My van’s previous owner never got around to converting it to a camper. He did however do two things I would not have bothered with, but for which I am glad. The alloy wheels make it look flash, at least by the standard of a vehicle owned by me. The tinted windows in the back let in light, and also allow you to see without being seen. You can be sneaky.
Two feet from me, a man stares vacantly across the bonnet of his car, leaning on a crutch. Occupied in preparing a coffee on the stove, I pay him no more attention than his proximity alone attracts. He gets into his car and sits in the driver’s seat. It seems as though he is waiting for someone, but I notice that the passenger seat is fully occupied by a new, still boxed vacuum cleaner. Waiting for the water to boil, I watch him. He lights a cigarette and draws on it. Holds it between the fingers of his right hand, close to the two inch open window. He doesn’t bother exhaling the smoke towards the gap. His car must stink of it. He seems neither in a hurry to do anything, nor to be taking this particular moment to relax - he is just sitting in his car, expressionless, smoking the cigarette with the mindless passivity of a thing done ten thousand times before. What is he thinking about?
I feel uncomfortable watching him, because even if the rudeness of staring only comes from the discomfort it causes the stared-at person, I know I’m doing it. Alongside my unease though is a sliver of the satisfaction of breaking a rule with immunity, harmless enough. It’s not like I’m going to follow him home and take photos of him getting undressed.
This man’s blank expression and lack of animation aligns with my prejudice for the kind of place where the two of us find ourselves, him and me. We are close but so very distant, here in the depths of a wilderness.
My life runs in channels; a delta, not a river. Time is divided by space. Pulled between the places to which I am attached by relationships and by work and by love, I have found by accident and design a pattern to accommodate them. Where I live, where I have previously lived and still find my most rewarding work, where my family and close friends are, and an open network of specially selected spots that twinkle across the globe. Between these bright nodes of my existence, needing to be crossed, there are fearsome swathes of desolation.
Many journey through these bleak expanses, but few share with their fellow travellers a word or a glance; their eyes are glazed windows on spirits subdued. Small wonder, with so little to nourish them. Mile after long mile, nothing around seems to change; another stopping place, another glance of my hollowed face in a mirror, another piss, and a coffee to supply the next one.
I look at this man, sucking oxygen to illuminate for a moment the tip of his cigarette, which has now burned close to the filter. He stubs it out, a practised twist, without looking at it.
It’s getting dark. I think it may rain. Other vehicles come and go; people get out and get back in, but never really emerge from their private containment. Inhospitable as these spaces are, life finds a way. Overhead, a neon sign flicks on. Burger King.
I look forward to the journey’s end, and the welcome harbour of forests and hills.