The Hitch Hiker - Tim Vicary

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chapter one

The stranger
I don't usually pick up hitch-hikers, but this one was different. He wasn't young, like the others, and he didn't have a bag, or a girlfriend, or a sign with 'London' or 'Lancaster' on it. He just stood there, beside the road, with his hand out, waiting. He was a man about forty years old, in a grey suit and red tie. He was just watching the cars and waiting.
He was watching me while I slowed down. I remember his eyes. Very pale blue eyes, staring at me through thin gold glasses. They looked surprised. Perhaps I was something strange, something not quite real to him. Or perhaps he just had bad eyes. Perhaps he couldn't see very well.
I stopped the car and opened the window. 'Where are you going?' I asked.
'I'm going into town,' he said. 'Into Lancaster. Could you give me a lift, please?'
'Yes, OK,' I said. 'I'm going that way. Jump in.'
He got in and sat down beside me. 'Thank you very much,' he said. 'It's very kind of you.'
'That's all right,' I said. 'It's my pleasure.'
I started the car and thought about the words he had used. There was something strange about them. Hitchhikers don't usually speak like that. They usually say something like 'Are you going to Lancaster? Oh good, thanks a lot'. He spoke politely, like an older man. But this man wasn't very old. 'Perhaps he's foreign,' I thought.
I looked at him, and noticed something else.
'Could you put your seat-belt on, please?' I said.
He looked at me. 'I'm all right,' he said. 'I don't like seat-belts very much. I feel like a prisoner in the car.'
'It's the law, you know. And I'm a police sergeant, so I think you should wear one in my car.'
'Oh, yes. I'm so sorry. The law. Yes… yes, I forgot.' He looked around him, but for a moment he couldn't find the seat-belt.
'It's there, behind you,' I said. 'You do it like this.' I helped him to put on the seat-belt.
'Yes, thank you,' he said. 'I'm terribly sorry. I never remember these things.'
'Oh, really,' I said. 'Why? Don't you have a car?'
'No. Not now. I don't like them. I did have one once, but that was a long time ago...' For a moment I thought he would continue, but then he stopped talking and stared quietly out of the window.
I looked at him again. I'm a police officer, so it's my job to look at people and to think carefully about them. I was sure there was something strange about this man. His hair — nobody has their hair cut quite like that now.
And that suit — it was quite clean, quite new, but the trousers and lapels were wider than they usually are… Where had I seen a suit like that before?
'Do you live near here?' I asked. I was still wondering about him. Was he a foreigner?
He smiled at me. 'I live in Lancaster. In the centre of the town, in fact.'
I was listening carefully. 'He speaks very good English,' I thought. 'He speaks in the local way. I don't think he is a foreigner. But that face! It's the middle of summer now, and we've had a lot of sun this year. Why is he so pale?'
'What sort of job do you do?' I asked.
He smiled at me again. 'Oh, I don't have a job at the moment,' he said. 'That's why I don't have a car now, you see.'
'You haven't driven for a long time, then?' I said.
He looked at me again. That same quiet, surprised look. 'No, I haven't,' he said. 'Not for a long time.'
I smiled at him. 'I thought you hadn't,' I said. 'You've had to wear seat-belts in a car for many years. Sorry,' I continued. 'It's my job. Police officers always play at detectives!'
'Yes, I see,' he said. He smiled. A quiet, polite smile was on his mouth, but those pale eyes were still and empty.
Then for a moment I stopped thinking about him because there was a lot of traffic on the road. Cars were moving very slowly, and I saw a policeman in front, with several police cars and flashing blue lights.
I knew the policeman, so I stopped the car beside him. 'What's the matter, John?' I asked.
'It's an accident, Sue,' he said. 'One car stopped suddenly, and another car went into the back of it.'
'Anyone hurt?'
Three people, I think, but they don't look too bad. The ambulance will be here soon.'
