I was looking inside a coke can. Through the hole where the coke comes out. It’s got a name, I told myself. But, what was it? It wouldn’t come to me. Annoyed by my inability to conjure the title of the hole I was looking into, I felt regret, remorse, shame: the whole lot. I looked up to the sky and to the clouds above. “What a clown,” were the words entering my head. I suspected they were directed at me.
An old lady walked past who, with an angry frown, stared right at me: a frown of familial concern. She probably wanted to buy me a choc ice and pat me on the back of the head and say, don’t worry. The word you’re trying to find will come in good time. When I smiled back, her frown grew deeper and more pronounced. She stopped, produced a liquidy noise from the back of her throat, and spat out something large and pale orange onto the tarmac, then promptly trundled off. I assumed this was for medical reasons. As she headed onwards down the road, I suspected she was going to buy potted plants from Home Bargains, except, of course, at the German equivalent, whatever that is called. Haus Thriftensberg, perhaps. As suggested by English name at least, they had quite a few bargains for the home at Home Bargains. Three geraniums for four pounds. Hard to go wrong.
I went into the petrol station shop on the other side of the road, and asked in my crude German for, “ein bottle auf Cola, bitte.” The cashier whipped out their pointing finger and replied, “it’s in the fridge over there, you need to get it first and bring it zu me if you vant to buy it. Okay?” Humiliation. I thought I could get away with my developing linguistic ability to buy it right there and then. He spoke in English, too. I hastily replied: “Sehr gut.” This made me appear more astute. More learned. More assimilated to his culture. I stood a moment longer than usual to gauge whether I’d recovered in the cashier’s estimation. But, as he was now on his smartphone, it wasn’t clear . He looked up, quickly, to see me standing there, looking back at him. Deadlock.
The moment sort of petered out. I walked over to the fridge to get a bottle of coke. On the fingers meeting the cold plastic, I felt sheer relief at knowing the word for this object: bottle. I felt good again. I felt normal. The word normal was ringing in my ears. Normal. I realised that normal was being repeated over and over by none other than Anne Widdicombe. What a distinctive and authoritative voice, I thought. I wondered why she was interested in reminding me of this, now. To be honest, I found it quite relaxing. I’ll have to thank her next time she posts something on twitter, I told myself.
The transaction the second time around was a breeze. I knew what I wanted. He knew that I knew what I wanted. And more importantly, I knew that he knew that I knew what I wanted. I was on a high. I went back to the other side of the road and perched on a hip-high brick wall that I had been savouring for the right occasion. Ann was still repeating normal, but by now she’d gone a bit more falsetto, which I appreciated. Normal. Twisting the cap off the bottle, I made sure enough gas had escaped into the local atmosphere before I poured the bottle’s liquid into the can. Again, this was quite relieving, knowing that I’d get a second chance to locate the name of the hole that coke had left, and now re-entered. Like a mystical wormhole or something.
A problem. The can was filling up, but the coke in the bottle didn’t look to be emptying any time soon. It hadn’t occurred to me, until now, that the can had less volume than the bottle. Amateurish stuff. I sighed. The can was now more or less full. It had all smoothly filled in through that hole. More or less. Aside from an occasional little bit that escaped down the side of the can onto my hand. I had to lick the rogue coke off my hand. I had no other choice. I was quite worried that onlookers would think I was making the wrong call. To compensate, I continued the licking action from the hand right up to the tip of the elbow until my tongue wouldn’t reach any further. Saved again.
I looked up along the length of the road I was beside and, to my good fortune, saw a car coming by. It was grey-ish blue, faded, tired and sort of happy-looking. A happy looking car. I saw my chance to move forward to my next destination. I put the bottle down on the brick wall, and lifted up the free arm. Thumb proudly up in the air. Fishing for a ride. If this car looked friendly, which it did, then the driver inside must be a friendly person too. So as to not make any quick movements, I kept my tongue reaching out for the elbow. This afforded me the appearance of someone in the middle of an important task whilst being a credible passenger for a ride in their car. The driver’s clean shaven face held an incredulous look outwards. Perhaps he was worried about erratic joggers. I tried to smile towards him, but with my tongue still reaching out for my elbow, it was quite a challenge. I pushed for that smile too hard. My jaw began to lock, as it tends to do under stress, so I conceded and just kept a stoic and charming locked gaze towards his eyes. The car moved forward at pace. The driver gave me a glance, at least acknowledging my efforts, but didn’t appear to be slowing down to pick me up. His sight returned to the road, so I kept my eyes locked onto his. I needed to advertise myself as a potential passenger.
