My Night with a Naked Man

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Philip – 26, Tyneside.  An artist’s impression

“If they’d shaved off me eyebrows I could’ve handled that like.”

These were the words of soon-to-be-married Philip, who was chained naked to a lamppost.

To paint the picture and to bring us more up-to-date, I’d driven through Teesside and was just north of Newcastle.  It was the night before I got attacked, but of course I wasn’t to know that at the time.  Some while ago, one of Jayne’s neighbours and fellow-traveller said she’d done most of her driving at night while the roads were quiet.  I’d taken a leaf out of her book because the Ottermobile was spluttering a bit more and I daren’t risk breaking down on a busy road again.

So that was how I came to be on a quiet B-road north of Newcastle, dark but occasionally lit by Lucozade-coloured street lamps.  And it was how I came to see, up ahead, a ghost-like blob that turned out to be the pasty colour of naked human flesh.  As I got nearer, my fears that all was not normal were confirmed, when I realised it was a man and he was tethered, his knob there for all the world to see.

Now of course my initial reaction was to wet myself laughing – I’m only human after all.  This was obviously a prank of some sort, the embers of a stag night maybe?  But then I was sure I detected a look of terror rather than embarrassment in the whites of the young man’s eyes and I began to wonder if this were more sinister.  So I made a split-second decision and pulled over.

“Are you OK mate?” I asked.

“Do I look fuckin’ OK,” he said, not unreasonably.

“Stag night?” I asked.

“Aye,” he said, “Bastards.”

Now I must confess that while I felt sorry for this drunken young victim, I also felt relieved it were not so sinister, and still, deep down, I was pissing myself.

“I can see yer find it funny,” he said, “Our lass’ll go ape-shit when she hears about this!  I don’t think she’ll marry us.”

“She will,” I said.

“I thought they’d come back after a few minutes like.  I’ve been here for about three fuckin’ hours.  I’ll be here when it’s daylight, I’ll be in the fuckin’ papers.”

“The papers are the last thing to worry about,” I reassured, “You must be freezing cold.”

“What you sayin’ like?” he said, looking down at his member.

“Just it’s a bit nippy tonight,” I said, “I’ll get you my coat.”

“Bastards,” I heard him mutter, as I returned to the van to find my coat and a pair of cutters.

I returned with my skiing coat and draped it over his shoulders, telling him I’d also brought my pliers and I’d do my best.

“Be careful with ’em for fuck’s sake!” he said, rather ungratefully I felt.  So I told him I wouldn’t be going anywhere near his wedding tackle and anyway they’d shackled him with his hands behind his back so if anything I’d be working rather more closely to his arse than to my liking.

It was not an easy task; they’d used the kind of chain you see on bike locks and there were two padlocks to negotiate.  All I could do was try and prise them open, but to say I was struggling was an understatement.

“I’m supposed to be gettin’ married in a week,” he kept saying, “If she’ll still have us after this.”

This was, and always will be, one of the funniest things I’d ever seen, and in a way I couldn’t believe my luck – it was like the Gods had sent this, to repay me with a rich anecdote for all the hardship and stress my journey entailed.  I would dine out on this for months, I would have my friends and family in stitches.

“You have to admit it is funny in a way,” I said, unwisely.

“Not for fuckin’ me it isn’t!” he snapped, and added “Bastards,” not for the first or indeed last time.

They’d been drinking down the Toon, he said, after watching Newcastle get beat.  Then after a bellyful his mates and brother told him they were getting a taxi to a club.  The driver, in on the joke (“the bastard”) drove them here, where they stripped him bare and whipped out the chains.

Seeing he needed reassurance, I told him something similar once happened to me.  Not on my stag night, but when I was leaving Crewe Railway Works way back in 1984.  It had been a long tradition to grease someone’s balls if they were a beginner, or brave enough to get married or brave enough to leave.  “The piss-pot” as it was known, was chained to the hook of a crane and the victim had to release it, while being pelted with grease.  On my leaving do they went a stage further, stripping me, tying my hands, greasing my balls and hoisting me up on the crane, upside down.  I still have a Polaroid of this somewhere on the van.

“They didn’t, like?” he said, incredulous.

“Oh they did,” I said.

“Bastards,” he said, chuckling.

“I see you find it funny now,” I said.

“Aye.  I suppose it is when it’s somebody else,” he said, “You’ve cheered me up.  But I’ll tell you one thing.”

“What?”

“For an engineer you’re fuckin’ useless with the pliers.”

To be honest I knew I was getting nowhere – this needed proper heavy-duty cutters and a lump hammer.  But just as I was giving up the ghost and about to confess my failure, we saw headlights in the distance.

