Riley RMF

Slip Road

by Lee Robertson

Copyright Lee Robertson 2012

The alarm hadn’t gone off, and it was still dark, and then James realised where he was. There was a glow of light around the dark heavy curtains, and so he jumped out of bed wondering if he was late. His phone was off, and out of battery, His lead had become disconnected. He plugged it back in and waited for the light to come on, nothing. And so he switched on the bedside lights, and that too had failed. Power cut. He opened the curtains wide to remember he was on the ground floor of a motorway services hotel, and so quickly found his trousers and yesterdays shirt. Outside the car park was busy with travellers and commuters visiting the services. There was a queue at the outdoor coffee stand.

He found his room card on the sideboard and hurried around to the reception in his bare feet. There was a queue at the desk.

‘What time is it?’ He asked a family waiting politely with their collection of luggage. The father looked at his watch. ‘Eight ten,’ he said, in an American accent. ‘There’s a power outage.’

Eight ten! He thought, oh no. He had set his alarm for six thirty, wanting to give himself plenty of time on this his first day. He walked back to his room at the far end of the corridor, and then found his room card would not operate, James tried it several times.

He got back to the reception and waited in the queue behind the American family. This was going to take too long he thought, he had seen an open door to a side office he tried that and saw the same lad that had checked him in the night before looking through paperwork.

‘Hey, remember me!’ he said to him, ‘my room key won’t operate, can you let me in.’

‘What room sir?’ said the lad.

‘It’s, 130, I think’ said James desperately trying to remember.

‘Your name?’

‘Can you just let me in, don’t you have a skeleton key with you?’

‘I do sir, but I have to verify, you could be anyone.’

‘But you checked me in, don’t you remember? I asked where the nearest village was.’

‘Possibly sir, your name?’ He said as he scanned the top of the documents he had.

‘James Robertson’ said James, a little exasperated and his bare feet feeling the cold concrete floor of the office.

‘032, James Robertson, OK sir,’ He stepped out with James following. ‘I’m very sorry about this, there has been a power cut since early this morning, and the main fuses now keep tripping. Your key card will keep resetting. Unfortunately there’s little we can do. It’s been a nightmare with the till.’

‘I’m sure.’ said James. ‘It’s caused me to run a little late already, do you have hot water?’

‘I’m sorry sir, the water is controlled by the power,’ he gave James a small red and yellow card with a smiley face that said BREAKFAST. ‘I have been instructed to offer you this. You can get a breakfast in the main service station.’

The young man opened James’ room, and led him in. He turned on a light. ‘It’s working!’ he said, and then became dismayed when it flicked off moments later.

James had a cold shower in a bathroom with intermittent light, and then pulled a cold razor over his chin. He dressed in his new suit quickly and spent a small amount of time getting his tie knotted correctly. He had a very important day. He had been through several weeks of induction, training and telephone sales and now he had his first real sales meeting at the offices of a prestigious manufacturing firm in the north of the country. His company supplied office furniture, this was his first proper day of work, and he had awoken late. He still had plenty of time. James went to bed early after he had arranged and organised his day as getting up at first light and going over his figures and products, then breakfast before showering, wearing a new shirt and driving the short distance from the motorway to the factory. Leaving plenty of time to find his way, park and get to the right department. He never liked to rush. The calmer he kept himself, the more self-assured he was, and he was a self-assured man.

By the time he had packed his small suitcase and checked once more in the mirror, it was a quarter to nine. By his reckoning if he was on the road by ten past, he would arrive at the factory by quarter to ten, giving enough time for a final run through of his pitch and figures. He felt a little sick with nerves. His phone kept beeping with the power going off and on, and when he checked it he had very little power. It was his only means of telling the time.

He put his card on the reception desk and didn’t bother to check out. The American family were still in the foyer, and apart from the father standing at the desk were sitting disconsolately on their luggage, the children playing with hand held devices.

The car park was busy, and noisy with lots of movement. He decided to get his breakfast as quickly as possible, and took his luggage up the stairs to the cafeteria. It was incongruous how some of these services seemed so dated. He guessed that this was one of the earliest of the motorway rest stops. Of course there was a new coffee stand, and the latest fast food outlet, and a mobile gadget shop, but when he got to the breakfast cafeteria it seemed to have the same menu as the photos on the wall showed it in 1964.

