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Excerpt for The Driving Companion by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

THE DRIVING COMPANION



I have driven many long hours between locations, servicing tractors for the company that supplies them.

Many of those hours being at night, in the dark on long lonely roads. You play games after a while, when the radio station turns to static, and you have heard that same CD ten times in the last month. You count rabbits; you make up little ditties about road signs, anything to keep your mind active. Occasionally you pass other drivers coming the other way, but these were always fleeting events.

However, just occasionally you will find another road user that you can share the journey with, or at least part of it. These people are travelling in your direction, and although you may have started at different places and times, circumstances bring you together. Often a big truck that has caused a couple of vehicles to slow down will be the catalyst.

Then comes the passing lane, and you both accelerate past. It is at this point you find out whether you have your driving companion.

Some drivers slow down and you pass them also. Others seem to have been launched by a slingshot and disappear into the distance never to be seen again. But then you find one that is driving the same as you. They appear to have the same abilities and skills. They take corners at just your comfortable speed. They brake at the same points you do. They accelerate at the same rate, they travel at your speed, and you are comfortable just to sit behind or in front of them. You travel together, neither one of you have any desire to pass the other for the next however many kilometres. Sometimes they will pull into the same service station or café and you will just give each other a nod or a smile, you don't know their name, but you seem to have got to know each other, they are your driving companion.


It was about seven in the evening by the time I left Napier that Tuesday in late August heading for Taupo.

I like that drive. The scenery is wild, the road is good, but in places it can be treacherous for the unwary. Snow can cover the high plains and black ice can lurk on the valleys where the road winds through the bush and gorges; places that hardly ever see the sun.

Normally I would stay over at night instead of taking on the two hour drive, but I had another appointment the next morning in Turangi, and the road was more dangerous in the early morning than now, when the ground still hold some heat from the day.

From Napier the road climbs at times quite steeply in two distinct levels before reaching the Kaiangaroa Plateau. “Damn” I muttered to myself as the first of the ice warning signs were lit and flashed out there warning. I didn't think it would be icy tonight, but the high plateau had it own weather, and even though the beaches may have be sunny and warm, the high country could be covered in snow.

For a moment I considered turning back, but I had made my decision and opted to stick with it.

There is bit of a climb up off the Mohaka bridge, but quite a decent down to it travelling west. At two hundred and seventy eight meters long, only one lane each way, and almost a hundred meters down to the river, the bridge always gives me a little shiver as I cross it. There have been a few fatalities on it, and off it, over the years, and as luck would have it, as started my decent the brake lights of a truck and trailer unit appeared in front of me.

As I said this was a steep grade and windy too, so he was travelling at little more than 50 kilometres an hour. It is here where maturity comes in. Many a fool would plant boot and get past between the corners, or on the short straight before the bridge, probably hitting 130 – 140k in doing so. A narrow bridge, a dark night, a bit of ice, and the blinding lights of a car coming over the hill from the other side; there is nowhere to go but down.

So it was that no sooner as I had contentedly sat in behind him, when headlights on full beam rounded the corner behind me.

I tensed.

There was only three choices. If they were travelling too fast, or distracted, they might end up with me as their hood ornament, or they might accelerate and try and pass us both, or, or, the lights dipped, the vehicle sat in behind me. I let out my breath, I hadn't even been aware I had held it, but for now at least this driver was playing it safe.

The three of us crossed the bridge in single file, then as the truck started to accelerate to climb the other side I expected a burst of speed from behind me; but no, they made no attempt to pass. At the top of the hill the road turned slightly left and levelled out to a reasonably long straight.

Here the truck gave me a flash on his right indicator, then indicated left, and slowed down. This was his signal to me the road was clear to overtake. I indicated, pulled out, and accelerated safely past him. The headlight behind me followed, so as soon as I was past I also pulled in expecting the follower to power ahead, but they too eased in behind me and together we left the truck behind.

For several kilometres we continued comfortably together, and I knew I had a travelling companion.