“I hope it’s them bastards,” Philip said, “Knowin’ my luck it’ll be the fuckin’ police.”

But luckily he was right the first time and as the taxi pulled up, out jumped his laughing mates and brother.

“Alright mate?” one of them said to me.

“I was just trying to get him free,” I said, hoping they wouldn’t attack me for being an interfering party-pooper.

“It’s alright, we’ve got the key.”

“Good,” said Phil, “Ya bastards.”

Within seconds he was free and ditheringly getting into his clothes while laughing and muttering obscenities.  “Lucky this bloke stopped or I’da frozen to fuckin’ death!” he said.

“Thanks, mate,” said the brother to me, “We were always coming back ya knar?”

“Aye,” said the taxi driver, “We’d never have left him till morning.”

“You’re still bastards,” concluded Phil.

Soon after, they were on their merry way, leaving me holding my pliers and my skiing coat.  Then a few miles down the road I found a track where I could stealth-camp.  But to be honest I didn’t sleep that much, too busy recapping one of the most bizarre things I’d ever witnessed.  And of course I was still pissing myself laughing.  I only wished I’d been brave enough to ask him for a selfie.

 

 

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The Stray

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Dog Training in Redcar

I was right; Steve didn’t turn up for that pint.

In other news my stars for September read well.  Apparently I’m going to be moving house, and as long as the Ottermobile’s wheels turn round that’ll be true.  They also say I’m coming into money, so I guess that translates as a few quid to buy a new bucket to shit in.  If I’m lucky.

***

After two days in Saltburn I wanted a long walk, so I packed a lunch and set off down the sands to Redcar.  It would be another tick, another postcard for the mosaic and another lungful of fresh sea air.  It’s a fair old trek and by the time I got to Redcar I was gasping, so decided to get a bottle of water in a cafe.

It was a bustling little place and as I queued for my beverage I noted one of the ladies serving had two black eyes.  There was obviously a story here, but I dare even the most intrepid reporter to ask how she got them.  Well, the Otter is the most intrepid reporter.

“You’ve been in the wars,” I said.

“That’ll be a pound,” she said, unsmilingly, of the water.  As I coughed up, knowing I wouldn’t get any change out of her, I left the cafe and found a bench seat on the prom, known locally as The Stray.  As I sipped my water and rolled a ciggy, mulling over the possible story behind the woman’s black eyes, I was joined by a man of about forty, dressed not unlike me in combats and T-shirt.

Bidding me good afternoon, he asked if I minded him joining me for a smoke.  I wasn’t apt to say no and, though I was a little nervous at first, we soon got into conversation and I mentioned the woman with black eyes.

“Yea I’ve seen her,” he said, “Looks like there’s an husband handy with his fists.”

“I thought the same,” I said, “but when I asked I got nothing.”

“You asked her?!”

Confirming, with a touch of shame, I explained I’m writing a blog and needed stories.

“You’re a writer?” he said, “Well if you want a story I’m your man.”

It always amazes me that when someone learns you’re a writer they want to give you material.  Like if a comedian reveals his profession, the listener wants to tell him a joke.  So how come it’s not the same with other professions?  For example would a carpenter be offered a piece of planed four-by-two?

But I digress.  My new friend did indeed give me his story, which I’ll condense here.  Hailing from Doncaster, he’d never married but for many years lived with his girlfriend and two sons, he thought happily, until the day she told him to move out.  He’d suspected for some time that she’d got someone else, then found a text on her phone to prove it.  She confessed and said it was over.  He had a job at the time but spiralled into drink and drugs.  One day he went into work and they smelled alcohol, sacking him on the spot.

“I pleaded innocence,” he said, “told ’em what had gone on and asked for compassionate leave.  They said no.  Even Human Resources turn their back.”

“Human Resources are only as resourceful as the humans in charge of it,” I said.

“I said exactly the same,” he said, unconvincingly.

I confess that while I listened with interest, I couldn’t do so entirely because throughout, there was a bogey hanging off his nose.  This had happened to me before and I remember not knowing what to do.  Does the intrepid reporter tell the person?  Does he try not to look and find it impossible?  Or does he just wait for it to drop off of its own volition?  Anyway, his story went on, bogey or no bogey, and I was moved to hear he’d fallen into debt and was now just drifting.

“Are you homeless?” I asked.

“No.  I live in my van.”

I was amazed – at last I’d met someone very much in the same boat as me.  Or at least the same van.  Shaking my hand, he said exactly what I was thinking; that it’s nice to know you’re not alone, it’s nice to know there’s some normality to this, and it’s reassuring to know you’re not completely barking mad.  Plunged into this newfound camaraderie, I opened my packed lunch and offered to share.

