I was sat at a table in a service station café off the M20, on route to Dover, waiting for Angelika to return with the coffee. The seat beneath me was small, with a round foam cushion and flat metal back. Outside, through the window that stretched the length of the cafe, I could see our campervan parked in the rain. In the dim morning light it appeared grey. We’d been on the road since six, as the sun bled into the sky, and had made good time. We were twenty miles from Dover when the temperature gage hit the red and the warning light came on.
Angelika picked up our coffee from the counter and walked toward the table. She smiled. Her thin red lips curled at the corners. Angelika was 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 from her pale skin. Despite this, she was beautiful. Angelika was twenty-eight. Her hair was light brown and reached down to her shoulders.
‘Guy, I got you a latte. I hope that’s alright,’ she said. Angelika put the drinks down and pulled back her chair.
When she said latté, it rhymed with satay.
‘Got any sugar?’ I said.
A handful of packets dropped in front of me.
Angelika sat down and pulled herself closer to the table. 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 inside. In the middle of the coffee, a white foam island was slowly dispersing.
‘Engine needs to cool. I’ll put some water in when we’ve finished here and see if the light goes off.’
Angelika looked down at her drink. She didn’t take sugar.
We’d been a couple 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 eldest brother’s shop. They sold Polish produce. It was a Romanian friend from work’s, birthday, and I wanted to get him something from home. When I asked at the counter what would be an appropriate gift, Angelika laughed.
‘This is a Polish delicatessen,’ she said. ‘Would you get an Englishman something from Ireland?’
‘I don’t know? Whiskey, perhaps?’ I laughed.
‘Still.’ She smiled.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘I see your point.’
Angelika said it was fine and started to wipe the counter. But as I stood there and watched her clean, noticing that smile, partially hidden beneath her hair, grow wider, something struck me. And so I asked her if she wanted to go for a drink.
I was out of practice. I’d even called a hooker once. My Romanian friend gave me the number. I hung up as soon as she answered. I hadn’t dated anyone since I’d split with my wife, three years before. The first year I was a mess. Each evening, I spent in front of the TV, falling asleep drunk to the ten o’clock news. Waking around two, always two, I’d then call my ex’s land-line until someone eventually answered.
She 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. We were married for ten years and had been faithful for most of them. In the end, the only thing left between us was nostalgia and guilt and aside from children, that’s the greatest bind 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 a hand on the hip, where her apron was tied in a neat looping bow. She looked at her co-worker then, an older woman of around fifty with thick hairy arms. The woman grunted.
‘Okay,’ Angelika said. She wrote her number out on a napkin and folded it in half.
‘I’ll call you,’ I said.
* * * *
I was a door to door gas salesman at the time. I wore a white shirt and black trousers. In the early days we used clipboards and pens but as the technology enhanced we were given these 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 one day. You have to be resilient to do that kind of work. Or dumb.
Angelika was fired from her job soon after. Her brother didn’t like the fact that she was in a relationship with an unemployed, middle-aged, British man. And so we fell into debt. It wasn’t that we couldn’t get other jobs. I had the skills and the experience and Angelika could have done almost anything. It wasn’t that. We just didn’t want to work and though the only reason Angelika came to Britain eight years before was to do exactly that, she dropped everything with a swiftness I didn’t predict.
At the end of the fifth month of our relationship we received a letter from the landlord. He was starting eviction proceedings. Angelika and I sat down at the kitchen table and talked. We could have paid what was owed. We still had some money in our savings. But how long would it really last? Another month, maybe two? The way I see it, unemployment is either the single greatest, or single worst state to experience.
For Angelika and me, it was the former. It was freedom, a secret existence. We were outside the system, unknowns’, not applicables’. Why would we return to that? In the end we sold everything and gathering our savings and what money we had made, we bought our camper-van . It cost us five grand. We had seven.
‘How long does the engine take to cool?’ Angelika asked.
We had been quiet for some time. ‘Give it another ten,’ I said.
Angelika took the lid off her coffee and swirled the dark liquid with a wooden stirrer, looking down at the whirlpool it created.
