by Kate Mahony
It is 1978 and the summer holidays are nearly over. Alice’s staying with Hilary from school on a farm near Stratford. Alice likes swimming in the river they have to go through a bull paddock to get to, and watching the silly cows rush up to the fence to peer at them. But Hilary complains that there’s nothing to do. She’s stayed here, with her aunt and uncle, loads of times before, and everything’s so goddamned boring. That’s why her mum has let her ask Alice to come on this holiday with her.
On the fourth day of the holiday, Hilary comes up with an idea. They will walk to the main road, and stick out their thumbs. They’ll hitchhike.
‘Where?’ Alice asks.
Hilary chews on a strand of hay. ‘You’ll see.’
Alice says, ‘Okay. Sure.’ Around Hilary, she is always saying, Sure.
It takes ages to get to the end of the long road. Alice thinks it’s really boring just plodding along on the gravel. It’s also hot and she wishes she could sit down on the edge of the ditch and not move. But eventually, they get to the top of the road, cross over, and Hilary sticks out her arm, thumb upwards. She’s wearing little shorts and she has long, spindly legs. Alice’s are stumpier, that’s how she would describe them, and white. No matter how much she gets in the sun, she always seems to stay white. Her mum has the same kind of skin. It’s weird.
It’s not too busy on the main road. Probably the time of day. But then they hear the sound of an engine coming around the bend further up. A white Holden.
The Holden stops with a screech of brakes. Three guys are in the car. The one in the back, is about nineteen, and has black hair slicked down with oil. He peers through the open window at them. He’s chewing gum. It’s a bright green colour, and he slots it into the side of his mouth before he speaks. ‘Where’re you off to?’ he asks.
Hilary gets in first. She puts on a Canadian accent. ‘We’re just heading to the milk factory.’
The guy in the back opens the door and shuffles over to let them in. He’s wearing a black singlet and his arms are muscular. His hands look a bit rough like he works on a farm, milking cows, or maybe he’s a mechanic. Something like that.
Hilary squashes her brown thigh against Alice’s flabby white thigh. ‘We’re staying around here,’ she adds. ‘On a farm.’
The driver glances back at them in the rear vision mirror and asks whose farm?
‘The Urlich’s,’ Alice says. ‘We’re travelling around the North Island. ’ She’s finding it hard to put on the accent. She giggles and covers her mouth with her hand.
Hilary gives Alice a hard look. Behave, she seems to be implying, making a stern face like Alice’s mum does.
The guy in the front doesn’t ask any more questions. The one sitting next to Hilary has gone back to chewing the gum. He looks over at Alice and gives her a smile. It is kind of lopsided and a bit foolish like the smile she sees on the face of the strange man on the main street in town, the one who carries a big bottle of fizzy orange drink with him wherever he goes. Sometimes she sees him drinking out of the bottle. But this guy is nicer than him and has brown eyes. Alice runs her tongue over her teeth in case anything is stuck to them and smiles back.
Alice tries to describe the boy’s eyes in her mind for when she’s telling the other girls when school goes back. Serious. Probing. No, she settles for Intense. Intense dark eyes. That’s what it says in Dolly magazine. The hero always has intense dark eyes. Unless they are blue. Then they are icy. Mesmerising is another word that gets used a lot. She could say he had intense dark eyes and they were mesmerising.
The boy in the front has greasy hair with specks of dandruff in it at the back. He leans over and turns up the radio. The cute guy beside Hilary keeps sending Alice sneaky little glances, like he’s casing her up and down. Alice likes this: normally, it’s Hilary who gets all the attention, what with her long legs and her straight blonde hair. She remembers it’s not really that far to the milk factory, and Alice wishes Hilary had said somewhere further away.
After a while the boy with the specks of dandruff turns around to peer at them. ‘You don’t look old enough.’ He sounds accusing. ‘You look like you should be going to secondary school.’
‘Yeah, well, we just look young,’ Hilary says. ‘It’s how us girls look back home in Canada.’ She bumps her thigh harder against Alice’s and winks.
‘Yeah,’ Alice says. ‘All the girls in our town look this young.’
She’s no good at doing the Canadian accent and the guy narrows his eyes at her. They’re a wishy washy hazel colour. They make him look mean.
The driver asks, ‘How long are you going to be here?’ He waves his thumb towards outside. Alice thinks he means around here, on the farm, with these people whose name she’s sure Hilary made up, like that, out of nowhere.
‘Just till tomorrow,’ Hilary says, still in the put-on accent. ‘We’re heading to Wellington tomorrow.’
