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I was twelve years old when Cosima first rode with us.
I hadn't heard of her then. Nobody had. She was just another girl, a hitchhiker with a name you might not remember.
A few things were different about her. She was American, but it wasn't just that. On the road, we met just about everybody: Welsh people and Irish people and Scots, German people and Spanish people and Americans and, of course, people from every part of England. The American hitchhikers were mostly the natural-looking kind, all denim and well-brushed hair, who could have been English apart from flat, unfunny voices and a dislike of our food, like beans on toast or Marmite. More than one of them tried to tell me that pretzels were better than Twiglets and that the Little Chef wasn't like a real American coffee shop. I told them it wasn't trying to be.
Cosima was a cowgirl, at least to look at. She wore a cowboy hat and a belt with a brass buckle. She wore a suede jacket, its fringe damp and tangled from being sat on in so many cars and lorries (or trucks, because they didn't say lorry in the U.S.A.). Her accent wasn't broad, but her voice had gaps in it wide enough to park a lorry in. I'd ask her a question and she wouldn't say anything and I'd think she hadn't heard me. Just when I was about to ask it again, she would answer. Cosima always kept you waiting, even when she was right there next to you.
The second thing was her fiddle. The road had its musiciansit was full of them in summerbut they were mostly boys with guitars or the occasional girl with a guitar. Bobby used to play the guitar once, and he liked to ask what kind of guitar he or she was carrying and maybe have a look at it if we stopped for a cup of tea. We'd met boys with fiddles, but not many girls.
It was six years ago, but I remember everything about that day. We had eaten our lunch. We were seventeen miles north of Birmingham. We were listening to Charlene Sweeney, our favorite country singer. The cars were like slugs all around us, creeping along in the warm, grimy rain. I had that feeling I had in my stomach that I got when we weren't moving. It was a stuck and heavy feeling, as if I'd eaten bricks.
She stood with her thumb out, a slim, neat, cowgirl-looking girl, sandy hair to her shoulders. I turned down the volume on Charlene Sweeney.
He stopped. I shifted over to the flat area between the seats. A boy sat on the grass behind her, or a kind of a boy. He had bleached hair and he wore eye makeup. Sometimes girls pretended to hitch alone, when really there was a boy just behind them. But this boy didn't seem interested in us. He got up to read our registration plates and he wrote something on a piece of paper.
She climbed up beside me. She had green eyes, wide lips, and a flat nosea little too flat, which is what kept her from being an absolute beauty. She was about twenty-four years old, maybe twenty-five.
Bobby leaned across our laps to open her door again and shut it properly because there was a knack to it that nobody got except for him and sometimes me. He loosened her seat belt to give it more slack. She watched his hand as he did this. She sucked her stomach in so that it didn't touch his hand.
"I'm Cosima Stewart," she said. "Thanks for the lift. My friend's got your license-plate number in case anything happens."
It was a funny way to say hello. What did she think would happen? There were bad men on the road, but they didn't have kids with them. Bobby was in no way dodgy, and he was the safest driver she would ever meet.
"Right enough." Bobby wove us into the middle lane. "It's nice to meet a girl who takes care of herself. Not like that poor wee thing in July."
Cosima Stewart looked confused.
"He's talking about a girl who was found in a bag in a ditch in Oxfordshire," I explained. "We knew that girl, or we knew her when she was alive. We gave her a lift once."
"Did you." She clutched her handbag to her lap.
There wasn't much talking after that. The rush hour cleared and we were quiet with just the motorway sounds. Her jacket smelled nice, like trees after rain. I wanted to ask her about the boy with the eye makeup, if he was her boyfriend. He didn't look like a boyfriend to me.
But it was she who asked me a question first.
"Do you go to school?"
I was disappointed. This was the one they all asked.
"And yourself, Cosima?" asked Bobby. "What do you do?"
"I'm a singer-songwriter. I'm in a country-and-western band."
He took his eye off the road just long enough to look at her. "Aye?"
"Listen." I turned Charlene up just as our favorite song came on, "I Ain't Makin' No Hay."
"Charlene!" said Cosima. "She's the best! I love that harmonica intro."
Though we had listened to "I Ain't Makin' No Hay" more times than I could count, I'd never thought, Oh, I love that harmonica intro. But now that she'd said it, I could see that it was very much a thing to be loved, wailing happy and sad through the drums in a happy wail. Cosima strummed her fingers on the dashboard and Bobby drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. We sang along, the three of us:
I ain't the kind of girl
To sit around all day
Waiting for a boy to pick me up
In some old Chevrolet . . .
I got wheels of my own and I'm never at home
And I live my life on the road.
So if you wanna fuel my desire
Don't change my tire
You just gotta love my highway . . .
'Cos unless you got power
A hundred miles an hour
I ain't makin' no hay!
I thought of Cosima before she met us, driving on the wrong side of the road like they did over there, playing the song over and over until she had all the words. I thought of us doing the same thing, here on the M1 or M6, maybe even on the same day.
"Do you like Alison Krauss?" I asked her.
She seemed to shake her head, as though she was about to say no. "Alison's the best."