'Do you need any help?' I wasn't in uniform, but I had to ask.
He thought for a moment, and I heard the sound of the ambulance. It was coming towards us. 'Well, it looks quite nasty, but we'll be OK when the ambulance comes, Sue. There are two police cars here already. But you can ask the sergeant over there, if you like. He'll know.'
'All right, John, thanks.' I drove on slowly to the accident. There was glass all over the road, and the two damaged cars were by the side of the road on the left. It seemed that one car had hit the back of the other, and pushed it off the road.
A young girl was sitting at the side of the road with a policeman. Her face was covered in blood. A man was lying on the ground beside the second car, and another policeman was kneeling beside him. The sergeant was talking to the driver of the first car, who was still in his seat.
Chapter two
An accident
I parked the car, got out, and went over to the man on the ground.
'Is there anything I can do?' I asked the policeman.
He looked up, surprised, and then he recognized me. 'Oh, it's you, Sue. I think he's OK. He's breathing, and his heart's fine. But I don't like the look of that leg.'
One of the man's legs was broken in two places. It looked like there were two knees. He was breathing, but his eyes were closed, and his face was very white.
'Can you go and help Chris with the little girl?' he said. 'I think this man is her father.'
I looked at the little girl. She was trying to walk, but she seemed confused. The policeman was holding her arm. I went over and knelt in front of her. There was blood all over her face. I couldn't see her eyes very well.
'Hello,' I said. 'My name's Sue. I'm a police officer. Can you see me?'
She wiped her face with her hand, and nodded.
'Good,' I said. 'What's your name?'
'Kate.'
Kate. OK. Kate, you heard that sound just now, didn't you? That was the ambulance. This policeman, Chris, and I are going to take you over to the ambulance, and then the ambulance men will take you to the hospital and look after you. You're going to be all right.'
'But what about my daddy?'
'He'll come with you in the ambulance. He's going to be all right, too.'
I held one of the girl's arms, and Chris held the other. We took the little girl over to the ambulance and sat talking with her while the ambulance men lifted her father and the other driver into the ambulance. When the ambulance had gone, I spoke to the sergeant for a few minutes.
'What happened?' I asked.
'I don't know yet,' he said. 'I think the first car stopped suddenly, but I can't think why. Still, that's something that we'll have to find out. It's a funny place for an accident. I can only remember one here before — about twenty years ago, I think it was. That was a nasty one, too. A young man was killed — run over by a car. I remember that a little child was hurt then, too.'
'What happened then?'
'He shook his head. 'I can't remember now. Anyway, this one'll be your job in the morning — I'm on holiday next week, remember? Thanks for your help.'
On the way back to the car, I could see one of the policemen. He was picking up the little girl's doll from the side of the road. He walked over and put it in the police car.
Chapter three
A frightened passenger
When I got back into the car, the hitch-hiker was still there. He did look very strange — for a moment, I thought he was crying.
'I'm sorry,' he said, 'but I hate accidents. Were… were they badly hurt?'
I looked at him quickly. His face was very pale. And… were his hands shaking?
'Quite badly,' I said. 'One had a broken leg, and the young girl had a lot of glass in her face. But I think they'll live.'
'Oh, good. I… I'm sorry I didn't get out, but you see… I hate seeing blood.'
I smiled. That's all right. I don't like it either, but I'm a police officer — it's my job.'
'Yes. I suppose you see a lot of accidents?'
'Quite a lot, yes. But it's funny, I've never seen one here before. The road's very straight and it was clear of traffic, and it's not dark or anything. A car stopped suddenly, and another car hit it. It's very strange.'
For a moment my passenger didn't answer. He just looked straight in front of him, the grey eyes in the pale face staring at the road and the traffic. Then he said, very quietly:
'Cars do terrible things, don't they? I hate cars. I hate them!'
I didn't say anything for a minute. Then I asked him if he had a family in Lancaster.
