He walked for half an hour, uncaring about direction, ensuring only that it was away from his landlady. On the outskirts of the town he spotted a used car dealer. He’d no desire to buy a car, but a comfortable place to sleep was important. He imagined waking every hour with cramp slumped in the back of a hatchback. It had no appeal.
‘Anything bigger than those?’ he asked the owner, a grizzled man in a dishevelled suit. Spitting out a cigarette butt, the man said ‘Follow me’. In a far corner he pointed at a ruinous ice cream van.
Hirst stared at it in disbelief. It was an ancient Mr Whippy, rusted through, its two-tone paint work faded. A jaunty Mickey Mouse grinned from the side panel, announcing ‘Guiseppe says don’t be dippy, lick a whippy!’
‘No freezer or equipment,’ the man said, ‘but it goes.’ He hauled at a rusted door and clambered inside, then sounded the jingle. Forcing open a window he called ‘That works. Do for you?’
‘I don’t think so,’ said Hirst, imagining groups of children pursuing him down the road. ‘I saw a van near your office.’
‘Work to do before I sell it. Anyway, you don’t look the type.’
‘White van man.’
Hirst wondered if he looked like Guiseppe the ice cream seller, but said nothing.
‘Show me anyway. I’m interested.’
‘If you insist. Tyres near the limit but legal, a fortnight’s MOT left. Adequate little runner.’
Hirst smiled. He liked adequate.
He walked slowly round the van. It didn’t look what motor types call ‘clean’, but what did he know? Maybe it was surface rust. On the rear door was a sign – Corgi specialist’. Hirst imagined a pack of tiny dogs leaping out of the back, yelping. By appointment to HM the Queen? No, wasn’t Corgi something to do with plumbing?
‘It’s got fuel. Don’t know how much, probably close to full. Dodgy gauge.’
Exactly what Hirst had been hoping, he’d drive till it stopped. And where he ended up was where he’d be. It would be a destination of sorts.
The dealer named a price. ‘Do you?’ It would indeed.
‘Look, I’ll take it now if you throw in a couple of rugs,’ he said. Opening his wallet he fingered some notes. The dealer’s eyes widened.
‘Come inside, we’ll do the paperwork.’
The makeshift office was as bare as the room he’d left. Worn lino, a battered filing cabinet and a girlie calendar. Hirst watched the man slaver as he dealt out the money note by note.
He climbed inside his new purchase, shifted around on the seat to avoid a spring poking his backside, and pressed the starter. The engine grunted, struggling to turn over. He pressed it again and it fired. Hauling at the heavy steering he edged the van gingerly out of the yard, battling with the clutch to stop the jerking.
Exhilarated, he set off. The steering wandered, and for the first few miles it was as if the van itself was deciding which road to take. Where and when it would finally come to a halt was of no consequence. Being somewhere else, wherever it turned out to be, was what he wanted.
He drove for two hours, keeping to the inside lane, never accelerating to more than thirty, the brakes complaining each time he touched them. He thought back to the ice cream van. A shame, he’d have liked sounding the jingle, it would be announcing nothing. Once he stopped at lights and glanced down at the car alongside. A woman was peering into a tiny mirror, applying lipstick. Looking up at him, she frowned, grinned with embarrassment, then broke into laughter, mouthing ‘Cheeky’.
Hirst was white van man. It felt different. Encouragingly different. He pondered his new persona. As white van man he could be builder, plumber, or delivery man. No job too small, deliverer of budget solutions. Or none of these or all.
He stopped at a Spar shop and bought supplies. Sandwiches, biscuits, bread, ham, cheese, bottles of water, a pack of toilet rolls. Opening the glove compartment he found a dog-eared Screwfix catalogue, a sunned copy of a redtop newspaper, and a lunchbox containing a shrivelled tomato, a Snickers wrapper, and a crust.
He stuffed the copy of the redtop on the shelf below the windscreen and headed on into the west. Why the west? It seemed right.
After four or more hours the van stuttered, lurched, and came to a screeching halt, the fuel exhausted. He just managed to turn it into a muddy track leading to a field gate.
He reckoned he’d covered a hundred miles. So, this was his destination. It felt right. It was growing dark. When he opened the rear doors to examine his new sleeping quarters it looked like the empty hold of a Wellington bomber, all spartan ribbed metal. He picked a dead mouse up by its tail and tossed it out, then settled down on the bare floor, drawing the rugs over himself.
