Brief Encounter – The Story of Ann and Me

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Grand Hotel, Scarborough – “She once was a true love of mine

After my warm welcome chez Stuart and Rachel I headed north to Scarborough feeling much brighter.  I even murdered Are you Going to Scarborough Fair as I drove.  I like to sing and drive, and I like to improvise silly songs of my own… as you’ll see if you read on.

Made a bit of a balls of the parking issue – I remembered side streets where free parking was on offer but didn’t remember their being so far away from the sea front!  So I walked the mile or so to town, where I thought I’d treat myself to a bacon butty and a cup of coffee somewhere.

On the steep way down towards the Grand Hotel I encountered a lady who seemed to be struggling with her shopping.  It’s not so easy these days to be gentlemanly, it can be misconstrued as patronising or sexist (as once happened to me in WHSmiths when I held the door open for a woman… then wished I’d let it go in her face) but intuition told me this would be appropriate and not unwelcome.  So I offered to help with her bags.

The reaction took me quite by surprise.  No she didn’t call me patronising or sexist, she thanked me profusely and burst into tears.  Seeing she was distressed, I guided her to a seat where she sunk down with her hands over her face.  This would be where Trevor Howard would proffer Celia Johnson a kerchief, but I only had a clump of kitchen roll in my pocket and couldn’t guarantee it hadn’t been used.  I apologised for this but she wouldn’t hear of it, I’d been kind enough already to help.

“I haven’t done anything,” I protested.

“Yes you have,” she countered, “the very fact that you offered.”

As she rummaged in her bag for a tissue she began to shake with laughter, saying she was such a fool for crying, what must I think?

I make three admissions; 1) the mercenary in me felt this might be a story, 2) the suspicious in me thought she might be mad, and 3) how could I not have noticed till now that she was extremely attractive?

She had long, blonde, curly hair and pale complexion, a pert little nose and blue eyes.  She was tall and slim, and the tight maxi-dress she wore showed off her neat, elegant figure.  Over the dress she wore a trendy denim jacket and she sported matching beaded necklace and earrings.  It’s always the ears that get me and I loved the way she looped her hair back so I could get a glimpse (by the way, I’m not saying she did this deliberately, but wish I could!)

I said I didn’t think anything bad of her for crying, and added that I wouldn’t pry but I’m a good listener if she needed to get something off her chest… which she did, with only the slightest hint of a Geordie accent:

Ann was born in Newcastle and lived with her parents till aged 21 when she married Andrew, whom she’d met at college.  They were happily married and over the next twenty years they build up a waste-recycling business, he as director and she as company secretary.  The demands of business were harsh, especially as they produced six kids (which astonished me) along the way.  With the financial rewards for all the toil they enjoyed family holidays abroad, a luxury home in Dalton and a villa in Spain.  She had everything.  They had everything.

Three months ago she was about to celebrate her 50th and a big family party was organised; outside caterers, marquee, flowers, the works; no expense spared for the 100 guests.  It was going to be the happiest day of her life, but it was also going to be the day that Andrew told her he had someone else.

At first Ann thought he was kidding – “But who the fuck would joke about something like that?”  Then came the shock, the anger, the heartbreak, the massive row, the horrible questions: Who?  How long?  Did he love her?  Did she love him?  With the answer to these last two being “yes”, Ann knew (or at least would know in time) it was no use fighting, not for him, not for her and certainly not for the kids’ sakes, they deserved better.  The fallout would obviously be huge (both emotionally and materially) but for that day, Ann found the courage and the strength and the dignity to gain control:

“I remember saying ‘You’ve done this to me, you’ve broken my heart and you’ve ruined my big day.  You don’t get to ruin everyone else’s.  We’re having this fucking party Andrew, and you’re going to be the host and fucking well look like you’re enjoying it!'”

I only hope I’ve done justice to Ann’s tale, I mean obviously I wasn’t taking notes.  Frankly the scale of her heartbreak is massive and these words or any might not cut it.  I was a little embarrassed that she’d told me, a complete stranger, then touched when she apologised for doing so.  But I shrugged off her apology and repeated that I’m a good listener and I hope it helped to get it said.  I was sorry for her plight and wanted to say that Andrew’s an utter prick, but didn’t.  Instead I asked what now?

“Meeting an old friend for lunch,” she said, “and a good old chat.”

“I guess it’ll be one of those all-men-are-bastards chats?” I laughed.

