Sunday, 22 March 2009

On The Roadside Again

It's just after eight thirty in the morning and I'm standing at a roundabout on the A45 on the outskirts of Northampton, trying to hitch a lift to the small town of Thrapston about twenty miles away.

Until a few years ago platers at the firm who employ me would routinely be given jobs that were over a hundred miles apart, making hitching a necessity, unless you didn't mind spending more money getting to a job than you were being paid to do it. But the firm has slowly expanded and gained more contracts, meaning that nowadays wherever you drop a car off there is usually one to pick up within a reasonable distance.

I've only hitched two or three times in about the last four years, and always from the same place - Measham car auctions near Tamworth, where the motor trade traffic is usually a more reliable means of escape than public transport.

But today, to get to Thrapston from here by bus would take the whole morning. The first service I could get doesn't leave for an hour and a half, so I have time on my hands and nothing to lose.

I stand at the slip road leading down to the eastbound A45, holding out my trade plate and a cardboard sign saying 'A14' (if I can get a lift to the junction where the A14 meets the A45 then I will be within walking distance of Thrapston.)

After only about five minutes a young black guy in a people carrier pulls over for me. But it turns out that he is only going as far as Rushden, about five miles away, and I'm not sure if the junction where he would drop me off would be suitable for further hitching. I hesitate for a few moments and then politely decline. At least I know there is room for people to stop here, and I know which bus to catch if needed. He drives away again, his philanthropic intentions thwarted, and I return to my spot.

When I used to hitch all the time I would occasionally, for no apparent reason, feel self-conscious to the point where I could not meet the eye of anyone driving past and would have to have my phone in my hand the whole time, incessantly pretending to be doing something with it.

Other days I could not have cared less, and the passing motorists and myself could look at each other with the same idle, momentary curiosity. Today is one of those days and I stand watching the steady stream of morning drivers speeding past.

Every now and then a guy, usually in a van, will stare intently at my sign, presumably working out if he can help me. But the calculation always goes against me and none of them stop.

Once a young woman drives past, looks at me and then looks away, her mouth seemingly on the verge of a coy smile, which makes me feel less middle-aged for a moment.

But most people look straight ahead, keeping their thoughts to themselves.

Whatever the downsides of hitching, I always used to have the consolation of feeling that I was doing something a little bit daring and non-conformist, something that had enough of an element of the unknown about it to keep me mentally on my toes.

But standing here on this Monday morning, as a forty year old man, the whole thing just seems to feel inescapably dull and unnecessary. I find myself wondering what I ever used to think about to pass the time.

It is a clear, relatively warm morning. To my left is a patch of tangled trees, the ones at the front smooth barked, their branches still bare apart from patches of lime green lichen. Behind them lurk gnarled Hawthorns, whose branches reach so far forward that at first glance they seem to be part of the front trees. But the Hawthorn branches are already sprouting small leaves, the first I've seen this year. Closer to the ground, on a dark leaved shrub, is a single red dot - a ladybird emerged from wherever they go in the winter.

But there is a limit to how long such things can seem interesting, even if you haven't seen them for a while. An hour plods by and I decide to count ten more vehicles past and then give up. This is accomplished in about a minute, and then I pick up my bag and head for the bus stop.

I still like the principle behind hitching as much as I ever did - strangers helping other strangers just for the sake of it - and I'm glad there are still one or two people around doing it. But more than that I'm glad I'm no longer one of them.

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