Jack sat in his car. His warm car. His warm, dry car, he corrected himself. Sainsbury’s carpark was the usual assortment of badly parked vehicles, but even more so now it was near the terminal end of the Christmas shopping madness. The scene through his windscreen was of hurriedly scampering shoppers clad in the regalia of winter in Wales, collars pulled tightly against gusting, rain-laden wind, shopping bags clutched possessively to their breasts, scarves knotted, beanies pulled skin-stretchingly tight against raddled cheeks and tingling ears.
He could hear the wind slapping ferociously across the undulant car-park, whipping up lake-like puddles into leg soaking spray and the intermittent huffs and puffs of passers-by as they gasped expletively at the blessing of living in the Western part of this island of ours.
Not for the first time, he doubted his rationality for returning. London would be dry now he assured himself, but as always he doubted and sought i-Confirmation from his constant companion. He examined the screen, touched an icon and there it was: five degrees, clear sky. It didn’t say “warm duvet, warmer girlfriend, hot coffee bubbling away in the kitchen”, but he thought it. The thought reminded him regretfully: “warmer girlfriend” was now a thing of the past. Instead he was living in a parent’s house, camp bed, careful with the language, no Xbox, lights out at ten, sherry trifle world, but at least it was only until Boxing Day. Then it was back to London and the emptiness of an apartment for one.
He smiled ruefully at the turn of his thoughts and added, “Damn you, Jesus. Why not July 25th?” Then prepared himself for the fray.
John sat on his square of cloth and newspaper outside the Whitechapel Art Gallery. You could find him there most days, with his big, square shoulders, knobbly nose and scruffy growth of ginger beard. I remember his coat more than anything. Brown herringbone with wide lapels; two of the four buttons missing and the other two held on with electrical wire forced through the eyes and fastened with a tail of knots that disappeared into the folds of his coat. What you could see of his eyes beneath his heavy forehead and thick, spikey eyebrows, were pale blue and as watery as his career in the merchant navy.
He sat there, hunched over his possessions in a collection of worn plastic carryalls and a naval kit bag that may have seen better days, you couldn’t tell any more. His hand extended as each passer-by passed by, mumbled words of gratitude at the chink of a coin, muttered invective at those who chose to just pass by.
I was making my way to college from East Ham, where I was living in those days, in a place called the Flying Angel – a former seaman’s mission, which had been converted into a student hall of residence. I use “converted” in the loosest possible sense, because it was little more than a lick of government issue paint and a few imported Formica topped tables type of conversion. The beds were of the same prison-type issue: metal sprung torture devices barely covered by pencil thin mattresses, adorning tiny rooms with doors that clanged shut. The Angel was not built for permanent residence; especially for John.
He was resident in his spot in Whitechapel almost every day, but I first spoke to him one spring morning right at the beginning of term. To this day I’m not sure why, but it was probably a sense of guilt, borne of a naturally charitable nature.
There are many ways to send a perfectly good car to an early grave, the most obvious is to give it to a company rep. Less apparent, but lots more fun is to take it to Haxenbury Airfield on the third Sunday of the month and enter it into a contest with the bargain basement Schumachers of East London. For here, on two miles of windswept concrete, the wannabe Formula One drivers of tomorrow pit their skills against each other practising the black arts of banger racing.
Haxenbury Airfield is at best a cold, desolate place. Geographically and economically juxtaposed between the burgeoning, commercial district of the Vale Enterprise Park and the old, now nearly defunct, Haxenbury Industrial Estate, it represents a sad reflection of the best hopes and worst fears of that greatest of decades, the 1950s. In the pantheon of ridiculous planning decisions, Haxenbury must rank up there with Birmingham’s spaghetti junction, Milton Keynes and the age-old decision to site the Capital City in the most vulnerable part of the UK.
Situated some fifteen miles from East London and marginally less accessible than the City of London airport, the airfield has no discernible commercial or military purpose. It must have been the fantasy of some long forgotten Alderman serving the adjacent market town of Holt-on-Corner to have an airport. Perhaps he or she believed it would enhance the status, prosperity and expectations of a town long over reliant on the twin pillars of rural life, the market and the public house. Whatever, the Alderman was wrong and Haxenbury Airfield suffered a graceless death in the early sixties, existing henceforth as a vivid concrete scar in the middle of rustic Kent’s timeless beauty. That is, until recently when some bright sparks decided to transform it into a Wide-Boy Imola with an Estuary accent.
