The fast food stop

My meeting in Bloemfontein ended at 4pm

Later than I wanted it to

It was a 4 hour drive home

Northwards to Johannesburg

The November air was muggy and oppressing

I was worn down

As an introvert it’s tough showing your game face all day

As the afternoon progressed

So did a thunderstorm

I watched it build on the horizon

Above the highway in front of me

I was listening to an audiobook of The Brothers Karamazov

Engrossed in it

And as Ivan made his three visits to Smerdyakov

I watched the lightning start to fork down onto the flat plains

Seeming to almost hit the highway straight ahead of me

It was a surreal site, observing it from a distance

Pretty soon Smerdyakov was confessing

And I was in the midst of the downpour

Even inside the air conditioned car

I could feel the temperature drop

By 7pm I was half an hour from the Johannesburg ring road

But I needed to eat something

It was growing darker

I turned off at a roadside fast food petrol station stop

One I knew well

The ground was wet from the storm

The damp still in the air

Everything in a seeming state of lubricated crystal clarity

Like the feel of your eyes after tears have subsided

I went in

The fast food tables were all empty except for one

A mother with her daughter of around four I guess

I sat three tables away from them

Looking out at the parking lot

I ordered a burger and five minutes later it came

But any sense of calm was disrupted by the woman

She was on the phone the whole time

Arguing to someone about some relative

She kept repeating the same things over and over

People tend to do that when they’re upset

The girl sipped a chocolate milkshake

The mother seemed oblivious to the child’s existence

I don’t think she’d even looked at her for the entire time I’d been there

I gazed out of the window

At two cars filling up with fuel

But not really looking at them

I was thinking of Smerdyakov, guilty all along

“Oh fucks sakes!!”

It was the woman

Suddenly she had jumped up and shouted

The chocolate milkshake had tipped over

And had spilled out over the floor and spare chair

The brown puddle was growing

Clearly an accident

“How the hell did you do that!!” she shouted

The girl started crying

Trying to issue some sort of apology or explanation

One of the two

The woman angrily grabbed her handbag and keys

And marched out towards the door

Without even looking back at the girl

Who was still crying

Clutching a fluffy brown toy she ran after her mother

In hysterical tears

Outside the mother had shoved the girl in the car

She continued to should

With much gesticulating

And hand pointing

The girl was still in tears

I was so distracted I didn’t notice the waitress

Standing next to me

She too was looking out at the car

She had the kind of face that seemed to know one or two things about the world

Then she looked over at their table

With the chocolate milk tipped over

On the floor

“What a mess” she said

“Looked like an accident” I replied

“I wasn’t talking about the milkshake” she said

By now the blue Toyota they were in

Had sped around the corner out of sight

I paid the bill and slowly walked out

Into the cool evening air

The last purple of daylight was fading in the east

And the lonely sound of the highway dominated

Forty minutes later I was on the ring road highway

I thought of the girl

Hoping that somewhere out there

She was in her bed and fell asleep

At peace

Saturday morning rain

A near accident at the traffic circle

of Loughton high street

but nobody hooted at anybody

and man in a chicken suit

stands outside a real estate office

next to a blonde

promoting something

the cars whish past

spraying water up from the road

and the drizzle kept coming down

didn’t look like stopping anytime soon

like it was plugged in 

the woman in a long checked shirt 

walked past under an umbrella

and I smelled the cigarette smell coming off her

the 397 hummed past

but in the wrong direction

old man in a mask

shuffling past almost aimlessly 

cars kept on by

wsshhhh

wsshhhh

the world hits different on Saturday morning

seven more minutes for my ride

but it gave me a chance to savor

the best 

damn

cappuccino 

I’d had in years

Swamp monsters

The same field

Fifteen years later

Wind rustling the tips of the tall grass

Like nothing had changed at all

Back in town it all seemed different

Updated

Alien

But not here

As I came to the end of the route

I looked up

Where the grass field sloped upward

Towards the houses

Where the tall pines loomed and waved

Where he once tried to scare me

With stories of swamp monsters

And how he saw one’s tail once

The memory brought a smile

For the first time in days

I felt closer to him in that moment 

Than I had even at the funeral

Two days before

The cold February breeze stung my eyes

My nostrils were wet

But my head felt fresh 

All of me did

Muddy Wellingtons squished in the mud near the gate

Probably the same size shoe as his

All those years before

I stopped and looked back

The grassy fields sloped out towards the East

Under a grey clouded sky

Vague memories of chasing a ball

Down this slope

Of him running behind me

Smiling

Was he happy in those moments?

What would he remember now?

