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What would you do, if asked the question? Go on, be honest...

“Right, it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, dark, raining. You’re driving down a quiet stretch of tree lined road. The pavements are narrow, there a couple of pretty much useless street lights but that’s it. Up ahead you notice movement; as you get closer you see it’s a woman. She’s holding a pair of high-heeled shoes in one hand and a handbag in the other. She’s wet through, hair clinging to her face, clothes clinging to her body. She’s walking head down, right in the middle of the road, shoulders hunched against the cold, the strappy little number she’s got on no protection.

She must know there’s a car coming. You slow down, waiting for her to look up and get out of the way but she doesn’t. You get closer until you are forced to brake. You can see her in the headlights now; it could be that her lipstick has smudged but her lips appear bloodied. Perhaps her eye-shadow is dark but from this angle it looks like bruising.

She’s looking at you, not seeing you. She’s staring at the windscreen as if hypnotised by the sway of the wipers. You wonder if she’s drunk or high, or just a plain weirdo. She looks small, vulnerable and your conscience begins to prick at you to do something, anything. So what do you do?”

Ian leaned forward and picked up his pint, a smug look on his face. Across the table his friends were digesting the scenario.

“Depends I suppose,” Dave stroked his beard thoughtfully, “I mean, all right she’s a woman alone late at night and all that, but sometimes these supposedly helpless women are more trouble than they’re worth,”

“Speaking from experience are we Dave?” Simon jibed.

“I suppose I am as it happens,” Dave said, “Well I mean, not with some strange woman wandering about in the middle of nowhere, but I’ve certainly passed women who have sunk down more than was good for them, especially on a Friday night in town. So have you,” he gestured at the others, “we all have,”

Ian set his pint down, “So from what you’ve just said Dave, you would judge this woman to be nothing more than drunk and you would, quote, ‘pass her by?’”

“Hold on, that’s not what I said. I was just pointing out that we’ve all seen women in that state right? Outside the clubs in town. I’ve never stopped to be a knight in shining armour to any of them and I’ve never seen either of you two do it either. That’s all I’m saying,”

“Ok fair enough; but these circumstances are a bit different aren’t they? I mean, she’s not in a crowd of people in the middle of town; she’s alone in a country lane. There’s not an army of police, paramedics and bouncers in shouting distance; she’s completely by herself. Relying on the kindness of strangers, to quote that film,”

“What film?”

“You know; that old film. Black and white; whatisname was in it. Kirk Douglas. That’s it; Kirk Douglas.”

Simon and Dave exchanged blank looks. Ian, knowing it was a waste of time wracking his brains for the title as neither of them were likely to know the film anyway, carried on, “Look never mind that. Like I was saying, this situation is different. So what do you do? Come on Simon, what about you?”

Simon thought for a moment, “How old is she?”

“What difference does that make?” Dave said, “She’s a woman alone, end of.”

“Well yeah, granted. But be fair, if she’s pushing fifty and in that sorry state it affects what you do next. I mean, if she’s a dainty little twenty-something it’s only natural you have other thoughts, right? Bound to,”

Dave, incredulous, pushed his pint away as if it was that which had offended him, “You’re joking? What ‘other thoughts’exactly?”

“Oh come on Dave, don’t pretend to be a choir boy,”

“I’m not a choir boy. I just don’t happen to agree with taking advantage of some random female, however old she may be, just because she happens to be out of her head and on her own,”

“I wouldn’t take advantage of her would I? That’s not what I said,”

“It’s what you meant,”

“What’s that supposed to mean? All I said was, when it comes to running to help a damsel in distress, who she is and how she looks makes a difference to how you respond to her, that’s all. I’m not some opportunist rapist or something for God’s sake, I’m just being honest,”

“Who said she was dainty?” Ian cut into the potential argument.

Dave and Simon turned to look at him. “What?” Simon asked.

“I said, who said she was dainty? You said Simon, that it would make a difference if she was a dainty little twenty-something. Well, who said she was dainty?”

“I don’t know,” Simon shrugged, “no-one did I suppose. It’s just what I pictured that’s all, when you were setting the scene. I mean you painted this picture of a woman tarted up, strappy dress, smeared make up, high heels. I automatically thought of a young woman. Let’s be fair, it’s more likely to be isn’t it?” He looked at Dave for affirmation.

“To be honest, I pictured a younger woman too. It’s just what I was seeing in my head when you were describing her, like Simon says. You did say she was small, by the way, so that’s kind of a given,”

“Did I?” Ian asked, thinking back, “Yeah I did. Ok, but smallcan mean anything can’t it? It’s entirely relative. It could even mean short,”

“Well not really mate,” Dave said, “short and small are two completely different things,”

Exasperated, Ian set his now empty glass down, “Okay, for the sake of debate let’s say she is small but not necessarily dainty, aged somewhere between twenty-one and fifty-one. Happy now? You’ve still not answered the question so whilst you two search your tiny little brains for an answer I’ll get the next round in. Same again?”

Ian shouldered his way into the crush at the bar, involuntarily catching the eye of a man leaning against the fruit machine. The man nodded a silent ‘hello’ and raised his glass to his lips. Ian turned away, oddly unsettled by a show of good old fashioned manners in a crowded modern pub.

As Ian went to get the beers in, Dave turned to Simon, “So if she wasn’t some gorgeous little thing with a waist like a wasp and nearly wearing a dress, what would you do?”

