The hand-lettered sign flashed up in my headlamps and disappeared before I had time to take in what it had said. I braked hard, and reversed fast, the illegal spotlights on the back selectively picking out details of the figure who had been holding the cardboard sign and who was now bending down to a small rucksack and walking unhurriedly towards me.
Jeans, a matching jacket, and a paler poloneck jumper. The young man's head was above the top of the light, but I could see in silhouette that he had almost shoulder-length hair. Student, I guessed, come off the boat before me and still stuck in the outskirts of Ostende. Still, he -
"Luxembourg?" asked what was unmistakably a girl's voice. For a moment I was too surprised to answer.
Hitchhikers you pick up in the middle of the night looking as if they might be girls in denim trouser suits and tight fluffy sweaters just never are.
"Yes,” l replied inadequately. She got in without answering, slammed the door and lit a cigarette without offering me one. I don't smoke, but hitching does have its rules. The way she dragged on hers made me glad it wasn't my blood she was sucking.
"Been waiting long?" I asked, perhaps tactlessly.
"Uh-huh." It wasn't a promising answer.
"Just come over from England?"
"Summer vac?" This was catching.
Then I swung round a corner, provoking her longest sentence so far: "This isn't the way to the autoroute.”
"Autoroutes are for amateurs."
She didn't answer. Maybe she felt that it was a rehearsed line, though I thought I had brought it out quite unforcedly. She was starting to annoy me. OK, baby, I thought, you missed that cue, I'll make the next prompt a bit more obvious. Looking across at her out of the corner of one eye—she was attractive even with the sulky pout, and without it she would be very attractive indeed—I slipped gently down though the gears and tucked a finger under the lamps master switch.
Go. I flicked up the switch, stamped down on the loud pedal, and grinned as she clearly grabbed at her seat for support. We shot forward, rocketing into the lightning-blaze of six QI spots, the engine and the wind each trying to out-howl the other. The needle flashed well up into the red before each change, and we were just reaching the ton—even now I still think in miles—when she shivered and turned up her collar. Instantly I was all solicitousness.
"Not too draughty for you?" I shouted. "There's a headscarf in that pocket, and there'll be a rug behind your seat. Or I'll put the hood up if you like?"
She shook her head. She wasn't quitting first.
She didn't miss this cue, simply fluffed her lines slightly. "This is a very old car, isn't it?" she said as we slowed down behind a lorry. "Classic is the word I prefer." "Uh-huh?" There was definitely a questioning note there, definitely enough for me, anyway. "It's an Austin-Healey 100/6, very rare nowadays. I found it rusting in a farmyard and completely rebuilt it." "Oh."
I left it there. Given the right audience I could make the story last for hours, detailing every seized-up nut and bolt, every rusted-through body panel, every hunt for almost unfindable parts, but this audience's interest was evidently restricted to the sting on her forehead as the wind lashed it with her own hair, and the uncertainty before each bend whether the tail going to go on swinging out and hurl us off the road.
But that was reaction enough for me. My car is my catalyst. I need it like some people need drink, and others to splash their money around: to break the stranglehold of shyness, convention or a lack of self-possession. People don't so much notice I'm shy: they tend not to notice that I'm there at all. But when I am behind the big four-spoke wheel I know that I am—not the King, people who have accidents think that—but one of the kings. On the road or in conversation, it is the same, if I know that people are seeing me reflected in my fabulous Healey, my gauche reserve melts away. It doesn't matter if they're not really interested: all I need is to be able to pretend that they are. After all, it matters not one iota to the drinker that the sober man finds his too fluent speech and too obvious jokes really unimpressive: to the drinker, what matters is the internal effect on himself.
Hammering through the darkness across Belgium it was the same. After the initial shove, and the grudging, involuntary reaction, I could abandon the subject of the Healey and set about the uphill task of coaxing some conversation out of my taciturn night rider. The aggressive sullenness was still there, but it was tinged with a slight amusement. She had the student's occupational disease of regarding everyone who had finished their studies as incurably senile and irredeemably right-wing, but I felt that she wryly acknowledged my tactic of shifting the battle to my own ground instead of joining one where I was a priori declared a loser. An armed truce.
She turned out to be reading French at Cambridge, and on her way to try to find a summer job on the Riviera. She had settled on Luxembourg as a convenient distance from the coast for an overnight stop, and she was going to join the thousands of tourists who have stopped in the Grand-Duchy, got into their coaches the next day and passed on without having the least idea of what it is really like. Her timetable had been upset in England, which was why she was riding with me instead of already being at her planned destination, but, she said challengingly: "So what? I've already been there. It's just a sort of appendix of Belgium.”
I remarked mildly that I didn't consider that a view that would commend anyone uttering it to many Luxembourgers.
"Well, I don't see what else you can call it. It's neither French nor German.”
