Epiphany at a Roadside Diner
It happened on my way to spending the weekend at a friend's house.
It was still too early to wake him up, so I stopped, a few miles away, to have breakfast at a diner just off the road.
The place was empty and I ordered coffee and sunny side up eggs on fried bread ( I know, not healthy, but I like it). The lady behind the counter was middle-aged, about average in build with a detached air about her. It was as if she was physically there, but mentally elsewhere at a place that interested her far more, judging by the occasional glint in her sad eyes. Unfailingly polite, though, making a big attempt to smile cheerfully as she placed my breakfast on the counter. She intrigued me, with her 'inhabiting another plane' air of cool but polite reserve. I remember thinking that none of any nastiness from her daily customers would impact on her at all; they would be no more than shadows on a screen. Good for her, I found myself thinking. And that's because I'm one of those people who heartily dislikes customer interface in any line of work.
I glanced across and saw she had been doodling on a paper napkin. She had drawn a large door with a big handle. The door was half open, and outside was a swirling mass of flying birds, the sun, moon, trees and flowers, a rainbow like arc. But inside the door was a carpet, a table lamp, ordinary objects in an ordinary room. She caught me looking, and quickly screwed up the napkin with a guilty air.
'Nice artwork,' I murmured, to put her at ease.
She said it in a way that made me think it was far from being nothing.
'What we draw absent-mindedly shows a lot about our inner thoughts,' I added. Maybe I was trying to get her to talk a bit more? It's not something I usually try to do with strangers, but I was still curious about her. She didn't reply, and there was a dreamy sort of half smile on her face as she tidied away my breakfast dishes. I paid and was getting ready to leave. No sense in pestering people. It wasn't good manners, however curious I was about her. Then, just as I got up, she turned and said,
'It's where I go--- you know, when I'm not busy.'
She glanced around nervously even though there was no one else around. I settled back on my stool and put on the kindest face I could.
'And where would that be?'
'Oh, it's just a place. An open place next to a wood not far from here. At the edge are some tall bushes, and if you go through them you......' she stopped, looking confused and breathing heavily, not meeting my eyes.
'There is nothing wrong with that,' I soothed. 'It's nice to have somewhere you can be alone.'
She brightened up even more.
'But I'm not alone. I'm never alone there.' Her vagueness had been replaced by a barely controlled excitement. She was now truly alive, a vibrant presence in the small diner. 'Joey is there. He's always there. I can hear him.'
Hoping she wouldn't notice, I measured the distance to the exit in case I needed to leave in a hurry.
'Joey is with you? Is he a friend?'
'Friend?' She seemed confused. 'Joey? No, Joey is my son. My little baby.'
I nodded encouragingly, waiting for more, reassured that the wide and heavy diner-counter was between us.
'You must think I'm mad,' she burst out.
'No, no....never,' I lied quickly.
With what seemed a huge effort she controlled herself, taking long and deep breaths and sitting herself down. A little of her former sadness had returned.
'It was some 10 years ago. Alfie---that's my older son, had taken Joey for a walk. Joey was only four. It was a warm day. Alfie lay down under a tree in the wood---somehow he managed to doze off. He swears it was only for a few seconds. When he opened his eyes Joey was gone. We never found him.'
She fell silent, staring down at her hands where she had crumpled one corner of her dress into a soggy mess. There had to be more. I had to know.
'He couldn't have just disappeared,' I prompted gently.
'Didn't I mention....at the edge of the wood there were some bushes. Beyond them there was the....highway.' She spoke the word reluctantly. 'But Joey would never go there, we'd taught him to stay clear of roads.'
That's what Joey had been taught, only he clearly hadn't learned. It was obvious that he had wandered onto the highway and been kidnapped or something. No one ever just disappears off the face of the earth. There was just one problem; try convincing the diner lady about that!
She looked up calmly and met my eyes.
'You can think whatever you want, but whenever I stand by those bushes---even now---if I stand for long enough I can hear Joey calling out to me. And I always call back, 'I'm here, my baby. Momma's waiting for you. I'll wait for you for always.' You know, Mr.....'
'Call me John.'
'..... John. I'm Sally. Have you heard of these time-slip places? Like in that Stargate film on TV? That's what's happened. Joey's slipped through one of those time-slip doors and the poor love can't get back. One day he will....it stands to reason, doesn't it, John? If the time slip door can open once, it can open again, can't it?'
