– – 1 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. Hitch-hikers 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. Yоu 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.