From chapter 2 of the novel “Here Am I Sitting in my Tin Can.”
I slept well last night, dreaming of Myra swimming towards me from the mountains across Ullswater. So I’m up early and eager to see if she replied to my email. Weighing up my options in terms of finding somewhere with wi-fi and food, I decide I should head north, though once again there’s a pull on my heart that tells me I should be doing the polar opposite. I’m looking at my road map upwards to Carlisle – my aim was always to get to Scotland, and that, rather than the nebulous force of potential love, is within touching-distance. And yet, the man who’s grown feral over these past few months feels strangely bound to get clean lest she calls me to her bed…
So it’s not long before I’m in a shower at Southwaite Services where it feels good to shave, to wash my hair in hot water, and to give my bitten skin some soothing respite. My dick’s still sore and swollen, and I’m just getting dry when there’s a knock on the door and a foreign voice asking “Please, how long?”
“Six inches,” I reply, “not allowing for the swelling.” Sometimes I can’t help myself, but I am in good spirits and he obviously doesn’t get the joke so no harm done. I picture him on the other side of the door, walking away bemusedly.
Any panic on the streets of Carlisle is down to the ridiculous parking metres in town, which have many of us motorists baffled – they won’t take coins and the card system is frankly ludicrous, so we form a committee and pass resolution to put notes on our windscreens and dodge the fare. A woman has a look at my note because she’s struggling with what to put, and I call her a nosy parker, my second joke of the day to go unrewarded.
I have a brisk five-mile walk around the town and district, from English Street to the Square to take pics of the statues of past mayors Richardson and Steele, the castle and the museum to read up on the history. But that’s not really the point of this exercise; I want to know about people now and the best way of knowing people now is in the pub.
I do love pubs. It feels decades since the smoking ban, which in my opinion was the death-knell to some of our watering holes. Gone are many of the spit and sawdust establishments with their uncarpeted floors and wall-to-wall ribaldry, or they seem to want to turn them into Wacky Warehouses with kids running about everywhere trampling garden peas into the carpet. How is it just that you can’t smoke on the grounds of health and hygiene yet dogs are actively encouraged, as are their owners to boot? It seems to me that dog owners think everyone loves their canine as much as they do, but I don’t, at any rate not in a place I choose to eat. Sneezing and scratching, jumping up on the furniture, wiping their arse on the carpet… and the dogs are even worse. Call it the rule of three, so I hope that joke meets with laughter.
Anyway I’ve found a reasonable-looking place called the King’s Head, where I order a pie and a pint and find a quiet corner where I can read while waiting for wi-fi. I’ve been reacquainting with my Orwell collection. In Down and Out in Paris and London his brilliant essays on poverty are as pertinent today as they were in the 30s. Likewise his address of the tramp and his sex-life, or lack of. He posits that living a certain life makes you dress and behave in a certain way, and it’s down to expectations. In the office I was always well turned-out, respectable, but until this morning when I had a good wash I was to be found far less so. Is it because it’s expected, or practical, or because you lack the motivation and even the effort to run a comb through your hair? The life I’m living is I suppose tantamount to living rough and, while I’ll always maintain some standards in terms of personal hygiene, I can’t see myself donning a collar and tie any time soon. Because what’s the point? Unless of course Myra has emailed and wants me home…
I do have collar, tie and decent shoes in my little tin can wardrobe, but gradually I’ve come to realise they’re excess baggage and weight. Space is at a premium too in a cramped campervan, and sartorial choice should arguably have stayed behind in storage with my furniture, making way for things like tobacco, food, beer and dreams.
My pie has already arrived before the wi-fi connects, and just as I’m tucking in, I am joined by a guy who tells me the food in this establishment is renowned.
“I’ll be the judge of that,” I think but do not say. He’s a handsome, shaven-headed, biker-jacket wearing thirty-something who’s called Merv and who carries an artist’s portfolio. He has very strong views on Brexit, the Tories and Scottish Independence. I agree with few, except those about the Tories, and find his argument about Scottish Independence compulsive, and one I’ve heard before, about the Scots being unable to blame the English for everything if they were to be independent. I tell him I am heading there and, rather paradoxically he tells me it’s a beautiful country and I will love it.
It’s said that men are not good at unburdening, which explains the statistics that lie heavily in their favour in terms of suicide. And yet, on my travels I’ve found the contrary to be true. Or is it just that I have a face that says “Talk to me and I will listen.”? I have no problem with that of course, so here is Merv, wanting to tell me he’s had it rough, he’s just been fired from his job as painter for the district council. Nothing he’d done wrong, just austerity measures. “Ten years of blood, sweat and tears and they turn around and give me the push. Fucking bastards, dirty fucking disloyal arseholes.”
“You should try working in TV,” I say, chomping a mouthful of pie.
I admire Merv’s indomitable, Hadrian’s Wall hardiness as he insists he’ll find work in another place, or pursue his dream of making a living from his artwork. At first I can’t help taking his words with a pinch of salt, but then he shows me some of his pieces and they’re actually amazing. And so I tell him so.
“They’re amazing,” I say, “I think if you can’t make a living from your artwork something’s wrong.”
“Be just and fear not”, he says.
Merv is also a muso and like me a fan of Morrissey (he likes my anecdote about the panic on the streets of Carlisle) and we talk for a long time about guitars, he a champion of the Gretsch, me of the Gibson.
“I will draw you if you like,” he says, suddenly.
“Draw me?” I say, somewhat taken aback.
“I do this around the pubs. I draw cartoons of people on paper bags.” At which he reaches into his portfolio for the tools of his trade. “You can choose a detailed line drawing or a humorous cartoon.”
“Cartoon,” I say, compulsively.
“Twenty quid,” he says, commercially.
“Done,” I say, extravagantly.
Luckily my pie is finished so I’m free to pose, though it does feel a little strange, and I’m aware of others in the bar glancing over at this artistic transaction. Yet this has never happened to me before so I see it as another stroke of story serendipity, costly though it is.
An hour later, I am alone and twenty quid lighter, with myself in front of me, grinning back at me. The detail is quite impressive, my wonky right ear sticking out a little more than the left, the guitar in my hand a Gibson, the bags under my eyes like castanets. I’m amused at what’s happened, and vow to paste the cartoon to my dashboard somehow, or even to the side window to deter burglars. But during the sitting I’ve noticed the wi-fi has connected and I’ve been scrolling through my emails. I’ve also noticed there has been not a word from Myra.
Disappointed, I drive to Rockcliffe Cross near the River Eden, where I’ll spend my night. I would’ve headed south, had she told me to. I would’ve abandoned my trek across the border over the wall. But here am I sitting in my tin can, with only a cartoon of myself for company. After eating some bread and cheese I begin to settle down to read, resigned to the fact I must press on in the face of loneliness and depression. Dusk is falling and I need my LED lights to sift through the literature of my day. There in the blurb I picked up from the Museum earlier, are the words be just and fear not, the town’s motto, and I remember that these are the words that Merv had used before having the confidence to part me from my twenty quid. Bedding down, I resolve that tomorrow I will be just and have no fear to send another email.