'Yes, I have one son. He's at the University, you know. I'd been there just now, before you picked me up.'
'Oh, really? Does he like it there?'
'Yes, I think so. Yes, he likes it very much.' He smiled at me — the same grey, pale smile. 'But I still have to look after him, you know. He does silly things, and gets into lots of trouble. He needs me, you know — I'm sure he'd have an accident if I didn't keep an eye on him all the time.'
That was a very strange thing to say about a son at university. My sister is at the University too, but I don't think my father knows what she's doing every day. I don't think he wants to know — and I'm quite sure she doesn't want her father 'keeping an eye' on her all the time!
But before I could say anything else, we had reached the centre of the town. I stopped the car outside the cemetery.
'If you want the centre of the town, this is the best place,' I said. 'I'm driving home after this.'
'This is perfect.' He opened the door carefully and got out. Thank you very much. You're very kind.'
'My pleasure.' I watched him walk away, a short, pale man in that strange, old-fashioned suit. Then I drove out into the traffic and forgot about him.
chapter four
Where's the body?
Next morning, I found the reports of the car accident on my desk. There were photographs of the two cars after the crash, and a plan of the area. The two cars had been drawn on the plan. The police had also spoken to two students. They had been walking beside the road at the time of the accident. The students had both seen the first car swerve suddenly in front of the second car and then stop, for no reason.
But the police hadn't spoken to the drivers of the two cars because they were too ill. So I had to go to the hospital to talk to them. PC Brian Jones came with me. The doctors said we couldn't talk to the driver of the second car or the little girl, so we went to see the driver of the first car.
He was sitting up in bed. He could talk now, but he had hurt his neck quite badly because the car had stopped very quickly. But it seemed that he didn't want to say much.
'Good morning, Mr Jackson,' I said. 'I'm a police sergeant. The doctor tells me you're feeling much better this morning.'
'A bit,' he said. 'But I still can't move my neck. If you want to talk to me, sit on the end of the bed, and then I can see you.'
I sat on the end of the bed and looked at him. He was about thirty years old, with a thin, brown face, a small moustache, and dark hair. He looked very unhappy, and his eyes always looked away from me when he spoke.
'I suppose you want to know about the accident?' he asked.
'That's right, Mr Jackson. Can you remember anything about it?'
'Remember it? Yes, of course I can. I've been thinking about it all night. But it wasn't my fault, honestly. You must believe me! I was driving along quite slowly — about forty-five miles an hour, I think, or maybe fifty, but no more, really. Anyway, there's no special speed limit on that road, is there?'
'Only the limit for normal roads. You can go up to sixty miles an hour.'
'Well, I wasn't driving as fast as that. I was driving quite slowly, the road was clear, and I hadn't been drinking. In fact, I never drink and drive, never — I'm sure the doctors tested that, didn't they, Officer?'
I looked at my notes. 'Yes, I think so. It doesn't say anything here about alcohol, Mr Jackson.'
'So it couldn't be my fault, could it? I mean, I was going at a normal speed, slowly even, on a sunny day, and I hadn't been drinking, and then there he was! Right in front of me!'
I felt confused. 'I'm sorry, Mr Jackson, I don't understand. Who was in front of you?'
He stared at me strangely. 'Well, the man, of course. The man who was killed.'
Now I was really confused. 'What? I'm sorry, Mr Jackson, but no one was killed. The people in the other car were hurt, but they're both alive. One has a broken leg, I think, and the little girl hurt her face, but that's all.'
'Which car?' asked Mr Jackson.
'The car that hit you from behind.'
Now Mr Jackson looked confused. He looked even more unhappy, and his face went white, as white as the bandage round his neck.
'Do you mean… are you telling me that a car hit me from behind, Officer?'
'Yes.'
He put his hands to his neck. He had been trying to shake his head but he couldn't.
'I don't remember that,' he said.
'You don't remember anything about a car that hit you from behind?'
