Chapter 1 Part 2 of “Here Am I Sitting in my Tin Can“…
“Keep driving,” I say to myself, “Keep driving until the diesel runs out and keep writing till the words run out or someone reads them. Keep driving and writing till you find something magical.”
After my little stick of Blackpool rock and near-fling with Bet Lynch, I’m heading east on the M55. My vague intention has always been to reach Scotland, climb up the west coast and up as far as this tin can will take me into the Highlands, and there I will either opt out completely and live rough, or whatever… and yet as I go east there’s a nagging need for normality and female company and there’s someone I know in Nelson. So I’m on the M55 where my decision is not made and I’m feeling the familiar vibe that it’s the not knowing that’s either the joy or pity of my crusade.
You see, when I’m driving I allow my mind to wander too, and I suddenly realise that through all the miles of tarmac my tyres have heated, I haven’t seen a single hitch-hiker. I can understand why women no longer thumb it but wonder why the male of the species doesn’t seem tempted either. Is it that it’s seen to be vagrancy or scrounging and therefore given the thumbs-down? Or is it just because there are so many lunatics around in this fucked-up Brexiting Britain?
But then, as luck or fate or magic would have it, at an Esso garage on Preston New Road I see my first; a 40-year-old Mohican holding in front of him like a prisoner in a mugshot a crudely-penned sign saying M6 North please. So as I fill the tank with diesel I give him a shout.
“Where you heading, fella?”
“Lancaster,” he says, coming over, “Any good to you?”
“Good a place as any,” I say.
And so I turn around the seats that have been my bed in Blackpool and get him settled in the passenger seat while I go to the kiosk and pay.
“Nice machine,” he says, when I return.
“It’s a tin can,” I say, “I’ll drive it till the wheels come off.”
“If I had the dough I’d get a campervan,” he says wistfully, “I live in a tent.”
As we rattle towards the M6 he tells me his name is James and he’s a “traveller” hailing from Southampton. When he was in his early teens his mother deserted him for a voyage to India and he hasn’t seen her since, nor in fact has he any idea if she is still alive. In adulthood he drifted for years before embarking on a round-the-world adventure himself, with a vague aim of finding her, but which failed and culminated instead in sunshine debauchery in New Zealand and Fiji. Now potless, he is back in the UK trying to find himself again. Refusing to accept the Social Security Emergency handout of £3.38, he resides on the motorways, begging or eating from bins.
Obviously famished, he hasn’t eaten or smoked for three days, I give him a roll-up and a bag of crisps, and find myself telling him my story too, that has striking similarities, my search being the daughter I haven’t seen in ten years.
“Man that’s sad,” he says, though I don’t embellish with any more facts since I don’t know any, and instead ask what it’s like living on the motorway. It turns out he is part of a small yet significant network of homeless souls living up and down the country like this, a network that despite its remote vulnerability offers warmth and shelter, some little food and surrounding woods to pitch a tent and shit in. It’s a network that also provides some support via communication on mobiles whenever there’s money for credit.
“That’s why I’m off to Lancaster,” he says, “I’ve heard there’s a new pair of boots for me.”
Intrigued, I say again that there are certain parallels between his life and mine, but he laughs and says at least I have a toilet in the van whereas he has a hole in the ground.
“It’s all relative,” I counter.
“You think so?” he says.
“Yep,” I confirm, “I mean does Bear Grylls shit in the woods?” and he laughs heartily at that.
I can’t help noting that despite an empty belly he is not starved of humour and verve. Here is a man who doesn’t drink (he declines my offer of a bottle of wine) with a wealth of energy and knowledge of the world, who returns to his native country hoping for pre-Brexit utopia, only to find a state in a sickening mess unwilling to find him a job and any prospect for a future. In fact all he can hope for, he says, is to stick around for six weeks in order to qualify for a first benefit payment which would fund his journey back out of here.
Aside from the politics of our discourse I get to know the man and really like and admire him, and so plump is the conversation that it seems only minutes till we’re hitting Lancaster. As I pull into the Moto Services I intend to say goodbye to James, with the offer of 30g of Golden Virginia, a wedge of cheese, some bread and a bottle of water from my fridge. But wanting to reciprocate, he asks if I’d like to see where he’ll be pitching tonight. At first I’m dubious, tentative, but given my propensity to search for story and my ability to resist anything but temptation, I acquiesce. So I lock up my van and allow him to lead me to a small coppice off White Carr Lane, the other side of the lorry park.
