The figure sat forlornly by the side of the road: the backpack looked almost as big as she was. A car pulled up a few feet away.
"I'm going south if you want a lift..."
The girl looked up and smiled weakly. She struggled to lift the load, so Luke got out of the car and walked to where it lay on the ground.
"Here, let me!" She got into the front and did up the seatbelt.
"How long have you been on the road?"
"Dunno ... all day..."
"And have you eaten anything today?" She shook her head.
"You'd better make a start on what's in the glove compartment, then we'll stop at the next Services..." She opened the small access panel in front of her, then hesitated.
"Go on ... have whatever you want! My name's Luke, by the way." She took out a sandwich in a plastic container and a bar of chocolate.
"Thanks, Luke. I'm Fran..." she replied, before setting about devouring the sandwich.
"And if you reach round behind the seat, there's a flask with coffee."
Although she was obviously hungry, she ate quite slowly. When the food was gone, she undid her seatbelt so that she could turn in her seat to reach the flask.
"Do you want me to save you some, Luke?"
"No, you're okay ... finish it if you want! Do you mind me asking about your accent ... I know it's Scottish..."
"Musselburgh ... that's about six miles from Edinburgh."
"That's a long way to come. How long have you been travelling altogether, and do you know where you're going?"
"Two days. I've got an aunty who lives in London ... North Finchley ... or at least I think she does! I've no seen her since I was a bairn!"
"Well, you're in luck: I'm going to North London! But we've still got several hours travel ahead of us. Do you want to sleep; I'll wake you next time we stop."
Luke looked across at her, briefly: young, pretty. It had taken her since some time yesterday to travel about 230 miles and they still had 160 or so left. At her previous rate it would have taken quite a while. She obviously had little or no money, and she was going to try and find a relative who she hadn't seen in years and who may or may not still be living where she thought: it all added up to some kind of desperation on Fran's part to make her want to undertake such a journey, he thought. Luke was intrigued; he would help if he could, but he wouldn't pry into her business if she didn't want him to.
As Fran was asleep, he decided to push on for Leicester Forest East Services. After a stop for food and fuel, that would leave about a hundred miles to go. It was getting dark and he didn't really like driving at night, but a few more cups of strong coffee and he'd be all right.
The lights of their next destination could be seen ahead: part of the Motorway Services actually bridged the roadway. Eat first, then fuel, he thought.
"Fran, we're there!"
"London?" she exclaimed, still not fully awake.
"No, Leicester. Let's get something to eat and drink: do you want anything out of your pack?"
They both got out of the car and stretched and Fran produced a brush from her coat which she pulled through her hair.
"Can I use the ladies, first?"
He waited nearby and then they walked into the cafeteria. Several minutes later they were carrying trays to an empty table.
"I was thinking," Luke said, "I think by the time we get to London it will be quite late. Do you want to stay at my place tonight and see if you can find your aunt tomorrow?"
"Aye, that makes sense! She's no expecting me anyways!"
"Do you have the actual address, we can maybe ring her first."
"No, I just know her name, and North Finchley, London ... but it's quite an unusual name, so there cannae be many..."
"Look, I don't want to poke my nose into your private life, Fran, but you look quite young and you're on one hell of a journey, do people know you've gone?" She looked at him and thought for a minute or so.
"Okay, you've done me a big favour, Luke ... so I'll tell you something, if you tell me something ... deal!"
"Deal! Do you want to go first?"
"Okay! So, my name is Frances Smith ... it really is! And I know I look young, but I'm actually nineteen. Can I just say that things have been pretty bad at home for some time and it got to the point where I couldnae stay there any longer! I didnae tell anyone I was going: I just packed almost everything I own into that backpack and left! I managed tae get a lift to Newcastle and I've been travelling south ever since. I'm hoping that my aunty can put me up for a wee while until I can get some work. It's no much of a plan, but it's the only one I've got! Now you..."
