Monday, 24 July 2017

They had heard great things about Wales and about work too.

Penkington had been due in to play in Traintown on the Saturday night. This happened often, but when he heard about a free festival in Llantrisant, he was intrigued. Perhaps it would become famous in subcultural folklore. He wouldn’t want to miss out on that, would he now, all those short stories he could write about it in the punk rock nostalgia books in thirty years’ time? So he wondered where Llantrisant was. He called Squirrel, who seemed to know a lot of things. Squirrel also had a little van, he drove to a lot of subcultural gigs. He might be going, or he might be persuaded to. Squirrel had no intention of going to Llantrisant, he’d been up all night, driving back from a visit to Don from Doncaster, and he was skint. Any idea where it is? Penkington asked him. It’s where Leekes is, Squirrel said. You what? Penkington said, thinking of the vegetable. Leekes of Llantrisant, Squirrel said, you know, the advert off the telly. I think it’s in Wales. Oh right, Penkington said, never mind then. You should try Eggy, Squirrel said, he’s always up for an adventure. So Penkington hung up, and then he called Eggy.
Eggy was, indeed, up for an adventure, and they arranged to meet at the top of the town, from whence they would walk to the road that led up to the motorway, the A46, and commence hitch-hiking. First, though, he had to call Benny the Baker and cancel his appearance in Traintown. He didn’t think he’d be missed. His act was a sort of crusty Billy Bragg, the tunes largely lifted from a group he’d been in at school, The Beginning, the lyrics amended to suit the mores of the subculture. He generally played first so that he could get drunk enough afterwards to dance to the headlining acts, a handful of people watching and applauding politely. But Benny the Baker seemed peeved, he’d already had two of the main acts cancel on him and he didn’t know what he was going to do. Penkington explained he’d already made arrangements with Eggy, thinking that he’d understand: Benny the Baker and Eggy had been at private school together, along with Squirrel. But Benny the Baker told him he was unbelievable and promptly hung up. Penkington shrugged, packed a small bag, and got the bus into town.
Eggy was late, even though he lived close by. Penkington stood waiting outside a pub called The Curfew, looking at his watch, thinking of going inside from time to time, but knowing he probably wouldn’t get out again. Then Eggy turned up, apologizing. They exchanged pleasantries and started walking along the London Road to the A46. As they passed the Longacre Hall at Snowhill, Penkington told Eggy a story about how he’d been to his first proper subcultural gig there at the beginning of 1984, to see the Smart Pils. It was supposed to be their farewell gig, although he’d see them many times after that. Penkington had enjoyed them, and he’d told the bass player he thought they sounded like Crass, which was supposed to be a compliment. The bass player had looked a little bemused, and Penkington’s new compatriots had laughed, one of them, Psychobully, calling him a fucking idiot. That was it, it wasn’t much of a story. Then they were at the bottom of the A46.
It didn’t take them long to catch a lift to the motorway. They squeezed into the back of a red wooden jeep, which the driver had built himself, almost from scratch, starting with only the chassis and the engine. What kind of car is this? Penkington asked innocently, as it shook and rattled along at top speed, 45mph. I call it Ye Shed, the driver laughed. Is that what you do then, rebuild old motors? Eggy called out above the engine noise. The driver told him he’d been in the army until last year, he’d been in The Falklands, then he’d broken his leg in County Fermanagh and he had to be invalided out, but he’d got himself a tasty pension. How Does It Feel? Penkington thought, looking down at his shoes; he didn’t know what to say to that. It went against the unwritten rules of the subculture, he was supposed to be against the military and a pacifist. Ah right, Eggy said, good one mate. Then they were at the motorway and the driver pulled over onto a verge and let them out. He was heading further north, to Herefordshire, he couldn’t tell them why. He winked and gave them the thumbs up, wished them luck, then he was gone.
The next lift took a little longer to arrive, about 45 minutes, but eventually a BMW stopped. Penkington and Eggy were surprised, they didn’t often get lifts from flash motors, they were too scruffy. Many of the lifts they did get were from ex-military types, because in the subculture they dressed all in black, which from a distance looked a little like a uniform. But they weren’t going to say no to the BMW, they weren’t proud. As they climbed into the back, the driver, a Nigerian, said, I hope you will not be smoking in the car, and they tossed their roll-ups away.
On the motorway, the driver asked them questions and they leaned forward to answer, the sun lowering in the sky as they headed west. No, they weren’t working, yes, unemployment was a terrible thing but what could you do, no, they didn’t have children, yes, they were going to be looking for work in Wales, they had heard great things about Wales and about work too. Hitch-hiking could be quite an adventure if you had an imagination. You could make up all kinds of stuff, you could really reinvent yourself. The driver nodded in agreement and answered occasionally, chuckling. At Aust Cliff Services, just shy of the Severn Bridge, he pulled off the motorway, saying that he needed refreshment. The three of them walked across the asphalt of the car park and into a deserted refectory, where he bought them a cup of tea each. They both took it black. The driver found this curious and Penkington set about explaining veganism and factory farming to him, excitedly. Eggy didn’t join in, only staring down into his cup, he wasn’t a proselytizer. You need fleesh, the driver told them, and Penkington looked at him askance. Fleesh, the driver said again, making to bite a chunk out of his own arm. Ah, flesh! Penkington said, I see. Yes, Fleesh! the driver said, you need fleesh my friend, and they all laughed. Then they drank their tea and they walked back out to the car and got back onto the motorway, and they crossed the bridge over the estuary, its waters headed for the Celtic Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, all the way from its source at Plynlimon, the highest point of the Cambrian mountains, the River Severn named for Sabrina, a nymph who had drowned there. The driver dropped them a short while later at the junction for Newport East. He didn’t wish them luck.
The next lift took an hour to materialize, and they began to wonder whether they would make the festival. Do you know who’s supposed to be playing? Eggy asked. It didn’t say, Penkington said, I dunno, antisect maybe? Amebix? The Ozrics? Eggy snorted. Yeah, right, he said, haven’t heard that one before. Then Penkington’s mind began to wander. He recalled a trip to the cinema with Eggy and his sister, with Sherwood and his girlfriend, who was called Bet Lynch, to see Back to the Future. Eggy’s sister had one of those dyed-red quiffs that made her look like a lesbian, but after some snuck-in vodka she’d let him snog her and put his hand up her jumper. Then he’d blacked out. How’s your sister? he asked Eggy, apropos of nothing. What the fuck’s that supposed to mean? Eggy said. Then a lift pulled over for them and they both calmed down.
It was a lorry. They climbed up into the cab and explained to the driver where they were headed, and the driver started giving out counter-intuitive directions as to the best route, as drivers do. He said he’d drop them at the most likely spot for getting a lift the rest of the way there. Shouldn’t take you long, boys, he said. They didn’t like to argue, it was almost dusk now. He put them out at a curious junction that looked like a five-points farm crossing where witches had once been hanged. They were surrounded by trees and no passing vehicles seemed evident for some time, not a sound, only the birdsong. They weren’t quite in the middle of nowhere, but, were it not for the trees, they’d surely be able to see it from where they were standing. Eggy began to curse and stamp his feet, saying oh why oh why oh why, over and over. Penkington walked back and forth across the junction, there was something strange about it, it seemed as though all of his short life up to this point had been designed to arrive him here. In his later years, he would have recurring dreams about the place, in which nothing really happened. The isolated and anonymous countryside seemed to somehow represent his long journey home, home being death. A twelve-stepper would later say to him, telling a story about someone who had died, he’s gone home now. Penkington would discuss this repeatedly in psychotherapy sessions, the junction. There was a painting on the wall of just such a spot, the psychotherapist telling him, I don’t know why it’s there, this isn’t my room, I just rent it.

