The lorry pulled in at the truck stop to let Patrick off. It had carried him for over seventy miles but now it was heading north and Patrick wanted to head south-west. The driver – a stocky, ginger-haired lad and an Arsenal supporter – had talked football for most of the journey, undeterred by the obvious fact that the tall, skinny young hitchhiker he had picked up near Reading knew nothing about the subject and had frequently nodded off to sleep. They bid each other a cheery farewell.
Patrick stood alone on the wide concrete apron and watched the lorry return to the highway and disappear. He gazed around – just another service station like millions of others all over the world. Ranks of lorries parked in the distance, a few cars. A sweet wrapper scratching across the concrete in the wind.
The sun was a white disc just leavening the pale sky but the air was cold – not a day for sitting outside. On the grass the long wooden tables with integral benches where families picnicked in summer on their way to the coast were now deserted. Or almost deserted. As he entered the plate glass doors of the café Patrick caught sight of a solitary girl hunched over a cigarette and a cardboard cup of Costa coffee. He couldn’t make out her face but there was something about her body language that seemed so unbearably sad.
Having purchased an overpriced coffee of his own, Patrick went back outside, partly because he wanted a cigarette himself. The girl had not moved, so he went and settled himself on the bench across the table from her.
She did not respond at first. Then she said, “Fuck off.”
Patrick glanced at her. She was slight, pale and thin, with small, delicate features, and her bob of rather floppy hair was dyed henna. She had three rings spaced up her left ear and a silver stud in her nostril.
“Bit cold for sitting out, isn’t it?” he remarked.
“You can’t smoke inside. I needed a fag more than I needed warmth.”
“Yeah, fucking nanny state regulations. As if they give a shit whether you or I or anyone else gets cancer. They just don’t want to have to pay for our treatment.”
Patrick’s political comment invoked the same silence as his original greeting. He got out his tobacco pouch and packet of papers, laid them out on the table and proceeded to make himself a roll-up.
“Where are you headed?” he asked as he carefully sprinkled a tiny trail of tobacco along his paper.
“Well, that’s a coincidence, I’m going there myself. How are you travelling?”
“In my Porsche. How do you think I’m fucking travelling?”
“Girls shouldn’t hitch on their own nowadays. It’s too dangerous.”
“What are you, my Dad all of a sudden?”
“No. Just stating a fact.”
“Anyway, I wasn’t on my own. I was with a guy, but he fucked off and left me.”
“So am I. The bastard took all my money – what was left of it. I spent my last quid on this coffee.”
“Well, this is your lucky day. I’ve got money. I’m loaded.”
The girl grunted. “Yeah, and the Pope’s a fucking catholic.”
Patrick looked puzzled. “But… the Pope is a fucking catholic, isn’t he? Or have I missed something?”
“I know that. It was a joke.”
“Oh, right. Sorry. Anyway, I’ll prove it to you if you don’t believe me.”
The girl looked up and for the first time seemed faintly interested in him – or, at least, in the creased and weathered but promisingly chubby wallet he had fished out of his pocket. He opened it and held it out to her and she leant forward and peered at the upper edge of a neat, dense wad of blue and orange notes.
“Jesus, you have too! What did you do? Rob a bank?”
“No, I was staying with a friend. This old guy who picked me up hitching. Divorced. He let me crash at his place for a while – let me do gardening and stuff to earn my keep – and when I left he gave me a present.”
“I won’t ask what you had to do to earn it!”
Patrick laughed. “No, it was nothing like that. He was a good bloke. When I left he said, ‘Look, Patrick, I’m not rich, but I’m not poor either. I’m comfortable… and I don’t have any dependents. So I’m going to give you five thousand pounds on condition that you use it to make something out of your fucking useless disaster of a life – he didn’t use those exact words but that was the gist – get yourself somewhere proper to live, he said. Get some sort of training. Get a skill – you could become a landscape gardener, you’d be good at that. And take responsibility… for something. Or someone. Or even just for yourself.”
“I wish I had a few friends like that!” she snorted.
Patrick placed his stringy, sagging cigarette in his mouth and lit it. The sight of it caused the first twitch of a smile on her lips.
“So, this guy who took your money?” he asked, “was he your boyfriend?”
“No, just some loser I hooked up with. He needed drugs.”
“So that explains why he took your money. Money you needed for drugs.”
“No, I don’t do drugs any more. I’m clean.”
“So you’ve done rehab?”
“So… you’ve been to hell and back.”
She was silent for a moment, then murmured, “Yeah. I’ve been to hell and back.”
“But at least you’re back.”
“How long were you doing drugs?”
“I started shooting up when I was fifteen. My parents wanted me to go into rehab but I only agreed to do it if they let me live away from home without going totally apeshit. I put on a good show – made out I was a responsible young lady who was in command of her life. Got a flat-share. I even went to college for a couple of terms.”
“And how old are you now?”
“And you’re wondering why you bothered? Getting clean, I mean.”
“Something like that.”
They both lapsed into silence for a while.
“I’m Patrick, by the way” he said, extending his hand.
The girl looked at the hand for a moment, then reached out and shook it limply. “Kate.”
Patrick looked up. Beyond the main road, open farmland stretched away and upwards into a wide sweep of downs. He allowed his eye to follow their pure, clean horizon until it reached a range of sunlit hills so far in the distance it was barely distinguishable from the sky.
“You fancy going to Cornwall, Kate?” he said.
“Why? What’s in Cornwall?”
“My uncle. Uncle Jim. He’s got this little farm down there… well, it’s not really a farm, more of a smallholding. Just a few acres.”
The girl looked wary. “You mean… uncle as in… parents’ brother?”
“Nah, he’s not really my uncle, he’s just this old bugger I’ve known for years so I think of him as my uncle. He’s got a big bushy beard and wears a little hat, and you can hang out with him as long as you want, free of charge. And you don’t have to work – I mean, you can work if you want to – in the veggie garden or feeding the ducks and goats and stuff, if you feel like it. Or you can just lie in the hammock under the apple tree and go to sleep. Jim’s cool with whatever you want to do.”
“It sounds okay.”
“It is. It’s more than okay.”
“So, will this Uncle Jim of yours mind me tagging along?”
“No, of course not! He’ll love you! He loves everybody. And he doesn’t judge people.”
The girl was silent for a moment and then it was as though a switch had been thrown inside her. Her shoulders began to tremble. She lowered her face and Patrick could see tears streaming down her cheeks. She shook her head helplessly from side to side. “Oh… fuck.”
He reached out and took her hand. “Hey, Kate. Don’t cry. It’s okay.”
Her tiny white hand clung to his as thought she were drowning and he was a piece of driftwood. “I just get so fucking scared, Patrick.”
“I know. But stick with me and you won’t have to be scared ever again. I’ll look after you, Kate. I promise.”
She looked up at him, sniffed loudly and dragged a tear out of her eye with her fingertips.
“Why would you do that? You don’t even know me.”
“I do. I know you.”