In which Jack hitch-hikes up the East coast of Britain and encounters the denizens of the road, only to become lost in the Services just outside Newcastle
Hitchhiking is sometimes a joy, and sometimes it is hell. When it is a joy, you can do nothing save simply give thanks. When it is hell, there is nothing that you can do except pray. I should have prayed harder, much harder.
I passed half the day in the pleasant company of psychotic, amphetamine-stoked van drivers in whose vehicles I clang desperately onto the dashboard, begging them to slow down or at least look at the road while they told me the stories of their lives and lost loves, and the other half with doddering farmers who would take me five miles along the road and then leave me in such desolate places that the few cars which did pass me slowed down to get a good look at the lost fool that was trying to hitch a lift there before speeding up again, their drivers safe in the knowledge that now they really had seen everything there is to see. I spied a couple of the passengers taking photographs as they crawled past, ignoring my pleas for help. I am a good man. I try my best, but at the time, I cursed them one and all and hoped that they would burn in hell forever, waiting in the inferno for a lift that would almost, but never quite come…
In the end, I managed to get one apparently promising lift with a middle-aged vacuum-cleaner salesman, and he took me a hundred miles or so in his immaculate Vauxhall before suggesting that I could spend the night with him and then go on my way in the morning ten pounds richer, if I ‘knew what he meant’. The offer did not appeal, and so it was that I found myself climbing quickly and quietly out of his car when he stopped for petrol and breath-freshener at the Washington services, just south of Newcastle, as the dwindling afternoon threatened to become evening.
Washington is the place where hitchhiking stops working and space seems to contract to one single, useless point of impossibility. It is to hitchhiking what the Sargasso Sea was to sailing ships: a becalmed, stagnant area where nothing happens except by sheer effort of patience bordering on the realms of an ascetic discipline — patience and the will of the Gods. If you have hitchhiked up the east coast of the United Kingdom and never been stuck at Washington, your time will come. I had hitchhiked the stretch of road several times without giving the Washington services more than a passing glance of curiosity and horror as I passed, and now, for certain, my time had arrived.
I had been in the service station at Washington for almost ten hours when I met Bob. After the fifth hour there I had abandoned any hope of catching a ride and had retreated to the dubious sanctity of the service station complex that was to become my home for the seemingly-eternal night, and by the seventh hour I had passed into a state of near-exaltation at the strangeness all around me, but I had known that it couldn’t last. The eighth and ninth hours had each lasted approximately a month. They were heaven itself compared to the tenth.
The carpet was beginning to burn fractal-shaped motifs into my retinas and my forehead was sticky and slightly bruised from where I had leaned it, tying to sleep, on the soiled Formica tables. Through the night, a succession of bewilderingly lost and peculiar souls had visited and tried to talk to me. Several of them had tried to sell me things of varying legality. A few had been wanting to buy things that I did not have, or did not wish to offer for sale, and a couple of girls had filmed me with their camcorder. They were staggeringly drunk, and said that they came out to the services once a week or so, to film the life that passed there. Stranger still, their father drove them there and back again each week. When I looked at him, he wasn’t giving anything away, but seemed content or resigned enough, smoking a cigarette and reading the Sun while his teenage daughters reeled about the café, bouncing off the tables and recording the strange stories of Washington at midnight. After they left, it was quiet for a long time, very quiet, until a carload of young Orthodox Jews arrived and sat at the table next to me, but wouldn’t make eye contact for the hour that they stayed. They left as unknown as they came and I thought how sad that was. Their lives were kept in a secret box. I wondered who, if anyone, saw inside the box.
Bob did not keep his life in a secret box. He kept it on display, like a head wound.
Bob was a perfect creature of that tenth, terrible hour in the Washington services. I was staring at a newspaper, but had passed long beyond reading. The little creatures of tiny text were jumping up and down and vibrating, misspelling themselves and creating havoc with my brain. Every line of news had become a cryptic crossword clue that I had no hope of solving and when I looked at my hands holding the newspaper, they were barely my hands at all, simply pale lifeless things on the end of my arms. I kept having to jerk them around to prove to myself that they really were my hands at all. Washington had got me good.
Bob sat down heavily in the chair opposite me and cleared his throat with a noise that sounded like it might have half a lung attached to the end of it. He put his decrepit Adidas bag on the table in front of him, fished out a bottle of beer and a packet of cigarettes, and leaned back into his chair, one knee jigging up and down as if he was a speeding munchkin operating a tiny, tiny sewing machine. He looked across the table at me with sad, alcohol-bruised eyes and took a loud suck from his bottle of Bud, looked around once, then leaned across the table to tell me his Secret.
“You know what, mate?” he said. “I used to be a Guru,” He paused for dramatic effect, but it was sadly lost on me as I tried to focus my stinging eyes on him. “Robes,” he continued, “Robes, disciples, Rolls Royce’s and that.” He wiped his mouth with the back of his sleeve and lit a Regal King Size, inhaling through clenched teeth and exhaling in a wheezing cloud that hung over the table, almost completely obscuring him from view, before it drifted off to harass an elderly American couple at the next table. They looked at us forlornly through the smog and I grinned helplessly at them as they reached for their inhalers. What were they doing here at this hour? Washington must have caught them somehow in its gravitational field — perhaps they had been here for months.
