The following story is a guest post by Graham Reiboe.
The Polo bucked. I stamped on the accelerator, and we were slammed back in our seats as it thundered down the street. I slowed down, checking the rear-view mirror as I did so. My date looked at me, understandably puzzled, and turned to look through the back window.
‘What’s wrong?’ she said. ‘Did I miss something?’
Everything was wrong. And she hadn’t missed a thing. In fact, she had pointed it out – a battered red pickup with a loud bumper sticker: ‘Save the Hedgehog’. What she didn’t know was that the house in front of which it was parked was mine, and that though twenty-seven and a property owner – albeit a small one – my parents still checked up on me.
They visited because they thought I needed the support. According to doctors I was obese. But since this was how I had always been, I tended to forget the label. They couldn’t. It seemed to be more their problem than mine. My problem was their tireless concern.
‘It’s nothing,’ I said, giving what I hoped was a convincing smile.
We were on our way to a nearby hill which I was reluctant to reach. I had planned to stop at home for a torch since it was getting dark, and while there surprise my fellow comic enthusiast with an eclectic collection, hoping she’d forget the view that I’d promised – a view that didn’t exist.
I had told her about it when I first met her. Stepping into character as the local tour guide, I got carried away and added colourful touches to the places seldom visited. It turned out that she preferred the mundane, and the tree-capped mound I had mentioned appealed to her. Now I was stuck. That hill was our next stop.
I realized she was waiting for an explanation so I lied.
‘I’ve had two settings in this car since it was serviced: not enough or too much.’
I pulled a face and she laughed. That laughter could have been in my sitting room. Damn. I absentmindedly struck the steering wheel, so continued drumming on it. I began to hum as well – a Chuck Berry tune. When I realized which one it was I stopped. My face felt warm. She smiled as if she recognised it but said nothing, and turned to watch dog walkers, evening strollers and the local chippy customers drift by. This was the fourth village we were driving through, yet her interest hadn’t flagged.
Leticia Finch, born in Cincinnati, recent escapee from a PhD programme (not for discussion), holidaying with gramps (maternal) and half-way through a revitalising tramp across England; this island was a ‘doable’ size, apparently. She had pitched up while I was keeping a glass of cranberry juice company at The Last Buck Inn, a brooding spot of mine a mere two-mile hike from my front door. She had wandered over to where I sat and dumped her rucksack beside me on the bench. She collapsed onto the next one and told me she had cheated, hitchhiking the last ten miles. Thirty minutes later when she got up to see about her room – meaning to extend her stay as her feet wouldn’t play anymore – I insisted on carrying her bag in for her.
I would have given her an hour long foot massage if she had asked for one.
In our half hour chat, her eyes hadn’t strayed from my face to the bulk that was me. And she wasn’t pretending not to notice, either. It was easy to spot those who wanted to stare and tried not to; they had a constant upward flicker in their eyes. Or they would focus on an ear, or over my head. She hadn’t done any of these.
I suggested dinner which she thought was a swell idea as she was ravenous. She wasn’t coy about her appetite. I liked that too. All through dinner I anticipated a let-down that still hadn’t arrived when the bill came. And when she playfully pushed my hand away from it and said that I could pay the next time, I was putty.
‘Have you lived here long?’ she said.
‘Only all my life,’ I said.
‘Perfect. You could be the tour guide,’ she said, helping herself to the After Eight on my saucer.
‘At your service.’ I was in heaven.
So here we were, two days later, cruising between villages with the windows down. Most of the time she had her head stuck out of the window, letting the breeze mess about with her hair. Occasionally her gaze would fix on a point as we drove past. The few times I glanced across for a look, I glimpsed a wind-swept tree, a derelict bus shelter, the silhouette of a spire, something ordinary. Yet it was perfect – the silence, her, the familiar scenery.
I had meant to come clean about the view but didn’t get a chance. She opened her door before the car stopped and was running towards the trees, whooping, seconds later. She stopped at the tree line and half turned, so I hurried across the road, thinking she was waiting for me. She wasn’t. She was breathing in lungful’s of earthy smells before setting off again and howling pure energy. I looked around, worried that we might disturb someone. The closest lights were at least ten minutes away and there weren’t cars about, but I worried anyway.
Finally, she quietened down and the only sounds were of fallen leaves crunching, branches rustling and an intermittent questioning birdcall.
‘Be careful,’ I shouted, as I heard a skidding and a thud.
‘I’m good,’ she yelled back, laughing.
It was too dark for both of us to be silly, I told myself, and decided that since I was both driver and guide I had to be the more sensible. Using the phone to light my steps, I followed at a cautious pace.
She was sitting cross-legged on a log when I reached her. In front of her, a U-shaped gap in the trees framed a blackness in which clumps of distant lights nested. She had found a view. Then I noticed her eyes were shut. I lowered myself onto the log and tried to control my breathing which sounded like a leaky tire pump being overworked.