'No, nothing. And you say there were two people in it? A man and a girl? Oh, how terrible.' He began to cry, and took a handkerchief from the table beside his bed.
I thought carefully. 'Let's start from the beginning, Mr Jackson. You say you were driving along slowly, about forty-five miles an hour. Is that right? Then what happened? Think carefully, and tell me slowly.'
He put the handkerchief down, and stared at me, his eyes big and wide.
'Well, then I saw him, that's all. A man. He was running across the road in front of me. He didn't look where he was going, or anything. He was just — there — suddenly. I tried to stop, but it was too late. Poor man — I couldn't miss him!'
I waited until he had finished. The nurse gave him a drink of water. Then I asked, quietly:
'Mr Jackson, do you remember anything about this man? I mean, what did he look like?'
He looked at me strangely. 'Well, I didn't have much time, did I? I suppose he was about forty or fifty years old, in a suit or something, I don't know. His face was very white — I suppose that was because he was frightened. I think he had glasses on, and there was something red — perhaps it was a tie, or maybe it was the blood, I don't know. But why does it matter? You've got the body, haven't you? You know who he is.'
I looked at PC Jones. This man's crazy,' I thought. 'Perhaps he has hurt his head, too.' I felt sorry for him.
I spoke very slowly and carefully. I tried to make my voice as kind as I could.
'Mr Jackson, we haven't found a body. No one was killed in the accident. You didn't hit anyone. You just stopped your car suddenly, and the car behind ran into you, that's all.'
'But… does that mean you're going to prosecute me?' he asked.
'I'm not sure yet, Mr Jackson,' I said. 'We haven't finished our investigations. But I'm afraid the police usually prosecute people for dangerous driving if they stop suddenly for no reason.'
'But you can't do that! I'd lose my job! I'm a salesman. I drive hundreds of miles every week, and nobody can work for our company if they have been prosecuted for dangerous driving. That's why I never drink and drive — never! And I never stop without a good reason! There was a man there, in front of me — I told you! I saw him as clearly as I can see you now!'
'Well, I'm sorry, Mr Jackson,' I said. 'But there was a serious accident, and at the moment it seems it was your fault. That's all I can say for now.'
Chapter five
The doctor explains
Outside the room, the nurse stopped us. 'Could you both wait in here a moment, please?' she said. 'I think the doctor would like to speak to you.'
We heard the nurse talking to the doctor outside the room for two or three minutes, and then the doctor came in. She smiled at me.
'Good morning, Sergeant Fraser,' she said to me. 'You've been talking to Mr Jackson, haven't you?'
'Yes,' I said. 'Poor man — he's not very happy, I'm afraid.'
'No, of course not,' said the doctor. 'Well, it was a nasty accident, wasn't it? And he's hurt his neck quite badly. But the rest of him is OK. He should be out of hospital in a few days.'
'Yes.' I looked at the doctor carefully. 'Doctor, are you sure that he hasn't hurt anything else? His head, perhaps? You see, I don't think he remembers the accident very well. He thinks he killed somebody who walked in front of the car, but he didn't. Nobody was killed, nobody walked in front of the car. And he doesn't remember the second car at all.'
'Yes, I know,' she said. 'I wanted to talk to you about that. Of course, people do forget accidents. That's normal. They often don't remember anything about them. So I'm not surprised that he doesn't remember the second car. But it's very unusual to remember something that didn't happen.' She stopped for a moment, and looked at me thoughtfully. 'So I thought… perhaps I shouldn't say this, but I thought you should know. Last night this man had a small problem with his heart, a very unusual problem. For a few minutes it beat very slowly, it nearly stopped, and then it started again. And people who have a heart problem like that aren't usually allowed to drive, you know, because they might become ill for a couple of minutes, and then of course a car would stop suddenly.'
'I see,' I said. 'So you think that perhaps he had a small heart attack yesterday, too?'
