Southwest France. A Thursday. 2.15 p.m. Freshly painted white kerbs border the service station slip-road, enclosing small areas of stubby grass that looks like rubbery AstroTurf. No weeds, no variation. From beneath mini-palm tree fronds, salty-smelling water spurts from tiny rotating sprinklers. It feels more like a five-star hotel driveway than a motorway-stop exit, except for the occasional rumble of a truck a few metres away. Not a great drop-off, but there is still time to reach today’s destination. A post-lunchtime slot should bring opportunities. No need to make a sign; there is only one way to go – south, to the border. I find a dry spot in the June sunshine. Things could be worse. Sitting back against the metal frame of my rucksack, I am on the look-out for a sixty-six license-plate to Perpignan. I stretch and cross my legs. My newly-repaired desert boots feel like dynamite; brought back from the dead by a young Welsh guy, who carried a mad set of needles wrapped in a cloth in the side pocket of his big old army surplus rucksack. He was in front of me in a post-office queue, struggling to send a package home; my French got him out of it. He has been fixing things on his world trip for the past five months, spreading the good Karma. A few cars appear. I stick my thumb out and smile, mirror shades pushed up on my head. A family of Brits zooms past, hooting and waving, kids hanging out the windows. The mum shrugs, dad shakes his head. A couple of yuppie sales-types in a beautiful amber-coloured Citroen DS smirk at me. An old guy in a Renault 4 seems to think about it, but no; maybe it was just a memory passing. Then quiet for about half an hour. Was that it? Pushing three o’clock. A bit worrying. Here comes a slow one. A small four-door family car lolls round the corner and lurches to a stop. As I open the door, the driver is removing junk from the passenger seat. She leans back to clear one side of the back seat and points at my rucksack. Inside smells of cigarettes and a long trip. There is none of the usual banter. She just does a tired, world-weary wave that says, come on, it’s obvious I’m taking you, so get in. She could be in her forties. It is hard to tell. Her thick dark hair falls around her face and she is wearing large brown sunglasses. She looks like a film actress whose career has hit the rocks or who doesn’t want to be recognised. Despite the warmth of the car and the day, she has on a thick dark jumper. It feels bad form, but I put on the seat belt straight away. I don’t know why. She glances in the mirror in a fearless, cursory manner like a gangster might, and shoots off. The same techniques are deployed to get out into the traffic. It’s good the road is quiet. She settles into the slow lane, driving as if the car is on autopilot, arms flopped across the wheel. ‘Where you heading?’ she finally asks. I am no expert, but I guess French isn’t her first language. ‘Barcelona, eventually.’ ‘Where you from?’ ‘UK. What about vous?’ I ask. ‘I come yesterday from Lille, in the north. I go to Madrid.’ She pauses. ‘To sign divorce papers.’ It is a deadpan delivery, like she is telling the time. One arm leaves the wheel. The car veers a touch. She straightens it up and looks ahead while rummaging under the gear stick. She finds a soft blue packet of Gauloises, drops it in her lap and shakes one loose. I spot a green plastic bic lighter and pass it over - to save her the trouble and to help keep her eyes on the road. ‘Merci.’ She offers me one, before dropping the packet back under the gear stick. It lands between two small brown bottles with wrap-round printed labels. She draws on the cigarette as if it isn’t there, then awkwardly rolls down her window as if it is the most onerous, irritating task in the world, and flicks ash into the slipstream. She sighs and works to get comfortable. Two thirds into her cigarette she chills a little. A hint of a smile appears. ‘For what is a good-looking boy like you going to Barcelona? A girl?’ ‘No, to see friends. Maybe to find a job.’ Not the answer she was hoping for, by the looks of it. She lifts her sunglasses, squints into the light, and puts them back. We hit a classic French B-road; long, Roman, with rows of poplars either side. Nothing much is happening and there isn’t much chat. She shifts in her seat and yawns. ‘I’ve been driving all night,’ she says, while taking a sky-blue pill out of the smaller bottle. She takes it with some water. Before long, whatever is in her little brown bottle isn’t helping her driving. Whether due to fatigue or the pills, the car isn’t travelling so straight anymore. We are either too near the middle of the road or too near the kerb. We get to a stretch that runs along a river. It narrows by a promenade, full of families and groups of friends, with a holiday resort vibe. The rear right-hand hubcap scrapes the kerb. My driver doesn’t seem to notice. The car begins doing long lazy slow-motion swerves. As we pass a huddle of pedestrians there is a chilling light thud. Was that someone’s arm she hit? I shoot around to check. Everyone is standing as normal. Hopefully, it was a bag. ‘Did you hear that? Are you okay?’ I ask. ‘I’m okay.’ She sits up a little, as if to prove it. But instead, the car veers to the centre of the road. Luckily, there is nothing coming towards us. ‘I’m fine,’ she says. We get out into the countryside, all hills and bendy roads. The river is hidden behind trees. I have got to get out, though it is the middle of nowhere. I am shit at confrontation. ‘Can you let me out?’ I say. ‘Why? There’s nothing here. I can take you to the next ville.’ ‘You need to stop – you’re not driving straight.’ Her response is so slurred that I can’t make it out. Her head nods and her arms go limp against the wheel. It is like she has been switched off. We are going about thirty. There is no traffic about. She slumps forward. As I grab the wheel to keep the car on the road, her hands drop into her lap. I feel the stiffness of the wheel as I straighten our path. Loosening my seatbelt, I stretch a foot over to the brake pedal. There is an opening in the hedgerows leading to an off-road track. I get us in there and the car rolls to a halt. I put the handbrake on. She is out cold. I don’t know why she changed so quickly. It must have been the pill – maybe on top of booze or fatigue. God knows. I get out and pull my rucksack out the back. I put it on the dusty ground, away from the car, and go back to close my passenger door. She is mumbling now. ‘Where are you going? Stay with me!’ The way she says it - I don’t want to get close to her. ‘Go home,’ she murmured. ‘Go back to her.’ I pause. She takes a breath and raises her voice. ‘Go back to your wife. Go home to your woman.’ I shut the door and rush away, feeling like I have seen a ghost. Turning onto the road, I take a final glance. There is a big heap of aggregate behind the car – it must be a gravel pit. I can’t see how she is. Hopefully, she will sleep it off. It’s the middle of nowhere. Not even a pavement; just the road and trees. I start walking, one foot on the verge, checking back. I don’t want her to come past me. At a junction, there is a bridge and a sign. From the bridge I see there is a village in the valley below. Two buses are parked on the main street. That will be my route out. I feel all right - sort of. What just happened? I should have got out of the car earlier on. Idiot. But why did she change so quickly? More than that, though, I just can’t work out how she guessed that I just split up with my ex back home. I never mentioned that to her.
Robert Scott lives in Edinburgh, Scotland, UK. He has short fiction in East of the Web, EllipsisZine, Nymphs Publications, Bandit Fiction and in Popshot Magazine. Twitter: @RDScott9.