford. Was that his next target? He’d have to get me to stop. My head was a mess of possibilities. Maybe he’d want my handbag; that was expensive. It was on the back seat, next to my overnight bag. Easy game when he reached for his coat. I’d got around £30 in my purse but there were credit cards, too. Where had I put my phone?
‘Don’t know where I’m staying tonight. Got mates scattered about. Can usually find a sofa somewhere.’ He reached across and placed his hand on my arm. I jumped and jarred my neck as I pulled away from him, zig-zagging into the middle lane. The driver behind me sounded his horn, pulled out and mouthed something, his face distorted by the rain. I made out two fingers as he went past.
‘Hang on! That was just a friendly pat. Wondered if you have a spare bed? Or a sofa? Even a floor and a blanket?’
‘No, No!’ I screamed at him. I’d found my voice. ‘What a cheek you have! How dare you accept a lift from me, then terrorise me? Pretending violence to frighten me. Boasting about your exploits so I’d feel like a victim. Well, it won’t work!’
My anger seemed to please him. He slid down the seat, put his head back and closed his eyes. He started to whistle, a song I half recognised. I turned on the radio to drown him out. It was an orchestral piece, something soothing and quiet. No use.
He took one of his sharpened pencils and a small notebook and started to write.
‘Tell me how you feel.’
‘Shut up,’ I replied.
‘I’m serious. Tell me. I suspect you’re scared. I know you regret giving me a lift. But you’ve got me, at least for the next half hour, so we may as well talk.’
What choice did I have?
‘Okay.’ I hesitated. ‘I’m mad at myself for being stupid.’
‘Kindness is not stupidity. You stopped to help a sodden young man get to his destination.’
‘Not thinking straight is stupid.’
‘So think now. What do you think of me?’
Anything true might spur him to violence; anything bland might annoy him so much it would have a similar outcome.
‘I don’t approve of stealing.’
‘I don’t either.’
‘You shouldn’t flash a penknife around.’
‘You’re right. It’s not up to the task. My Swiss army knife is better.’ He produced it from the bag and slowly opened one of the blades. I could feel tears starting to run down my face. My bladder was bursting.
‘This is good. Handy when camping. All sorts of useful gadgets on it. You should get one. Ask Father Christmas.’ He proceeded to clean his nails with the blade.
I wiped my hand across my face and sniffed. There were tissues in the glove box but I couldn’t ask for them. I’d remembered my phone was in there.
‘I don’t suppose you smoke?’
‘No. And no-one smokes in my car.’
‘I have something more interesting than tobacco.’
‘I said no.’
‘How about sex?’
‘What?’ This was worse than the knife. My sweaty hands slipped on the steering wheel and I could feel my dress clinging to my damp legs. I hoped I looked as repulsive as I felt.
‘Thought that might be an interesting topic to chat about. Just trying to fill the time. Do you enjoy it? Are you still single? Many partners? Always fascinating to compare experiences.’ He chuckled to himself. ‘Perhaps I should start the ball rolling. I’ve got through a few. Not in the Russell Brand League but I like variety. Won’t go into the details. Would hate to embarrass you! It would embarrass you, wouldn’t it? You’ll be glad to know I disapprove of rape.’
Then why mention it? Why talk about sex at all?
‘I have to stop. I need the toilet.’
‘Okay, no problem. Next services.’
Ten minutes later, I’d pulled off the motorway and parked in a well-lit spot, close to the shops. Next to another car. There were people around. I had to make him get out of the car. I wasn’t leaving him to rummage, to help himself. Maybe I could be quick, get back to the car before him and leave.
‘I could call the police, you know.’ Courage came with the proximity of help.
‘The police? Why? What are you charging me with? Aggressive sharpening of my pencils? Cleaning my nails with a blade? Don’t think there’s a law banning cheeky conversations and the odd lie.’
He was right. He undid his seat belt and turned to face me, examining me closely. I shrank into my seat. Then he smiled, a genuine smile, not derisive or sarcastic.
‘I’m Jack, by the way.’ His voice was softer. He paused. ‘I’m not a scrounger or a thief. The earrings aren’t stolen. I bought them as a gift and they’re not gold, anyway. I don’t normally threaten people or lead them to think that’s what I’m doing. In fact, I never hitch-hike.
‘I’m a crime writer. I’m looking for inspiration, doing some research. My next book is about a psychologically disturbed guy who hitches a lift and then finds himself caught up with crooks. So I need real-life info. I need to know how people react to different situations, real people, proper responses. I take notes in pencil in my note book. I have somewhere to stay tonight – my own home. I’m not sex-mad nor do I use drugs.’ He grinned, still enjoying my discomfort.
‘Perhaps you don’t believe me. That’s up to you. It was useful. Thanks.’
He put his boots on, took his coat and left, head bent against the rain. After a few paces, he turned and waved. As I got out of the car to find the loo, a coffee and sanity, I saw him standing by the slip-road with his thumb out, waiting for his next inspiration.
This story is short-listed in the Hysteria writing competition, run by the Hysterectomy Association and will be published in an anthology which includes short stories, flash fiction and poetry. Overall winners to be announced end November/beginning December 2016