She laughed too, and it made her face beautiful.  “I’ve bought her some presents and I’m going to give them to her.  I’m spending as much of the bastard’s money as I can.”

She apologised for swearing, saying she doesn’t much.  I said she should do it more often, it helps.  Not everybody likes swearing, but I do.  Some people have complained about swear words on my blog, I said, but I don’t give a shit.  Sometimes when I’m angry at people or the world I drive along and make up angry or stupid songs.  She asked what I sing and I very reluctantly told her that this one’s to the tune of These Are a Few of My Favourite Things:

“Arseholes and bastards and fuckwits and wankers

Dickheads and tossers and bent merchant bankers,

Tossers and fuckers and shit-heads and turds,

These are a few of my favourite words.”

She laughed and said she loved it, and I said I’d teach her the words.  We chatted for maybe forty-five minutes, an hour tops, and I filled her in on my journeys.  She said the idea was cool and she sometimes thinks about just getting into her car and driving…  I knew what she meant but said she’d be OK, she’s got her kids (who incidentally all agree that Andrew is a prick and his girlfriend is a tart) and she’s still got her parents.  Plus she’s got 100 friends.

“101,” she said, and I’ll never forget it.  But then it was time for her to go.  I didn’t want to let her go but of course I must; what kind of deluded idiot was I to think this was going to end any other way?  So I rose to help her gather her “retail therapy” and bid her goodbye and good luck, and she gave me a kiss on the cheek and thanked me for being such a kind man.

“One day you’ll be rewarded,” she said, “Don’t let the arseholes and bastards and fuckwits and tossers get you down.”

“Wankers,” I corrected.

I was going in the same direction as her, down the hill for my bacon butty, but felt reluctant to walk with her; I had to let her go.  So I hung back on the seat and rolled a cigarette.  When I finally ventured onto the prom I hoped to glimpse her again, with her friend, but I didn’t.

Many years ago we played a story on Coronation Street which was pitched as a “Brief Encounter” for Sally Webster.  I was in charge of that story and for research I watched the video, though I’d obviously seen it before a dozen times.  And loved it.  In the end of course, Sally Webster slept with her amour, because the soap gods say no subtlety!  The audience wants a shag and we shall deliver a shag.  Well personally I think we should be irreverent to the gods.

But anyway there was my real-life Brief Encounter.  I was Trevor Howard, Ann was Celia Johnson – for me at any rate a 60 minute romance.  With no exchange of numbers and no shag of course.  A shag would’ve made it 62, but I shouldn’t sully the memory.

Ups and Downs

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Bouncy Castle – Sea-front, Filey

I mentioned my new friend Trevor.  I was just about to pay for parking at Flamborough Head when he hailed me from his lovely V-Dub and gave me an overnight ticket as he was about to leave.  We got chatting about all things campervanning and life and he told me he and his partner Karen were from Worksop.  He used to be a screw (can’t remember which prison) then took early retirement, went back on the plumbing tools for a while and finished up in catering.  I hope he wouldn’t mind me saying he looked like he’d eaten a few of the pies.

But he was a great character, talking a mile-a-minute, full of joie de vivre and passion for travel.  He showed me pics of some of the stealth-camping hot-spots.  “Sorry to keep you,” he kept saying, then kept me.  But after the shit day I’d had, his kindness, friendliness and wit were breaths of sea air.  I’d found solace in a kindred spirit and one I know I’ll keep in touch with.

Nevertheless I still woke up next morning feeling down, so had a long walk on Bempton Cliffs, watching gannets soaring up and dive-bombing down in their avian cod war, then drove up the coast in search of more friendly faces.

My real friend Gaz had put me in touch with an old Grammar School mate called Rachel and I’d seen that she and her husband Stuart had started following my blog.  He said they were up in Filey, running a seafront mini-fairground, so that’s where I headed, hoping my bearings both mechanical and cerebral were in order.  I parked up, walked down the Ravine and spotted the bright yellow bouncy castle, which I later learned is visible with the naked eye from Bempton (on a clear day, which this was).

Unsung and overlooked Filey has a beautiful coastline with grand Victorian villas and bungalows nestled into its cliffs; I’d been here before in happier times and was hoping for cheer this time around.  Even though I hadn’t seen her for 38 years I spotted and recognised Rachel immediately, approached her, and asked how much for a bounce.

