Sunday, 21 September 2014

People I've Met On The Road – Brent

The Allure Of Companionship
I had left home in late spring, tired of my bedsit-life in Southeast England. For a month I had hitchhiked my way down through France, sleeping rough. I had money, but I needed it to last. I had no intention of returning to the UK anytime soon. Making my way along the French and Italian Rivieras, I soaked up the sea and sun, sleeping on beaches before taking a ferryboat along the Dalmatian Coast. All this time I had enjoyed the solitude of travelling alone. It had given me time to think. But as I entered what was then Yugoslavia, I began to crave company. Sitting up on deck through the night, I hung out with a large group of students, singing songs accompanied by guitars and accordions. Unfortunately none of them were going my way. From the port of Dubrovnik I intended hitchhiking west towards the monasteries of Meteora. They were from a college in Ljubljana, back up north. Walking down the gangplank, squinting into the bright morning sun, my eyes met a tall man with a fedora hat and sunglasses. He seemed to know me.

"Hi," he said, holding out his hand, "Brent Wagner, how was the journey?"

"Sorry," I said, "do I know you?"

"Feels like it don't it?" he replied, laughing. "I said to myself as I saw you walking down there, I swear I know that guy from somewhere. So where you from?"

"Er, I'm from England. Mark... Mark Swain." I put down my shoulder bag and shook his hand, causing something of a jam on the gangplank.

"Step over here Mark," said Brent. "So are you here on business? You're not the backpacker type."

Aged a little over nineteen, it had been a deliberate decision of mine not to carry a rucksack or dress like a backpacker. It would make people more likely to give me lifts or help me out, I had thought. I was not completely sure if that had worked out to be true. Sometimes it gave me confidence, but at different times, when I was with other young people, it made me feel like a bit of an oddball.

"I'm just travelling," I said hesitantly, "making my way to Salonica and Meteora. I don't really have a fixed schedule, I decide where to go and where to stop when I get there. How about you?"

"Oh I'm heading to Istanbul on business," said Brent. "I work with my father back home and he sent me to meet some of our nuts and dried fruit suppliers. Negotiate some new business, pick up some saffron and date samples, that kind of thing. I thought I'd have a bit of a vacation while I'm here. In fact I was thinking of stopping off in Meteora to look at the monasteries. I'm looking for someone to share fuel with me though. I have a hire car. I don't suppose you'd think about...?"

The Easy Life
Travelling in a car where you weren't facing being dropped at some half-deserted junction outside the next town was a real luxury. I had agreed to go as far as Istanbul with Brent, for him to have his business meeting and then we would return through Greece together, stopping at Meteora and Ephesus on our way to Athens, whereupon he would fly back to the USA. Fuel was pretty cheap so it wouldn't cost me much this way and there was always the advantage of being able to sleep in the car if it rained hard in the night. We got on fairly well together, although I have to say I never truly felt connected with him.
It took around a week to reach Istanbul. It made life easier for Brent that we shared the driving. Despite telling Brent plenty about my life during this time though, he told me little about himself. I'd guess he must have been around thirty, though he never said. He had been living in San Diego so I assumed this was where his father's business was, although he never actually said. He always seemed vague when I asked questions.

A Change Of Plan
Arriving in Istanbul we checked into a budget hotel, pre-booked by his father's secretary. Brent made a few phone calls from a booth at the cafe across the street and the following morning he went off for his business meeting. I could see he was nervous about the meeting, despite his efforts to appear cool and businesslike. It was the older guy trying to look more mature thing, I told myself. But he was trying too hard. The stiffly pressed white shirt and shiny shoes were a giveaway for someone who was naive in this situation. We agreed to meet at a cafe by Hagia Sofia.
Brent arrived late, looking harassed. His negotiations had obviously not gone well. Probably the people he was meeting had spotted his naivety and taken advantage of him, I presumed.

"How did it go?" I asked.

"Oh the business side of things went well," he replied. "The old man will be pleased, but when I phoned the old man he told me I have to go to Ankara for a day or two to meet another potential supplier he's been talking to. His secretary's booked the damned flight. Problem is my pop doesn't take no for an answer, y'see."

"That's fine," I said. "I can wait for you here, then we can head off for Meteora."

Brent explained that this would not be possible. He couldn't keep the hire car here in Turkey after the following day due to some ruling on the hire contract and it needed to be handed in to one of the Greek hire company's depots by Friday. There was insufficient time.
It didn't take long for us to work out a solution. He would fly off to Ankara the following morning, while I drove the car to Alexandroupoli in Greece to hand it over. He could join me there a day later.
Brent looked relieved. Only an hour before it had looked impossible to him. I couldn't deny that it felt good as the junior partner there, to have sorted the problem out for him.

On The Road Again
It seemed mean to let Brent take a taxi to the airport but I was unsure of the route to drop him off on my way. We stood in the car park waiting for his taxi while I put my bag in the boot.

"Take care Marky-boy and I'll see you Friday," Brent said, cheerfully. "So, the papers for the car are in the glove box. I've left my small bag with my old jeans and trainers and I've put this box of samples in the trunk. I hope you won't be troubled by taking care of them until I arrive. The dates and saffron are fairly light, but just take care not to forget 'em and don't leave 'em in the sun. Pop wouldn't take kindly to me arriving home empty handed."

