100 Not Out – Chronicles of a Homeless Nomad

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Waking up to my garden in Saltburn a couple of weeks ago

Before picking up on my stay in Saltburn I thought it apt to record another important landmark for me – 100 days and nights of living off-grid.  In preparation for this I looked at my copious notes and turned them into bullet-points, then got bored of their formality, so decided to put them into some sort of narrative or stream of consciousness.  So a potted summary of the trials, tribulations and adventures from the Ottermobile…

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I’ve supped in lots of pubs to get my stories and characters:  I heard the life-story of a sobbing Hell’s Angel in Leeds, I made a friend in nonagenarian Jerry Eccles in Lytham, fancied Bet Lynch in Bridlington, got given a less than warm greeting in Prestatyn, ate a salty haggis in Dumfries, had a piss-up reunion with Tiddle-eye-Po, my brothers and sons in Nantwich, played pool with Gary and met a fellow Stoke fan in Beeston, had a brief encounter with Ann in Scarborough, heard the story of Sailor Tom losing his eldest son to Neptune, and listened to a tale of woe from a bloke who’d got “managed out” of his council job in Carlisle.

I’ve trodden the ground from my childhood.  I put flowers on my parents’ graves, visited my first ever home, retraced my steps over the village where I grew up, reminisced about losing my virginity, trekked the Golden Mile of Blackpool, recalled happy memories of holidays in North Wales, researched my family tree.

I’ve diced with death on several occasions.  The brakes went in Halifax, the back wheel bearings burnt out in Thwing and according to the grease monkeys 100 more yards and the wheel would’ve overtaken me, I nearly burned myself alive with a dish of pasta, in Leeming Bar I drove the wrong way up a duel carriageway, I got challenged to a bare-knuckle fight in Appleby and had a fight with a couple of fuckwits north of Tyneside.

Funny things not life-threatening have happened in the Ottermobile:  the passenger seat collapsed in Burwardsley, the roof leaked in Penrith then mysteriously sealed itself, I found £100 in my pocket, and during an invasion of mosquitoes I got bitten on the dick.

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Stealth-camping has been a varied experience:  I’ve slept rough on a garage forecourt, in someone’s garden, in lay-bys all over the north, in rural retreats with beautiful views, country lanes flanked by tall hedges, fields with cattle in the next bed, outside remote cottages and in town streets under the nose of sleeping residents.  And in Salford Quays I’ve kipped for free in the grounds of the posh apartment I used to pay through the nose for.

I’ve made friends or renewed acquaintances outside of pubs too:  Rachel from school and her lovely husband Stuart in Filey, Kay and Adam in Sandsend, Mark and Ruth in Rigg (and their dog and a haggis) Mandy in Nantwich, the Ashtons in Wistaston, a homeless chef who spent the night in my Ottermobile, imaginary friend Mystery who came to dinner, and a smashing bloke called Trev in Flamborough…

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I’ve driven thousands of miles in three countries:  I fell in love again with Beeston, I travelled up the west coast, struggled to park in Rhyl, enjoyed a few days in the beautiful Lake District, got applause from Japanese tourists as I busked Simon and Garfunkle in Pooley Bridge, chugged my way up through Cumbria and into Gretna where nobody would marry me, on to Dumfries and back down to Derby to see my son Charlie graduate.  And best of all, I reunited with my daughter Gabriel after ten long years then later got to meet my beautiful grandchildren for the first time.

So it’s been a journey of adventure and catharsis:  I’ve seen good and bad, met people good and bad, heard stories happy and sad.  I’ve felt happy and sad myself.  There have been many moments of loneliness and depression, many times I’ve either laughed or cried uncontrollably.  I’ve contemplated climbing a Cumbrian mountain and jumping off, throwing myself over the cliffs of Bempton, walking into the sea at Formby, drowning in Ullswater while having a wash, or allowing the quicksands of Glencaple to drag me under.

But many things have stopped me: the unfailing help of Jayne, the support of my brothers, kids and friends both new and old, the beauty that’s our kingdom, the wildlife it offers, the osprey in Caelaverock, the barn owl in Tarleton, the nearly-sighted otter, the seaside towns we shouldn’t allow to crumble, the thought of falling in love.

