A night to remember

It started with a lighted match and a small pile of rubbish.  Within minutes the flames were licking round the rotten timber of the steps to the door and finding their way through the gaps in the floor.  In the darkness the three youths watched in silence.   The speed with which the fire grew took them by surprise.   The laughter and bravado began to leave them.   Inside the van the flames found the paraffin heater.  The explosion rocked the van, blowing out the windows.  It was too much.  The boys took to their heels, plunging off in different directions, their faces ivory in the moonlight.  Behind them, the van, a box of flames, quickly became a blackened ruin.

Annie didn’t hear the explosion or see the flames.  She and Toby were already a mile down the road and climbing awkwardly over a stile.  On a clear night like this with all the stars visible it would be easy to keep in the right direction.  If it had been cloudy she might have kept to the road to avoid getting lost.  On the whole, it was safer away from the roads.  On the roads there were cars and people who might stop a woman on her own with only a little dog for protection.  Not that Toby saw himself as a little dog.  He was a terrier with all a terrier’s self-consequence.

The dog had woken Annie just after nine o’clock.  As she let him out, Annie sniffed the air – cold, but clear and no frost.  A feeling of certainty came over her.  Tonight was the night.  It was time to move on.   Annie’s sixth sense, her mother called it and it had never let her down.  This old van was not going anywhere, so it would have to be on foot – a good thing she had some stout shoes.

Annie lit the lamp and looked round the van.  She and Toby had been at the crossroads for three months.  They had been left there when the truck towing them started to give trouble.  Jack Fry had promised to come back for her when he’d got it fixed.  She’d give him a piece of her mind if she ever saw him again.   She knew she was not welcome on this spot.  There had been threats and stones thrown.   The toilet needed emptying and there were no facilities.  The farm where she got water might have helped, but it was too far for her to carry the tank.  She didn’t really like indoor toilets, but they were handy when you were on the move.

She looked around the van that had been her home for the past five years.  She had been born in a van, parked where the salt wind blew constantly across a cliff top field on the Sussex coast, not ten miles away as the crow flies.  She should have been there three months ago.  If she left immediately, she would be there in time to watch the sun rise across the bay. 

There was not much she needed to take.  The lightweight airline bag had not been new when she acquired it but it was made of good strong nylon.  In it she placed her one set of spare clothes (who needed more), her mug, bowl, knife, fork and spoon, a plastic bottle with the last of the water.  Carefully, she picked off the battered photographs stuck to the door of the built in wardrobe.  There was her mother with her dog looking out through the window of a van, not so unlike this one.  It was a black and white print and so old that the edges had been eaten away, but the kind familiar face still smiled in a way that always made Annie want to smile back.  There was one of each of the children, looking unnaturally clean and tidy for the school photographer.  She had once had photographs of their father, but they had been lost along the way and who needed photographs when one had memories.

The last thing she tucked in was a newspaper, the top one from the pile.  Annie could read, although she could truthfully say she had never read a book, not right through.  Books weighed you down.  Newspapers were all right.  They were full of news and stories, not real news about people you knew so it didn’t matter if the paper was days or weeks old.  Then, newspapers had other uses.  They could be used to light a fire, mop up a spill or even to add to the bedding to keep warm.  She would far rather listen to her mother’s stories or receive the real news from people along the way. 

“It’s a night to remember.”  That was how Annie’s mother had always started her story telling, meaning it was a night to spend remembering times past.  What stories she had to tell! There were many old favourites but she could always surprise with a new one.   Maybe some had come from her own mother for surely she didn’t remember horse-drawn caravans and toffs wearing top hats, not just at weddings, but in the street.   Annie and her friend Marie, with their younger siblings, would lie on the big wide bed at the end of the van, rocked by the wind and listen with all their ears.  It was on wild nights that the best stories were told, so that the storm became woven into the tale. 

When her own children were born Annie had her mother’s stories and her own to tell, an inexhaustible supply.  Even now that she was on her own, they remained with her, a constant source of entertainment.  “It’s a night to remember.”  She spoke aloud, as she often did for the sake of breaking the silence and to reassure Toby.  She needed to get going and she could pursue her memories while walking. 

