I don’t want to talk about Ellie. Here we are, Jez, Frank and I, sitting around our usual table in Des’s Café. We’ve just had lunch, Des’s chips and cheese, the best on the road, and we’re lounging back in our chairs as we finish our tea. We drivers like our bevvies in mugs, piping hot and mahogany brown, and with more sugar lumps than we can count. Chips, the drone of traffic outside and my mates, that’s what I need. The last few weeks have been Hell.
But Frank’s getting out his copy ofJane Eyre and thumping it down on the table, amongst smears of tomato ketchup. “Book Club.”
“No,” I say. “No.”
Jez tweaks his lank grey ponytail, as greasy as Des’s chips. “Book Club was Ellie’s thing and Ellie’s not here.”
Frank used to moan and whinge, saying books were for ‘birds’. He’d meet Ellie’s eye as he said it, his eyebrows raised as a challenge, and first sneaking a glance at the contours of her ample boobs under her overall. Ellie was one of the boys, short brown hair, sturdily built, with bulging biceps. She handled her rig like a man and could turn it around on a postage stamp.
She used to answer with a ‘”So what?” and “What’s your problem?” sort of grin. “More male writers get published than female.” She said this so often that Jez and I would say it for her.
We go back a long way, Jez, Frank and me, messing around at school and leaving with nothing by way of qualifications. Jez and I used to be like Frank about the Book Club, but over the months the reading grew on us, because Ellie had a way of making it interesting.
But that was then.
I slide my plate away from me, knocking Frank’s copy of Jane Eyre on to the floor, wet with the imprint of drivers’ boots.
“She’d want us to carry on.” Frank uses his sleeve to wipe the dirt off the cover. He meets my eye. “What did you do that for, Dave?”
“She would want us to carry on.” Jez pulls his own copy of Jane Eyre from his pocket.
I lean forward. “How can either of you say what a girl’d want when she’s lying in a cold grave?”
“Look-“ says Jez. Jez is the gentlest bloke imaginable, a right softie, so what comes next chills me inside.
“No disrespect to Ellie. If I found the bloke who did what he did to her… You see that bridge over there?” Jez nods through the window. Des’s Café is at the exit for Witham in Essex and, to access the town, you cross the carriageway over a bridge. “I’d take him on there… dangle him over the edge. Make him squirm. Scream. Plead. Then he’d slip through my fingers and… drop.”
I exchange looks with Frank. He shakes his head in tiny movements. The drivers from the next table stop talking and raise their heads. One of them swivels around to face us. “The police’re saying she probably knew her attacker.”
“They always say that,” I say quickly. When no one else speaks, I feel the need to fill the silence. “She was in that layby by herself. Must’ve been some nutter. She was a few miles from Clacket Lane Services. Don’t know why she didn’t just stay in the lorry park.” Shut up, Dave. Shut up.
Silence again. After a moment, Frank lays his hand on Jez’s arm. “I’d do the same, mate.”
“Yeah.” I’m staring through the window at the bridge, at the cars, lorries and buses pounding underneath it, kicking up sodden dirt and spraying it at the once white concrete pillars. I need to change the subject. “All right then. Book Club. Jane Eyre.”
“At last.” Frank jabs his copy with his finger. “That Mr Rochester was a plonker.”
Jez nods. “It was the mad woman who got to me… those red eyes… prowling around and setting fire to everything. I couldn’t stop thinking about her all the way up the A1.”
“Horror film stuff,” says Frank.
Despite everything I want to join in, but then they move on to horror films in general, which isn’t Book Club at all. “Ellie would’ve said something really clever,” says Jez, with a sigh, as I stand up to go.
Three weeks ago, she said it. Ellie had a loud voice, the sort that carried across the lorry parks. I was clambering out my cab at Clacket Lane Service Station in Surrey when I heard her call, “Dave, me old mate.” We chatted over mugs of builders’ tea, chips and jam, she not being the sort to worry about weight. She was different without Jez and Frank being around, though, softer, gentler. She said she hadn’t managed to visit her hairdresser recently, so her gingery brown hair was growing in loose curls over her mannish crop, and I noticed light freckles showing through her pale delicate skin. “Jane Eyre was my favourite book as a kid,” she said, “but I didn’t understand it until I re-read it last year.” She talked for half an hour, explaining things about characters and events which I’d never noticed.
“Ellie, you’re really clever. You could be a teacher or something.”
She laughed. “Done that. Too much marking, too much Ofsted. Driving’s not bad money. And it gives me headspace.”
“I like to think.”
“I’m a writer, Dave.” She lowered her voice and cast her eyes around the cafe, as if checking that the other trucker heads were deep in their ketchup troughs. “I’ve had short stories published. And I’m writing a novel. I think while I’m driving and write when I lay off for the night.” She blushed as she met my eyes. “Not all writers are rich. I need my day job. I’m on my own. Like Jane Eyre.”
According to Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre was plain. Ellie was not.
“I’m too tired to write tonight. I’m going to watch a DVD in my cab. Like to join me? There’s a layby a few miles from here. I don’t want to pay overnight parking charges at Clacket Lane and I’m sure you don’t.”
This is where I got everything wrong.
Jez and Frank are getting up from the table now. Jez asks where I’m heading, but I don’t answer. I’m going to save him some trouble.
I take the Witham exit and stop on the bridge. I lean over the balustrade, watching the traffic. I do try. I imagine how it’d be, landing on the roof of a truck, being shaken off into the oncoming traffic, cars swerving, brakes screeching.
I can’t do it.
© Rosemary Johnson