Unashamedly, I’m republishing the following edited extract from my novel which I thought was kind of prophetic, and which is pertinent right now, when imagination is called for more than ever.
“Mystery Came to Dinner” from the novel “Here am I Sitting in a Tin Can.“
It’s days like this I like the best. When the sun is shining, the North Yorkshire scenery is stunning, and I’m tootling along in a tin can, singing songs I used to know, laughing at jokes I used to tell, smoking roll-ups and not giving a flying fuck that I’m holding up the traffic behind me because this thing can only do a maximum of fifty. Days like this when I feel beyond doubt I made the right decision to live off-grid, put my things in storage, claim the deposit back from the greedy company who managed my rented apartment, waved goodbye to the wankers and took to the road. Days like this in isolation, blissfully happy and thinking one day everybody will live like this. One day in the not too distant future, when it’s either boredom of the rat-race or some horrible chemical warfare or wilful self-destruction of the planet that will deem it necessary, vital or compulsory. Days like this when I say, “I want to be alone. So who would like to join me?”
Trawling through recent memory and tarmac covered, I consider the beehived barmaid of Bridlington who reminded me of Bet Lynch, the lady in Annan who bemoaned the loss of the post office and the town council’s lack of forward-planning, Ann the poor bereft damsel in Scarborough perhaps…? The list is endless yet notional, my options far-reaching yet limited.
Staithes is the destination of choice today. But first I need provisions. I’m in the mood, I’m planning a romantic dinner for one, a bottle of wine or two to see me through another night of stealth, listening to waves nearby and gazing at stars a million miles away. Just as I’m docked in the deep end of Asda carpark away from the lazy bastards who need to be almost in the entrance to save their fattened legs, and I’m locking up the tin can, I hear a voice:
“Excuse me,” it says, “You dropped your wallet.” She is petite, blonde and pretty, dressed casually in black.
“You’re welcome,” she says, grins a toothy grin and proceeds to load her shop into her little Kia. Under normal circumstances exchanges such as this would end right there, but today my needs are different.
“I’m on my way to Staithes,” I say.
“It’s nice there,” she says.
“So I believe.”
“And are you staying over in that?”
“I am,” I confirm, not at all offended by the slight disparagement in her tone, “Hotel Tin Can.”
“I didn’t mean to sound rude,” she says.
“Not at all. It’s not much but it’s my home.”
“You live in it?” she says, “How wonderful!”
Chicken is what I decide on, for no other reason than I’ve always thought you can’t go wrong with it, so I’m traipsing the aisles choosing the veg to accompany and a nice bottle of wine. I am only a connoisseur of under-a-fiver plonk, but find myself for once looking upwards. Chateauneuf du Pape is what I see and like the sound of, so I take a couple down and read the label. “Chateuneuf du Pape,” I say aloud, relishing the way it rolls off the tongue, “Seventeen quid a pop.”
Four hours later I’ve reached my destination, a rural spot up the steep hill from the harbour, and the four rings on my cooker are fired up with bubbling pans. There is no greater pleasure than cooking a meal for a woman. Except when she eats it, and manages to keep it down. But I’m uncharacteristically nervous. I’ve changed from combats into smartish jeans and a shirt that hasn’t been ironed but will pass. I’m weighing up the odds, thinking how strange a life like this can be and how brave was my asking her to dinner. And how ridiculous it is that I’m expecting her to show. A stranger in a supermarket carpark, a traveller searching a story, a man who hasn’t shaved for weeks and a pretty woman having dinner in a tin can? What kind of fool could expect this to end any other way than disappointingly? Yet it’s no mean feat to juggle pans on four rings burning, and no mean feast I see before me that will bless the plastic plates should the lady reappear.
She is dressed in purple now, a slim-fitting dress, and she is perfect with her crooked smile. Her talk is somewhere northeast and lyrical, accompanied by bangles, and her hair is tied back to show ears with dripping silver. Maybe she’s nervous too, though she doesn’t seem so. I pour the Chateauneuf du Pape and we chink plastic glasses as I disclaimer the culinary fare. But she puts her hand on mine and with that toothy smile she says, “It’s lovely. I’ve never had dinner on a van before.”
I’m embarrassed. I’ve never been comfortable with compliments, it’s something I hate about myself, but I came to learn that following a compliment there comes a knife in the back. Such scars are indelible. But she eats every last plastic-forked morsel as between each morsel she tells me things about her life. And between each morsel I watch and listen. Her face is fascinating too. She offers to wash the plastic but I gratefully decline.
“I’ll do it in the morning,” I venture, hoping the “I” would be “we”, and suggest instead a walk. There are beaches to comb.
We comb for miles on end, chatting, laughing, and in Robin Hood’s Bay I take her hand in order to help negotiate some slippery rocks. I don’t think she really needs help, but the ruse has worked because we remain hand-in-hand for the rest of the walk, talking constantly, laughing often. She finds a stripy stone and picks it up to clean. I ask if that’s significant and she says no, she just likes stripy stones, she collects them. And then we finally reach a quiet cove to rest.
It was from my mother I learned that in the films they cut to crashing waves. And afterwards I tell her so.
“You must miss her,” she says, straightening her purple dress.
“I do,” I say.
And then we journey back, hand-in-hand, this time silence speaking volumes against the gentler tidal sibilance of sea and air.
Hotel Tin Can is waiting when we get there, and I hope she’ll share my room for the night, open the second bottle. But she can’t, she says, she has to get back. “Thank you for a lovely time,” she says. Though I want to, I don’t ask why she has to go or to whom. Yet we talk for ages more. I tell her about my life as a nomad, days in isolation, we sing, I busk my ukulele, we enjoy being silly, till finally we kiss goodbye and off into the night she disappears.
Later, when my plastic plate is washed, I add the stripy stone to my collection, finish the wine, gaze at the stars a million miles away and smoke another joint.
Did I earn a coffee?
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