My personal trainer says you must tell the police about the murder of that girl, my friend says as we sit down to dinner in a restaurant in London. I haven’t seen her for a year at least and we have a lot to catch up on. But this leaves me mystified.
‘Yes,’ her husband chimes in smartly. ‘Speaking of getting away with murder…’
‘Which we weren’t,’ I say back to him. Quickly, I run through our most recent conversations. Has anyone been talking about murder?
The waiter arrives to take our orders.
‘I told him about the man we hitch-hiked with,’ she says.
There can only be one hitch-hiking story we share. I remember it, of course. We were both 17, and hitch-hiking in the New Zealand countryside.
The man who picked us up told her he had the gun in his car that shot a Canadian hitch-hiker. She was found under a bridge. It was a famous story at a time when there weren’t many murders in our little country. And not like this one. An attractive young woman from overseas, a tourist, hitch-hiking on her own.
The man told my friend to reach under the front seat and she would be able to touch the gun.
I was in the back seat. I say I don’t remember this.
He was a rotund little man in a round little car. He drove us along back roads from one small settlement to another.
I think my friend became uneasy and turned around and quietly told me what he had said to her. It’s entirely possible I said, Let’s tell him to stop. And then soon after, using a need to use a bathroom, we got out of the car. We scampered around the back of a country school in the middle of nowhere and stayed hidden there until he gave up and drove off.
Now over dinner I tell this to the table: my husband, my friend’s husband, my friend herself.
‘No,’ she says. ‘It was a post office, a country post office. It wasn’t open. We went up steps to the door and then hid in the porch. He drove off. And then he came back and we had to get in the car. You were in the back. You were acting as if you were about to vomit.’
‘Really?’ I say.
‘And telling me it was my fault I hadn’t been stronger with him.’
‘Really?’ I say dubiously though now she says it I think of all the times I told her off. I was that bossy friend in those days.
‘Back to the gun,’ her husband says helpfully.
I am thinking. Really I am. But all these years – what can I remember?
‘The murder,’ I prompt her memory. ‘It happened in the South Island. We were in a car in the North.’
‘Is there any form of transport in between?’ my friend’s husband asks. He knows full well there is a ferry – several times a day. It transports people and cars and trucks. Even train carriages.
I give him a cursory nod.
It still doesn’t seem very logical to me. This little stout man. A gun under the front seat.
‘So my personal trainer says he can’t believe we didn’t go to the police,’ my friend says.
I think about this. First of all our parents would have been furious if they learned we had been hitch-hiking. Second, this happened way out in the countryside somewhere and we were just glad to get away from the creepy little man. And thirdly, I don’t think I had ever known anyone who went to the police to report things, in those days.
Today I must be one of the worse witnesses known. For example, the person I take to be a house burglar – acting suspiciously on the new neighbour’s deck – with a woollen hat and long dreadlocked hair appears to me to be male. Then the neighbours I report it to say the suspect was their female housemate searching out the spare key on their deck. Would I have been any better at the detail at 17?
‘My PT’s going to look up the details online,’ my friend says. ‘He loves watching programmes about cold cases. And he says we should report it.’
I am thinking about how much I recall.
Obviously the fat little man. At least I think he was. Fat.
A farmer? Possibly wearing farmer type clothes, maybe fawn pants with hay seeds on them? Smelling of cigarette smoke? Perhaps he was smoking as he drove. (If I went under hypnosis maybe better details than this would come up.)
In a car. Very likely an old car. Maybe the type of car that was rounded and looked like a van as well?
On a back road somewhere, possibly in the Manawatu region of New Zealand.
Telling my friend he had a gun.
Telling her to put her hand under the seat to feel it.
My friend – possibly – letting me know of her discomfort.
The man letting us out to go to the bathroom. Us running away.
Me having no memory of getting back into the car. I was sure we waited there out the back of the country school till the man gave up on us and drove off. And then we hitched a lift in another car?
The waiter has come back to say my friend’s selected dish is no longer available.
‘Tell your personal trainer I will report it when I go back to New Zealand,’ I say. I have no intention of doing this.
I am happy she can report to her personal trainer that she has done her duty.
Later, I look up the cold case murder on the internet. The girl was strangled, not shot. And the police looking after the cold case believe most of the suspects will be dead by now. Years have passed. ‘The only thing would be a confession.’
My conscience is salved.
Kate Mahony’s short stories and flash fiction have been published internationally in literary journals and anthologies and shortlisted in a number of competitions. She has an Masters of Arts in Creative Writing from Victoria University, Wellington, New Zealand. She lives in New Zealand.