Chapter 34: Learning to Code
Steve’s forearms were thick as loaves of bread, and not the French kind. He had a prickle of stubble round his head and a bald patch in between. It had been an unlikely meeting. I was waiting by the exit of a service station. A bunch of teenagers raced past, a phalanx of knuckle-shuffles and middle fingers with the jeers to match. Steve was putting air in the tyres of his SUV about a meter away. It was awkward since he was obviously trying to avoid contact. I asked him anyway. Nothing wrong with trying.
“You going to London?”
“Could I possibly jump in?”
“Fine,” he grunted, “I don’t care.”
It got even more awkward as he finished the other 3 tyres. I twiddled my thumbs as he knelt at my feet. Eventually, I got in. He didn’t say anything. This is going to be a long journey I thought.
It took a while for Steve to warm up. But we had a while. In the end, Steve’s stories were all we had to while away the road and they were all we needed.
“Americans are the most insular people I’ve ever met…” he grumbled about an hour in. “And frankly…the thickest.”
“What makes you say that?”
Steve was a big gamer. He played Call of Duty mostly and had made good friends through his headset, shooting up imaginary maps with people from all over the world. One of his best friends was an American. They’d played together for ten years and knew each other intimately. They’d met twice and even knew each other’s families.
“He only had half a brain and I saved his life twice.”
“What, on a game?”
“No. In real life!” He explained how his friend had had an epileptic fit so Steve had phoned the family to run in and save him, twice.
“But then we started speaking less and less and now…I don’t speak to him at all.” He signed.
It said it was all down to the father. He’d served in Vietnam and had Irish roots. When he found out Steve had been in the British Army and done a tour in Northern Ireland, he refused to let them play together.
Steve was upset and angry, a little offended too no doubt. Not so much at his mate’s dad, he was obviously a crackpot, but at his mate. “Why is a 50-year-old being told what to do by his dad? Surely he can make a decision by himself? He’s 50! Pfff, Americans…”
When he wasn’t gaming, Steve sold mobile holiday homes. He lived in one himself, in a caravan park in Yorkshire. Though it wasn’t his main job he had to deal with the holidaymakers, and he had a low opinion of them.
“People are so rude!” He had a gravely Yorkshire accent. “They’re just so obnoxious! The stuff they come up with…” With a shake of his head, off he launched.
“You’d be amazed at what some people get angry about. It should be a medical condition, people’s behaviour when they’re on holiday. I call it the holiday lobotomy,” he put on a whiny voice, “‘Ooo…I was woken up by a squirrel on the roof this morning’… he waved his thick hands mockingly, “What do you want me to do about it? Go and discipline it? Tell it off? Because they know they shouldn’t be walking across your roof before 7 in the morning!”
He scoffed; I laughed.
“Ooo… The crows are making too much noise. Can you make them be quiet?’… ‘What do you want me to do?’” He shouted with his hands up, “Shoot ‘em? You’re in the fuckin’ countryside mate! They’re crows! What do you expect!”
Other than the obnoxious holidaymakers, Steve was perfectly happy there. “I clear a hundred grand in a year and don’t pay rent. Not bad for someone with no education.”
We were going to Gatwick and were stuck in the M25 traffic, trickling anti-clockwise. I decided I’d go with him all the way and get the train into London from there. Last time I was around here I got stuck in the M25/M3 junction and didn’t fancy doing that again.
Steve was off to Cancun.
“What are you doing there?”
“Drinking… if I’m honest.” He looked at me frankly but with the crack of a wry smile. It was an all-expenses-paid work trip. A reward for being in the top handful of salesmen at the company. He was keeping the excitement at the thought of 30 degrees, beaches and unlimited free booze pretty well wrapped. At least until a colleague called him. A colleague not on the trip.
“Are you jealous of me yet?” He cackled throatily, “I bet it’ll be lovely back here…In the rain. I’ll be lying on the beach…sipping my cocktails…all paid for. Hahah!” He continued the ribbing for a while until the colleague, defeated, hung up.
He looked at me and cackled again then dropped deadpan and said, “Her husband’s dying of cancer.”
“That’s awful.” I was unsure if he was joking or not. He had that kind of sense of humour.