'No reason why it couldn't,' I replied hastily, amazed at myself for going along with her fantasy. This had to stop. The poor woman was deluded. It wasn't right for her to torment herself like this.
'Um...Sally....has anyone else ever stood there and heard Joey calling out?'
I had to take it slowly. Sally shrugged.
'Can't say for sure. The newspapers talked to me. Folk come from all over. Most of them couldn't hear anything. But a few....a few did. And....'
By now Sally was slowly deflating---there's no other word to describe it better---back to her former self. Sad. Detached.
'.....the newspapers said they must have been just as kooky as I was. The world is full of oddballs like that, they said. After a while they left me alone....but I still go there. I sometimes take a picnic and lay it out in the shade of the bushes. I know that one day Joey will walk right back through again, and he'll sit down and join me. I always make sure I have his favourite peanut butter and jelly sandwiches....'
Sally trailed off. I knew I was losing her again. I was like the others. I didn't believe her. I was never going to be part of her world. It had been a mistake for her to think so. We were back where we had started, the distance increasing into a yawning gulf between us every second.
I got up to leave. She didn't bother to look up. She knew what I now thought of her. There was nothing I could give her.
'Must go.' I pasted a false grin on my face. 'Nice talking to you Sally.'
I edged sideways to the door. She didn't reply or even look up.
Outside, the sun was shining. It was a beautiful morning. I thought of my friend waiting for me and the fun filled weekend he had promised--- fishing, some pheasant shooting, a ride in his new boat. It was great to be alive. Sure, it was tough for Sally, but I didn't belong in her world.
I got into my car and started the engine. And then I switched it off. I couldn't get Sally out of my mind and I felt ashamed of myself. All sorts of philosophical musings began crowding my brain. I thought of the way life throws bad stuff at us. The few moments of happiness that we must fight to achieve. How we are all too often buffeted by fate, hurled about like rag dolls, left shattered and bruised to struggle to our feet and start over again. All for what? It all seemed so pointless, yet here I was, perhaps able to show a brave woman like Sally that there might be a point to it after all! And what had I done? Why, I had turned my back on her and walked away, confident of my sanity and my grasp on reason and reality, no way prepared to believe a word she said.
Like all the others. That's what Sally had said.
I couldn't do it. I just couldn't. I had to put things right. I had the power to do it, because I had just remembered something.....
With a new spring in my step I turned around and marched straight back into the diner. Sally was sitting exactly where I had left her. She looked up with glazed eyes.
'Sally, I was wrong. I just remembered---you know, when I got outside. I read this piece in a newspaper a while back---one of these true encounter things; there were witnesses, you see.....'
And I sat back down on the stool I had vacated minutes earlier and told Sally, the diner lady, all about a similar case where long after a mysterious disappearance people could hear the voice of the person who had vanished. And at that moment, as I sat telling Sally about it, I swear I believed every word of it with all my heart.
Well, what more is there to say? The effect on Sally was a wonderful sight to behold. At first she was suspicious of me, then she got carried away by my enthusiasm. After all, she herself wanted to believe it so much.
When I had finished she got up and came around the counter to give me a great hug. I was no longer frightened of her any more, and I hugged her back. Sally smelled of newly cut grass, fresh summer air and dandelions.
'Bye, Sally,' I said gruffly, and headed out again before she saw the tears in my eyes.
We all have our own ways of coping. This was Sally's way. Who did I think I was, Mr Hotshot Writer with his superior education and reason.
Why, I was nothing in front of people like Sally, who had the strength to survive such a terrible event in their lives. It had been my privilege to admit this to her!
Hi, my name is John. This is my seventh weekly blogpost. The previous posts can be reached by scrolling down. The next one, called The Night-time Spider, will be posted next Friday, 31 August. My tweeps have been complaining that I write depressing stuff, so this next one will be in a lighter vein.
The ducklings are all still fine. They are becoming rather chubby and spoilt. Who knows, maybe they’ll take up permanent residence here. And why not? The world is a jungle, but here they are pampered and looked after! Everyone says it’s a miracle how they all survived when none of the previous lot did. There is no real explanation. It is a puzzle. For those of you late to this blog, you can scroll down to see the post called Tragedy At The Duck Pond (and subsequent updates like this one) to appreciate the background to the duckling saga (Thursday 19 July post).
And here are my books, in ebook and paperback editions........
Running With Zombies (Kindle and paperback editions) (click)My website: http://bit.ly/OtFU9Z