Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Job Security

It's late in the afternoon and I'm standing around outside BCA car auctions in Walsall, waiting for a lift from another driver and talking to yet another, a guy who has been working for the company for a year and who lives in birmingham, but whom I have somehow managed not to meet until today.

He is a big guy - big enough and tattooed enough to be just touching the verges of intimidating. But he is friendly to speak to, and interesting too. Before becoming a plater he worked as a security guard, mainly moving money to and from banks and cash machines.

He left because too many people he knew were getting seriously hurt, and he felt uncomfortable explaining to his kid that the strange stuff he was wearing to go to work was body armour.

He himself was only ever in a van once where 'something happened', which he does not elaborate on, although he tells me another story, about a robbery at a petrol station not far from here which he was not involved in.

The cash machine on the forecourt was being refilled, which is a three man operation. One man remains in the van, one stays in the tiny room behind the cash machine, and the last one walks between them. Two guys strolled over to this last man and without a word of warning shot him, shattering his hip. They then dragged him back to the cash machine and informed the guy inside that they would shoot his colleague again if he didn't open the door. What would you do? The guy didn't open the the door, and the would-be robbers departed without further bloodshed.

The guard who was shot needed a new hip and is not expected to ever regain full fitness.

The driver tells me that to live with this degree of risk he was paid only £10 per hour - a form of daylight robbery against which the body armour provided no protection.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

True or False?

It's about midday and I've pulled into Leicester Forest services on the M1 to put some air in one of the tyres of the Chrysler I'm delivering to a trader in Sedgeley. The tyre does not look remotely flat, but the fancy warning system on the dashboard is most insistent that it is only about half the recommended pressure (and it turns out to be right.)

While I'm inflating the tyre a guy, probably in his fifties, with a flourescent jacket on wanders over to me. He asks if I'm heading south. He has obviously seen the trade plates on the car and decided that I'm a fair bet for a lift out of here. He has no plates of his own or even a hitching sign, just a packet of tachograph discs held prominently against his chest to show that he is a lorry driver, or at least knows enough to pass himself off as one.

He tells me he's making his way from Inverness to Headcorn, in Kent, a staggering journey of at least six hundred miles, which he claims has been forced upon him by his lorry catching fire in Inverness. He also claims to have been hitching since yesterday afternoon and to have only seven pence to his name.

Every aspect of his story seems improbable, but he does not look dangerous so I give him a lift anyway, down the M69 then up to Corley services near Coventry. This won't put any nearer to his destination but will give him more chance of getting another ride in the right direction.

As we drive he adds more details to his story, which begin to whittle away at its preposterousness.

I notice that his left hand is so tightly wrapped in bandages as to look like a fingerless stump. Apparently he did not realise his wagon was on fire because the blaze was on the underside of the cab. The first he knew of it was when the police pulled him over to point it out to him. As the officer opened the cab door the air rushed upwards and inwards, and it was at this point that he found himself in trouble.

He spent the night in hospital with burns to his left side and suffering from smoke inhalation. The latter problem meant that he was not allowed to eat anything during the whole time that he was there, and he had been unable to eat anything since due to his wallet having gone up in flames.

The police had tried to arrange a flight home for him, but since all his photographic ID had been in his wallet he would not be allowed to set foot on a plane.

He also turns out to know a bit about one of the HGV plating firms I used to work for, and claims to pick up platers himself, which explains his decision to hitch - an idea that would not have occurred to most people no matter how stranded they found themselves.

By the time I drop him off at Corley I'm halfway to believing him and feel moved to offer him my sandwiches. He unhesitatingly removes them from my hand, telling me he could 'murder' them. I'm not even sure what was on them - my girlfriend made them. I hope he liked them anyway.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Too Easy

It's just after nine in the morning and I'm sitting on a packed Virgin train waiting to leave Birmingham New Street. The train is heading for London but I'm going only as far as Coventry where I'm due to collect a lorry bound for Andover.

An announcement comes over the tannoy for the attention of whichever passenger has 'decided to put a bicycle on the train.' They are requested to remove it on the grounds that it would cause a safety risk in the event of an evacuation, and informed that we are 'going nowhere' until they do.