Success. He looked back to me, and with concern on his face now. He must have realised that I had been asking for a lift all that time. No doubt he was embarrassed not to have offered his free seat straight away. I tried to smile once again, but a quick, searing pain shot along the left side of my jaw. My face contorted. But, I knew that I had to hold it all together and keep my tongue reaching for my elbow if I was going to get this gig. We were both staring into each other's eyes, mine were watering by this point. He looked across to his empty passenger seat. I was ready to jump in. But, the car just kept moving. My tongue retreated. Presumably, he had a particularly busy day.
Returning to the can, I concentrated my thoughts on what the hole that the coke comes out is called. No luck. My frustrations began to bubble up once again. The unintended pun served only to make me more irate. Bubble up. Coke. Come on. Perhaps only a select few get to know such things, such names for such specific things. Maybe it was another example of institutional corruption. I couldn’t be sure. But, maybe, just maybe, I’d stumbled into something big. Something real. Maybe there was something bigger at play. What if it was all a governmental ploy to remove words from people’s minds? Perhaps they were starting small, yeah, like words for various holes. Like coke can holes. Then, they’d move on to bigger things. Until nobody remembered a single word. Again, I couldn’t be sure. Frustration. The bottle of coke stood on the brick wall next to me. Entirely motionless. Mockingly so. Sometimes impulses take over me. I picked the bottle up, and, with my throwing arm, I threw it as far as I could. It rose up into the sky: a little black and red island in a sea of greyish cloud. As it curved back down to earth, it reached the flat roof structure of the petrol station from whence it came. The bottle landed with a crack onto the tarmac floor, bouncing a few times before knocking into a side of a white van. The cashier looked over at the bottle through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall, then at me. I wasn’t sure whether they made the connection between me and the bottle, so to play it safe I decided to give them a wave and a generous smile. My jaw still hurt. The cashier turned back immediately. They must have recognised me, but having to maintain working formality, decided to return to the full attention of their work. For people in his line of business, it's all about how they stand forward and anticipate customer interaction.
After a short period of observation, I saw that the cashier put their standing forward to use. A customer he was serving was pointing right at the van that my bottle had collided with. This was my chance. Swift exchange of money. They then completed the transaction with what looked like a handshake, which I thought was a rogue ending to the purchase of petrol. I was impressed with the cashier’s style. He was one of those who had that extra something special. I picked up my rucksack from the less visible side of the brick wall, slung it over my shoulders, grabbed the coke can and moved at pace across the road. I felt good about this one. The white van had a good look about it. It looked friendly, inviting and functional. It looked happy. It looked like a happy white van.
Underneath the petrol station roofing, I picked up the bottle and noticed the scratch marks on its side. Sorry, I whispered. Fortunately, Ann was still around to remind me. “Normal,” she sang. Who knew Ann Widdicombe had such a lovely singing voice? I tried to wipe the marks off, to little avail. Irreversible guilt. Through the warped plastic of the bottle, I saw the driver coming towards me. I happened to be standing next to his white van, so he may have been walking towards his van rather than me. Either way, I was ready to make him a proposition he couldn’t refuse. I put the full coke can down onto the tarmac floor, undid the bottle’s cap and drank the remaining coke that I didn't need from the bottle. When I commit to anything, I try to give one hundred percent concentration to the act, in case something goes wrong. After emptying the bottle, I came back to my surroundings, and to my alarm the driver had already reached the van door.
“Entschuldigung” I said. He looked at me, but without the smile I had expected. He must not have heard me fully. I bent down, picked up the coke can and gave it another go, “Entschuldigung bitte. Haben Sie ein Car platz frei?”
“Danke schoen,” I added.
“What are you after?” He replied. He’d already settled into the driver's seat. Fortunately, there was a thin slither of unwound window on the passenger side. I leaned in closer to play it cool.
“Oh, you speak English,” I said, trying to slow things down.
“I am English mate.”
I nodded in approval. “Oh, how funny! I’m from Wales.”
“Isn’t that abnormal, son.”
“No… I guess not.”
A moment’s silence passed, interjected with the revving of the van’s engine. I got a little stuck for good anecdotes to entertain him with. I needed to think of something quick. Leaning on his vehicle was only going to buy me so much time.
“What do you want?”
“Are you going in that direction?” I said coyly, pointing in the direction he has no option but to travel in based on the through traffic lanes from the petrol station. He looked at me, and made a noise that sounded like a sigh. One of those optimistic, positive sighs. A sigh of the joy of people.
“Did you know that community actually comes from the words common and unity?” I finally found something to say. I brought my arm up perpendicular to my body, stuck the thumb up into the air.
