It was Friday evening. I’d had a brilliant week at work and everything was going well. I was up for promotion after landing another big contract. I felt smug, and rightly so, I had a good job in advertising, great mates, lots of offers for casual sex and, best of all, I had my car - my VW Golf. I was driving to meet some of the lads to celebrate my good fortune, well it was our good fortune really, because we shared almost everything, even the odd girl or two. The stereo was pumping out the sound as I whipped along the road. I had been here before, excitement before an evening on the pull. The chase was almost as much of a buzz as the prize, but not quite. I felt the energy flow through me as I urged Black Betty along the road. I was speeding and I felt good.
I almost didn’t see him. But I did. Now I can’t forget him.
Volkswagen has always been people minded. I used to laugh when I first understood what Volkswagen meant. But now as the owner of my fourth VW vehicle I was in the club; I understood what it was to be an owner, a member, part of that select group where there are no rules written out but everybody who truly is a member knows instinctively what it means to be a member. And each last person is proud of their individual status but even more proud of the badge of belonging to that group. I was driving along the M53 in my Volkswagen, I had just passed junction 13 I think, going north, and there he was. Just so out of place. I saw him.
Out of the corner of my eye at first, that’s where he first planted himself in my mind. Through the narrowest angle possible. I was just overtaking a coach, or was it a lorry? I can’t remember now, but it was something bigger than a normal car. Anyway, he was there, on the hard shoulder, or just behind it actually, on the grass verge that was like overgrown bushes and brambles. I noticed him mainly because his blue shirt was billowing around him as the traffic, of which I was part, thundered past him. If I remember correctly, and this is from looking in the rear-view mirror for a fraction of a second, he didn’t move at all. He was sat hunched on the ground with his arms clasped over his head and his elbows rested on his knees. He was thinking. At least that’s what I thought. Silly place to sit and think, I laughed to myself and changed lanes.
I used to hitch when I was travelling around in the summer after I’d left school and in the first half of my time at university. I only told my mum about it many years later and even then she flipped and gave me a right ear-bashing. I lied to her and said that I’d only done it twice and then only that year. In fact I’d hitched for about four years and saved myself loads of train fares that I spent on more interesting pursuits (if you know what I mean). But seeing Mum holding her head and asking for the curtains to be drawn, in the middle of summer as well, because she had one of her ‘bad heads’ coming on, then I changed my story to ease her pain. That was another time that I learned not to say everything that I was thinking or remembering thinking. It had just slipped out.
Nothing slipped out of him though. He was like a rock. Impenetrable.
I was on my way to meet Gary and Stu in Clanstorm; it was only 25 miles away but I was going to be early because I was driving faster than was legal. The thrill of speed bit into me again as I saw something else to overtake. Then, I saw the sign for the exit to Junction 12. I had never noticed it before. No need to, I was never going to Rolforde. 1 mile the sign said. Before I had time to think about the distance I was slowing down and moving into the inside lane. He was on the edge of my mind. The blue shirt man. I thought he’d have disappeared by now but he clung on in the small space free in my mind just behind cars, girls, drinks and mates. He’d dug and held on, like a lobster, with silent, still tenacity.
I was curious. I knew I was going back. I didn’t know why. But I knew I wanted to go back. Even if he wasn’t still there I had time to drive back the length of the junction and still get to Clanstorm in time to meet the boys. So I turned off.
Suddenly, I was afraid. I didn’t know what of. I shivered and pressed the button to close the window. On the bridge I hesitated. This was foolish, I knew that. What was wrong with me? Why did I want to go back? What else had there been that I wanted to see again? Just a man in a shirt sitting at the side of the road. That’s all. What could be so compelling about that? I was on my second tour of the roundabout when I indicated and rejoined the motorway.