The girl at the counter was the same person who had served him at the news stand the night before. He had chatted to her then while he had purchased some chocolate and a computer magazine, at eight in the evening he was in no hurry and he had found out she lived nearby, in a small village with good pub, and she was going to study beauty therapy in Leicester next year.

‘Hello again, you still here?’ He said smiling, and offering her his ticket.

‘I’m always here.’ She replied not looking at him.

‘One English breakfast please.’ He said.

‘That’s not for a full English, those tickets are only for a regular breakfast, you get one sausage, and less choice.’

‘Choice of what?’

‘You can only have fried egg, not scrambled, and beans not tomatoes.’ She said in a monotonous voice, ‘no coffee, tea only.’

‘OK, whatever it is,’ He said trying to remain pleasant, he found it was always better to get by in life with a smile, ‘it must be hard work doing these shifts, but it won’t be long until you get to college.’

‘Excuse me, do I know you?’ she said.

‘We spoke last night.’ He said, ‘You told me about Leicester, and the village.’

She was silent while she shook the dry beans from the wooden spoon onto the uniform brown of the baked sausage.

‘We get hundreds of people here, it’s a motorway services, I can’t be expected to remember everyone.’ she said, and pushed the plate at him. It was cold. He asked for a white coffee from the older lady who was manning the hot drinks station, she gave him a look that said don’t try chatting with me, and then after paying for lukewarm coffee and a sachet of tomato sauce he retired with his tray to a dirty table overlooking the traffic roaring underneath.

On time! He found himself at his car with a minute to spare on his new timetable. He popped a mint, hung his jacket behind the seat, and checked around the car for any damage that might have happened in the night. He put his suitcase in the boot and his briefcase in the back, and then started up the car.

He had a choice whether to power the phone or the sat nav, and when realising the phone was dead, he went with the necessity of being in contact with head office, and plugged his phone into the lighter socket. The phone pinged to say it was charging, and then again, and again. The lead had somehow got buckled between the seat and the handbrake, and now the charger would not stay on. He tried to turn on the sat nav, but that was dead too. He had forgotten to turn it off the night before, and the internal battery had run flat. He knew where he was going, sort of, Junction 22, and then the A81 toward Well Nympton.

One last look in the mirror, to check his flashing eyes and winning smile and he was off after a cautious reverse in the busy car park, he smiled at the day. It was sunny and warming up, he was all set for his first proper day at the job. His life of no money, odd jobs and little self worth were behind him. He tooted the horn in happiness.

He arrived somehow in the lorry park, but following a direction arrow he found himself on a wide curve, where he opened up the throttle to arrive in the fuel station. He had plenty of diesel, but realised he had missed the motorway slip road. He reversed a little dangerously, and turned round to the angry headlight flash of another motorist trying to get to the pumps. He saw ‘Way Out’ written on the tarmac, and he slipped into first and roared up the lane before he found himself on a wide bend among trees and fields.

‘At last,’ he muttered, and then realised he had somehow come full circle to the entrance to the services. The road split into three, and his choices were, ‘Cars’, ‘caravans and lorries’ or ‘fuel’. He went for fuel, and found himself quickly at 60 miles an hour before he entered the fuel services again. This time he stopped at the entrance to the fuel shop and remembering to turn off the car and lock the doors, as he had been told at induction, he entered the shop.

‘How do I get out?’ He asked quizzically. At first he thought it was the hotel receptionist at the counter, however he showed no sign of recognition, and he guessed it was his brother, perhaps even his twin.

‘I don’t understand you sir.’ said the young man looking at him as if he was crazy.

‘I can’t find the way out.’ said James. He heard the slightest note of anger in his own voice, and so, stopped himself, and smiled, and approached the counter. ‘I’m sorry, I am trying to get back on the motorway, is there a slip road from here, or do I have to go back to the main services?’

The young man looked at James, and then picked up a few boxes of cigarettes he was stacking on the shelf behind him.

‘Jus’ follow the Exit sign’ He said, and bowled a pretend underarm ball towards the door.

James got back in his car, and took a breath. By the car clock it was now 9.25, and he hadn’t got out of the services. He changed over the power from his phone to the sat nav, and put on his seatbelt. While the sat nav was powering up, he pulled into a lorry bay, and opened the window, and pulled his hands down his face.

The sat-nav pinged to say it was ready. He pressed for ‘Continue Journey’, and followed the direction arrow. This time he found himself on a wide circular road heading away from the services.