“It’s you!” she proclaimed.  After exchanging hugs and how d’you dos, we chatted about old times and I recalled that her tribe were legends, having appeared on TVs Ask The Family with Robert Robinson.  Yes her family were world-famous at Nantwich & Acton Grammar School.  She asked if I were staying over and though I’d planned to get up to Whitby, the offer of dinner, wine, music and chat was too good to turn down.

After a pint at the Cobble Bar then a very long walk down the beach in the sun, I drove to Rachel and Stuart’s place, a lovely rural semi.  Getting reacquainted with Rach and meeting her husband was a pleasure, and their story of how they got together was the stuff of brilliant romance.  Frankly I won’t waste it on this blog, but to summarise, the two of them fell in love notionally before they’d even met, then realised it on a long haul flight.

As we shared stories of travel and life, filling in the 38 years since school, it transpired there were lots of connections; both Rach and Stuart knew my brother Tez and there were mutual friends in Big Steve, Wakey and many others.  To my shame it was clear that Rachel is much better at keeping in touch with old friends than I am.

Two other things struck me that night, a) though I’m not a doggy person, I made friends with their ten-year-old pooch called Poppy, who also took a shine to me, b) how I miss having a proper home and garden, and c) how lonely I’d been.  It was such a pleasure to spend time with a wonderful couple so deeply in love, and enjoy a delicious meal in the power-house which is their state-of-the-art kitchen… it even had something called an Amazon Dot called Alexa, who would play any music you told her to, gave a weather report, up-do-date news, and if you went away for a week no doubt she’d feed the fish and water the begonias.

But of course all good things come to an end and, seeing they were knackered after a hard (yet no doubt lucrative) day at work, I retired back to the Ottermobile which I’d “stealth-camped” in their ample garden.  It was a fabulous night, so welcome after a miserable couple of days, and I bedded down feeling up – people are so kind and just when you need them, there they are.  Just like Rachel and Stuart’s bouncy castle, I am up then I am down.  As I said to a barmaid in York the other day:

When I am up I am up

And when I am down I am down

And when I am only half-way up…  ah you get the picture.

The Story of Losing One’s Bearings

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The morning after the wheel-bearing fiasco I woke up early and waited for the grease monkey.  His name was Alan, a thick-set character who, like all mechanics, wasn’t inclined to start with good news.  “Problem is getting the bearings for this model,” he said, gloomily.  But after a nifty phone call he said he could get them by 2.30 and have me back on the road “while 5.”  This was good news, though I knew it would cost me and I’d have to go to the Bank of Podge.  Anyway I hastily planned a day in Bridlington to kill time and write.

After a hearty breakfast in a town centre cafe I enjoyed a five-mile walk down the prom tiddley-om-pom-pom then felt I deserved a pint.  Many years ago Jayne switched on the Christmas lights here and I remembered it well.  I chose the Harbour Tavern where I was delighted to get a pint of bitter for £1.90.  38 bob!  You could’ve knocked me down with a feather.  Cheap round here, I thought.

The bar was quiet at first; just an old couple sipping drinks in complete and bored silence, a retired gent with a good head of hair moaning to his friend about a non-regular who scooped the jackpot on the machine.  “Twice!” he added, more than once.  And a jovial barmaid grumbling to a vaping barfly about her dog; “He’s a little shit,” she said.  And finally the most amazingly hilarious mullet I’ve ever seen.  Oh how I laughed to myself… until I realised I’ve got one!

As the bar filled up I thought I’d chance my arm with one of the locals over a cigarette outside – a retired fisherman called Tom, a wiry old gent with forearms like Popeye, who told me his tale that ended in tragedy.  He’d worked at sea, fishing for cod, haddock, lobster and crab, all his life and his sons followed.  Up at 2 and braving the tides for twelve hours was tough work with never any guarantee of a good catch.  One night a storm brewed and the twenty-foot waves engulfed his coble, causing one of his sons to slip.  Desperately, Tom grabbed his hand but couldn’t hang on, so he watched helplessly as his son slid away and got taken by Neptune.  Bereft, Tom thought he could carry on till retirement, but after a few more trips he realised he’d have to call it a day, too powerful was the trauma.  His remaining sons still fish and every time they go out, Tom can’t sleep, till he knows they’re safely ashore.

