MY THOUGHTS began to weigh heavily outside Nimes. Cars whizzed by impervious to the Irish flag on my haversack or my tired thumb still coyly poised. A gloom set upon me with the darkening evening, and the lights going on in the city down a little way from me. I was reconciled to turning back towards the youth hostel, which I'd spotted coming through the town, when a blue Citroen slowed, coasting past me, stalling. Then, to the beeping of other cars, it reversed and the passenger door was pushed open. "I'm heading for Spain," I said, knowing I should have had a placard with Spain on it and not just an Irish flag which could be going anywhere.
He examined me for a moment saying nothing, and then motioned with his hand for me to sit in. He was middle-aged spruced up in a dark blue suit, a business man I thought, into some sort of cross country sales. Short legs. His eyes had an aloofness about them.
"Are you going far?" He gestured with his hand as if to say a trivial question. "Do you speak Spanish? I'm sorry, I don't have French."
He made no effort to speak. It was as if language would incriminate, would let out secrets. I don't know what was making me think like that. He probably had no language other than his own and, like a lot of French, which is what I presumed he was, expected me to compromise to come to terms with his lingo. That would have been fine if words had been forthcoming.
But he said nothing and drove slowly in the slow lane allowing the careering motorists to pass us by. I became conscious of his right eye shifting laterally in my direction as we moved away from the city lights. I had landed in Paris not by design. My destination was Barcelona to do a Spanish course in the university, but I had left it too late to book the plane and found myself flying to Paris amid the Sorbonne riots with the intention of hitching the rest of the journey. It was like a dream that moment as I gasped my way through tear gas on the left bank, and was swept along in a chain of chanting protestors, before making it to the autoroute.
And here I was now, realising I should have gone to the hostel when darkness was falling. I should not have hitched in the dark. I should have waited till the morning to be able to see where I was going. As we drove out of the winding streets into the country, I lost my sense of direction. I couldn't see any sign.
"We are heading south?" I said in more of a statement than a question for I was afraid by the dour look of him that he would have taken umbrage at a full frontal question. But maybe I was jumping the gun here; maybe he just didn't understand.
Impatiently – it seemed – he flicked his hand forward as if to say I've already indicated to you the direction we are going. This way, whichever way this way was.
He signed like a person who had just had a tiring conversation.
It was on a quiet road when his right hand moved from the steering wheel and hovered for a second before landing on my left thigh. Remaining silent, he kept looking ahead into the beams of the approaching headlights where flies and other insects were swirling from the darkness, and I caught momentary glimpses of ditches and hedgerows. We were in the middle of nowhere without even a moon in sight.
His hand began to move upwards along my thigh.
I tried to lift his hand which started to resist. I was trying to convince myself still that things would be all right if I could remove the impediment (on the pretext of extricating a handkerchief from my pocket) and giving him the benefit of the doubt: his hand could have just innocently landed there in a friendly gesture of bonhomie. But I was what, a skinny 20-year-old and his wrist was strong; he was strong; it was such a heavy weight, his hand, those chubby short fingers I felt as I brushed against the hair on the back of his knuckles. I tried to lift, like lifting a boulder.
He pressed hard on the accelerator, an angry revving, both our hands engaged in combat like a pub arm-wrestling contest. He had to swerve, granting me a slight advantage.
Eventually I managed to force his hand off my thigh, but it hovered over the handbrake, and I failed to clamp it back onto the steering wheel.
The punch came swiftly, catching me on the left jaw, dazing me.
The car was swerving and speeding at the same time now. Streaks of white light crazily strobing fields. With my right hand, I pressed down the chrome handle and pushed the door against resisting air, as his hand grabbed my crotch. I threw out my haversack which I quickly grabbed from the back seat and hurled myself after it. Even then in that moment of frenzy I was trying to think logically, hoping to cushion my fall by landing on the haversack. But I landed a long way from it and I was dragged by the propulsion of the car, my jeans torn on the sharp stony asphalt. I seemed to go on and on being rolled along the road, leaving bits of skin and flesh in my wake. How would I get back to my haversack, was all I could think of as I watched the Citroen speed off and lose itself in the night.
I lay for a while writhing, before I started to crawl back towards where I thought my haversack should be.
Out of the darkness she came. She was just there at the end of the road holding aloft my torn haversack. "Pour vous," she said. How did she know it was mine? She must have witnessed the whole escapade, from where? From what vantage was she looking? Who was she, this spéirbhean? Was she in league with him, stubby finger Blue Suit? I felt my chin. Was it dislocated? But it wasn't nearly as painful as my skinned thigh. Funny that, I thought, the part of me he touched, reduced now to raw meat. She helped me up. I tried to stand. The pain shot through me. She acted as a crutch guiding me where there were no compass points. How could she take my weight? She was petite but with strong hips and legs that were used to toil perhaps. Letting me lean on her shoulder as I grimaced my way, dragging that leg, each crease of skinless flesh an agony, and she carrying my haversack, the canvas strap dangling from her left hand. She led me through a side road saying words all the time I did not understand, therapeutic words. And I thought as I clung to this girl, they should be the first two words to learn: soothing universal epithets, as we came into a lighted area and I saw the dark glistening sheen of her hair. And when I saw her eyes, a melting chocolate brown huge in their empathy, I knew then she could not be part of him. We were in the yellow light of a café, in a little village with a few houses around and a Pepsi Cola sign over the café.
