It takes about twenty minutes by car to travel from the Medway Towns to Maidstone, fifteen if you put your foot down. But there was a time, not so long ago, when young men Ė boys really - would cover the eight miles in as many minutes or less, hurtling down the mile long "Blue Bell Hill" and into the Weald at speeds well in excess of one hundred miles per hour. Locally, even today, the road is known as, The Ton-Up Run.
The motor cycle era was never my scene. Apart from the fact that my parents would have created merry hell at my request to own a motor bike, I could never have afforded a new one even if the desire had been there. So I progressed from a pedal cycle to an old car in one go. Perhaps because of this Iíve missed something from life. I donít know. Certainly mum and dad were able to sleep more peacefully at night with the knowledge that their son was not roaring around the countryside on two wheels.
It was one Friday about a year ago that it happened. I was on my way back from a business meeting in Maidstone about 10 oíclock at night. A filthy night it was too with the rain bucketing down and my wind screen misting up just as fast as I wiped it clean. My headlights picked her out as I rounded the bend about a third of the way up Bluebell. She was standing alone, completely oblivious of the foul weather and her rain soaked clothes like some woodland sprite. I pulled into the side of the road, leaned across, wound down the window and shouted to her. "Díyou want a lift?"
She made no sound or gave any indication that sheíd heard me. I tried again. "Díyou want a lift?" I shouted, my voice in competition with the elements. Suddenly she looked towards me, smiled briefly and reached for the door handle.
"Hop in," I said pushing the door open for her. "Thereís a clean rag in the glove compartment to dry your face. Iím afraid itís the best I can do."
"Thank you," she said. "But Iím alright".
With no further comment I continued the homeward journey, my sodden passenger silent beside me.
She was a young girl probably about sixteen though it was difficult to pick out all her features because of the darkness. Her hair was fair, long and in a pony-tail.
"No thank you," she answered in a childlike voice.
"Mind if I do?"
"Itís your car."
"Donít worry," I said in friendly voice. "Iím not trying to get fresh. Just making conversation."
"I know," she said. "But I donít smoke."
I decided against having a cigarette. There was something about the girl that put me off lighting one up.
"Whatís your name?" I tried again.
"Jacintha what?" I said.
"Itís one of those Ďnever-ending names then."
"Well, you know," I said good humouredly. "ĎJacintha Alexander Browneí or ĎJacintha Alexander Jones."
She sat impassively, and upon reflection, it was not one of my better jokes.
"Where díyou want to go to?
"Rochester", she said. "Kenton Road. Number seventeen".
"Iíll take you to the door," I said. "Itís on my way home."
"Oh donít mention it. What intrigues me is what on earth a young girl like you is doing here with no rain coat in this weather."
"I was with my boyfriend". Her voice was barely audible above the noise of the rain that was rapidly becoming sleet as we climbed the North Downs.
"I see!" I replied grimly, mentally picturing a frustrated youth driving off in his car leaving her behind because she wouldnít cooperate. "He left you to walk home then, did he?"
She paused for a moment, then, her voice shaking with either emotion or cold, said. "Something like that."
"Donít worry love," I said as I eased the accelerator pedal further down. "Youíre not the first, and I donít supposed youíll be the last."
She made no comment. But I could tell that she was crying.
"Thereís a packet of tissues on top of the dashboard," I said. "Help yourself."
"Thank you," she replied, accepting my invitation, drying her eyes and blowing her nose loudly.
I decided it was time to change the subject. "Díyou know what they used to call this stretch of road?" I asked.
"The Ton-up Run", she sniffed.
"Oh," I said a trifle disappointed by her knowledge. "Iíd thought youíd have been too young".
"Well how old do you think I am?" she asked a bit more cheerfully.
"Um, sixteen, seventeen at a push," I said.
"Fifteen actually," she replied.
"You look older."
We reached the top of the North Downs and began the gentle downhill run to Rochester, Chatham and Gillingham.