I wondered how many matelots have similar tales of woe, and frankly I marvelled at how they do it.  I pictured myself on a boat, slipping and sliding on deck in all weathers, and shuddered, knowing I’m not man enough for it.  Like coal mining it’s one of those jobs people do, as we consumers take their rewards for granted.  I felt ashamed at how many times my computer has crashed and I term it a peril of the job of writing.  As my dad might’ve said, we don’t know we’re born.

To clear my head of sadness I took another brisk walk until Alan called to say the bearings were replaced.  As I headed for the garage, impressed with their turbo performance, I thought all was not so bad.  I was expecting (stupidly) a bill of about thirty quid, then nearly dropped dead to be told it was over three times that!  I think I said the word bollocks out loud, and added it wasn’t so cheap around these parts after all.

One of those things I guess.  At least I had my home back, and my life.  But I still couldn’t help feeling down as I pulled up next to Flamborough Lighthouse.  Yes this time there was a trigger as my head filled with orange and I broke down and wept.

These are the times you feel the loneliest, and that the project is utterly pointless or even impossible to complete.  It wasn’t so much the Ottermobile as me who’d lost his bearings.  But what can you do but carry on?  What can possibly go wrong now?  At least I did find some solace in a kind new friend and fellow-vanner called Trevor from Worksop (more on this next time) but you can’t vent your anger on a new friend, can you?  So I just had to get my head down and forget about the whole thing, cry myself to sleep.

Trouble was, the bloody lighthouse kept flashing!  If they had any consideration for travellers they’d switch it off at night-time.  I managed a chuckle as I thought that one up, but knew that Sailor Tom wouldn’t.

 

Big Mouth Strikes Again

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Big Mouth (Herring Gull – Bridlington)

Somebody said I don’t put enough photos in my diary posts – apparently readers today have a short attention-span.  In my view that’s a sad indictment but hey-ho.  So let’s play a pictorial game: Spot the difference between this pic I took of a carousel in York:

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… and this one of my wheel in Bridlington:

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Answer: the carousel goes round whereas my wheel does not.  Because the fucking bearings went.  The story goes like this:

I was heading to Filey, doing about 50, when I heard a loud crunch at the back and the Ottermobile was yanked violently to the left.  I immediately turned the hazards on and pulled over to make emergency calls (and change my underpants).  At first I thought the exhaust had come off but soon realised the rear left wheel was smoking and I could smell the stink of red-hot axle-grease.

Tell me this; why are some people such arseholes?  Though I’d put a warning triangle at the rear and opened the bonnet to show both directions I was in trouble, I still had at least three motorists peeping their horns, flashing their lights and making get-out-of-the-way gestures.  I made fuck off gestures back because as I say, they’re arseholes.  On the other side of the coin, one couple kindly stopped to ask if I was OK.  Not arseholes.  But I digress.

Eventually, saviour arrived in a mechanic called Ian from Beverley – a young and handsome man with a friendly face and disposition.  He jacked me up, as it were, took one look and said “It’s your bearings.”

“What’s up with them?” I asked.

“They’re fucked,” he replied.

“Right.  Is that the technical term and more importantly is it a big job?”

“You need a recovery vehicle and I knock off at 5,” he said, “It’s my lass’s birthday and we’ve got a table booked.”

In man-to-man language I knew that meant he was on a promise, and far be it from me to get in the way of a man’s conjugal rights, fucked bearings or no fucked bearings.

Ian wasn’t being unhelpful, he just didn’t have the tools to fix the job onsite, all he could do was escort me off the road and onto a safe place while I waited for a recovery truck.  So very slowly I crept some 500 yards to a farmer’s drive as Ian made the necessary calls.  Telling me that help would be there in an hour, he shook my hand and left.

“Enjoy your shag,” I quipped, and he gave me a wink that said it all.

As promised, within an hour, further assistance arrived in Rob, who deftly tail-ended me, as it were, and told me to get in the back of his pick-up because his lass was in the front.  “What is it about Yorkshiremen and their lasses?” I thought, “Are they joined at the hip?”  But anyway it turned out to be a family business owned by Rob’s father-in-law, and as we towed the Ottermobile back to Bridlington I got to know this lovely couple as best I could.  Also from Beverley, they bigged-up the town and its market, its minster (where they got married 15 years ago) and its horse racing.  And they’d be combining this job with a fish and chip treat on the seafront, especially if the famous Audrey’s was open.

