FICTION: Two More Stacks by Craig Burnett

“Hello. My name’s Christopher and I was brought up to see the best in people.”

Christopher stuck out a mittened hand. Alice gave it a tentative squeeze, and water from the rain-sodden wool trickled through her fingers. “Thanks so much for stopping,” Christopher said brightly, lowering his hood and climbing into the van. He had a thin, pale face, wide eyes and the beginnings of a beard. He was carrying a plastic gym bag.

Christopher sat down, put the gym bag on his lap, then peeled off his mittens and placed them carefully on top of the bag. “Some people don’t. Stop, I mean. But that’s just conditioning, and misunderstandings, and the media. What’s your name?”

Alice stared down at the footwell, where water was dripping from Christopher’s rain jacket and hiking boots. She had seen his thin frame through the gloom, and thought it was a woman stood on the roadside, thumbing for a lift. By the time she opened the door it was too late to say anything. Christopher looked around the van. After a few seconds of silence, he said: “This is lovely. Just lovely.”

Alice scowled. Her van wasn’t lovely. The brakes were sticky, the engine rattled, and the writing on its side had mutated from ‘Alice Bexley Florist’ to ‘Al c  Bexl y   orist’. But it had been dry inside, at least. Now there was a small pond in front of the passenger seat.

Christopher was still beaming. Alice couldn’t see why. “It would be great if you could drop me in town,” he said.

Alice sighed. “Which town? I’m not…”

“Not from round here? Well that just makes you even nicer for stopping, I suppose. The next town. You’ll pass through if you’re staying on this road.” Christopher grinned and adopted a clumsy American accent. “So just keep on trucking.” He stole a glance at Alice, then blushed at her blank expression. He couldn’t be more than 19, she thought. But there was something awkwardly middle-aged about him.

They set off, and after a few minutes the rain began to ease. Either side of the van lay mile upon mile of scrubby moorland. Somewhere far behind it a bride and groom were wishing relatives goodbye, scrolling through photos and collecting discarded ties from the backs of chairs. Country house weddings were always hard work, and the bad weather had made yesterday’s even worse. Alice had spent the morning dashing through the rain, sheltering handfuls of peony and freesia under her jacket, willing the arrangements to stay upright until the guests arrived. It was a last minute booking hours from home, and the fee was dreadful. But any November booking was a good booking. Alice looked at the petrol gauge and thought about how much it would cost to fill up, and whether she’d be in business next November.

Christopher was still babbling away. “You know, five minutes before your van came over the hill, I thought – yep, next one’s a stopper. Isn’t that funny? Dad said I’d never get anyone to pick me up, not nowadays. But I’ve been all the way to Burkedown this morning, and now I’m halfway back again. All thanks to the kindness of strangers. That was mum’s phrase, the kindness of strangers. Seeing the best in people, that was her thing. Dad’s a bit different. But aren’t we all? All a bit different?” He stared at her intently. She wondered if he was waiting for a reply, or trying to assess quite how different they were.

“Home’s actually a bit north of town,” Christopher said. “I don’t suppose you’re going that way?” Alice shook her head. Christopher looked down, crestfallen, then began to rummage through his bag. “Would make a difference if I gave you some money?”

Alice yawned. She had left the wedding at 3am last night, expecting to make the long drive back to her flat. But after 45 minutes her eyes had begun to dip. So she’d pulled up in the car park of a service station hotel, beneath a sign boasting of crisp linen and plump pillows. For a few seconds she allowed herself to imagine sinking into a luxurious bed. Then she climbed into the back of the van and curled up under a tarpaulin, amid the broken stems and reels of twine. She was woken hours later, long after she had intended to set off, by a security guard slapping his palm against the back doors.

Christopher’s hands were still buried in the bag. “It’s just that I’ve got quite a lot of money at the moment. And it’s sort of important I get home quickly.” He pulled two stacks of £50 notes from the bottom of the bag, and balanced them on the dashboard. For a few seconds Alice’s brain froze completely. When it twitched back into life, all she could do was guess how much money was in each pile. Five thousand? Ten thousand? Christopher pulled out two more stacks. Then two more. He was still emptying the bag when Alice, transfixed by the cash in front of her, drove round a bend and ploughed into the hiker.

