Stories from my Travels #10 “An Englishman’s Home is his Castle”

A further extract from my novel “Here am I Sitting in my Tin Can”

I am an Englishman and when my castle is attacked I will defend it, even though my castle is a campervan.

I’ve travelled north of Tyneside and need a break as tiredness can kill.  Before hitting the A193 coast road I find a countryside lane – not much around but a couple of farms.  The lane is darkened by tall hedges on both sides, making it feel like a tunnel.  It’s narrow too, and I’m a little worried lest a heavy farm vehicle needs to get past.  But it will do, I keep telling myself, it will do.  I’m tired, I’ve covered a hundred miles or more today and the thought of more driving depresses me.  I’ve come to rely on intuition with all things stealth-camping, and this time intuitively I feel something amiss, so am not altogether relaxed, yet tell myself again that it will do.

Just as I’m prepping my bed and drawing curtains etc, a car’s headlights light the gloom.  Nothing odd about that, except that the driver seems to take an exceptional interest.  As he creeps by and disappears up the lane behind me, I think that is that, and resume my ablutions.

About five minutes later, another car, this time behind me, but as it crawls past I realise it’s the same car, an Audi I think, and I can pick out that there is more than one passenger within.  Again I think, I hope, that is that… except it soon returns the other way, and this time there is the obligatory peeping of the horn.  It’s a joke I’ve heard many times on this journey and now it bores me, but this time something is nagging me; I can’t help sensing an agenda more sinister.

Taking the precaution of leaving on my shorts and T-shirt, I eventually bed down in my mummy bag.  Nothing more happens for maybe half an hour, and as the moments tick by, my mind and body allow themselves to relax, and drift away into sibilant slumber.

God knows how long later, an hour maybe half an hour, I am woken by a violent rocking of the van, hands thumping against my windows and much shouting and maniacal laughter.  It’s not easy to get out of a sleeping bag quickly but I know I must, even in the haziness of recent sleep an intuition has taken hold that tells me I need to get out of here.  And I need to make this stop.

“Fuck off!” I shout.

“Fuck off!” comes the mocking reply.

Shaking with fear, I pull back a curtain and can just pick out the faces of two young men, maybe twenty years old, grinning back at me.

“I’ll call the police!” I shout.

“I’ll call the police!” comes the mimicry.

Realising the law poses no deterrent, I try reason.  Winding the window down an inch, I say “Look lads, I’m homeless, just trying to get some kip.  Give me a break, yea?”

“You fucking cut me up!” one of them proclaims.

“No I didn’t!  When?”

“Back there.  You coulda killed me and me girlfriend!”

In retrospect I would know this was absurd.  My Ottermobile can only do 50 miles per hour top end, and I can’t remember overtaking a single vehicle in all this journey, let alone cutting someone up, especially a car as powerful as his.  But in the heat and the ludicrousness of the situation I can only deny his claim.  And as he continues to remonstrate, the other man chipping in his support, I know this isn’t going away.

Anger boiling now, I struggle into my boots and prepare to disembark.  “He’s getting out!” I hear the smaller man say.

“Good!” says the other, so now I know this will be tricky.  But somehow, through a mixture of anger and fear, I manage to collect some thought – opening the side-door would give them an in, whereas the driver’s door would mean they’d have to move back, giving me vital room for manoeuvre.

As I emerge, fearing a beating, I quickly realise the smaller one is disarmed to see I’m a big bloke.  Knowing I have to seize the advantage I send him backwards and to the ground with a violent shove.  But I’m not quick enough for the other one and receive a smack on the nose.  As I reel back into the side of the van, I now see the two girls in the back seat of the car, grinning spectators at the ringside, and know this is the sport of impressing the lasses.

But I am not prepared to go down.  As the smaller man is now on his feet and coming at me, I swing out at the bigger one and crack him on the jaw.  This causes the smaller one to retreat again, allowing me to grab the crowbar I keep in the foot-well.  Brandishing this, I yell “Come again and you get this!”