"Well, my name's Luke Toleman and I'm twenty-four. I live in Tufnell Park, North London, and I'm a Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at London Metropolitan University. When I met you I was on my way back from York, where I've been visiting my mother and stepfather. I don't really need a car as I can walk to work, but my older brother, Aaron, asked me to bring his back with me ... so you're kind of lucky that I saw you ... I'd usually be on the train. Are you ready to hit the road again, Fran?"
Fed and rested, she was a bit more talkative during the rest of the journey. She mainly wanted to know what they did on the course he taught; and as it was his specialism, he had no trouble answering her questions.
Fran had been to Edinburgh, which was huge compared to Musselburgh, but as they got deeper into Greater London, it just seemed to go on for mile after mile.
"This isn't all yours is it?" she asked as they pulled up outside a three-storey, end of terrace house. Luke smiled.
"No, just the middle floor. If you can carry my bag, I'll take yours."
There was a small pile of letters waiting for him, which he put into his pocket, they then climbed the stairs to the flat. He wasn't sorry to put the heavy pack down again, and he marvelled at how she'd managed to get it the distance that she had on her own!
"I'm afraid my second bedroom is a junk room at the moment, but you take my bed and I'll crash on the sofa. It won't be any hardship."
"Nae, Man!" she said, emphatically, "You need your bed after that drive! I think you've done enough to prove I can trust you, so we either share, or I take the sofa ... and I know which one I prefer!"
"Thank you, I appreciate that! But I bet you won't refuse a nice bath or a shower!"
"No, definitely not ... I was gonna ask you if I could ... a nice hot shower would be great!"
"Okay then; I'll put your things in the bedroom, then it's all yours! If you don't have your own toiletries there are plenty already in there and the towels are in the cupboard. I'll probably have one straight after you, then go to bed; but if you're not tired, sit up if you want to..."
"Which side do you usually sleep, Luke?"
"I'm not fussed! But my alarm's on the right; but I won't be needing that in the morning!"
"All right, Luke! Thanks again for everything! I'll probably be awake, but if I'm asleep when you come to bed, I'll see you in the morning."
Fran didn't think she'd ever enjoyed a hot shower so much in her whole life! Although she knew Luke was probably as keen to get in there as she was, she stood for as long as she could under the cascade of hot water.
After towelling herself dry, she wrapped another towel around herself, picked up the clothes she'd been wearing for two days, and walked back to the bedroom.
"All yours, Luke!" she called out.
"Okay ... thanks!" his voice replied from another room.
Fran left her clothes on the floor by her pack, then sat on the edge of the bed and began to dry her hair more thoroughly with the other towel. That done, she got into bed and pulled the duvet back over herself.
Luke was tired, too. He enjoyed his shower as well, but he was more than ready for sleep. He could see from the glass panel over the bedroom door that the light was off, so he opened the door as quietly as he could. There was enough natural light to see by and he could make out Fran lying face down and already asleep. A good few stone heavier than her, he tried to get into bed with the least disruption to her repose; although if she was as tired as he was, that shouldn't be a problem.
It was gone eleven the next morning when Luke awoke, still tired but much less so. He rolled over onto his back. Fran was up already. The room was now fully illuminated by the strong sunlight.
The now familiar figure came back into the room. She crouched on the floor by her pack, searching for clean clothes. Oblivious to his presence, she stood up and pulled on a pair of knickers and then began to put on her bra. Luke's eyes turned in her direction and began to focus.
"Jesus Christ, Fran! What the fuck..." He could now clearly see the vivid bruising to her arms and torso. "Is that why you left home?" She sighed and nodded.
"My father," she replied, quietly.
"Come back to bed," he said quietly, but assertively. She allowed her unfastened bra to fall to the ground, then got back into bed beside him: this time with his arm around her as she lay nestled against his chest.
"Do you want to talk?"
"Aye!" she said softly. Although she didn't say anything, she was actually feeling a sense of relief that she could at last tell someone.
.... There is more of this story ...