We were somewhere around Watford on the edge of up North when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like, “I need a shit… the bowels are at last engaging… maybe you should drive…” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of lorry tractors as we pulled into the service station. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! Cast away your sins and you shall be saved … Coronavirus is the wages of sin… and only the righteous shall be saved in the coming storm.” The quietened motorways had become the new safe place of the sandwich board ranters – but this guy spoke the truth. Old England was, in the opinion of all in Ye Old Cheshire Cheese lockdown lock in, about to enter the gates of Hell. The end of the world was here. But for some, the place to go, apparently, was Barnard Castle. And we were determined to get there too for the rapture.
It was the North most definitely. Standing in a queue for the lavatory, knowing what mess awaits you both in the stink of these receptacles of hades (these places where smells and mess and wetness of the masses must hold all sorts of tropical diseases) and in the stuff you vomit from your backside. Thank fuck for the 24 hour toilet cleaners. At my age, a solid stool is now something you only find at a bar. No manner of drugs or food can make those turds solid, baby.
We were getting sick of Soho, Kensington, and the false stoicism of the middle classes who were whispering loudly across the two metre chasms of snobbery, about how the lower classes and the blacks were endangering us all. I’m afraid I did two things I don’t regret, but have ensured I have a Hearing in the coming weeks. Both of them involved close contact between my fist and a racist arse, and a bastard more interested in ripe avocados than truly understanding the young people dancing in the parks… their year of teenage rebellion stolen by a virus and a truly malignant Government who could have contained this thing back in February. I think only for my age, the fuckers would have stamped on me, but instead, some busy body called The Filth. Lib Dem touts, the lot of them.
After a gruesome break that broke my days of constipation, we hit the road again in the Tin Minnow, an open top 1985 Green Skoda my bar landlord, Weatherall, had converted with a chainsaw and a couple of old pram hoods on the back of the front seats. It sounded like, smelled like and drove like cars should. Cummings had driven to Durham. I was a professional journalist, so I had an obligation to cover that story – and do it with my glasses off, for authenticity.
We were essential workers, Weatherall had had to give away his beer cellar to the locals, who were making sure the stuff didn’t go off by socially distancing in Fred the Fart’s converted lockup, bravely drinking the stuff day and night to ensure it didn’t get the chance to go off. And he wanted answers. We both did. Why Barnard Castle? Why tell us to stay in fucking Kensington when the Government were infecting small villages up north? What was really happening?
The Tin Minnow had a boot full of booze, and every prescription drug known to man, to last us a week. ACE inhibitors, Angiotensin-II antagonists, ARNi, Antiarrhythmic medicines, Anticoagulant medicines, Antiplatelet medicines, Beta-blockers, Calcium channel blockers, statins, Digoxin, Diuretics, Nitrates… and those were just to keep our feeble, vibration of a heartbeat pumping the soup we called blood around our wretched carcasses. The drugs to keep our kidneys and liver going, our eyes working, our joints pain free etc, were only outnumbered by the bottles of tequila, gin, vodka, rum, whisky, whiskey, bourbon, and bottles of stuff I had never heard of or thought I would never need, that filled up the back seat. We travelled lightly, clothes and grooming wise, but still the back of the car was nearly touching the road.
For whatever reason, Weatherall had decided to head north via the A41. There were few places to stop here… Everything was closed down. Lockdown had hit the countryside even worse than it had hit London. At least in London, the pretence of closure could be circumnavigated by those in the know. Every fucking ten miles in the countryside, a police car would wave us down and ask us what we were doing. Weatherall insisting on pouring beer over his bright red, amorphous body in order to facilitate the tanning process ensured I was breathalysed three fucking times before we hit the Get Stuffed Comedy Club in Tring, where we had decided had a hidden enough carpark for us to knock back the Espolòn Blanco and then sleep it off. We had a sandwich or two… tuna, haddock, trout. Weatherall had to clear out his fish freezer. Luckily my press pass waved plod off. They had the much more important job of policing the Tesco queues of enraged, masked, pillarbox red peeling skinned, flour and yeast seekers and the kids invading parks on Boris Bikes.
We arrived at the carpark. It wasn’t empty. The youth of Tring had turned it into their crack den; their opium den. Well, basically their place to smoke joints, drink beer from a can and listen to loud noises emanating from their phones. They crowded around us, and Weatherall got the fear.
“Fuck Off! We don’t want your diseases!”
“Calm the fuck down. Ignore them. They’ll go away, man!” I told him.
A blighter dressed in Woolworths garb circa 1972 and National Health glasses circa 1955 smiled. “Hey man, where are you going?”
“Stand back!” I shouted. “We are the press! We are covering the story of the fucking century!”
“Hey lads, this is the press!” And with that, they all crowded over, leering at us, as if they were about to angrily squeeze those zits in our direction. The noise of tinny phones and squeeking, breaking voices was fucking awful. Like one of Andy Warhol’s do’s during the time the Velvets had no idea how to play those fucking instruments, made worse by the copious amounts of booze and drugs they – and we – were doing at the time. Ah, if only he knew, the pop vibe WASN’T the future. It was the discordant clatter and the vacant looks, cheap clothes and blank minds. Selfie fame for fifteen minutes in your Facebook bubble.
The youth en masse, sat either on the car, or against it, smoking their stuff, passing it to us, and we passed the bottles out to them. Carefully. With the windows up of course, and with hand gel to rub around the mouth of the bottles.