"Isn't the point rather that it's both? It tries to run itself like a little Germany, but the French side of its nature keeps breaking through and muddling things up, so that you get a unique, chaotic, but very human country. But it's still a real country, not a toy like, for example, Liechtenstein.”
She changed the subject abruptly.
“What do you do?”
"Oh, I'm just a faceless Eurocrat." It was meant to be a throwaway line to raise a smile, but I should have known better.
"Yes, I thought you must be," she said, "wearing that straight suit." That stung, particularly as my new suit was clearly considered rather bold by my department. We were just slowing for the border—though there was, as usual, no-one there with the slightest interest in the cars passing through—so my mind was not fully on the job of finding an answer or a new opening that would hide the fact that she had scored a point.
"Look," I began, "you don't want to go spending money on a hotel right at the beginning of your vac, particularly as it'll be nearly two in the morning before we get into town. I've got a spare bedroom, you're welcome to kip down there." There was a pause, and I added hastily, "My wife won't mind. She'll fix the spare bed up for you, no trouble."
I could have bitten my tongue off when I realized what I had done. I was furious with myself. The only hope was that she would think it was just a courtesy gesture, and refuse.
"Well, if you're sure your wife won't mind ..."
"Course not. No trouble."
Damn. I wonder if it is an inherent failing of quiet people that once they do start talking they always end up saying the wrong thing.
During the final fast stage through the sleeping little towns and the quiet countryside between them, I became less and less communicative, while Susan—she had told me her name just before the border—suddenly became almost merry in her own aggressive way, pressing me with dozens of questions about my wife: what did she do for a job, where had we met, how did she like Luxembourg. I answered each one briefly, all the time probing, like a sore tooth, the reason for my rage at my own clumsiness.
We all have fantasies. They don't matter until they take over from reality. And this one had. Some of the details were new, of course, and dream-Susan was more usually a colleague I met by chance or a friend of a friend I collected from the airport, only rarely a hitchhiker.
"You don't want to go on all night, don't pay for a hotel, may I see you home," I'd say. "You can have the spare bedroom. My wife will fix you up a bed. My wife will get us something to eat. Comfortable? Not too draughty? You don't mind the roof down, do you? There's a rug...." And on we would roll, hours of the sensuality of pure speed.
"In you go," I would say, "have a drink. I'll just go and tell the wife."
It was an extra finesse that it would be the girl herself who would find the note in front of the clock. "Is this for you?"
"What? Oh hell, Jane's gone to her mother's. Look, I'll run you into town and find you a hotel if you'd rather not stay." No girl with any manners could accept the offer, and she'd suddenly realize that without noticing it she had passed the 'Why don't you come back to my place' stage, and that bit had been so painless ……
And suddenly I was living the dream.
And reproaching myself furiously for it, with a bitter sense of irretrievable loss. Because the whole love-trap fantasy relied, of course, on my having put the note in front of the clock myself, on its being a fixture of the place (I even realized that it would need dusting frequently), relied in short on my not being married at all.
And I was.
Hence my scornful anger at myself for not leaving the encounter as a delicious might-have-been, for taking it one stage too far and hurtling at a hundred towards never-will-be. When reality and our daydreams merge, we are uncomfortably forced to face the inadequacies that make us need fantasies.
But I think it is significant that my daydream tended to tail off just when the girl realizes the implications of her situation. I mean, let’s be clear about this, I was, am, a happily-married man. It wasn’t sex that was the point but seduction, which is a totally different satisfaction. Old whoever it was might be right about post coitum triste, but ante coitum omne animal tells himself how clever he’s being. Well, you’ve been a bit too clever this time, haven’t you, I snarled inside as we roared through the silent streets.
As I expected, the flat was in darkness when we finally arrived. Eleven o’clock or so, Jane just keels over. "Here we are. Let's go in. Do take your coat off. I'll make some tea in a tick, when I've had a word with Jane, OK?"
She smiled, and stretched luxuriously.
"I'm fine, thanks. It was a super ride."
I smiled too, rather absently, and went quietly into the bedroom. No Jane. A note on her pillow. 'Welcome home, love. I'm sorry, Theresa's husband's been away too, and she's so dopey on her own. She came here last night, and I've gone there tonight. Do you mind? Phone you at the office, see you tomorrow evening. Your own Janekin.'
Before I had started thinking again I was halfway across the hall, the note still in my hand.
"Jane's away...." I began, and stopped, amazed, as I reached the living-room door. All the lights I had put on, except one little reading lamp, had been turned off again, the carrier bag from the duty-free shop on the boat had been ransacked and the Scotch stood on the coffee table together with two glasses, there was a Loussier record on and Susan was kneeling on the rug going through the rest of the collection.
She turned her head up to me. "I know," she said, with the laughter behind her aggressiveness that I had noticed during the ride. "You are a straight, really. I'd have come with you anyway, without all this rigmarole about a non-existent wife. May have a drink?"