‘Are there any local legends?’ she said, her eyes still shut.
‘No. I don’t think so.’
She opened her eyes.
‘Which is it?’ she said.
‘What?’ I said.
‘Which is it, no or I don’t think so?’
‘I guess it’s a no,’ I said.
‘You’re not certain it’s no, or you know it’s no?’ She was smiling.
‘I know it’s a no,’ I said. ‘Oh, I don’t know.’
She was laughing before I’d finished speaking. My reluctance to disturb the quiet, which was beginning to irritate, stopped me from joining in.
‘Oh I don’t know,’ she said, mimicking me.
It was all there – the head tilt, the shrug, the protruding lower lip. She had set herself off again, and I found myself grinning. I was used to being laughed at, used to endless weight-related jokes – on the fit of my shorts, the way I ran, the way I ate. This was different. And her laughter sounded clean.
She shut her eyes again and straightened her back. She seemed to be communing with the hill and I half expected her to hum, but she didn’t. I thought I’d give it a go and closed my eyes too. I felt a right dolt. Giving up, I opened them and focused on the blue-black above in which a crescent, partly hidden by drifting clouds, glowed. I’d sooner have contemplated her profile.
Back at the car she asked about cemeteries. We strolled down the road to the little churchyard on the corner. She clambered over the low wall and wandered between drunkenly leaning headstones in militant rows. I remained where I was and watched her while I racked my brain for local stories. I knew of a roman battle site locally, but where it was precisely, who had fought and why, I hadn’t a clue. And nothing remained from my school days except maths and toilet doors covered in my minuscule graffiti. She returned holding a weathered flower; one of a dozen scattered by the wind she said. I blurted out, ‘I lied about the view.’
She let me help her climb back over.
‘But there was a view, she said.
‘I know,’ I said.
She stared at me for a moment.
‘It wasn’t just the view I was after,’ she said.
‘The climb was fun,’ I said, ‘though I struggled a bit.’
She held her hair back from her face.
‘Everyone’s got something they struggle with,’ she said.
I thought she was going to say something else, but she didn’t.
Soon after we were driving through a maze of narrow lanes among meadows and fields, lanes I had never bothered to explore.
‘Do you believe in horoscopes?’ I asked.
‘No,’ she said. ‘Do you?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘But sometimes I wish I did. It would be easier, wouldn’t it?’
‘Maybe too easy,’ she said.
She hadn’t said much since we left the hill, but she didn’t show signs of being bored. Soil, freshly manured, announced itself on the wind. I glanced over. She seemed oblivious to it. But when we hit the mother lode her sides expanded as she sucked in the air and all that came with it. I couldn’t see her face, but I was certain she was smiling. I was smitten.
‘Ice cream?’ I said.
‘Hell yeah,’ She leaned forward. ‘Where do we get that around here?’
Her eyebrows almost touched when she frowned.
‘Close by. A hotel, of sorts.’
‘Yummy,’ she said, settling back and resting her bare feet on the glove compartment. ‘You don’t mind, do you?’
‘Course not,’ I replied.
Mind? I loved it, all of it. Even the purple nail polish. I fought the insane urge to tell her that I and everything I owned were at her disposal forever, and I was still grappling with it when we arrived at The Copper Spaniel. That I wanted to say it was exhilarating. That I meant it made me queasy.
We studied the menu at the bar. I guessed she’d have a Mango and Passion fruit; she choose a Raspberry Ripple. She guessed I’d go for Cointreau and Orange; I ordered a Cheshire Plain. She asked if we could have them in cups to take out. The bartender said they’d do cones if we liked.
‘Awesome,’ she said.
She wandered about while we waited, examining beams, posts and fire places, oblivious of the guests at the tables. Sometimes she’d wave and point to a painting, and I’d nod from my seat. Other times she’d pick an object – a bellow, an ornamental tea pot – and hold it up for me to see. The bar staff stared at me; I stared back.
We returned with our ice-creams to the car, and she hopped onto its bonnet. I didn’t dare. I leant on it instead. We watched night truckers drone by in their incandescent trucks.
‘Has yours got bits in?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I mumbled.
‘Then why are you chewing it?’
Ears, cheeks and forehead combusted in turn. Trying to act unconcerned I attempted a lick and failed spectacularly. I shoved a large glob of Cheshire Plain down my front. I lowered my ice-cream before it melted in the heat of my face.
A cool hand rested on my cheek, and then she kissed me. Completely.
‘I was curious, that’s all,’ she said.
She wiped my shirt front. That was nice. Really nice. Really, really nice. After that she returned to slurping her ice-cream while I went back to chewing mine; but now she had an arm across my shoulders and I had mine around her waist. We watched the empty road.
As we finished the cones she said, ‘I’m not too forward, am I?’
‘No. Just the right amount,’ I said.
And for that I got a feature length breath-stopping kiss.