Taken for a ride

She had the I’m-not-threatening, cheery smile, but didn’t look like the usual hitchhiker. For a start the ‘uniform’ was missing: no all-weather anorak and heavy walking-boots, and the obligatory doesn’t-fit-in-the-boot-has-to-go-on-the-back-seat, overloaded rucksack was not propping up the wall beside her. Her close-fitting coat looked quite expensive and a brightly coloured scarf was wrapped around her neck against the icy wind. Black, leather, high boots completed the ensemble, and she was holding what looked like a fairly new, holdall.

Why I chose that particular motorway service station to stop at I don’t know. It could have been any one of four that I use when coming back from down south, which is only two or three times a year. I like to vary it a bit. And ten o’clock was too early for my elevenses, but the car needed petrol and I was feeling a bit hung over from the sales meeting dinner the night before. I parked in the corner furthest away from the building, just in case anything should happen.

She was standing at the bottom of the steps to the restaurant. Her handwritten sign with the word ‘Luton’ flapped in the wind. I half-returned her smile and walked past her. At the top of the steps I turned and saw she was talking to two middle-aged women. She shook her head and the ladies set off to search for their car. An extra strong gust swept the car park uncoiling the material around her neck. In trying to hang on to the wayward scarf she dropped the holdall and let go of the sign, which flew away like a demented, paper aeroplane.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?”

She jumped when I spoke, and turning around she had to move back to look at me because I was two steps above her.

I felt I was being scrutinised before she spoke, then the smile returned, “Yes, OK, looks like I’ll have to make a new sign in any case.”

I reached down and picked up the bag, but she grabbed it from me. I couldn’t help noticing how light it was.

As usual, the inside of the restaurant was oppressively warm, but she kept her coat buttoned-up as we found a table by the window.

“I’m Frank by the way.”

“Claudia,” she mumbled, and continued to gaze out of the window. Sadness seemed to have settled on her face, and she absentmindedly stirred her coffee. When I’d seen her outside I’d assumed she was quite young, too young, but now she’d removed her scarf I could see that she was most probably in her mid-twenties.

“You’re on your way to Luton?”

“Yes.”

“And those ladies were not going in that direction?”

“Ladies?”

“I thought those two ladies were offering you a lift.”

“They were, going in that direction and yes, they were offering me a lift.”

“So, why didn’t you go with them?”

She turned her face in my direction, that smile was there again. “They looked quite boring to spend an hour or so in a car with.”

“But if you want to get to Luton …”

“I’m not in a hurry. I’d rather travel with someone a bit more … a bit more exciting.” Again the smile, only this time her eyes very deliberately met mine.

I felt myself starting to blush, and I couldn’t stop something stupid tumbling out of my mouth. “Luton’s not the most exciting place in the world.”

“No, but I’ve got friends there.”

“So, just a visit to see friends?”

“Something like that.”

We chatted, small talk I guess it’s called: the weather, the price of drinks in motorway service stations, the weather. I offered her a second coffee, but she refused. Looking back, I realise now that I didn’t find out anything about her, in spite of asking: she cleverly sidestepped any question about herself. Once or twice her foot brushed my leg under the table as she shifted in her chair.

After a short period of silence, we spoke at the same time.

“Which direction are you …”

“I’m going in the …”

“You first,” she said

“I was going to say, I’m going in the direction of Luton, but not actually to Luton, if that would help.”

“My mother told me not to accept lifts from strange men.” Once again her foot touched my leg.

“I’m a stranger, not a strange man, and I’m not in the habit of offering lifts to young ladies.”

She scrutinised me again, smiled and said, “OK, let’s go.”

For the first time in my life I left a motorway service station restaurant without returning my tray to the designated rack. I felt guilty rushing out.

The wind was still blowing across the car park. “Where is your car?” she asked.

“Just over there.” I said, pointing vaguely.

“Shall I wait here while you go and get it?”

“No, it’s not far.”

As we reached the far corner, she shouted above the wind, “I thought you said it wasn’t far.”

I unlocked the passenger door and waited for her to sit and swivel her legs in. She made a point of keeping her coat wrapped around her legs.

I started the engine, which still had enough residual heat to produce a stream of just warm air.

“I hope it’s going to get much hotter in here,” she said smiling and looking me directly in the eyes as she unbuttoned her coat. The boots stopped below the knee and then there was nothing but leg covered by black hosiery until a white skirt at the very limit of decency.

I’ve said all along that I don’t remember what happened next, or do I just want to forget. Whichever it is, it’s just a blur. The piercing scream is what still echoes in my head. The sight of torn hose and ripped blouse flashes before my eyes. I remember people surrounding the car and banging on the windows Then I was being dragged out and held by two men who seemed twice as big as me. From the size of the bruise, one of them certainly kneed the back of my legs. Finally I remember thinking I’d been rescued by the arrival of the service station security and the police.

The next time I saw Claudia was at the trial, but I hardly recognised her. She looked like a nun out of uniform: hair pulled tight in a ponytail, no makeup, and clothes that gave no hint of a body underneath. The story she told sounded like a planned assault ; enticement into the restaurant, making suggestive comments, forcing her into the car (how was never explained), and raping her. My story, the one written here, sounded weak even to me, and at best foolish. Several customers in the restaurant said they had seen this older man rushing out of the restaurant after a younger girl.

The jury took less than an hour to reach a guilty verdict. The judge said rape was the most despicable of crimes, and to commit an offence like this in a public car park, in daylight, showed no regard for the victim, the law or anyone else. He handed down the maximum sentence of five years.

I’ve been here for eighteen months now. There’s only one good thing about prison, you have lots of time to think, mostly too much time. I’ve gone over in my mind again and again what happened that day, and I’m sure I’m innocent of the charges of rape. It didn’t happen, I know it didn’t. However, I’d resigned myself to having to serve my full sentence, with time off for good behaviour

But now perhaps there’s chance to have the verdict changed. A local newspaper was doing an article about the long-term psychological effects on crime victims. They interviewed Claudia. The lady reporter came to the conclusion that Claudia hated men. Nothing surprising there, but the article subtly suggested that this had not started with the attempted rape. Investigation had revealed that a few weeks before that windy day at the motorway service station, what had seemed a perfect marriage had ended when Claudia’s husband ran off with his secretary. My solicitor thinks if that had been known by the jury at my trial, there would have been sufficient grounds to question if she had planned what happened as a revenge on men.

That’s mainly why I’ve written this down, to get my story straight. I need to find a way to show how she really enticed me not me her. That smile played a big part in it, but how do you describe a smile? I’ll have to try to remember some of the things she said when we were drinking coffee. Together with the newspaper article that should be enough to put doubt into people’s minds, at least make it my word against hers.

There’s only one possible problem, small chance, but nonetheless possible. This might generate a lot of local publicity. I have to hope Jessica, Maureen and Pamela don’t read the newspapers to closely, and put two and two together. I don’t think they’d do anything now in any case. Jessica must have been five years ago, the other two more recently, but still a couple of years have past. None of them cried rape then, and they’d no reason to. After all, it was only a few fumblings in a motorway service station car park in return for promising to give them a lift.

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