I'm over the limit so I'm driving home down the back lanes to avoid the police. You have to drink-and-drive round here because we're a bit isolated and the decent pubs are all in town, 20 minutes away. Wrong of me, I know. But if I go home the back way it's single-track country lanes with grass growing up the middle all the way, and. more to the point, there are no police. Badgers yes. Foxes occasionally. Police no.
I'm barrelling down these narrow lanes with the car radio going full blast. My radio-cassette player was out of action last year. It's one of those 'key code' radios that have to be reactivated if you disconnect them from the battery. This is supposed to deter opportunist car thieves, I suppose. But last year I had to change the battery, and afterwards, when I looked in the manual for the reactivating code, the previous owner either hadn't written it down or had written it in invisible ink. I've managed to reactivate the damn thing only recently by taking it out and leaving it in the freezer overnight, believe it or not.
So after a whole year without in-car music, tonight I'm having a bit of a party and playing one of my all-time favourite tapes. I don't know if any of you have heard of Hound Dog Taylor and the House Rockers? It's raw Sixties Chicago rhythm and blues. I mean really raw. Hound Dog once stabbed lead guitarist Brewer Phillips with a knife onstage — for no apparent reason. The tape I have was recorded live at Joe's Place — wherever that is — and you can hear glasses being smashed in the background.
So I'm driving along and dancing in my
seat, thumping the steering wheel and so forth, when this ginger-haired youth appears in my headlights with his thumb out. I know him. I've picked him up numerous times. Young chap, about 18. Lives with his parents in the next village to ours. He's a check-out operator at a supermarket in town. He doesn't drive yet, and hitches a lift back from town late at night about three times a week. I stop the car, lean over and push the door open. 'Listen to this!' I say as he gets in. Then I turn the volume right up and get the car in motion again.
He's had a few as well. It's not obvious, but I can tell he is on an unusually elevated level of consciousness because he offers me a cigarette from his packet of ten. He's not offered me a fag before. The packet is presented to me with a hint of formality as if he is making a small sacrifice to mark a special occasion. I take a cigarette with alacrity. He winds down his window, puts his feet on the dashboard and settles back to enjoy the ride.
I'm really flying. Hound Dog Taylor is yelling about how he ain't got nobody and he's sitting there all alone, and Brewer Phillips is making his Stratocaster squeal like sows fighting over turnips, and I'm pushing my old Orion to the limit round the bends. The lanes are closed in on both sides by earth banks, so it's like driving down a long, floodlit tunnel. I have to stop myself becoming mesmerised into thinking that I'm playing a realistic video game. I say as much to my passenger, and he answers that the similarity has struck him also. Half a minute later, up ahead, we see a police car. 'Game over,' he says.
The police car is parked beside a crossroads, facing towards us. Two policemen arc lounging against it with their arms folded as if they've been expecting me. I turn down the music and put my seatbelt on. Instead of dipping my headlights as we draw up to the police car, however, I accidentally set the windscreen wipers going on speed-wipe, then on intermittent. 'If he asks me to blow in the bag,' I say, 'I'm doing a runner.' Puffing calmly on his cigarette, the hitch-hiker draws my attention to a gap in the hedge, as if he has been in this type of situation many times before, and indeed has become something of an authority on escape routes.
Without unfolding his arms, one of the policemen wags a forefinger at me, indicating that I should slow down and draw up alongside. I stop and wind down the window. His arms still folded, the policeman pushes himself away from his car with his backside, ambles wearily over, bends down and peers in through the window at me. He's studying my face with half-amused contempt, as if he has tired of humanity a very long time ago but tonight has decided to give it one last chance to re-ignite his curiosity.
After he's looked at me like this for quite some time, he says, 'Is it raining?'