She made a final tour of the van.  She didn’t like leaving it like this, with the toilet overflowing and those gaps in the floor.  She prided herself with leaving things as she found them.   This van had provided her with good shelter, but it wouldn’t much longer, not without some work.  She would find another van somehow.  She always had.   Finally, she was satisfied that all was as tidy as she could make it for the next person, whoever they might be.  The paraffin heater was ready to light, the kettle to hand, tea and sugar in the tins.   Carrying her bag, with Toby attached by a piece of string in case he ran off, she set off without a backward glance.  Her thick black coat was old and shabby, but it was good quality, fleece lined and warm. 

Once she got moving and had worked the stiffness out of her knees, Annie began to feel happier.  She had obeyed her inner instinct. It would take her all night to reach the coast so there was plenty of time for memories. 

It was five years since she had last been there.  As a child she had never wanted to leave that place.  It seemed like home, but of course they had left.  They had moved on.   That’s what they did.  She and Marie had made a pact all those years ago.  One day, they would come back and not leave ever again.  They would each have a van of their own.  Marie’s would have a blue front door and Annie’s would have a yellow front door, like the houses in the school reader.

Over the years they had met in many different places. The coincidences of the road no longer surprised Annie.  Every time they met, they would renew their pledge – one day.   Every so often they would make the journey to the Sussex coast.  When they were children there could be as many as twenty vans at one time on the cliff-top site.  The last time Annie had visited there had only been seven or eight.   

“Time to stop wandering.  Stay and enjoy your grandchildren,” urged Marie. 

“Soon.  Not yet.”  Annie was not ready.  She wanted to see Scotland one last time, perhaps go across to Ireland, if she could face the Irish Sea. 

“You should stay and make your peace with Iona.”

“We have made peace,” replied Annie gruffly.  Her daughter, named for the place of her birth, had always wanted to settle down, make permanent friends, stay in one place.  The terrace house in the seaside town nearest to the cliff top camp suited her and she seemed to have settled down to producing one child a year.  Annie’s second child, her son Tavistock, born just outside the Devon town on a tour of the west country, had been quite different.   He was always keen to break camp and move on, just like the father whose good looks and quick wit he had inherited.  Tavi was always on the move, but not for him the open road.  He travelled by cars and planes and trains, stayed in big scary hotels.  He had his own fund of tales of exotic places.  Although she hadn’t seen Tavi for years, she heard of him.  He kept in touch with his sister and his sister visited Marie.  Marie told everyone everything so sooner or later along the road she would bump into someone with news.  He was a diving instructor in Barbados, a sheep shearer in Australia, a tour guide in China.  Sometimes the stories got mixed up.  Did they have sheep in Barbados?  It didn’t matter.  It was news.  Tavi was a kinder, more considerate man than his father.  She couldn’t imagine gentle Tavi hitting any woman, let alone one carrying a child.  She had been right to cut and run that night.  Tavi had never known his father.  Iona had been too young to remember him.

After Tavi was born Annie kept on the move. It was the only life she knew. The children went to school when there was a chance, but never for long in one place.   They were amazingly quick to learn, absorbing books as well as comics and learning to write, something Annie had never mastered.   Every few years they found themselves on the Sussex coast and always Annie resisted the urge to paint the door of her van yellow. 

This time she would, but that old wreck of hers would never stand the buffeting of the weather on the cliff top.  It would be better to find another one.  Sometimes, there were vans on the site going for a song or just waiting to be taken over like the one she had left at the crossroads.

She didn’t regret her one last trip.  If she had stayed, she wouldn’t have met Nat.  They had met just outside Birmingham heading north.  She had hitched her van to his sturdy pick-up.  He was planning to settle somewhere in the Western Isles.  Like her, he had gathered no moss, but unlike her he had some money in the bank.  He was going to buy a little cottage somewhere remote.  She could have shacked up with him.  If they had both been ten years younger, she might have done so.  Sadly, with an offer from old Jack Fry of a tow all the way to the south coast, she had said goodbye.  Who would pass on the stories to her grandchildren, if she did not?   It had taken weeks for them to work their way southwards.  Sometimes, she wondered if she would have been better off in a snug cottage in the highlands with no worries about the next meal, rather than left destitute at the unfriendly crossroads.  A crossroads was a bad place to be stranded.

After walking for a couple of hours keeping to the footpath by instinct, occasionally checking over her shoulder to make sure that the pole star was more or less at her back, Annie came to a road that seemed to be going in the right direction.  Roads were sometimes not so direct as footpaths, but they were easier walking, particularly in the dark.  A straight lane like this would soon gobble up the miles.  She fell easily into her long economic stride.  She could keep this up for hours.  The dog trotted cheerfully beside her.  With no rabbit smells and interesting holes to explore, the cord hung loose between them. 

