I was sat at a table in a service station café, on route to Dover, waiting for Angelika to return with the coffee. The seat beneath me was small, with a thin round foam cushion and a flat metal back. Through the windows that stretched the length of the cafe, I could see our white campervan parked outside in the rain. In the dim morning light it appeared grey. We’d been on the road since six and had made good time. We were twenty miles from Dover when the temperature gauge hit the red.
Angelika picked up our coffee from the counter and walked toward the table. She smiled, her thin red lips curling upward at the corners. Angelika was twenty-eight, tall, as tall as me, with long limbs and a back that was slightly hunched. On her neck she had several moles, which stood out clearly on her pale skin. She was beautiful.
‘Guy, I got you a latte.’ When she said latte it rhymed with satay. She put down the cups and pulled back her chair. ‘I hope that’s alright,’ she said.
‘Got any sugar?’ I said.
A handful of packets dropped in front of me.
Angelika sat down, gripped the table and pulled herself closer. The metal feet of the chair scraped against the tiled floor. ‘They only had sizes small to medium. No large. They ran out of cups. Can you believe that?’
I shook my head.
‘So, what’s wrong with the van?’ she said.
I pulled the plastic lid off the cup and looked down through the steam. In the middle of the coffee, a white foam island was slowly dissolving.
‘Engine needs to cool. I’ll put some water in when we’ve finished and see if the light goes off.’
Angelika looked down at her drink.
We’d been together for seven months, sharing a two-bedroom house in Luton for five of them. I’d lived there since my divorce. I met Angelika when she was working behind the counter of her brother’s shop. They sold Polish produce. It was a Romanian work friend’s birthday and I wanted to get him something from home. When I asked at the counter what would be the perfect gift, she’d laughed.
‘This is a Polish shop.’ She smiled. ‘Do you assume we Easterns are all the same? Would you get an Englishman something from Ireland, to remind him of home?’ she said.
‘I don’t know, whiskey, maybe? We’ve got lots of Irish whiskey, here actually. Jameson’s quite popular, and err.’ I stopped. What woman would be impressed by a man’s ability to list Irish whiskey brands?
She smiled again.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I see your point.’ I smiled also.
Angelika said it was fine and started to wipe the counter. I stayed. Something came over me. I don’t know what and so I asked her if she wanted to go for a drink.
I was out of practice. Another friend had even given me the number of a hooker a few months earlier. I hung up as soon as she answered. I hadn’t dated anyone since I’d split with my wife, three years before. That first year I was a mess. I spent every evening in front of the TV drinking, falling asleep to the ten O’clock news, waking around two, always two. I’d then call my ex’s landline until someone eventually answered. She’d moved at the end of the year and we fell out of contact for a while. A year and a half later, she called, asking how I was. She said she missed me, missed us, what we had. Ten years we were married. In the end though, the only thing left between us was nostalgia and guilt. Aside from children, that’s the greatest bond a relationship can have. It turned out she’d left Tony – I didn’t know who Tony was – and had been doing some thinking. Nothing happened. It’s not a door I’d like to open again.
Angelika smiled at me across the counter and put her hand on her hip, where her apron was tied at the side in a bow. She looked at her co-worker, a large woman of around fifty. She also wore an apron, though hers was stained with red and brown streaks. The shit and blood of the last man to ask after Angelika, I thought to myself. The woman grunted.
‘Okay,’ Angelika said. She wrote her number out on a napkin and folded it in half.
‘I’ll call you,’ I’d said.
* * * *
I was a door to door gas salesman back then. I wore a white shirt and black trousers. In the early days we used clipboards and pens but as technology developed we were given hand-held computers. When things started getting serious with Angelika, I quit. There’s only so many doors a man can take being shut in his face, my record was one-hundred and thirty-seven in a day. You have to be resilient to do that kind of work. Or dumb.
Angelika got fired. Her brother didn’t like the fact that she was in a relationship with an unemployed, middle-aged, ‘English’ as he put it. And so we fell into debt. It wasn’t that we couldn’t get jobs. I had skills and experience and Angelika could have done almost anything. No, it wasn’t that. We didn’t want to work. And though the only reason Angelika had come to Britain eight years before was to find employment, she dropped everything for me in an instant.
