Outside of Hickstead, I pulled over into the motorway services. I’d checked the radio to find that there had been a crash on the M25, so while I plotted a route around it, I thought I’d take a break. A twenty-four hour news channel circulated on a flat screen television, the news reporting the abduction of a little girl, while people queued in front of KFC and MacDonalds. I picked up a sandwich and coffee from the self-service restaurant and headed for one of the tables in a corner of the central seating area. Once upon a time, motorway service stations had always seemed alien, incongruous places, encountered during late nights or early mornings, unreal colonies of light. Somewhere along the line a blurring had occurred, but between the world or the motorway services, it was hard to decide which had overtaken the other.
A group of soldiers stood at the Burger King kiosk, staring up at the menu. I watched them as I finished my coffee, remembering a time when Dad was alive, being part of a convoy of forces families, all of us spilling from the individual cars to colonise a whole section of a canteen restaurant. Whenever I thought of Dad in these situations, it was to see him standing. Arms folded, legs apart, talking side on to one of the other men. Always on parade. He was never really at rest, never able to relax beyond a kind of stiff regimented ease. I looked at the soldiers: their gawky boyish faces could have been pinned arbitrarily upon bodies that seemed almost engineered. As one of them looked back across the concourse towards the car park, I was taken by the impression that this group was part of a larger military force, that they had been given orders to assume control of the services, that a national emergency had been declared, and that society was very close to breaking down. Everyone in the building would be advised to suspend their journey, and remain under the army’s protection. Necessary services would be maintained, work would be found for all. Rather than feel oppressed or scared, I could imagine everyone getting on quite comfortably, happy to be home.
My phone rang as I walked back to the car. I checked the display: Mum’s house phone.
‘How’s the journey?’ she asked.
‘There’s a problem with the M25,’ I said. ‘But I think I should be able to get around it.’
‘Is the weather holding up? I saw the reports and I thought of you.’
‘Clear blue skies,’ I said, while staring at a twisting, dwindling cloud.
‘I’m glad you’re not going to be too late. I was worried that I was going to have to wait up for you.’
‘I’ll be there as soon as I can. Two, three hours at the most. I may have to stop again.’
Pulling away from the services, I thought of Hickstead, a place I would never, probably, see, or even think of again, except in relation to a half thought out fantasy and a queue outside of Burger King.
Words © Daniel Bennett