I never noticed her limp. I thought it was because of the road, the unevenness that made her hobble from side to side. And she carrying my weight, and the soft cotton dress, cream with matt blue flowers. She rested me in an outdoor plastic chair. Une blessure," she announced as an old wizened man appeared at the café door. He came and looked at my leg and nodded to her before returning inside.
She went behind a beaded curtain and reappeared with a basin of water. There was no one else in the café, due no doubt to the lateness of the hour. She flicked the catch open of a green box, a first aid kit which the old man had fetched. Opening my belt, she gently eased the torn denim leg away from the wound. She poured antiseptic into the water, and with cotton wool, commenced to clear away the grit, the sting causing me to cry out despite myself. She whispered the soothing words again, calming me with her eyes. Taking a square of gauze from the kit, she applied it with ointment to my thigh. Opening a small fold-up scissors, she cut a bandage and wound it gently around the gauze.
She trimmed light downy hairs around the wound and applied plaster to stick the bandage in place, and she made a sudden pulling action with her hands. I knew what she meant, that the plaster when coming off would tear away less painfully with the hairs cut. She smoothed it all with her hand when the job was done.
She pointed to my jaw. Took it in her fingers, turned it gently to the light, and caressed it, feeling for a lump.
"Swollen," I said.
She went away, swishing behind the beaded curtain, and returned with a cloth full of ice, which she applied gently to the jaw.
The old man stuck his pearly head in through the beads. "Bonne nuit."
I heard his step plodding upstairs and saw a light going on in a bedroom, which brought large moths flapping towards the window.
She gestured with her hand. Back, I was to sit back.
The gesture, the palms going the opposite way to Blue Suit's. The thought made me shudder.
She embraced herself in the cool night air and went away, each up and down step measured like clock time, returning with a blanket which she draped over my shoulders.
The light went off in the old man's room. Leaving (trusting?) his daughter, or maybe she was his grand-daughter, to minister to me, perhaps concluding that in my debilitated state I posed no threat. She was about my own age, I conjectured. She motioned food to her mouth, pressed my hand, then limped away, the limp more pronounced now as the night was wearing on, weakening her vigilance in guarding such a thing. She must be tired too, I thought, this nightingale, who possibly already had done a day's work in the café, and now was giving her night up to care for me. A stranger. Who could be a murderer, a rapist, a robber, who could be anything. And I wondered what was out there in the darkness.
She brought me onion soup in a deep earthenware bowl and some French bread, broken not cut.
When I was finished eating, she took my hand, engendering a warmth and familiarity as if I had known her for a long time, and she led, me carrying the haversack with the torn flag.
She pointed to the flag. "Votre pays?"
"Yes," I said, "Ireland."
"Ah," she said, but it was an expression of incomprehension, like saying such a thing was insignificant in a universe of darkness, or maybe it was just my mind overstretched, playing tricks.
From the pocket of her dress, she took a key and ushered me into a small ground floor room at the back of the café. There was a single bed, and a tiny rectangular window framed a moon now, shining wanly as if there were a coating of Clingfilm blocking its full luminescence.
Helping me onto the bed and carefully stretching out my bandaged leg, she slanted her cheek to her joined hands to indicate I was to sleep. It was, I thought, so much more graceful than saying the word, like an action from a ballet and she was the swan.
I slept fitfully, my thigh smarting, as the moon waxed at my window. Then I must have slept for a long spell, for when I looked towards the window again, the moon had gone and there was early light. I was gazing at the low beamed ceiling when I heard the faint knock – more like susurration – on the door. She entered in a new lemon frock, carrying a tray with a croissant and coffee and (a newspaper) and a white rose in a little glass vase. She touched my cheek, rotating the jaw, smiling, her eyes every bit as shiny in the natural light. She pressed in indication that the swelling was gone down. How had I incurred it? Was she not curious? I would have difficulty explaining.
Lifting the blanket, she caressed a slipstream of air over my thigh.
"Yes," I said, "good, getting better."
When I had finished breakfast, she removed the tray to a small side table and helped me up. As I tested the ground with the injured leg, I grimaced. She uttered the words again, the soothing litany, and led me to an adjoining bathroom where she provided me with a clean white towel and my razor, which she had rescued from my haversack. It was a lullaby she was humming outside the door as, leaning on the good leg, I manoeuvred the razor carefully around the swollen jaw.
"Regardez!" she said when I came out, and she lifted up the newspaper from the tray. It was Le Monde. She pointed to the front cover: it had a photograph of two young lovers kissing amid the riots of the Sorbonne.
She drew close to me, looking up demurely into my eyes, willing me to act. We embraced and kissed sensually and at length. When we had finished, she drew breath and smiled.
"Nous," she said, pointing to the photo.
"Yes," I said, "nous."
And she handed me my haversack, stitched up, my flag mended with the palest of thread.
Meet the author
James Lawless lives in Co Kildare. His short stories have appeared in the Stinging Fly anthology Let's Be Alone Together. His one-act play The Fall was performed in the Source Arts Centre, Thurles, and his novel Peeling Oranges was published by Killynon House Books.
How to Enter
New Irish Writing, edited by Ciaran Carty, is published on the first Sunday of every month and is open to writers who are Irish or who are resident in Ireland. All stories published will be eligible for Hennessy Literary Awards, which will be announced in April 2009. Stories should not exceed 2,500 words. Up to six poems may be submitted. Address entries (with a SAE) to: New Irish Writing, Sunday Tribune,
15 Lwr Baggot St, Dublin 2.