Authors: Tom Cox
âI like this. It's a bit cheesy, but sort of cool, too. The bit where the bloke groans in the middle eight on that song “Southern Girls” â that's good. I just wish it would get a bit heavier sometimes, y'know. They look a bit wankerish on the cover. I mean, all that big hair and cowboy boots stuff. Weeeeird. I dunno. They probably really regret it, now they're so old. When was this made? 1967 or something. That's probably before The Beatles, isn't it? It's probably quite heavy for when it was made. I might have quite liked it if I'd been young then. It's hard to say, really, y'know? I think my dad would like it. You can tell they're dead good on guitar, though â probably at least as good as Sam. Raf would probably say they were boring fogies, though. I just wish they'd shout a bit sometimes. But at least it rocks. Not like some of that wimpy folk stuff we listened to on the way down to Hastings. All that stuff about dragons and peddlers and letting people steal your thyme. Not so sure about that, really.'
THE UNASSUMINGLY STYLISH,
angular car â a Mustang? a Dodge? â rolled up the side of the valley and drew softly to a halt. Two men, their shirts blaring, their sideburns painstakingly cultivated, emerged. They'd left the bad guys a couple of canyons behind, eating their dust.
âYep,' said Lightfoot. âTransmission's gone. Cadillac's my car, anyway.'
âWhere are we now?' said Thunderbolt.
âHell's canyon. Snake river,' replied Lightfoot.
âYou're better off getting as far away from me as you can, kid.'
âIn for a penny, in for a pound.'
âLonely country, kid. You got any folks?'
âYou know what? I don't even know any more. That's weird.'
I turned the television off, retrieving my Windolene wipes from the top of the set.
You had to hand it to the road movies of the 1970s.
Some of them might not have aged as well as others, but the fact was that all of them were very good at making the experience of high adventure on the open highway seem real and exciting. When it came to recreating the dreaming, the drugs, the drink, the violence and the guttural engine noises, you couldn't really fault them. I could confirm this, of course, because I too was now an established road warrior, with at least a modicum of experience of all of these things (if you really think about it, Wheat Crunchies are a kind of drug, aren't they?). Yet I couldn't help feeling that some of my favourite directors had missed one major element â something that every road tripper has to deal with, sooner or later, no matter how long he avoids it; something which, in its own way, is as hair-raising as a race against the County Sheriff to the state line, as spine-chilling as having a phantom juggernaut bearing down on you from the wrong side of the road, and as intrinsic to the outlaw experience as being chased by a truckload of bloodthirsty rednecks.
The puzzling thing was, when I'd been in the car with Peter I hadn't really got the impression he'd made that much mess. Sure, he'd munched his way through two family-size multi-packs of crisps, four Mars Bars, two Burger King value meals and a packet of sherbet lemons, but now, as I returned to the car and searched in vain for a vacuum cleaner attachment sophisticated enough to fit down the gap between the passenger seat and the ashtray, I found myself gazing at the carnage before me in something halfway between reverence and outrage. Where had that
spearmint Polo wrapper come from? Who had hidden that half-eaten doughnut in the glove compartment? And why, when Thunderbolt and Lightfoot stopped in a valley, did you never see Clint Eastwood trying to prise a half-sucked mint imperial off the carpet beneath the clutch pedal, while Jeff Bridges stood poised behind him with his finger on the trigger of a bottle of Febreeze?
âI thought you were doing this journey with one teenager, not ten,' said my wife, Edie; who, clearly tired of overhearing me make noises like âmmmrrr', âjjjrrr' and âohmygodwhat'sthat?', had come out to see what all the fuss was about.
