It’s Edward Hopper’s painting Gas. There are three pumps and the attendant is wearing a long-sleeved white shirt and a waist coat. You can’t make out what he’s doing, the attendant. But more importantly there’s the road with its unkempt verges going to wherever you might imagine it could all dwarfed by the bank of conifers on its far side, dominating and indifferent to time and story. And the diffident Mobil gas sign on its pole, an emblem for the passing insignificance of man.
What you can’t see is my café and now I’m looking out on two rows of pumps and no attendant but an occasional driver serving himself. I’m looking out from my seat in the café on the A487 north of Llanon.
And then there’s Hopper’s attendant dressed in that shirt and waist coat and I’m with him as he goes back inside his station like a small chapel with spire and inside is the woman we can’t see who I imagine came with him about a year ago – about the time I first turned up here – a simple woman with modest expectations who came out West because it sounded good. And now she has become my waitress who’s been here for well over twenty years. She comes in each day from the cottage she rents in the hills above Nebo. You feel the job is all she’s got to keep things going. But that sense of just hanging on is what it’s all about – it’s what I’m all about because the alternative, the world where there’s some kind of certainty, where things are all screwed down firmly in place for now and into the known future, is a place of doctor’s waiting rooms and slow, monotonous decline. Even the successful in their world of success and comfortable certainty can’t dodge that. And I am with the waitress, the silent unseen fact in Hopper’s painting who knows about transience and the unfathomable road.
And that’s how I like things. I like looking at things like that – from a distance. Getting inside them. In my mind. Things like paintings. Other things. And sometimes I like to think I’m in a painting with people looking.
Every day I come here and every day I look out at the food vans and artics and the caravaners traipsing the coast road to the North and almost no one ever stops for tea. Occasionally I’m aware of the waitress behind the counter at the other end of the café from where I habitually sit, making the small sounds of unexacting industry. She told me her name was Carol not long after my first visit. Yesterday I was working on a piece I’d worked on many times before – many drafts, never knowing when it’s done. Just travelling the road.
Carol’s about 50 I’d say but that seems irrelevant in her case – her time is peculiar to her, determined by the pace and urgencies of the dirt-track life. She’s petite with an attractive turn in one of her green eyes. In fact, she looks like one of those women Hopper portrays alone in hotel rooms.
Yesterday when she brought me my tea I was her only client and she seemed about to say something when the door opened and the golfers came in. It was Friday. Every Friday late morning they would come in after their couple of rounds on the nine-hole up the road. The group includes an aboriginal man in his forties, large with an embracing smile and the personality of a stand-up comedian doing his routine. He would always engage with Carol and she would respond with giggles and cheeky digs. But not yesterday. I sensed her going to them and after some talk they suddenly went silent and when I turned I could see surprise and dismay while Carol stood beside the table awkward and unsure of herself.
I tried to imagine what she had said to them. I’d heard the words ‘thirty years’ and ‘the rising cost of gas’ and then heard a chair scrape and turned again and the large aboriginal had stood up and was holding Carol tightly in a sympathising embrace.
I’ve spent so much time over the years in cafes that my life is not described or even coloured by anything I’ve written but by the waitresses I’ve watched and the people who have come and gone. This place had become the one I liked best and I would flirt with the idea that I would have lived life well if my mind’s final image was of someone like Carol in her heyday flashing a toothy smile and opening up the morning for someone like me. So it was not in the natural order of things that Carol would receive the kind of attention the aboriginal was giving her and I knew something was wrong. Whatever she had said was not to do with, say, a death or some other local tragedy but was something that would compromise our world. At that moment I stopped writing, or trying to write and turned around fully. I was able to make eye contact with Carol and that caused her to come to me.
She said: this is the last day.
I said: until when?
No. They’re shutting it down for good.
She said it as if she was annoyed with me. She wasn’t, of course. Her anger and dismay was just so overwhelming it left her bewildered and unfocused.
Later, at three o’clock I parked my car near the car wash. I saw the lights go out in the cafe – a Hopper scene the simplicity painting the sadness. I looked a little to the left to see the steeple of the church that now seemed forlorn where before it had been a delightful decoration in the village and to my left the caravan park whose new cafe offering breakfasts by the sea had, I’d found out, caused the catastrophic decline in the number of visitors to Carol’s place. The place I had so selfishly appreciated.
