Chapter 37: Three Days That Way, Part I
Newcastle - Derby
The Angel of the North shrunk. I thanked Dave for stopping, pulling me out of the rain. “Ahh,” he replied with a shrug and a twinkling grin, “It’s nothing, I used to hitchhike loads. I hitchhiked to Egypt once.”
He took me as far as Derby but even that was too short. I’ve never met a man so full of tales, and he told them with gentle zeal, the way of a true raconteur.
“I used to work for a company that designed shop windows for record stores,” he told me. He had a brilliance in his bright blue eyes, and a grey ponytail tied like a sheaf of wheat. He’d had many jobs in his time but this was one of the best. “It was a fantastic job!”
With an affable north-easterly accent, he told the story of his youth, how barely out of school he slid right into 80s London and its wild music world. He’d go to gig after gig, all for free thanks to a friend at Polygram. “She’d call me up and say ‘Dave! I’ve got four tickets. Do you wanna come?’ And I’d always go. Sometimes we’d go to two in a night, we’d watch the support act go to another one somewhere else. Then she’d got us into the after-parties. It was fantastic.”
“What was the best?”
“We went to one, an Australian band called INXS - they were really big at the time. I got all dressed up for it: had this white 80s suit on with a shoestring tie and a biggg 80s collar. I had a long black ponytail back then, right to my waist, and I had a pair of cowboy boots on.”
Dave painted a fine figure.
“I turned up and my friends said, ‘What the hell are you dressed like that for! We’re going to the after-party you know.’ I thought, shit! Anyway, the gig was fantastic and then we went to the party. There were paparazzi outside and the invites were this huge piece of paper with a big black X on them, you could hardly fit it in your pocket.
“We got inside and wow!” He shot a look of disbelief as if he’d just walked in now, “Everyone famous was there. All the big names. Mick Jagger, David Bowie, you name it. So me and my friend went off to get drinks. We accidentally got two each, so I downed one. Then I downed the other.”
Dave’s words were like arrows, bullseye every time. The man could tell a story. I felt I was there, in the noise and smoke and lights and the strange intoxication of celebrity.
“The room had this big curtain that divided the dance floor from the bar, a huge great thing. Anyway, I went for a dance.” He rolled his shoulders in his seat, a gentle jive to pull back the memory, “I’d left my drink on a table and went back to get it. As I was drinking it, I put my hand out to lean on the wall. But suddenly I felt the wall moving, slipping through my hand. It wasn’t the wall at all, but the curtain! There was a crash and I pulled the whole thing down! Next thing I know, the lights are on, the music’s stopped and I’m lying in the middle of the floor, wrapped up in this curtain, in my bright white suit. All the glitterati are staring at me open-mouthed! I’m thinking I’ve ruined the party, I’m finished. The bouncer came over, gave me a hand up, laughed and patted me on the back. Everyone cheered. After that, people would point and go ‘Ayy that’s the guy!’ It was fantastic!”
We pulled in for petrol. Dave took a call and got some fruit pastels.
“Are you still in touch with those friends now?”
“No I’m not sadly. I went travelling so lost contact really.”
In those days you could hitchhike across the channel, so he did. Then you could go anywhere you liked. You still can I guess. You could go to Beijing or Cape Town or Archangel. Dave chose Cairo and it took him over three years to get there.
In France, he caught a ride with a couple who knew a winemaker. Andre Ostertag was the rockstar of the winemaking world apparently. Dave asked him for a job and the next day began work on the harvest. The days started at 5:30 in the frosty, misty gloom. They’d pick until 10 and then press the same day. Then they’d take the husks to the railway station to be sent off for medicinal alcohol. “The work was hard but the wine - ahh - it was phenomenal.”
The harvest didn’t last forever. He hitched on to Italy and stayed for a while in a Buddhist monastery, then on again through the Balkans and Greece, down into Turkey. Dave was penniless by then, living off Semolina mostly. He shook his head and remembered his stick-thin frame.
When he got to Israel he was exhausted. His girlfriend at the time turned heads. “In Jaffa, someone asked her to be an extra in a movie and I joined her. We sat in a pub and when the director said Action we’d down our pints. Then we’d do another take. I think I downed six pints!” He laughed.
Years later he looked up the movie and it turned out it had been a cult hit. Leonard Cohen did the music and on the front cover was a picture of Dave.
“Extraordinary,” I said, chewing a fruit pastel.
“Well,” he replied, chewing one too, “Except for the fact I got glandular fever from it. I was ruined. I was seriously ill for a long time. I think it was the months of undernourishment followed by sudden partying in the Israeli hostels. My body just said nope.” He didn’t realise it at the time, but it never quite left him.
When he recovered, he went on to Egypt and stayed there for 9 months. He loved it, loved the dust and dirt of Cairo. He loved the landscape too, the rugged, scraggy desert spoke to him somehow.
After four years away he came back - there were issues with his girlfriend - but soon he was planning an escape again. This time Australia. After booking the flights, he had just enough money for a pint. It was a good pint he recalled. He stood on the platform at Newcastle station, a rucksack and a box under his arm. He caught eyes with the mother and child next to him. The mother asked what was in the box. “Negatives,” he said, “Of Egypt.”
“That’s funny, I spent a long time in Egypt. In Luxor. My son’s half-Egyptian.”
She hadn’t gone for long but had come back with a child in her tummy.
Dave never made it to Australia. “That woman’s now my wife, and the child’s now my son.”
His wife was a medic and they’d lived happily ever since.
Not so long ago, for no particular reason, she took his blood pressure. They discovered it was seriously high and it turned out to be his kidneys. The glandular fever had been so severe it had damaged them and they’d been getting worse ever since. Now they ran at twelve per cent capacity. “I would never have noticed,” he told me, “I don’t feel or look ill at all. But I am.”
That’s why he was driving to Derby, to see his mother for the last time, for a while at least. He’d finally been put on a transplant list but it meant he couldn’t go further than two hours away. If a match came up he had to be close to the hospital. His mother lived two and a half hours away so this was the last time.
Dave was easy about the whole thing, inspiringly so. He shrugged cooly. “It is what it is. There’s not much use worrying about it.” He knew a man whose kidneys were also at twelve per cent. He looked ill, Dave said, pale and thin. He looked like he was dying. Dave wasn’t like that. His doctor would joke saying, Please get some symptoms, we want to know what’s wrong with you! “But I guess, over the years, my body just slowly adapted.”
I said it was mental too. Dave was a man who loved life and that counted for a lot.
There was a brief moment of silence, but Dave didn’t let it dwell. Forever upbeat, he asked me about the people I’ve met hitching. My stories felt inadequate compared to his.
“Who was the most interesting person you met on the road?” I asked back.
“Well this one time,” he began. The glint was back in his eye - not that it ever left, “I got a ride in this swanky Range Rover. As we were going along - you know how it is - and I asked him what he did. The driver started laughing hysterically. It was extraordinary! I thought I’d got myself a nutter, this guy’s crazy! He looks over and goes, ‘Do you really not know who I am?’ And I said, ‘No sorry…’ so he says, ‘Do you like football?’ - ‘No, I’m sorry I hate it. Never watched a game in my life.’ - ‘Fair enough. Well I manage a team in Manchester.’ When I got home, I told my mates who were into football. He was called Alan something…”
Dave scratched his head, acting out his ignorance.
“Then I remembered he gave me his card. Ohhhh my god! They said. You got a ride with Alex Ferguson!”
I hope you enjoyed Part I. Part II will be out next week.