Now we began the bush covered, windy and tricky section where we travelled alongside the Waipunga river. Several times I lost the lights behind me, but as the road straightened, there they were, not too close, giving us a bit more space, not putting either of us under pressure. Passing the road to the Waipunga falls lookout, I knew that the long straights leading into Taupo were not far ahead. Soon the lights of the Tarawera tavern illuminated a patch of inky blackness. A small oasis in the vastness of the plateau. Suddenly I realised that I was alone. “Where did they turn off,” I said out loud. I cast my mind back. The road to the falls lookout normally at this time of night, closed and chained off, and I could not think of any other roads. There were a few drives to remote farms, maybe they had just gone home. I slowed and pulled into the tavern car park. Lights appeared in the distance, but my strange sense of relief, soon turned to concern as the truck and trailer we had past earlier, droned passed. I looked down the tarmac into darkness.

They should have been here by now. Had they broken down, or had an accident? No if it was an accident then the truck would have stopped and even it he had not had radio or cell phone coverage, he would have stopped here to call for help. I looked at the time on the radio. Quarter to nine. Should I just carry on? Should I go back and have a look. Thirty minutes to Taupo, or fifteen minutes back to where I knew I had seen them last then forty five to Taupo. That would make it 10pm before I could put my head down for the night.

I looked towards Taupo, a faint distant glow of light pollution on the horizon. Something nagged at me. Shaking my head at my own stupidity, I pulled out of the car park and headed back towards Napier.

Sure enough the looked was barricaded, and I headed back towards the bendy bits.

At any time I expected to see a raised bonnet, but as I left the river I knew that they had been with me at this point. They just weren’t there. So there must have turned off, or turned back, or …

That thought scared me. If they had gone off the road through the gorge, it was very likely that the truck would not have seen them either. The trees would have just parted and swallowed them up.

Putting on my hazard lights I did a U turn and again headed back into the gorge.

I had no Idea what I was looking for even if there was something to look for. Even when I saw it I almost drove on past. No black skid-marks on the road, no deep gouges in the gravel, no gaping breach in the trees, it was a subtle combination. A single scuff in the metal, and broken branch, and I decided to stop and have a look. I had to pass the spot and drive on for another forty metres till I could find a place safe enough to get mostly of the seal. I took a torch from the boot and walked down the road listening for any sound of distress, but all I heard was the water cascading over rapids somewhere in the blackness below me. It took a few minutes hunting back and for the before I finally could see where the bush had been partly flattened. I expected to see lights but there was only bush. There is nothing there I decides as I turned to leave. Something flashed. A reflection off something red.

“Yes”, I muttered as I stared to look for a way through the tangled undergrowth.

Several times I had to backtrack as a mass of blackberries blocked my way, and by the time I had reached a level that I thought the car was at, I knew that I was some way down stream. I quickly flashed the torch about, when, suddenly I saw a car, but it was behind me and even further down stream. The bush open up into a grass clearing. My heart sunk as the bean fell on the vehicle. It was my own car.

Again I turned around and this time made my way up the side of the river. Water crashed over the boulders beside me and I prayed that the wreck had not ended up in the rocks. Also I had no desire to take a wrong step and plunge into the torrent, probably to my own death. This forced me to work my up through the bush again. It was hard work pushing through the scrub, but at least there was not so many blackberries.


I fell over it, rather than saw it. At to be more correct, I fell on it. For a moment I tried to determine what the obstacle was, then the realisation that I was the sprawled over underside of a car. I couldn't believe how disorientated I was as I tried to locate the drover door. It was of course the last one I checked. Taking deep breath, I shone in the torch. It showed nothing. There should have been feet, and a steering wheel. “No no not feet, it should be a head”, I almost shouted out loud, still trying to break through a confused mix of fear, rising panic, and a car all mixed up where the roof was where the floor should be, above it all the intense, almost deafening and encompassing roar of the river not more that a couple of meters away. With a sinking feeling I looked back up the steep bank in the direction that the car must have come. 'She must be up there, in the blackberries I thought', with a sigh.

It was no wonder then that I almost missed the faint cry from inside. It was only little more than a sob. “Help me … please … help … me.”

Dropping to my knees I looked in. Again I was not expecting to see two legs, in the front where a head should have been, and not one face down, and the other up. I shone the torch towards the back and finally got a mental picture of what I had only taken in, in bits and pieces. The car lay on its roof, front towards the river. The woman however was laying on the roof, on her face, her head in the back, and her feet in the front, however one leg was up in the air and facing the wrong way. I shone the light at her feet, and could now see that her foot was trapped behind the brake pedal. Her knee and lower leg were grossly swollen and dark with bruising. I shuddered at the thought of the pain she must be in, and quickly turned my attention to her head. She lay very still, eyes closed, and I wondered if I had actually heard her at all, that she may well have died.

