Devil on Sea

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A Thumb In The Right Direction

Chapter 9
A Thumb In The Right Direction

Alan sat by the side of the A23, one arm attempting miserably to hold up the other. He let his arms sag, and let out a sigh, before rubbing his back gingerly where there were throbbing stings from the bees. He’d almost been glad to sit down by the side of the road but it had started raining almost as soon as he’d squatted on the metal railing, and he was now well on the way to being soaked through to the bone.

Although the cold is helping calm down the stings. He thought in a dark mood. As he sat there on the barrier, watching a growing puddle in front of him, the ability to think left and he was left empty minded. A Ford Escort slowed as it neared him, causing Alan to instinctively rise to his feet, before it then sped past him through the puddle, drenching Alan from head to toe; including the dry patch he’d been working on keeping under his chin. He sat back down heavily and sighed. Another ten minutes passed in the miserable rain before a lorry turned onto the A-road, flashed its lights and honked before pulling to the side of the road just past Alan. Alan rose, went to grab his dignity and pride before realising they would only get in the way, and so left them behind as he made his way to the stationary wagon. Alan climbed the step and opened the door as the truck driver finished smoothing out plastic sheeting over the seat.

‘Hope you don’t mind,’ the driver apologised, ’only you look a little wet.’

Alan shook his head, flicking water in every direction and surreptitiously glancing around the cab.

For a long distance truck the cab is remarkably well kept. Alan thought, admiring the inside. The only litter was a can of some sort of energy drink, which had a straw in it and probably wasn’t finished. There were no pin-up models cut from newspapers plastered to the back wall, no scarves proclaiming allegiance to one football club or another, and no dirty magazines stuffed behind the seats. In fact, as Alan settled into the seat - squeaking on the plastic and pulling the door shut - he did spy a magazine but it was the National Geographic. The driver gave Alan a smile and the lorry continued to sit there, engine idling. After a moment or two the driver’s smile wavered just a little and he said,

‘Mind putting on your seatbelt there, partner. Safety first an’ all that.’ Alan tugged at the seatbelt fast enough for it to catch twice, apologising all the while. ‘The name’s Marshall,’ the driver said, offering Alan his hand.

‘Alan.’ Alan replied as he shook Marshall’s hand, smiling wanly. Marshall flicked on the indicators and the truck pulled off the shoulder of the road and onto the motorway.

This guy seems almost educated. I thought dimness was a requirement of being a truck driver. And why does he look the spit of John Wayne?

‘Well Alan, it’s nice to meet you. Mind telling me where it is you’re heading in such a fancy-looking suit? I’ll see if I can get you as close to their as possible.’

Fancy? You should see the shirt. Alan thought to himself dryly, in the hope it would aid in drying of his exterior too. He watched the rain lash against the windshield for a few seconds before replying to Marshall's question, pondering where it is he needed to go and stifling a yawn.

‘Manchester, if possible. Or as near as you can get me.’

‘You’re a lucky man,’ said Marshall giving Alan a quick glance, ‘I’m heading to Liverpool and can drop you off by the M-fifty-six.’

‘Thank you.’ Alan said shivering and eyelids beginning to droop, causing Marshall to turn the heating up before settling back into his seat. ‘You’re a life saver.’ Alan murmured as he fell asleep and dreamed.

Alan continued to toy with the idea of hitting the horn, hard, for almost full ten minutes. So far he hadn't quite worked up the nerve to do so but the standstill traffic, and the hot and humid weather, was beginning to get under his skin. His fellow motorists weren't helping his mood any either as Alan glared again at the rear view mirror. In it he saw a teenage lad, pimples and the rest, mouthing along to the words of a song in his Ford Fiesta. A car which the teen had had lowered and modified in such a way that every time he gently pressed his foot on the accelerator Alan flinched in fear that he was under mortar attack, from the sound caused by a no doubt stupidly expensive exhaust.

