xenodochial (adj.): given to receiving strangers; hospitable
When Libby saw hitchhikers on that stretch of road, by the side of Loch Lomond, she squeezed her eyes shut. Don’t stop, don’t stop, don’t – and the car would slow to a stop. Her mum would dip her head out of the passenger window, or her dad would lean across. Then Libby would have to move along in the backseat and be driven thirty miles, in the wrong direction, in the company of some fragrant vagrant with a backpack that jutted, shifted and slid around like a kicking toddler.
Hitchhiker season started in March or April, with the daffodils, and ran through until the first frost. Those who just wanted a lift were bad enough, but what Libby dreaded most was the question her mum would ask after a mile or so: ‘do you have a home for the night?’
Single travellers went in the spare room, but if there were two then Libby moved to the blow-up on her bedroom floor and had to listen to a stranger squirming in her sheets; snoring, muttering, farting.
Some of them were nice, of course. There was the Dutch girl who taught Libby how to braid hair and the American who gave her fudge and a pile of creased bridal magazines. There was even that English boy with the chipped tooth. Libby had stared at it every time he smiled.
The majority were a nuisance, though. Her mum would always cook them a ‘hearty’ dinner – mince and potatoes, kedgeree, pasta bake – and Libby would only be given the smallest portion until it was certain that the visitors had eaten their fill. It was the same at breakfast: ‘family hold back’. The expensive muesli should be left for the Canadian, the German might like the last of the brown sugar in his tea, yes there was a half-dozen eggs but the Japanese couple might be hungry after all their sightseeing.
Libby never learnt their names, there was no point, but she would rehearse a description of them in case the police should need it. He was taller than the bathroom door, had to stoop. Or, he had blond hair that was thin enough to see his scalp. Or, she looked innocent, yes, but she had a mole on the side of her nose and I heard her cursing at the cat.
Her dad waved her away when she questioned the safety of it all. He would hold up the coal scuttle and smile, telling her it was all the protection they needed. But would a scuttle be any use against a knife? Or against two brothers from Morocco? Or against a gun?
At night, Libby would lie awake – in her bed or on the blow-up – and listen to the laughter from downstairs. Her mum gave them sherry, her dad offered whisky. Libby had never tried either, but she knew that whisky increased the volume and sherry made people slur their words. Both of them stopped her parents from looking at the clock, from realising it was a school-night, from raising a finger to their lips or suggesting that they should retreat into the kitchen and shut the door.
When the middle-aged man from Dumfries, with the tattoo of a cross behind his ear, left a needle on the side of the sink beside Libby’s toothbrush, she thought that her dad would finally have to listen. Instead, he told her that she should never pick up a dirty needle, no matter where it was. Her mum told her that she shouldn’t be so judgemental, that she’d understand when she was old enough to go travelling.
As Libby grew older – fourteen now and canny – she took to testing the new arrivals and the limits of her parents’ compassion. She would wait until a hitchhiker was asleep and then pour a glass of water, beneath them, onto the mattress; to see if they’d admit to it. Or she’d slip her mum’s antique carriage clock into a backpack and wait to see if it was discovered as missing. It always quietly made its way back to the mantel, though, and a sodden mattress was laughed off as the inevitable effect of ‘sher-ski’, or ‘whisk-ry’.
The only hitchhiker who’d ever been thrown out, as far as Libby knew, was the lad from Wales. Quite a few years before. For some reason, she didn’t hold a description of him in her memory but could only have told the police about his silhouette, standing framed in her bedroom doorway. The way he breathed as if trying to clear a blocked nose. The movement of his hand, quickening. Then the sound of her dad’s voice and her door being gently shut.
Libby had checked, the next morning, for blood on the edge of the coal scuttle, but there was nothing. No Welsh lad at breakfast and no mention of the night before. Everything continued as normal.
Through the winter after she turned fifteen, Libby made a decision. As soon as the snow thawed, she told her parents that she didn’t want any more hitchhikers in the house – no more blow-up mattress, no more sharing cereal, no more going without a shower in the morning so that there was hot water for the guests. They listened, but they were the adults so the compromise was on their terms – she wouldn’t have to share her room, they’d shut the kitchen door, they wouldn’t pick up single men of a certain age.
It lasted until May. Then they brought back a man from the South of France. They left the kitchen door open as they picked at a cheeseboard and drank sherry. And then, the next week, an American girl with an adenoidal snore was sleeping on the blow-up beside Libby’s bed.
Ironically, there were no backpacks in the house. So Libby took her school-bag and filled it with a couple of changes of clothes. She could only find twenty-eight pounds in cash and loose change, so she took the antique carriage clock as well. For a moment, she held the coal scuttle in her hand – considering – but she decided against it.
At the bottom of the driveway was the bus stop where she caught the 305 out to Loch Lomond. Then she walked across to the A82 and watched the traffic. She held her thumb out only to cars with number plates with letters that made a word – or the start of a word – because those would be easier to remember. And she told herself that, when a car stopped, she would take a second to make a judgement about whether they were coal-scuttle, abandoned-needle, doorway-silhouette or hair-braiding, bridal-magazine, chipped-tooth. She’d had plenty of practice in telling the difference.
The only car she would struggle with, the only one that would leave her with a difficult decision, was that familiar grey hatchback that travelled up and down this road every day. The one with the woman who dipped her head out of the window, the man who leant across. Libby didn’t know if she was prepared to accept a lift from them.