It was all but dark now. Then, from which direction it was not clear, they heard the clatter and rumble of a small engine approaching, and they stood to attention, stuck out their thumbs, painted on their smiles. A Morris Traveller pulled up right in the centre of the junction, a middle-aged woman winding down the window and leaning out.
Where you boys headed then? she asked, as they approached the vehicle. Chickens squawked from wire cages on the back seat. Penkington did the talking, explaining the pop festival to her. Oh, that, she said, that were called off last week, the parish council banned it, you know, after what happened last year. Come on, climb in the back, I’ll take yer back to the motorway. They climbed into the back and she turned the Morris Traveller around and started driving south. Don’t mind Pinky an’ Perky, she said, they don’t bite.
As they headed back to the motorway the woman asked them who they knew locally, was surprised when they both said, nope, no-one. They asked where they were from and when they told her, she said she’d been there once, that it was very nice. Then they were at the motorway, a large deserted roundabout, the sun dipping down below the horizon to the west. Penkington expected Eggy to be angry at their wasted journey, but he was just glad to be on his way back, he seemed to now be taking it all very philosophically. A large van pulled over after about ten minutes, headed for Bristol, and they climbed aboard. The driver looked like Fred West, although they wouldn’t have known as much at the time. He asked them the requisite questions but they couldn’t understand a word he said, and so they just nodded, Penkington saying ah yeh from time to time, which seemed to satisfy him. He dropped them at the top of the M32, which wasn’t strictly legal. It was pitch black now, and they had to stand out in the road and wave their arms about to get themselves noticed. Eventually, a small van pulled over and they climbed into the back, and they rode east in silence after some cursory conversation about football and the miners’ strike, and the driver dropped them at the top of the A46 and wished them well, and they started walking in silence in the darkness, although it was ten miles back to town, not thinking they would get another lift this late. They turned and stuck their thumbs out each time a car passed, then continued walking. Half way to Pennysylvania, a small village with a pub and a church, a beat-up old Datsun pulled over and they climbed inside and thanked the driver, who said he was down from London looking at property, that their hometown wasn’t really a city at all, not like London, it was just too small. Eggy said something about it being to do with cathedrals and abbeys and the driver said, well now, I did not know that, and then they were at the western end of the London Road and Penkington recalled being driven there by his parents when he was small and they lived in a suburb of Trowbridge. They had been visiting his father’s father, and Penkington had asked where they were now, and his father had said the name of the city that wasn’t really a city, but Penkington had seen the sign for London Road and had thought that they were in London, marveling at the tall buildings and thinking, all adults lie, it’s what they do. They were deposited on Walcot Street, outside the Hat and Feather, and they went inside for a farewell pint, just in time for last orders, another Saturday night.