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 whole hole I was looking into, I felt regret. Remorse. Shame. The whole lot. I looked up to the sky to the clouds above and thought to myself the words, “WHAT A CLOWN.” As my head was craned to the Gods, an old lady walked past looking at me, with an angry frown: an angry 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 my boy. The word will come in good time.” When I smiled back, her frown grew deeper and more pronounced. She hocked a large liquidy noise from the back of her throat and spat out something pale orange onto the tarmac and promptly trundled off down the road. I assumed this was for medical reasons. As she trudged endlessly forward, I suspected she was going to buy potted plants from Home Bargains, except, of course, at the German equivalent, whatever that is called. Super Gut Shoppen, perhaps. Because, as the English name suggests, they had quite a few bargains for the home. Three geraniums for four pounds: hard to go wrong.
I went into the petrol station shop that was 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?” Another humiliation. I thought I could get away with buying it right there and then. He spoke in English, too. I hastily replied: “Got it.” This made me appear more astute. I stood a moment longer than usual to gauge whether I’d recovered in the cashier’s estimation, but it wasn’t clear as they had returned to their smartphone by now. They looked up, quickly, to see me standing there, looking back at them. Deadlock.
After a while, the moment sort of petered out, and 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. But, 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. They knew that I knew what I wanted. And more importantly, I knew that they 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 to sit on for the right occasion. Anne was still repeating ‘normal,’ but by now she’d gone a bit more falsetto, which I appreciated. Twisting the cap off the bottle, I made sure enough gas has escaped into the local atmosphere before I pouring 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 reentered. Like a mystical wormhole or something. While I was doing this, I kept my arm pushed out away from myself, with the thumb stuck up into the air. Fishing for a ride. Also known as hitchhiking. I always remained practical, even under strenuous conditions.
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 more or less full. It had all smoothly filled in through that hole, aside from the occasional little bit that escaped around the side of the can. I licked my hand that had coke dripping down. I worried that people who might be watching would think what I was doing was really odd, so to be sure, 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 A-Road I was standing 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. I thought, if this car looks friendly, 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 gave me the appearance of someone in the middle of an important task and credible for a ride in their car. The driver’s clean shaven face held an outwardly incredulous look outwards. Perhaps he was worried about erratic joggers. I tried to smile towards him, but with my tongue out still reaching for the elbow I found it to be quite a challenge. After a short while my jaw began to lock, as it tends to do under stress, so I conceded and just kept a stoic, locked gaze towards his eyes. The car moved forward at pace. The driver gave me a glace, 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 to advertise myself as a potential passenger. Success! He looked back to me, with slight concern on his face now. He must have realised that I was asking for a lift. He must have been embarrassed to have not 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 Iwas going to get this gig. We were both staring into each others 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 on moving. Presumably, he had a particularly busy day. And he was actually a she, on closer inspection.
Returning to the can, I wondered what the name of that hole that the coke comes out of could be. 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, I thought. Maybe it was another example of institutional privilege. I couldn’t be sure, though. The bottle of coke, with a fair bit left at the bottom stood on the brick wall with me, still. Mockingly. Sometimes impulses take over me. I picked it up and, with my throwing arm, threw the bottle as far as I could muster straight in front of me. It rose up into the sky for a split second: a little black and red island in a sea of bland grey cloud. Like a plastic bottle in a particularly unhealthy sea. As it curved back down to earth, I was quite appreciative of the distance it got; reaching the big roof structure of the petrol station from whence it came. The bottle landed with a popping sound onto the tarmac, bouncing a few times before knocking into a side of a white van. I spotted the cashier through the floor-to-ceiling glass wall look over at the bottle, then at me. I wasn’t sure whether they made the connection between me and the bottle, so I decided to give them a wave and a big, generous smile to play it safe. My jaw still hurt. The cashier turned back immediately. They must have recognised me, and to keep up with their working formality, decided to return to full attention of their work: stare forward and wait for customer interaction. And what a coincidence! I could see that they were actually serving someone right at that moment: their customer was pointing right at the van that my bottle had hit. This was my chance. I could see that the transaction was almost complete with what looked like a handshake. I thought that that was somewhat a strange ending to the purchase of petrol, but then again I’m in a different culture to what I know - anything goes now. 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 to cross 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.