“Okay, you want a lift?” He replied curtly.
I waggled my thumb from side to side.
“Put your bag in the back.” The catch of the back door clicked open.
“Thanks very much mister!” I regretted calling him mister as soon as I said it. I dumped my rucksack into his boot, next to a surprisingly large pile of Nutz magazines. I had assumed they’d gone out of print years ago. To the other side of the boot, there were five or six soft back books authored by Jeremy Clarkson. I could make out sprawling handwriting on the cover on one saying, ‘property of Daniel Hewitt and his mother. Please return if found.’ I wondered if the driver was Daniel or whether he had found them and was now looking for Daniel. I would never know. Ann was back, too. This time though, she was shouting in quite a shrill, angry tone. Normal, she shouted. I wondered what had made her so concerned. The driver beeped his horn, waving his hand out of his side window. I closed the backdoor and picked up my coke can that I’d placed briefly on the tarmac. As I bent down, I took in a strong breath of exhaust fumes. Like a strong summer breeze.
He drove quickly. I was still fixing my seat belt when he moved into fourth gear, on the slip road back onto the dual carridge-way that the petrol station was connected to. Fourth gear is a bit much, I thought to myself.
“It’s quite a nice surprise to meet another English speaker on my trip,” I said. He turned to me, with no clear expression on his face, and stared until I felt uncomfortable. I smiled to indicate that I did not feel uncomfortable and that he, as the driver, was welcome to return to looking at the road in front of him. I quickly reminded myself, however, that this person had extended their generosity of a lift in their car to me, so the least I could do is put up with being stared at.
“Honestly though, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Germany like this. I’ve been travelling through for the past week or so,”
“You’re in Dover,” he replied.
“Dover is in England,” he stated.
“Look, that sign is in English.”
“Well. Is it?”
“Of course it is.”
“The names could be English, but they could be German too.”
“What? Have you heard of the English town Brighton before?”
“Yeah, it’s really nice there.”
“Okay. Then you can read it on that sign. 74 miles away. See it?”
“White cliffs of Dover and all that.”
“You know about the white cliffs of Dover?”
“Right. Well they’re in Dover. The sign we just passed said we will be in Dover in 18 miles.”
I nodded again. Things didn’t add up.
“I thought I was in Germany already.”
“Did you cross water?”
“Britain is an island.”
I looked out of the window and saw fleeting faces in cars that I’d most probably never see again. I was certain these faces were German faces.
“You know that, don’t you? Britain. Yeah? Britain is an island.”
I nodded again.
Some time passed watching the occasional roadside object come and go: traffic cone, gazebo, mattress, mule, christmas tree, et cetera, et cetera. The driver had a penchant for high speed overtaking and the dual carriageway had narrowed into a one-lane-each-way road. So, when given the chance with a decent opening, he liked to test the limits of speed, distance and time between us and the oncoming traffic. This lifted morale, though since the Germany thing I’ve been stuck for something interesting to say.
“How long have you been waiting at the petrol station?” He asked, having just overtaken another mobile home.
“Oh not that long.”
“I heard hitch hikers wait for hours these days.” He chuckled.
“Yeah, it was much quicker in the good old days,” I replied, thinking he’d like to hear me speak nostalgically about the recent past.
“So, a few hours then?”
“Oh, I’ve just been taking it easy.”
“Sure, so the morning then?”
“Well, there was a great place to pitch up my tent, so I kind of just made a weekend out of it.”
“You had been there for the weekend?”
“Well, it wasn’t that bad. I actually made a friend who worked at that petrol station.”
I rotated the coke can around and around in my hands. I wondered whether he was going to travel all the way across the sea he spoke about. Perhaps I could join him.
“You’ve been cradling that coke can for a while now. What’s you’re fucking problem?”
“Sorry, what’s that?”
“Drink it, or get rid of it. You’re not supposed to just fiddle with it.”
“I like the music you’re playing.”
“On the radio.”
“The radio isn’t on.”
Damn, it must have been Ann again.
“Throw it out of the car.” He announced excitedly. “Going on, it’ll be a laugh!”
With a button on his side of the vehicle’s interior, he wound down the window on the passenger side whilst undoing his seat belt.
“Go on!” He shouted.
“Why are you undoing your seat belt?”
“Because I’m excited! Throw it out of the window, it'll be great!” He shouted. “Undo your seat belt too, it’ll be amazing!”
“The hole. The hole that... The name of the. The can. The can hole. The hole that the coke comes out from. It’s called. Eyelets.”