In the truck, he started the engine and waited for the heaters to kick in. Snow had fallen and frozen in his absence. As he watched, it began to flow in thin rivulets down the windscreen. He swallowed his coffee, shoved the gearstick and drew out of the parking lot.
It was Christmas Eve.
He thought about this as he adjusted the radio dial.
Fairytale of New York fought its way through the static. His mam used to sing to that in the kitchen. Stocky in her dressing gown, she would stand at the sink and let smoke curl from the stub in her right hand. She held the kettle in the other. Tea and ciggies and bitter dark chocolate that Auntie Val brought from work; those had been his advent months. He had Green & Black’s in the glove compartment. He had a thermos flask pushed under his seat. He didn’t smoke nowadays. Caffeine had already done its work on his teeth.
He fiddled the dial for a better tone. Johnny Cash now, his voice full of squashed nose and taut strings. He allowed himself two verses before he switched to another station, one where John Lennon tried softly, softly to change the world.
Some things weren’t right for Christmas.
Seventy miles down the road, another trucker opened his passenger door.
‘We’re here,’ he said to the girl. This particular girl had given him fifty pounds to let her hitch a lift.
‘Already?’ said the girl.
‘Yeah,’ he said, ‘this is as far as I go.’
The girl had fallen asleep as they passed Newcastle. Now she stretched her legs and cracked her neck. She jumped down awkwardly and swung the bag after her.
‘Thanks, Pete,’ she said.
The man called Pete shrugged. For the last half hour he had been focused on a pee, a nap and hot soup in a polystyrene cup. He wanted to phone his partner. Already he had forgotten the girl’s name.
‘’S fine,’ he said. ‘See yous.’
He walked off towards the service station. When he turned around, at the door and in the snow, she was out of sight. He wondered if she had found another ride. He hadn’t the faintest idea where she was going.
He couldn’t remember telling her his name.
The man’s headlights were on full-beam by the time he passed the service station. They split the night like a knife through a lima bean. Their orange glow spilled out like juices.
They lit up the girl like a bug in amber.
She was perched on a bag at the side of the kerb. Her face became scrunched when the truck-lights swung into it. She rose to her feet and stepped into the road. She thrust a thumb out but kept one hand over her eyes.
He braked and pulled over. He kicked the passenger door open.
‘What the hell are you playing at?’ the man said.
‘I need a lift.’
‘Forget it,’ he said.
He went to close the door, but she jammed it with her shoulder.
‘I don’t care where to. Where are you going?’
‘Aberdeen,’ he said.
‘Aberdeen’s fine,’ said the girl. ‘Anywhere’s fine. It’s cold out here.’
He looked at his dashboard clock. It was just past 1am. The snow had already formed a new crust on the windows.
He sighed. Then he reached out.
‘Give me your bag,’ he said.
She handed it up to him and flinched when he threw it into the back of the truck. Then she let him help her up. She loosened her scarf and stared at a spot straight ahead of her.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
The man grunted. He turned up the radio and pressed his foot to the accelerator.
Throughout four songs the girl sat with her eyes fixed straight ahead of her. The man drummed the wheel to the bassline. A cacophony of sleet shook the roof of the truck.
As the fourth song faded, the girl unwound her scarf and shook her hair. Then she took off her gloves. She looked at the man.
‘Do you mind if I take my shoes off?’
‘Be my guest,’ he said, not looking at her. But he was still aware as she eased her feet from her boots, still noticed the woolly smell of damp when she pressed her toes to the heater. He gestured over his shoulder.
‘Reach behind you. There’s a blanket somewhere,’ he said.
The girl started when he spoke. She craned her neck to see behind the seat. She dug around and found the blanket, and she wrapped it around herself. Then she settled her head against the window.
‘Thanks,’ she said. He nodded. He flexed his fingers around the wheel and hummed a couple of chords to House of the Rising Sun. The girl joined in.
He stopped, but she carried on. She was slightly off-key. Every so often she cleared her throat.
‘You like this song?’ he said to her.
The girl rubbed her hands and curled her feet underneath her.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I like country music. I like the idea of fields and forests and stuff. It seems so golden.’
‘Golden?’ the man said.
‘Yeah, all that corn you see in pictures and the leaves and those little kids with straight fringes and freckles and names like Wyatt and Addison,’ said the girl. She paused. ‘Though back then I guess they would have been called stuff like, I dunno. Like Jim or Betty or something.’
‘Back then?’ he said. He kept his eyes on the road.
‘Back when songs like that were written,’ she said. ‘When everything was made of wood and the next town was, like, a different country and -’ But she stopped and didn’t continue.
‘I just like the way it makes me feel,’ she said, after a while. ‘It’s so surreal, you know?’
