The motorway hasn’t been too bad, so we have plenty of time to pull into a service station for a coffee and something to eat. The car park is pretty full with an ill-tempered vibe. People are wandering uncertainly in dazed groups, like newly-hatched chicks, stumbling towards the food halls. We do the same.
There are the usual concessions set around the edges of a cavernous central eating area. We take our coffees and toasties and diligently work our way through them. On the tables around us: a woman bottle-feeding a restless, red-faced kid who looks about twelve; an elderly man in a shiny jacket and trousers, green braces at full stretch, and his wife, presumably, with ice blue hair; an Asian woman and her son, both swiping their phones, occasionally looking up, taking a sip of Coke, smiling at each other, then continuing with their phones; and across the way, a stubble headed man in a bulging white sports shirt shouting into his phone, something about twelve hundred for the job, but that’s before the twenty per cent, so you’re looking at eight-eighty, mate…..
‘Do you want this Americano?’ green braces man says to me, holding it up.
‘No thanks. I’ve already got one.’
‘Nobody wants it,’ he says. ‘I can’t give it away.’
‘Why’ve you got an extra Americano?’
‘It’s chaos up there. Absolute chaos. The girl didn’t tell me her mate had already brought the drinks over, so I ended up getting two.’
‘Can’t you get a refund?’
‘No. That’d mean queuing again. I’m not that desperate. Ah well.’
His wife doesn’t turn round.
‘Chaos’ I hear him say to her. ‘Absolute chaos.’
When we’re done the girls wander off to look at the magazines and books in Smiths; I go back to the car.
It’s half past twelve. The sun is angling straight in the window on my side, so I swing the sun visor round to block it off a little. I’m just settling down to check my Twitter feed when a man comes up to the car and taps on the visor.
‘Hello?’ he says. ‘D’you mind if I ask you something?’
‘No. Not at all,’ I say, pushing the sun visor back round again.
It’s a thin-faced, middle-aged white guy – a monk, I’d guess, by his saffron-coloured robes, a red bindi spot above round metal glasses, a beaded bag on his shoulder, a small, hard-backed book in his hands. He’s smiling, and stroking the book.
‘What d’you think about Life and Existence?’ he says.
‘I’m sorry to bother you whilst you are resting, but I just wanted to bring something to your attention. Have you heard of the Bhagavad Gita?’
‘Yes,’ I say, ‘I think…’
‘It is the word of the Lord Krishna, the one true God we believe in. Allow me to show you the contents….’
He presents the book, opens it, and starts sliding his index finger slowly down the chapter headings. Most of it seems to be Indian names and so on, but words like reincarnation, yoga and vegetarianism catch my attention. I want to tell him that I’ve recently given up eating meat, but his voice has the soft and mildly sedating quality of a salesman, so I end up simply following the finger.
‘Would you like a copy?’ he says, suddenly closing the book and handing it to me through the window.
‘It’s very interesting,’ I say, turning it over a couple of times, and then handing it back to him. ‘And thank you for showing it to me. But I think – today – I won’t. If that’s okay.’
‘Or a donation?’ he says. ‘Just a few pounds. To help us in our work.’
‘I’m sorry but I don’t think I will. Thanks again for talking to me.’
He smiles as he drops the book back in his bag, puts his hands together and nods over them, straightens, says ‘Have a nice day!’ then turns his attention to an occupied car two spaces to my right.
A moment or two later, and there’s uproar and great laughter from the car.
‘Because I am a muslim!’ the driver says.
They seem to get on pretty well, though. Lots of shouting and emphatically expressed words. In fact, Hare Krishna guy is so engaged with them he almost climbs in through the window, and silly as it sounds, I can’t help feeling a little jealous. Eventually it comes to an end, though.
‘See you in paradise, my friend!’ says the driver.
Hare Krishna guy waves to him, re-shoulders his bag, and strides off across the car park, his sandals slapping on the baked tarmac.