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Andy’s been talking all day. Not that he’s really talking to me. Just talking. He’s slumped in his seat with his feet up on the dashboard, sunk so low that it’s impossible for him to see anything outside. Only empty sky. Most of what he says is gibberish but then, out of blue, he’ll start making sense again, as if he’s hit a stretch of clear road and everything is normal...

‘...it’s just you and me, girl, and we’re driving along when we come to a hold-up and I can’t see what’s up ahead ’cos there’s a long line of cars but then we get to the front of the queue and it’s road works except they won’t let us through and there’s a man holding a Stop sign which we sit and watch for a while. Then I notice the man is throwing stones at something and when I look closer I can see that it’s a tiny animal, almost dead, too weak to move, and that makes me angry so I wind down the window and start having a real go at him and that’s when a funny thing happens... I recognise the bloke as a kid I knew at school. At the back of my mind now I’m trying to work out whether, now that we’re grown up, I can talk to him like this and whether he’ll respond to me like he would to a complete stranger, or whether he’ll recognise me too and think that he can talk to me differently than he would to someone he doesn’t know. And if he does recognise me, can I change the tone of what I said into something less threatening that acknowledges that we share a common history or is it too late for all that?

We drive on and I never get to find out...’

That’s what it’s like, on and on. I don’t even know what he’s talking about. All I want to do is get back to the man and the woman in the city but at this rate I’m never going to make it. I’ve got enough on my plate with Andy.

I’m wondering what I can do to silence him when I see a car up ahead. It’s parked by the side of the road with the bonnet up, a cloud of steam pouring out of the engine. I throttle back, preparing to stop while still ready to accelerate away if necessary. Maybe we’ll just drive by and take a look. Andy stops talking and sits upright, looking straight ahead. I can’t see anybody about but, as the engine note drops, a man appears from around the front of the car and I start to have second thoughts.

He’s a big guy, wearing black and white striped shorts, purple T-shirt and no shoes. And he’s alone. I can tell that straightaway and it makes me want to drive on. There’s something about single people out here. Too vulnerable, too obvious. It isn’t right. You can’t help wondering what’s wrong with them. Still, it’s too late to drive past now. I’m committed. The man stands in the middle of the road and holds his hand out, signalling to me to stop. I pull alongside his car and he leans in at Andy’s window. He’s got a round pink face, the colour of somebody who’s had a bit too much sun, and a couple of days’ growth. Little driblets of sweat are trickling down his temples. Andy sits dead still, staring straight ahead.
‘Having a bit of trouble?’ I say. The man looks at Andy, who ignores him, and then across at me.
‘Radiator’s buggered,’ he says. I can see what he wants me to say next and even though I don’t want to say it, I say, ‘Do you want a lift?’

The man nods and I expect him to go and get his stuff from the car but he doesn’t. He just hops in the back, leaving his car as it is with the bonnet up. There’s a load of junk on the back seat but he pushes it to one side and slides right in. I rev the engine a couple of times and accelerate hard, forcing the man back into his seat. I’m watching him in the rear view mirror and, as we pull away, his face relaxes and he wipes his brow with his hand. At the last moment, he turns round and watches his car disappear from sight. At least I figure he’s looking at the car.

Nobody says anything. Andy still hasn’t moved, not even to acknowledge the man’s presence, but that doesn’t surprise me. I’m waiting for the man to start talking, if only to say thanks for our help, but when I look at him, he’s staring blankly out of the window. Eventually the silence gets to me and I have to say, ‘Where are you going?’

Immediately the man leans forward, pushing between the two front seats until his head is between Andy’s and mine.
‘I dunno,’ he says. ’Where are you going?’

The man sits like that for a while, staring ahead at the road. Out of the corner of my eye, I can see a white scar along the length of his jaw where no stubble is growing. Eventually he looks at Andy, looks at me and says, ‘So are you two together or what?’
Andy turns to the man and says, ‘You mean do we fuck?’
It’s the first time he’s acknowledged the man’s presence and, after he’s said it, he goes back to looking out of the window, hardly moving. The man says nothing. I can hear him breathing heavily beside me. Then he says, ‘I dunno. But you look like brother and sister.’