Simon leaned back in his chair, folding his arms defensively across his chest, “What do you think I would do? I would ask her if she was okay and offer her a lift somewhere, obviously. Honestly, I sometimes wonder just what exactly you and Ian think I am when it comes to women,”

“You can hardly blame us. You get through more than your fair share of them,”

“So what? You jealous or something?”

Dave sneered, “Jealous? No way. Curious though. You’re not exactly fussy what they look like in reality, but Ian makes up some weird little story and suddenly if she’s not a supermodel you won’t help her,”

“For God’s sake, how many times? I’ve said I’d help her haven’t I? I’m not about to just let the poor cow stumble home barefoot in the rain in that state,” he stopped, a thought having struck him, “Anyway, why am I driving down some deserted country lane at three o’clock in the morning? Where have I been? What have I been doing?”

Simon posed the question to Ian on his return, “What exactly am I, or you, or whoever, doing driving down this deserted back road at that time of the morning anyway?” he demanded.

Ian looked surprised by the question, “I don’t know. What’s that got to do with anything?”

“It’s as much to do with it as anything else if you think about it. If you’re going about your business, innocent enough, then no problem,” he shrugged, “but if you’ve been up to no good, well then you’d probably be less likely to stop and help. So it does matter,” He reached for his fresh pint and took a long, noisy draft of it as if to underscore his point.

Ian sat down, contemplating. An odd silence fell over the small group, a strange oasis in the noisy pub. “Well, you’ve got a point there I reckon,” Dave said at last, “Seems to have stumped you a bit Ian, eh?”

Ian appeared lost in thought, cradling his pint in both hands as he stared into space. “No,” he murmured eventually, “No, it doesn’t matter where I’ve been or what I’ve been doing,”

“Why not?” Simon asked.

“Because it doesn’t. All that matters is that I am alone in the car; she is alone in the road. There’s no one to see and no one to hear anything either of us says or does. It all comes down to choices in the end.” More assertive now, “You still haven’t answered the question,”

“We did,” Simon said, “when you were at the bar. I said I’d ask her if she was ok and offer her a lift,”

“Me too,” Dave said, glaring at Simon, “you’re not the only decent bloke around here you know,”

“So how about you?” Simon turned the question back on Ian, “What would you do?”

Ian appeared not have heard the question, but his hand began to tremble, beer sloshing onto the floor. He seemed briefly confused, unsure whether to take a drink or put the glass down. He settled for the latter, the glass almost sliding out of his hand it was so slickly wet. His voice was shaking when he said, “Back in a minute boys, just off to the gents,”

The man at the fruit machine was still there, nursing his pint, watching the world go by. Ian tried to pay him no mind as he pushed through the crush more forcefully this time. Watching him from the table, Simon said, “He’s not going to the toilets at all; they’re on the left, behind the bar. He’s just gone out to the right,”

“He’s been coming up with a lot of these weird little stories lately; been a bit funny I reckon,” Dave ventured, tapping the side of his head and rolling his eyes dramatically.

“Me too, Simon said, draining his pint and standing abruptly, “Come on, let’s see where he’s really going,”

*

The car park was overflowing, vehicles parked untidily all along the grass verge outside. They could see Ian weaving across the gravel as if he was drunk. When he came upon his car he almost collapsed onto the boot, gasping and wheezing as if struggling for breath. Dave and Simon caught up with him.

“You all right mate?” Simon asked. No answer.

“Ian mate, are you ok?” Dave tried.

“I don’t believe he is,” a quiet voice behind them asserted, “are you Ian?”

Simon turned,” Where the hell did you spring from?”

“More to the point, who are you?” Dave asked, “What’s it got to do with you anyway?”

“My name is Detective Chief Inspector Hilliard, I ‘sprang’ from the very same bar as you gentlemen have been frequenting all evening and it is very much to do with me. Isn’t that right?” he directed this last to Ian.

Ian seemed to have regained his composure. He didn’t answer, but straightened and fished around in his pocket. Bringing keys out, he slotted one into the boot and turned it until it gave a heavy clunk. Only then did he turn to look at Hilliard and give a wry smile, “Did you win? The fruit machine?”

“I’m afraid I didn’t play it; I’m not a gambling man,”

“She really should have known better than to have relied on the kindness of strangers,” Ian nodded to the boot.

“She was perhaps more prepared to take a risk than some,” Hilliard’s tone was even, calm, though his smile couldn’t disguise the hardness in his eyes, “’A Streetcar Named Desire,’if I remember rightly,”

Ian inclined his head and murmured “Of course,” as he allowed the boot to swing open.

The boot light revealed the small, heavily bruised body of a scantily clad young woman. Her face was distorted, eyes wide and staring. Her knees were tucked up into her chest, as if she had been folded to fit into the boot. There was a pair of high heeled shoes and a handbag placed neatly alongside her.

Hilliard nodded grimly, as if it was just what he had expected to see. Dave and Simon reeled back, shocked.

“Oh my God! She’s been out here all this time?” Simon gasped,“All this time; while we’ve been arguing about what we’d do if, if…”

Dave couldn’t speak. He clutched his stomach and veered away, retching.

Hilliard watched Ian’s reaction closely. He seemed unaffected by the reactions of his friends and was looking down at the body in the boot with something like pity.

Hilliard had seen it all before. No need for a song and a dance here. He turned and beckoned to someone in the shadows beyond. Footsteps crunched purposefully across the gravel as waiting officers approached in response. He took Ian’s elbow and escorted him gently away.

“It was Marlon Brando by the way, not Kirk Douglas,” Hilliard said, steering him to a waiting police vehicle, the car park suddenly bright with blue lights.

Copyright © S P Oldham 2015

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