After three days walking alone on the high moor, and two nights at a remote youth hostel, above which the silence and the immensity and brilliance of the universe were unnerving, I jumped in the car and drove down to the nearest centre of commerce and civilisation to reacquaint myself with humanity and get some more cash. The small market town was built on a reassuringly human scale and busy with shoppers. It had narrow streets with narrow pavements, and a one-way system and parking restrictions were in operation. The Marquis of Granby was open. So was the Spar and the post office and the charity shop. And, crucially from my point of view, there was a cashpoint machine. I parked the car between two mud-spattered Land Rovers. It was almost four on Friday afternoon and the school kids were just out of lessons and marauding through the town.
The cash machine had run out. Balance enquiries were available, said the screen; but enquiring about my balance was the last thing I wanted to do. Beside the cash machine, the door of the charity shop was propped open. It was one of the tiniest charity shops I’ve seen. A woman with long grey hair was sitting behind the counter watching the people go by. I went in and asked her if there was another cash machine in town.
She said there wasn’t, but the Spar did cashback. Perched uncomfortably on a small stool beside her, and partially obscured by a row of women’s coats, was a young man with a very tanned face and a mournful expression whom I hadn’t noticed immediately. His sad face looked from between the coats and said, ‘’Tis terrible how this place has gone downhill.’ ‘Gone to the dogs completely,’ agreed the woman. She looked lovingly at the melancholy man and then she looked at me. I felt she was urging me to say something that would make him feel included in the conversation, and that if I did this it would be an act of kindness to both of them.
So I said to the man perched among the coats, ‘You mean a deterioration in services and amenities?’ ‘For years,’ he lamented. ‘Years and years and years.’ ‘Of course, only one family has ever mattered,’ said the woman. ‘The police, the air force, the army: all they are really looking out for is one family.’ She folded her arms and looked triumphantly at me, as if someone had finally spoken the truth and that someone was her. I looked at her and then I looked at the man. What was this woman talking about? What family? Could she possibly mean, I said, that the royal family was responsible for the town’s decline? ‘Of course!’ she laughed. Who else could she possibly mean? I looked again at the man. He was staring tragically at me, imploring me to believe whatever this woman said.
Then she said: ‘Five motorcyclists have been killed on the road out of town in the last six years alone.’ I couldn’t tell whether this was a complete change of subject or an illustration of what a pretty kettle of fish it was that they had all now found themselves in owing to the royal family’s insatiable greed. She drove to work along this road every day, she said, and she’d been counting the deaths. Another strange thing about that road, she said, was that at a certain point — just after the humpback bridge, usually — her car radio lost the signal from the music station she always had on, and picked up instead prophetic spoken messages pertaining to her and her husband.
I looked at the man in the coats to see if this was a joke. He was still staring tragically at me.
The woman imitated the ghostly voice she often heard on her car radio after the humpbacked bridge. ‘Eileen! Eileen!’ she croaked. ‘Jim’s on Mayflower ward!’ Returning to her normal voice, she said, ‘And do you know what? Six months later Jim’s cancer got worse again and he was put on Mayflower ward. Can you believe it?’
I examined the spines of the grubby paperbacks on the eye-level shelf beside me and fingered out a Muriel Spark. The Ballad of Peckham Rye. I’ve never read any of hers. ‘One of the funniest books I have ever read,’ was the leading quote on the back. The pencil mark inside the cover said two pounds. I felt in my pocket and came up with one pound and five pence. ‘That’ll do,’ said the woman, kindly. ‘That’s plenty.’
Then I went along the street to the Spar. In here a big scruffy man standing in the aisle swearing and sweating appeared dangerous as well as mad. ‘Shh! Don’t laugh,’ whispered the girl on the till when I tittered at her as she swiped my groceries. ‘He frightens me, that one does.’