When I was seventeen I came south to find a job. I took my belongings in a bag, hitching down the Great North Road with hope and trepidation in my heart. I had a bad time of it and was left to stand by the road throughout the night.
A car picked me up in the afternoon. The driver’s face was long and thin. His eyes were sharp and narrow. I wasn’t comfortable with him, but I couldn’t have told you why. He saw me as a lost soul and I probably saw the same in him, a man in a suit that was never going to fit him, stretching in the wrong places, twisting awkwardly round his shoulders. When he stopped at the roadside, he leant across the front seat and said,
– Where you going?
I said, and the word suddenly had a magic I hadn’t heard before.
It was a summer afternoon, warm and a little wet. The sun came in and out through the spitting clouds, leaving splashes of light and a freshness across the fields. The windscreen wipers clacked and the spray swished off the tyres of the lorries in front of us. He was a careless driver, racing up to the lights of lorries as we came up behind them, pulling out at the last moment and swinging the car into the outside lane through the spray. It was a relief when the rain began to ease and the sun came out and the road opened up before us.
Once or twice he glanced at me but I ignored him. The twist of his face made it look like he was peering round a corner. He tried to speak but I preferred to keep a silence. After the sun came out he slowed down a bit, and I began to relax. He pulled up at a Little Chef.
he asked. I told him I hadn’t eaten, and he bought me a roll and a stale cup of coffee, though it wasn’t good and I hadn’t wanted him to pay for it.
I sat by the window and watched the road go by. He watched me intently with a thin-lipped grin and staring eyes. The coffee was hot and wet but tasted all wrong. He had taken a liking to me but something wasn’t right about him. I watched the sun play on the glass and listened to his voice, though I didn’t hear a word he said.
When we got back in the car he began to behave oddly. He turned to look at me, and reached over and put his hand on my knee with a strange gleam in his eye. This wasn’t what I was expecting.
– Don’t do that.
He took back his hand and acted as if nothing had happened. I looked out the window as the light began to fade, trees and fields and clouds as far as I could see. We drove in silence but the atmosphere had changed. I kept my eyes on the road ahead and wondered what would happen next. He veered between the lanes, racing for short periods, swerving behind lorries and slowing dramatically. Each time he did this he turned to look at me and I stared ahead at the road and the cars floating past. After a while he said,
– Sorry. I didn’t mean to be angry,
and the road became more quiet. I wondered what was wrong with him. My bag was on the back seat and I calculated there was no chance of escape. So I kept my eyes on the road, staring into the evening as it came up to meet me, shadows cast by trees which put his face in sharp relief. Just as the road seemed to become more ordinary he reached across and touched my leg again.
he said meaningfully, and took a packet from the glove compartment, tapping it against his leg. He pulled one out, slipped it between his lips, and held the pack towards me.
I said, reaching for my own. He held the wheel between his knees while he cupped his hands to strike a match. He took a light and offered it to me, still holding the wheel with his leg as the car began to drift to the left, jerking it back in line just before we hit the kerb. He laughed a small laugh, and said,
– Close thing there.
I stared at the squares of light reflected through the glass in front of me, the arc left by the wipers and the dust on the screen. The sun was low in the sky and the long glow of summer was flowing out across the hills and fields.
– It’ll be getting dark soon,
he said, and watched me closely.
– Not till half-past nine,
I said, and he slowed down and pulled into the inside lane as we drove up a hill behind a lorry. Drawing onto the hard shoulder he stopped and switched off the ignition and said,
– You could stay at my place,
with a hint of a smile on the corner of his lips. Another lorry thundered past and the car shuddered. He put his hand on my knee again.
– Breakfast in the morning and an early start,
– Don’t do that,
and pushed his hand away.
He stared at me angrily, threw the car into gear and pulled out in front of another car, forcing it to swerve out of the way and into the outside lane. I don’t think he saw the other car as he stepped on the accelerator and pushed towards the evening sky with a furious determination in his eyes. He evidently wasn’t happy, and ten minutes later he pulled up on the slip road leading to a country lane, and said,
– You can get out here.
He had promised to drop me at a service station or a junction where I could get a lift, and this was a B-road where there would be little traffic but farm traffic and none of that before morning. I picked up my jacket from the foot well, and he shouted,
– Get out,
and as I opened the rear door and reached for my bag on the back seat he yelled across the roof of the car,
– You don’t know me.
I looked at him, bemused.
– You’ve never met me,
he shouted, and jumped into the car and drove away. I sat down at the side of the road and counted my blessings.
There wasn’t a hope of a lift on the slip road. I picked up my bag and walked up to the junction, kicking a can as I went. The B-road disappeared into the fields and hedgerows and the fading light on either side of the bridge. I walked down to the side of the carriageway, threw my bag on the grass, and watched the arc of headlights as they drew wild traces along the evening sky, hoping a car might stop for me.