When we got to the garage it was closed (or “clersed” as they pronounce it in their nick of the woods) so they dropped me on the forecourt, leaving me to prep for the night.

The garage was in a residential street and there were loads of kids running about, clearly amused at the sight of a grey old man putting his slippers on.  I fearfully expected Jimmy Savile references but mercifully none forthcame.  But they hung around for ages, causing me to wonder what time kids go to fucking bed these days!

When it finally went quiet except for seagulls’ cries, I did some soul-searching.  How had it come to this?  How had my life gone so tits-up?  Yet another depressing setback, halting my project and progress up to Scotland.  So I had to think of Aline, and Lucy, and James the gypsy hitch-hiker,  and all the others I’d met on my journey who were fucked-up but always ready with a smile.  Because we are all fucked-up in some way, I mused, just some of us are more fucked-up than others.  And some of us cope with fucked-up-ness better than others.

“Look on the bright side,” said Jayne on the phone, “You’re alive and you’ve got somewhere to sleep.”  She was right of course, that’s true.  But it’s also true that I’d had another brush with death; both Rob and Ian said I was lucky because if I’d driven 100 yards further the wheel would’ve come off – and if I’d been on a motorway…  It didn’t bear thinking about.

That’s why this one’s called Big mouth Strikes Again.  Not because I’m a fan of The Smiths and Morrissey, which I am, but because I’d dismissed Bridlington for its lacking lustre, and then I’m expecting it to put me up for the night and get my Ottermobile fixed on the cheap.  And I was bragging about my project, saying it’s helping with the black dog and all that.  Well I should’ve kept my trap shut because this was the second potentially-fatal incident (loyal readers will remember an early post about my brakes failing in Halifax).  If these things come in threes, the next time it’s curtains.  At times like this I wouldn’t care.

Bet Lynch Lives in Bridlington

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In a Bridlington pub I settled with my Guardian and Gillette Soccer Saturday, knowing I had to make two pints last six hours.  Which is no mean feat.  Nursing a drink till the froth is dried on the inside of the glass is the pub equivalent of stealth-camping – you’re sitting quiet, hoping not to get noticed, while of course gazing upon the world as it goes by.  All fine, except that someone did notice – the barmaid, who bore an exciting resemblance to Bet Lynch.

Her name was in fact Lucy.  Somewhere between 50 and 60 and trying to knock ten years off, Lucy was blonde, busty, voluptuous, provocatively-cleavaged in red (not leopard-print) and done up to the nines.  Her towering locks were tied up and her ears were pierced with dangly numbers as big as windchimes.  In younger days she would’ve been beautiful and though three marriages, six kids, thirteen grandkids and a current torrid, door-slamming relationship with potential hubby number 4 have taken their toll, she still looks good.  And I imagine a throng of men loitering at the bar either staring at their pint or more likely her impressive chest.  I could be one of them, because I shouldn’t be a bit surprised if I fancied the woman.

I got her story when I went up for my second ale and she commented, not inaccurately or judgmentally, that I was a slow supper.  I laughed and corrected that if I had the money I’d be supping quicker and coming back more often.  I wasn’t looking for sympathy, just stating fact.  But anyway she seemingly felt sorry for me and put this one on the house.  If money didn’t change hands then life-stories did.  The bar was quiet at this point, early doors, so there was the freedom and privacy conducive to intimacy.  She’d noticed I’d been scribbling in my notebook so asked if I were a writer and as I described my project she seemed impressed, so I nervously dropped in that I’m searching human stories and characters and she reminded me of Bet Lynch.  She laughed and said she’d had that dozens of times, though in her game you don’t get much time for telly and anyway she’d prefer Eastenders.  Fair enough, I said, each to their own.

Lucy didn’t hail from East Yorkshire, she was a Leodensian, a “Wessie” as they call them here (ie someone from West Yorkshire).  She hadn’t travelled much, too many kids and and too little money, though some years ago she flirted with the idea of emigrating to Australia with her first husband… but that didn’t happen because he turned out to be a “cock”.  As did husbands number 2 and 3, she added.

I could’ve chatted to Lucy for hours but there was football to watch and a crossword to do and the bar was getting busy.  And as I sipped my ale and watched my team go down to Everton, I pondered how ephemeral and loveless is this life; you flit from place to place where love is swift arrows.  Fleeting meetings and greetings, if you like shit poetry.