We awoke four hours later, in the night. But the party was well under way. The back seats of the car instead of becoming emptier of booze, had filled as more of Tring’s youth emerged and deposited their stash for safety while they danced, pissed and sucked face. Weatherall opened his door, scattering boys, squeaking through smokey, pubescent vocal chords, and pissed on the mossy carpark.
“We’ve got to get going,” I said.
Weatherall grunted. “I need a fucking toke. Ive a head on me like a fucking jackhammer stuck on automatic in a double glazing factory.”
And it was then he introduced himself. The Elephant, he said. He’d never been in a convertible, he said. And he too wanted to cover the fucking story for “Tring Today.”
Weatherall looked at him up and down. “You a fucking journalist?”
“You got any hash?”
“Just the Amaretto I placed in your back seat earlier, sir.”
“Why you caw’d the Elephant?”
“I never forget.”
“Geddin. We’re your friends. Not like the others.”
The engine whined, eventually, to life, and the youth scattered, slowly, as we roared, slowly, from the car park.
Weatherall was hogging the joint as always, but the poor fucker needed it.
“Elephant, dear chap,” I said. “Where in Tring can we get some food at this time of night?”
I thought this was going to go badly. I was getting the fear. How long would it be before this boy said something that I had to hit him with my stick for? He looked like a fucking Elephant. Not big, in any way, except for those ears. That nose. Did I say that out loud? I looked at Weatherall who for whatever reason had taken on the form of a purple rabbit, and seemed oblivious. Did I just think it?
“McDonalds is across town,” the boy whittered.
What? What had he said?
“I said, McDonalds is across town. My mate has the keys. He’s been sneaking in most nights cooking for the town.”
OK, I thought/said. Do you want any coke? We’ve a kilo of the stuff here. We are supposed to deliver it to a friend. But he won’t mind a few lines gone.
“No thanks, sir.”
OK, I thought/said. I pulled on the joint and cracked open a beer.
“Look. There’s one thing you have to know,” I shouted. I turned to look at him. His face was like a big white plate with two tiny eyes and a fucking big nose full of freckles. This boy seemed to be smiling at the world as it chugged by. This was a demonstration of what was wrong with this country. He really doesn’t care. He is thinking of sex, computer screens and food via Deliveroo. This generation really can’t remember the hardships of mobile phones needing a special belt. Or frost on the inside of bedroom windows. Or walking to a shop. Hardship was for the other people. The technically deficient. When we all died, they’d laugh about us reading books and not understanding the Collatz Conjecture.
“We are only here for the story. The story is all. Cummings murdered us all by driving to Barnard Castle and then boasting about it in the Rose Garden. He murdered democracy. He murdered the Civil Service. He murdered the opposition. And he held the sword as Boris accidentally, and smiling like a fucking Jehovah’s Witness invited in to a brothel, cut off his own scrotum…”
“I know,” he trumpetted. “I want to follow the story too.”
This was an angle I hadn’t thought of. The bastard. He was wanting the scoop. Our scoop.
“What way, McDonalds?”
When we arrived, the queue was about fifty cars long. The police were standing at the other side of the road, leaning on their car, eating the shit these places serve up. A softly softly approach that tutted as it skimmed off the top.
“It’s ok,” Elephant boy said. “I know Jack. Park up and I’ll go grab us some nosh.” And off he went.
“Did that wanka say “nosh,” Knobinson?”
“Just keep that joint low so the filth don’t see you, Weatherall my good rabbit, and pass it this way.”
A joint, a snort and a half bottle of Ouzo later, the boy arrived back with an armful of fries and limp burgers. We waved over at plod, who waved back and we tucked into this godawful stuff. The boy was drinking heavily. At one point, he took out a notepad and scribbled something down. What had he noticed? Was this Tring Today one of those trendy, sneering youthful things that compared everything to the latest superhero film and poured ridicule on oldies who were brought up on JK Rowling and The Phantom Menace? If it was, we were sunk. Ungagged, for all of its standing up to corruption and its “fuck you from Scotland” attitude, really had the reach of a “Young Tories For Europe Newsletter.” This Tring Today thing could be the hottest thing on the world wide net.
And then the pandemic struck its hardest. As Weatherall was turning the tape over to the B side of Sympathy for the Devil for the hundredth time, the avalanche of puke came raining down on us, coating us in its rancid blueness. Blue puke.
“Oh fuck… sorry…” I knew with the wide faced Elephant apology the copy was in. The real story was here. We are all Cumming’s children now.. And I knew why.
Because sorry meant fuck all. Sorry meant, “I may have spread disease, but I am young and I will live.”
The Elephant guided us to his house, where we camped down for the night after a bath, a snort, a joint or two and a bottle of Gin.
As morning broke an hour later, and as Weatherall shed his rabbit skin, I said, “It’s done.”
People are not living in a disaster movie. Death is behind doors, away from the majority of us. And we will remember them between eating, shitting and buying stuff. Every election, we will be reminded about how stoic the British people were and how our war time burst mattress of a Prime Minister didn’t kill millions. The story was how we are all being played by these gargantuan wankers.
We cracked open a bottle of GrappamieI and pointed the Tin Minnow south.
I turned to Weatherall, “You know, dear boy, I had a friend who went in for an operation. We all visited him, sorry for the old sod, who was getting a new ticker. We praised the NHS and told his old woman we hoped he’d be out soon. Eventually he was. And his wife told us at his funeral a few months later, that in the weeks after the operation, he had turned into a raving sex maniac. And then one morning after a particularly sordid night she had spent fending him off, she found him dead, sitting naked on the stairs, with the biggest grin she had ever seen him wear. This country has had a decade of frantic shagging…
“There is no rainbow without the sun.”