Thinking back to the moment I invited him on to my van and being instinctively aware that he might rob me, I am now both ashamed of myself for being so suspicious and proud of myself for indulging this adventure, which is after all the purpose of the exercise, as I’m helping James pitch his not inconsiderable tackle in a quiet and lonely wood, the only link to civilization being the hum of M6 traffic in the distance.
Soon after, he has built a simple camp fire and, with Mears-esque expertise fashioned a stand to accommodate his kettle. So I am rapt with admiration as I’m sipping tea, swapping stories with this man I never knew an hour ago and have come to know and like. And soon as we drink and eat and smoke with sun cascading through the leafy canopy, I’m carried away by this fairytale, the vehicular background accompaniment made way for birdsong. And when I’m invited to stay the night I’m without hesitation returning to the tin can to fetch my mummy bag.
“These fuckers have had it,” he says when I return, and as he takes off his boots he shows me how the sole is leaving the upper, flapping like a hungry mouth. I’m reminded that he said there’d be a new pair waiting for him in Lancaster and ask how he knows this.
“Heard it on the grapevine,” he says without further disclosure, “They won’t let me down.”
The sun has sunk by now and we’re lit with only his LED torch, the sound of the camp fire embering outside where we’ve fed our bellies on bread and cheese. The ground is soft and comfortable I note as I bed down, arguably more so than my crude mechanical bedding on the van, and it isn’t long before sleep comes darkening our door.
In the night, however, I wake, needing a piss and reluctant to leave the warmth of my mummy bag. But just as I’m knowing I must cave in to my bladder, I hear the sound of cracking twigs. At first I’m wary, but have to laugh at myself for being so, putting the noise down to some animal, a badger perhaps, a fox maybe? But gradually the noise becomes nearer and louder and, reminded of the night I was attacked outside Newcastle, I’m naturally on my guard. Do I wake James and beg his reinforcement, or would that betray a weakness in my newfound resolve to live off-grid? Ofcourse not, I decide, on no account must I wake him.
“James!” I hiss. “James wake up!”
“Fuck off,” he replies, not unreasonably.
“There’s someone outside!”
“Fuck off man I’m sleeping.”
“Seriously there’s someone out there!”
“Be a fox, go back to sleep.”
“That’s what I thought but it’s definitely human!”
“Fuck off,” he says again, more angrily this time before turning in his bag with a rasping fart for emphasis and going back to sleep.
I feel a bit cowardly now, for being so terrified and going against my instinct in waking him. But whether our conversation has scared off the intruder, animal or human, the footsteps have mercifully gone away, becoming distant and quietly disappearing as gradually and mysteriously as when they first appeared.
I’ve no idea what time it is right now, but finally my terror subsides and I drift back into sleep, probably one ear cocked like an expectant dog. In the morning, I don’t know how many hours later, I’m woken by a hand on my arm.
“Fuck off!” I instinctively yell with clenched fist.
“No sweat man, it’s me,” he says.
Blinking awake, I apologise for being such a fool and for waking him last night, agreeing it must’ve been a fox or badger or something.
“Wasn’t no fox man,” he says, “You were right, it was human.”
“How do you know?” I ask.
“Because look.” Rubbing out the sleep in my eye so I’m now sighted, I see he has a carrier bag and he’s rooting something out. “My new boots!”
Later that morning I’m in the toilets of Moto Services having a swill and going over the events of my night with new-booted James. We’ve said our goodbyes and promised to keep in touch, though I sense our friendship is going to prove as ephemeral as all the others on this journey. He’s thanked me for the tobacco and the food and the grass and he’s apologised for my being alarmed by the visitor in the night.
Shaving in the mirror, I begin to laugh at my reflection, thinking that though the explanation is weird and implausible, the night has been like a true-life arboreal version of The Elves and the Shoemaker, the tale my mother used to read to me and which has always been my favourite. It always fascinated me and struck me as magical to imagine some external elfish force come to champion the sleeping underdog, and to this day I wonder if that magic will ever happen to me.
So as I return to the tin can and prepare for the next leg of my journey north, I decide I must believe in the fairytale of this existence; I must believe it’s all worthwhile, that someone somewhere is reading these words, and that someone somewhere will champion the underdog and have something magical for me to wake to. Yes I believe in fairytales.