Sometime in the night he woke to a torch flashing. Police were tapping on the window. Muzzy headed, he climbed out.
‘Can’t stop here overnight, sir.’
‘I’d no choice, I ran out of petrol.’
‘I think you’ll find this vehicle runs on diesel, sir.’
‘You’ll have to move on. First thing latest. There’s a garage a couple of miles down the road. We’ll be back in the morning to check you’ve gone. What’s that?’
Hirst heard the radio in the police car crackling. ‘Got to go. By morning, remember. Goodnight, sir.’
Curling up in the front seat he waited for dawn.
A grey morning of heavy cloud. Bleary, he clambered out of the van. Where was he? He thought Wales, but couldn’t be sure. He thought of abandoning the van ̶ buying more diesel meant a trudge of four miles. Yet he’d found being stopped by the police curiously exhilarating. Risk was something he’d rarely experienced. It felt more than adequate.
After he’d eaten breakfast he walked round the van and took a closer look. Even he could see he’d been sold a pup. Rust on the wheel arches had been painted over, and one of the tyres was as bald as the car dealer’s head. It was lucky the police had been called away before they checked it over, he’d had a narrow escape.
But an escape was an escape.
The van had been given a crude paint job. Hirst noticed that the side panel revealed a trace of the previous owner. Faintly embossed behind the white paint he could just pick out ‘Kevin Sparkes, Plumber and Heating Engineer, MCS, Oftec and Hetas registered’. It reminded him of the palimpsests he’d seen at an exhibition at the Tate, hidden ghost traces of former paintings where the artist had reused a canvas. Here he could pick out the van’s former existence, confirming that the past can never be completely erased, there’s always something hinting at history. Slightly ruffled, he would have preferred a clean slate.
What to do now with a wreck of a van? One thing was certain. This indeterminate point in the countryside was his destination, whether he liked it or not. Something stubborn made him determined not to move, regardless of the risk of prosecution by the police. He decided to drive down the lane and find somewhere to hide the van out of sight. He’d stay a couple of days, which would satisfy his aim.
He locked the van and walked towards the garage, peering at road signs for clues. He guessed he was in Wales, probably just over the border. Borderland appealed to him, it was neither one place nor the other. Until he knew exactly where it was, it was elsewhere. Where did he wish to end up? In a flat? A place to rent with another probing landlady? Somewhere he’d be saddled with a lease or mortgage? None of these appealed. The van would do for the moment. But the word ‘cabin’ appealed more. Could he find a remote cabin in the fields somewhere?
Back from the garage, he poured diesel down the fuel pipe using the red top as a funnel, listening to it slosh and gurgle deep into the innards. Then he drove slowly along the lane, watching for tracks. After a couple of miles he found a space among trees at the edge of a field where the van couldn’t be seen. He gathered branches and covered the back so the white paint wouldn’t shine in the sunlight.
Then he settled down to experience the destination.
He sat in the back of the van with the doors open, legs dangling, and picked up the Screwfix catalogue. It was an inch thick, and Kevin Sparkes had turned down the corners of a good number of the pages. What was all this stuff for? His cottage had been full of books and paintings, but if this catalogue was anything to go by it was fuller still with invisible devices that somehow made a house work. He flicked through the pages: pipe covers, ducting, cable reels, combination plates, RCD sockets and spurs, voltage detector pens, multi function testers. He hadn’t the faintest idea how or what any of them achieved, or the miracle they managed to achieve together. He assumed that when he turned a tap on a score or more of bits of brass and plastic somehow jumped to attention and caused the water to flow. He remembered the plumber he’d called in to install a boiler when he first moved into the cottage. The man had sniffed, poked about for a minute or two, then straightaway came up with a price. How on earth could he see what was behind the plasterwork and floorboards and know exactly what was needed? Hirst recoiled from even thinking about it, simply grateful that the pipework, pumps and valves had delivered him a hot shower and washing up water, as well as disposing of his waste and shit.
But now Hirst himself was white van man. It struck him that though the van made him look like one he was a million miles away from thinking like one. He was as remote from being Kevin Sparkes as he was from being a nuclear physicist.