An Exclusive Short Story: A motorway mystery; or `You look as if you've seen a ghost'

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Jack Standish was trying to get a lift back home. Or at least part of the way home, because he had 200 miles to go and he was unlikely to find a car going past his door. The reason he was so far from home was that he had just finished his first term at university, and when choosing a university he had deliberately picked a place to go a long way from home. This was good insofar as it got him away from the old surroundings, that is to say, his parents. But it was bad insofar as at the end of term it was a long way to go, especially if you were broke.

That is why he was now standing at the entrance to the motorway, holding up a card saying LONDON. He had thought long and hard about the wording on the card. At first he had thought he might simply put GOING HOME. Then he thought he might put, GEOGRAPHY STUDENT ABLE TO CONVERSE GRIPPINGLY FOR HOURS OR SHUT UP IF NECESSARY. Then he thought that LONDON was the correct solution if he really wanted to get a lift.

It hadn't worked so far. After 30 minutes he had had a cheery wave from a lorry already full of hitchers and that was it.

It was then that the red sports car arrived.

Arrived but didn't stop.

As he stood by the top of the slip road holding his card saying LONDON, the red sports car came roaring round the roundabout and seemed to come right at him, taking the entrance into the slip road badly. He didn't have time to jump. He closed his eyes.

When he opened them, the car had gone. Just missed him, presumably. God, he hadn't expected hitching to be dangerous as well!

"That was close," said a voice.

He looked round. A farmer was looking out of his Land Rover, having pulled up just behind him.

"Saw it happen," said the farmer. "Bloody fool. Want a lift?"

"You're not going to London?" asked Jack.

"Correct," said the farmer. "But I'm going that way. I could drop you at the next exit, or at the service area down the road. Service area probably be better. More people stop there."

"Thanks," said Jack. "Very kind."

He listened to the farmer natter as he drove down the M. It's part of the duty of hitch-hiking: listening or talking. If the driver wants to talk, it's your job to listen. If he wants to be amused, you've got to talk. If he likes silence, you've got to shut up. If he wants to play heavy metal tapes, you'd best get out and look for another lift. But all the farmer wanted to do was talk.

"My Dad used to own a lot of this land," he said, nodding at the fields. "Big farm, he had. Had to sell a lot. And some got taken."

"Taken?" said Jack. "What for?"

"Not exactly taken," said the farmer, "but when they built the new service area they wanted our land for it. Dad was dead by then, so I sold it to them. Made quite a packet. Helped me buy this Land Rover..."

Minutes later the farmer dropped Jack in front of the main entrance of the Charlminster service area, which was one he hadn't heard of before. He said thanks to the farmer and wandered up to the RAC man at the entrance. There was always an RAC man at the entrance to service areas. Never AA men. Perhaps the AA didn't want any more members. Perhaps they had enough on their plates. Perhaps they felt sorry for the RAC...

"Excuse me..." he said.

"You want to join the RAC?" asked the man, eagerly. "No problem!"

Jack almost laughed at the man's eagerness. He had a bristling moustache, like a Second World War RAF officer's, and it seemed to stand to attention as he spoke.

"There is a problem, I'm afraid," he said, "I haven't got a car."

"Never mind, sir," said the keen RAC man. "You could always join the RAC now and get the car later. Be nice to have a few pedestrians in!"

"No," said Jack. "I just wanted to know where people hitched from here, or where you think the best place to stand would be."

"Hitch-hiking, eh?" said the officer, "Is that how you got here?"

"Yes," said Jack. "Got a lift at the last exit. Interesting bloke. Local farmer. Used to own the land on which this motorway service area stands."

The RAC man looked at him very strangely. "Are you sure, sir?"

Jack thought about this. "Yes I am. At least, that's what he told me."

"Can you describe him to me?"

"Thin. Hat. Working clothes. Like a farmer. Except one funny thing. He had a red rose in his lapel."

The RAC man looked at him long and hard. "I assume that you're not taking the mickey out of me, sir?"

"Why should I?" asked Jack, puzzled.

"Because the man you describe died in a car crash last November."

Jack felt himself go faint. He dimly listened to what the RAC man was saying...

"Everyone knew him round here. Often used to come in to have a cuppa. Walk the old grounds, he would say. Then one day there was a horrible crash. I was called out to help. It was him. Stuck in the wreckage. Never forget his face. Or his red rose. It was his birthday, you see. He'd had a few too many..."

Jack couldn't think straight. None of this made sense. If the farmer was dead, how could...?

"I'd pop inside and have a cup of tea if I were you," said the RAC man, kindly. "I don't know what's happened to you, but you look as if you need a good sit down. You're in no fit state to start hitching. Go to Country Kitchen. Try the Earl Grey. It's my favourite."

