Because of the distance from town, because of the cold scraping wind, because of the loneliness – his and mine – instinctively I slow down when I see the hitchhiker.
Maybe it's because he appears so un-anchored, so unlike all other hitchhikers I've seen (and been). He is out there, standing alone, the only vertical punctuation for miles around. Usually a roadside person is attached in some way, with some innate yearning for guy rope of any nature, to some other motionless feature – be it a slow-down curve of the road, a layby, a shade tree, a pylon, a telephone pole, a concrete milestone, even the anonymous legs of a road sign.
Maybe it is also because I could ease my long legs. And my aching bum. And have a conversational break from this CD that's wearing thin. A thin as this endless plain. So I ease off the accelerator, half-intending to stop.
But I need to be sure. And in the instant, I'm not so sure. My earlier instinct has flip-flopped. As a result of my indecisiveness, I’ll coast past him, then pull over. I have time for one more assessment of him. My head swivels, so does his, but just that millisecond slower.
He is hatless – unusual in these parts – but then it had been raining not long before. And that is also unusual around here. In fact, it was the first rain in three years. And the scudding clouds promise more. This is a day of unexpected promises, of fateful languor. A day that holds to no script.
So maybe, I reason, in that seamless train of thought that hurtles on regardless of-, and faster than words, his hat has blown away. Or lies hidden under the black woollen jacket folded over his arm.
Oh shit-schieze! The thought train clickety-clacks into rapid panic-action again. Too slow! What else has he hidden under the jacket? What is he holding in his hidden hand? Is it a weapon? Urban paranoia rears, ugly, in me – and is alleviated immediately by a guileless smile of relief spreading across his face. My assessment? Country boy. Heading somewhere. Like me, I suppose. Heading somewhere.
Same difference. Different gender. Different agenda. We can get along. We can share a car.
I would have preferred to see his eyes, but they are hidden, too, behind wrap-around sunglasses. Very scratched. A visual analogy to the gravel-rattle sound the car makes as it skids the last metre, and the steering wheel kicks as we trip over the edge of the tar seal.
Over the edge of the world, and into the silence of the anonymous roadside. A spot with no tree, no marker, no memory. No view to speak of, either - unless you consider an endless plain of knee-high bluebush scrub a view, that is.
So I end up a few lengths ahead of him. The car shudders to a halt. I had forgotten to do the clutch thing. Not a dignified bivouac. I swing out of the car, stand to face him. And freeze.
I am – was – on my way to do a story. A big one, too. One I have broken, and am chasing for all I’m worth. Which is not much, junior reporter, with maybe a future. Now that novel-writing has died a withering death, an unwatered vegie patch of forlorn hope in an immensity of indecision. Of no stories to tell. So you just report on them.
That’s if this story doesn’t get the paper shut down, or the editor and I thrown in indefinite detention too. Along with our protagonists.
I had felt I was pursuing some crusade. I remember raising my voice in exasperation in front of the editor “But there are people dying out there, and nobody knows about it! Nobody cares! It's wrong – ”
That was before his hand went up in benevolent interruption, his slow, knowing smile (maybe he was passionate, one day, too; passionate about more than his radio-controlled aircraft). And that knowing smile that melded into a slow but firm nod of affirmation. That nod said, I haven't forgotten passion, it's just buried perhaps.
Aloud, he said, “Yes, go do it. But be careful. I couldn't face your parents if you were detained too. The story by next week?”
But suddenly, on this remote roadside, in this biting wind, I feel I’m in another story. In a world beyond the next week, the next story, and the scandal we are about to expose. Not newspaper stuff. Something else.
What he does have under the jacket is a stick.
A white stick, with a worn pink rubber end, like an old dog’s rig exposed.
And I am held, enthralled, rigid, in the fold of the car door as I watch the stick end delicately arc forward, find the earth, confirm orientation against the lip of the tar seal, and start tap-tapping towards me. I am as hypnotised by the pink rubber end rhythmically tapping sweeping, coming closer.
His footfall is firm and steady, though slow.
“Hey, thanks for stopping,” is all he says. His voice, frankly, is lovely.
I say nothing.
His foot splashes gently in a puddle of orangey mudsoup.
He pauses. Delicately removes his foot from the puddle, shakes it gently, shuffles half a pace forward to drier land. His stick end finds the toe of my shoe. He stops, with a slight weaving, like a dry tree in the wind. His head cocks, sweeps one way then back, as if his nose needs to scan the air either side.
“You there?” he asks. Then with soft irony: “Could have sworn someone stopped.”
“Yeah, hi, it’s me.”
“And who is me?”
I must take a breath, before I answer with my name – or at least the half-a-name (the dorky middle names, mostly secret, but still mine) I choose to use in moments not needing full disclosure. I've found it's a useful ploy, in moments of deliberate distancing.
And so I say my almost-real name. I had already assumed this name for my assignment. But at the same time, I am aware that he is aware of my miniscule hesitation.
He replies with his: “Jason – no Argonauts, I’m afraid.” His voice sweeps over me, displacing the cold-front wind. It is deep, and familiar, and warm, and has a hidden laughter in it. I find myself wishing I could catch his scent, but the wind whips that away from me. In the car… I predict, mentally. But why is my mind advancing so fast, so uncontrollably, so skittishly?
He reaches, wobbly, with his left hand. I extend mine, and the two hands hover for an instant over the red earth, buffeted ever-so-slightly by the insistent wind. Our flapping trousers provide a muted, percussive soundtrack. My hand must do the finding of his. His fingers are cold, but his grip firm. The awkward, wrong-side handshake lingers for just a nano-second longer than it should. I feel he is assessing me, through touch. Again, I see his nostrils flaring delicately.
He murmurs “Faith Heather. Sounds like a second name.”
Pause, and, “But you could be Medea.”
Another pause, and “Where are we going?”
Then, after a gap in which I don't reply, “May we take a picture of this spot?” he asks, and expecting agreement, hands me a small digital camera, rounded and blue and looking like a miniature submarine with its lens looking up like a little conning tower. An underwater camera.
“What do I shoot?”
“Me, and what's behind,” he sweeps an arm on one side, his stick to the other. Holds the pose, a half-grin fixed. I frame his cruciform outline to the edges of the viewfinder. He tenses, then relaxes slightly after the click.
“One more - I always find the second one is better.”
I step back half a pace, to let some space in around him. The immensity obliges. Another click. He's right, I think it is a better picture. He holds out his hand for the camera. I make sure our fingers touch again, ever so briefly, in the handover.
“That lift still going?” he asks. And I nod dumbly; and strangely, I do feel he reads this. Words not always necessary. And yes, that lift is still going. Only now I'm not so sure where to.
“Car's this way.”
“I know,” he says, and I see his free hand is already sliding smoothly along the boot, across the window, and seeking out the door handle. It's set in motion, then.
As he is fumbling, replacing the camera, a business card flutters from his jacket pocket, and trips haltingly into the scrub, like a wagtail in futile search for nourishment. The card sticks on a twig, quivering in the wind, threatening to fly away again. I retrieve it.
In spiky ink-pen handwriting (with one small smudge) it says:
Who are we
if not to follow?
And so we follow.