He’s the last of the hitchers and that makes him the king. Tall, he was handsome once. Wild, hungry and awful he is invisible. There is a cardboard sign that time and the rain has left blurred so he could be heading anywhere. The King would have tossed it had it not been true. He is heading anywhere, and especially now anywhere but here. Here is Illbourne Services. The King has been here for three days. Three more and Noddy Holder will be right.
“You’re like that old man,” says Mary.
“I am,” says The King who agrees over a burger-n-cheese (no cheese).
Illbourne Services has three restaurants, two are shut. There is a newsagent that mostly sells chocolate and a chocolate shop that only sells coffee. Neither is ever open. Mary (she said, laid off six weeks before) still comes in to work. She told The King of her three children. Two that have left home and one that she wishes would. She misses the youngest most, though the youngest is the one that remains. The King had listened to Mary’s whole life that first night and in the six hours that had left they had filled in the mazes and coloured in the cartoons on the kid’s menus. Let go by memo no one has come to take back her keys, she said. Mary wipes down a table already clean. She says now, “ People spot him, walking the land.”
“Hitching. It’s a funny time of year for it. Everyone’s so full of good cheer they don’t want to spend time with anyone that’d spoil it. Feed the world, man.”
“Well quite,” she says, dismissively. “Some don’t believe he exists. I do.”
“Are you going to be sick?”
She won’t let him help so he looks out at the world embarrassed. The car park is empty but for Mary’s fridge-coloured Cinquecento. Spoilers, a crumpled near-side and a boot full of speakers. It had been her second sons, but he’s doing time for getting caught. The King catches the eye of a cat. The cat looks down and hurries away. The cool kid spied in Matalan.
The King had once been just another barbarian. From Scratchwood to Fleet, Charnock Richard to Sanbach he’d stood in the 80s with a dozen others at each stop, on every A road, at every services. Students, drop outs, and people – mostly people. Ten years on and all alone, unless it was Stonehenge or Glastonbury and that highway to hell the A303. Then last year and there’d been just the two of them and when they’d met on the slip for Watford Ennio Morricone had been playing, all dust and narrowed eyes. They’d stood neither moving but for the wasp that had dipped between them. An hour until there had come a ride, not his. His rival had nodded, understanding. He had his ride home. He had touched a finger half to his cap. Now there was only The King.
He turns back. His lunch has gone, so too the mop and bucket. Mary looks at him in interest. Having to say something he says, “My Walkman.”
“Goodness, I remember them. I had one, Sony. Blue.”
“I need new batteries. I don’t suppose?”
He can suppose but there are none for sale here. In the newsagents no doubt, but the newsagents is closed even for last year’s best seller or a giant bag of jelly bears and Mary doesn’t want to get into trouble for breaking in. So she says and in any case she is sure she wouldn’t know how. But Mary remembers she has some herself and waddling away returns with two from the cheap vibrator she keeps in her bag for the quiet shifts. They are old and flat but the Walkman is broken anyway, choked months before on Julian Cope still tangled and torn within.
Later and folding her knickers up to put in her bag Mary promises that she will look up their hitcher. She makes him move to mop the floor where he still lies. A little later she leaves him in the forecourt. She can’t when he asks give him a lift, she is a woman alone and it isn’t safe for her to pick up hitchers.
“It’s you,” Mary says next day, delighted. Her eldest-child’s-second-laptop sits between them. She shows him the site, one of several, where he is under the Loch Ness Monster but two above the Lord Numb. The last photo like many is a blur, a phone job on the move. According to the site he is Lord Lucan, Marc Bolan or more likely Richie Edwards – offered as proof The King seen in the rain, blurred, at the Severn View services. The King knows they are all wrong. Mary says, “Don’t you have a home?”
She does he was told, and comes here because of it. He did too but he hasn’t seen it since Castle Morten. Ever since he has been on the road, and ever since he has been looking for it. A converted horse box and a week-long rave with his family and his home, and then they’d gone and he left to walk and (with his thumb) to follow. He can still remember his wife’s final words, ‘Look, who the fuck are you?’ very cruel. So The King tells Mary, without their names because he remembers not a one. There might be children.
Mary goes to fire up the grill. Today for breakfast The King will be treated to the last of the cheese, orange and tasteless but this time the ‘with cheese’, will be. When the restaurant had been newly opened they had attracted a mouse. Mary had baited a trap with cheese just like this and the mouse had been caught neck broken and the cheese untouched. Meeting the cheese it seemed likely that far from being murdered the mouse had committed suicide. Mary cooks two burgers from the four hundred that remain in the cold store. Two burgers but hold the lettuce, pickle, onions and special sauce. The buns here never grow stale or hard like cake, but become crumbly like biscuit.