‘Rejoin the motorway.’ Informed the sat nav, and as he glanced at the map he could see the road he was on and the motorway some way off. The little arrow seemed to be somewhere in a field. He opened up the zoom, which didn’t really help, and by that time had gained so much speed he had to concentrate on where he was going.

The road followed round until he saw the three signs for cars, lorries, and fuel again. This time without slowing he took the ‘cars’ lane and found himself at the entrance to the service station car park, and going much too fast. A man in a fluorescent green jacket picking rubbish from the verge scowled at him.

Jamie drove through the busy car park as slowly as he could force himself. It had really filled up now, and he had to wait for pedestrians. The American family took an age to cross in front of him, and eventually he pulled over in the disabled bay, where he tried to decipher the sat nav. By keeping the services to his left, he should then be on the slip road, with the fuel station to his left, and then a long curve left to join the motorway, follow down two exits to Junction 22, Left at the next roundabout, left at Eurofabrique Way, 30 minutes from now.

There was a bang on the boot, the man in the fluorescent jacket was saying something, he waved at him, and put the car into gear. The time was 9.32, he was now running late, James hated being late.

He was sure this was now the correct route, and it looked familiar until he reached the bend in the open countryside and began turning away from the motorway. On his right he saw an old disused building, overgrown weeds climbing up to boarded up windows. It could have been an old mechanics workshop, or perhaps an old truckers café. A concrete area with weeds and broken bollards and kerbs allowed him to pull over once more. His satnav told him he was off any nearby roads. He punched his steering wheel.

‘Why is this happening to me?’ Said James, now sweating. He was being careful not to become too worked up. It never helped, he was a calm, logistical, and intelligent young man. He just needed to slow down, think and make decisions.

He would have to call the client, and he took out the itinerary supplied by head office, and found the telephone number for his contact. His phone was dead, and even by switching over the power lead it only showed a faint red line indicating the battery would require a certain amount of charge before it would operate. James nearly smashed it against the wheel, but stopped himself, and opened the door. He stood next to the car, and wondered what to do. He remembered that the girl at the shop last night had said there was a lane from the village to the service station that all the staff used. Most of the staff lived in the village and knew each other. There was a pub, if there was a pub there was bound to be a telephone. He could see a track on the other side of the disused building. It might even afford him a short cut.

Getting back in the car he bounced up the kerb and found the track, a farm lane skirting a cabbage field. He followed the pot-holed track slowly, not wanting to damage the car. Eventually he saw a proper road in front of him with a plastic bollard in the way. He pushed it out of the way with his bumper and accelerated towards a row of trees. He was approaching the back of the hotel and the lorry park.

He parked as quickly and as close to the hotel as he could manage, and taking his paperwork and some change he raced into the hotel. There was no longer a queue, the morning rush was over and the foyer was empty.

‘Check in is not available until two o’clock,’ said the young man he had spoken to this morning.

‘We spoke earlier. I am having trouble getting out, can I use your phone?’ Said James.

‘I’m sorry sir, the phone is only for guests, there are public phones in the service station.’

‘Look I had a lot of trouble this morning, and the hotel owes me one, do you remember I had no hot water or power?’

‘I’m sorry sir, I don’t recognise you, I didn’t start until eight, so perhaps you left before I came on duty, we have had no complaints about the water so far sir.’

‘We spoke together, don’t you remember?’

‘What booking reference do you have sir?’ Said the young man and picked up a sheaf of paper.

James felt like slapping the counter, but of course he didn’t.

‘Could I just use the phone briefly, I’ll pay you for it, it’s a local call.’

‘I could be in a lot of trouble if my boss saw this.’ Said the young man, and he picked up a telephone from below the counter.

James straightened up, and managed a very strained smile in thanks.

‘Do you need to press 9 or something, there’s no dial tone?’ he said, after he had the phone to his ear.

‘No sir, just the number, but it has been playing up today, something about the power cut, can I listen? Unfortunately it’s off again.’

James thought he was going to get upset, and with a supreme effort of will he relaxed his shoulders.

‘Look, I’m getting confused with the way out of here and back onto the motorway, could you just step outside and point me in the right direction, I keep getting lost on the exit road. I ‘m a bit nervous about a very important meeting and perhaps keep making the same mistake. I’m sure it’s a simple mistake, just please, please step out and show me.’

The young man raised an eyebrow quizzically, thinking this was some ruse to get him away from the till, but then he locked the till and came around the counter.

‘There are some TV people coming today to interview an MP about the fiftieth anniversary of the services, perhaps they are rearranging the parking for that.’ He said kindly as they left the foyer.