***

“Hello. My name’s Christopher and I was brought up to see the best in people.”

The hiker’s eyes were closed, and his head lay flat on the gravel. Christopher loomed over him, with his hands on his knees. If the hiker heard Christopher, he didn’t respond. The hiker’s backpack, map and binoculars were scattered over the road. Alice crouched a few metres away, hugging herself and shaking. She had managed to brake before she hit the man, but had still sent him flying. A sheep, its wool hanging heavy in the rain, had wandered across a nearby field and up to the side of the road.

Christopher reached down and patted the hiker gently. “Looks like a nasty one.” He leaned closer and spoke slowly and loudly. “Is there a friend, loved one or colleague we should call?” The man opened his eyes. Christopher beamed, a sight so unnerving the man quickly shut his eyes again. Christopher leaned closer. “I’m first aid-trained, so there’s really nothing to worry about.” He was shouting now. “I will get you a glass of water as soon as possible.”

The man whispered: “My ankle.”

Christopher frowned. “Oh dear. We never did ankles.” He turned away and began picking up the hiker’s belongings. A tupperware box was surrounded by buttered bread and thin slices of cheese and tomato. Christopher got down on his knees and carefully reassembled the sandwich. Eventually, to Alice’s relief, the man pulled himself up to a sitting position. He swivelled his head, curled and uncurled his fingers, checked all over for damage. Then he looked over at Alice. “You could have killed me” he said, his voice cracking. They were both trembling. He was grey-haired, tubby and clad head to toe in brightly coloured hiking gear, pristine apart from a smear of dirt where he’d slid across the road. Alice closed her eyes. But instead of darkness she saw the moment she had hit him, heard the scrape of his bag against the bonnet. She remembered the £50 notes, fired upwards by the collision, fluttering all around her.

The hiker tried to stand, shrieked and fell to the ground again. The sheep wandered closer and began chewing on his map. Christopher looked over, crestfallen. “Oh dear. This is all my fault. Let’s get you up.” He helped the hiker stand on his good ankle and hop slowly towards the van. The man seemed too dazed to object. His coat and backpack still had their price tags on. When Christopher opened the passenger door, a few notes fell out into the road. The hiker turned to look at Alice, open-mouthed.

A few minutes later, she joined them in the front of the van. Its warmth and musty smell were comforting, but she had the same woozey feeling she’d had before pulling into the car park late last night. Her tounge was heavy, and her feet and hands didn’t feel entirely her own. She looked around, focusing on tiny details to keep her brain away from memories of the crash. The rust on her wing mirror, the scuffed face of the radio. Christopher, sat between Alice and the hiker, had tidied most of the notes back into the gym bag and returned it to his lap. “I was just telling Tony here the crash was my fault really. Because of the money. But he’s not to worry, because the hospital’s not far.”

Alice was still struggling to block out images of the collision. She tried to fasten her seat belt, but her hands were trembling too much. After a few seconds she let the belt slide back up across her chest. Tony asked: “how much… how much were you going to give her?” Christopher looked down at his bag. “For driving me? I don’t think I’d said. But I suppose…” He named a figure. For a long time, no-one said anything. Christopher frowned. “Do you think that’s enough? Maybe it’s not enough. But forget about all that – we’ll have you at the hospital in no time.”

Tony slowly moved his injured foot from side to side, wincing every few seconds. His synthetic fabrics rubbed against his seat, filling the van with a dry rustling. Alice had her hand on the gearstick when he said: “I’ll wait.” Tony pulled a metal water bottle from the webbing on the side of his backpack, and clumsily unscrewed the lid. “I’ll wait. For three quarters of the money, I’ll wait.”

