17. The Holiday
"What do you mean you're not offering the service anymore?" Neil asked as courteously as he could, although he was aware that his question was put through gritted teeth and a fake smile that looked more like a grimace.
"It's not something this post office is doing anymore."
"But when we spoke, you said you were able to receive my mail."
"Yes, but then I discussed it with my manager and he contacted the regional manager and we decided that our branch was too small to offer the service."
"So what's happened to my mail?" asked Neil.
"We had to return it to the sender."
"OK. Thank you" Neil said curtly, tapping the counter top lightly as he turned and left. There was no way he could conceal his annoyance but he knew there was no sense in kicking off, creating a scene. He knew that if he pressed the matter further it was likely that the other post offices in the area would be told they couldn't accept poste restante mail.
It wasn't a complete disaster but having to wait a couple of weeks for two envelopes to wing their way around the globe would be agonising.
"Why didn't you deal with this earlier?" he muttered to himself under his breath on the street outside.
The town was filled with market day traders and shoppers and he was drawing unwanted attention to himself as he walked slowly along the pavement. His cheekbones stood out prominently on his face and his eyes were sunken in dark hollows. He'd been able to do little more than smear dirt around his face with a wetted rag and his baseball cap did little to hide his greasy matted hair. Now back in the open, his odour wafted away in the breeze, but the person who had queued behind him in the post office had left a considerable gap because Neil desperately needed a wash.
Neil had not planned on buying more than a plastic bag full of food & drink as soon as he had collected his third envelope. He hadn't really got a plan B. He'd been worried that there would be a problem at one of the post offices, but he was also desperate for things to go his way. Today, they hadn't. He was still dealing with his disappointment and annoyance. He wasn't thinking clearly.
Walking all the way back to the van, he cursed under his breath.
"Fucking hell. What a fucking shit. What a fucking pain in the arse. Shit. Fuck. Piss. Bollocks."
He'd started to walk more briskly now that he knew what must be done, but he had none of the energy and sense of urgency that he would usually have when returning with his envelope. He stared down at the pavement a little way ahead of him, blinkered to everything around him, lost in a world of his own.
"What an absolute shit. What a total fuck up" he muttered.
Finally reaching the van, he opened the back doors and got out a small blue rucksack. He slammed the door closed and locked it. He raised his eyes momentarily, realising he was drawing attention to himself on the quiet residential back street where he had parked. There didn't seem to be anybody around.
Jumping in the driver's seat, he got his laptop out and powered it up.
"Fuck. Fucking idiot country bumpkins. Fucking backwards cocksuckers" he said to himself, hitting the steering wheel and slamming the lid of the laptop closed.
Stepping out of the van and locking it, Neil now walked back into the town centre.
"What a waste of fucking time. What a waste of fucking energy" he muttered over and over again. He was passing people on the pavement again and held his tongue, knowing that a wild looking man talking to himself was liable to be alarming sight for the local people.
Entering a pub, Neil approached the barman.
"Excuse me. Do you have Wi-Fi?" he asked.
"Yep. For customers" the barman replied with hostility.
"Half a lemonade, please."
Unplacated, the barman poured the drink.
"And a packet of salt and vinegar crisps, please."
"That'll be two pounds fifteen. The Wi-Fi password is on the blackboard in the back by the pool table" the barman said, now satisfied that Neil had spent an adequate amount of money to be considered a customer. Too many people used the pub's toilets without even buying a drink on market day and he was not in a good mood.
Whipping out his laptop, Neil positioned himself with his back facing the corner of the room so that nobody could see the screen. Connected to the Internet wirelessly, he plugged in a memory stick and opened a password-protected document. Pasting links, usernames and passwords from his document into the web browser, he did everything that he needed to do within ten minutes. His lemonade and crisps were untouched when he left the pub.
The Chinese working day was over and it would take the postal service 7 to 10 days to deliver, which meant he had at least 8 days to wait. Envelopes usually cleared customs without any delays, but he was dreading the day when something went missing in transit or took much longer to be delivered than expected.
Feelings of exhaustion and depression swept over him as he trudged along, walking the same route for the 4th time that day. He felt tearful. He felt anger and frustration. At times he would look up and glance at the people he passed. Was he angry with them? He was angry with somebody, everyone, anyone.
Driving back to the caravan he had the heater turned way up. He was sleepy and he wasn't concentrating. He got lost a couple of times on the back lanes.
"Stupid fucking time-waster. What a waste of fucking space" he yelled at himself.
Eventually he parked up in the forest. He didn't really want to turn the engine off because he was cosy and warm. He sat in the van as it got darker and darker and the warmth seeped away before stiffly easing his way out of the driver's seat and staggering back to the caravan. In the bedroom he wrapped himself up tightly in the sleeping bag and curled up in a ball. His hands and face were freezing and he was trembling. His whole body ached.
He woke up knowing he'd slept for a long time but he was still really tired. He was hungry and thirsty and he needed to go to the toilet. He felt cold but he really didn't want to get out of the sleeping bag because he knew it would be even more cold. He wasn't comfortable, but he wanted to lie there on the bed, curled up.
