One evening not very long ago I got a call from Ian. I could tell from the background noise he was in his car, probably on the motorway. He asked me if I was busy and told me he was travelling north. Did I want to meet up for the evening? He was staying the night at a roadside hotel at the motorway services just south of Wakefield. There were several takeaway outlets on the concourse there, if I’d not already eaten. It would give us a chance to catch up. I had nothing to do that I couldn’t postpone, so I said yes.
At that time in June it never quite gets dark. Even in the middle of the night the sky glows and only the very brightest stars are visible. I found myself driving down to join the motorway under a cloudless, blue dome. The rush hour was over, so there were only a few other vehicles out on the road. Occasionally, I passed laybys. All of them had already filled up with articulated lorries, their drivers preparing to spend the night in their dimly-lit cabs. The only talk-radio station I could find was broadcasting a programme on the future of the economy. It soon got on my nerves, so I switched to listening to an Ornette Coleman album I’d downloaded. It didn’t take me long to get to the junction with the motorway. In the late evening light, the trees planted on the soft estate around it could almost be mistaken for a real forest.
The service station I was heading for was less than a mile down the carriageway. When I got there, the car park was half empty. I parked up and called Ian on my mobile. He told me he’d already booked in and was waiting for me in a coffee bar on the concourse. When I got there, it was easy to spot him as the place was almost empty. He was sat, as he’d told me he was, at a table by a panoramic window overlooking the motorway with its slow-moving, red and white lights. There was no queue at the counter. A lively young man served me with an espresso. I got the impression he was trying to suppress his amusement at something his colleague, a girl of about the same age, had just said to him before I arrived. I took my espresso over to Ian’s table. I sat down across the table from him and asked him what it was that had brought him up north.
‘I guess I just felt like it,’ he said. He tried to smile.
‘Kind of spontaneous?’
‘And Rachel was okay about it?’
He paid close attention to the cars on the motorway. ‘I’ve not seen her for over a week,’ he said. He glanced back at me. ‘It’s one of the great things about living on your own, I’ve discovered. You can do what you like, when you like, can’t you? So long as you can afford it, that is.’
He went on to explain how he’d come back from work to find Rachel had gone. She’d left no note and had said nothing about what she was about to do. There could be no doubt, he said, that she’d gone for good, as she’d taken all her possessions with her. Although she’d said nothing specific, it had not come to him as a complete surprise. He’d always felt, he said, that she had, as he put it, ‘troubles of her own to contend with’. All the time they’d been together, he said, he’d always felt part of her had been somewhere else. They had never discussed where that might be, he said but, wherever it was, it seemed to him to be a cold, inhospitable place. He then retracted this, saying that it was impossible to tell what somebody was thinking or feeling unless they made some attempt to tell you. She had made no attempt to discuss whatever it was, he said, and neither had he. He said he regretted this but then, on reflection, said that he had thought of doing so, often, but never seemed able to find a way in. It seemed inevitable looking back, he said, that things would turn out the way they did.
I listened to what he said but could think of little to say in response that didn’t sound trite. When he’d said everything he wanted to say we sat together in silence for a while.
‘So where are you heading?’ I said.
‘Nowhere in particular,’ he said. He thought for a moment. ‘The sea, possibly. Don’t worry, I’m not thinking of folding up my clothes on the beach and… You know, the way people do.’
‘It never occurred to me that you might.’
‘It’s been a long time since I went to the seaside. Rachel hated it. Said it reminded her of family holidays she never wanted to go on because her parents spent the whole time shouting at each other.’
He kept moving his hands and, every now and again, rubbing his face. He looked worn out. His coffee cup was empty.
‘Let’s walk around,’ he said.
‘Why not?’ I said, affably.
We walked slowly round the tiled concourse. Almost all the shops were shut. An amusement arcade was open but empty. Flashing lights zigzagged across the screens of unattended gambling machines. A vending machine stood silent, its transparent plastic body full of blue and pink cuddly toys. Tape barriers blocked the entrance to a small supermarket. A woman in a uniform the colour of the shop sign was mopping the floor.
‘Let’s go outside.’ he said.
The automatic doors slid apart and we stepped out into the night air and the endless rushing sound of the motorway traffic. Ian took out a packet of cigarettes. He held it out towards me, raising his eyebrows as he did so. I smiled and shook my head. A young couple with two small children walked past us. The doors hissed open again to admit them. Ian took a cigarette out of the packet and lit it. I looked up. Over the doorway a CCTV camera was directing its inert stare towards us. I nudged Ian and gestured towards it.
‘They used to think the eye saw by emitting invisible rays that bounced back,’ he said. ‘You can see why. You can almost feel that thing looking at you. Let’s walk.’
We walked along the raised pavement that ran down one edge of the car park. A thin hedge ran down the whole length of it on our left. On our right, the tarmac stretched away from us under the overhead lighting. It was punctuated at intervals by a regular pattern of small islands planted with stunted vegetation. There were still only a few cars parked in the delineated parking bays. Ian seemed no less on edge. He seemed to crave my company but had nothing to say.
‘What are your plans for tomorrow?’ I said.
‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I guess I’ll keep heading up north. For now. Where did you park?’
I nodded towards my car, which was parked in a bay a few yards away.
‘It’s good to be out of that place but it would be good to sit down.,’ he said.
We walked over. Ian ground his cigarette out under the sole of his shoe. I clicked open the doors and we climbed into the front seats.
‘Any good music?’ he said.
I turned on the jazz.
‘This takes me back,’ he said. We sat there together for a few minutes, just listening.
‘It’s the shape that makes everything so difficult,’ he said, all of a sudden, more to himself than to me.
I thought for a moment he was talking about the music but he wasn’t. He turned to me.
‘The shape of things. Places, too. Rachel had a radio. An old Russian radio. It used to sit on the windowsill. When I looked out of the window, there was the radio. We used to listen to it. We used to talk about it, too. Made in the USSR. You know how sometimes you have the same conversations over and over with people you love? The same conversations, with variations. The great tragedy of the twentieth century was the failure of the Russian Revolution. Somebody said that, I forget who. We used to talk about that a lot. Now the radio’s gone along with loads of other things. They were all part of the world in my head. Does this make any sort of sense?’
‘I think so,’ I said.
‘Now when I look out of the window, I’m just looking out of the window. There’s a gap. The shape of everything has changed. That’s why I came away. None of this means anything to me. A room in a hotel is just a room.’
The lights on a car across the way flashed as its owner clicked it open from a distance. Two men appeared from the direction of the service station. They climbed in. I expected the car to drive off but it didn’t. Behind the sound of Ornette Coleman I became aware of a more distant, thudding bass.
‘It’s time I was turning in,’ Ian said.
‘OK,’ I said. I smiled.
‘I’ll be fine,’ he added, in answer to my unspoken query. He opened the door to get out.
(c) Sackerson, 2020