And many things have driven me: finishing my novel, a TV script by correspondence with two co-authors, a stage play that’s been burning for years, and weirdly this blog, which for me is an entirely new and alien thing.  The thought and love of my friends and family, the thought of all things positive in the world and the walking 500,000 miles to keep me fit and sane.

But life as a homeless nomad isn’t easy.  Yes I’ve basked in the sun like a happy lazy tramp, but I’ve tramped through the woods in torrential rain.  I have loved it and I have hated it, I’ve felt up and I’ve felt down.  I’ve been called a lovely and kind man in Scarborough and a paedophile in Scotland.  I’ve nostalgically wondered how those less fortunate have faired; how Aline and her siblings are doing in Rwanda and did they ever get to America?  I’ve championed the underdog.  I’ve searched my soul for ways to right the wrongs I’ve done and I’ve pondered how to right the wrongs of terrorists and bullies, or how to take a metaphorical crowbar to those who’ve shat on me.

I’ve come through it all unscathed but for a small cut over the eye.  I feel good that I’ve achieved 100/365 of my project.  How much further I get in terms of mileage depends not least on the Ottermobile, which depreciates with every revolution of its wheels.  As for me, who knows?  But as long as I’ve no choice I’ll bat on, 100 not out, still living and learning.

So what have I learned?  That I am a fighter who won’t be beat, who won’t run away.  I can be down but will never be out.  That I am still alive and fecund, that while I’m poor in terms of money I’m rich with ideas, imagination and creativity.  Oh and a lot of love in the bank.

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“What to Cook What not to Cook”

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I’m feeling very happy today, even despite my growing unkempt white hair and increasing resemblance to Andy Warhol.  I’m happy not least because the number of my followers has risen, so here’s to my “fifteen minutes of fame” in cyberspace.  But really I want to talk about survival, and more specifically survival and diet off-grid.  Yesterday I dipped my toe into romantic fiction in terms of dinner a deux.  I enjoyed getting my feet wet and soaked up the readers’ response, but it got me thinking about how, or more pertinently, what I’ve been eating in order to survive life on the road.

But first I’ll set the table as it were; I’d travelled north from Staithes to Saltburn, where I planned to stealth-camp for at least two nights and catch up on the football.  Ah football, not palatable to everybody but essential to my diet – that beautiful game played by twenty-two professionals and watched by millions of expert consumers and critics.  When I arrived on the prom I was lucky enough to get a place, free of charge, with a fantastic view and a stone’s throw from a pub showing Sky Sports.

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Saltburn Funicular Railway

Saltburn is a lovely little place and I liked the town and the charming way it doesn’t pretend.  In general the people were friendly and well-heeled, and I enjoyed listening to their kind of Geordie-cum-Teesside accent – “the Saltburn Vernacular” if you pardon the pun.  I took a ride on the famous railway, reading up on its history and hydraulic mechanism, then a long walk down the clean sands towards Marske while hoping to make a valuable discovery or find a lucky stripy stone.  But it was a Saturday and I’d worked up a thirst for beer and football, so I trekked back to The Marine pub on the prom.  I had a really nice time there, got talking to the locals (stories to follow in later posts) and drank good beer while watching Stoke beat Arsenal.  What more could a man want, except for a good dinner?  So, what to cook what not to cook (mmm… might work that up into a pitch for ITV)?

I prefer to eat as much fresh food as possible and avoid tins.  But this isn’t always practical or indeed affordable, so I always have a stock of tins, along with dry noodles, rice and pasta.  When I embarked on this journey all those months ago, my friend Kim put together a hamper for me, and I suggested Heinz Big Soups, which I remembered from childhood as living up to their name or “doing what they said on the tin.”

I’m sorry to say though, that today I’m somewhat disappointed; what used to be chunky pieces of chicken and veg are now etiolated morsels of not much… except in a bigger tin.  “Go big or go hungry,” runs the slogan, well frankly I’d rather the latter, or more likely reach for the dry noodles.