I reached the bottle, picked it up and noticed the scratch marks on its side. Sorry, I whispered. Fortunately, Anne was still around to remind me. “Normal,” she sang. Who knew Anne Widdicombe had such a lovely singing voice? I tried to wipe the marks off, to little avail. 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 more likely he was walking to his van than to me, but either way I was ready to make him a proposition he couldn’t refuse. Against my better judgement, I put the full coke can down onto the tarmac floor, undid the cap in the now free hand and drank the remaining coke from the bottle that I didn't need. It tasted awful: like coke from a bottle. When I drink something, I try to be 100% concentrated on the act, in case something goes wrong, and as I finished and came back to my surroundings, to my alarm, the driver had already reached the white van door. The van lights came on, as did a quick chuk-chuk noise indicating the opening locks.
“Entschuldigung” I said. He looked at me, but without the smile I had expected. He must not have heard me fully. I bent down and picked up my coke can, which he noticed, and gave it another go, “Entschuldigung bitte. Haben Sie ein Car platz frei?”
He looked at me vacantly.
“Danke schoen,” I added.
“What are you after?” He said, as he settled into the driver seat of his friendly white van. Fortunately, there was a thin slither of open space on the passenger window side. I leaned in closer, acting cool and convivial, and as a good car drive sparring partner.
“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 ignition. 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 a small amount of time.
“What do you want?”
“Are you going in that direction?” I said coyly, pointing to the road in the direction he has no option but to travel on based on the through traffic lanes from the petrol station.
He looked at me, and made a noise that sounded like a sigh, but it must have been a kind of optimistic, positive sigh. A sigh of the joy of people.
“Did you know that community actually comes from the words common and unity?” I found something to say, finally. I brought my arm up perpendicular to my body, stuck the thumb up into the air like turning on an ‘open’ sign at a shop front.
“Okay, you want a lift?” He replied curtly.
I waggled my thumb from side to side. I refrained from smiling with the jaw still aching from last time I tried that.
“Put your bag in the boot,” he said. The catch of the boot door clicked open.
“Thanks very much mister!” I regretted calling him mister as soon as I said it. I was going to take the ‘mister’ back, but couldn’t quickly think of another suitable noun for him. I dumped my rucksack into his boot: there seemed to be a big pile of Nutz magazines, which was surprising. I thought they’d gone out of print years ago. To the other side of the boot, there were five or six soft back books by Jeremy Clarkson, and I could make out sprawling handwriting that said ‘property of Daniel Hewitt and his mother. Please return if found.’ I wondered if the driver was Daniel or whether he had found them after Daniel had accidentally left them in a park after a nice summer’s day of reading what Jeremy Clarkson had to say about the state of things, and was now looking for Daniel. I presumed I would never know. Anne was back, too. This time though, she was shouting in quite a shrill and angry tone. “Normal,” she screamed. I wondered what had made her upset. The driver beeped his horn and waved his hand from the out of his side window. I quickly patted my rucksack goodbye, closed the door 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 car exhaust fumes. Like a strong and unpleasant summer breeze.
He drove off quite quickly. I was still fixing my seat belt as 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. My jaw didn’t hurt anymore, which was a positive. I was in the car of another and they had extended the generosity of a lift in their car to me, so the least I could do is put up with being stared at, I reminded myself.
“Honestly though, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know Germany like this. I’ve been travelling through for the past week or so,” I continued, to sort of show my thanks through directionless small talk.
“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.”
“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?”
“Yeah, of course.”
“Right. Well they’re in Dover. The sign we just past 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.
“You know that don’t you? That Britain is an island.”
I nodded again.
Some time passed on the road watching the occasional out of place object come and go: an orange traffic cone, gazebo, mattress, christmas tree et cetera. The kindly driver had a penchant for high speed overtaking: the dual carriageway had turned into a one lane each way A-Road again, and so when he got the chance through a decent opening, liked to test the limits of speed, distance and time between us and oncoming car traffic. It had been a fair while since the driver and I had spoken. Since the Germany thing, I had been stuck for something clever to say. I was still cradling the coke can,
“How long had you been waiting at the petrol station?” He asked, just having 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 the petrol station near where I stayed.”
I twisted the coke can around and around in my hands. I wondered whether he was going to travel all the way to France. Perhaps I could join him.
“You’ve been cradling that coke can for a while now. What’s you’re fucking problem?”
“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 Anne again.
“Throw it out of the car.” He sounded excited. “Going on, it’ll be a laugh!” He wound down the window of the passenger seat. “Go on!” He said whilst undoing his seat belt.
“Why are you undoing you seat belt?” I said
“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… the name of the hole that the coke comes out from. Eyelets.”