By 7pm I’m walking down the prom with my guitar and a bag of chips, thinking that like other places I’ve laid my hat, there’s so much beauty while the town itself is something they forgot to bomb.  And I think about Lucy and her cleavage, her windchimes and her door-slamming husband-to-be.  I wanted to get to know her more but clearly that was impossible – inviting Tony into my campervan the other day was one thing, but saying to a woman “Would you like to come back to my van?” is a far from impressive chat-up line.   And of course she was taken.  And of course I shouldn’t assume she fancied me.  So as I stealth-camp near Bempton Cliffs I say to myself, “You’re on your own again, cock.”

Homeless – My Night with a Down-and-out

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York – The Shambles by the Author!

I always knew there’d be a first time for someone to sleep the night with me in my van, but never in my wildest dreams did I think it’d be a bloke.

To give the backstory, just like many other towns and cities, York has a real homeless problem – in recent years it’s seen a rise of 40% of those officially considered to be in that category.  I don’t include myself – my Ottermobile is my home, not in the traditional sense, but it’s a roof over my head with certain amenities so enough for me to call it that.  But yes it’s only one small step away from the streets.

Which is where I met “Tony”.  Normally those you encounter in shop doorways lie in a shambles of bedclothes with a paper cup in front of them, and they’re mutteringly asking if you have any spare change.  But there was something noticeably different about Tony – well-spoken, smart but casual in jeans and anorak, clean-looking, he politely approached me and asked for help.  Though homeless and penniless, there was something in his eyes that made me warm to him.  I knew there was a story but I didn’t want it there and then so I invited him into a nearby cafe and bought him a tea and a bun.  Gratefully he put down his bags and found a table, where I described my project and my own proximity to homelessness.  Hearing this seemed to touch him all the more so I wondered if in return he’d tell me how he came to be here, joking that he didn’t get the comestibles for free.  He laughed and begun his tale, which here I summarise.

Originally from Blackpool, he left school with nothing to write home about and drifted through dead-end jobs and relationships, finishing up in a fairground burger van.  Eventually he managed to save up and get himself to Brussels, where he studied catering with dreams of becoming a restaurateur.  Suddenly he heard from his brother that his parents and Auntie had been killed in a car crash.  Returning home to see to the funeral, he met a guy who’d become his lover.  They settled in Blackpool where he got a job as a waiter while setting up a bistro with his brother, using their small inheritance.

The hikes in rent hit him hard and he eventually lost the business, and when his boyfriend deserted him and he was duped by his brother, he went into financial and mental decline.  Since then he’s drifted around our cities to find work.

It was a story far from unique I supposed, and heartbreaking, but as with Aline (see Land of a Thousand Hills) there was the air of “that’s how it goes” pragmatism – Tony doesn’t feel sorry for himself, though he is at times baffled as to how this happened, how he got here, how rapid was the journey.

But don’t suppose either of us were down in the dumps; Tony was a very funny young man of 30, good-looking, bright, friendly and hopeful; all he wanted, he said, was to get a full-time job, save up and get back to Belgium.

Impressed with his positivity and warmed by his wit, I asked how this is possible when sleeping rough – isn’t it dangerous?  Does he encounter violence etc?  With a shrug Tony said this and other things come with the territory.  He’d been propositioned for sex, which he’d never lower himself to, he’d been attacked over a cup of tea, and he’d been offered drugs though he’s never so much as smoked a spliff.  Sleeping rough is a last resort, he said, he sometimes gets casual work and can afford a hostel, but finding a full-time job is difficult.

I really liked Tony and felt for him, especially when he said he’d slept rough the night before and got drenched; he’d spent his last pennies on getting his clothes laundered.  Though the weather had improved I couldn’t bear the thought of him kipping in a doorway so wondered if he’d prefer a roof over his head, just one night…

So I found myself in a lay-by near Murton, setting up stealth-camp.  Knowing he was hungry, as was I, I vowed to rustle something up, explaining I love cooking for people and don’t get the chance nowadays.  He was the chef and I was the novice but with meagre provisions I managed to make a meal which he seemed to enjoy.  Beggars can’t be choosers, he said!  There was no wine to go with the dish, but we didn’t need it because we were laughing like drains at how bizarre all this was; total strangers, sharing food, sharing jokes, playing Ludo (!) and bonding in ludicrous adversity.

