by Alice Jolly
Smithy bought this camper van back in 1963 – split windscreen, sliding side door, 1500 cc, dark green in colour, gas cooker, table, fridge. And room for four people to sleep – not that we did sleep much, Smithy and me. Shaggy hair, orange trousers, tightly fitting shirts, pretending to be rather younger than we really were. Sitting up high in the front and the steering wheel big as a dustbin lid and smooth to run through your hands. And the speed – scattering crows from the road, splashing through puddles, hooting at old ladies. The girls - Amber, Cindy, Joyce - were fighting to come with us - Smithy and me - on our first trip in this van, setting out from Purley down to the coast.
Oh yes, this van was the envy of all when Smithy first bought it but now it rattles and strains, not made for this sort of road. Come to think of it – this road didn’t even exist, not when Smithy and I first drove this way. I change down into second as we chug up hill. Extra-ordinary, really, that Smithy kept the van. Over forty years old now and worth a fair bit of money. As a collector’s item, of course – not as something you’d really drive.
I look over at Smithy, sitting in the passenger’s seat, fiddling with his handkerchief. You’d think that bloody handkerchief was a wet bar of soap. He picks it up, drops it, wipes at the corner of his eye, tries to put the handkerchief back in his pocket, drops the handkerchief, fumbles. I look away, stare out at the parched grass, the chalky landscape. Even before all this, I didn’t see much of Smithy really – went our separate ways, always been quite different I suppose - but I take him out occasionally, give Joyce a break. Old times’ sake, and all that. But now I long for the day to end. Want to get home to catch the last episode of that crime thing on telly.
So we’ll stop for a cup of tea soon? Smithy says.
I nod and smile. I’d hoped to avoid another stop but there’s no way out of it now. Funny what Smithy can remember - because we have always stopped around here for a cup of tea, over the years. Somewhere between the Turnpike Roundabout and the junction where the Tin Whistle pub used to be. Joyce has packed all the necessary – table, chairs, a tin with cake, and a flask. I don’t know why she’s sent a flask when there’s a perfectly good gas burner. Does she think I’m not safe with gas for God’s sake? Mind you, a flask is quicker. Get the tea over with and then only another half an hour home.
I flick on the indicators and turn off the main road. My eyes stray to Smithy. Pick up handkerchief, drop it, search for pocket, identify pocket with other hand, try to pass handkerchief from one hand to the other, let it slip. Just keep your eyes on the road, Peter. The toss of a coin - could have been him, could have been you. I mean Smithy is four years older – seventy five next birthday if I’ve calculated right, but all the same.
Truth is, if this was going to happen to anyone, it would happen to Smithy. He never had much luck, or never knew how to make use of the luck he had. Years and years in that job, and then the buggers made him redundant. And marrying Joyce - perhaps he felt sorry for her, I don’t know. A baby that only lived four weeks, savings wiped out in the Prudential insurance scandal.
He’s got the handkerchief back in his pocket now, and turns to me with those wandering eyes, and says - A good day out. A very good day. I always like Eastbourne. Always something special about seeing the sea.
We didn’t go to Eastbourne. We didn’t see the sea. We went to Rye and Rye is not on the coast.
As soon as I’ve said that, I hate myself for it. Why not just agree with him? That’s what Joyce always recommends. No point in putting him straight because it only upsets him. But the problem is that now it doesn’t upset him. A year ago it would have done, but now he smiles and nods quite happily. Of course, I should have taken him to Eastbourne, because that is where we always used to go, but I was tired with the driving, and didn’t want to get back too late. And what does it matter anyway because he thinks he’s seen the sea?
I turn down a lane – green and narrow, high hedges and grass drooping down all along the sides. You don’t think parts of England exist like this any more, but then you come around a corner and there you are – an open gate, an orchard, everything silent and green. I slow down, manoeuvre the van in through the gateway, get out and slide the side door open. The thought occurs to me that nowadays a field is really the right place for Smithy. In a field it isn’t possible to fall down the stairs, or pour scalding water on yourself. The worst you can do here is put your foot in a cow pat. Perhaps that is what we should do next time, just find a field and stay there, settle down like cows.
Smithy wants to help get the chairs out, but I’d rather he didn’t because God knows where that will lead. He used to have thick black hair – shaggy and hanging down over the tops of his ears – but nearly all of that has gone now, except for a few grey threads. The whites of his eyes are yellow and the skin under them sags, revealing the red inside of his lower lids. His hands are knotted red and blue. Joyce makes sure he looks smart – a collar and tie today, and shiny shoes – but some how you can tell, just by the way he moves. The irony is that if the real Smithy were here now he’d be fascinated by this disease which is slowly eating his brain. He’d be interested in it, and amused. He’d read books about it, and know all the technical terms.