'I don't know,' she said. 'Maybe he had the attack because of the accident. I haven't seen his doctor's records, so I don't know if he has ever had this problem before.'
'I see,' I said. 'Well, thank you, Doctor. That's very helpful.'
Chapter six
A good explanation
'That explains it then,' said Brian Jones, as we drove back to the police station. There wasn't a man in front of his car, and he knows it. I mean, if the man did have this heart problem, then he couldn't have a job as a salesman, could he? He wouldn't have a driving license, and he'd lose his job. And he's very afraid of losing his job, isn't he? He told us that.'
'Yes,' I said. 'But that doesn't explain his story, does it?'
'Well, yes, maybe it does, Sergeant,' he said. 'Look at it this way. Perhaps this man had a problem with his heart several years ago, and then he got better, so he got his driving license back. His job and his driving license are very important to him, so he always drives very, very carefully. He never drinks and drives or does anything silly. And why is he so very, very careful? Because he's always afraid that one day his heart problem will come back, and then he'll lose his license, his job, and everything. Then yesterday it did come back, and so he had this accident. But he wants us to believe that it wasn't his fault, so he has invented a story about a man who ran in front of the car. Only it isn't a very good story, that's all, because there wasn't a man, and there isn't a body.'
Brian Jones smiled at me. He is a young, clever policeman, and he was very pleased with himself. It was a good explanation, too. I couldn't see anything wrong with it.
Back at the police station, I checked everything carefully. But no one had found a body, no one had seen a man who ran across the road. I looked at the front of Mr Jackson's car carefully with one of the police scientists. There were no marks on it at all. Only the back of his car was damaged, where the car behind had hit it. Either Mr Jackson was mad, or he was lying.
But I felt sad, and a little angry, too. The doctor at the hospital had been very helpful, but why had she told us about Mr Jackson's heart problem? That was wrong. I wouldn't want my doctor to tell people about me when I was ill. Mr Jackson's story was crazy, but I really think that he believed it. In my job, you know when people are lying — and I thought Mr Jackson was telling the truth.
Chapter seven
Simon
I talked about it with my boyfriend, Simon, at dinner that night. Simon is a reporter, so he has to be very careful. He must never write about anything I tell him in his newspaper. If he did, I would lose my job. But we still talk about things, and sometimes it is very useful.
I told him about the accident, and Mr Jackson's story. He looked at me thoughtfully. 'It's a strange place for an accident, isn't it?' he said. 'The road's very straight there.'
'That's right,' I said. 'No one ever stops there. I only stopped because I...'
For a moment I stopped talking, my fork in my hand. 'Sue? Sue, what's the matter?' Simon said.
'Simon, that's it! I've remembered the thing that worries me about all this! The hitch-hiker!'
'What?'
'The hitch-hiker! The man Jackson described — pale face, suit, glasses, red tie. There was a man like that in my car!'
Quickly I told Simon about the man that I had picked up before I saw the accident.
'Yes, but he wasn't dead, Sue — he was in your car, quite safe. And you picked him up a long way away from the accident.'
'Not very far away — about half a kilometre, perhaps. The traffic was moving very slowly — because of the accident. Maybe he walked there. It's possible.'
'You mean, perhaps the hitch-hiker was walking across the road, and Jackson saw him, stopped his car, and then the other car hit Jackson's car?'
'Yes, that's right! And then the hitch-hiker ran on down the road, and then I picked him up! Simon, I have to find that man!'
Simon looked thoughtful. 'Yes, but wait a minute, Sue. Why would the hitch-hiker cross the road there? There's nothing there. And anyway, if he was walking towards you, he was walking away from town, not towards it!'
I shook my head. 'I don't know. But I want to find him. He said he lived in Lancaster. And another thing, Simon. One of the older police sergeants said there had once been an accident on that road before — something about a child, I think it was — about twenty years ago, maybe more. Can you check in your old newspapers and find out about it? I think it may help.'