Franticly I tugged on the rear door catch, and to my relief the door opened a little. Now with my fingers around the edge I was able to wrench it open enough to slide in. Dropping again to my knees I shone in the torch. I started as two eyes looked back at me. Almost immediately tears began to flow, and a gentle sob escaped her lips. Her face was bloodied, and her dark hair was even darker where blood now matted it against her scalp.

She looked to be in her mid twenties, and quite pretty. I felt tears welling up in my own eyes as I looked at. Pain was etched on her face, and she looked so vulnerable, helpless. I wanted to pull her out and hold her in my arms and comfort her, but I knew that to even try and move her would be dangerous and if she had any internal injuries, I could kill her.

I lay on my stomach and crawled in. Slowly, painfully she lifted her left arm and pushed it across her stomach towards me. Instinctively I stretched out mine to hold her hand. As soon as my fingers were in her palm she held on. I guessed that she was gripping me with all her strength, but I could have pulled my hand away with no effort at all.

I didn't.

Her eyes closed and tears fell from the corners. Her body shook and without a word, she just cried.

I let her sob for what I considered a reasonable time to let her settle, then gently said. “my name is John, what’s yours?” Oh how stupid that sounded. Like I was trying to chat her up in a bar, but is seemed infinitely better than “How are you?”

With some effort and, I guessed pain, She turned her head slightly towards me.

“Tania,” she whispered.

In a desperate but I assumed vain hope, I pulled my cell phone from my left pocket. Not surprisingly there was no signal.

“OK Tania, I am going to go and get some help.” I felt her hand tighten fractionally.

“No please don't leave me, please, please, you might never come back.”

My urge was to tell her I would and go, but that pleading, terrified look stopped me. I couldn't leave her, not right now. Even if she was to die, at least she wouldn't be alone. I felt the tears now run down my cheeks.

“I'll stay”, I quietly replied. The relief in her face was obvious. She closed her eyes and drifted off into unconsciousness. I reached my hand around to her wrist. She had a pulse, steady but weak. Again my urge was to get help immediately, but I had made her a promise. I would have to wait until she woke up; If she ever did.


It must have been twenty minutes before I felt her stir. Suddenly her eyes opened, and for a second I saw pure terror, them as she realised I was with her, she relaxed, and I knew I had done the right thing. But now I had to, I had to convince her that was going to get help.

She must have understood, for she whisper “Please come back – promise?”

“I promise.” I felt her release her grip on my hand, and I knew I had her trust.

I pushed myself back out from the wreck, and quickly made my back up stream, to the clearing where I had left the car. I was about to climb in, when a horrible thought occurred. Would I be able to find this place again in the dark?

I sat there for a few minutes trying to work out how to recognise a small turn-off in vast expanse of bush in the dark. A distant flash of light shone for just a second on the trees above the gorge. Without another thought I dashed for the road.


Lights appeared around the corner, this car was going to stop; or run me down. I needn’t have worried. They slowed beside me.

“Please there has been an accident. A car has gone off the road and the driver is trapped. Cell phones don’t work down here, I need you to call the emergency services, quickly.”

“Is there anything I can do?” they asked.

“Just get help; fast!”

They drove off into the night.

‘Please don’t let me down,’ I silently prayed as the tail lights disappeared from sight.

How I could return to Tania. I pulled out a high visibility vest from my boot and moving that car so it could be clearly seen, jammed it in the door.


“John.” A quavering voice called from the dark, as I approached.

“John…John. I could here the rising panic in her voice.

“I’m here,” I called back as I made my way back through the undergrowth.

Two fears haunted me, but I chose not to share them with Tania.

Had the motorist called for help, and how were they to find us?

As to the first, we would just have to wait, but I could of course wait on the road, but that would mean leaving Tania alone, and she was terrified enough as it was. I decided to let thing work out as best they did.



Time dragged on. I had calculated that it should take about thirty minutes for services to arrive from Taupo. It was now nearly forty five. I was thinking I would have to go and flag down another vehicle. Several had passed by each time a hopped they would stop or I would hear a siren, but they all passed by. It wasn’t a siren that I first heard though. It was the thump of rotors. In the middle of the night, on a narrow winding highway, a helicopter was the last sound I expected. I looked around. A search light was scanning the river and the road. I moved into an opening in the bush and as soon as I saw the lights of the machine I started flashing my torch at it. For a moment I thought that they had not seen, then I was bathed in light. I waved frantically in the blinding beam, out of which an almost surreal voice appeared.