When they came to a village, Annie walked in the middle of the road, so that she would not trigger any of the security lights.  Undetected, except by an occasional barking dog, the travellers passed through two villages.  They stopped at an isolated farmstead for a rest, huddling together in the shelter of a tractor shed with Annie’s big coat pulled tightly round them.  She sipped her water and eased her muscles.  It was cold, even with Toby’s warmth pressed up against her.  She would stiffen up if she stayed too long.

After half an hour, she pushed wearily to her feet.  The sky was already a shade lighter.  Soon she would no longer be able to see the stars, but she could smell the sea.   She just needed to walk into the wind.  Her stops became more frequent and once or twice she nearly dozed.  She came to herself when an owl drifted past, silent, but so close that she felt the movement of air.   Another time, Toby erupted with a shrill volley of barks and hurtled from her side in pursuit of a thin feral cat scrounging a living among the old sheds of a deserted farmyard.  In between breaks, she continued to cover the ground, but more slowly.  The sky was getting lighter by the minute.  Soon it would be sunrise and she would have been walking all night. 

Finally, Annie came to the main coast road.   She paused waiting for the inner conviction that would tell her which way to turn.   After a moment, it came.  She turned right and was rewarded in half a mile with a left-hand turning she recognised.  She knew that after two miles this lane ended in a cart-track that would take her all the way to the field on the cliff top. 

“The last bit is always the longest.”  Annie could remember her mother saying these words to tired children trudging van-wards carrying milk and eggs or sometimes water if there was none on the site.  “Don’t forget to keep your eyes open.  You don’t know if you will ever come this way again,” she told them.  The habit was still strong in Annie.  Tired though she was, she noted everything.  She saw the rabbits by the open field gate, fortunately just before Toby.   She marked the moment when the sun first broke the horizon, slanting through the trees on the left of the rough track throwing the uneven ground into sharp lights and darks.  Eventually, she made out the first glimmer of the sea in the distance.

The broken gate at the end of the track stood open.  The field was smaller than it used to be.  Every year a foot or so crumbled away in the winter storms.  Even so, it should see them out, she and Marie.  In the gateway she stopped.  There was Marie’s van with its blue painted front door close against the hedge.  Beside it was another van, with a newly painted yellow door.  She gazed at it for some time.  Someone had made a chimney in the roof, so it must have a wood-burning stove like her mother’s, rather than a smelly dangerous paraffin stove like her last van.  There was also a small wooden structure next to the van - an outdoor toilet – better and better. 

As she stumbled across the field towards the van, Toby rushed joyously forward, barking a riot. Two lurchers who had crawled out from under one of the vans, stopped short and began to back away.

“Your dogs are always so aggressive,” grumbled Marie shuffling down the steps in her slippers. 

“He’s a terrier.  He’s just got to show he’s boss.  He’ll give over in a minute.”  

“He’d better.  Some guard dogs you two turned out to be.”  Marie turned away and started to climb back up the steps.  “Come over later,” she said casually over her shoulder, as if Annie had been away for a few days, not five years. 

How the van came to be ready for her, Annie did not ask.  Perhaps Tavi or Iona had arranged it.  She asked no questions.  The wooden steps were sound with a solid wooden rail.  She was glad of the rail to drag herself up the small flight.  The key was where keys always were, under the mat on the top step.  Inside, the van was bare but it had everything she needed.  She set down her bag and began to unpack.  The mug and utensils went on the shelf above the draining board.  Someone had made sure there was tea and sugar in tins on the shelf, just as she had done before she left the old van.  There was wood stacked neatly by the stove ready to make a fire.  Using the newspaper she had brought with her, she got the stove ready to light.  She would put a match to it later.

There was a plaid blanket on the bed.  She looked at it longingly, but first of all she must finish her unpacking.  She took out her photographs and arranged them carefully on the door of the cupboard, pressing them gently in place and waiting for the ancient blu-tac to adhere.  Then she took off her old black coat and hung it up lovingly.  Wrapping herself in the blanket she lay down on the bed.

The children would know where to find her.   This is where she would tell her stories to her grandchildren.  One day she would tell them the story of how she waited at the crossroads until the very last minute before walking through the night to her final destination.  The story would be embellished and enriched by memories of other crossroads, other journeys and other destinations.  With Toby curled up at her feet, she drifted contentedly into sleep.