I sat by the hedge and listened to the birds and the hum of the traffic while the sun slipped through the clouds on the horizon. I hadn’t been there long when a car pulled up and a girl climbed out. She had a rucksack on her back but unlike me she didn’t seem to have a care. She was urchin-like, thin and bird legged, with a longish skirt and shortish hair, big brown eyes and a street-wise air I could only hope for. The car disappeared along the country road, and she put her bag down next to mine, and said,
and looked me over.
– You been waiting long?
– A while,
– You look tired,
she said, sympathetically.
I said, and flicked a piece of gravel into the grass. We talked about the weather and the road, the sun slipping over the edge of the fields, and the drivers of cars who drove straight past us.
– We’ll never get a lift here,
– We will,
she said, but I wasn’t too sure. I stood up and walked around. She had a confidence in the road I did not have. I told her about the man with the wandering hands who had dropped me here.
– I’ve known a few of those,
– You should try being a girl.
I kicked a pebble into the kerb. She looked at me like I was odd, pushing her hand back through her hair.
– Where you going?
I didn’t really know.
– Do you know what you’re looking for?
– A job.
– Good luck with that,
she said, scratching the side of her face.
– Work is just another way of starving.
The shadows were deepening and the headlights had begun to penetrate the gloom.
– Come on,
– Let’s hitch together.
She pulled her bag over her shoulder and went to the side of the road. She stuck out her thumb and a lorry stopped a hundred yards further on. She ran after it and climbed into the cab and I followed with my bag knocking between my legs. By the time I got there she was already high in the cab.
– He’s only got room for one,
she said, looking down at me.
– See you,
she said, and smiled and waved at me as the lorry pulled away.
The night was coming in. Egg in gristle, the pale moon turning to cold. It was just my luck to be left in such a place. I stood on the hard shoulder and watched the traffic. Out of the night the trucks came from the north. Their headlights were slivers of ice, irrevocable and unearthly. They howled like ghosts and sent shivers along my spine. Behind them there was silence and the promise of rain.
Food was what I thought about once the dark crawled in, bringing with it the cold. The lights glimmered in the distance like stars, and hunger filled my belly with sounds. I could see the drivers’ faces illuminated by a light in the cab or the glow of a tab on a bottom lip, and felt a sudden and pointless anger towards them, warm in their worlds, cushioned from the night by the rhythms of their motors and the sounds of their radios. I counted the lorries and I counted the stars. I listened for missing engines and counted the cats’ eyes running down the middle of the road. I ran into the road and a lorry just missed me, blowing his horn as he went. I waved my arms but the drivers didn’t see me. I could see their faces rearing through the gloom, a light in the cab, the radio on, their motors crashing through the dark like space junk through the skies, chasing moonbeams from my shadow, spinning my shadow around my face, taking my shadow away.
I whistled and sang and waited for the echoes to come bouncing back off the road. I sang every song I knew and some I had never heard before. The stars quivered. The gorges opened up beneath me, as deep and silent as the deep blue sea, and the lorries rushed in with a blast of light like meteors falling through the primordial heavens. It was ordained that things were meant to be this way. The night was delivered, and there was nothing I could do but stand there with the cold creeping down my back, waiting for a miracle.
It began to spit with rain and I hid beneath the wings of a bridge with my coat pulled over my head. Shivering, I sat down and smoked my last cigarette. I crouched in the cradle of the concrete spans, listening to the wind blowing through the fields behind me, and the wheels spinning down the road ahead, waiting for the morning to come.
At the darkest hour a blue light came down the road. A police car. Two coppas, faces locked in shadow.
– You can’t stop here,
one of them said.
– Why not?
– How long you been here?
– Since dark,
– Why you asking?
– Break-ins on the industrial estate.
– Not me,
– Can you prove it?
I didn’t know where the industrial estate was.
– What’s in your bag?
They stepped out of the car and emptied my bag onto the side of the road, oblivious to my pleas.
– It’s raining,
– Get back up there,
said one of them,
pointing up the slip road.
– No-one will see me there,
An hour or two later the sun came slowly cracking like an egg in a frying pan in a roadside café three junctions down the road, and I stood at the side of the road and read a message written on the side of the bridge, and knew I wasn’t the first.
– I know I’m spotty, knackered and stink,
– but I still want a fucking lift.
A lorry stopped just before dawn, a crack of blue splitting the eastern sky, and I ran like the wind with my bag knocking between my legs. The driver said,
– Where you going?
and I said,
He shook his head and said,
– I turn off just down the road.
I said. I stood between the door and the cab, staring up into his face. I was unable to move. He reached across for my bag.
– Get in.
I sat high in his cab, with my knees up under my chin, shivering, and he looked at me from the corner of his eye.
– Got a job?
– A job? Do you work?
It was a pig lorry.
