last stop before the motorway

We start back early, skipping breakfast to beat the traffic. A couple of hours later and we’re desperate to stretch our legs and get a coffee. Unfortunately I miss the slip road for the service station we planned to use, the next one doesn’t have a sit-down area, the one after that is closed for refurbishment – and then eventually we see a sign: Last stop before the motorway.  I take it.

It’s like driving back in time fifty years.

Despite the hot weather and the heavy traffic, the parking lot is almost empty, apart from a BMW parked in the furthest corner. It looks like it’s been there some time, covered in leaf tack and bird shit.

The cafe itself is a long, low, prefab, with glass on three sides, panelled wood beneath the windows, a glass door with yellowing squares of plastic on the panes and a handwritten sign saying push. The interior is regularly laid out in canteen style, formica tables and curve-backed wooden chairs, a toast rack on each table to hold the menu cards and hide the ketchup, brown sauce and sugar cruet. There are strings of plastic Union Jack bunting curling across the ceiling. A radio plays quietly behind the counter, which has a curved glass display mostly empty apart from a couple of plates of dark squares under cling film. Beside the counter is an ice cream freezer. A waiter is leaning against the freezer with his arms folded and his mouth open. He has a mass of scribbled hair and crenellated teeth, looking exactly like the kind of waiter a child would draw with crayons.
‘Eating in?’ he says.
‘Yes, please.’
‘Take a seat.’
The only other people in the restaurant are – presumably – the couple with the BMW.

‘Is the bunting for the World Cup, d’you think?’ says Tessa, looking round.
‘Wouldn’t that be the England flag?’
‘Maybe it was for the wedding?’
‘Which one?’
‘I dunno. Queen Victoria?’

The waiter comes over.
‘Yes please,’ he says, sighing, pulling a pad from his back pocket.
‘Do you have any pastries?’
‘Pastries? What? Y’mean like a Danish?’
‘Oh. Anything similar?’
‘I could do you a tea cake.’
‘Yep. That’d be great.’
He writes it down, dots it with a stabbing motion, then turns his eyes on me.
‘Do you do a poached egg on toast?’
‘What about scrambled?’
‘We can do you a scrambled.’
‘Great. I’ll have that, please.’
‘What sort of toast? Brown or white?’
‘Brown, please.’
He looks at Kath.
‘What about you?’ he says.
‘Can I have fried eggs on toast?’
Fried eggs?’
‘Do you do fried eggs?’
‘I’ll have the same as Jim then.’
‘Two scrambled egg on brown toast, one toasted teacake. Butter with that?’
‘Yes please.’
‘Two lattes and a pot of tea, please.’

He writes it all down – or draws it, the pen moves so wildly across the paper – then lopes back to the counter. He doesn’t seem to do anything with it, so I guess the chef must be watching us through a peephole disguised as a Fab on that ice cream menu.

We stare at the passing traffic out of the window.
The BMWs check their phones.

‘You wonder about places like this, don’t you?’ says Tessa. ‘It must’ve been busy at some point, otherwise what happened to all the pastries?’
‘Maybe they’re between deliveries.’
‘Yeah. Like ten years.’
The waiter comes back with a tray of drinks, and drops it off at the end of the table for us to help ourselves. I wonder why he doesn’t pass the stuff out and take the tray away, but then again, maybe if the tray’s left on the table, we’ll be more likely to stack our empty things, and he’ll save time later. It makes sense.
‘I like it here,’ says Tessa. ‘It’s not too corporate, like all those other places.’
The waiter comes out again with our food, one plate in his right hand, one plate in his left, one balanced on the heel of his left thumb.
‘Great! / Wow! / That looks fantastic!’ we say, overlapping each other. ‘Thank you so much.’
He gives us the same blank look, then turns and heads back to the ice cream freezer, where he leans with his arms folded, and watches us eat from a distance.

‘D’you think he lives here?’
‘Where? Out back?’
‘Maybe he walks to work. Over the fields.’
‘That wouldn’t be so bad.’
‘Eggs are good.’

I go to the toilet whilst the others are finishing up. There’s a sign above the urinal: Looking for something to do? Why not try a flying lesson at our local airfield! Only £51!
Pretty good value – but maybe the advert’s out of date.
There’s a faded picture of a tiny, two seater plane, someone leaning out of the cockpit window, waving.

I think it’s the waiter.