Mark Simpson picks up more than he bargained for
A couple of miles past Newark, bored and hot and top down, I zoom past a crop-haired sexy young lout in a T-shirt and jeans with his thumb out. I eye him in the rear-view mirror as he shrinks into the distance.
I don’t give lifts to hitchhikers. It’s asking for trouble.
OK, so I used to hitchhike everywhere myself years ago when I didn’t have the price of a bus ticket to my name. But now I have my own car, things have changed. I now realise the Daily Mail was right: hitchhikers are layabouts and bad news. Only loonies, drug addicts and convicts hitch-hike these days. Letting a complete stranger into your car and your nicely ordered life is a bad idea. It’s dangerous. It’s messy. It’s daft. Unless of course, they’re cute.
I brake. Hard.
In the rear-view mirror the lad sees me pull over but seems hesitant. I twist around and shout: “Well, c’mon then mate! Do you want a lift or not?” He finally runs up to the passenger-side window.
“Where are you headed?” I ask.
“London, mate,” he says.
I look him up and down. In his mid-twenties, he’s not bad looking, but he isn’t as cute as he was at 75mph. But then, who is? He could do with a bath. And he definitely looks like trouble.
“Get in,” I say, leaning across and opening the door. “I’m headed for Cambridge,” I lie. “I can take you another thirty miles.”
“Nice one!” he says with a wide grin, jumping in.
Rejoining the flow of cars headed south, we chat the casually polite chat of hitchhikers and drivers. I introduce myself; he introduces himself as “John, but me mates call me Jonno”. He tells me he was in Newark “visiting relatives” and now he’s on his way back home to Dover: “I’ll catch the train in London”.
He tells me about his wife and his three-year-old daughter in Dover: “I love that kid to bits – I live for her mate”. We pass a sign:
London: 60 miles
“I’m really glad you stopped mate,” he says for the third time.
“Yeah?” I say. “S’funny. You seemed a bit reluctant at first. Thought you were going to run away.”
Jonno looks a bit sheepish. “Well, thing is mate, to be totally honest wiv you, there are some people after me. I owe money to some geezers in Newark. I thought you might have been sent by them – not being funny, but you look a bit of a bruiser mate!”
“Don’t worry,” I reassure him. “It’s just for show. What do you owe them money for?’
“Oh. This and that.”
Jonno shifts in his seat and shakes his head. ‘No – no way mate!’
“Look, it doesn’t matter to me.”
Jonno looks down at his hands. “Well, to be totally honest wiv you mate, it was drugs. But only speed, and a bit of hash. Nothing hard. I’m trying to get off the shit, you know? I’m trying to get clean. I’ve gotta think of the kid, man. I can’t be fucked up around her, can I?”
“No, mate. Not a good idea.”
London: 30 miles
“Mark mate, haven’t we passed the sign for Cambridge?”
“Yeah. To be totally honest with you, I’m going to London, not Cambridge. I usually don’t tell hitchers how far I’m going in case we, er… don’t get on.”
“Oh, right mate. I understand.” Jonno grins at me. “So you’re going to London? Sorted!”
“So…” I probe, “what were you really doing in Newark?”
“You’re not stupid, are you? Well, to be totally honest wiv you I was on remand there for a week.”
“Really?” I say casually, trying not to look too interested.
“Yeah. Nothing serious though. Just non-payment of a fine, like. Never again. It was disgusting in there mate. Hottest week of the year in a shithole with no showers or change of clothes. I fucking stink mate.”
“Yeah, I noticed! So what was the fine you didn’t pay?”
“Well, to be totally honest wiv you mate, I was done for breach of the peace and criminal damage. I kicked my ex-wife’s door down because she wouldn’t let me see my kid. I was really drunk at the time, I didn’t know what I was doing.”
“So, you’re not with your wife any more?”
“No mate. We separated a couple of years back, and she lets me see my kid once a week. But she wouldn’t that night coz I was steaming. I ‘ate prison. I was sent to borstal when I was thirteen and had the shit kicked out of me. It was that bad I tried to top meself.” He holds out his hands, wrists uppermost, revealing a pair of ropy white scars across his dirty wrists.
Jonno continues: “I only ended up in borstal coz me stepdad used to knock me about. He used to kick the shit out of me mum and I tried to stop ‘im, and so he turned on me. The worst of it was, she was egging ‘im on! Didn’t spend much time at home after that. Fell in wiv a bad crowd.”
London: 20 miles
“I’ve got some mates who live in London,” Jonno announces, as the sun lowers itself into a red bath on the Western horizon. “They live in Soho. Is that anywhere near you?”
“No,” I say. ‘I live a very long way from Soho – as far as you can get without actually leaving London. Your friends must pay a lot of rent to live there.”
“Yeah, but they don’t care. They make a packet.” Pause. “To be totally honest wiv you, they’re on the game, if you know what I mean.”
“Yeah, I know what you mean.”
“They’re gay,’ he adds, driving the point home. He looks at me anxiously. “You don’t mind gay people do you?”
“No, I don’t mind gay people,” I lie. “Actually, some of my best friends are gay.”
“Really? Sorted. I was a bit worried there, coz some people really hate gays.”
“Terrible isn’t it?” I say.
London: 10 miles
“Are you sure you don’t mind gay people?”
“OK. Well, to be totally honest wiv you, right, I swing both ways.” Jonno steals a sideways look at me.
“Yeah?” I say.
“Yeah. That’s not a problem is it?”
“Nah,” I say. “Not at all. Everyone’s thought about it, at least once, haven’t they?”
“I like women and that, but I also like, y’know a really good seeing to by someone who takes control. Well,” he laughs, “in the bedroom, not in real life like me mum does!”
Like your true destination, you don’t tell a hitch-hiker your real orientation until you’re certain you want to go all the way with him. But I can see that this lad has the measure of me and where this car journey is headed. It’s a balmy evening; it’s sort of spontaneous. He’s rough, he’s certainly ready.
But I’m not. And not just because he’s not washed for a week. I’ve heard much too much for it to be casual. We’ve come too far.
It’s dark when we arrive in London – without any unplanned stops at bushy lay-bys. I drop him off. He shakes my hand firmly looking me in the eye: “Cheers, Mark, thanks for the lift,” he says, a faint flicker of disappointment in his face. “It was good talking to you.”
And he’s gone.
I drive off. A minute later I suddenly feel I have to speak to him again. I turn the car around. Maybe to lend him some money – I’m sure he hasn’t got any for the train to Dover. Maybe to be ‘totally honest’ with him. Maybe to offer him a place to crash. Or have a bath.
But there’s no trace of Jonno. He’s dissolved into the warm, unfriendly London night.
Like I said, it’s a bad idea letting a complete stranger into your life.
Some details have been changed to protect the innocent.
(Originally appeared in Attitude, 2000. Collected in Sex Terror)