As I say, I do as much cooking from fresh as possible and get my five a day, and while I’m no Gordon Ramsay (thank God, the man always looks like he forgot to put the turkey in) I like to think I do OK.  Especially with curries, which are my signature dishes as I learned a while back how to do them properly.  Like my life I like them spicy, so I try to make sure the rack is full.  If not, however, or if I’m stealth-camping somewhere not conducive to a four-ring gas operation, I fall back on a tin.  Which leads me to a valuable discovery I did make…

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This is going to read like a bare-faced plug for the brand but I couldn’t give a shit.  I’m a firm believer in giving credit where it’s due, and with Asda’s Chicken Jalfrezi I find it “suits the palate of the consummate curry lover.”  “At just £1 and enough to serve two, its authentic blend of spices in a rich sauce containing bigger-than-bitesize chunks of chicken, it’s a canful of nutritious value that’ll keep you going all day.”  I should add “not in the toilet sense.”

To make a serious point, even when you’re hard-up, on the road and off the grid, you need to eat as well as possible, and you have to stay strong lest you’re attacked by a couple of fuckwits on Tyneside.  In short, you have to survive.  A camp of vanners marches on its stomach, as it were.  But to make a purely cynical point, if Asda are happy to sponsor this advert for its Chicken Jalfrezi, I’m happy to give it its fifteen minutes of fame or else “go hungry”.

Anyway, if I survive this day I will write up the collection of stories I found in The Marine.  One or two of them are delicious.

“When Mystery Came to Dinner”

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The Harbour at Dawn – Staithes

In life there are only two greater satisfactions than cooking a meal for a lady: 1) her enjoying it and 2) her surviving it.

This is a story I dreamed up after visiting Kay and Adam in Sandsend.  Loyal readers will remember my stay with Stuart and Rachel some days ago.  Kay is Rachel’s sister and I promised I’d drop in.

After pulling up at the Hart Inn and a swift pint, I knocked on their door and tentatively introduced myself, knowing that Kay might remember me from school but Adam wouldn’t know me from… well, Adam.  She came to the door and greeted me with a paint brush in her hand, which would remain there throughout the entire conversation.  She was decorating their lovely little cottage near the sea, while he was preparing a meal.  They invited me in but I could see it was a bad time, and I didn’t want a drink as I was driving and I didn’t need food as I’d already eaten, which is not to say that the meal Adam was preparing didn’t look mouth-watering.

Anyway the point of this in terms of my story is that here was a picture of domestic bliss as this lovely couple described their own travels via campervan and their love of Scotland, which of course was my intended destination.  Adam spoke expansively of the west coast, of the beautiful village of Ullapool and of otters cracking crabs there on the rocks.  He pointed to glorious un-Photoshopped pictures on the fridge and they spoke optimistically of their plans for further travel.  Later, Kay would put her brush down and they would eat their meal together and talk, drink wine and laugh, and wonder who the fuck was that mystery bearded stranger who just dropped in!

In leaving this wedge of happy domesticity behind, I lost myself in thought as the Ottermobile coughed, wheezed and farted up the coast.  And on finding a place in Mickleby to stealth-camp, I mused about my lonely diet recently and thought I should do a dinner a deux, like Adam did.  Coq au van, if you will.  Only thing was, who would come to eat it with me?

***

Next morning I’m up early and driving to Staithes, planning a romantic meal and calling at a supermarket for provisions: chicken, veg and a Chateauneuf du Pape.  I’ve no idea if Chateauneuf du Pape is any good, but it sounds posh and I like saying it.  I am only the connoisseur of under-a-fiver plonk.

Loneliness in all its forms is sent for us to combat, and when I was a kid I battled mine with the reinforcement of imaginary friends, some of whom let me down, most of whom cheered me up.  So today I’m thinking who I could invite.  Trawling through recent memory, I consider Bet Lynch in Bridlington, the lady in Annan who bemoaned the town council, Ann the fair maiden in Scarborough perhaps…?  The list is endless but it doesn’t matter because she isn’t there in the physical sense.  Whoever it is, together we can do anything we want: we can eat, drink, be merry, we can chat, laugh, sing songs, make love, find a cure for cancer, achieve world peace… it doesn’t matter because she’s only there in the imaginary sense.  So anyway whoever she is, I will call her Mystery.