‘So when we get to Dover, what next?’ she said, still looking at her coffee.
‘I don’t know. Get a ferry across to France, perhaps. There’s bound to be a space on one of them. Then, who knows?’
‘We could go to Poland.’ Angelika looked up at me.
I took a sip from my coffee and realised it was no longer hot. Perfect drinking temperature.
‘Yeah, maybe. Maybe.’
‘I haven’t seen my family in years. They’ll put us up,’ she said.
I hadn’t thought that far ahead. Dover was the main goal for me, it was like reaching a doorway, one that could either open or remain shut. I wouldn’t know which till I was there. Dover.
‘I suppose that could work,’ I said, putting my cup down on the table.
Angelika picked up her coffee and took a sip, when she lowered it a droplet of the dark liquid remained on her chin. I decided not to mention it.
‘You don’t want to talk about it?’ she said.
‘Let’s get to Dover first.’ I said.
Angelika put her free hand under her chin and looked out of the window. My eyes followed. A family of five had just got out of a people carrier and were running with their bags above their heads toward the café. The father was at the front with his two boys. The mother, holding the hand of the youngest, a girl of around three or four, followed behind. As they entered the café, the father’s eyes met my own. Our table was only a couple of metres from the entrance.
‘Horrid weather isn’t it?’ the father said. He smiled and patted the shoulders of the tallest son.
‘An English Summer,’ I replied. Raising my coffee, I took another sip.
The father gave a short laugh and went off with his family to the counter.
Angelika was still looking out of the window. I reached my hands across the table and groped the base of her forearm. She turned to me.
She smiled. ‘Let’s get to Dover,’ she said, moving her arms back toward the centre of the table and resting them in my hands.
‘Okay.’ I said.
‘I’m going to the toilet.’ Angelika said. ‘Do you want to check the van while I’m gone?’
I picked up the coffee and drained the cup. ‘Sure.’
Angelika pushed back her chair and left. Sat at the table, I watched the family that had just come in walk by, trays of drinks and cakes being carried by the parents. The father looked at me. I smiled and we shared a nod.
* * * *
My ex-wife is called Helen. We were together for ten years and though we had the chance to start a family, we never did. Helen didn’t want children. Unprofessional. That’s how she described them.
We were forty when we split. Helen worked as a clerk for a law firm in London, leaving the house when it was dark and getting back when it was darker. I was out most of the day walking door to door. When we both got home we were too tired to do anything but watch television and get into bed. See people think that working is a part of life, but really, it’s part of something else entirely. Death perhaps? The way I see it, people who let their jobs define who they are fail to exist outside of them. They become like the computers they type at, whirring away from the early morning till the late afternoon and shutting down for the rest. All those years I thought I was living, I was simply wasting away, decomposing, one brain cell, one sperm count at a time. I was halfway through my life and accepted that at least a quarter of it had been miserable.
I got up from the table and made my way to the café’s exit, out into the rain. It was still heavy, though in the distance I could see a break in the clouds. I made it to the camper-van and opened the door. It groaned. The red lever that opened the bonnet was under the steering wheel. I reached down and pulled it. The bonnet clicked. A litre bottle of water was sat between the front two seats. I picked it up and went back to the front of the van. The radiator was empty. I put the water in 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 was at the entrance. Looking up at me, she waved. I smiled and waved back. She ran toward the van. Her hair grew darker and her face wet. I was also soaked. As she climbed into the passenger seat, 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 said, nodding toward the steering wheel.
I smiled. ‘It’s fine for now. I’ll sort it properly when we get to Dover.’
Angelika leant back in her chair and exhaled, bringing her legs up to her chest and crossing them over the seat. She looked at me then, pushing her hair back and tying it behind her head in a bun. ‘Okay.’ She said.
I switched on the headlights, yellow light filling the puddles in the road. They looked like pools of molten gold. As the rain began to thin and the clouds dispersed above, I pulled away. We’d be in Dover within the hour, though timescale didn’t matter. The destination was there. It was waiting for us. For me. I just had to make it. As we joined the motorway the roads were clear, clearer than they had been in a long time.