Jack stumbled in to Country Kitchen, still trying to take in what the RAC man had said. It seemed impossible. The man in the Land Rover had seemed so alive. How could he have dreamt it...?

"Tea or coffee, love?"

Jack looked up. There was a bright-looking girl called Ellen standing behind the machines which converted good, healthy water into various kinds of sullen brown fluid. He knew she was called Ellen because she had a name tag on her chest.

"Earl Grey," he said. "That's what the RAC man recommended."

There was a silence. He looked up to find her gazing at him, open-mouthed.

"You what?"

"The RAC man outside. Just been talking to him. Nice fellow, with big bristly moustache..."

The pot of hot water made a loud noise as she dropped it on the floor. Some of it must have splashed on her but she gave no sign of feeling it. She just stood there like a statue, staring at him.

"What have I said?" Jack asked, "What's wrong with talking to an RAC man?"

"Oh my God," said the girl. "Oh my God, oh my God..."

At least this was taking his mind off the ghostly farmer, thought Jack, which showed that it wasn't.

"We haven't got an RAC man out there," said the girl. "Haven't had one for six months."

"Oh come on!" said Jack. "Every motorway service area has one. You can't have a service area without an RAC man recruiting people night and day. It would be against the law not to!"

"Not here," said the girl, not laughing. "The RAC have withdrawn their man from here after what happened at Christmas."

"Christmas?"

"Big fellow called Bob. Bristly moustache. Wore his hat at a jaunty angle."

Jack nodded. He was still wearing it at a jaunty angle.

"Set upon by a gang of Hell's Angels. All drunk. Beaten up. Died in hospital..."

Jack felt he was sitting in the middle of a nightmare. None of it made sense. How could...? He turned and ran outside. He felt faint. He felt that things were getting out of control. He felt that if he didn't get away soon he might go mad. He ran to the filling station area and into the shop.

"You all right, sir?" said the assistant cheerily. "You look as if you've seen a ghost."

Jack wondered what to say, how much to say, without looking crazy. "Well," he said, "I've just been talking to a girl serving in Country Kitchen, a Scottish girl..."

"I don't think so," said the petrol salesperson.

"Why not?" said Jack.

"No Scottish people working in there. They're a bit superstitious about that. Ever since..."

"Since what?"

"Since that terrible accident involving Ellen. She..."

Jack screamed and ran out. The first driver he came to taking petrol he begged for a lift, anywhere, just to the next service area, next exit, anywhere, please, please, please...

"All right," said Mrs Robinson, surprised but not alarmed. He seemed a nice boy. He didn't say much, partly because he was feeling very tired, confused and faint by now, and then she dropped him at the next service area where he went to make a phone call home. He didn't have the right change. He went to the cafeteria to get some. They wouldn't give him any change. They said he had to buy something, even if only a cup of tea.

"I had a cup of tea at the last service area," said Jack. "Charlminster. Don't want another one."

"Where?" asked the saleslady.

"Charlminster."

"Never heard of it."

"That's what it was called."

"Never heard of it. Jenny, you ever heard of a service area called Charlminster?" This to an older woman at the next till. Jenny gave out some change to a customer, and then thought a while.

"Charlminster's about 25 miles back," she said.

"Service area?"

"No, small village. There was going to be a service area there, I remember that. They planned it and everything - in fact, they planned it even before they built this one."

"Why didn't they build it?"

"Can't remember now. Some tragedy happened. I think there was some terrible accident when they were surveying the ground - workmen killed or something - and they finally never did build it there."

Jack had been feeling faint and unworldly until now. Now he felt as if he was in a living nightmare. Slowly he felt consciousness ebb away from him, and then he was falling, falling into a black hole...

The next day, at Charlminster motorway service area, Ellen the Scots girl came out during her morning break to have a chat with Bob, the RAC man. He was already busy talking to that farmer fellow who kept dropping by. They were looking at a newspaper together.

"It's him all right," said the farmer.

"It certainly is," said Bob.

Ellen looked over their shoulders. There was a picture of Jack Standish, though she didn't know that that was his name. The headline said STUDENT IN HIT AND RUN TRAGEDY.

"Run over by a red sports car at the roundabout," said Bob thoughtfully. "Just down the road. He was hitching there."

"So it actually happened before we saw him," said the farmer.

"Och, that's impossible," said Ellen. "I saw him too! He was fine."

"No, he wasn't," said the farmer. "He seemed ... half not there at all to me."

"He must have been desperate to get home," said Bob. "So desperate that even when he died, his spirit kept going..."

"That's impossible," said Ellen.

Do you think it's impossible? If yes, phone YES. In not, phone NO. If you refuse to believe in phone calls, don't phone at all...

This is an extract from Miles Kington's Motorway Madness, published by HarperCollins at pounds 7.99

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