So I’m in Staithes, in a rural spot up the steep hill from the harbour, and Mystery arrives just in time for me to serve up.  I’m nervous as I always am when preparing a meal for a lady.  To use all four rings on my little campervan stove is no mean feat and I hope it’s no mean feast either.

She is dressed in black, she is slim and beautiful with the smile of an angel.  Her talk is lyrical, accompanied by bangles, and her hair is tied back to show ears adorned 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 “Something smells good,” and I laugh to myself (see The A to Z of Soap Opera Cliches).

After some more small-talk about the weather and how nice it is to beach-comb etc etc., it’s time to eat.  The plastic crockery is hardly conducive to romance, or maybe it is, but anyway she compliments me on the taste.  I’m embarrassed.  I’ve never been comfortable with compliments, it’s something I hate about myself.  Such discomfort goes hand-in-hand with paranoia – if someone compliments my work I know in the next breath they’ll be slagging me off to the boss.  Or is that really paranoia?

But I digress.  Suffice it to say the meal goes down a treat.  Mystery eats every last plastic-forked morsel, as between each morsel she tells me about her life.  And between each morsel I watch and listen; her life story is fascinating and I know I’ll put it in my book.  Her face is fascinating too.  She offers to wash the plastic but I decline.  “I’ll do it in the morning,” I say, hoping that the “I” would be “we”, and suggest instead going for a walk.  There are beaches to comb.

In Robin Hood’s Bay I finally take her hand in order to help negotiate some 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 and laughing.  She finds a stripy stone and picks it up to clean and keep.  I ask if that’s significant and she says no, she just likes stripy stones, as we reach a quiet cove to rest.

I’ll spare the detail of our consummation except to say I realise to my relief that I can still do it (see Appleby, Caffeine and Shagging) and it is wonderful…

Then hand-in-hand, this time with silence speaking volumes, we return to the Ottermobile to finish the Chateauneuf du Pape, which turns out with some miraculous stroke of luck to be her favourite.  I hope we’ll crack another bottle, she’ll stay the night, be the first woman to do so, but she tells me she can’t, she has to get back.  Though I want to, I don’t ask why or to whom.  Yet we talk for ages more.  I tell her about my life as a solo nomad, we sing, we enjoy being silly, till finally we kiss goodnight and my mystery diner disappears, leaving me deep in reflection as I wash my plastic plate.

So that is my romantic dinner for two and there is my wedge of domestic bliss.  Wonderful yet ephemeral?  Who can tell?  I hope she’ll come back, but if she doesn’t, at least I know that when I have my imagination I will always need two plates.

The end.

The Meaning of Life

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The Haunted Bridge, Beeston, apropos of nothing.

Oh God how I hate Bank Holidays!  These pit-stops for the rat-race.  The one mitigation is that for a solo traveller it’s much the same as any other day, ie you don’t feel pressure to make plans, you don’t bemoan the banks being shut because there’s fuck-all in there anyway, you don’t grumble about there being no junk coming through your letterbox and you don’t worry about Sunday licensing laws because you’ve no money for booze.  Yes, for me, every day is like Sunday.

These days always make me feel grimly existentialist.  Lately I’ve been pondering the question Why the hell…?  I’ve certainly been pondering it since the attack on Tyneside.  But today of all days, because it’s a Bank Holiday, I feel more torpid than usual.  You know, just one of those days when you can’t be arsed?

It’s the same in the rat-race, I remember it well and far from fondly.  You turn up for work, because you have to, you switch on your PC and it tells you it has updates and this will take a while and you’re not to turn off your device, and it will restart several times…  It’s an irritation, as irritating as being pocket-dialled, but it’s nevertheless an aid for procrastination.

So you make another coffee and chat perfunctorily at the machine, or listen politely to boring tales of Colin’s holiday in Ibiza or Julie’s new baby – she’ll be fetching it in this afternoon so you can all coo.  You think of ways of being out of the office to avoid this visitation, but anyway there’ll be photos of the kid on round-robin emails… when your PC finally decides you can log in.