Eventually, the discomfort in his bladder drove him to get out of bed and go outside to urinate. He hopped lightly back into the caravan, hugging himself to keep warm even though he was fully clothed. Going to his rucksack, he went to the top pocket and pulled out a strip of pills. Popping two pills out of the blister pack he paused for a second and then popped out two more. He paused again and then popped out a fifth. Necking the tablets, he then looked around for a bottle with any liquid left in it. There was a water bottle with barely a mouthful left, which Neil snatched up, unscrewed the cap and tipped into his mouth with his head back, swallowing.
After a cursory glance around confirmed there was nothing else to drink in the caravan, he returned to bed. Soon, he fell into a comfortable drugged sleep. He woke up feeling groggy and hung over. His thirst and his hunger were now unbearable, but he slowly surveyed the scene of the caravan with one eye open, groaning as he rolled over in his sleeping bag. Eventually, he dragged himself out of bed.
Unsteady on his feet, he straightened out his clothes and sighed. Rummaging in his rucksack, he pulled out the black duffel bag and left the caravan.
In the car park by the convenience store in the first town he'd visited, he knew he was taking a huge risk, but he desperately needed supplies. He felt hot and cold flushes and his joints ached. He was weak and he shuffled along, but he didn't have far to walk to get to the shop and to drag his bag back to the van.
In the shop he bought a 5 litre bottle of mineral water, shower gel, deodorant, disposable razors, toothpaste and a toothbrush, toilet roll as well as 10 cans of caffeinated energy drink, a large bottle of cola and several Cornish pasties.
"Big night last night?" the young shop assistant chuckled.
Neil replied with a grunt. He swayed a little at the counter as he waited for the items to be scanned.
"Are you OK?" the young man asked.
"I'm fine. How much is it?" Neil replied.
Packing all his shopping into the black bag, Neil was slow and clumsy. Other customers were waiting to pay, but he didn't notice: his mind was cloudy; he was sick and exhausted.
In the van, he downed an energy drink which slaked his thirst. The brief boost to his blood sugar meant that he felt OK driving back and he managed to drag the duffel bag into the caravan. After three bites of a Cornish pasty, he curled up by the dining table and fell asleep.
For four days he felt too unwell to leave the bedroom except to eat, drink and go to the toilet. He had cold sweats and his whole body ached. Waves of nausea swept over him, but he managed to avoid throwing up and held his food down.
On the fifth day he felt a little better and he thought about going home, to his home town, his house. Maybe he could get in contact with Lara. Maybe she would come and look after him. He knew it would be a horrible journey on public transport when he was still feeling very unwell, but he could manage it. Perhaps his journey was at its end.
He ate his remaining food, drank the last of the cola and had a couple of energy drinks. With the help of a couple of sleeping pills, he managed to get a good night's sleep.
Waking up, he felt refreshed and a little energised. It was a cold day, but he knew that he had to wash. Rinsing the soap out of his hair with freezing water gave him an ice-cream headache, but it felt nice to be taking care of his appearance after so long. He flanneled himself with a soapy rag, getting rid of the worst of the dirt and smell from his body. Brushing his teeth and spraying deodorant all over his body, he felt like a new man. He put on his set of clean clothes.
There was no doubt in his mind about what he was going to do next.
"Hi. Is there any post for me?"
With the envelope in his hands, he wasn't going to make the same mistakes this time. He rushed to the hardware store and bought some self-adhesive plastic to obscure the caravan windows, a stanley knife, a staple-gun, a bolt for the bedroom door, a screwdriver, a hammer, some masking tape, insulation tape and duct tape. He drove to the supermarket on the edge of town and parked in the car park. He bought 6 large bottles of mineral water, 6 large bottles of cola, 5 tins of baked beans, 5 tins of spaghetti hoops and 6 packets of salted crisps.
Driving home, he was struck with the urge to stop outside the fish & chip shop and get a takeaway. He bought a large cod and chips and a pot of curry sauce.
"You're looking well" the woman behind the counter said.
"What do you mean?" he asked.
"I saw you in Axeton the other week. You looked like death warmed up"
"Yeah, I wasn't very well" he replied.
"Well, it's good to see you're on the mend. All the colour has come back into your cheeks"
Sitting down at the caravan's dining table with all his purchases, Neil unwrapped the paper of the first hot meal he'd had in over a month. The food had gone a little cold but delicious smells wafted up: battered fish, golden chips, salt and vinegar. He ate quickly and soon he felt uncomfortably stuffed, because his stomach had shrunk.
Why hadn't he just gone to sleep and then gotten himself away from there?
Now he lay contemplating his fate. He was a little appalled that he threw away such a great a chance to escape; to run for his life. For a brief moment, there had been a glimmer of hope, of redemption, but he hadn't cared at the time. He hadn't given it a moment's thought, but now he considered how close he had been to avoiding his current predicament, if only he had made a different choice that night.