The incident with the van was unnecessary.
It never really happened, of course, but that, considering how unnecessary it was, may be just as well. I had found myself on the edge of a village called Checkendon, waiting for someone to pick me up from the Cherry Tree Inn, where I had spent part of the night. The other, earlier part, I had spent in a converted barn making up words to no end. These words were then taken by four or five individuals of varying degrees of expertise, importance and relevance to the task in hand and essentially messed with, much in the way I don’t like. Since it was a job I was being paid to do and that I had no emotional investment in, I placed a half-pained smile on my lips and retained some other words within, unspoken.
By 1:30 in the morning it had been decided, by one person or another who was in some way or other involved with the project, that it was now time to call it a night. So Tommoh swung on his motorbike and I was given a lift by someone else in a car to a B&B somewhere in the countryside, where, having had only three hours sleep the previous night, I immediately went to bed but did not immediately fall asleep.
Instead, I lay awake for a few minutes pondering what my life had come to and wondering whether Tommoh felt, as I did, that it would be comforting and reassuring now to hold on to each other, to curl up in one bed instead of the two in two different rooms, and to rest in each other’s arms for a while. The option existed of knocking on his door and asking him outright, but I was too tired, and also as so very often before and since, I felt that doing so might just jeopardise an easy and uncomplicated friendship.
I woke up amazingly refreshed. I am not good in the morning. I do not get up and trill a summery tune. I do not sing in the shower. I don’t yoga and I don’t jog. The only time I get to see dawn is when I’m still up from the night before. But the job in the barn appeared to demand that having left there barely six hours earlier, we now return and continue the dance of irrelevance we had so fruitlessly started the day before. Tommoh and I sat down to a hearty breakfast which – it later turned out – I enjoyed more than he did, and he then swung himself back on his bike, while I waited for the shortish man with the blonde eyelashes to drop by and take me back to the barn in his car, as he’d promised he’d do the night before.
This took a little longer than I expected because apparently he forgot all about me, and so after breakfast I checked out and sat myself on a wooden garden table outside the pub, enjoying the early sunshine and continuing my pondering on the stark insignificance of my own existence.
I was just getting to the point where I thought there’s only so much pondering you can do without anything actually happening, when a rather large man in a larger-still van appeared, not quite out of nowhere, but still unannounced. He drove up to nearly as near to the house as he could across the gravelled parking lot – otherwise empty – and purposely decabbed; he opened the back, took from it what looked like a plastic tray of something or other and carried it, his protruding belly leading the way, to what I imagined must be the tradesmen’s entrance or the kitchen or possibly the larder, if people still have them. (I imagine they do, in the country…).
What happened next is, of course, pure fantasy, but what do you do when you’re in the middle of nowhere, called upon to go back to the outskirts of somewhere to pursue the pointless depletion of your brain at the hands of people you have nothing in common or store with (except, I emphasise, Tommoh) and who drain your soul, talking and thinking and living in terms of things that are ‘key’ – what do you do when you’re stuck there and trapped and in front of you is a van: stuff in the back, probably food, engine running. Cab door open. Driver at least twenty, maybe thirty seconds off guard. Possibly more. He’d never dream of somebody doing what I was about to do. A few seconds passed. Tic. Tic. Tic. Tic. No sign of him yet. A van with supplies. Cab door open. Engine running. I would be caught within minutes. Or would I? I could make it to Oxford. At least there would be some punting to do there. I might make it right down to Dorset where I could visit my friends and give them something from out of the back of the van for their freezer, probably. Fair wind prevailing, I might even make it all the way out to Cornwall, where I could abandon the van but pick up some loaves of bread (I felt pretty certain by now that that’s what was in the back of the van) and swap some of them for some fish and make friends with a man with a boat and go out to sea with him and have some fish stew and some bread and decide that living was good by the sea and that that’s where I was going to stay now, together with my fisherman friend…
I slid off the pub bench on which I had perched and picked up my backpack, not very large. I took two paces towards the van, maybe three. No sign of the driver. What was he doing? Having a chat with the chef. Or with the girl at reception. Twenty paces, twenty-four. Thirty. I wasn’t really counting. I stepped up to the seat, passenger side, on the left. Sliding across to the driver’s seat would be awkward, but hey. I unslung my backpack, when: ‘Oi!’
Large man loomed even larger as he strode towards me red-faced with rage. For once, my brain cells didn’t desert me. Cool as a cucumber I reached across the wheel and turned off the engine. Slid back down, re-slinging the backpack, and looked at him frankly: ‘Oh, I’m so sorry, I thought you might be a while; you left the engine running…’
‘Fucking this bloody that and the usual,’ but my boldness, I believe, stunned him, into submission. He slammed the back shut, heaved himself into his driver’s position and, revving loudly, took off. He could have crushed me. Decked me or punched me. He did none of the sort. He just made his departure as loud as he could.
I felt a little prouder that morning than I had done before not for infuriating a simple bloke going about his daily job, but for daring myself a tiny bit to the edge. And I thought of Tommoh and his motorbike and that we could always elope together, to Scotland. Or to the South of France. That would be lovely. Perhaps, I then thought, I just have to adopt a style of more dangerous living…