On Discovering Purgatory at a Service Station in the Midlands
I sit alone in the front seat of the car at a service station somewhere between Sheffield and Nottingham. It's 9pm and we've been on the road since 11; HB is passed out under a duvet across the back seat, and it's cold enough for the outside world to be totally impenetrable through our fogged windows. I penetrate it. I lock her in the car as she's dead to the world, and wander listlessly into a service station even more depressing than its empty parking lot. An elderly man with a thousand-yard stare slots pennies into a lottery machine. There is a Starbucks.
Stretching over the motorway is a half-glass tunnel that looks like the setting for the violent crime scene in an episode of The Bill. It leads to a McDonald's, so it must be braved. The approach to its stairway is lit by a broken bulb that provides a puddle of flickering neon - my own private rave with a thundering motorway setlist. I climb the stairs and get halfway across with lorries roaring beneath me and my breath clouding before me and realise that I am terrified out of my wits: someone with a chloroform pad is waiting concealed at the other end to stuff my body unobserved in a hold-all and drag me to their truck, never to be seen or heard from again. I could turn around and flee but the same thing is certainly waiting for me on the other side. I plod on for fifty metres that seem more like fifty miles, before finally emerging into an identical service station that makes me wonder whether I did in fact turn back the way I came.
An old man with a thousand-yard stare slots coins into a lottery machine. A whole squad of teenage gymnasts in red team jackets sit at a McDonald's table. A pair who could be mother and son but are more likely lover and teenage toyboy because this service station is the worst place in the world share twenty nuggets and one BBQ dip. There is a microwave! Convenient. I buy a lot of food, way too much food that costs way too much money, to reward myself for the terrifying journey I have undertaken and am to undertake once more. I sit at a plastic table hugging the warmth of my paper sack of processed meat and wondering whether I'm doomed to walk the horrifying lengths of a service station in the midlands for eternity, forever in darkness and with my girlfriend forever unconscious. I catch the teenage gymnasts sniggering at me and get a headrush as I stand up too abruptly.
The bridge is if possible more terrifying on the return and I break into a run on the final stretch. I buy a double espresso at Starbucks and they write my name as Alice in tiny letters on the tiny cup. An old man with a thousand-yard stare slots coins into a lottery machine. The car park has four cars in it. I have to work tomorrow and there is 2 hours 50 minutes left of this drive.