At the end of the fifth month we received a letter from the landlord. He was starting eviction proceedings. Angelika and I sat at the kitchen table. We could have paid what we owed. We still had some money in our savings. But how long could it last? Another month, maybe two? The way I see it, unemployment is either the single greatest, or single worst state of existence. For Angelika and me, it was the former. It was freedom. We were outside the system, unknowns, non-applicables. Why would we go back? In the end we sold everything, gathered our savings and bought the campervan. We’d had seven grand. We drove it away with two.
* * * *
‘How long does the engine take to cool?’ Angelika asked.
‘Give it another ten,’ I said.
Angelika took the lid off her coffee and swirled the dark liquid with a wooden stirrer.
I watched the whirlpool it created.
‘So when we get to Dover, what next?’ she said, still looking down at her coffee.
‘I don’t know, get a ferry to France. Then, who knows?’
‘We could go to Poland.’ Angelika looked up.
I took a sip from my coffee and realised it was no longer hot. I took a swig.
‘Yeah, maybe. Maybe.’
‘I haven’t seen my family in years. They’ll let us stay,’ she said.
I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Dover was the goal for me, it was like reaching a doorway, one that could either open or remain shut. I wouldn’t know which till I got there.
‘I suppose that could work,’ I said, putting my cup down.
Angelika picked up her coffee and took a sip. When she lowered it a droplet remained on her chin. I didn’t mention it.
‘You don’t want to talk about it?’ she said.
‘Let’s get to Dover first,’ I said.
Angelika put a hand under her chin and looked out the window. My eyes followed. A family of five had just exited a people carrier and were running with their bags above their heads toward the café. The father was at the front with two boys. The mother, holding the hand of the youngest, a girl of around three or four, followed. Our table was only a couple of metres from the cafe entrance. As the family entered, the father’s eyes met my own.
‘Horrid weather isn’t it?’ he said, then smiled and patted the shoulders of the tallest boy.
‘An English Summer,’ I replied, raising my coffee in a toast. I took another swig.
The father made a short laugh then ushered his family towards the counter. When I looked back at Angelika, she was still looking out the window. I reached across the table and touched her elbow. She turned and smiled. I pulled her arm closer.
‘Let’s get to Dover,’ she said.
‘Okay,’ I said.
‘Let me go to the toilet first,’ she said. ‘Are you going to check the van?’
I picked up the coffee and drained the cup. ‘Sure.’
Angelika pushed back her chair and left. Sat at the table alone, I watched the family leave the counter, the children running ahead, parents following with trays of drinks and cakes. The father looked toward me. I smiled and we shared a nod.
* * * *
Helen. She’s my ex-wife. We were together ten years, enough time to start a family, though we never did. Unprofessional. That’s how she described children. Helen worked as a clerk for a law firm in London, leaving the house when it was dark, getting back when it was darker. I was out most of the day too, door to door. When we got home we were both too tired to do anything other than eat in front of the TV and then go to bed. The way I see it, employment isn’t a part of life, it’s part of something else. Death perhaps? People who let their jobs determine who they are fail to exist outside of them. They become like the computers or machines they operate, whirring away from early morning to late afternoon, shutting down for the rest. All those years I thought I was living, I was actually wasting away, decomposing, one brain cell, one sperm count at a time. I was forty years into my life and accepted that a quarter of it had been miserable.
* * * *
I got up from the table and made my way to the exit. The rain was still hard, though in the distance I could see a break in the clouds. I ran to the campervan and opened the door. It groaned. The red bonnet release lever was under the steering wheel. I reached down and pulled it. I found a bottle of water under the seat and stepped back out into the rain. The radiator was empty. I poured the water in, screwed the cap up tight and closed the bonnet. It would do for now. Climbing back up into the driver’s seat, I waited for Angelika.
A minute later she appeared at the entrance of the cafe. She waved. I smiled and waved back. She ran to the van and climbed in, water darkening her hair. I turned on the engine. There was no warning light.
‘God it’s horrible out there. I won’t miss this weather. Is it okay?’ she nodded toward the steering wheel.
I smiled. ‘It’s fine for now. I’ll sort it properly when we get to Dover.’
Angelika leant back and exhaled, bringing her legs up to her chest and crossing them so that she sat like a child on the chair. She looked at me then, smoothing back her wet hair and tying it in a bun behind her head.
‘Okay?’ She said.
I switched on the headlights. The puddles in front of the car turned gold. As the rain began to thin and the clouds dispersed, I pulled away. We’d be in Dover within the hour, though time didn’t matter. It was waiting for us. For me. I joined the motorway. The roads were clear, clearer than they had been for a long time.