“Just cheese and bread,” I said.

“You’re a gent,” he replied, “I’ll return the favour some day.”  But I knew that wouldn’t happen.

So there we were, a couple of strays, a couple of tramps, he the Estragon to my Vladimir or vice versa, it didn’t matter.  What mattered was that we’d each found a kindred spirit, someone to bounce ideas and story off, someone in whom to confide the bouts of loneliness, depression, laughter and hope that there’d be more to life than this.  And amid the shared lunch and halved optimism, the bogey finally dropped into his lap and bounced away, to where I’ll never know.  I could only hope it missed the sandwiches.

He was a nice guy David, as I learned was his name, and we swapped numbers.  Like Steve the night before, I wasn’t entirely sure this would happen, but you never know.  David was certainly genuinely grateful for a bite to eat with me.  And he was genuine when he said I was a nice bloke and I’d be OK.

When we parted, I returned to the cafe and sat outside to write up my notes, and saw that the lady with two black eyes was still working, and now smiling.  I only hoped that David and I were wrong about the violent husband handy with his fists – perhaps the door she’d walked into was real.

As I sat, thinking about a couple of strays on The Stray, a couple of women began a demo of how to train dogs.  I watched, fascinated, thinking how wonderful an animal it is.  I’d never been a doggy person but had met a few on my travels and even wondered if I should consider a canine companion.  How obedient they were, how responsive, loyal.

“This one was a stray,” said the lady.  “She was starving when we found her.  We fattened her up and trained her.  She’s very happy now aren’t you, Lucky?”

“Woof,” said Lucky.

“Stress” – A Story about Eczema, Life and Death

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“I didn’t fucking leave it behind on fucking purpose!”

This is what I woke to on my second day in Saltburn.  A family row involving a man, a woman, his mum, her sister and two screaming babies.

“You’re a fucking dozy sod at times, Steve!”

“Give it a rest, Tracy!  For the last time I didn’t leave it behind on fucking purpose!” Steve stressed, not for the last time.

I could only wonder what it was he’d fucking left behind not on fucking purpose.  His manners?  His short fuse?  One of their babies?  His life?  It turned out to be her sun cream which he’d forgotten to ‘factor’ into their plans.

“You know the sun brings me out in eximmer!” Tracy proclaimed.

Feeling sorry for this beleaguered and balding man of Midlands extraction, I wound down the window and asked if I could help.

“She’s stressed out bless her,” he grumbled, “we’ve had a run of bad luck like.”

“I have some spare sun cream if it’s any good to you,” I said.

“Great tar,” he said, “Here Trace, answer to all your prayers this bloke.”  But she was too busy muttering to her sister about what a gormless twat she’d married, and how the babies’ buggies were fucking impossible to unfold because they were fucking second-hand and fucking knackered.

“A run of bad luck?” I said, “Does she call eczema and forgetting her sun cream a run of bad luck?  Then again if you’ve got dry skin I suppose you don’t want sunburn in Saltburn.”

But the joke fell flat because he added, “I’ve just lost me father.”

I was going to quip that he should go to Missing Persons but reined myself in and said I was sorry for his bereavement.

“Cancer,” he said, “He’d been poorly for ages but you can never prepare for a kick in the bollocks.  This trip’s supposed to give me a bit of a break.  We’re here for three days like.”

“Good idea,” I said, “to help cope with grief.  Bit of sun and quality time with your family.”

“In principal,” he replied, “but we’ve only just got here and she’s getting on me tits.”

Anyway I got chatting to Steve about what it’s like to lose a parent, explaining I’d been there twice.  As he empathised in his lugubrious way he reminded me of an old mate, also from Birmingham, who could have the world at his feet yet complain about it tripping him up.  But lurking somewhere within Steve’s misery was a sense of humour and we finished up having a bit of a laugh, and he even proposed meeting up for a pint that night once he’d got the babies down.  Somewhat doubtful, I agreed, suggesting The Marine across the road.

“Steve!” Tracy snapped, “Are you going to help with this fucking pushchair or not!?”

And with a roll of his eyes my hapless new friend rejoined his family, telling me he’d see me later and thanking me for the sun cream.

“Good bloke you are mate.”

It was really a snatched conversation, but as I took a long clifftop walk, gazing down on the calming sea and Saltburn’s sands, I thought about eczema, life, death, and how unwittingly rich such characters are.  Steve wouldn’t show up for that pint, he would spend time with his family and I think that would be best; in his grief he needed them more than a complete stranger and nomad.  Except that what really made me chuckle is that I felt so sorry for him and his run of bad luck.  Not because he’d lost his father, more because he was married to fucking Tracy.

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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.

“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.