Monday 8 August 2022

An Encounter at a Motorway Service Station by Janet Howson, a cup of cold coffee

 Okay, so when your head is drooping towards the steering wheel and there is that constant grating noise that occurs when your wheels stray over the centre lines on the road, it is definitely time to take a break from driving. I studied the various large information signs as I drove past them to see how far the nearest service station was.  Ten miles was the first and it apparently housed a restaurant, a Costa, an M&S and a petrol station. Ideal, I thought, I could do with some more fuel. I grimaced at the thought of how much the petrol would cost me.

  I was on my biannual trip to the North. It was back to my roots, so to speak, to catch up with school friends and cousins, visit the road I lived in, the schools I went to and generally immerse myself in sentimentality for a long weekend. My Rochdale cousins never seem to be able to get the wherewithall to motor down to the Southern Basin, so here I am again doing all the driving.

  Talking of which here is the exit for the Service Station. I can get my petrol first as I can see the pumps ahead of me, then park up for the various eateries, toilets (very important) and a few other shops etc.

  I waited until a bay became empty with the pump on the correct side for my petrol cap. I had ended up on a previous occasion with it the wrong side and had to queue up and start again. I filled up the car and went into the shop to pay.

  I studied the fridge full of sandwiches, baguettes, wraps, pasta pots, fruit, cakes and crisps. I hadn’t brought any lunch with me and it would be cheaper to buy a sandwich in a shop than in the restaurant or coffee shop. I picked out a plant based wrap, a packet of baked crisps and a plastic container of grapes. I was quite hungry after my morning’s drive.  I queued to pay and left the shop to re park the car to go to the main building of the service station where the toilets (imminent now) and a coffee shop to buy a hot drink would be.

   So far so good. The toilets were spotlessly clean and the queue for a drink at Costa’s wasn’t too horrendous compared with previous experiences. Then I walked around, finally finding a small table that wasn’t piled sky high with discarded sandwich boxes, soiled plates and cardboard cups left half full of cold coffee.

  I had extricated the wrap which was an ordeal of its own. Did the manufacturers not want us to eat their product? It was a test of endurance and technical skill to complete the task which I finally did and was just about to take my first bite, when there was a tap on my shoulder. I turned round to see a lady in uniform with her sleeves rolled up and a cap from under which her mop of auburn hair  was flying free of its tethers. She was wearing a badge that said, ‘Monica. I am here to help.’

“You can only eat food purchased in the restaurant at these tables, there are people who have queued up for ages for hot food that need somewhere to sit.”

“But I bought my food in your petrol station shop, doesn’t that give me permission to eat at one of your tables”

“If you bought it at the BP petrol station, that has nothing to do with us, I suggest you eat it in your car.” At this she turned round to usher a young couple sporting trays to my table. They looked suitably embarrassed but not enough to stop them towering over me, waiting for the free table.

  Okay, I thought, so I hadn’t bought anything from the restaurant but I had bought coffee from Costa, surely I could find a table there. So picking up my tray with my wrap and coffee that was going cold, I set off to Costa, unaware that I was being shadowed by the service station’s secret police in the guise of ‘Monica I am here to help.’

  As I approached Costa I could see an elderly lady was making moves to leave her table. She had put the remains of her lunch with the napkins and drink carton back onto the tray and was pulling on her coat. I waited until she had taken a couple of steps away from the table and I put down my own tray at lightening pace, sitting down at the same time to make sure no one nipped in ahead of me or removed a chair to put at another table. This had happened to me before and is very annoying. A table but no chair is of no use. I sighed with relief. Now I could eat my lunch in peace. I might even get a couple of chapters read of my Book Club choice that I needed to have finished by the end of the week.

  “Excuse me the same rule applies here. Only food purchased at Costa can be eaten on these tables. You will either have to sit outside near the Car Park or, as I said earlier, you could take it back to your car.” ‘Monica. I Am Here To Help’ looked positively victorious as she peered down at me.

  I raised my head slowly and peered at her as I drew in a deep breath. “Let’s get this straight. All the customers who have just bought drinks but no food are allowed to have a table but although I also have bought a drink, I am not allowed to sit here because I have got a sandwich bought elsewhere. Does that not strike you as nonsensical?”

  She considered this for a moment. “Rules are rules and you are breaking one of them.” She folded her arms, her walkie talkie pinned to her jacket crackled. “I will have to take this call and I expect you to have moved out of this chair and out of the service station by the time I have finished.”

  She turned away as if her conversation was highly important and confidential. I knew I had a pad of sticky notes in my bags along with a pen so I fished these out and quickly wrote on one of the notes.

Monica. I Am Here To Hassle and Embarrass you.

I stuck it on her back and marched off with my tray. 

About the author

 Janet Howson taught English and Drama for thirty five years and didn't take up writing until she retired. She has had two novellas published, 'Charitable Thoughts' and 'Dramatic Episodes' as well as having short stories published in anthologies, including 'Best of CafeLit 8,9 and 10, 'Nativity' and 'Mulling it Over'. 
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