It was exactly twelve hours since the end of my first segment of adventures with Peter. We'd parted on good terms, promising to meet again in a fortnight's time â karate classes, fencing lessons, a visit to his dad's place and a couple of parties were going to make it impossible for him to see me again before then â and not to let on to Jenny about the snack food. I'd driven home, woken up wired from a dream about more driving, then spent the morning alternating between the Ford Focus in the driveway and the
Thunderbolt And Lightfoot
videos in the living room. I felt that, all in all, our quest was progressing successfully and fulfilling Jenny's criteria of âammunition' for Peter's decisions about his future. Something, though, was unsettling me, and I couldn't quite put a name to it. It wasn't the endless litter. It wasn't the boarded-up waxwork museum. It wasn't the sixty-pound parking ticket that I'd had slapped on my windscreen in Hastings after being distracted by
Ed The Troubadour and his tights. It wasn't even the fact that, towards the end of our journey back to Crouch End, when I'd put the first Grand Funk Railroad album in the tape player, Peter had sneakily slipped on his Walkman headphones. Instead, it was something to do with the way Thunderbolt stopped, gazed up at the big American sky and leaned on his car, as if it was a friend he'd be able to trust for ever in the grand game of survival. It was something to do with the monotony of the A11, particularly on the stretch between Barton Mills and Newmarket. It was something to do with the way people didn't signal when they were going right in filter lanes. It was something to do with the way the Ford Focus went âbrumm' and not âraaaargh'. And yes, okay, it was just a tiny little bit to do with the litter.
To put it more bluntly, it was driving: I wasn't enjoying it as much as I should have been.
It's difficult to convey exactly how difficult it was to admit this to myself. Having taken and passed my driving test at the earliest possible opportunity, been in possession of a car for most of my adult life, and frequently enjoyed the bribing opportunities that go hand in hand with being The Kind Of Friend You Can Rely On For Lifts, I've always seen being a keen driver as a small yet important part of my self-image. That is to say, I have never thought of a car in sexual terms, don't know a carburettor from a graphic equaliser, do none of my own repairs, yet regularly drool over Aston Martins, once described fifth gear as âcreamy', and look down slightly on male friends without a licence in the way that you would on people who'd never had a
girlfriend. I like cars. I like the way they make you feel like an adult, yet can fulfil your kid fantasies. I like the way that, if you think about it properly, they're just dodgems and go-karts on a bigger scale. I like the way they turn the world into a free-spirited place with beaches and fields and lakes, rather than a bunch of interconnected urban sprawls which just happen to have train stations and bus stations and airports.
In reverie form, I'd seen the process of educating Peter as being
cars. About music, yes, and about Peter's future, sure, but essentially, on an existential level, about cars. Driving fast in them. Gazing out of them wistfully. Using them to take you somewhere special. However, here I was, a fifth of the way into our journey â a journey which, if I was honest with myself, probably wasn't going to be quite as geographically diverse as I'd hoped, owing to Peter's chock-a-block school and social life â and I was feeling as though if I drove again in the next year, it would be a lifetime too soon. Somehow, in the world that Peter and I had inhabited for the last few days, the on-road experience wasn't quite the same as it was in
Thunderbolt And Lightfoot
. In fact, it wasn't an âexperience' at all; just a normal trip in a family car, which took you where you wanted to go in (if you were lucky) as little time as possible.
It wasn't as if I hadn't tried my best. On the way along the coast to Hastings, I'd pulled over on a grassy verge and stared out towards the English Channel, pondering the meaning of life, thinking that this was a road movie kind of thing to do, but Peter had looked at me strangely and opted to stay in the car, and I'd
returned to the Ford Focus feeling a little bit sheepish and silly. Later, I'd thought about livening things up by ditching the Focus and hotwiring a nearby Vauxhall Vectra, but decided against it on the basis that, if I'd freaked out about getting a parking ticket, I was going to find it difficult affecting a devil-may-care attitude about driving a vehicle with âhot' plates.
However, I was determined not to give up. After all, I was probably tired from racking up 500 miles and talking to a teenager non-stop for two days, and hence hadn't had the brain space to think about the matter creatively.
âThere's a chance you're being a little too hard on yourself about this,' said Edie later that night.