While I waited I ran back over cafes I’d written in and recalled the Honey place which had been white and silent until it was sold to a yuppy who painted it and installed a hi-fi. It was there I read Marquez’s beautiful and outrageous Love in the Time of Cholera and Aberaeron, the town of the Honey shop became Macondo and the chestnut trees almond; that book wherein the saintly 14 year old Americo Vacuna kills herself when she is jilted by the 80 year old Florentino Ariza. That was twenty years ago and there was a young woman who I remembered was called Claire and there would be times when the place was almost empty with just me in my corner and Claire stationed behind her till. And occasionally our eyes would meet. She would colour up a little and I would play with a smile and quickly look back to my work. And we would become characters in the Marquez, me a young Florentino and Claire the bewitching Fermina Daza, the woman Florentino would love all his life; the woman he would wait fifty years for; the woman he left his fourteen year old for. In that way we had a kind of affair. And in the evenings I would sit across the harbour from the cafe and look through my binoculars at her moving around at her work in a medium of film-like mystery. I became voyeur of the illicit affair I had created. That distance between my eye and her image in which I could linger as one immune from codes of goodness. Until one evening when she suddenly appeared away from the cafe while I was walking with my wife. I turned quickly down a side lane, taking my wife with me, to avoid the two meeting. I said I saw someone I owed money to coming towards us.
Then I saw Carol come out. As she walked to her small old car I looked for the misery in her step but saw none – she was too proud to allow that. I drove around and stopped by her car. I got out and went to her. From that spot I could see the sea which released me from any doubts I had about whether this was a good idea. She looked indifferent.
I said: that news was…..devastating. What will you do now? Will they give you a different job in the shop? There was a small supermarket attached to the cafe.
She said, no. It’s over. Sunday. After we’ve cleared the place out, that’s the end. They’re shutting the place to save on our wages. Me and the other two who work there.
O right. Don’t often see them.
One’s the cook. The other’s the cleaner and dishwasher.
I said: I don’t know what I’ll do now. I’ve loved this place.
You always look as if you’re writing.
Yes, I said, I like writing in public places. Like restaurants. You don’t get many places like this one. So quiet.
That’s their excuse for shutting it.
It’s crazy. You think they’d be flocking here. The main road between north and south.
We used to get the caravaners. From the park.
I said: it would be good if we could see ourselves as if we were in a painting. People looking at us. Because, as long as they are, the painting goes on. That’s how it works. The story of it.
She said: I don’t get that. Then she said: there’s one difference between us. Between you and me. You’ve got something to fall back on. Your writing. Some of us are so out of luck that when ends come they really are the end.
She seemed cold. But then I remembered one time in the cafe when a story I was reading made me cry. Nothing too obvious. She happened to see me. The water in my eyes. But there was no response from her. As if she lived too far away from me to be moved by it.
When I lost my wife I made a decision that I would never succumb to the heartbreak of it. I felt that what’s gone is gone or, rather, I determined that that’s the motto or mantra I would live by. But you can’t escape the effects like the way time and air pits and discolours the richest and most cared for painting or other public art. Last night as I lay alone in bed, to distract myself from the deep melancholy brought on by the news and the attention of my suppressed grief, I imagined Carol as she may have been when she was young. I wondered if she’d ever married. I wanted to paint a picture of her in good times. Her and maybe a couple of sisters. Sitting before a hearth and in the centre of this little community a bassinette in which her new baby lay. And they are discussing when to have the christening and would she ask the landlord of the Black Lion for a room to celebrate? And the centre of gravity of the picture would rest firmly with her, her hair auburn and carrying the breezes of youth and the light fire-flies of her words that we can’t hear. But in the morning, when I woke, I realised I’d been thinking about my wife.
But I did wonder whether, if I followed Carol and waited for her that one day I would see her walking some wind-swept lane fearing the mysteries that have no outcome.
This morning I got up feeling as if I had lost my job. The street I could see through my window was wet. Gloomy. The cafe was four miles up the coast and now carried a sign saying: this cafe is closed for the foreseeable future. The foreseeable future – that awful phrase that teases with the hope that there may be something beyond the foreseeable. I would go to the cafe and stop in the parking area across the road from the garage, just in front of the caravan park. And I would watch her wrap things up through my binoculars. I knew I was in a bad way because as I watched her I recalled a small event from my childhood. We were not well-off and my mother would try things out on us – cheap meals – and I recall sitting at the table in the living room of our council house but alone with her and she’s put before me a dish in which she’s soaked a slice of cheap processed bread in a very unattractive gravy. And I can remember clearly that she was in her late twenties with black hair that fell in waves onto her shoulders. I always remember thinking that there was distance in that hair – though I suppose that was a notion I would have come up with later. When I started writing. She is looking at me with fire in her eyes. Expectation. I remember that she is very beautiful and that in some way she is tragic as she thinks she has failed in life because she was such a romantic. And I can see her across that expanse of time. As though she is in a film. It’s an event I realise that I often recall when so many are forgotten. An isolated moment that exists as if in the lens of a pair of binoculars. And it makes me feel lonely. Like I feel now having lost Carol. And as I watch Carol moving mysteriously through the glass of my binoculars and the glass of the windscreen past the intermittent sweep of the wiper blades and through the glass of the restaurant window I know that that distance between my eye and the image where the power of the voyeur resides and where stories are written, preserves in us that fast separateness.
Illustration by Dean Lewis