It’s a long and boring drive, it is late in the day and Geoff is tired. Very tired. His attention keeps wandering, and he knows he is in danger of falling asleep at the wheel. He has tried every trick in the book: eaten an apple, taken a drink of water, stopped for five minutes and walked up and down the road as other drivers whiz by at a hundred and twenty kilometres an hour.
None of these things have worked, or at least, not worked for long. He is going to have to stop properly, take a rest.
He looks for a turn-off, somewhere where, at least, he can get far enough away from the highway that the constant noise of vehicles, especially trucks, won’t bother him. There are no turn-offs. Not for another thirty kilometres. Geoff struggles to stay awake, driving erratically.
At last he sees a small turn-off, not much more than a lane, and gratefully he leaves the highway. The surface of the lane is sealed for the first two hundred metres, then becomes just two ruts running up over the hill between barbed-wire fences. If he can get over the hill, he will be away from the noise.
He tops the rise and sees that the barbed wire fences have disappeared. He is crossing an open paddock. The land is falling away before him, and the view is spectacular. Thirty or forty kilometres of rolling farmland under a burnished blue sky and a few puffy white clouds.
A short distance from the lane he sees a copse of wide-branched trees. He drives slowly towards the shade and stops. Applies the handbrake. Reaches forward and switches off the engine. Sits in silence, staring out over the country. This is what he had been hoping for.
He fiddles under his seat for the lever, and pushes his seat back. He reaches down to his side and releases the back of his seat until it is nearly horizontal. He lies back and stares at the roof of his car. He closes his eyes, and hopes that sleep will wash over him very quickly. He tries not to let his mind focus on anything, deliberately scrolling through idea after idea without pause, a technique he learned years before and which rarely fails him.
He notices that the engine is ticking as it cools. He tries not to concentrate on it. He realises that the car is swaying slightly in the breeze, which is obviously stronger than he had thought. He tries to convince himself that the swaying motion is rocking him to sleep.
After several minutes he sits up, opens the car door and gets out. Goes to the boot and opens it. Reaches in for his leather jacket, rolls it up and carries it back to the driving seat. Gets in, lies back and puts the rolled-up jacket under his head. Tries to relax. Closes his eyes. Without realising it he drifts almost immediately into sleep.
When he awakes it is dark. Someone is calling out. He sits up and peers out of the window. A large dark shape is visible but not immediately identifiable. He opens the door and gets out. The interior light, activated by the opening door, allows him to see the dark shape moving away a little, and now he can see that it is a horse. ‘You okay?’ a voice asks.
‘Yeah,’ he says. He clears his throat. ‘Yeah, I just needed to rest.’
He hears a low growl, and the rider says ‘Quiet.’
He is silent.
‘I meant my dog,’ the rider apologises.
His eyes are growing used to the dark, and now he can see a dog standing beside the horse, its head lowered, one paw raised. He chuckles. ‘I thought you meant me,’ he says. ‘Well, I was on the highway and I started feeling very sleepy. I came up here to get away from the road.’
‘Sensible.’ the rider says. There is a pause. Then, ‘I’m going to switch on my torch, okay?’ and a beam of light shoots out. Geoff is blinded, holding his hand up to shield his eyes. The torchlight sweeps over him, head to toe, then snaps off.
‘Want to come down for a cup of coffee?’
‘Just down there, where that light is. Home.’
Geoff can’t see a light.
‘Get back on the track and it’s two hundred metres. Just follow me.’ The rider turns the horse and returns to the track.
Geoff scratches his head. Seems a bit… odd? Still he can see no harm in it, and gets back into his car, slowly following the rider, his sidelights on. After a hundred metres he sees a light from a window.
The horse is ridden into a barn, and a couple of minutes later the rider emerges, the dog at his side. ‘In here,’ he beckons, and Geoff follows. There is a small dark room full of boots and coats on hooks on the wall, and a door which leads into a kitchen. The rider, he sees now, is a young man, perhaps eighteen. Sitting at a table in the middle of the room is a woman, perhaps the rider’s mother. She is in a wheelchair.
‘He was sleeping in his car under the trees,’ the rider explains. ‘Come off the highway. Tired.’
The woman nods.
‘Said I’d make some coffee.’
The woman nods again.
Geoff feels awkward. ‘Hi,’ he says, raising his hand in a half-hearted salute. ‘I’m Geoff’.
‘J or G?’ asks the woman.
‘Your name. D’you spell it with a J or a G?’
‘Oh,’ he says. ‘G.’
‘Okay, Geoff with a G, why don’t you sit down?’
For some unaccountable reason, Geoff hesitates. The rider is at the sink, filling a kettle with water. He turns and looks at Geoff, then nods slightly as though encouraging Geoff to sit. Geoff pulls a chair out and sits.
The rider plugs in the kettle and when it boils, fills an American-style percolator, and pours coffee into the basket. He snaps the lid down and puts it on the hot-plate of the range. It doesn’t take long to start perking, and the kitchen fills with the delicious aroma of fresh coffee. The three of them watch in silence as the coffee brews, and shortly the rider takes three mugs from a shelf. ‘Milk?’
Geoff nods. ‘Please.’
Geoff shakes his head. ‘No thanks.’
The rider pushes Geoff’s coffee towards him.
The coffee is surprisingly good. Geoff has never drunk coffee made in a percolator before, but it sure beats instant.
‘Where are you going?’ The woman has picked up her coffee mug and is holding it in two hands as though she is freezing. She sips the coffee as she looks over the rim of the cup, her eyes as black as a raven. Geoff is unnerved. There is something about this woman, something he can’t put his finger on.
‘Newbridge,’ he says, and the woman nods.
‘Quite a way, then.’