‘Hm,’ said the man. He glanced at her in the overhead mirror. The lights from the road cast her face into weird shadows. Her cheekbones made him think of razor clams.
He said to her, ‘Did you go to the beach? When you were a kid. Did you go to the beach?’
The girl thought. ‘We went to Anglesey one year. I was eight. We stayed in a caravan and it rained every day,’ she said.
‘Did you like it?’ he asked her. He still kept his eyes on the road. The world was whitening.
‘I think so,’ said the girl. ‘We climbed about a lot. I remember I saw an anemone in a rock-pool. It had all these tentacles, like an alien, and my brother wanted to take it home. When he touched it, it shrivelled up and I thought he’d killed it. But it was only scared. Yes. I did like it.’
‘Good,’ said the man. ‘That’s good.’ He forgot to ask her about the razor clams.
Around two o’ clock, King of the Road came onto the radio and the man tapped out the tune on the windowsill. The girl snorted.
‘What?’ said the man.
The girl shook her head and fought her smile. She said,
‘Nothing. It’s just, all these songs are, like, the sort of thing you’d hear in an 80s road-trip movie. I keep expecting to see diners.’
He said, ‘I thought you liked country.’
‘I do,’ she said. ‘It’s just – I dunno. It’s late. I keep forgetting where I am. I keep feeling like I’m in the song or something, you know. Then the sun’ll come up and I’ll just be here.’
‘Fair enough,’ he said. He went to turn off the radio. But the girl stopped him by reaching out her hand. Her skin felt like bark.
She said, ‘Keep it on.’ She didn’t look at him. Slowly, he returned his hand to the wheel.
She fell asleep as they neared Edinburgh and he noticed how her breaths evened out. He turned the volume down a notch. The snow lay in thick drifts on the roadside. The whine of guitar strings was all he could hear. He decided that he ought to take a break soon.
Dolly Parton was muted mid-croon when he cut the engine. He hoped that the silence would wake the girl, but she stayed asleep. He reached for her shoulder and shook.
She woke quickly. ‘Are we there?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I need a break and a bite to eat.’
She nodded, and fumbled for her shoes.
The service station was bright inside. A party of schoolchildren were draped over chairs in the McDonald’s. A milkshake lay spilled on an empty table. No one seemed to be talking.
The girl said, ‘I need the loo.’ Her shoelaces trailed as she walked away. She had left her scarf in the truck. The hair on her neck was lighter than the rest.
By the time she returned the man had found a booth. He had bought sandwiches, flapjacks, coffee in disposable cups.
‘You’ll have to get sugar if you want it,’ he said. He took a bite of his sandwich and a sip of his coffee. But the girl just looked at hers.
‘I don’t have any money,’ she said. ‘I can’t pay you.’
The man waved a hand at her, spoke through his mouthful. ‘It doesn’t matter.’
‘I can’t pay you,’ she said.
‘Yeah, you’ve already told me.’
The girl breathed out hard. She pushed her hair back from her face and screwed her mouth up. Then she said, ‘No, I haven’t.’
The man paused mid-chew. He gazed at the girl.
‘Look,’ he said. ‘I don’t want payment. I want to get there by morning and I don’t want you fainting on me.’
The girl met his eyes. There was something about her face in the harsh light, unframed by hat or scarf. The hollows in her neck reminded him of salt-cellars.
‘Just eat,’ he said. He pushed the sandwich towards her. He didn’t look up again.
The girl leant back in her chair. She cracked her knuckles and gnawed at a hangnail. She picked up her flapjack.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
Later, they walked back to the truck in a flurry of snow. The girl cradled her coffee in un-gloved hands. She dipped in squares of Green & Black’s chocolate.
‘We have After Eights at home,’ she said. ‘With tea.’
The man nodded. He checked his clock. The small hand was perched on the four.
‘We should be there by six,’ he said. And then he said, ‘Where will you go?’
The girl said, ‘I dunno.’ She bit a corner of her chocolate. She braced her numb legs against the heater. ‘Christ, this night! It feels like a song.’
The man turned the radio on.
When they arrived, he took a side-road until he came to a pebble beach. The sea looked scummy with snow. He couldn’t be sure if the crunch under his shoes was stones or
frost. It was nearly dawn.
He skimmed pebbles across the surf and the splash sent seagulls flapping. The girl laughed. Then she stopped and listened to nothing. She said, ‘This is so surreal.’
Later, he would say to the spotty lad at the factory, ‘She needs some work. Just for a bit. No, hear me out: it’s Christmas, yeah? Just enough for a hostel. Or do you want her to kip in my truck?’
Now, though, he nodded. He offered her some tea in a thermos.
‘Merry Christmas,’ said the girl. They drank as the sunrise dyed them gold.