I was on my way back. The nine miles seemed longer now I was looking for something. Usually the motorway just flashed behind me. Cars and lorries were just there for my amusement, the games I played as I passed them using my skill to weave in and out of the lanes and braking to avoid the speed cameras in time. This time I drove as if I was taking my driving test. I was more careful that in the five years I had had my full licence. And, I noted a curious thing, I was looking into the cars that were going in the opposite direction to me - the direction I should be going in now if some foolish idea had not captured my mind, the direction I would be going in if I didn’t leave early with time to spare - I found I was looking for him. Looking for that man in the blue shirt inside other cars. I didn’t know if I expected him to be driving or to be a passenger, but I wanted to see him. I wanted him to really be in another car then I would have laughed my idea off as what it really was: foolishness.
Three miles from the spot that I saw him I found that I couldn’t breathe without thinking about it. And I was swallowing in hard lumps. I felt my saliva become heavy as I inhaled through my nose and my chest expanded. With an extreme effort I let go of the air that was inside me. I heard the air leave my mouth and felt myself sink deeper into the leather seats of my Golf. I always drove with the seats quite reclined, a smile fought its way onto my lips, I was used to people asking me if I was going to drive the car or sleep in it as the seats were so far back, but I liked to feel comfortable when in charge of such a powerful beast.
Then I saw him. Again.
Across the six motorway lanes I could see him. All at once I was angry and relieved. Why was he still there? Why hadn’t anyone offered him a lift. Then I realised he hadn’t moved. Maybe he was dead. I should just ignore him and drive past again. That was best. Why get involved in something that is none of your business? That was Mum’s area: helping the helpless. I was planning on a fun night, and didn’t mean to be alone when we’d finished clubbing. We were going to this new place we’d heard of in Clanstorm. Gary went there before and said that he was not short of offers. What could I say in response to that? I had to go. That’s what my plans were for the night. Not to be stuck in some hospital or police station giving no information to officials just because I was stupid enough to be curious. I didn’t want to see him. My stomach sank.
I left the motorway again. Across another bridge and back onto my original path. I prayed that he would be gone when I reached the spot. Despite my half-hearted prayer I drove in the slow lane and kept my speed down. It was strange to be passed by little family cars and lorries. Now I knew what they felt like. I wanted to change up gear and speed off but something held me and forbade me from driving any faster.
Damn! He was still there. That was three times I had seen him sitting there. And I had him in my mind. He was my silent presage; it was beginning to feel creepy, all unnatural. He was blocking me from thinking straight. What thoughts did get through were telling me to ‘Drive, drive, drive ...’ However, I still indicated and pulled over onto the hard shoulder.
Before seeing him there I was free from the responsibility of adulthood. My parents, I guess they spoiled me, their only child, and they still allowed me - in fact they encouraged me - to live at home while working. I used all my income to look after my car, my friends, have holidays, girls and lots of fun. No house, mortgage or serious responsibilities for me. Free to live life.
I stopped just about three metres past him and looked back at him from the mirrors. I angled the door mirror to fix him in my sights. He was not dead I thought, but he wasn’t moving much either. Just behind him I saw something else that was not normal on the motorway, especially for a hitch-hiker; he had suitcases with him. Two brown suitcases and a holdall. They matched. This was weirder than ever now. He had obviously not planned on being in this spot at this time - that much was clear, here on the side of the road was not his destination, who would plan to be here with all that luggage? How did he get here? Who left him here? My eyes squinted as I strained to see some answers in the reflections of the mirrors.
I sat watching him for a good few minutes. But they were not really good minutes as I had nothing to compare my feelings to. I had not visited these emotions before. My mum would know what to do. I went to dial her number, then, knowing that she would be aghast at my uncertainty I stopped. Mum was the original Good Samaritan; she went out of her way to help then sat in the dark suffering from the stress of other people’s problems she had picked up and made her own.