Returning she says, “I wanted to travel once, more than once obviously, when I was young. You must have seen some places. This,” she sprays the laptop with a bottle she will later clean with another, “says that you’ve been on the road for twenty years. I wanted to go to Istanbul. I wanted to go to Machu Picchu, I wanted to go to Brighton, when I was young.”
“But you had kids?”
“But I had a big, fat arse. No, the mysterious and the ethical are not for me. Every time I thought about going something would come up. Ten years ago and it was my first rabbit. I’d almost got to packing my bags, I’d got a one way ticket to Worthing. I’d told my husband I was off to the bright lights, to the big city, to find myself.”
The King likes the sound of that. He says, “To find yourself?”
“To find myself a nice big cock. But he begged and he whined. He bought me a new coat and we got Sky, and inside six months I’d worn my rabbit down to a pencil. I almost went again then but you know, there’s always another rabbit. It was glamorous, like Sex In The City. I spoke to a few people last night, I said you were here.”
The King ignores the last. He stopped listening after the word ‘cock’. Outside it is raining, the windows blur, hello the holidays. He ought to try and catch a ride but the only car he has seen since arriving here is that same Cinquecento. Used to the silence he reacts slowly to it now. Mary is waiting for an answer so he says, “I’ve been all over. Motorways and A roads, I’ve seen places you wouldn’t believe. People too. Most used to be hitchers,” he describes those who once had been older but nowadays were of an age. They too had hitched and had always promised that when they had a car, well then. He tells of truck drivers wanting company. There is the odd genuinely nice person, and every so often a kid in a stolen Merc. He has sung hymns. He has been so badly beaten he pissed blood for three days after.
He has listened, but mostly now he speaks because people want to be talked to, often not saying much beyond their name and so The King now plays a game. When taking a lift he will always use the name of the last person to have stopped. He spins a tale because people want him to, the rules; he has to use whatever he has learned but add whatever else he has not. “Once I spent the whole of the A66 being an old lady called Agnes, I’d been in the SOE during the war, captured and tortured. But still and after all that, chin up eh?”
“Right through the Lake District.”
“Ah,” says Mary, “My second son once sent me a postcard from Devon, Dartmoor anyway.”
“It’s a wild and beautiful place.”
“Not the prison.”
They come the next day so that they find The King where suffering winter’s sleet he has made himself a shelter in the play area. The sides both protected by and advertising exclusive membership of the RAC the little hut at the top of the slide has gained all the charm of a bus shelter. Coming out for a piss The King is knocked by a sound boom, recoils from a camera and is hedged in by optimistic London jackets sharing umbrellas complaining about the opening times of the empty Costa. He sees they are not from the BBC, but from the other side. A camera on him he steps backs from the bright light. A man with earphones and a special-forces vest sneers. Another with a serious face nods seriously and asks four times the same question until it is judged he has done so seriously enough. It takes a fifth attempt and then only once the make-up girl is satisfied they have the right sort of wet on The King do they allow him to answer.
“No one calls by. It’s miserable.”
The journalist can see that. The King has a large brolly above him and out of shot. More wet is applied from an atomiser between takes. The King continues, “They roar by waving a thumb, they laugh and call out abuse. Sometimes they stop and then drive off when you’ve run up. I lost my pack that way once. I learned a lesson that day.” Now and though no one else is on the road it’s harder, he tells the news crew. No one hitches and increasingly no one ever did. Students don’t drive clapped out heaps, everyone’s middle class except for the working class, who hate hitchers - bloody scroungers. “I’ve been here for ages now. I can’t go up on the motorway and no cars are coming in. This time of year it should be better, but it’s worse.”
“They call you The King, but who are you really? We need to know. Frankly, you need to know. You really do. Do you want to stay here else?”
The King caught, he plays his game, “My name’s Mary, I’ve got three kids. I work in the burger bar.”
Soon and in the cold the news crew have what they're getting even if not what they want. Shortly they are packed and loaded to go. Ahead of them already and warned that the camera would be on him The King waits up the slip, thumb out. He holds out his notice as the two vans slow to get their shot before rolling away and to the distant sound of the world.
Laughing, the sound man jerks his hand at The King.
It’s Mary’s day off. She’ll try again tomorrow.