Simon groaned. 'You want me to check the records for a little thing like that? Do you know how long that takes?'
I smiled at him. 'But you'll do it for me, won't you Simon?' I said. 'Please.'
Chapter eight
Flowers on a grave
It took Simon a long time, but he found the newspaper story in the end. We met for lunch in the park in the middle of town, and he took it out of his pocket. He showed it to me and I read it carefully — a small yellow piece of paper, a newspaper story about a road accident eighteen years ago.
FATHER KILLED IN ROAD CRASH
Son saved by brave dad
A man was hit by a car and killed in an accident on the main road outside Lancaster yesterday.
Police said the man, twenty-five-year-old Mr David Holland, ran straight in front of the car. The car driver had no time to stop, and Mr Holland was killed immediately. A three-year-old boy, Mr Holland's son Michael, was found by the side of the road, crying.
A woman, Mrs Helen Steadman, was walking with her dog by the side of the road. Mrs Steadman said that Mr Holland had been driving towards Lancaster with his son. Just before the accident he had stopped his car by the side of the road, and both of them had got out.
'I think perhaps the little boy wanted to go to the toilet,' Mrs Steadman said. 'But before his father could stop him, he ran straight out across the road, in front of the traffic. Mr Holland ran after him, and managed to pick up the little boy and throw him to the side of the road. But then a car hit the father. It wasn't the driver's, fault — the little boy ran straight out into the road without looking, and his father ran out after him. Then I ran to catch the little boy before he could go back into the road again.'
The police said that Mr Holland was dead when they arrived. He will be buried in Lancaster cemetery on Tuesday. The little boy's mother died a year ago, so he will live with his grandparents in Carnforth,
This is the first accident that anyone can remember on this part of the road. The road is very straight there and is usually very safe. The police do not think the car driver was driving fast.
I put down the old yellow piece of paper and thought for a minute. Eighteen years ago a man had run in front of a car and been killed, on the same part of the road. And yesterday, there had been another accident, and the driver of the first car — Mr Jackson — was quite sure that he had seen a man who had run out in front of him, and was also sure that he had hit him in exactly the same way.
'It's interesting, isn't it?' Simon said. 'But it doesn't help much, does it? Have you found your hitch-hiker yet?'
'No,' I said. 'I've checked all our police records, and we have no records of anyone who looks like him. And of course he didn't tell me his name.'
'I see,' said Simon strangely. 'There is one other interesting thing that I haven't told you.'
'Oh? What's that?'
'Well, every day I walk through the cemetery on my way to work. I know the place quite well — sometimes I sit and have my sandwiches there at lunchtime. And so I notice the other people who come there — the people who put flowers on the graves and eat their lunch there. Sometimes I even read the gravestones, you know. I often wonder about them. What were the people like? How long did they live? It's very interesting.'
'In your lunch hour? How strange!' I said.
'Do you think so? I like it. It's quiet and peaceful there, so I can think and read. Anyway, there's one grave there that always has flowers on it. A young man comes to put them there. He's a student, I think. And when I read this newspaper story, I knew I'd seen the name Holland somewhere before. At first I couldn't remember the place that I'd seen it. Then I remembered — it's the name on this gravestone: David Holland! I checked this morning because I wanted to be certain. And the date on the stone was the same too, 1978. It's the same man who was killed in the accident!'
'So?' I asked. 'What's surprising about that? It isn't surprising that he was buried there. He came from Lancaster. And I suppose that the young man who brings the flowers is his son. That would be normal, wouldn't it?'
'Maybe,' he said. 'But not every day, not after eighteen years. Anyway, the cemetery is just over there. Why don't we go and have a look? We can go that way back to the car.'
'OK, if you like. I didn't know that you were so interested in gravestones, Simon.'
We got up and walked quietly through the park and into the cemetery. It was a nice, sunny summer afternoon. Neither of us wanted to hurry back to work.