He pointed towards the fuel station, seen in the distance. ‘Keep to the right of the fuel lane, it will take you to the southbound carriageway.’

‘But I tried that, I ended up at some old building.’

‘Just keep on keeping on sir, you can’t miss it’ He said, and went back into the hotel.

James got back into his car, and took a few deep breaths before turning the key to the ignition. It was now 9.40, he would be late, nothing that could not be fixed without an apology, but certainly not something he wanted to get back to head office.

He kept his speed down through the car park and the approach to the fuel station, and kept to the right hand lane. He flashed past a direction arrow and slowed for the final bend through the spinney of well-spaced trees. He realised the road was becoming narrower and ill kept. Weeds grew through the concrete and once again he found himself at the large white building with boarded up windows.

He was close to tears, and he waited a second until his eyes cleared and the outside came swimming into focus once more. He rested his head on the wheel, and whispered words of disbelief under his breath and then the engine stopped.

He looked up and tried the ignition, nothing, not a light, not a noise. The key moved through every station without so much as a click. He banged on the wheel with the heel of his hand. He popped the bonnet catch, it must be a battery terminal, he thought.

After opening the bonnet he could see that the terminals were good and tight, it was a nearly new car and regularly serviced. He tried again with the bonnet up, the key just turned emptily. He picked his phone up from the tray between the seats. Not even a flicker of power, and then he heard a radio somewhere nearby. There was a song playing, by listening hard he could make out The Kinks and ‘You really got me.’ It seemed to be coming from the building, and so he decided to investigate. He thought he could borrow someone’s phone at least. He would call head office, tell them he had broken down, and let them organise everything.

Coming around the building he saw it was an old truckers stop, now turning derelict. An old concrete and steel construction with post war metal windows, and a workshop nearby. Behind dusty windows he could see red plastic chairs around formica tables. The door was open and swinging slightly in the wind. The sky was deep blue with high cloud, a beautiful early October day. This side of the building must be sheltered from the noise of the motorway, he realised there was silence except the muffled sound of the radio, and a presenter talking about pirate radio. Pushing through the door the décor was stunning and he wondered why the owners had never auctioned some of the paraphernalia. Old posters, and photos adorned the walls. He recognised one of the photos from the wall of the cafeteria earlier, it must be this place he thought. The chairs and tables were in good condition, and at the waitress station a collection of squeezy sauce bottles in the shape of tomatoes stood ready in a slight film of dust. It was as if a new retro diner had been built and then left to rot for a year.

An old Bush radio was set on a shelf behind the counter. He could hear a familiar DJ talking about the Olympics in Tokyo and Harold Wilson. It was Tony Blackburn he realised, it sounded like the radio station was playing an old recording from the sixties.

Behind the counter was a door to a room, the door was slightly ajar, a warm light emanating from behind, sending a shaft of light across the counter, lighting up dust motes in the still air. He called ‘Hello!’ in a small voice. He was nervous, and trod quietly towards the door. He lifted a heavy mahogany service flap, and entered behind the counter. He felt unable to say hello again.

At the door he paused, he could hear someone talking to themselves, it was just possible to make out some words among the sounds of the radio. He waited, something was bothering him, and he felt highly aware, full of fear. Everything was brighter. His state of mind was disturbed by the stress he had gone through. Madness he knew, was always lurking close, and he suddenly realised he might have overstepped his threshold; he was losing control of the equilibrium he had worked so hard for. He walked into the room hoping to keep some kind of control.

A man looked up guiltily from a chair behind a desk, he had a gun in his hands, a 12 bore shotgun. He was dressed in tweed jacket and a fine checked shirt with a yellow silk cravat, he was middle aged, his greying hair long but oiled into a swept back style.

‘What’s going on here? The doors locked, we’re all closed.’ Said the man, he had an odd accent, it reminded James of old films, a country gentleman.

James was nervous of the gun, but it wasn’t pointing at him, it was pointing at the ceiling and resting in the man’s lap.

‘I really need to borrow a phone, is that loaded?’ Said James, pointing at the shotgun. He could hear a breakdown happening in his own voice, it quavered and he felt like all the bones in his body wanted to collapse and fall out.

‘There are no telephones anymore, and it is loaded. I’m just going through the last of the paperwork, it’s a bloody mess here. They just cleared off and left me to it.’ Said the man.

