Terry’s car started with a complaining cough, grumpy at being left in the cold. He drove towards the edge of town and then had a second thought and doubled back. Up since six that morning, precious little sleep over the weekend. Terry knew he wasn’t going to be able to drive through the night like that. He pulled over and ran across to an anonymous door set next to one of those small late night Indian takeaways – it was open and he ran up the stairs two at a time, praying that the occupant would be alone, be coherent and be together enough to help – he was.
Inside Terry explained what he needed, in return he was passed two wraps of speed. This was something Terry hadn’t touched in a long time – functional not recreational was how he’d always considered it. Good for all night parties, revising for next day exams, occasionally for making it through those long shifts at a factory. Now he was supposedly a grown up it was good for driving. This was the best thing about small town life – your friendly neighbourhood dealer wasn’t some pair of paranoid eyes behind a shutter, but a permanently open door with a welcome when you needed it. In return you usually had to listen to his latest theories on the origins of life, or why Newcastle hadn’t won at the weekend, or any point in between, but it was pleasant enough and Terry had worked out how to cut the stories short without seeming to run out on him a long time ago. Keep your dealer sweet and he’ll be a friend for life – mess him about and you’ll never see another cling film wrap come your way again. Far from being the demon of society that the ‘papers liked to portray him (and just occasionally, her) as, Terry’s experience was that most dealers were solid elements of local society and upholders of morals - just that it was their moral standards and not those of the Wapping press that they upheld – and Terry knew who's he preferred.
Anyway, this time was fast – the man was a deep believer in the family, he had to be, he had kids with at least five women. But most of all he understood the look in Terry’s eyes – part scared, part wired and responded as he had to. In two minutes Terry was out, with a tenner’s worth of grass to see him through the next few days into the bargain. No money changed hands – he hadn’t any with him – but trust was another thing he had in plenty – not that you ever read about that in the dailies.
Driving. Radio on, listening to the news and letting it wash past in a disconnected way. Motorway, lanes merging, expanding, decreasing. Traffic cones, mile after mile, occasional men in yellow fluorescents, arc lamps blinding temporarily. Switch over to some music on another station, but all of it seems wrong – too ephemeral for a night like this, or altogether too prescient, songs about saying goodbye, switching off, going down. He put on Aretha and turned it off again as swiftly – throwing it into the back seat – too sweet, too painful. The music starting to get to him and blinded by his own watery eyes for a second. Finally Miles does the trick and he lulls himself back into being just here in the present, with a hint of the past, driving the deserted motorway in a b-movie of his mind, cigarette hanging from his mouth, caught sideways in the rear view mirror and on the road to god knows where and the devil knows why. Anaesthesia for the future.
The CD flipped back around to where it came in and he hadn’t a clue where he was on the road. Ninety minutes and Terry had been a somnambulist driver for most of it. Not that he’d actually been asleep. There’s an apple core, three cigarette stubs and bitten nails to show that – plus he was still behind the wheel. The speed a steady ninety and he was torn between pulling over and just pushing on. Eyes wide open and he’d not yet touched the speed, so carry on.
Much surprise when he realises that he’s pulled over onto the Southbound heading motorway – there was a big junction for that about fifteen miles back, but he couldn’t remember having gone through it. Scary. Shit . He pulls over at the next services.
Terry was heading back to see what they were doing with Joe, he didn’t know if he’d be too late but this was the first chance he’d had of getting away from the restraints of work, family, paying the mortgage. As the miles went on he realised that he didn’t even need to be there for the funeral, for the wake or whatever it was they had – secretly he wished it was going to be some sort of Wicker Man on the beach but he knew that deep down those people he knew there were quite surprisingly conservative, it was what protected them from the changes up and down this slim country, helped them hold on to what mattered most to them. He hadn’t been back there for a long while and the act of going back became in itself the act of remembrance that all the funereal rites were supposed to be. Despite the buzzing tiredness which swam around his body he could feel the miles taking off the layers of tension which came with a normal working life. There was an anticipation too. Something down there in the West mattered to him enough, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted yet but he knew that it mattered more than anything at the moment. It was all tied up in his memory and he needed to sort out some tangles, make them run in a clearer, more linear way, escape the jumble that the intervening years had turned them into. Make sure that he was right.
The car flashed on through late night roadworks, round cities, across slip roads, through small towns and past miles and miles of empty sleeping fields, flat flood plains and hours of flicking between stations, cd’s and finally silence when the content of both became too banal or too familiar to take any more. Still at least three hours to go, Terry pulled the car over into a mudflat of a lay by, barely visible on the side of the A road; no moon, no stars, no streetlights, just acres of the darkest of night skies, pulling his collar ‘round tight against the light but bitter autumn coldness. The earth relinquishing its warmth, glad to be freed of the burden of summer after so long.
It was a long time since he’d travelled this road – almost seventeen years – some twenty seven or so since he’d originally headed this way on a summer holiday in brighter clearer early morning mists, his mother driving, trailing a ‘van – he was bored beyond belief at the time it was taking but secretly expectant for the unfolding holidays ahead. He’d always been good at waiting, waiting patiently for the things that lay just around the corner, even age hadn’t knocked that out of him, nor had the innumerable corners he’d turned and found nothing there but more bewildered people wondering what might be ‘round the next one. Still, he sighed, lit a cigarette and stamped the blood back into his feet, he could afford to wait just a little bit longer this time – it had been a long while after all. He unscrewed the top of his metal flask and poured out the remains of the luke warm coffee – real not instant. He searched in his pocket and pulled out the wrap of speed, carefully folded into a Rizla – he considered his options and eventually just popped the whole thing in his mouth. He’d heard somewhere that it was quicker to let it just dissolve under his tongue and let the paper fall apart and the deeply bitter powder spread across the membranes, sucking the moisture from his mouth. When he could stand the bitterness no longer he took a swig of the coffee, then another to finish the whole cup and stood there disappointed that there was no buzz – but then again there never had been, purely functional he reprimanded himself, purely functional.
He couldn’t remember at what point it had all changed. After two years he’d stopped going down to Cornwall with his family – they opted for the Lakes instead, indulging his father’s love of hill walking – he’d carried on going down himself though, now sixteen and old enough to take care of himself he thought. A tent and enough money to get by, all he needed.
It was somewhere around his nineteenth birthday that he’d run into Joe and the other locals in a pub on the hillside overlooking the cliffs and the bay, they were older than him and some had been away getting to see life outside the North Coast for the last few summers – this was the first time that all of them had been gathered back for the season and they were holding court in the bar like returning royalty. Terry definitely didn’t fit the scene.
Music for cars and empty roads...