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The following is an excerpt from the book The Rhythm of the Road
by Albyn Leah Hall 
Published by Thomas Dunne Books, an imprint of  St. Martin's Press; January 2007; $24.95US/$31.00CAN; 978-
Copyright © 2007 Albyn Leah Hall 

Chapter I


I was twelve years old when Cosima first rode with us.

I hadn't heard of her then. Nobody had. She was just another girl, a hitchhiker with a name you might not remember.

A few things were different about her. She was American, but it wasn't just that. On the road, we met just about everybody: Welsh people and Irish people and Scots, German people and Spanish people and Americans and, of course, people from every part of England. The American hitchhikers were mostly the natural-looking kind, all denim and well-brushed hair, who could have been English apart from flat, unfunny voices and a dislike of our food, like beans on toast or Marmite. More than one of them tried to tell me that pretzels were better than Twiglets and that the Little Chef wasn't like a real American coffee shop. I told them it wasn't trying to be.

Cosima was a cowgirl, at least to look at. She wore a cowboy hat and a belt with a brass buckle. She wore a suede jacket, its fringe damp and tangled from being sat on in so many cars and lorries (or trucks, because they didn't say lorry in the U.S.A.). Her accent wasn't broad, but her voice had gaps in it wide enough to park a lorry in. I'd ask her a question and she wouldn't say anything and I'd think she hadn't heard me. Just when I was about to ask it again, she would answer. Cosima always kept you waiting, even when she was right there next to you.

The second thing was her fiddle. The road had its musicians -- it was full of them in summer -- but they were mostly boys with guitars or the occasional girl with a guitar. Bobby used to play the guitar once, and he liked to ask what kind of guitar he or she was carrying and maybe have a look at it if we stopped for a cup of tea. We'd met boys with fiddles, but not many girls.

It was six years ago, but I remember everything about that day. We had eaten our lunch. We were seventeen miles north of Birmingham. We were listening to Charlene Sweeney, our favorite country singer. The cars were like slugs all around us, creeping along in the warm, grimy rain. I had that feeling I had in my stomach that I got when we weren't moving. It was a stuck and heavy feeling, as if I'd eaten bricks.

She stood with her thumb out, a slim, neat, cowgirl-looking girl, sandy hair to her shoulders. I turned down the volume on Charlene Sweeney.

"Stop, Bobby."

He stopped. I shifted over to the flat area between the seats. A boy sat on the grass behind her, or a kind of a boy. He had bleached hair and he wore eye makeup. Sometimes girls pretended to hitch alone, when really there was a boy just behind them. But this boy didn't seem interested in us. He got up to read our registration plates and he wrote something on a piece of paper.

She climbed up beside me. She had green eyes, wide lips, and a flat nose -- a little too flat, which is what kept her from being an absolute beauty. She was about twenty-four years old, maybe twenty-five.

Bobby leaned across our laps to open her door again and shut it properly because there was a knack to it that nobody got except for him and sometimes me. He loosened her seat belt to give it more slack. She watched his hand as he did this. She sucked her stomach in so that it didn't touch his hand.

"I'm Cosima Stewart," she said. "Thanks for the lift. My friend's got your license-plate number in case anything happens."

It was a funny way to say hello. What did she think would happen? There were bad men on the road, but they didn't have kids with them. Bobby was in no way dodgy, and he was the safest driver she would ever meet.

"Right enough." Bobby wove us into the middle lane. "It's nice to meet a girl who takes care of herself. Not like that poor wee thing in July."

Cosima Stewart looked confused.

"He's talking about a girl who was found in a bag in a ditch in Oxfordshire," I explained. "We knew that girl, or we knew her when she was alive. We gave her a lift once."

Reprinted from the book The Rhythm of the Road by Albyn Leah Hall. Copyright © 2007 Albyn Leah Hall.