Bob leaned towards me and wheezed in my face.
“Mantras and that.” He winked and I blinked.
“Magic words.” He rolled his eyes. They looked like two hard-boiled eggs spinning down a long, wide tube to nowhere. He waved his hands and winked some more at me. “Spells, if you like.” His eyes drifted away to the end of that long narrow tube and he shaped the end of his cigarette against the edge of the tinfoil ashtray. “Fucking spells, alright.”
He looked up at me again with a frightening intensity that made my head jerk back away from him.
“Now look at me. Traffic Warden. Parking Attendant. Christ! I mean, I try and all, but it’s hard — it’s fucking hard, alright. You try believing you’re an incarnation of the Light when you slap a £45 ticket on a Morris Minor because the Disabled sticker’s out of date. You try seeing the Pure View when you’re standing at the meter waiting for the last ten seconds to run out so you can get your commission.” He shook his head.
I thought he was going to cry, and I wanted to reach out to him, but he lurched back into consciousness of some kind, stabbing his finger into his chest.
“I could have been a saint, me. I could have been a Holy Fool, a genuine I am Nobody, mate. When it came to speaking in tongues — no contest. Manifesting sweets… Pah! Listen — I taught Sai Baba everything he knows. The gall of it!”
“Hold on.” This was going too fast for me. “You’re saying that you taught Sai Baba miracles?”
“Miracles schmiracles. Who needs miracles when you’ve got big sleeves and an Afro? Sweets! I used to manifest pies.” He looked at his hands as if they were broken, useless things. He shook them limply at me, but there were no sparks, no sweets, and no pies. “Shit. I used to be Sri Mahavajra, revered manifestation of Shiva. Garlands, sandalwood paste, dancing all afternoon, pretty American anthropologists and all the mangoes you can eat. Now? Now I’m just Bob Mullet from Romford.” He sagged again like a punctured puffball.
“There’s nothing wrong with Romford,” I ventured, hoping to soothe him out of the uniquely bizarre trough of depression into which he was sliding. He looked up at me with something approaching hatred, but it was truly desperation — even I could tell that.
“Have you ever been to Romford, mate?”
“Er, I… “ No, I hadn’t. I didn’t want to, either.
“It’s in Essex, alright? London Essex.” He looked at his hands again. The cigarette was shaking between his thin, nicotine-stained fingers and I was becoming genuinely concerned for him and the sadness of his spirit, but nothing in my library of counselling books had a section on rehabilitating retired gurus. A stab in the intuitive darkness brought only a pinprick of light:
“But, you must have hobbies?”
He slowly lifted his eyes and blinked at me several times while I cursed at my ever-baffling stupidity.
“I like shooting,” he said, eventually.
“Yeah. Small-bore. Or shotguns. Bang bang. Two barrels, motherfucker, yeah. I tried an Uzi once, when we had the ranch in Oregon, when we, when I…” His voice faded out even as he was miming machine-gunning a strafe of bullets around the service
station, and I thought we’d blown it, but he rallied, saying:
“Adverts?” I knew I was being slow, but…
“Yeah, adverts. You know that one where the Pot Noodle turns into a sumo wrestler and farts the tune of “We’ll Keep the Red Flag Flying’? Laugh? I nearly cacked myself! You know it? You know the one?”
“Er, no…” I said. “I haven’t got a television.”
“No television?! Now there’s a real miracle for you. You press a little button on the remote control box and — karuma! — there’s John Snow staring out at you. Magic!”
He shook his head, marvelling at it with a joy that both baffled and somehow inspired me. It soon passed, though, and he lit another Regal with the end of the last. The fog around us billowed and expanded with each suck — through the haze I could dimly see the American couple staggering to the car park. The old man was retching while his wife struggled to loosen his collar, but my attention was brought back to the table by a whisper in my ear.
“Want to know something, mate?”
“What?” It was Bob, peering at me with blood-laced eyes, pupils whose centres were lost in a scrotum-tightening whirlpool of agitation and loss. Those eyes were scanning left and right across my face as if reading it. Could he see the footnotes that said “You are dangerously mad’? Did he see the chapter heading “Why Does This Always Happen To Me?” I wondered what my face looked like from his world.
He grinned, looked around, as if to check that we were alone, although I doubted that anyone could have heard a thing through the density of smoke anyway. Satisfied, he leaned closer and whispered.
“See, I’m enlightened, mate.” He nodded smugly like he’d just told me that Bob Dylan had stayed at his house for Christmas, and sat back in his chair, sprawling an arm across the back of the next.
What can you say? The conversations I was having these days were becoming increasingly bizarre. It was worrying, and exciting, but in the moments of fear when I lost the Now, I did wonder where it was all going. At moments like these I had intimations of it ending badly, forecastings of me saying the wrong thing to one of these nutters that circled around me like vultures around a stillborn wildebeest and the police arriving too late, too late, to pull their psychosis-fuelled arms from around my crushed, useless neck… Bad visions.