Andy snorts but doesn’t say anything. There’s silence then and everybody is left alone with their thoughts. Eventually the man gets to wherever his thoughts have taken him and he speaks again:
‘Have you heard about this tribe run by women? The men can go hunting and stuff like that but they can’t make any decisions, so if something needs to be done then the women have to do it, they make all the rules, they do it all, like who must marry who and so on, and one of the rules is that brothers and sisters aren’t allowed to talk to each other.’
‘Are they allowed to fuck?’ says Andy, quick as a flash, and then the man is looking at Andy, not sure if he’s joking or what, and his face is getting redder and redder, a look of astonishment in his wide-open eyes as if somebody just poked him in the ribs with a sharp stick. I can tell he doesn’t like Andy’s attitude, but that’s alright. I don’t like it either. He slumps back into his seat and everything goes quiet again.

After a while Andy begins another of his stories, a long, rambling saga about drug dealers in Marrakech and secret police in Cairo, getting sick in border towns and killing time until the money arrives. It’s all bullshit but I don’t care. Nobody’s really listening anyway. I glance in the mirror and see that the man has fallen asleep on the back seat, his head lolling about in response to the movements of the car. I start swerving from one side of the road to the other just to see his body roll, how it slides about as his weight shifts, the internal organs moving first, then his body fat following and finally his limbs flopping reluctantly behind.

All this time I’m dropping in and out of what Andy is saying even though none of it seems to make much sense. There’s something funny about it though. I keep thinking I’ve missed something but then, further on down the track, I realise that I knew what it was all along and I can’t quite believe that I was actually listening. It reminds me of a line from one of my old school reports: Does well despite not paying any attention.

I keep looking in the rear view mirror as well, although there’s nothing to see there. Nobody is tailing us. Still, I like to see how far I can drive without having to watch where we’re going. I’m only interested in where we’ve been. The road is dead straight here so if I keep the white line in the centre of the mirror then I know we can’t go wrong. It’s a real struggle to keep my eyes from flicking to the front. It helps not to think about it too much.

Andy starts another story about working as a groundsman at a posh girls’ school. One day, while marking out a hockey pitch, he looks up at the school building and sees rows of girls’ faces pressed against the windows, staring out at him. For a moment he falters, knocked out of his stride, and the white line he is tracing on the grass wobbles slightly. A resounding silence rolls across the lawns and fields. Then fixing his gaze on a distant poplar tree, he continues on his course without further deviation.

I can see what he’s doing now. As we reach a crest in the road, he starts a new story and spins it out as we roll along until we reach the top of the next slope. Then, when I look in the rear view mirror, I can see the entire length of his story stretched out behind us. It doesn’t matter where we go or how fast I drive, he still manages to make everything fit into the allotted space. All this time I thought his babbling was aimless, merely random thoughts trickling from his brain, but now I realise he has everything plotted out, measured exactly against the rise and fall of the landscape. He’s the one who’s in control. He’s only using this journey to tell his stupid stories.

It’s a weird moment. I thought I was doing the running here, filling in for him while he went missing in action, trying to keep this show on the road, and there he was all this time, off by himself, sailing his own sweet course. I probably don’t even figure in his version of events. It makes me wonder if we’ll ever meet up again somewhere further down the track. Are we travelling in parallel, pulling apart or converging on a point somewhere out of sight?

I have a sudden vision of my mother sitting in the front passenger seat of a car with the road atlas open on her lap. The map is upside down and my father is trying to turn it round the other way with one hand while steering with the other. My mother is crying. I think that was probably the last time I ever saw her, although I didn’t know it at the time.

For a long time, nothing is said. Then, as if thinking aloud, I say, ‘God, I hate your timing. It’s so fucking split second. It reminds me of my father.’

The front nearside wheel touches a patch of rough ground and I’m forced to look where we’re going. It’s only a bit of broken road though. We didn’t go off the edge.

Later on, when we finally get rid of the man, Andy makes me promise not to pick up anybody else. From now on, it will be just the two of us.