"Iím surprised to find such knowledge in one so young. Only we older locals use that name. Ernest Marples put pay to the ton-up boys when he created the seventy mile an hour speed limit."
The rest of the journey was in total silence. It took all my concentration to drive the car as the weather deteriorated still further, and my young companion seemed reluctant to be drawn into any kind of conversation.
At about 10.15 I pulled to a halt outside the address Jacintha had given me.
"Here we are then Jacintha," I said. "Home sweet home."
"Youíve been very kind," she said as I turned to her and saw her young face clearly for the first time illuminated by the street lights. "Will you do me one last favour?"
"Will you knock at the door and tell them Iím here?" she said her eyes pleading me.
I looked at her closely. Her face was still wet, whether from the rain or her tears I didnít know, but it was evident from her expression that she wanted me to do this thing for her.
"Of course," I said shaking my head in a gesture of non-comprehension. "Though I fail to see why. Iíll be back in a tick."
Undoing my safety belt I opened the car door and stepped out into the narrow road. The sleet was coming down harder than ever. Quickly, I ran across the footpath, up the drive of number seventeen and knocked loudly on the door. I turned and looked at my car. Jacintha was sitting there watching my every movement. I waved cheerily to her from inside the porch. She waved in return.
The sound of bolts being pulled back caused me to turn again and face the door of the small terraced house. A young man, about my own age appeared. He was in his dressing gown, slippers and obviously suffering from a very bad cold.
"Yes?" he sniffed.
"Er . . . " I faltered, flummoxed somewhat by the manís youthful appearance. "Iíve brought home your . . . your . . . a young lady. I found her stranded on Bluebell Hill. She insisted on me knocking on the door."
"Young lady?" he said, his face disappearing into a huge red handkerchief. "Well thereís no young ladies living here. Only my wife. And sheís in bed . . . where I was Ďtil you came."
"But she insisted on being brought here," I continued. "Her nameís Jacintha. Jacintha Alexander!"
His face appeared from out the handkerchief even whiter than it had been before. "Wh . . . wh . . . who did you say?" he stammered.
"Jacintha Alexander!" I snapped back a little annoyed at the way my evening had developed. "Well sheís in my car. There!" I pointed without looking. "Well? Díyou know her or not?"
The man stared hard through his fever-filled eyes over my shoulder. For a moment I though he was going to smile, but then his face clouded and he glared at me. "Look mister," he said. "If this is some kind of joke then itís in very poor taste."
"Well do you know her or not?" I repeated.
"Thereís no-one in there!" he retorted.
I spun rapidly on my heel and looked at the car. It was empty. She had gone. "B . . . but . . . " I began.
"The only Jacintha I knew was killed fifteen years ago in a motorbike accident," he said, less angrily I felt.
"Are you sure?" I persisted.
"Iím sure," he said bitterly. "She was pillion behind me. Thatís how I got this!"
He help up his left hand. It was twisted, deformed and had two fingers missing. I winced noticeably and opened my mouth to speak, but no words came out.
"Jacintha Alexander and I were childhood sweethearts," the man continued. "If sheíd lived weíd probably have married. I loved her very much Mister . . . whatever-your-name-is, and she loved me even more. Look, I donít know who put you up to this but whoever it was you can go back and tell Ďem from me that, although my left hand may not be much use, Iíve still got a perfectly good right one!"
With that he slammed the door in my face.
Like some chastised dog whose ignorant of his crime I retraced my path to the car heedless of the weather. Could she have been the spirit of a long dead girl still desperately trying to reach her lover? A ghost, I asked myself? There were no such things. Or were there?
I sat down in the driving seat, pulled the door shut and clipped the seat belt. I was tired, I decided. Well that was it. That together with the mental effort of driving and the bad weather had caused me to hallucinate. Relieved at my conclusion I switched on the engine and began wiping the mist off the windscreen with the back of my right hand glove.
It was as I reached over to clean the passengerís side that I noticed the crumpled pink tissue on top of the dashboard, still slightly damp from a young girl's tears.
The Ton-Up Run © Peter J. Hedge
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