You return to your desk and realise it’s 11am and you’ve done fuck-all and it’s at this point you wonder why you even bothered to clock in.  The PC is at last working with you and you see there’s 100 unanswered emails (including the ones of Julie’s baby) in your inbox.  But you’ll deal with some of these later because it’s nearly lunchtime – no point making a start then having to break off.

Your onscreen reflection looks back at you disapprovingly, but you don’t care because at the coffee machine you glimpsed the woman from accounts, whose knickers you’ve wanted to get into for months.  A phone call snaps you out of your reverie and you let it go to voicemail; another thing you’ll address after lunch.

In the canteen they pretentiously call a refectory or even restaurant, you’re engulfed by the stench of chip fat, the hum of garrulous chit-chat, and the reek of Poundworld aftershave wafting off your colleagues.  You pay through the nose for a slush of lasagne and once again question why the hell you’re doing this.  But it’s tolerable because you get another glimpse of the woman from accounts, and note her vital statistics.  She’s laughing or talking shop with her mates.  She looks good and you wish you did too.

Bloated and windy, you return to your desk.  It’s 1pm and you’ve done the sum total of nothing, yet you’re exhausted.  And you know there’ll come a point where you say “sod it, I’ll do it tomorrow.”

So why did you bother?  What’s the point of it?  What’s the point of life itself?  Well, why you bothered was to get a look at the woman from accounts, pathetically fantasising and wondering when you’d finally get to know so much as her name.  The point of it all is that you have to pay the rent.  The point of life itself, however, is a far more profound one.

But you’re interrupted because the visitation has happened;  Julie’s baby is doing the rounds.  Julie’s like a proud captain parading a trophy around Wembley and all the other players are fighting to have a hold of it.  You realise you can’t dodge this after all; you’re cornered, haunted.  You end up cooing like all the rest, while secretly thinking the poor little bastard’s got its dad’s conk.  It’s a pink and bewildered blob that represents another one born into this interminable shit, and one day it will be old enough to ask itself the same existential questions.  It’s called Storm or Jet or something even more horrendous, that the thing will be stuck with till it’s old enough to get it changed by deed poll.

I did warn you this would be grim, but expect neither apology nor disclaimer.  Tomorrow I will be more cheerful as I pick up on my travels north after Whitby and bring us back up-to-date.  Yes, I have updates so don’t switch off your device.  That is, of course, if I can be arsed.

Fortune Favours the Bold

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The Otter’s Tipple – Whitby

I’m turning back the clock from my bout of thuggery on Tyneside to my one-day stop in Whitby, where I was pleased to get an eponymous pint of Otter.  My welcome wasn’t entirely warm, however; parking was a pain and I had to risk a ‘coaches only’ section, where an officious car park attendant looked at me like she’d clocked a slug on her kitchen worktop.  After I’d squeezed in elsewhere and paid my dues, one of her colleagues confided that the woman is notorious for her anger and you wouldn’t think she used to work for the Samaritans.

“I can only wonder what was the mortality-rate,” I quipped.

I do like Whitby, it holds happy memories that I wanted to chart in my novel.  Today the sun was shining and I relished a long walk over the sands then a climb up to the Abbey for a personal slice of Stoker, who I look up to as a traveller and author.  Then among the jet shops, Steampunk regalia and fairground buzz I reminisced.

Jayne and I came to Whitby often, once with my son Dom when we sailed on a boat.  One time though we had our fortunes told, for a laugh as much as anything, given my scepticism of clairvoyance.  Reading our palms, the lady said that Jayne drove a blue and silver sports car.  True, though I suspected she’d seen us drive in.  She said I’d never find a truer friend than Jayne.  Probably true.  And she read that my father was ill but was being well cared-for and would be OK.  Mostly true except two months later he was dead.

I shouldn’t mock.  Some people put great store in such things, whereas I believe in chance.  Like it was chance that determined I’d be attacked in my van…

I’ve had a number of welcome responses to Friday’s diary (The Night I Was Attacked) most from people who were obviously concerned.  It was great to know that people cared about me, and even better that my kids and other loved-ones were among the well-wishers.  One very loved-one asked “Why the hell are you putting yourself through this shit?”  It’s a very simple, very fair and very valid question and one I’ve asked myself many times since the start of this project.