Many years ago, when I was about fifteen years of age, I was holidaying in a small West Wales village called Rhossili. Situated some twenty miles south-west of Swansea, on the tip of the Gower Peninsula, Rhossili bay is said to be a place of magic and fable.
A few miles inland from Rhossili, on the old road that traverses the length of Cefn Bryn from Cilibion to Reynoldston is a Neolithic monument that according to those who know these things, dates back to 2500 B.C.
The rock has been known for many centuries simply as “Arthur’s Stone” or as it is called by the locals, many of whom are small, pale and furry and pronounce everything with an excess of spittle: “Maen Ceti”.
From Maen Ceti, you can see for miles across land and sea. Indeed, it is said there once stood a famous wizard who – despite being born in the nearby village of Rhossili and so lacking in physical stature – could see the shores of Ireland on a fine day. The wizard was reputedly named “Merfyn”. This grated with him a little bit, because at the same time there was a famous wizard from Wales known as “Merlyn” or as the English – who were renowned for their inability to spell anything correctly, called him – “Merlin”.
Now Merfyn was every bit as good a wizard as Merlyn, but unlike his more famous counterpart he was not tall and elegant: he was short and stumpy. Moreover, he lacked Merlyn’s long, flowing, white beard. Instead, like most of the inbred villagers, he had thick, black tufts sticking out at seemingly random angles from his face (and indeed most of his body). And unlike Merlyn, he was not blessed with a clear, ringing voice, which echoed resonantly across the valleys all the way to Camelot itself. No, Merfyn the Wizard had a speech impediment which meant every time he used a word with an “S” in it, he would dribble all over his tufty beard and pronounce it “schhs”. So “Hello sexy” became a rather less inviting, “Hello schhsexthy”.
“I being of sound mind…” The opening lines to a new last will and testament? No, this is a service level contract. The training department has decided that they want to become a semi-autonomous organisation within the company and as such have sought to renegotiate their inter-departmental agreements.
This caught the I.T department on the hop. Jiffy, our I.T. Director quickly realised this has nothing to with golf or rock climbing so delegated it to Mungo, the User Technical Support Manager. In itself, this was a rare moment of perspicacity for a man who quite frequently scores lower in tests than the Doom artificial intelligence parser and rarer than an on time delivery from any one of the three largest PC manufacturers, but delegate it he did.
Mungo on the other hand is a thinker, although in a weasel-like-avoid-work-at-all-costs fashion admittedly. He took one long look at the draft letter and returned it to Training with a series of grammatical corrections scrawled in the margin.
Lammas Road Trading Estate in E10 is one of those forgotten pieces of industrial detritus that litter the East-end like souvenirs from a previous economic era. It harks back to the days when someone could earn enough in a forty hour week to keep a family without supplementary benefits, a second income, a forty year mortgage, and credit cards to pay off the credit cards. Did they really exist?
You will not find a call centre anywhere near Lammas Road, neither will it ever be described as “Lammas Road Commercial Park”, but what you will find are those islands of entrepreneurial spirit that characterise the best efforts of modern Britain to earn a living as an independent spirit, free from the demands of unreasonable bosses, a cash business that fulfils the most basic of needs: the need for food. I am, of course, referring to the burger van.
There are three burger vans within walking distance of each other on the estate, but only the most centrally placed of them offers that culinary masterpiece: the hot pork sandwich, a favourite that transcends the fad diet of the moment.
If I’m hungry, and I frequently am, there is nothing more satisfying than one of Mike’s Lo Cal, hot pork sandwiches, complete with stuffing and apple sauce. He says the reason he calls it Lo Cal has nothing to do with the calorific value, but rather because it was made just around the corner, so it’s LoCal. The bread is sliced thick enough to expose the limitations of a single hinge jaw and the meat has that distinct, burger van flavour that says; “I’m extremely toxic, but anything this tasty has to be..”