"What's your favorite album of hers?"
"I like Too Late to Cry the best."
"Jo," said Bobby, "you told me that So Long, So Wrong was your favorite at the minute."
"I did not."
We passed a sign: manchester, 36 miles.
"I'll get off at Manchester," said Cosima.
I started going through all the CDs, as if I could make her stay by finding the other good ones.
Usually, when we picked up girls, I enjoyed them for a while. I liked sitting next to someone different for an hour or two. One thing I particularly liked was being near to the hair of other girls. I had hair like my dad'sbrown, gloppy hair that just sat there, neither short nor longand I was always interested in how older girls wore their hair, even when the girls themselves weren't so pretty. Most girls had more definite hair than mine: straight or curly, long or short, a pure color like black or ginger or yellow, even if it was dyed to make it that way.
And yet we usually ran out of things to say pretty quickly. Most of them didn't like country music, which made me feel funny when Bobby put it on. My bum would begin to hurt from sitting on the hard seat. By the time we dropped them off, I was ready to see them go.
Every now and again they stayed the night. There was one who rode all the way to Inverness with us. We didn't sleep in the lorry that night, or even in the truck stop. We slept in the Trusthouse Forte Hotel, which was too expensive really, and I didn't notice her paying anything toward the bill. I had my own room and Dad shared a room with her. In the morning she had breakfast with us. I didn't talk at all then, not out of shyness but because I didn't want to. The morning made her look whiter and fatter. She dipped her toast in her tea and dribbled her eggs with tomato catsup. She kept staring at Bobby and I felt sick looking at her.
After that we'd see her sometimes, at the same junction we'd picked her up at, near Wakefield. She was there so much I wondered why we'd stopped for her when so many drivers didn't. Each time we'd swing round the roundabout, she'd be looking my way, but it wasn't me she was looking for. She was standing up tall, trying to look at Bobby.
"Poor thing," he said. "Every time we see her, she's holding a different sign."
"Going nowhere, I suppose."
Cosima was definitely going somewhere. She had gigs and places to go to, and another country waiting for her to come on home.
Twelve miles south of Manchester, Bobby's hand was tight on the wheel. His knuckles were white, and I could hear him breathe. He wanted a cigarette, but he never smoked with girls in the cab, unless they were smoking as well. When Bobby wanted to smoke and couldn't, he asked more questions.
"From the states, Cosima, aye?"
"Texas . . . I live in London, though."
"What is it that brings you here? The band, is it?"
"Yes, and my boyfriend's Englishwe're in the band together."
"Fancy that, eh? Coming to England to play country music!"
"We're kind of 'alternative' country. People like that sort of thing in Europe. I couldn't get arrested in Texas."
"What do you mean, 'get arrested'?" I asked.
"She means they couldn't get a gig," said Bobby.
"What does that have to do with being arrested?"
Cosima looked at me. "You're cute," she said.
"She's not a bad wee thing," said Bobby.
We came up to a roundabout. Bobby let three cars go before him. When a driver finally let him go, Bobby raised his hand to thank him. I looked at Cosima to see if she'd noticed. "Sure, it only takes an extra two seconds to show a little courtesy," he'd say sometimes, though he didn't say it now.
"Do you have any of your music with you?" I asked her.
At first I thought she didn't hear the question. It was only when we turned into Manchester that she dug the CD out of her bag and handed it to me. I started to stick it in, but she held my hand to stop me.
"Not until I leave," she said. "I don't want you to lie if you don't like it."
Bobby smiled. "Josephine never lies."
I didn't know if this was true. I thought it probably wasn't, but I liked it when he said things like that. It made me feel older, like a person who has her own ideas about how things should be done.
"Why don't the two of you come to our gig tonight?" asked Cosima.
"Gig?" We'd seen bands before, mostly at village halls, but we'd never been to anything I thought of as a "gig."
"Can we, Bobby?"
"We'd love to," he said, to her. "But we've a ferry to catch."
"Please, Dad . . ."
Actually, I was relieved. The word gig shook me up as if I'd been asked to jump out of an airplane. It seemed the right moment for her to leave us after all, before we had time to stop liking each other so much.
We dropped her off in Bridge Street. Cosima tried the door, but it stuck. Bobby leaned across her to open it for her. As he looked up at her, his eyes were big, as if he had one last question to ask, but he didn't ask it. She thanked him and shook his hand. She shook my hand as well.
"Stay cute," she said to me, and jumped down.
She walked away with her fiddle slung over her shoulder. I put my hand on Bobby's arm and waited for him to wink at me, the way he did after we'd let the other girls out, but he didn't. He tilted his head to read the CD in my hand.
"Cosima Stewart and Her Goodtime Guys," he read. "Swooning, Drinking, Loving, Lying, Getting Back on the Road." He looked at me. "Put it on."
Apart from the label, the cover had no pictures on it.
"It could be a bomb, Dad." I was only joking, but I could see it all the sameinserting the CD, the explosion, and us turned into a crazy ball of fire in the middle of Manchester.
"Go on," he said.
I pushed it in.
Copyright © 2007 by Albyn Leah Hall. All rights reserved.