Though the Ottermobile claims to be a two-berth it’s a tight squeeze, but I managed the awkward and funny manoeuvre of the seats to bed down – not before I’d declared some ground-rules:

No farting

No breakfast

In the morning he must be gone before I do my ablutions, and

No funny business.

Responding in order, he said he doesn’t fart, he’d get breakfast elsewhere, he’d no desire to see me “ablute” and as for funny business he wouldn’t touch me with a fucking barge-pole.  I said I felt a mixture of amusement, offence and comfort from that peroration.  Tony laughed, telling me I was a lovely bloke, if a bit mad, he’d had a great time and I’m crap at Ludo.

Next morning, after a quiet night’s kip he made a sharp exit as promised, with a quip that I could now shit in peace.  He also took my number and promised to stay in touch.  Whether that will happen I very much doubt, but that doesn’t matter.  He was a fine young man; he was good company, he made me laugh, but most importantly he made me think about what’s important.  “We Stand Together” went the mantra after recent terrorist attacks.  What more can we do but help each other through?  We’re human beings and that’s what we do, or most of us.  I’ve always championed the underdog, it’s in my make-up.  If I can help I will, and I wish I could do more.  I’m no saint, God knows, but I like to think and I like to know that whatever happens to me and if I end up in Tony’s shoes, someone will be there to help me.  I’ll think a lot about Tony and marvel at his cheer in dark days, I’ll hope he’ll get back to Brussels, and I’ll forever be saddened at how it got to this.  We all roll the dice I suppose, but only some of us score a six.

Right now though I’m concerned about getting to the Filey coast and up into Scotland.  Time for me, like for everyone, is running out.

Ludo

Best of Both Worlds – The Dubious Art of Finding a Story

ITV STORYTELLING EVENT MAXUS

It’s not so straightforward to approach people these days.  I’m not saying folk are unfriendly, by and large the world turns around because most of us are law-abiding, decent and civil.  But with the increase of crime comes the rise of suspicion, so when you make a beeline for a complete stranger in a pub, deep down you might expect the cold shoulder, a mouthful of abuse or even a smack in the mouth.  So you’d think I’d be cautious, but to be honest I’m not.  Not entirely.

All those years ago when I was interviewed by Health Unlimited for the job in Rwanda I was asked how I’d cope in a dangerous place and/or situation, and I used the analogy that as a writer I see two pubs in the town square – one looks quiet, the other sounds rowdy.  I choose the rowdy one because that could be more interesting; I might get a story and a character with my pint.  And that was the case in Leeds recently.  The story I found isn’t the greatest ever told but I’ll use it to illustrate my point.

But first, you don’t find stories sitting on your arse, and I’m not a great fan of researching on the internet, which to me is the last resort.  You have to market yourself and I find the pub has the best footfall in terms of setting out my stall.  And there I will feed carrots to the horses and get the stories from their mouths.

So I’m in a rough pub in Leeds, where I order a pint and casually take in the customers.  There’s a ladies’ darts match on and I note the tattoos, the hairdos or attempts thereof, the cleavage, the banter and frankly the admirable ability to find the treble twenty.  It’s a weekly event they practise for, dress up for, then look forward to post-match drinks, fags and trays of meat paste sandwiches and limp lettuce.  But that’s not all.  In a corner there’s a couple of fellas playing ukelele and banjo, singing folk songs.  In another there’s an elderly couple mouthing the words, probably inaccurately, between sips.  At the bar there’s a passionate debate happening for three tough-looking guys, the crux of which sounds like would Leeds go up this season and would re-ownership of Elland Road bode well?  I feel like adding my views but resist temptation because I’ve seen someone to pick on – the biggest and roughest-looking man of the considerable bunch of clientele.

He’s on his own right now but I sense he’s waiting for someone or something to happen.  He’s a big guy looking 50 but probably younger, covered in body art.  One of the tattoos, a serpent, coils around his neck and into his bald head, finishing at the fontanelle.  In his nose he wears a ring and in his ears are those big holey things I don’t know the name of but remind me of the Maasai I’ve seen in Kenya and Tanzania. His considerable torso is covered with a denim jacket with the sleeves ripped off, showing his impressively-painted guns.  I ask if this seat is spare and he just nods.