If he could remember now

The same field

Fifteen years later

Life works in circles

It always does

While you trudge through mud

Thinking of hot coffee

Grasping at the what ifs

She got obscenely drunk that night

At Madeleine’s 30th party in Islington

At 12:30 AM we finally stumbled into the street

Into the ongoing November drizzle

Intoxicated but triumphant

Young hearts but old souls

The world could have been ours

Except her, she staggered a little too badly

I volunteered to see her home to Wood Green which was sort of on my way

Conveniently so

I’d had a thing for her for three years

But of course she was taken. Married. Beyond.

Husband worked as some high level engineer with oil

Always away

And as it happened she talked about him the whole way home in the taxi

Things seemed to be sliding badly

I was struck with that odd tongueless sensation of having no insights

No words for her other than bland agreement

I walked her up to her door

It was red

In the flash of a moment I wondered about her

It captivated me

What did she do alone at home?

What does she read, watch, eat?

Does this lifestyle make her lonely?

Especially not having to work

“You have kind eyes” she said

The rain persisted

She raised her face for mine

And oh god I kissed her back

This drunk lonely woman who I’d thought about so often

“I must go. Delivered safely,” I quipped

She clumsily fumbled at the door and eventually got in

She closed it without looking back

I turned and walked down the street

In a dreamlike state

What had I done. Why? Kissing a drunk girl for fucks sakes.

And now the worst part

The next time we’d see each other would she even remember

I’ll never know

The rest of my acquaintance with her may be some guessing game

I could see it all so clearly

It’s the things left unsaid that taunt us the most

Leaving us grasping at the what ifs

While the clocks tick and we fry a single egg in the pan as the radio plays

It looked like another two blocks to the high street

The rain persisted

I needed to get out my damn umbrella out

Port Alfred is a quiet place

Out of nowhere

The other night

A random memory hit me

Of when I was five or six

We only have a few memories of those times

When we were small

Don’t we?

A few isolated oases

In the deserts of the past

In this one I was in Port Alfred

A small boy

At my aunt’s house on holiday

A small seaside town

And there I was

Sitting on the steps of the veranda

At about 9pm at night

The adults all inside, I was all alone

Looking out across at the lights of the houses and street poles

It was December and it was hot

But quiet

So quiet, and I liked that

There was something about it all

I suddenly had a thought

I needed to write something about this

I ran in to grab a pad and pen

The empty page suddenly seemed heavy in my hand

But I looked out again at the night and the feeling remained

In the distance I could make out the lights of the petrol station

At the point where the main road reached the town

I could faintly hear the distant groan of a truck

Few things more lonely

Than the sound of a truck on the highway at night

I had to write something

I felt compelled

Eventually I wrote the line

“Port Alfred is a quiet place”

I sat there for a long time after that

Trying to think of how to continue

But nothing came

I had this feeling swelling inside me in that instant

About this quiet moment in this quiet town at night

But I didn’t have the words or skill to put it down on paper

That was the only line I wrote

The paper was discarded and forgotten

Life went on

I wonder now how I might have completed that poem

Nowadays in my older age I can write lines like second nature

Usually

But sometimes I still sit outside after dark

And take in the sounds of night

Lights in the distance

Perhaps the gentle sound of swaying branches

A few more sounds now, here, than in Port Alfred 30 years ago

But still

Life has a way of letting life get in the way of everything important

But that deep rooted part of ourselves persists

At least it should

We just have to find it

Sometimes it’s at 3:25am thinking back

About how Port Alfred is a quiet place

Aldersgate in the rain

She smiled at me in the rain

On the steps of Aldersgate Church

Our eyes meeting under the black wide brows of open umbrellas

As the grey rain drizzled over us

Over all of us

A smile

So alien in this London gloom

Like something from another world, one I’d prefer

I walked on

Hearing the sound of a travel bag being rolled on pavement near me

The sound of adventure

Pretty sure the rain had wet the bag on my back

And my shoes were wet

I thought of waves and villages

And smiles

An ambulance wailed past

A construction drill echoed through the streets

Growing tomatoes

Stuck in this corporate world

The longer I’m in it the more I want to leave it

And the more it becomes . . . impossible to

Gazing out the window on a listless Friday

The alien-like voices on conference calls drift

Through cold glass windows and they drone

And drone and drone

Like machines that have been left on

And my thoughts wander again

To that small town in my mind

Small house in a small town

Waking to the sound of a rooster

Watching the sun go down on my veranda each day

With white wine or maybe a whiskey if I’m in the mood

Spending days the way I please

Answering no one

Questioning nothing

Growing my own tomatoes

The modern world just a highway in the distance

The sound reminding you that it’s there, if you need it

But only if you need it

Only if you need it

Some daydreams keep you sane