I rotated the ignition key towards from me and the powerful hum of the engine faded - it always sounded so good. Turning, I checked over my shoulder to make sure it was safe to get out of the car. I hope that nobody passing thought that my beautiful black Golf had broken down. That would never do. Nevertheless I put the hazard lights on because I didn’t want anybody to plough into it while I was following some instinct that I couldn’t name. Despite the cloud of uncertainty that held me I knew that nothing could happen to my car in this deviation from the night’s plans. That was not allowed. Ever. That car was the most important thing to me. I spent most of my salary either on accessories for it, or petrol and insurance to make sure that I could drive it when I wanted to, as fast as I wanted to and have as much pleasure from it as possible. It was the most beautiful thing ever created by man. By Volkswagen man. For me, the people.
‘Hey,’ I shouted at him from a few feet away, ‘Hey! Are you alright there mate?’
He didn’t respond.
I guess I would have been more shocked if he had responded.
Louis Vuitton cases. Original too. Clara was always going on about them. So I knew a thing or two. These were the genuine articles. The real McCoys.
Looking at him I assumed that the cases belonged to him. He was dressed well. Good threads I thought.
I moved closer and saw that his back was moving slightly. He was breathing, I was thankful then I doubted my own eyes and checked to see if it was the wind making his shirt and body sway with that almost indiscernible movement. I moved from doubt of his existence back to tenuous certainty. Thank God he wasn’t dead. I had imagined that he had died and was still in the position that death had met him and rigor mortis had cloaked him. At least I know he’s still alive. But I suddenly didn’t know why that mattered to me. Only when I knew that he was alive did I dismiss the fact that I had cared that he still survived. What was it that he had survived, and why was he here? I didn’t want to know, but I did at the same time. I hated him instantly.
I wanted to walk away. I turned but could not take the required steps.
Turning back to him, he still sat with his head obscured by the sides of his arms, I called out again.
‘Look, mate, I was just wondering if you were OK.’
Nothing. No response. No movement. No slight acknowledgement of my presence just a few steps away from him. Nothing.
Was that all I was going to get out of this obstinate lump? My rage started to build. I felt like kicking him into some reaction, but images of my mum with one of her ‘bad heads’ stopped me. I could imagine her reading the local paper saying I had been jailed for kicking a hardened man to death on the side of the motorway for no reason other than he refused to speak or explain himself to me.
The longer I though about it the harder it was to do anything. What is the right action in this situation? No matter how much thought I expended on it the answer was not available to me. This moment was unique and I was rooted to the spot. Who was he? Why did it matter to me? I wanted to be in my car on the way to the Cavern but he slipped into my head and now he won’t let go of me. And all without even the blink of an eye or whispering a word to me.
I was there. He was there, too. But time and place had disappeared. We inhabited a territory of grave silence.
His silence drowned the sounds of my thoughts. I was still. Captured and held by the stillness that surrounded me, that surrounded us, because, before I’d even acknowledged that I was no longer apart from this man, I had become linked to him. I had stopped, I had thought, I had stood and wondered. Now, the seconds had multiplied and speed past, like the traffic on the periphery of our new world, but inside of this space that we both inhabited, me as and intruder and him as the owner, inside of this space the seconds were divided and stretched beyond recognition. Being there with him was as natural as sunrise. I remembered early morning walks along Flandley Sands with my father as we looked for bright shells, star fish and lobsters: still moments I no longer usually thought about but yearned for, and now I had duplicated one of those moments, here in the middle of urban life.
The phone rang and frightened me back into the loudness of the motorway.
‘Josh? What’s keeping you man? Where are you?’ Stuart was always impatient to get the evening going. ‘You’re wasting good drinking and pulling time! Get your ass here man!’
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ I didn’t know what to say and the words slipped hesitantly out of my mouth. Now would be a good time to just get back into my car and return to normality. Thank God, I thought as I forced air in through my nose.
‘Josh?’ Stuart shouted into my earpiece, ‘Whassup?’
Had he heard my uncertainty? I was embarrassed and I looked away from the phone.
‘Nothing, Stu,’ I lied. Everything had altered, forever.