‘We could give you a ride,’ the driver says suddenly. ‘Go today.’ He looks briefly at the other guy. ‘A night out in the big city. Why not?’
In the back, the guy chewing the gum says, ‘Yeah.’ He smiles at Alice and his intense brown eyes meet her blue ones. ‘We can stop by these people’s place and get your gear. Head off while it’s light.’
Hilary coughs as if something has caught in her throat. ‘Oh,’ she says, ‘the Urlichs want to put on a special meal for us tonight.’ Her leg kicks Alice’s. ‘Like, you know, Kiwi food. I think they’ve caught eels.’
‘Yeah,’ Alice says helpfully. ‘And crayfish.’ She wonders if there is a season for crayfish. How would she know? Her father works weekends at his hardware store. He’s not going to have time to go fishing. Too late now, anyway, so she adds, ‘Mr Urlich likes to catch crays.’
And then, thankfully, she sees the milk factory.
Hilary sees it as well.
‘Right, this is where we’re going,’ she says. ‘Thanks.’
The driver slows down, pulls the car over to the side of the road. Hilary and Alice nearly trip over each other getting out. They wave at the car as it moves off. They watch it head around the bend and away from them. Alice feels a bit sad about the guy in the back but also a little relieved now they’re not still trying to get out of taking a ride with them to Wellington. She and Hilary wobble in the long grass on the side of the road, giggling, holding each other up.
They are still there when they see the white Holden coming back towards them on the other side of the road. It’s being driven fast. It does a U-turn, gravel spurting, and heads across to them.
‘Shit.’ Hilary jumps the ditch.
The car looms towards Alice. She stares. Can’t move. Her face creases in a placating smile. ‘Please, no,’ she mouths to the occupants. She feels the smile stretching her lips wide, her mouth gaping in a kind of rictus of startled alarm. Like the empty face of a skeleton.
The brakes screech.
Alice’s heart thuds. She stands still watching as the driver revs up the engine. The car heads back on to the main road.
Back at school in town after the holidays are over, Alice waits till interval, rehearsing what she will tell the other girls about the holidays. Everyone always wants to talk first especially if they did anything worth telling. And this is worth telling.
But when the bell rings, it’s Francine Keogh who grabs the attention talking about going to stay with her grandmother in New Plymouth. How she went for a walk down by the sea and met an American sailor in uniform. He was off one of the big cargo ships. He was tall, with dark curly hair. He had intense brown eyes.
The first thing was he approached her, asking for directions to the centre of town because he wanted to buy his mom a present. And then he said if she could go with him and help him choose the present, maybe they could get a coke afterwards.
Francine tells the other girls about the necklace he chose for his mom. ‘It was silver and beautiful.’
Afterwards, she and the sailor talked for ages. ‘Ages and ages.’ The boat was in town for two days. Francine made excuses to her gran and met up with him again.
And now, she says, they’re in love. He’s going to write to her all the time and when he comes back next year, they’re going to go out again.
Everyone wants to hear the story all over again, especially the part where as they walked he took her hand. And, of course, the goodbye kiss before he boarded the boat.
Alice looks across at Hilary. Hilary shakes her head, just a little. Alice takes it to mean there is no point in telling the others about their ride in the car. Even though she’s sure her guy has far nicer intense brown eyes than Francine’s one has. Because Francine is plump and has hideous curly brown hair and everyone knows she couldn’t get a nice boyfriend if she tried.
That night, she thinks about Hilary and her hitch-hiking. But this time she’s not picturing the nice guy with the brown eyes, like she has been all along. Instead, what comes into her mind is the way the driver’s eyes met hers. How angry he was. She can still see the smiling snarl of the mean-eyed guy in the front passenger seat as the car came straight for her. Though now she thinks about it she’s sure the nice guy in the back seat was telling them to stop the car, to leave her alone.
Even so, she makes up her mind: she will not hitch hike again, no matter what.
She and Hilary leave school at the end of the next year, and go to secretarial college in Palmerston North, Hilary says they should hitch-hike back home during the term break. ‘I like the sound of the screech of the brakes when the car pulls up,’ she says knowledgeably as they stand on the main road that runs past the railway station. As if she has hitched thousands of times.
Kate Mahony’s short fiction has been published in international literary journals and print anthologies including: The Best New Zealand Fiction #6 (Random House, New Zealand), Landmarks UK, 2015, The Fish Anthology (Ireland), 2015, Bonsai: Best small stories from Aotearoa New Zealand (Canterbury University Press, 2018) and Takahe literary journal. She has a MA in Creative Writing from Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. More here: http:// www.katemahonywriter.com.