“He’s had it for a long time,” he said, confirming he wasn’t. “There’s a lot of it going round. They say one in two will get it some point in their life.”
He changed the subject as suddenly as he’d brought it up.
“So, anyway what did you study at uni?”
“History,” I replied.
Suddenly he exploded with hysterical laughter, very loudly. It made me jump and wonder what I’d said. Through his sobs, he cried, “What’s Henry VIII going to teach you about computer coding!”
I thought for a moment. Odd question. “Well, nothing…”
He was still in fits. “Why did you do it then?”
I was still confused. “Well, I don’t want to be a coder!”
He stopped laughing and cleared his throat, “Fair enough.”
He asked about hitchhiking instead. He’d done it in his youth and warned me about the odd dodgy person, “Mostly you’ll be alright. Unless you get a serial killer. In which case, goodbye! If you do get one though, you want one from Bradford. They’ve got the best names. The Black Panther…” he relished the name, “and the Crossbow Cannibal, that’s my favourite.”
“The Yorkshire Ripper as well, no?”
“Yep. Peter Sutcliffe. Awful man. I installed his wife’s broadband once.”
“What was she like?”
“Pretty normal to be honest mate.”
We considered it for a moment. Then the incident reminded him of a story from the holiday park so off he launched again.
“We had an employee at the park right. Absolute nutter. What’s it called, the Napoleon Complex? Where you do something to be the hero? Well, we had a girl who set someone’s caravan on fire just so she could save them. Yep.” He nodded knowingly. “Nutter. The fire brigade came in and everything. She claimed it was the stove but it wasn’t. These caravans are designed not to catch fire. And the positioning of the chairs and stuff inside… the fireman agreed with me.”
The miles were disappearing and Steve was getting going. “Anyway so after the fire, the fire brigade were round and clearing all the stuff out of the caravan. The girl whose it was had worked at Ann Summers before and had a load of sex toys. And everyone’s gathered around watching, and then out falls this enormous dildo and I shit you not, as it hits the ground it hit the on-button and starts wiggling about up the road. The poor girl was absolutely mortified. Absolutely mortified. We were pissing ourselves. It was huge this thing. Would have put an elephant to shame! …How did we get onto this?”
I couldn’t remember.
“Well, we gave her a fair bit of banter we did. She took it well, bless her. We’re not very politically correct up there. I tell you, I wouldn’t want to be going to one of these universities nowadays. I’d be out in a week.”
I thought a week was generous.
“But you know, I may not be PC, but people can be whoever they wanna be. I don’t care. One of my best friends was trans. He bought a caravan off me and I used to go round theirs for drinks all the time. I got on really well with him, and wow, he was an amazing chef. He had a restaurant down in Hastings. I used to go a lot and once, I was in a taxi and the driver says, ‘You’re not going to that pervert’s place are you?’ So I said, he’s not a pervert and besides, it’s the best bloody food you’ll have in Hastings. It’s amazing, go and try it. A few months later I had the same taxi driver and he says to me, ‘Thanks for that recommendation by the way mate. You’re right, he’s a lovely person and the food is amazing! Best in Hastings.’”
And so the miles passed. The dark slipped through the drizzle, leaving nothing but red and white lights in a glum stream ahead. Steve’s stories rolled on, with never a dull moment. I heard about his family, his estranged daughter, and his lazy son who’d never worked a full day in his life. His other son who was a talented poet wrote a radio play once. It was a satire, apparently, about some crackheads who try and kill a horse so they can find its glue sack and sniff it. That was just Steve’s kind of humour. He told me about Tiktok and the Chinese ‘dumbing down’ the West by promoting silly dances and pointless videos. Over there, Steve said, they were promoting educational material, videos on engineering and astrophysics. He even told me about the British government illegally dealing arms to Libya in the 80s. He had all sorts up his sleeve.
We reached Gatwick around 8 o'clock. We’d been in the car almost 4 hours. “Goodbye mate, good luck with it,” he said with a wave of his huge arms. I waved back, wishing him a good time in Cancun and walked into the airport, down to the station. Gatwick’s sterility, a stark contrast to Steve’s fruity tales. Hitchhiking may not teach you anything about coding, I thought to myself, but it’s certainly entertaining.
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