I’m driving down the Exeter to Plymouth road. I’m doing over seventy and the brakes are screaming like it’s an episode of Starsky and Hutch. Carol is sitting beside me anxiously holding on to her seat belt. Ralph is in the rear, the G-force pinning him to his seat. I haven’t said a word since I got back into the car. I’m really pissed off.
“Take it easy…” cries Carol. “Slow down… you’ll get us arrested if you’re not careful.”
But my mind is set: all I want to do now is get away from Starcross, I want to leave this shitty little village as soon as possible. Because I have no choice, I am heading in the direction of Dawlish Warren, the next shitty little village in a string of shitty little villages that line this part of the coast. It’s already dark now, the headlights of the car slice through the thick air and pick out details as we move: telegraph poles, clock towers, the masts of anchored boats; everything is pointing skywards – like me, trying to escape from this grim shit-hole that they call Starcross.
I drive for hours, it seems, not speaking, not looking at anything but the road ahead. We pass Dawlish Warren, its sandy beaches bleak and desolate, its amusement arcades and gaudy wooden side-shows closed for the winter. We blaze through Newton Abbot, past deserted caravan sites and windswept Victorian boarding houses with the shutters up. We reach Torquay and get stuck in its one-way system for a while, slowing our progress, making me curse and bang the side of the car door in frustration. Then we find ourselves back on the main road to Plymouth, passing a sign that tells us that Cornwall is up ahead. I drive: I put my foot down and drive – I want to drive until we run out of road, until we reach a cliff at Land’s End and career off the side.
I’m feeling used, or duped or suckered, or whatever the appropriate word is to describe the abject sense of desolation that has me in its grip. I’m feeling foolish, and stupid and useless. I’m chewing a hole in my lower lip. I’m laughing at myself inside, at my blind ignorance, at the way I allowed myself to be manipulated, at my inability to follow my instincts – how could I possibly imagine that things would turn out any differently than they did? Of course this was going to happen, of course it was – I should have know that it would take more than a fatal dose of gut rot to make that bastard change.
It is only when we stop at a traffic light just before Brixham that I realise how tired I am. I look at my watch: it is now getting on for eleven o’clock – I’ve been driving for more than ten hours, I’m hungry and thirsty, my mind is wiped out. Carol, who has been keeping a diplomatic silence for the past couple of towns, turns towards me and I turn to face her and shrug. She looks a little scared. “I take it it didn’t go too well?” she asks.
I laugh to myself a little. “No… it didn’t.” I reply.
We park in a lay-by and Carol and Ralph get out to stretch their legs, leaving me alone in the car to quietly simmer. Ralph sniffs at the surroundings and takes a drink from a puddle and then finds a tree and cocks his leg against it. He looks pretty miserable too, actually, as if he has absorbed my mood. I sit and watch as Carol fusses over him. I wish it was me she was fussing over; in fact, I wish it was me out there cocking my leg against that tree: how much simpler life would be. I smoke a cigarette and try to calm down, I’m suddenly aware that we’ve stopped in the middle of nowhere. The wind is whistling by, it’s absolutely freezing and there’s a film of thin drizzle dancing in the air.
Carol gets back in the car and I tell her that we ought to find somewhere to stay for the night. I head towards Brixham, at a more reasonable pace this time. We’re there within twenty minutes and of course it’s closed. Here and there we see a few people walking through the streets on their way home from the pub or whatever but otherwise there’s no sign of life in this place. I circle the round-about in the centre of town a couple of times, wondering what to do next. Then I stop the car and ask a passer-by for information. He’s about fifty, with a scruffy Farmer Giles beard. He looks at me like I’m from another planet and says something like: “I’d be arf down in the ridge, innit.” I ask him to repeat the sentence and then give up and roll up my window and drive off. In desperation I try knocking on the doors of a few boarding houses but the only person that answers is an old woman with a cigarette hanging from her mouth who says something equally unintelligible. Who needs the French or the Germans when you’ve got Brixham? It’s a xenophobe’s paradise.
Finally, I have a lucky break: I try a large hotel on the outskirts of the town. It’s closed but just as I’m about to leave a young man wearing a faded Nirvana T-shirt under a denim jacket appears from a side entrance and peers into the car, his eyes looking through me, lingering over Carol, and says: “You be out for somewhere to stay for night?” He really says it like this, I’m not making it up.
I tell him yes and he tells me that the hotel is closed, which I already know. Then he says something like: “Heighten let he have a car’van if he likes… cost he about twenty.”
“He says he can give us a caravan to stay in,” Carol translates.
“Yes… I realise that,” I say.
We park the car and pull out our luggage and follow the man down a path that leads to the rear of the hotel. We find ourselves in a large caravan site: everything is pitch black around us; it seems that Brixham is yet to discover electricity. Then, as if to prove otherwise, the man flicks on a torch and directs us to the first of the caravans, he pulls out a bunch of keys and opens the door, then he fumbles about with a fuse box or something and suddenly there is light inside.
I hand the guy a twenty and ignore whatever garbled instructions he is giving me. When he sees me doing this he turns to Carol and talks to her instead. As he speaks, he reaches out to pat Ralph but the dog growls at him warily and he pulls his hand away, laughing a little. Then he stops talking and looks at me again and I return his stare, and he smiles and nods at me. This silence continues for a few more moments: both of us looking at each other for no apparent reason, until Carol reaches into her pocket and hands him a fifty-pence piece. “Thanks, Ma’am.” He says.
The caravan has one bedroom, a small sitting room and a tiny bathroom containing a toilet and shower. In the sitting room is a kitchen area equipped with a sink, a single ring Baby Belling, a few beaten up old pans, a can opener and a rusty old kettle. I try one of the taps but no water comes out and find myself smiling grimly. “How the other half live,” I say soberly.
I open one of the cupboards above the sink: it’s mostly empty except for a few tea bags and sachets of sugar left there by a previous holidaymaker. In another cupboard I find a tin of alphabetic spaghetti and a small jar of pickled gerkhins. This is what we feast on: Carol makes black tea with water that has been inside the kettle for longer than I care to think about. When she’s finished boiling the water I pour the spaghetti into a pan and warm it up on the Baby Belling. We have the gerkhins for starters, and even though I normally can’t stand them I force down my share. Then I serve up the spaghetti and Carol climbs to her feet and fetches another plate and gives half of hers to Ralph, so I stand up and grudgingly donate half of mine to the poor thing, too (which I later realise means that Ralph gets to eat half of the tin and Carol and I only a quarter each). It’s now 1.06 a.m..
After our hearty repast I find some blow in my wallet and roll a spliff and Carol and Ralph and I sit close together shivering in the silence. I’m hardly able to keep my eyes open; it feels like my brain has been surgically removed. And then before I know it Carol has produced a blanket from the bedroom and is laying it over me; it smells of damp. Then a soggy pillow is placed behind my head and the burning joint is gently winched from my fingers. I hear Carol’s voice in the distance: “I’m really sorry I got you into all this,” she murmurs guiltily.
It’s getting light when I open my eyes. Already the seagulls are beginning their chant. I’m lying fully dressed on the floor of the sitting room, my shoulders are aching and I’m fighting off cramp in my right leg. Carol lies to one side of me, also fully dressed, her blonde hair resting on my shoulder. Ralph lies on the other side of me, dreaming his doggie dreams, his nose twitching. I close my eyes and try to get some more sleep.