'There it is, look.' Simon pointed, and I saw a grave just like all the others. There were a few red flowers on it.
We walked towards it, but then a young man came past us on the path. He knelt down beside the grave. He took the old flowers away, and put some fresh ones beside it.
We stopped a few metres away, and watched. The young man stayed very quietly beside the grave for several minutes. I could see his mouth moving. It seemed that he was talking to someone.
'He's praying, Simon,' I said. 'Come on, let's go. We shouldn't stand and watch him.'
'OK,' he said, and we moved slowly away. 'But don't you think it's strange?' he asked, while we were getting into the car. 'I mean, his father has been dead for about twenty years, and this young man comes here nearly every day, with fresh flowers, and prays beside the grave.'
'Yes, I suppose it is,' I said. 'But that's his business, not ours. And it doesn't help me with this accident. Come on, let's go.'
Chapter nine
An unhappy man
Liter that afternoon I had to meet Mr Jackson. I didn't want to, but I had to. He came into my office unhappily, and sat down in front of me. He still had a bandage around his neck.
'Good afternoon, Mr Jackson,' I said. 'I'm sorry, but I have investigated this accident very carefully now, and I will have to prosecute you for dangerous driving.'
His face went white, and I could see his hands begin to shake. 'But… I'll lose my job,' he said. 'You know that, don't you?'
'Yes,' I said. 'I understand that, and I'm very sorry. But your car swerved and stopped suddenly for no reason, and two people were badly hurt in the other car. They were lucky. You nearly killed them.'
'But what about the man?' he shouted. 'I told you, I saw a man! He crossed the road in front of me! I'm not crazy, you know — I saw him!'
'I know,' I said. 'And I think you believe it yourself. But we've looked for that man, and we can't find him. Two students saw the accident from the side of the road, you know, but they didn't see a man who crossed the road either. I'm sorry, Mr Jackson, but nobody else saw this man — only you. Perhaps your doctor can explain it, but I can't.'
His hands were shaking even more now, and for a moment he couldn't speak. Perhaps he's going to have a heart attack now, I thought, here in this room. After a moment he stood up and walked to the door.
At the door he turned and stared at me. 'You...' he began. 'You're wrong! I'm not mad, you know, and I'm not ill either! You wait! One day you'll see something like this, and no one will believe you either. Then you'll know how I feel!'
He walked out, shutting the door loudly behind him.
Chapter ten
The return
That Saturday, I had to go to the University. My younger sister, Elisabeth, had just finished her studies, and she was getting her degree. My parents had come to watch, and we were all going out for a meal afterwards.
I put on a nice dress after work and went to the University. When I got there, we sat and watched and listened, and then everyone had tea outside on the grass. It was a funny day: all the students were wearing good clothes, instead of their normal jeans and T-shirts, and they all took their parents round to meet their friends and their friends' parents. Everyone was standing there, talking to strangers and feeling a little embarrassed.
I was just getting myself another cup of tea when I saw him. He was standing there with a cup of tea in his hand, and a silly smile on his face — the hitch-hiker!
I stood quite still and watched him. He was standing in a group with two young men — students — and two older people. They talked and smiled for a few minutes, and then the hitch-hiker and one of the students moved away and began to talk to another family group.
'That student is his son!' I thought. 'And I know him, too! He's the young man we saw in the cemetery!'
The hitch-hiker was still very pale and he was still wearing that old-fashioned suit. I noticed another strange thing, too — none of the other parents talked to him. In fact, one man nearly walked straight into him.
But I didn't think much about that, then. I knew that I had to talk to him — perhaps he could help me about the accident, even now.
I smiled, and walked towards him.
'Hello,' I said. 'I didn't think that I'd see you again!'
He turned quickly, and for a moment I was sure he was afraid. Or perhaps I was the first person who had spoken to him that afternoon. But then he smiled too. 'How nice,' he said. 'You're the lady who gave me a lift into town a week ago, aren't you?'