I looked at Bob Mullet and Bob Mullet looked at me and tapped the side of his nose and winked. I wanted to ask him “if you’re enlightened, then what the fuck are you doing sitting here talking to me at four in the morning about how shit your life is?” but instead opted for the banal-but-sure-fire-safe option:
“That’s nice,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Bob. “Sweet.” As if he’d just reeled off the performance stats of his new car.
Okay, I thought. If the dice are loaded against me, I may as well at least try to roll with them. Throwing caution to the smoke-laden wind, I leaned forward until our faces were almost touching.
“How do you know?” I asked. I thought that, reality being a dream and all things being possible, I might get a free nugget of wisdom, or perhaps just a good story, but when he said:
“Because I’ve got a certificate,”
I was floored.
“A certificate. Look.” He fished around in his jacket pocket, squinting as the trail of cigarette smoke rose into his left eye. “Here.” He pulled out a crumpled sheet of A4 paper, smoothed it out on the table and pushed it towards me, but when I made to pick it up, he grabbed my hand and whispered “mustn’t touch” fiercely Gollum-like in my face.
I looked down at the faded document. Barely legible at the top of the sheet, in big 1960’s purple and green San Francisco concert-style letters was written:
Dharamsala School for Applied Avatars
“Excellence through Enlightenment”
I read on.
In faded typewriter print it said:
This document hereby certifies that (then, in bubble writing the words Robert Stamford Mullet) has completed the Advanced Course (modules 1, 2 and 3) in Tranquil Abiding, Completion Stage Tanta, and the Madyamika View of Shunyata and is hereby declared Fully Enlightened (with honours) under the articles of the School.
A squeezed note at the bottom of the page read also Joint Honours in Flower Arranging. The piece of paper smelled of stale beer and cigarettes.
An illegible signature certified the authenticity of the document, a signature full of flourishes and a few little birds that flew off the ends of the letters, and when I looked up, trying to imagine this gun-crazy traffic warden arranging flowers, let alone unravelling the mysteries of the universe with the tools of Tantric Buddhist philosophy, Bob was beaming at me like a clumsy child who’s won first prize in the egg-and-spoon race.
“1972, mate,” he said. “Those were the days.”
What can you say? The universe was conspiring against me in ever-more peculiar ways, and who was I to argue with the authority of such a certificate? Besides, the sides of my head had begun to pound from the battering that the Regal smog was giving my sinuses and my brain was melting from the acid-attack effect of the fractal carpet and the droning muzak that wheezed into the air like the death-throes of civilization. It was time to go.
With an effort of will that I may not have since equalled in my life, I levered myself out of the plastic-cushioned seat that had been my home for these incredible hours. It made a gasping noise as I left it, as if betrayed, but I ignored it and, trying to remain standing, bid Bob Mullet, retired Guru, ex-Mahavajra, goodbye and was about to stumble my way to the door when I couldn’t help but stop and ask, so help me God, “What happened?”
Bob looked up at me blearily from the throne of his despair.
“‘What happened?’ I’ll tell you what happened, mate. 1983 happened. 19-bleeding-83.”
This left me none the wiser — I didn’t remember much about 1983, but it hadn’t struck me at the time as a particularly bad year for gurus or pie-manifesters, but before I could tell this to Bob, he had seized me by the collar of my shirt and pulled me close to him again.
“Disgraced! Disgraced!! Everything I had — poof!! Gone, just like that. Just like that.” He clicked his fingers, spraying cigarette ash in a grey arc across the table. “And me enlightened and everything, but humiliated in front of my peers! Who would have thought it?” Hmm, well…
“Disgraced?” I could imagine any number of ways that Bob Mullet might have fallen from grace, but when he moaned ‘the adverts,’ I was, once again, flummoxed.
“The commercials. I never should have done them, should I? ‘Dharamsala Light, probably the best lager in this world, or the next…’ ‘Sunshine Ghee — you’ll never put a better bit of… ghee… on your chapatti…’ ‘Col-gaté — don’t let your teeth go beyond before you do…’ Aargh.” He struck his forehead in anguish, leaving specks of ash in his greasy, greying hair. “The shame!! They sounded so good in the studio, and I never thought anyone here would see them, let alone my old mum, and I always just wanted to be on TV… Oh, the horror…” His head sank once more to the table and he began sobbing.
I tried, again, to console him, but I knew that it was useless — he shook of my attempts with cries of “I don’t want your pity…” through the sobs. He was a broken shell of a man, lost in past humiliations whose depths and complexities were beyond my comprehension, so I tiptoed off and left him to contemplate the horror of his advertising downfall before more of his tales could destroy my mind completely. He called out after me, “You don’t understand…” and I suppose that he was right. All I understood was that to preserve my soul I had to leave him, and as I stumbled out into the Washington dawn, I sucked in huge lungfuls of air like a drowning man and tried to focus on putting one step after the other. I could barely see, and held my arms out in front of me in case I collided with anything dangerous, like traffic. As the door closed behind me I thought I heard him shouting “enlightened, mate…” one more time, but I tried not to hear, and pressed on out past the petrol pumps and the thundering lorries to the slip road of the motorway, waiting for my eyesight to return and knowing that my day could only improve from here.