“Fuck off!” says the bigger man.

I would later wonder where this came from, but quite honestly I go a bit mad, flailing the bar at the dark air between us, lashing out and not caring if it cracks a skull or even two.

“He’s fuckin’ off his head!” I hear one of the girls say, “Leave it Tizo!” or some such monicker.

“Alright mate back off!” says the smaller man.  Without a word, the bigger man gives me a sign that it is over for now and retreats to his Audi, vowing to return with back-up.  And seconds later they’ve gone, leaving me leaning against my van, panting and shaking like a dog passing the turd of its lifetime.

Finally, after some moments, I put the bar down and climb back into the van.  Never more did I need a drink, but the Ottermobile is dry.  A coffee then?  But my hands are too shaky to pour from my water bottle.  Making sure the doors are locked, I open all the curtains and get fully-dressed, knowing sleep is now impossible lest they come back.  Will they come back?  Will they return with their mates instead of girlfriends?  With their brothers, their fathers?  All this is churning around my head.  Will I call the police?  Do I want the attention?  I’m a vagrant, a traveller and stealth-camper, I’ve got enough problems getting through each day, do I need more?

And so I just sit, smoking chains of my last tobacco, baggily-rolled, finally managing to make coffee, going over and over the events, dabbing the cut over the eye with cotton wool.  The whole thing must’ve lasted maybe two minutes but feels a lot longer.  And why did it happen?  What did I do to deserve it?  I’m just a normal bloke down on his luck, wanting a quiet life, a restful night’s kip.  Why pick on me?  Because I’m vulnerable, a guy on his own, in a country lane conducive to a punch-up?  And could this have been worse?  What if they too were armed?  With a knife?  A gun?  Had I come close to serious injury or even death?  What if I’d cracked them with the crowbar, injured or killed them?  What if I ended up in prison?

“Something needs to happen,” my brother said all those months ago before I embarked on this journey, and we talked about it, knowing this kind of thing was what was meant; this kind of thing that I always expected, feared, perversely wanted to fuel my book but hoped would never happen.  And now it had.

And where did my anger and violence come from?  I’m not a violent man, never have been, so why was I suddenly brandishing a lethal weapon?  Why did I even have a crowbar to begin with?  Was this some deep psychological flaw in me?  Am I really a thug?  Can I live with that horrible thought?  Why do I hate myself?

But of course all this is not rational.  As the hours tick by, and thankfully a second visit doesn’t happen, and as the cut over my eye has dried, I allow some balance to come into my view.  What happened was down to chance.  The young men were trying to impress their lasses, it was nothing personal, I just happened to be there, and seen as a bit of sport in a boring rural arena.  The big one had got his punch in and would brag about it to his mates.  Perhaps they both got laid that night as a trophy for their valour.  Perhaps one day I will laugh about the whole thing?  Perhaps I’ll embellish the tale, telling friends there were half a dozen of them?  Maybe even ten?

The contrast of what happened tonight with what happened last night does not escape me.  Last night I saw the camaraderie of friends, the laughter and banter that’s the currency of unspoken macho love, whereas tonight I saw the boredom and hatred of teenagers with nothing better to do than to attack an innocent man.  As I try to explore that contrast in my mind that’s still confused, I realise with certainty that this is an episode I want no repeat of, an episode that leaves me thoroughly depressed, seeing orange rather than seeing stars.  And it leaves me knowing the real reason for my paroxysm of violence: I’m fed up of this world.  If I’m sickened by the injustice and the affront to liberty I fear there will inevitably come a time when I say enough is enough.  Whatever is my “castle”, be it a mansion, a posh apartment in Salford Quays, a clapped-out van with dodgy bearings, a bundle of rags in a shop doorway, I have every right to use a drawbridge.  Yes, though I have nothing I will do everything to keep it.

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