Ten long minutes later we finally crawl away from the station. The delay has led to us being behind a stopping train, meaning that we are soon a further ten minutes behind schedule.

Another announcement apologises for the delay, telling us again, with barely concealed irritation, about the problem of the forbidden bike.

This is my fourth delayed train in two days. The first three were the result of vaguely explained problems involving preceding services and congested stations. This is the first time I have been offered a scapegoat and a tacit incitement to hate them as much as I like.

It's tempting to imagine further particulars about this unseen troublemaker - probably some self-righteous fitness junkie clad in sweaty lycra who, rather than simply removing their bike when requested, decided to instigate a ten minute pointless argument instead.

But then again what other assumptions could reasonably be made about them? They are probably someone who didn't read all the small print when they bought their ticket, probably someone who can't recall ever hearing of a single accident or incident on any train where the occupants of a crowded carriage have come to any harm due to their combined inability to move an obstacle that is, after all, on wheels.

Friday, 10 October 2008

Autumn in Taunton

It's midday and I'm hanging around in Taunton town centre where I'm temporarily stranded after the vehicle I came here to collect turned out to be at a different dealership in Bridgewater, ten miles away.

After two hours and a degree of confusion and bureaucracy that went beyond irritating to become almost awe-inspiring, I've been told that I'm forbidden to simply get on a train to Bridgewater and get the car from there as one of the parties involved is trying to make a point to another about wrong addresses, resulting in the collection being cancelled.

My controller is trying to find me a replacement job, hopefully in the same county, and I'm currently passing the time by lingering next to a particularly large and unusual tree, trying to commit the details of it to memory.

It's now about six months since I began trying to learn more about trees, in the hope of increasing the depth of description I can put into my writing. I can now identify, with some accuracy, about twenty different species.

Amongst other things, this extra knowledge has led me to notice the changing seasons more. Today, for the first time this year the car that I had kept overnight had a scattering of fallen leaves on the roof this morning, a small detail that I would not have thought twice about before.

I also find myself looking at the names of roads on new estates, such as Hawthorn Rise or Yew Tree Close, and then looking for the appropriate specimens, often before concluding, rather smugly -

'Hang on a minute, any fool can see there are no yew tress around here.'

However, such tendencies are tempered by the fact that I'm still unable to name most of the trees that I see, including the one in front of me now, which still confounds me despite the fact that it is one of the first kinds that I tried to identify, chosen on the grounds that I could see one from my front window. It has smooth brown bark which peels away in strips to reveal light grey wood beneath. The leaves are long and green, and roughly the shape of a spear head, and do not fall off in winter. If you have any idea what it is please tell me.

Monday, 6 October 2008


It's just after eight in the morning and I'm drinking coffee in a small, cheerfully unpretentious cafe in an industrial area of Darlaston, in the Black Country. I'm picking a car up from an auction compound nearby and am waiting for the collection details to be sent through to me.

The only other customers are a group of three burly, short-haired guys sitting mainly in silence. One or two tables are still strewn with used plates and cups, suggesting that the breakfast rush has already been and gone. The two female staff occasionally appear behind the counter before bustling back into the kitchen.

A local radio station is on in the background, but does nothing to capture my attention until the traffic news comes on. The reporter announces that there is a police incident in Bentley Road in Darlaston. This is literally just around the corner.

I look at the guys on the other table but they give no reaction. Maybe they don't share my childlike (or childish) excitement at finding myself on the doorstep of anything newsworthy, or maybe it's too early in the morning for animated conversation, but I would have expected at least one of them to raise an eyebrow or make a passing remark. The young woman currently behind the counter also gives no sign that she has heard.

The reporter goes on to warn of long delays on the roads and on public transport in the whole area, but she may as well be talking to herself.

The news finishes, and I would normally now begin to think of alternative routes away from here for when I collect the car. But I seem to be caught up in the general indifference and find myself drifting away into other thoughts. Whatever the incident involved, even if the whole of the West Midlands needs to know about it, sitting here cocooned in this cosy cafe it all seems just too far away.