‘Can you put the gun down?’ asked James

‘It’s my gun, it’s my land. Just because there’s a ruddy great road through it doesn’t mean I can’t walk my own property.’ He said.

‘But surely the government owns this land, it’s a part of the motorway isn’t it?’ Said James. He felt like everthing was in slow motion, and was desperate to understand the complexities of the situation.

‘You should know, Department of Transport may have won a compulsory purchase order, but it hasn’t gone through yet and until it does the land remains in my name, and so my government flunkey, you are trespassing, I firmly suggest you leave me to it.’ Said the man shaking slightly.

James saw the gun wavering; he was dreading it moving from the ceiling to point at himself.

‘I’m not from the government, I’m lost, for God’s sake. I’m losing my mind because I can’t rejoin the motorway, I’m late for an important meeting, every single thing has gone wrong for me, and now I find you with a shotgun. I really need a phone, if you can’t help me, I’ll just walk back to the services.

‘This is not a services, this is a restaurant, and a bloody fine one it is too, There are no phones for miles, and unless you go to the village, the dying village soon to be gone with no way to get from one side t’other, and no way for the pub to get any trade you won’t find a telephone. You go to the village, ask in the pub, see what they think about me and my restaurant, you go and ask them.’ He said. James was beginning to think the man was unhinged. He had never seen anyone so angry.

‘How far is the village from here?’ James asked

‘Not far to walk, but impossible to drive, the road has already been dug up. Too dangerous they said, Too many people would use it as a short cut, they said. ‘You’ll have to get on at the new junction they said. If you head away from the new road you’ll be in the right direction. You can make out where the road was. We haven’t ploughed it yet.’ said the man.

James was confused, but he didn’t want to argue with a man holding a gun, and thought it best he left while he still could. He would walk to the village and call the AA and perhaps the police.

‘Who do you work for Boy?’

‘Just an office furniture maker, I’m in sales, it’s my first day, I’ll just go now.’

‘Why the fancy suit?’ He said.

‘It’s not fancy, it’s Marks and Spencer’s.’ said James.

‘My God, the modern world! Well you can all have it, I never wanted this road and I never wanted this restaurant, you will be a rich man, they said, forget farming, do something for all the cars.’ Said the man. ‘Well I did what they told me, and then they decided to have their own ‘services’. So more compulsory purchases and the restaurant had to close. How much do you think I got for the land? About half what it cost me to set this bloody restaurant up. Go and turn that infernal racket off, I can’t hear myself think.’

The radio was playing ‘Shout!’ by Lulu, and James left the room to find the off switch on the radio. He turned down the volume and just as it was about to click off there was a massive explosion. James dropped to his knees on the floor, and thought he was going to faint as his ears rang with pain. He wondered briefly if he had been shot before he felt himself losing consciousness, his sight, hearing, and thoughts all imploding to a dark brown dot surrounded by the slight pink of the inner view of his own eyelids.

He came back to consciousness to find himself in a large empty dusty room; he was lying on his side. There was no noise except the far off hum of traffic from the motorway. He was near a wall, and he used it to help himself stand up, and he tried to dust off the greasy dust on his suit. He was in the same place, although now there was now no furniture, or windows, or doors and the only light was what fell through the boarded up windows and holes in the roof above.

He looked into the room where the man had just been, there was no furniture, just an unswept floor full of debris and on the wall behind where the desk had been was a rust coloured pattern on the peeling paint, shaped like an exploded broccoli floret it was directly behind where the man had sat in his office chair. He dared not look any closer he knew what it meant.

He walked outside, it took him a while, he was unsteady on his feet and felt nauseous. The sky was brighter than it could be, and his car seemed to glow fluorescent. He had left the keys in the car against all company protocol and the door open. He picked up his phone and realised that at last he had both some power and a signal.

After a while of sitting in his car with the door open, he phoned head office.

He told his area manager he had missed his appointment, and would be unable to make it today, in fact he wanted to terminate his employment immediately and would be unable to discuss it further. He was going to leave his car at the motorway services and suggested they arrange someone to pick it up. He would send the keys special delivery as soon as he reached a post office. They could take any costs from any salary he was owed, and he was sorry for all the training and induction the company had put him through. It was personal reasons, and he wouldn’t discuss it, he apologised once more, and then turned off his phone.

James threw the phone back in the car and decided to leave his briefcase and suitcase too. He removed his tie, and began walking over the cabbage field toward a church spire in the distance, he would get as far away from the motorway as he could for a while.