She’s not a hitchhiker. She’s one of hundreds of middle-aged women who live in our mountain village. Well, their mountain village to be precise. Dressed in baggy trousers, paisley blouse and an anorak, her toes are streaked with mud as they protrude through the tips of her leather sandals. A shiny flowered headscarf swathes her head, a riot of color when the sun shines, I expect. But not today. Through the haze of a drenching thunderstorm she can hardly be seen against the gray metal of the dilapidated bus shelter.
Arms flap at me. Definitely at me. Mine is the only car on the road.
This route makes a heart-stopping five-hundred-meter descent to the coastal town and she wants a lift. I pull the car over to the roadside so she won’t have to wait half an hour for the crowded, humid and smelly minibus.
“Seaside?” I ask in Turkish.
She offers me a beaming smile and nods.
Her roly-poly bulk slots tightly into the passenger seat and she arranges her brown-stained feet, saturated umbrella and plastic carrier bag in the foot well. A puddle collects from the streaming rainwater. I lean across her body and yank at the seat belt. She gasps, lifts her hand to signal stop, then wails as I stretch the belt across her abdomen.
“E***f,” she says, naming the local hospital and indicating her tummy. More length of seatbelt is tugged gently from its housing. I apologize, then secure it with care in the clasp located between our two seats. In limited Turkish I explain that I will take her twelve miles towards the hospital, but I have a dental appointment. She nods.
“Otobus, evet?” I ask her.
“Evet,” she says, accepting my offer to drop her at a bus stop so she can take the bus for the final two miles. We exchange smiles and more nods.
My ears take in a burst of rapid Turkish, but now I have to concentrate on driving through a deluge. I expect she is oblivious to the fact that I understand none of her friendly chat.
Her face beams a permanent smile and a glint of straight white teeth. I warm to this stranger with the jovial manner and genial countenance. The pale blue eyes actively participate in her smiling.
From the edge of the village we join the steep and flooded mountain road. Water laced with gravel rushes across the tarmac surface, the stones and small sharp rocks slosh into the side of the car. Branches of trees and sodden pine cones sweep alongside the vehicle, threatening to carry us into the gullies at the edge of the tarmac.
Wielding a crushed tissue she scrubs arcs across the misted windshield. The paisley of her arm blocks my view as I approach a frightening bend where a waterfall plunges over the edge of the mountain. Despite my inner panic, I hold up my hand like a traffic policeman and say thank you in Turkish. She stops. The tissue is stuffed back inside her sleeve.
I am watchful for torrents of water that rush off the vertical rock face to my left and conscious of the sheer canyon to the right. No crash barriers protect this zig-zagging road from the treacherous, tree-covered slopes and surging waterfalls to one side. Vehicles have been swept from this stretch of road into the five-hundred-foot ravine.
A tiny cardboard box is produced from her carrier bag, as if it bore a diamond.
“Expensive,” she says in Turkish, holding it out in front of my face.
“Yes,” I say in English, indicating my eyes, “eye drops.”
She returns it to the bag. Several other items emerge in sequence, each in turn thrust before me. A half-liter blue-capped water bottle, her hospital appointment card, a red apple.
Her life in objects, on display to a stranger. She demonstrates who she is. A snapshot for me, the outsider who doesn’t speak much of her language.
Once we have safely descended to sea level the gushing water ceases to be a hazard and I ease the rented car into a stream of vehicles–trucks, buses, bicycles. A single scooter ferries a whole family in a people sandwich of mum-child-dad. The mother holds an asymmetric umbrella with three broken spokes above their heads. Oncoming bicycles occupy random sections of the road and dart about unpredictably. Up ahead I spot a blue local bus that will suit my passenger. I point to the bus, she nods assent and we follow it.
Can she run? I maneuver up behind the stationary bus and halt the car.
“Now?” she says, clutching all her belongings, umbrella at the ready.
Like a lemming she scrambles out of the car and waddles towards the front doors of the bus. I can almost feel pain in my own healthy abdomen as she dashes forward. The bus takes off before she reaches it. With wild gesticulations the passers-by at the roadside further along see her distress. They flag down the bus a second time. The driver pulls up and waits the bus for her. She totters to meet it, nods in gratitude to the passers-by, and bestows that charming smile. The vehicle swallows her up with a swoosh of folding doors.
I recall that my dentist awaits and continue along to the surgery. The hitchhiker has successfully distracted my attention from a broken tooth and the terror of the dentist’s drill, fear that kept me awake overnight.
Two weeks later the hired Renault has been returned. I am a bus passenger myself. As the bus pulls into the market square of our mountain village, we travelers from the seaside spill out into the sunshine. And there stands my new acquaintance, the cheerful head-scarfed hitchhiker with the glorious welcoming grin.
She opens her arms wide. We kiss on both cheeks.
“How are you?”
“I am fine,” I say, “how are you?”
I know all the right Turkish words for greetings of everyday politeness.
“Bus today?” she says.
“Yes, bus today.”
We are friends now.
Shirley Muir is a molecular biologist who has worked internationally as a technical journalist. She spends some of the year in Scotland and some in Turkey. In addition to science writing, she writes short stories, memoir, flash fiction, and science fiction. Her work has been published in the UK, Australia and the USA. Her work has been published in Henshaw, Here Comes Everyone, Caesura, Whortleberry Press, The Eildon Tree, Dove Tales, From the Lighthouse, InfectiveInk, The Spectator, Adverbially Challenged and other outlets. She blogs at https://fidrawritings.wordpress.com/.