‘I’ll be there in a while, just got held up… keep one warm for me, and I don’t mean a beer!’ I tried to inject some laughter into my tone but I could not even fool myself.
‘See you in five, gotta go, the cops are in the next lane.’ Switching off the phone I looked again at the blue shirt man. The choice was simple, my friends were waiting, and plenty of unattached sex was guaranteed at the end of the night in Clanstorm - according to Gary.
My emotions ran like stampeding buffalo; there was no hope of corralling them. Suddenly the moment of fear had past.
I got him in the car without a struggle. It was as though he was waiting for me, but not only me, not even me. He didn’t care who moved him. He looked as though he was beyond caring. But he also looked as though his careless state was such a recent acquisition that he was not yet comfortable with it. Did I care? I didn’t think so. Not before that sighting. Just one second, a glance was all, as I passed the lorry and he had taken out a tenancy in my thoughts with full squatters rights.
Looking good, going to the gym, having a laugh with my mates, football of course, drinking loads and lots of sex was all I cared about. No strange silent people with piles of luggage and no words.
The fear returned. I felt a sense of uselessness wash over me; I felt like I had just fallen out of a tree and broken my leg and all my friends had already run off. I didn’t know what to do next. The pain of his silence made my breathing hard. I even had to strap the seat belt on him - I don’t usually wear seat belts, except when I see the police doing stops, but I strapped both of us into the car. I was afraid, yes, that’s it, I was afraid to damage him any more. He did nothing to help me decide how to react. He remained blank.
It was years before I knew what happened to put him in that state. But it changed me because he wouldn’t leave my mind even when I had dumped him, and his expensive cases, all in tact, at the nearest police station. That in itself was unusual for me. I was not a fan of the police, I was always trying to keep out of their way, now here I was being a good citizen, helping a man who seemed to have given up his mind to another time, it was not obvious if he had lost it, but it looked more like he had chosen to stop being his old younger self and allowing himself to be someone else, someone new, who didn’t care about late arrivals for flights, luggage, football, women. Damn idiot! He behaved like all was foreign to him, everything was new and abhorrent. He twisted time to his own measure. And I was now in his tunnel.
His name was Jason Prentice.
A banker, merchant banker as well. The guy was loaded. He had all the platinum cards and thousands of Euros in his wallet. On his way to Switzerland by the travel documents that he had. I had to look to know what to call him. The name seemed to mean nothing to him. He didn’t react when I spoke.
‘Jason? Is that your name, mate? What you doing here then?’ His head was now rested on his chest as if his neck muscles had ceased to function. I was angry again. What the hell was he up to? Why didn’t speak? Then I thought maybe he’d had a stroke or something, but then he moved to the car all right, just a little heavy with his step that’s all. God in heaven! This was beginning to really piss me off!
The drive to Tweedton Police station was tortuous. I couldn’t explain why I’d brought him there and he wouldn’t explain anything. I spoke to Stuart and Gary on Monday when I got back to work. Mum fed me with chicken soup when I got home that Friday night because she said I looked like I was coming down with something; I didn’t object although I didn’t taste anything that I ate. I was numb. I ate to please her then I slept for the rest of the weekend. Well, I stayed in my room, turned off my phones, and tried to understand why.
All I saw was a man travelling from his past to his future, a man that was stuck in transition (or had he reached his destination?). To me he looked like a pilgrim.
Jason Prentice. Travelling man. He emptied his mind and past into his suitcases. The only sign he made was by refusing to touch his luggage again. Like a cobra poised to strike him he reeled back from the designer bags when they were presented to him three weeks later in St. Jude’s Hospital. He was on his way.
There was no compromise. He separated his lives.
Nobody comes to see him, except me. I walk across the town to the hospital, I walk and I think. I think as I walk, thinking, questioning myself without resolve. Then I watch him through the long glass windows from the gardens or the corridor. I can’t get any closer.
© Marjorie H Morgan 2012