Cake, he says, and climbs into the back of the van. Then he appears with a wide smile on his face and he’s holding a tin in his hand, except it isn’t the cake tin, it’s the First Aid tin. Yes, Smithy and Joyce are the kind of people who always have a First Aid tin. But Smithy doesn’t know that that is what it is – despite the large red cross on the top - and opens it expecting to find cake. He stares at the bandages, the antiseptic cream, the scissors, the box of plasters, the bottle of milk of magnesium, and then he shrugs, trying to make it look as though the bandages and scissors have behaved unreasonably. Sliding the lid back onto the box, he guiltily edges it onto the floor of the van, shrugs again, and shambles away.
Poor bugger, I think. I pull the chairs out, find the flask and get the milk out of the ice box. Smithy has left the First Aid box near the door and I fall over it as I’m lifting the table out. The same old picnic table we’ve always used, even when Smithy first bought the van, with money left to him by an aunt, when we were teaching in Croydon. I think back again to those trips we used to make, more than forty years ago now. Stopping in some lay by or farmers’ field, drinking beers, laying mattresses out on the grass. Smithy was with Joyce, even then. Big hips, thick ankles, flat Northern accent. And I was with Cindy, or Amber, or Bella. Too many names to remember. Girls with long legs and waist length hair and smelling of Afghan coats and incense.
I take cups out of the cupboard and look around for Smithy but I can’t see him anywhere. I climb down from the van and peer through the trees but the leaves hang low and the ground slopes upwards so I can’t see far. I start to walk, avoiding the cow pats. Smithy? A gateway leads into another orchard and I go through it but he isn’t there. I check behind some falling down sheds. Where can he possibly be? Mustn’t run, that’s what the doctor told me, after my heart operation, but still I hurry back towards the van. How will I explain this to Joyce? Could he have fallen into a ditch? There aren’t any ditches. I head toward the gate. To the left, the lane rolls away from me with no sign of Smithy. I turn right, hurry around the corner, heading back towards the main road. And there he is, in the middle of the lane, on a blind bend, fiddling around with a tin of cigarettes and a box of matches. He must have got those out of the van when I wasn’t watching.
Must have a pee, he say cheerily.
I hustle him onto the verge and snatch the cigarette and matches.
Come back into the orchard, I say.
Must have a pee.
No, Smithy. Not here.
He’s still fiddling with his trousers and I realise that if I don’t let him pee here then he’s probably just going to do it anyway. He doesn’t seem able to get his flies undone. I push the cigarettes and matches into my pockets and try to help him. What if a car comes down the lane? His zip is stuck. I tug at it, praying that he won’t pee before I get it open. My fingers jerk the metal zipper but it doesn’t move. I kneel down in the grass, fumbling under his shirt, until I finally manage to ease the zip down. He’s babbling away about something or other – butterflies, types of different grass, where this lane might or might not lead.
Come on, I say, hauling myself up. I thought you wanted a pee.
He’s got hold of his shirt tails with one hand but his other hand seems to have lost all sense of purpose. I realise that I’m going to have to do this for him. I push my hand into the warm front of his trousers and take his limp prick between my fingers. I pull it out and aim. Shut my eyes, grit my teeth, pray that a car doesn’t come around the corner. I manage to make sure that he doesn’t pee on his shoes but drops sprinkle his trousers. I do up his flies. This is the last time - absolutely the last time - I’m taking Smithy out for a day!
Could fancy a cigarette, Smithy says.
No, I say. No. And don’t go wandering off. OK? Just stay near the van. Have you got that? Just stay near the van?
I pull him back along the road and in through the gateway. I’m ashamed of my anger. Joyce does this all day every day and she doesn’t lose her temper. I dump Smithy in a chair, and try to keep my hands steady as I pour two cups of tea. The details don’t matter, I say to myself. The details don’t matter. Smithy has got tea running all down his chin. The details don’t matter, I tell myself again. But I can’t make the bloody legs of the picnic table work. I’ve done it a hundred times but now it won’t work. I push and pull and I feel like smashing the whole thing. Smithy rises from his chair, comes towards me, tries to take the table.
