“Get your feet of the dashboard,” she says.
Ben’s bent double, knees either side of his head, semi-tangled in the seat belt. “My back hurts,” he says, “I just need to stretch.”
“If we crash, you'll...”
“We're stuck in traffic,” he says, “I think I'll be okay.”
Alex slaps him with the back of her hand just above his knee, leaving stinging red marks on his skin. She scowls at him and says, “You sure about that?”
He winces and he pulls his legs up to his chest. He has a faint smile on his lips as he mouths the word ‘ow’. He says, “If your car wasn't so small and crappy...”
“Where's your car again?” she says, watching the smile turn into a pout.
He says nothing, just stares at his knees, his mouth set straight.
“Exactly,” she says.
He slides his legs out of the open window and crosses his ankles above the wing mirror. “If you had less stuff in the back, we could stretch out a bit,” he says.
“If you break my wing mirror, I'll batter you.”
“And I don’t want you jousting a cyclist off their bike.”
“Fine, fine,” he says, not moving, “I'm just sick of being stuck in here.”
“I'm sick of you being stuck in here too,” she says.
“And I need a pee.”
Alex closes her eyes, she says, “Why did I bring you again?”
He leans over to put his head on her shoulder and says, “Because I'm so charming?”
“Nope,” she says, “It's because you can carry heavy things. You're my mule for the day, remember?”
“Brilliant,” he says, “How much further?”
“Not much,” she says.
She stares out of the window into the trees lining the road.
After a long pause, he says, “So what’re we doing again?”
Her face drops, “Are your ears painted on?”
He laughs and he says, “I know, I know, you want to take some photos...”
“So, what don't you know?”
He says, “Well, why here?”
“Because I wanted to work out where I’d go when the world ends,” she says.
“And take photos?”
“And you're getting paid for this?”
“Not yet,” she says, and she can tell he doesn’t understand but offers no further explanation.
They arrive roughly where they need to be, in a place where they can abandon the car. It's early morning and there's fog in the surrounding valleys. The sun will be hot later and the humidity will bring with it flies.
Alex leans into Ben and, squeezing his cheeks with one hand, says, “Come on Benji, walkies.”
“Fuck off, dickhead,” he says though a mouth warped with fingers.
“Come on, grab some shit you lazy get.”
He pulls his rucksack from between his cramped legs and rests it on his knees. He turns to the back seats, piled high and crammed full of enough items to block the rear screen. “Jesus Christ,” he says, “There's too much stuff to carry between two of us.”
“It's okay,” she says, “We don't need it all.”
“Then why'd you bring so much stuff?”
Her brow furrows. “It wasn't exactly my choice,” she says.
He opens his mouth and she doesn't look at him so he closes it without a word. He pats her thigh; the place he knows she has a sugar skull tattoo. He has seen her naked but never for sex. He nods to himself, three short movements. He likes to do things in threes.
“Let's get moving then, you lazy bastard,” he says before stepping out of the car and onto the loose earth.
She stays sitting and takes out her camera to play with the settings. She squints through the viewfinder at the steering wheel. She takes photos of the bare-toe-prints in the dust on the dashboard.
“What're you doing?” he says, leaning back into the car.
“Documenting why I had to kill you and leave you here,” she says.
She takes his photo as he stands in the car doorway, stamping into trainers without untying the laces.
There is no real car park, and no real trail, just the slight absence of greenery suggesting people have been there before. Not many, and not for a while. They walk far enough into the woods to notice they can no longer hear the sea. Despite the sun, the shade is almost cold.
Alex takes photos as they move: a wilting flower, the fur from a hare, wooden posts rubbed shiny and smooth from generations of passing hands. She tells Ben to stop so she can focus in on bones and string hanging from a branch forming a rudimentary doll. Like the post, it has been seen by generations only it has never been touched.
They arrive at a river. Less a river, more a stream. Along its banks are large rocks and wild garlic. The air is green with its scent. There is a muddy embankment which gathers silt in the slowest moving section. They sit on the rocks watching the water barely move. Just below the surface are the faint shadows of tiny trout tracking flies overhead.
Alex takes a photo.
Ben has already removed his shoes. He leaves his rucksack along the bank and wades into the water. He gets to the point where his knees are submerged and the mud from the bottom has clouded the view of the fish.
Alex takes another photo.
“You should come in,” he says, “It’s warmer than it looks.”
He sloshes out of the stream onto nearby rocks, his footprints filling with river-water set deep into the silt. Alex takes photos of the running water, of the grey prints left on the stone, of the heel-toe, heel-toe prints that follow Ben until the shutter closes on him sitting like a rabbit on the rock.
Alex stops taking photos. She sits with her camera resting on her knees watching a bird fly from a tree. She says, “I'd love a cup of tea right now.”
With an arm wrapped around wet legs, Ben says, “Well, it's a good job I brought a flask then.”
“Fuck off,” she says, “You didn't, did you?”
He produces a blue plastic flask from his rucksack.
She says, “Ben, you're an absolute hero.”
The tea isn't hot enough, and it tastes like it’s from a vending machine, but it is just what she wanted. They share biscuits and drink lukewarm tea staring at the river.
“Thanks for coming with me,” she says.
“Any time,” he says.
“And thanks for listening,” she says.
“Ha-fucking-ha,” she says, eyes half closed. “People talk,” she says, “But they don't listen. Despite all your faults, and there are a lot of them, you can actually listen.”
He nods three times.
“Sometimes,” she says, “All I need is to be heard.”
His footprints are already nearly gone, flattened back into the mud. “You don’t need the validation,” he says. He leans forward and takes the camera from her lap.
Ben takes her photo.
Bartle! Where have you been?! Get back to posting!!! Checking in on you.
Happy New Year, mate. Hope you're well. Any danger of a new story any time soon??