Knott squatted in the muddy field, finding meagre shelter there beneath the rattling leaves of a storm-split twist of tree, a stone’s throw from the road and, glancing up and down its silent length, he felt pretty sorry for himself in his sodden clothes. He figured he would stay a while, see if the rain would stop. The air around him smelled of iron and rotted wood and what he assumed to be wet sheep; something animal, at least.
He listened to the drops of rain collecting in a Belfast sink that, to a city type like him, seemed incongruous in this nowhere place. He listened to the caws of crows shadowing the earth and wintered sky and heard, once or twice, the low of distant cows, though he never glimpsed even one. After some time his ankles, then his calves, then his thighs, then his hips, began to ache. The damp ground rose through his boots. He stood up with a heavy sigh and noticed that the rain had stopped, so he tramped the mire back to the road, started walking it again.
The road stretched wet and empty. He approached and passed a sign that read Benchcombe 60. He tried not to count his steps by singing (for some unknown reason, but with such lustre as to break a smile) the Bunyan hymn that he associated at once with his childhood long ago. But even these words proved ultimately ineffectual to the marching tally upon which his boots and brain seemed intent, and when he’d reached an extraordinary number he stopped moving forward for a moment, turned three-sixty on the spot, stamped his boots hard on the tarmac, clapped his hands and, in an attempt to reverse the magic, began again to walk, this time counting backwards from that monumental aggregate.
No vehicles passed in either direction for several hours and then, as the day began to fade, he heard, a long way off, the morse code punk rock trumpet of a horn and when he turned around a black pick-up truck had crested the horizon, tiny. Knott, as smart as he could muster, in his unkempt apparel, pushed his hair back from his bearded face and watched the distant truck descend the long and blackened asphalt riband, blaring. The rods of rain making it appear to flicker in the distance, lending the scene something reminiscent of an old-time western matinée. His father, who had been a soldier, or at least had served part of his youth conscripted in the National Service, had once advised him that the best way to snag a ride on the road was to turn and face the traffic. “Walking backwards, to show willing, stick out your thumb and smile.” So, this he did.
The truck, roaring now like some unholy engined, unhinged beast, black and abattoir, horn blasting in continuum, veered toward him at the roadside, but it was a feint. There were three faces in the grimed cab glass; the driver, pinched and hysterical, hunching at the wheel; the shotgun rider, grotesque dough face kneaded in the open window, pennant haired and, beside him, a square headed dog, all fangs and steak of tongue. Knott jumped back, slipped, crumpling to the cold ground and, with a blast of rubbered heat and metallic gale, Stuka, the pick-up passed. The bed of the truck was jammed with a blear of bovid faces, among which huddled five, six, seven pasty youths, who screamed wind-snatched obscenities and gestured with hand signals toward him like some ragged, penned and foul-mouthed choir. The sheep, their mouths wide in a startled bleat, were silent. A can came his way. Then a bottle shattered, not near, but nearby, with a diamanté explosion. And then, the pick-up was further down the road; and then, further; and then, it disappeared completely.
She picked him up as he passed beneath a moaning sign that read Benchcombe 30 in the early morning drizzle. He hadn’t even heard her coming. A black and tan knuckle of a car with muddied cuffs, the front left side hubcap missing. He apologised for his dishevelment, his smell. She pooh-poohed this and waved him in.
“Oh, we don’t stand on parade. Got a cold anyway.”
He’d spent the full mooned night in a derelict petrol station. A fibreglass hobgoblin chef with rosy cheeks stood grinning at the entrance, the top half of his head sheared off. Where there had been pumps there now were only stumps on the buckled forecourt. Cracks veined the concrete, from which weeds, sorry looking black things, danced macabre. Sheets of old news eddied like drowning fish on the constant breeze. There was no glass to speak of in the window frames and, playing his lighter with his thumb aloft, he stepped inside.
The counter, or what was once, was now splintered chipboard, kicked to shit, and the remains of a small fire – blackened stain on the curling tiles – had at one time been built of cheap debris and other findings; toilet paper, bits of tree, cardboard and what appeared to be melded plastic items, black and fossilised, but he could not identify their provenance. The whole place reeked of piss and shit and acrid smoke and of decay. Out the back he cleared a space on the floor of a smashed storage room no bigger than a single bed. A circled A and the name EDDIE in silver spray paint on the wall. He closed the door as best he could and, so interred, laid down, buttoned to the throat, hands in pockets, legs crossed at the ankle, boots on – fearing rats or some such, nibbling his minging feet – and slept a fitful, half-hearted, dreamless sleep, waking, or so he imagined, at least many times in the darkness; the only sounds around him, the occasioned scratchings in the ceiling and the cadence of the wind.
“Judith,” she said. “Knott,” he said. And off they went. The car filled with her cigarette smoke. Flooded fields of silver water, infrequent boxy copses and, once, a statue of a horse, silver-grey, leant against a five-bar gate, flashed by the window. A sign, that he reckoned to read Benchcombe 15, also. Barely seeming to touch the wheel, she told him, in a smoky voice, punctuated with sniffs and giggles and little gasps, a story. And as she did, against the humming glass, he closed his eyes and listened.
to be continued