An episode from the recent hitch from Madrid to London. Rest soon.
At 4 in the morning it started bucketing. Nervous engines pre-stoked by a few hours of light-infused half-sleep, my body reacted suddenly and I came to consciousness stood under a tree, sleeping bag and rucksack in hand. Small joy in being surprisingly dry, soon crushed under the recognition of how little sleep I'd actually had.
Initially bedding down had been fun- a skulking tour of the waysides and a trip through a hole in a fence into the inviting black fields adjacent– until it dawned all I'd done was catalogue every of the truckers' ideal piss perches then almost throw my sleeping bag down in a manured furrow.
The pitch I'd just leapt up from was the one innocuous place I'd found climbing back through that hole. Anyway, rain avoided, I toddled off to a dry spot in the doorway of an abandoned restaurant in the service station. Threw down yesterday's signs to add a bit of padding to the roll mat and the half-hearted attempt at more sleep. It didn't work and I was soon browsing the garage for coffee and non-extortionate foodstuffs.
At that point I came across a card to give my dad for his Ph.D graduation (one of two reasons I was hitching to the UK.)
A bit of a nutty card but you have to know my Dad. Whole thing is summed up by the expression of the zoo-keeper, lip curled in an expression of considerable muscle strain and flagrant curiosity at how much confection can be dropped into such a maw in one go. To me it suggested the spirit of enquiry at the moment of its absolution.
Some time spent outside of the garage with my sign, watching what I guessed were two colleagues rambling away in French together. Guys in their 50's, both with spectacles, curly grey hair, smart shoes, tight jeans and shirts tucked in. Just quietly observing them. Six cigarettes and four coffees later they got into separate cars and disappeared. I padded off to the main entrance of the service station to meet the 'dawn', or the wan grey misty barometric car wash that passes for dawn at that time in that place. Spain has ruined me- the sun lives there and merely haunts the rest of Europe.
Playing the game of numbers, waiting there gave maximum advertising to the maximum number of people. I think an hour later the rain went up a gear again.
Coming back to throw myself on the bench inside I realised I'd been in that station for 13 hours.
I looked up to see a teenage boy smiling at me from the bench across the way. Sat beside two women, whom I guessed were his sister and mother from the resemblance. Mother wore a headscarf, smiling politely, leaning forward with her hands folded. The two teenagers were sat up straight, beaming, eyes engaged with my bag and sign.
Boy: "Everything's going to be fine! You just have to have that mindset."
Me: "Thanks, I'm glad to hear someone else thinks the same."
He and his sister got up and came over to talk, and we spent about half an hour on life goals, the military, becoming a millionaire by the time you're thirty, curiosity, teaching, the road from Morocco to Amsterdam and school in Holland. I showed them the card I'd chosen and the boy fell on the floor in tears of laughter...twice actually.
When I arrived at sunset the evening before I wrote in my notebook that all I could hope for at that hour was a good conversation. Took half a day but it worked. If I was scientifically persistent enough I'd consider a study on the fatigue-eliminating aspect of positive acknowledgment at the roadside. Some days before in Burgos when I was at my wit's end (sleepless start to the day, endless marching, sore feet, rain and a dead national road) a garage owner came over, looked at my route, paused and opted for buoyant prescription over leaden/realistic prognosis:"Buena suerte!"(Good luck!) and a pat on the back.
That was an intense day for a number of reasons, but any small kindness during the wait acts as a pivot and the slate is wiped. You get on with it. In Burgos this meant a vampirical springing to the feet and the next car stopping immediately and whisking me to Irún.
In the same way, the thirteen hours in that station south of Lille was immediately redeemed by the positivity and openness of those two young people. The boy was somewhere between woeful and angry that both myself and his sister couldn't give him a firm answer in terms of a life goal, but we talked that over till he was sure we had them and they were just latent. His is to finish school in a year so that he can join the army and start making some serious money.
Their father came in from napping in the car to collect them for the drive back to Holland. We said our goodbyes and here again prescription was chosen over prognosis- they thought I'd get a lift but also that I'd be in France at least another day, and they just said good luck. I wished them the same and said farewell, and as the boy trailed the rest of his family out the door he stopped suddenly, came back, shook my hand and introduced himself as Aman.
Well Aman, if you end up here somehow, thanks to you and your sister for that chat. Ten minutes later I got a lift all the way to Brixton.