There can’t be many folks who have such an unusual existence as this. As a fully itinerant, caravan-dwelling, truck driver / copywriter / rough graphic designer/ jack of all trades, although officially a ‘master’ of one, I get to experience a wide variety of stuff.
Most people don’t have the misfortune to necessitate undergoing such nonsense in their lives. Up and down, but never boring, that’s me. The laborious litany of my continuing solitary struggle against society’s norms and values continues. Don’t ask me why; but to paraphrase Marlon Brando in Benedek’s 1953 movie classic ‘The Wild One’:
“What are you rebelling against, Johnny?”
“Whadda you got? …”
I’d spent last Tuesday early evening, three sober hours after my customary starting point of beer o’clock, in a rare dry-zone. There I was, lying on a wedge-shaped, caravan hewn memory foam mattress, reading Michael Parkinson’s comfortably pedestrian autobiography ‘Parky’; a recently purchased hardback from a Fleetwood charity shop. 50p. Instead of my favourite fizzy electrified apple-juice, I was drinking tea from a melamine mug.
All because I had time to kill in the van. Heel-kicking. Waiting to go to work. One of the flaneur’s most irksome voids to navigate. I was pitched three miles from the M6 / M55 junction near Preston; on a quiet tourist site within strolling distance of an acceptable pub. This extremely rare (for me) night shift was due to start at nine o’clock. There’s not much worse than lying around in the evening, waiting to start a shift. Other than getting up early to start one. Then again I was never really a big fan of the protestant work ethic.
But there’s a drought on HGV distribution work in the north west of England, and, as sordid as it may be to confess, I have to take what I can get up here.
I was hired to by a local rough-edged amateur agency, to drive a refrigerated 12 ton lorry from Preston to the Midlands. I was assured in the gravest terms by the controller, that my cargo was extremely valuable and vital. Intravenous fluids for the terminally cancerous, apparently. Feeds the poor buggers whilst numbing their pain for whatever time they have left. 40 grand a pallet. For a moment my existential angst and self-created intellectual naval-gazing into the hardships of a regular life seemed a little less important.
Coincidentally, the drop-off point for those several hundred squidgy bags of intravenous opiated feed, was not three miles from my own two-up-two-down in Burton Upon Trent. The place is currently rented out to thus-far reliable Hungarians, from whom I ashamedly insulate myself using a letting agency. They’re a bunch of suits that take 7.5% to maintain my anonymity. But if the rent money stops flowing, I’m guessing they won’t kill themselves to help me out.
It felt odd driving past my old familiar home, after nearly a year away. There’s a history I’m trying hard to bury, yet its secure familiarity ever pulls me back to consider re-occupation.
Within 12 hours, I’d returned the empty truck to Preston. I was straight back on the caravan’s memory foam wedge, attempting sleep. But bright daylight, despite blackout blinds, the noise of heavy rain on the fibreglass roof, and whip-crack thunder, conspired to keep me awake. I’d managed only a couple of hours dozing by noon.
Some design work for a local family-run building supplies company, that needed a few website changes, occupied me on the Mac for the early afternoon, then come 6pm, a thin yet pleasantly soporific Morrison’s Cote Du Rhone and more pedestrian Parky had me sparked out.
Then my unusually interesting Thursday started. Feeling oddly refreshed, with a rarely civilised 8am start time, I was driving a dinky 7.5 ton van, pottering around west Lancs and Liverpool for a local building supplies company.
Colleagues who know me might be aware that my ongoing attitude to many other peoples’ unprofessionalism, in terms of the legality of truck driving and its associated hazards for the driver, can really get my goat.
For the sake of context, in order to inform anyone lucky enough never to have to drive a commercial vehicle for a living in 2016, here’s a thing. Driving a lorry nowadays is one of the few professions where the employee can lose several days’ wages, or indeed their vocational licence, just by sneezing in the general direction of a tachograph recorder, or, in essence, just trying to do an honest day’s work.
As a result, I’m known by the driving agencies who employ me as being a stickler for the rules. A Mary Queen of The Book. This isn’t due to a desire to adhere with the system, in fact, quite the reverse. I have a healthy disrespect for authority in many situations. Uniforms irk me.
In this case, it’s simply because I don’t want to be fined for someone else’s incompetence when they overloaded my truck, or if they send me about 16 road atlas pages away from base, then expect me to return within the four and a half hours allotted by the absurdly complex framework of legal drivers’ hours restrictions.
In short, I don’t want to be featured on Radio 2 as the fuckwit blocking a motorway somewhere, with a shifted nine ton load, because some other, higher paid fuckwit, couldn’t be bothered to do the right thing in the first place. Nor do I want to end up trying to sleep under a couple of mildewed furniture removal blankets on an unspeakably stained cab bunk bed, with no toothbrush nor hot food for the night, just because that same fuckwit’s routing software went haywire.
But none of that today! For the first time, for some unknown reason, I suddenly just didn’t care about the penny-pinching, ‘profit before people’ attitude of some dodgy haulier.