I’m a writer.  I can’t do anything else.  Some say I can’t even do that!  But that’s my chosen field, the profession for which I trained for years, my calling from which I can’t run.  And if I’m not employed or indeed employable given my age and mental health (see Don’t Rain on My Parade) I can’t just do nothing but wait for the phone to never ring.  I’ve got to get out in search of story, in search of some things and some people to write about.  I also have to get through each day, ideally without harm or prejudice, and live with the little that chance has given me.

But although the question is valid, it’s valid also to flip it:  Why the hell do I put myself through this shit?  Or, Why the hell have I been put through this shit?  Is it fate?  Is it the cards I was dealt?  Or just chance and that’s just the way the stick of rock crumbles?  Whatever it is and whatever life throws at you, you have to fight back, you must be brave.  My Latin’s a bit rusty shall we say, but I think it’s audentes fortuna iuvat – fortune favours the bold.  Sometimes though, we’re emboldened with the help of others.

Like the otter is making a comeback, in part with the help, support and effort of humankind, I will make mine, either on my own or:

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The Night I Was Attacked

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Skipton Castle taken some weeks ago

The photo isn’t part of the story, but it’s pertinent in terms of my being an Englishman and my Ottermobile my castle.  And when his castle is attacked, the Englishman will defend it.  Which is what happened to this Englishman the other night…

I’d travelled north via Teesside and Tyneside and needed a break as tiredness can kill.  Before hitting the A193 coast road I found a countryside lay-by – not much around but a couple of farms.  Wasn’t the most picturesque I’d ever chosen, it was very darkened by tall hedges, but it would do.  It was a narrow lane and I was a little worried lest a heavy farm vehicle needed to get past.  But it would do.  I kept telling myself that.  I’d come to rely on intuition with all things stealth-camping, and this time intuitively I felt something amiss, so was not altogether relaxed.  I should’ve listened to intuition…

Just as I was prepping my bed and drawing curtains etc, a car’s headlights lit the gloom.  Nothing odd about that, except that the driver seemed to take an exceptional interest.  As he crept by and disappeared up the lane behind me, I thought that was that, and resumed my ablutions.

About five minutes later, another car, this time behind me, but as it passed I realised it was the same car, an Audi I think, and I could pick out that there was more than one passenger within.  Again I thought, I hoped, that was that… except it soon returned the other way, and this time there was the obligatory peeping of the horn.  It’s a joke I’d heard many times and usually bored me, but something nagged me.

Taking the precaution of leaving on my shorts and T-shirt, I eventually bedded down in my mummy bag.  Nothing more happened for maybe half an hour, and as the moments ticked by, my mind and body allowed themselves to relax and I must’ve drifted into an uneasy slumber.

God knows how long later, I was woken by a violent rocking of the van, hands thumping against my windows and much shouting and laughter.  It’s not easy to get out of a sleeping bag quickly, but I knew I had to.

“Fuck off!” I shouted.

“Fuck off!” came the mocking reply.

Shaking with fear, I pulled back a curtain and could pick out the faces of two young men, maybe twenty years old, grinning back at me.

“I’ll call the police!” I said.

“I’ll call the police!” came the mimicry.

Realising the law posed no deterrent, I tried reason.  Winding the window down an inch, I said “Look lads, I’m homeless, I’m just trying to get some kip.  Fuck off, yea?”

“You fucking cut me up!” one of them proclaimed.

“No I didn’t!  When?”

“Back there.  You coulda killed me and me girlfriend!”

In retrospect I would know this was absurd.  My Ottermobile can only do 50 and I can’t remember overtaking a single vehicle, let alone cutting someone up, especially a car as powerful as his.  But in the heat and the ludicrousness of the situation I could only deny his claim.  And as he continued to remonstrate, the other man chipping in his support, I knew this wasn’t going away.

Anger boiling now, I struggled into my boots and prepared to disembark.  “He’s getting out!” I heard the smaller man say.

“Good!” said the other.  So now I knew this would be tricky.  Somehow though, through a mixture of anger and fear, I managed to collect some thought – opening the side-door would give them an in, whereas the driver’s door would mean they’d have to move back, giving me vital room to manoeuvre.