'I'm getting old,' Alan said truly feeling his age, jumping again as the lad caused his car to roar into life for no visible reason. Getting? You've got old. The girl in the car in front was also grating Alan's nerves. She kept looking at herself in the mirror, and applying makeup a number of different times in a number of different ways. It meant she kept missing when the queue trundled forward another half a yard, like she just had done, and other cars from other lanes snaked into the vacant space. Alan looked at the horn again and finally hit it, hard. As he did he looked up to see the car in front had already moved forward. Embarrassed, and noticing her angry glare at him via her mirror, Alan put his own car into gear. Before he could move the teenage lad behind him hit his own horn, causing Alan to stall the car, and then a car from the right lane nipped into the gap before him. Alan heard laughter through his open window and looked left to see a familiar looking man laughing at him; although why he was red was a tad confusing.

'Enjoying the queue? They call this one the Highway to Hell.' And the man turned away from Alan and cranked up the music, causing Alan's car to vibrate along with the bass.

Oh God, I hate AC/DC, Alan thought, torn between winding up his window and roasting alive, or going deaf to rock music but sweating at a rate just about intolerable.

'You hate AC/DC?' A voice called out in astonishment from the back of the car. Alan froze in fear and, despite the weather, felt a cold shiver go up his spine. Slowly, he turned in his seat and there sat the devil. 'Wish I'd have known that sooner, I'd have changed all the radio stations to be playing nothing but their back catalogue.'

Highway to Hell suddenly got louder and Alan thrashed as the devil placed a clear plastic bag over his head and pulled him tight against the driver's seat, all the while singing.

'You're on the highway to Hell. Highway to Hell. Sing it with me, Alan. Highway to Hell!'

Alan awoke with a start and he fought against the restraint holding him back against the chair, gasping for air. When he realised it was just the seat belt, and his airways were clear, he relaxed; a little. It had been a long day and the constant drone of the rain, coupled with the gentle rocking of the cab, had sent him to sleep almost instantly. Completely awake and paranoid he was still in the nightmare, Alan gingerly stretched and yawned.

‘Afternoon hiker,’ Marshall said with humour in his voice. ‘I pick you up for someone to talk to and you go and snooze on me.’ Alan blushed and looked sheepishly out of the passenger window, as memory replaced his nightmare confusion.

Good job this isn't one of them murdering truck drivers. Alan though before chastising himself, momentarily wondering where such horrible thoughts spawned from.

‘Where abouts are we?’ Alan asked with another yawn, hoping he wasn’t far from being dropped off. Marshall had been awfully kind to offer him a lift but Alan just wanted to get back to Mary. He had this strange feeling he needed to reach her, urgently.

‘We’ve been on the M-forty for about an hour or so. You’ve been out a good two hours. Pro’lly another two hours before we reach the fifty-six.’

‘Ugh,’ moaned Alan, ‘It feels like an eternity. I wish they’d hurry up and invent time travel.’ Marshall looked intently at Alan after his comment, making Alan uncomfortable aware he'd just said something stupid.

‘There’s no time travel in eternity, Alan.’ Marshall said before going quiet, and focusing back on the road.

What the hell does that mean? Alan pondered in confusion. Perhaps I shouldn't rule out that he's a murdering truck driver just yet.

The rain had stopped but the sun was still refusing to come out from behind the clouds, leaving the roads wet and the wipers still needing to be on due to the spray from the cars in front. Alan stifled another yawn as they both sat in silence for the next ten or so minutes; the silence festering away like a bigot at a gay pride march. Marshall finally broke it with the elephant in the room.

‘What is it you’re running from; or to.’ Alan was unsure how to answer this.

The truth will pretty much end up with me back on the roadside, looking for a new ride, but I could really do to unload to someone. Who better than a stranger? He thought to himself, before deciding an edited version might be best. It never even occurred to him to lie.

‘My wife. And to, not from. I’ve not seen her in three years since I was sent to,’ Alan paused, why did I almost say Hell? Did I really die? ‘hospital,’ he finally finished. Marshall frowned at him before concentrating back on the road.

‘Listen, I don’t care about any trouble you might be in but there’s no need to lie to me.' Marshall replied sternly, refusing to look at Alan. 'If you don’t want to tell me, fine. But don’t treat me like an idiot.’

Alan sighed before shaking his head.

‘I was going to say Hell and that wouldn’t be far from the truth, I don't think. I was involved a car accident and I’ve been in a coma ever since. Today has been my first day awake in three years.’ Marshall was silent.