âHard in what way?' I said.
âWell, you're blaming yourself. Has it ever occurred to you that the reason you're not getting that authentic road trip ambience might be the car, and not you?'
âHow do you mean?'
âIt's justÂ .Â .Â .Â it's a Ford Focus.'
âYeah â it's comfortable, reliable, does quite a high rate of miles to the gallon, and it's got one of those stereos that gets louder in perfect step with your revs. What's wrong with it? I weighed up the options and decided it was the best car for the trip.'
âI thought you bought it so we could fit big furniture in the back, and because that cricket bloke took the piss out of your Fiesta.'
âWell, yeah. But for the trip as well.'
âIt's just, well, you can't really imagine Steve McQueen driving it, can you?'
âHe might. I mean, he drove one of those Ford Puma things for that advert.'
âBut that was computer-generated.'
âAll I'm saying is that, well, you might want something that makes you feel a bitÂ .Â .Â .Â sexier.'
In the three years that I've known her, a couple of recurring themes have emerged in conversations between my wife and me. One of them is my vulnerability and unworldliness. The other is her all-reaching wisdom about the world and everything in it. I'd learned to trust her judgement, and not simply on matters of a gentle and womanly nature. Hence, several days later, I found myself in the reception area of one of Norfolk's premier vehicle hire establishments, talking height specifications with a rangy man with a limp and a bright red jacket with a name badge pinned to it that said âClive â Assistant Haulage Executive'.
A van! Of course! The answer to all my problems! The only thing I couldn't work out was why I hadn't had the ounce of brain cells required to think of it before. The list of points in its favour was almost as long as Thunderbolt's sideburns:
It was the traditional mode of transport for thousands of struggling rock groups.
It would make me feel like a big man.
It would be a less banal mode of transport for Peter, thus making him respect me as a hip, impulsive dude, rather than someone slightly younger and less boring than his parents.
If we happened to run into a famous band who wanted to be our friends and needed a lift somewhere, we'd have no trouble fitting their equipment in the back.
Its gear-stick would probably be up near the dashboard, which was really cool.
It would stop men with fat necks in BMWs bullying me at roundabouts.
It would allow me to bully men with fat necks in BMWs at roundabouts.
If I was lucky, it might get dusty, and someone with a sense of humour might write âClean me!' or âShaz blows buffalo' on its back door with their finger.
It was just the kind of crazy, nonsensical idea that I'd envisaged my adventure with Peter being all about.
I didn't have to keep it if I decided it was crap.
Full of renewed vigour, I followed Clive The Assistant Haulage Executive into a small room with a glass coffee table and a picture of Lady Diana on the wall. He reached for a ring binder from the shelf behind him.
âSo you're saying you want a Luton?'
âI'm not sure,' I said. âI think so. At least, if that's what we had before from you, when we moved house last year.'
âWell, did it look like this?' Clive The Assistant Haulage Executive held up a picture of a quite big white van. It looked like a lot of other quite big white vans.
âI think so, but I'm not certain. It could have been bigger. Or perhaps smaller.'
âWell, can you remember if it had a tail-lift?'
What was a tail-lift? âYeah. Actually, I think it did.'
âOkay. We're getting somewhere. What kind of stuff are you shifting? Is it another house move?'
âNo. Not really.'
âWell, is there a lot of heavy or long equipment â settees, beds, shelves?'
âWell what kind of stuff are you moving?'
âThe thing is, you see, I'm sort of not moving anything.'
âNothing at all?'
âWell, why do you need it?'
âI just want to drive a van.'
âOh. In that case I suppose you can take your pick.'
I looked out of the window to a row of transits. They didn't look quite as much like the A-Team's van as I'd hoped, but that didn't seem to matter now. You remember this? I thought to myself, as I drew Clive's attention towards a vehicle that looked slightly less muddy and worn-out than its contemporaries. This is what freedom feels like.