Brent climbed into the taxi. It was good to see him smile again. I'd grown quite fond of him as a friend. Glad to have been the agent of this change in his mood, I shut the boot and climbed into the driver's seat.

The journey from Istanbul to the border seemed to pass quickly, despite my getting lost and ending up on a smaller road through semi-desert. At least it passed quickly until about six in the evening when I felt a rumbling from under the car that was heavier than the persistent rumbling I'd been experiencing from the numerous potholes on the poor road surface. I pulled over.

Examining the vehicle I saw that the rear driver's-side tyre was flat. On closer examination I found a large screw driven right into the tread. Trying to remain positive I opened the boot to take out the spare. First I had to remove the luggage. Piling it carefully against a roadside rock, I lifted the boot mat and saw what passed for a spare wheel. The tyre was not only soft, but completely bald. It would not get me Alexandroupoli, but it would probably do to get me to the next town. Unstrapping the jack and wheel spanner I immediately spotted a more serious problem, however. The jack had obviously been misused at some point and had broken at the pivot, rendering it completely useless. My mood deteriorated quickly as I began to realise how little traffic there was on this road at this time. Having made doubly sure the jack could not be used, I sat on a rock to wait for someone to pass. I tried several times to lift the car and place a rock under it but it was impossible. I waited an hour... then another hour. I had eaten nothing, not even breakfast in my hurry to get going and I was starving. What had seemed like a small inconvenience at first was now beginning to look like a bit of a disaster. Might I have to wait until morning, I wondered? Would I reach Alexandroupoli before the five o'clock deadline tomorrow?

It was probably around eight o'clock at night when I got into the back seat of the car and lay down. Although it was getting dark now, I could see for miles around and knew there was nowhere nearby to walk to. My stomach ached now with hunger. Why had I not bought some sandwiches or something before I set off, I asked myself?
It was when I reminded myself to put the bags back into the boot that I remembered Brent saying about dates and saffron in the sample box. Surely his pop would not miss a few dates?

Carefully I slipped my pen-knife under the tape. There was an excessive amount of it, but eventually I unwound the last piece, removed the cellophane and opened one pack. What was revealed was certainly not dried dates, nor was there any saffron in the box. No, there was no doubt in my mind, from both the smell and the consistency, that what the box contained was a substantial quantity of prime marijuana. Hash. Nevertheless I broke off a lump and ate it, convinced that it would at least stave off some of my hunger pangs until morning.

It was around six in the morning when I finally gave up on trying to sleep. The dope had probably kept me awake rather than helping me to relax. I had eaten a large amount of it one way and another during the night, but it had hardly made a dent in the amount the box contained. My head felt like it belonged to someone else.

Still unsure what I was going to do about the situation, I tried to focus. What I did know was that Brent had set me up. I was not a complete idiot, I had heard of these stories before. Had I not have got a puncture, I told myself, I would probably be languishing in a dirty Turkish jail by now.
It was while I was thinking about my best course of action, that staring into the distance I noticed what I soon realised was the border post. It was probably about seven to ten miles away, I deduced.
I traced the road with my eye as it wound back and forth between rocks and scrubby hillocks in the desert. It would be a lot more than ten miles by road. I was gathering my things together and putting them into my shoulder bag ready to start walking when I heard the buzz of an engine. Looking up quickly I could see a car coming from the direction of the border post. It didn't take much longer to identify it as a police car.    

I had no plan and my mind was still a blur, yet I knew I had to separate myself from the car. Grabbing my bag, passport, wallet, hat and glasses I made for a clump of dry bushes beside a rock, arching my back to stay low. The car was moving slowly and took some time to arrive. Laying there behind the big rock, listening to the police going through the car, I cursed myself for not bringing the samples box. Fingerprints, I thought. What else though? Car papers... they had Brent's details on them. Perhaps they could tie him up with me if they found which hotel we had stayed in?

It was probably nearly midday when I awoke. I had dropped off to sleep as I lay there in the shade of the rock and the thorny bushes. Poking my head up over the top of the rock I saw the car was still there where I had left it. My vision and my mind had at least returned to normal. After a minute or two examining myself – my skin, clothing, the contents of my pockets – I decided to move. I scanned the area right to the horizon but could see nobody. I was just turning to pick up my bag when I noticed the cigarette packet. It had been tossed down alongside the big rock. I am no tracker but it was so prominent I was sure it had not been there when I arrived. I stared at it and at the heavy boot-marks alongside – an indication of someone having paced about, as if trying to decide upon something I wondered? I dusted myself down. Without seeming to have given any logical thought to the matter, I knew what to do. Something had narrowly saved me from a terrible ordeal, I knew that too. Now all I needed to do was follow my instinct to remove myself from any further risk. I was free and I needed to stay that way.

Decades later I still find myself waking up with Brent on my mind. What happened to him? Did he know what had happened to me?  Today, as always, I quickly drive it from my mind. What became of Brent was a problem for Brent alone – if indeed Brent was his name.

If you would like to read the bestselling travel book 'Long Road, Hard Lessons' by Mark Swain, you can find this along with his two collections of short stories on Amazon, Smashwords etc. 
In the UK his books can also be found in all Waterstones Bookstores.


  1. I loved reading this story. You have an excellent writing style.

    1. Thanks Michael, glad you like it. Dare I say, you obviously have great taste :) Have a great day.