Please buy it. I'd rather not hitch hike from the hard shoulder. Alan willed Marshall to accept his story, all the while looking out at the hard shoulder with distrust.

‘Shit man, I’m sorry.' Marshall finally replied with sympathy in his voice. 'But why are you making your way to her and not her to you?’ Alan sighed again.

Well unloading isn't helping like I thought it would. All it's doing is teabagging me with reality. I don't know what's more depressing, reality or the teabagging. He looked Marshall's way and watched him blow his nose on a cloth handkerchief with the name "Cogburn" sewn into one corner before replying.

‘She doesn’t know I’m awake. She suffers from anxiety attacks you see and so I assume she wasn't fit to ever visit me. God only knows what my death has done to her.’ There was a moment of silence before Alan realised what he'd said and panicked, ‘Well, I mean, the coma must have felt like death. To her, that is. God knows it did to me.’ He’d started to sweat and for the first time noticed that he had dried, mostly. ‘I have an address of redirected mail and it’s her parent’s. I can only assume she couldn’t cope and had to move back in with them.’

Alan leant back in the seat, plastic squeaking, and mopped his brow with a still partially damp sleeve. Marshall turned on the indicator and Alan saw the upcoming turn off for a service station. He hung his head in defeat.

For fuck's sake, I blew it. What my death has done to her. Alan, you're a retard. As they turned into the service station Alan saw a sign for Burger King and his stomach rumbled loudly, causing Marshall to chuckle.

‘Looks like this is a good idea, you sound hungry.’ Alan blushed at Marshall’s statement of the obvious.

‘No, I’m okay. Honestly. I don’t have any money on me anyway so I’ll just wait in the cab. If that’s okay with you?’ Alan ventured, in the hope Marshall wouldn't be leaving him here.

‘No, it’s not. I want to hear the rest of this story and I don’t need you passing out on me from starvation. Come on, I’ll buy you a burger or other artery clogger of choice.’ The lorry pulled into a bay and Marshall killed the engine.

'Wait, you're not kicking me out?' Alan asked in confusion as Marshall swung open his door and climbed out. He looked back in the cab with a crinkled smile on his face and placed a western hat on his head.

'Now why would I do that, partner?'

The burger was causing Alan to salivate but he sat waiting at the table for Marshall to return with napkins and straws, although it was a difficult ask. Marshall came to join him but half way back he turned around to go for dipping sauce, causing Alan to whimper softly to himself.

I have never been this hungry in my life. Marshall, after what felt like an eternity, eventually returned, and before his arse touched the seat Alan dived into the burger. It was demolished in five mouthfuls, each interval stuffed with soggy fries or slurps of a flat cola drink. I don't think I remember what a fizzy cola drink tastes like, nowhere seems to sell them. When he finished he looked up at Marshall, sheepishly, who was still chewing from his first bite and had an amused look on his face.

'Want my fries, partner?' He asked and Alan took them without a moment’s hesitation.

‘So, Alan,’ Marshall said swallowing his first bite, ‘where did we leave off?’ Alan washed the last of the fries down with the last of his drink before continuing with the story, still hungry.

‘I don’t know what more there is to tell, if I’m honest. The car crash happened nearly three years ago and I lost my two best friends in it.'

I wonder if they made it to heaven. I don't remember seeing them in Hell. Alan shivered at the thought and pushed back against the memories that threatened to surface. Or maybe I did? They were both estate agents too.

'I’m not sure how the crash happened, if honest. I mean, I took Pro Plus to stay awake and within minutes my eyelids were heavy and then I was gone. I woke up in time to see two bright headlights before they ploughed into the car. How I survived is a miracle.’

Only it wasn’t because I didn’t. Alan thought to himself. The real miracle was coming back from Hell, which, despite now accepting must have happened, he wasn’t sure how he had managed. Every time he thought on it violent images chased him away.

‘I had to break into our old home to find an address of where Mary is now and that’s why I’m heading to Manchester. And I guess that's about it.’ Alan finished, skipping over the broken banister and the ensuing chase. Marshall, continuing to eat his burger in silence, never took his eyes off Alan for a second.

‘Okay kid,’ he finally said as he swallowed the last bite, ‘I’ll take you all the way.’

Alan’s eyes lit up before guilt flooded through him.