As I emerged, fearing a beating, I quickly realised the smaller one was disarmed to see I’m a big bloke.  Knowing I had to seize the advantage, I sent him backwards and to the ground with a violent shove.  But I wasn’t quick enough for the other one and received a smack on the nose.  As I reeled back into the side of the van, I now saw the two girls in the back seat of the car, grinning spectators at the ringside, and knew this was the sport of impressing the lasses.

But I wasn’t prepared to go down.  As the smaller man was now on his feet and coming at me, I swung out at the bigger one and cracked him on the jaw.  This caused the smaller one to retreat again, allowing me to grab the crowbar I keep in the foot-well.  Brandishing this, I said “Come again and you get this!”

“Fuck off!” said the bigger man.

I would later wonder where this came from, but quite honestly I went a bit mad, flailing the bar at the dark air between us, lashing out and not caring if it cracked a skull or two.”He’s fucking off his head!” I heard one of the girls say, “Leave it Tize!” or some such monicker.

“Alright mate!” said the smaller man.  Without a word, the bigger man gave me a sign that it was over and retreated to his Audi.  And seconds later they’d gone, and it was over.  Or was it?

Bewildered at what just happened, panting and shaking like a dog passing the turd of its lifetime, I put the bar down and climbed back into the van.  Never more did I need a drink, but the Ottermobile was dry.  A coffee then?  But my hands were too shaky to pour from my water bottle.  Making sure the doors were locked, I opened all my curtains and got fully-dressed, knowing sleep was now impossible lest they came back.  Would they come back?  Would they return with their mates instead of girlfriends?  With their brothers, their fathers?  All this was churning around my head.  Would I call the police?  Did I want the attention?  I’m a vagrant, a traveller and stealth-camper, I’ve got enough problems getting through each day, did I need more?

And so I just sat, smoking chains of my last tobacco, finally managing to make coffee, going over and over the events, dabbing the cut over the eye with cotton wool.  The whole thing must’ve lasted maybe two minutes, but though I’m not one for cliche and hyperbole, it felt like a lot longer.  And why did it happen?  What did I do to deserve it?  I’m just a normal bloke down on his luck, wanting a quiet life, a quiet night’s kip.  Why pick on me?  Because I’m vulnerable, a guy on his own, in a country lane conducive to a punch-up?  And could this have been worse?  What if they too were armed?  With a knife?  A gun?  Had I come close to serious injury or even death?  What if I’d cracked them with the crowbar, injured or killed them?  What if I ended up in prison?

“Something needs to happen,” Podge said all those weeks ago, and we talked about it, knowing this kind of thing was what was meant.  This kind of thing that I always expected, feared, but hoped would never happen.  Now it had.

And where did my anger and violence come from?  I’m not a violent man, never have been, so why was I suddenly brandishing a lethal weapon?  Why did I even have a crowbar to begin with?  Was this some deep psychological flaw?  Am I really a thug?  Could I live with that horrible thought?  Why do I hate myself?

But of course all this is not rational.  As the hours and days have ticked by following this incident, and as the cut over my eye has scabbed, I’ve been more balanced in my view.  It was down to chance.  The young men were trying to impress their lasses, it was nothing personal, I just happened to be there, and seen as a bit of sport in a boring rural arena.  The big one had got his punch in and would brag about it to his mates.  Perhaps they both got laid that night as a trophy for their valour.  Perhaps one day I will laugh about the whole thing?  Perhaps I’ll embellish the tale, telling friends there were half a dozen of them?  Maybe even ten of the fuckers?

I probably won’t, because it was an episode I don’t want to see a repeat of, an episode that left me thoroughly depressed, seeing orange rather than seeing stars.  And it left me knowing the real reason for my paroxysm of violence:

I’m fed up of the world dishing its shit.  If I’m sickened by the injustice and the affront to liberty, there will inevitably come a time when I say enough is enough.  Whatever is my “castle”, be it a mansion, a posh apartment in Salford Quays, a clapped-out van with dodgy bearings, a bundle of rags in a shop doorway, I have every right to defend it.  And finally I’m left with the realisation that though in the scheme of things I have nothing, I will do everything to keep it.

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.