“Oh we don’t normally bother with load straps. You’re only going down the road and we’ve got some new ones on order, but they keep going missing…”
No, I guess two tons of industrial floor tiles, balanced on on four rickety ancient pallets, the load ‘stretch-wrapped’ in about two layers of Poundland cling film, aren’t going to move anywhere when I go around the first unexpected sharp left hander.
But instead of quoting chapter and verse, I happily drove away without a word, almost hoping for the whole lot to spread over the M62; especially as I had hit ‘record’ on the smartphone in my pocket, after the boss started to tell me:
“No problem, pal. These curtain-side wagons don’t need straps, mate. They’ll hold anything…”
I can just see the look on his face as that phrase is played from the digital recording at some future inquest. Yeah OK. Two tons of tiles held by a micron of cellophane. Let’s both save that conversation for the coroner’s court.
As it happens I drove around all day at a snail’s pace, ending up with only half a dozen broken ceramic shards and two relatively happy customers.
But on the way back to base, pulling into a ‘Spar Local’ service station for diesel, looking for the loo, I found myself taking a wrong turn down a few steps into a pleasure dome. Xanadu. A cellar full of proper wine. I made a double take. I went back up the steps and a sign above the door proclaimed an ‘Award Winning Quality Wine Merchants’. Bugger me.
What an oasis of civilisation in this god forsaken county; a cultural desert landscape of corner shops selling things called ‘barmcakes’ and pitta-bread serving bland doner kebab joints that close at 8pm. Forgive them lord for they know not what they do.
Despite my current semi-drought of lucrative income, and a resultant aversion to spending, I just couldn’t resist buying a couple of Burgundies. You couldn’t even find stuff like this in most French supermarkets, let alone a rural Lancashire ‘A’ road fuel stop. I parted with only £30 odd for two Côte Chalonnaises, but at a fraction of their neighbouring terroir’s Côte de Nuits prices.
“We don’t sell many of these…”
Said the innocent yet smouldering late-teenaged Lisa Bonet lookalike checkout girl. I recognised her instantly. I had completely fallen in love with her back in the 1980’s. I remembered her then, soaking wet on a sheetless lumpy mattress with its rickety iron bedhead; warm rainwater pouring straight down onto us through the disintegrating ceiling. A thunderstorm. Voodoo undertones. Dirty, urgent, salt-sweat tangy passion in a seedy New Orleans French Quarter hotel room.
But sadly, it hadn’t been with me. That was her and Mickey Rourke in Alan Parker’s ‘Angel Heart’. I’ll never forget that sequence. Nevertheless, her face reminded me of that city by association.
A brief frisson returned to my memory, when I worked on cruiseships as a photographer in the early 1980’s, when my waist size in inches was slightly greater than my age in years.
I remembered when I was with a lovely tall Polish girl, an entertainer and sound / lighting engineer on the boat. We’d stroll off-duty down Bourbon Street. It was Mardi Gras one time when we were there. She had Sperry Topsiders on her feet, sockless ankles, and the shortest navy blue shorts. Flawless evenly tanned limbs that carried on all the way up to heaven. She was all mine, I was all hers. We had our whole lives in front of us. So we thought. But that was in another country, and besides, judging by her cocaine consumption then, the wench is probably dead. She was such a party animal, she made me look like a council librarian. And that takes some doing. I remember asking her at the time how an ordinary bloke from the rough side of Derby could be with the indisputably most attractive woman on our ship:
“Well, you’re a nice guy, but mostly it was because you asked me out…”
There’s a lesson that has occasionally served me well, I was never intimidated by attractive women, where others dared not chance their arm. But that’s another story.
I’m brought back to the Preston petrol station with a cruel bump:
“£33.98 please. Do you need a bag?”
“No, thanks. I can manage. What’s your name, if you don’t mind me asking?”
I was hoping it was Lisa or Luba, the two ladies over whom I’d just been reminiscing.
“Donna. Why, have I done something wrong?” she asked, slightly troubled while masking the irritation in her tone.
“No, no, not at all, quite the reverse.” I reassured.
“It’s just that…well, do you know the worst thing about being being a working class aesthete?” I asked, almost sighing the intonation.
“Eh? Do you keep fit, then?”
“Does it look like it?!” As if she wouldn’t have noticed my beer gut… “I said aesthete”
“Well, it’s like… someone with a bit of culture, but in a Hi Viz jacket.”
Image courtesy of Ace Workwear see link below:
How I hate the Hi Viz tabard. That uniform of oppression; the ubiquitous garb of minimum wage slavery and obese middle management logistics lackies. I always leave mine off whenever possible. Like now.
She glances over to the truck. “Oh, OK, yeah. I get it. Sorry. So what’s the problem?”
She’s obviously a bit intrigued now. If I was 25 years younger I’d have gone into proper chat-up mode…
“I mean, it’s tough having expensive tastes but no money.”
“Jeez. That must be crap”.