‘Really? Wait, no, I couldn’t. You’ve done too much as it is. Honestly, I can make my own way from wherever you can drop me off. There's really no need for you to go out of your way.’

‘I insist,’ Marshall said, rising from the table, ‘you’ve been through enough as it is and I won’t take no for an answer. Now is there anything else you want whilst we’re here or shall we posse up?’ Alan shook his head sheepishly before mumbling a quiet thank you. He was close to tears of gratitude and he trailed slowly behind as Marshall lead the way out of the service station. Alan stopped momentarily when he noticed Marshall jingled whilst he walked. Metal spurs spun and clinked on the floor from the back of Marshall's boots as he walked; boots which now stopped as Marshall looked back. He was outlined by a setting sun printed on the window of the service station they were stopped at and he nodded Alan's way, grabbing his hat as he did so.

'Something wrong, partner?'

Not at all Daisy Duke. Alan thought, trying not to burst out laughing. Instead he just shook his head, grin planted firmly on his face, and jogged to catch up.

Back on the road, or the trail as Marshall no doubt called it, Alan did his best not to doze for the rest of the journey; but it was a struggle. Marshall was going out of his own way to ensure Alan got to Mary quicker and it was quite clear he wanted some form of discussion in return. The problem was that most of what Marshall tried to talk about was way above Alan’s head. The magazine in the truck had turned out to be a National Geographic and based on the topics put forward for discussion by Marshall, the National Geographic was Marshall’s toilet reading material. When Alan had pulled the magazine out in an attempt to start a conversation Marshall had laughed saying,

‘Yeah, I only buy those when they have a pull out. They’re not the most high-brow of publications.’

An intelligent cowboy. There's a turn up for the books. Alan had thought without humour. He didn't want to be cruel to Marshall, not when he was going out of his way to be so kind, but it was so difficult when his intelligence was so intimidating. Maybe I did deserve to go to hell.

Marshall wanted to talk about the latest discoveries regarding Quantum Mechanics; or how the discovery of a Sigma-5 rating for the Higgs Boson at the LHC was exciting. When Alan had asked if the LHC was the place they were trying to create a black hole Marshall had laughed heartily and nearly swerved into another lane, until realising Alan was being serious. So had begun the last hour's lecture on what a wonderful piece of European scientific endeavour the Large Hadron Collider was, and how it could answer many of the questions currently being posed by physics. Hence Alan’s current struggle in trying to stay awake. Fearing that Marshall’s current rant about “how peeking at the earliest elements of the Universe and how they reacted with each other moments after they winked into existence, could help explain why they winked into existence in the first place” was going to tip him over the edge Alan butted in.

Although how long it had been known elements have eyes? And the ability to wink?

‘Why are you a truck driver?’ The question caught Alan as much by surprise as it did the interrupted Marshall. So much so Alan nearly answered it himself. Instead, he clarified. ‘I mean, you seem an extremely intelligent man and sound a little over qualified for this job.’ Marshall took a good long look at Alan and for a moment Alan was convinced he was going to die, again. Either by the hands of this stupidly intelligent man or the vehicle they plough into the back of. After moments that were much too long for Alan’s comfort, Marshall focused his attention back on the road and answered, sullenly.

‘How can you be overly qualified for a job you love and enjoy?’ Alan pondered Marshall’s reply for a long time, mouth agape. Unable to think of a rational, or even irrational, response he closed his mouth, nodded in agreement, and lapsed back into uncomfortable silence. As he sat there, squirming in the ever thickening wall of silence between them, Alan looked out of the window in time to see a Fiat Punto on the hard shoulder; hazards blinking. The driver’s door, a different colour to the rest of the car, was open and a ratty looking man stood at the raised bonnet. Smoke was rising from the engine and as the truck passed.

Hang on a minute, that's not smoke. That's steam! Wait, is he pissing on the engine? Before Alan could think on what he'd seen further, they'd passed the car and it was disappearing from view in the side mirror.

‘And what is it that you do?’ Marshall asked, not tempering the disdain in his voice.

‘I’m an estate agent.’ Alan said distantly, still confused by the sight he’d just seen. Marshall harrumphed before saying,

‘That’ll get you sent straight to Hell.’

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