We drove out of the city and hit some wind and rain on the way. Charles had brought a big flask of hot tea, and that did us for a while, but it was very cold in the car. The heater was broken, and one of the windows didn’t go up all the way. Charles was being a bit crazy. He said singing would keep us warm. So we sang along to the radio, but it didn’t get us warm. Not at all. He said we had to sing louder. He shouted it, like he was angry at something. I was beginning to regret agreeing to come along with him. I asked him if everything was okay, but it occurred to me that I should have asked him that before we set off. I suggested we turn back and take things easy today, and leave tomorrow instead. It was a long weekend, and I said that we could leave tomorrow and stay over somewhere, and then come back Monday, in the afternoon. We’d just be delaying the trip a little bit.
Then we came into a town whose name I recognised. Charles said we could stop there for somewhere to eat and get warm. While we were looking for a place to park, he said we should be careful here. He knew the town, and there were parts of it that were best avoided. I looked out of the windows as we were driving along, and it seemed as if there were small groups of people watching us from dark doorways. And there were lots of dogs. It was like all the town dogs had come out especially. The people and the dogs looked really tired and brittle. The music on the radio had become all strings and minor keys. I asked Charles if he’d changed the station, but he ignored the question. We parked in a dingy lane behind a restaurant and got out of the car. The air was heavy with fried smells. It was making me hungry. I found a fifty-dollar note stuffed in one of my pockets. An unexpected surprise. Charles said we could afford to look for somewhere decent to eat.
A woman stopped us round the corner. She looked us up and down, and told us to hold our bodies more upright. Her eyes lingered over Charles. She said we’d live for a long long time if we held ourselves a certain way. She put a finger to her lips and said it was a secret and we shouldn’t tell anybody else. She was stooped and craggy, and I guessed she hadn’t taken her own advice, or it had come to her too late. I looked at Charles. He was nodding at her, and she was staring right into him as she spoke. It was like they’d found each other. I might as well not have been there. He asked her why we couldn’t tell anyone this secret. She looked at the ground and considered it for a minute. Her head came up and I noticed that her left eye was full of blood. The question seemed to have floored her. She opened her mouth briefly. Then she walked away without another word. She had a brown stain on the back of her skirt.
I waited till she was out of hearing, then said that she was clearly crazy. She was crazy, and she’d shit herself, I said. But Charles was watching her like he was in some kind of a trance. I grabbed his sleeve and said that we should go and find that special place to eat. He shook me off, and said he was too hungry and he couldn’t be arsed searching for a particular kind of place, and we should just go anywhere. I followed him in silence till he arrived at a chicken restaurant that he appeared to be familiar with. He went in without asking if I liked the look of it or not. It was crowded and greasy. The waitress showed him to a table, and I sat opposite him, but it felt awkward. He didn’t protest or anything like that, but I didn’t feel welcome. I felt pressed-in and trapped. It was too bright, and the air was overheated, and I didn’t really feel like eating anything anymore.