Geoff nods. ‘Couple more hours.’
The woman turns to the rider. ‘Is the spare bed made up, Kate?’
Kate? Geoff thinks. He looks at the rider and realises with a start that what he had thought was a young man is, in fact, a woman.
‘I think so,’ Kate says, and Geoff realised that though the voice is deep for a woman, it’s not quite deep enough for a man. He looks at Kate again, and sees why he was mistaken: short black hair cut in a tight cap, almost as tall as him, and, with a jacket on, bulky.
Geoff looks from Kate to her mother. ‘Spare bed? D’you mean for me?… No, I’m not sleeping here. I have to get on.’ He gets to his feet.
‘Sit down,’ the mother says. Turning back to Kate, she says ‘Go and switch on the blanket. It’ll be warm in no time.’
Geoff remains on his feet. ‘I said I can’t stay. Look, thanks for the coffee, but I’m off.’
Kate smiles at him, and the look on her face tells him she’s on his side. ‘He has to go,’ she says to her mother. ‘Don’t make a fuss.’
But suddenly Geoff feels exhausted, giddy. He wipes a hand over his face.
The mother grins in triumph. ‘See! He’s too tired to go on.’
Kate looks doubtful, but Geoff knows the mother is right. He holds on to the back of the chair, his head down. Kate moves towards him. ‘Are you alright?’
He finds he can hardly summon the energy to reply, but nods his head anyway.
‘You don’t look okay to me,’ Kate says, and stands beside him, putting her arm around his shoulders as though to help support him.
This is ridiculous, Geoff thinks. Then thinks of the coffee. Did they put something in it? What’s that date-rape drug…rohypnol? Does that work on blokes too? He realises that he has no idea, but the suddenness and depth of his exhaustion makes him certain he’s
Kate shakes him, and he lifts his head and looks at her. This close he sees that she is very pretty. He has difficulty focussing, but her face could be the face of an angel. He leans towards her. ‘Geez, sorry about this,’ he mumbles. She holds him tighter.
The mother manoeuvres her wheelchair around the table, stopping close beside him. She reaches out and takes his hand. ‘There’s something wrong here,’ she says. ‘Have you been taking drugs? Amphetamines? How far have you come?’
Geoff pulls himself together. ‘No’ he says. He wipes his face with his hand again. ‘No, I’ve only been driving a couple of hours. I don’t know why I’m suddenly so tired.’
The mother looks around him to Kate. ‘I think he should stay. Why don’t you show him to the bedroom?’
Kate nods and gives him a little tug, but he resists. ‘No. I’ll be okay.’ He doesn’t want to stay here. There’s something he can’t account for, some bad feeling about the place.
There is silence for a moment, the two women staring at him, waiting. Geoff moves forward and sits once more, leaning on the edge of the table. Kate puts her hand on his back, between his shoulders. Moves it slightly in a stroking sort of motion. It feels good. The trio stay like that for some minutes, then the mother backs her wheelchair away from the table and leaves the room.
‘You’re exhausted, mate,’ Kate says quietly. ‘Why don’t you stay for a while, at least? Have a nap before going on.’
Geoff has his head down, almost on the table. ‘You’ve drugged me, haven’t you?’ he accuses her.
Kate makes a sudden, breathy sound, which he interprets as a gasp. ‘Drugged you? What on earth for?’ She sits down beside him, her hand still on his back, leaning forward to try and see his face. ‘And how? We don’t have any drugs here.’
Geoff is silent. Is he mistaken? Is he making a fool of himself? ‘How come I drink your coffee, which should wake me up, if anything, and then suddenly I feel exhausted?’ His accusation sounds ridiculous now. ‘And I’ve just had a nap in the car. I shouldn’t be tired now.’ He turns his head to look at her. Her face is very close to his, her eyes narrowed in concern.
‘I don’t know,’ Kate says, almost whispering. ‘But it’s nothing we’ve done, promise.’
The mother appears in a doorway. ‘I’ve turned down the covers and switched on the blanket. If you want to lie down for a while you’re welcome. Or you could just stay where you are. Please yourself.’ She wheels herself further into the kitchen, stops by the range and opens the fire-door, puts in a small log. A thin tongue of smoke escapes around the opening. She closes the door sharply, loudly.
Geoff shakes his head as though to clear it. The giddiness seems to have gone away. He breathes in deeply. It seems to him that he is back to normal. Well, almost. He lifts the coffee cup and sniffs it. It seems to be just coffee. He sips a little then decides against taking more. He looks at Kate. God, she’s pretty, he thinks. If he stayed, she might… but no, that’s ridiculous. He has to get on, get home to Sophia. ‘I have to get on. I’m sorry I said that, must be just some bug or something. Sorry I thought… well…’ he tails off.
Kate stands ‘It’s alright. I’ll see you to your car, if you’re going.’
Geoff nods. ‘Right. And thanks for the coffee.’ He looks at the mother. ‘Thanks for your offer. I guess I’m just a bit off tonight, yeah?’
The mother nods.
He stands and moves to the door. Kate moves with him, and together they go out through the mud room and into the moonlight. The dog is sitting beside the door. Follows them. Out through the gate to his car, unlocked. He turns to Kate, embarrassed now, and takes her hand. ‘Thanks for everything. Sorry I, you know…’
Kate nods. Her eyes are shining in the light of the moon. She nods again. ‘It’s okay,’ she says.
Geoff gets into his car, starts his engine, looks at her once more through the window. She lifts a hand. He shifts into gear.
Kate returns to the kitchen. Her mother has taken up some knitting, and her head is down. Kate pulls a chair out and sits. Her mother looks up and smiles. Kate smiles too, broadly. The mother inclines her head in agreement. There’ll be another time…