“Stay where you are. We have you pinpointed and help is only a few minutes away.”

The light moved away, but the sound did not. I looked up the hill and saw the light now focused on the road. I took a few steps and knelt down beside Tania. She immediately grabbed my hand and held it tight.

“Help is here,” I assured her. She gave my had a weak squeeze. I could feel her loosing strength.

“Hang on, don’t you dare leave me now,” I told her as I felt her grip failing.

“Don’t you leave me either,” she replied quietly.

Siren sounded in the distance, echoing around the valley, then more, a beautiful cacophony of wailing sounds.


Reluctantly I move away as the medical and rescue teams swarmed around the vehicle. I shuddered every time she cried out in pain. Occasionally she would call out my name, and I would call back, reassuring her I was still there.


It took some time to extract her from the car and to get her back to the road, and was loaded into the ambulance.

“John. Where are you?” she called from inside, “come with me”.


I looked at the policeman beside me. “I can't leave the van here, its got all my tools in it”.


Give me your keys. You can collect it from the Taupo Station” He gave me a smile and nodded towards the waiting ambulance. I didn't need another prompt.


I could do little on the way to Taupo Hospital, except to reassure her and hold her hand when able. She drifted in and out of consciousness but was out for most of the time. At least she was not in so much pain and the paramedics had administered a massive dose of morphine.


I sat in the ICU waiting room, and reflected on the events of the night. I had no need to stay here. I had done my deed, I was free to move on. I had given a full statement to the Police, and she had her own family. I did however learn that she was not partnered with anyone, and that her parents were coming up from Wellington the following day. So why am I still here.


“John?” Her voice woke me from my dozing. At about five that morning, after emergency surgery on her badly broken leg and several stitches in her head and body, they had moved her to a recovery ward. I glanced at my watch. It was a little after ten in the morning.


“John, are you John”? She asked tentatively.

I took a gamble and put my hand on hers. She immediately grabbed it, and I noted now that she had regained considerable strength.

“Yes Tania” I smiled down at her.

“You kept your promise” she said simply.

“I told you I was not going to leave you, I meant it”. At that instance something changed. Suddenly I didn't want to to leave her – ever. Scared that I might have transmitted that feeling I looked her. Her hand tightened around mine and her eyes told me that she had, and that she didn't mind at all. I leaned forward and gently kissed her on the forehead, then sat down beside her.


“Don't you have to go?” She asked a little sadly. I had at lease a months annual leave owing, and a very understanding boss. “No I don't” I replied. She smiled happily.


We talked for several hours than a Police Sergeant opened the curtain.

“How are you feeling”, he asked.

“Happy thank you,” she replied.

He nodded. “A police woman will come by later and get a statement if you are up to it”.


“That’s fine” she answered.


The Sergeant turned to go. “you’re a lucky woman,” he said looking back at her. “If John here hadn't noticed that you were missing and gone back, you could have been down there for days.”


Tania gave me a quizzical look. “Sorry I don't understand. How could you have seen me? And turned back?”


“You caught up to me at the Mohaka Bridge. I was worried that you might have overtaken with that logging truck approaching, but you stuck in behind me and we travelled for ages until we got into the gorge. That’s when I noticed you missing, so I stopped at the Falls Rd and waited. When you never showed up, I went back looking for you. Don't you remember?”


She looked down and stared at the bed for several seconds thinking. When she looked up there was a strange look on her face, one of fear, almost panic. “What day is it?” she asked hesitantly.


The Sergeant and I exchanged puzzled glances. “Wednesday”, he said.


I heard her suck in her breath. “When did you find me?” she asked, her face turning paler as she spoke.


“Yesterday. You came in last night. I've been here at your side all night,” I answered, now concerned that she may have some memory issues starting to emerge.


She looked at each of us in turn. “I crashed Monday night. There was nobody on the road in front or behind me. I was down there for nearly 24 hours”.


The Sergeant lifted his head, and looked me straight in the eyes.

I saw his face change. I felt a cold chill sink through my body.

Nobody spoke as the implication of her words sunk in.


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