After a few slurps of my Timothy Taylor I finally manage to get a word.  Riskily I tell him I’m not a local and he tells me he knows, he has me down as a traveller.  He’s clocked my bag, he’s clocked me scraping together shrapnel at the bar and he’s figured I’m on my uppers.  I confirm this, and tell him I’m living in a van.  He seems to relax now, and even commends my story, saying he’s done most of the UK and Europe on his motorbike, a Harley.  I know nothing about bikes but explain my brother had one, and he’s impressed until I add that it was a Suzuki 250.  Sensing there’s not much mileage in my brother’s bike I push it maybe and ask if he’s a Hell’s Angel.  He shakes his head, insisting he just likes bikes and he also likes free-living and having sex, and with a tap of his nose he adds that he doesn’t work.  His name is Craig but people call him Bex.  I want to push further and ask why Bex, and how he makes his living, but he begins his story so I hang fire…

He’s waiting for his wife.  Well, she isn’t his wife, not any more, she’s his first wife and now his mistress, his current wife is playing darts.  She knows he’s having an affair with his ex, and his ex knows he’s got a wife at home, and knows that she knows.  It’s all hunky dory for Bex, he’s got the best of both worlds.  At this point he asks if I want another and I decline, saying I’m driving, but he insists that if I refuse he will finish up falling out with me.  It’s the first hint of aggression and I realise this could go either way.  When he returns with three pints (one for his mistress who he says has just texted to say she’s on her way) he tells me more about both his worlds: the bikes, the bike crashes, the metal pin in his left leg thanks to some knob-head in a BMW on Snake Pass, the brawls, the women, the sex.  There’s still an edge to his pitch and I kind of hope his mistress would turn up and change the dynamic.  Then he asks if I’m married, so I tell him separated, and he asks how I go on for sex?

Sometimes in unpredictable situations I find self-deprecation can help – it can throw the the other person, surprise them into submission, make them see you’re no threat, or even make them laugh.  So I go for telling him I don’t get lucky, and even if I did I’m not sure I’d be any good at it anymore – I’d have to pretend that were someone else.  The gag is not mine it belongs to the Bob Monkhouse estate, and Bex laughs so I’m cool with robbing a dead man if it achieves the change of gear I’m after.  But lurking beneath the laughter and testosterone and clouding the beer I sense another story, if I dare ask.  Because there’s a sadness in his worlds and a depression in his eyes that I can see; it takes one to know one…

… Bex was born Craig B (name withheld) in Scarborough, where his father was a fisherman his mother a seamstress.  It wasn’t a happy marriage.  His father was a chronic drunk; when he wasn’t at sea he was in the pub and when he wasn’t slurping pints he was beating his wife.  One night the beatings got out of hand and his mother lashed out in self-defence, but this only provoked his fury and he clouted her over the head with the coal shovel, killing her… and into that beautiful world was born Craig.  As his father did time and subsequently died inside, Craig was brought up by his Aunty and abused for years by his Uncle.  Then at the age of fifteen he ran away and never went back.  To this day he won’t go near Scarborough.  He’ll travel the world, but not there – too many haunting memories…

I’ve summarised the story but you get the picture – this gargantuan man, looking for all the world the toughest you’d encounter, reduced to near-tears as he unburdens to me, a complete stranger he’s only met one pint ago.  And I don’t really know how I’ve done it, how I’ve managed to get him to offload.  Or maybe it isn’t me at all, maybe I’ve just picked on someone who really needs to tell?   Anyway, not abruptly, after a bit more chat (you can’t just jump up and leave when someone’s borne his soul) I say it’s nice to talk to him but I really must get off and find somewhere to stealth-camp.  And thankfully he’s fine with that, so I wonder if he’s had his fill of emptying his closet of skeletons.

As I empty my bladder before heading out, I ponder his story and its ratio of fact to fiction.  Did his father really kill his mother while she was carrying him?  Did he ever meet his father, look into the eyes of his mother’s slaughterer?  Was it really a coal shovel?  Does he really own a Harley?  Is his left leg really made of metal thanks to the knob-head in a BMW?  Is his wife really throwing arrows in the bar?  Does the first-wife-cum-mistress exist and is she really on her way?

Then as I head for the exit I look back to our corner.  And there is Bex grinning over at me and waving, and at his side is a very attractive blonde, sipping her pint, smiling and also giving a wave.  Whether she’s his wife or ex-wife-cum-mistress I’ll never know.  But I leave it to my imagination as I head for my van, passing a beautiful gleaming Harley Davidson on the way.