Alice stared at him, open-mouthed. He took a drink, his hand still trembling, then looked across Christopher at her. “You could have killed me. That’s worth three quarters. Unless you want me to phone the police?” She hadn’t meant to bargain with him. She just wanted to slow the world down, to feel like she was inhabiting her own body again. But then her eyes fell on a stray note drifting in the flooded footwell. Even a quarter of the amount was a month’s rent. Christopher was still frowning: “Are you sure Tony? That was quite a bump.” Tony nodded, gritting his teeth. Christopher smiled his biggest smile of the day. “Well there you go. That’s the best in people, right there.” Alice looked down. She was putting the van in gear, adjusting the pedals. Her body and brain were drifting further apart every minute. The rain had turned heavy again. The sheep watched the three of them drive away. As soon as the van had disappeared over the next hill it snorted, swallowed the last of the map, and wandered back into the field.

***

Moorland gave way to homes – first in clusters of two or three, then long pebbledashed terraces, then redbrick castles resting smugly behind driveways the size of tennis courts. Christopher stared at them eagerly, until the windows steamed up. He looked glum for a moment, then dug a boney elbow into Tony’s side. “So what are you doing down here? That’s quite a bag you’re carrying.” Tony pretended not to hear. Nausea and pain had turned his cheeks green. Christopher leaned closer and shouted, as if he was back standing over Tony’s body after the accident. “I said…”

Tony scowled and turned away. “I lost my job.”

Christopher frowned. “Oh. Gosh. Well, that’s an awful thing Tony.”

“Doesn’t matter. Hated my job.”

“Ah, well, then that’s…”

“Brilliant money, mind you. Brilliant. But my life coach said I should take the chance to try something out of the ordinary. Try a bit of solitude. In case it made me re-think my priorities. Find myself, all of that bollocks.”

“And have you?”

Tony looked back, at the gym bag rather than Christopher. “Not sure. Maybe. Where’s that from?”

“This? I’m not sure. I used to carry my sports kit to school in it. Sorry, it probably still smells a bit. You can never really get rid of that smell, can you?”

Alice sighed. “The money, Christopher. He’s asking where the money’s from.” She was feeling more together now. She didn’t know if she’d calmed down, or moved through panic into a kind of detached serenity. Christopher looked guilty. “Oh, right. Gambling. Well, poker. People say poker’s gambling, but I don’t think so. I think gambling is betting on those machines with the lights, or the game at the summer fete where you try and roll a six on every dice. Luck. Poker’s – well, it’s a bit of luck, but mainly maths. And I’ve always been good at maths. I know this seems quite a lot of money, but it’s taken me months to get it. Months and months. I had to go all the way to Burkedown to get it out of the bank.” He looked thoughtful for a moment, then shook his head as if to dislodge an idea from his brain. “Gosh,” he said, “listen to me, wittering on. What did you do for your job Tony? If it’s not too painful to talk about.”

Tony’s cheeks had turned from green to white. He opened his mouth a fraction and said: “Computers.” Christopher grinned. “That’s how I play poker. On the internet, with people from all over the world. That’s the best bit, meeting so many different people. Sometimes I don’t care if I win or lose, as long as I’ve met someone new. Me and dad don’t see many new faces, out on the farm. We moved there after mum died. It’s funny, you saying you wanted to try solitude. Dad’s a big fan of that. Since, you know, mum. He doesn’t really get out and about much. We have disagreements about it sometimes. He’s not keen on the poker either. But that’s just his way. He’s always worried about me talking to strangers. I try and explain, but I’m not very good with confrontation.” Christopher rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. Beneath the wispy hairs on his chin, there was a brownish-green bruise.

It was a small town, and a single left turn put them on the road north. Christopher checked his phone and turned to Alice, his face twisted up with worry. “Alice – you’ve already been so good to me. But I just wondered… I wondered if we could pick someone up.” Alice tried to say no, a firm no, to claw back some control. But all that came out of her mouth was: “The van’s only supposed to take three.”

Tony’s breathing had quickened and sweat was running down his face. But he just managed to say: “Another thousand. We’ll stop for another thousand.”

Christopher’s shoulders sagged with relief. “Well that’s great. I’m sure we can squidge up. Unless… I mean, we wouldn’t want to cause any problems.”

