From my novel “Here Am I Sitting on my Tin Can.”
It’s my third day in Lancaster and I wake alarmingly early to a knuckle on the tin can window. I have a thick head, having supped a gallon of Theakston’s with my new friend who’d flown in from Miami. We eventually parted company only half-an-hour before his school reunion was due to start, as stipulated by the man who knew everything. I’m in a bay on a road alongside the River Lune – having slept there one night unscathed after my night under canvass with James, I felt it to be safe and not illegal… except right now I’m hearing a voice telling me he’s from the River Trust and there are no overnights in such bays.
“Right you are,” I shout, without opening the curtain for provenance of the man’s station, “I’ll be moving on soon.”
“You’ve got half an hour, otherwise you’ll be clamped.”
“Sorry,” I say, “there was no sign.” But these words are unheeded, I can only hear the footsteps belonging to the voice move away and then a car being angrily-driven off.
Knowing I’ve outstayed my welcome in Lancaster, I have a quick wash, stab the page of my road atlas with my finger and set sail again for the M6.
When I get to Kendal it’s a Sunday morning, raining and dull as a functionless Bank Holiday Monday. I am thirsty and in need of aspirin, so decide to visit the first store I come across, which happens to be an Aldi. Here, a gang of odd souls, mainly odd men but the odd woman, are waiting outside. It’s 09.45 and the shutters are down, the closed sign saying it would open at ten and not before. So the odd gang of souls has to do as it is told and wait.
“Fifteen minutes,” says a man with glasses to another without glasses.
“Not long,” opines the one with twenty-twenty vision.
“What bargain are you after?” asks the first man.
“None in particular,” lies the second.
“Me neither,” lies the first, “Just one or two bits.”
“Me too,” lies the second.
“I make it ten now,” says the first.
“Not long, it’ll soon pass,” repeats the second.
But it does not soon pass, because I’m subjected to ten minutes that feel like hours of the most brutal tripe designed to kill time but kills my brain alongside it. In normal circumstances I enjoy the innocent and desultory chit-chat of the working man, but when I’ve been rudely awoken by some voice claiming to be from the Rivers Trust and forced to up sticks without a bowel-movement, these are not normal circumstances and I’m far from at my best or most tolerant. Cars is a topic of debate, as is The Town’s upcoming fixture with Colwyn Bay. At this point I feel it could be better to join them than try to beat them, and politely explain I’m a stranger in these parts and wonder which league The Town plays in. But my pickings are far from rich, in fact they are considerably impoverished, in other words I’m completely ignored. And I think I know why. The two men have formed a bond, two being company and a third a crowd. This is a closed shop. They don’t want it open because they fear any newcomer might get ahead in the queue, nab the bargain they’ve clocked in the local paper and which is in only limited stock. A newcomer, especially one who lives in a campervan and hasn’t shaved for three weeks and possibly smells a bit, would lengthen the odds on their grabbing it, and so they turn their backs on me and continue their conversation from where it was interrupted.
I am glad I am not like you, I think to myself. I am glad I am not you, in your closed shop grimly watching a closed shop in a car park like characters in a Kafka novel. I look up at the sky with its bags full of rain and birdlessness, and then back at the gang, facing a window, reflecting the pitiful meaningless of life. But suddenly everything changes…
“I lost my wife last week,” says the one with glasses.
“I see,” says the one without glasses.
“They opened her up and sewed her back up again. Two weeks later she was gone. Married thirty-one years and just like that,” he says, clicking his fingers, “She would’ve been fifty today.”
“That’s no age,” says the other man, “I’m very sorry.”
“I’m coping,” says the first, “Sometimes it’s just nice to get out of the house. But I’m actually here to buy her a card. Some habits die hard.”
After a final minute’s respectful silence, the shutters finally jerk and rattle upwards. The closed sign has now flipped, saying we can all shuffle forward and come in, even me. But I don’t shuffle forward, I hesitate a few moments before returning to the tin can for a good think. As I roll a cigarette I feel a sense of shame, that I’ve been harsh and unfair to judge these men, particularly the one with glasses who’s just lost his wife. What right have I to be so judgemental, just because I’ve been woken early and given my marching orders with a banging head and no bowel-movement?
But as I take my first toke of my cigarette and hissingly exhale, I realise it’s much more than that. I’m seeing a familiar orange in my peripheral vision and know it’s the onset of something far darker than a mere irritation at being deemed an outcast on a supermarket carpark. In other words I’m beginning to feel depressed, and beginning to ask myself who the fuck am I, what the fuck am I doing? Just a few days ago I turned my back yet again on Tiddle and the chance to go back home to those who love me just as much as he does, to persist with this lonely crusade against the world. And it is lonely, I am lonely, I’m as lonely as the man who just lost his wife, who needs to get out of the house and any excuse will do, even when it means waiting on a carpark knowing the shop is closed and won’t be open till it decides it’s time. Because am I not doing just the same? Is my life right now a mere killing of time, waiting for a shop to open, waiting for the shutters to rise to show me the things I came for?
But what are the things I came for besides aspirin and some bottled water? Adventures, yes. Things to write about, of course. Yet there’s something else that neither money nor travel can guarantee – love. The feeling of someone being with you, saying anything that comes to mind and not caring if it’s nothing of import. The feeling of someone whispering in your ear, waking you in the morning with a cup of tea and not marching orders. The feeling of someone putting their hand on yours and telling you everything’s going to be OK. And it’s with that final thought that I throw down my cigarette butt and resolve to make a phone call.