Peter. Peter, he says. Leave that table now. We don’t need a table. Unsteadily he takes it from me, lays its splayed legs on the grass and laughs, raising the palms of his hands, shaking his head at the absurdity of it all. Sit down, Peter, sit down.
That’s the kind of thing Smithy always says - We don’t need this, we don’t need that. We have everything we need here. As I turn from the table, I stumble over the cake tin, which is lying on the ground, and knock over my cup of tea. Just like Smithy now. Old and bloody useless. Just thank God it’s him not you. Except we’re travelling the same road and he’s only a few miles ahead. And the truth is that I haven’t even got any cause for complaint because it’s not as though I didn’t know this was coming, not as though it doesn’t happen to everyone.
Doesn’t matter, Peter, Smithy says. Plenty more hot water in the flask.
Smithy is humouring me, keeping me amused, just as he’s always done. A day out with Peter is always a perilous affair. Smithy knows that better than anyone. One small thing can go wrong and it’ll all be ruined. So Smithy needs to keep Peter calm, damp him down, jolly him along, make sure that the day works out just right. And strangely Smithy can still do all of that. Turns out that kindness is what’s still left, when everything else has gone. I stare at his threads of grey hair, his watering eyes, the soggy patch on the front of his shirt where he spilt his tea.
I hate him now, hate him so much that I’d like to kill him. It would be easy really – and much the best for him. There will be a jack in the back of the van. Oh yes, Smithy is a man who would always have a jack to hand. And he wouldn’t even see me coming. I imagine swinging my wrist, bringing the metal smashing down onto the side of his head. I see the blood, and Smithy going down into the grass. Then his eyes, still and glassy, a fly settling on his cheek, his glasses twisted and smashed, one leg spread out at an awkward angle, and the butterflies still fluttering and the breeze still teasing. Hide his body away under the hedge. It would take years for anyone to find it there.
Smithy comes towards me and steers me towards a chair. My chest is heaving and I’m covered in sweat. All this isn’t good for my heart. Smithy pours me a fresh cup of tea, then kneels down and slowly and meticulously tries to make the legs of the table fit together. I watch him there and a word floats to the surface on my mind.
Envy. Yes, I suppose that’s it. Although down at the pub I always made fun of Smithy and his simple pleasures – long weekends in the camper van with Joyce, evenings sitting out in their garden, while Smithy smoked his daily cigarette and drank his one beer. Yes, I mocked him to everyone I knew, often didn’t return his calls - and all the time I suppose I was jealous. Seems strange to realise that now.
Of course, I had so much more talent than poor old Smithy. I didn’t stay in teaching, of course I didn’t, got into the marketing department of Unilever. Five bed-roomed house, holidays abroad, brand new cars. And married to Patty – long legs and waist length hair – except she left me and the kids. And the strange thing is that I knew that she would. And I knew that the jobs and the houses and the cars – I knew that none of it would count for anything, finally. But still I couldn’t stop myself. And it seems to me now that it was all there in the tea leaves, or marked out in the stars, all those years ago, lying out on the mattresses and the sound of the guitar, those first times that Smithy and I drove from Purley down to the coast.
I look down at Smithy and realise that he’s managed to get the table together. He pulls himself up from his knees and gives a small bow, nearly toppling over as he waves his hands with a grandiose flourish. That gesture is Smithy as he used to be. There was always something of the magician in him. Together we cut up Joyce’s solid vanilla sponge and have two slices each. Then I dig in my pockets and find the cigarettes and matches. I light one for Smithy and put my chair close to his so I can be sure he won’t burn himself.
Always good to see the sea, Smithy says.
Yes, I say. I always like a day in Eastbourne.
Smithy looks at me, nods his head, raises one tufty eyebrow, and looking into those cloudy eye I have the sense that he knows it all. We pack up the tea things and begin to put them away. The sun has gone in and we’ve had the best of the day. I watch Smithy haul himself up into the van and I take his handkerchief from him and put it in his top pocket, folding it neatly. He stares down at it, pleased by that. And I get in the van and we set off.
I drive slowly now, measuring the miles. How many more days out? How many more? I miss Smithy. I miss him so much. He’s always been my best friend. And as we slide down towards it – so slowly, so very slowly – it’s Smithy who’ll have the last laugh, as he has always has done. Smithy will go quiet and happy, and I’ll be raging, raging, and my God, please, please, I only hope he’s there to keep me company on that last journey. Not to Eastbourne, or Rye, not from Purley down to the coast, no not there.
Copyright © 2016 by Alice Jolly