“You won’t,” Tony said, grimacing. Christopher turned back to his phone, shaking his head in joyful disbelief. “Well there you go. If my mum could see this. He’s called Jepp, by the way.”  A few minutes later they pulled up outside a row of tired-looking shops on the edge of town. A newsagent, a bookmaker’s, a beauty parlour with cracks in every window. A great slab of a man with a squashed nose stood outside the beauty parlour, eating chips from a cardboard box. He stared at the van for close to a minute, scooping vast handfuls of chips into his mouth. There was a frayed black rucksack at his feet. Eventually he looked up and down the road. Apparently satisfied, he let the empty box fall from his hands, picked up the backpack and walked towards the van.

***

Jepp was as broad as Christopher was skinny. Sat in the front of the van, they filled the space of two normal-sized men. As soon as he climbed inside Jepp had unzipped the holdall on Christopher’s lap, grunting approvingly when he saw the money. In the half hour since he’d done nothing but stare silently ahead. There was writing tattooed on the side of his neck. Alice considered peering closer to read it, but thought better of it.

Tony was asleep. Christopher drummed his fingers against the dashboard, without any semblance of rhythm. They hadn’t seen another house for 20 minutes, not since they turned off the main road and onto a gravel track. Eventually, Christopher said: “We’ve still got the flowers from mum’s funeral, in the attic. Dad didn’t want to throw them out. And we do have lots of space up there. So what’s the harm? There’s no harm at all.” Alice grunted. She hadn’t done many funerals. She hadn’t done much of anything recently, as her bank reminded her every week. She’d taken to wedging the letters, unopened, behind the microwave in her kitchen.

Christopher tapped his fingers faster and faster. They were so thin, Alice thought. Christopher was tapping with his left hand. His right lay still across his lap. The fingers on that hand were crooked, poking against each other like bundled twigs. They reminded Alice of her brother’s, after he trapped them in the garage door, aged nine. She looked at her own fingers, gripping the steering wheel so tight the knuckles seemed close to popping out of the skin. Her gaze wandered from her hands to her arms, to her torso, to her whole body, seen from a few feet above. It took her a few seconds to realise there was something wrong with this final view. That she’d fallen outside of herself.

“Do you do begonias?”

Alice shivered, secure in her own body again. Jepp was staring over his shoulder, into the back of the van. “I love begonias,” he growled, stressing the letter g. “Can’t never keep them alive though.” Christopher grabbed Alice’s arm. “We’re here.” A rusting metal gate, sunk half a foot into the mud and tethered shut with fraying orange rope, brought the track to an end. An empty plastic sack was tied to a nearby tree, also with orange rope. The message PRIVATE KEEP OUT had been painted on it, with the word private repeated at the bottom. Jepp peered ahead, sniffed, then opened the door and clambered out, muttering an apology as he knocked Tony’s ankle.

Alice saw the outline of a building through the drizzle, and whispered: “what’s your friend going to do, Christopher? When you get home?” Christopher shrugged cheerfully. “I don’t know, exactly. He’s not a friend, as such. He’s a friend of someone I met online. But just because it’s online, that doesn’t mean… That’s one of the things I kept telling dad. Anyway, isn’t every stranger just a friend you haven’t met yet? But this first friend said he knew someone who was good at persuading people. So Jepp’s going to talk to Dad for me. I’m just no good at it. Whenever I try, I say the wrong thing. And then… well, Dad doesn’t know his own strength sometimes.”

“Persuading people?”

Christopher nodded. “I might go for a walk. Leave them to it. I don’t want to get in the way.” He wore the same expression he had worn for most of the day – one of good natured, well-I-never confusion. His poker face, Alice thought. She dipped her hand in her pocket and rested her fingers on the top of her phone. If she called the police straight away, she’d probably meet them driving down the track. She imagined an officer stepping out of his car and picking his way through the mud, staring in the van window and seeing the bundle of money lying between herself and Tony. Christopher leaned towards her. “You know what? There was a moment this morning, just after I saw your van, when I thought you weren’t going to stop. And I’ve felt awful all day, for even considering that. But that’s what happens when things get a bit tough, isn’t it? You start to fear the worst. But thank heavens for you, Alice. Thanks heavens for the best in people.”

Craig Burnett was born in Scotland and lives in South London. He spends office hours shovelling words onto the internet, and sometimes re-arranging the ones that are already there. A former journalist, he writes fiction about awkward conversations, nasty surprises and the weight of the past.

black tree

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