– A kna this, knowing what a do, a wouldn’t eat the buggas,
– Keep em in black holes, stuff ’em with shit, tea leaves, dog ends, piglets, plastic, dead animals, an’ cut their throats. It’s all gristle and shit.
He spat from the window. Light danced on the leaves and fields, rooftops and windscreens. Music on the radio, barely audible above the slamming gears.
– A tak ’em from the prison to the slaughterhouse,
he said, and told me he was thinking of quitting his job to do what I was doing before he grew too old.
He dropped me at a roadside café, a whitewashed shack with a bare light bulb buzzing above the door. The morning was coming up, pale and fresh beneath a cloudfilled sky, setting the distant trees and chimneys in their place. I lifted my bag and crossed the gravel between the parked lorries and the concrete outhouses. The smell of DERV and the hint of frying bacon floated through the air and a silence hung in the breeze, broken only by a sign that read BREAKFAST ALL DAY AND NIGHT caught on its creaking hinges, and the ebb and flow of the fading traffic on the road behind me.
I walked on legs that were light and jaunty in their tiredness, grabbing smokes from a machine on the way in. I smiled at the waitress and she turned away with a wilted air that said that she had seen it all before, yet she couldn’t have been much older than I was. Her face said,
– What do you want?
and her eyes said,
– Get it over with.
She wore a black skirt with stains on the hem and a plastic apron with a Guinness girder that stretched tight across her hips. Her hair was tied in a distraught bun pinned to the top of her head.
I sat down at a table by the window and spread myself out between the window and the ash tray. It began to rain outside, lightly splattering the glass. I was too tired to care. The rain looked like rain to me and the smoke smelt like smoke. The dust hung in the thick air waiting for a place to settle, like the tensions in the hard struck chords on the radio. My foot tapped, not to the music, but from restlessness. My cigarette flew to my lips and the smoke was restful. It clouded the fraying edges of my nerves. It seeped into the cracks and filled them out.
My coffee span around my cup. It tasted of cardboard, stiff and dry, but it burnt my tongue and kept me awake. The food came on a cracked plate, an egg with its yolk staring up at me. I ate slowly, prodding a delicate fork into each chip and dipping it into the yolk, the taste and smell lingering on my lips, and listened to the drivers talking and the hum of the radio. The noises echoed around the room, crashing plates, the stillflowing tap in the sink, a scraping chair, the drone of a voice on the radio, slithering across the room like an egg yolk sliding down a plug hole.
– Six o’clock on a sunny morning in London … an unemployed man set himself on fire outside Downing Street last night …
I put my head in my arms and fell asleep. I dreamt of headlights and giant tyres as big as the moon. I could hear them coming, like thunder rolling along a distant horizon. It was going nowhere. It exploded in sheets of light and rain. It threw itself in my face, impressing me with its might and grandeur, and was gone, leaving only the silence and the rain.
I could see the drivers at the wheel. They spat from their windows. They waved at me with smiles on their faces. I glimpsed the wonders of warmth and plain food. I smelt the coffee and saw the light reflected in their eyes. I heard the music drifting from their cabs as they passed me by. I reached my hands towards them. I went down on my knees and begged for a little warmth and they smiled down at me. I had not learnt how to beg. I had not learnt humility, and I had not learnt that I had to be indifferent.
They did not care who or what I was. I was a passing curiosity. I was a glimmer in the shadows. They smiled at me in the knowledge that they were not like me. They pitied me but they had no pity. They laughed at me but they had no sense of humour. They had stone faces and felt no guilt.
But I would not accept my fate. I clenched my fist at my sides and bellowed at them. I spat on their flying wheels. I blew on their fading exhausts. I grasped with expanding hands and tore their lorries out of the night. I flung them back to from where they came, and I saw them trailing along the frozen edges of the Aurora Borealis, their lights receding until they were pinheads among the frightened stars.
I woke to find the waitress standing over me with a satisfied smile on her face.
– We can’t have that in here,
– You can’t sleep in here,
she said. So I went outside and yawned and rubbed my eyes, the chill morning wind, fresh after rain, stinging my face. The gravel crunched beneath my feet and the giant tyres scratched the surface of the silver puddles.
Behind me the hanging sky was blue and grey and a sign banged in the wind. I stretched my arms and touched my toes and went to find the toilet. It was a sloping drain leading to a grate below a greening wall and a corrugated roof. There was a tap on the wall. I stooped over it, cupping the cold water in my hands and splashed my face. A driver in blue overalls leant into the corner, pissing in private.
– You going north?
he said over his shoulder.
– I’ll take you,
he said, and walked off hitching up his flies.
From the window of his cab I watched the light filter through the trees, and the road dissolve beneath me. The pale sun climbed up through the clouds and the bubbling steam from the cooling towers at Ferrybridge. Light touched the scum on the water, the old bridge and the black rails, and we rode over the town in the lorry, motionless.
If you enjoyed Waking Up Is Hard To Do, leave a comment and let Richard know.
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