So he remembered me, too. That was interesting.
He looked worried. 'But you're a policewoman, aren't you? So you can't be a student, and you're not old enough to be a parent. So why are you here? Has there been a crime?'
'No,' I said. 'My sister's getting her degree, that's all. Is this your son?'
'Yes,' he said. 'Michael, come and meet my policewoman friend. She gave me a lift in her car the other day.'
Michael smiled and shook my hand, but I thought he looked a little nervous. 'That… er… that was very kind of you,' he said. 'My father doesn't have a car, and he's always missing the bus. He never manages to catch the bus if I don't take him to the bus-stop myself.'
I didn't know what to say. 'If he's the young man we saw in the cemetery,' I thought, 'then his father's dead! But he says this man is his father!'
The father smiled again.' These young people!' he said. They think they know everything. But really it's my son who's always getting into trouble. I have to look after him all the time, you know.'
People were beginning to go home. I remembered that the hitch-hiker didn't have a car.
'Can I give you another lift back into town?' I asked.
'Yes, please,' he said. 'That would be very kind. I… I'm getting old, you know. I get tired when I see too many people.'
The son smiled, and left us. We walked to the car. I didn't speak much. I was thinking hard. What questions should I ask?
The hitch-hiker got into the car and smiled at me. 'I hope we won't see another accident,' he said. 'I hate accidents. All my life, I've been afraid of cars. I'm so glad that Michael isn't going to work near cars or roads. He's got a job in a bookshop, you know, and he'll be able to walk to work. You can't be farther away from cars than that.'
'Yes,' I said. It didn't sound very exciting to me. 'Is this job in Lancaster?'
'Oh, yes, of course.' The man smiled his thin, pale smile. 'He doesn't want to work anywhere else. He comes to see me every day, you know.'
'When I met you the other day, where had you been?' I asked.
'With Michael, of course,' he said. 'At the University.'
'How did you get there?'
'I walked. It was a nice day.'
'Did you cross the road about ten minutes before you met me?' I asked. 'Did you walk in front of a car, perhaps?'
He looked surprised and unhappy. 'No… no, of course I didn't.'
'Are you sure? Quite sure? Because the driver of one of the cars saw you, you know.'
'Saw me? What do you mean?'
'One of the drivers in that accident saw a man, just like you, who walked straight across the road in front of him. That's why he swerved and stopped. He thought he'd killed you!'
The man's fingers were playing nervously with the seat-belt, and his face was whiter than ever. 'Oh, no. That isn't true. I was very careful, and anyway, nobody can see me when...'
'So you did cross the road?' We were near the centre of the town now, just outside the cemetery. I stopped the car and turned to look at the man more closely. 'I think you'd better come back to the police station with me. I've got a few more questions to ask, Mr...'
But then I remembered. I still didn't know his name.
'It's… er… David. David Holland,' he said. He was still playing nervously with the seat-belt while he spoke. 'But I'm afraid I can't come to the police station. Thank you for the lift. I must go now. Goodbye.'
I tried to stop him, but he was going already. Going in a way that was not normal at all. He had not opened the door, but his leg and half of his body were already halfway through it. I couldn't speak, I was too surprised. And as I watched, the other parts of his body — that thin, pale body in the strange, old-fashioned clothes — went through the door as well.
Through the door, right through the steel car door. And then he walked quickly away, and walked straight through the closed metal gate into the cemetery.
I didn't see where he went. I was too shocked to move. When at last I got out of the car, and walked into the cemetery, he was not there. But there were fresh flowers on the grave under the gravestone that said:
David Holland
1953-1978
'He gave his life for his son'
I stood by the grave and thought for a long time. But I'm only an ordinary policewoman. I can't arrest dead people, or people who aren't there. I remembered the things poor Mr Jackson had said to me when he left my office, and I wondered what on earth I was going to do now.
— THE END -
Hope you have enjoyed the reading!
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