Chapter 38: The Word Salubrious
Clare to Buntingford
Bev worked in a toy factory and was going there now. She loved the toys. They were beautiful she said. Just that week she’d spent £200 on them. “Not for myself,” she clarified, “I’m not crazy.” She gave them to her family and friends, especially her grandkids. Her daughter was a minimalist and thought all the toys were just more clutter but the kids liked them anyhow. They were little furry teddy-type things. Really expensive, but really well made. Bev packaged them before they were shipped off all over the world, as far as Australia. She was proud of that.
Bev had a warm way and a kind, husky voice. She wore black oval glasses with sequins on the front. They made her eyes sparkle. Her nails were long and ruby red. They too had sparkles on.
She was coming back from seeing her mother who lived in Sudbury and had dementia. Every morning Bev would drive over to look after her. Then she’d rush to the factory to work the evening shift. It was hard work doing both and Bev realised she was just one tiny piece in a sliding crisis of care all over the country.
We came towards Haverhill. It wasn’t her favourite place in the world. “Sudbury’s lovely,” she told me, “Full of nice shops and teahouses and old buildings and that. But urgh, Haverhill’s horrible!” She explained how it was built on a grave after the war for overspill from London. “I only come in when I absolutely have to. And then I sprint in and out! But people that live here and grow up here absolutely love it. It’s very strange. They say don’t go slagging off Haverhill!” She wagged a red fingernail mockingly.
We drove into a car park. “Here you go young man,” she said kindly, the diamonds on her glasses twinkling. I thanked her. “It’s all right. I try to do one good thing a day if I can. And besides, you never know when you might be in the same situation!”
I walked into Haverhill and saw what Bev meant. The pedestrianised high street was a low ravine between dull, brown brick buildings. Drab shops underneath sold nothing in particular.
In the 60s, there was BBC Man Alive documentary about Haverhill. It was about what a dire place it was, full of miserable Londoners complaining about the lack of prospects and facilities. 40 years later, a local Haverhill resident made his own documentary called Very Much Man Alive. He set the record straight, filling it with hope instead, imbued with the maker’s own love for his hometown. He said the reason Haverhill had such a bad reputation was all because of Man Alive. It was unfair and untrue he thought.
I also discovered there’d been a man in Haverhill known as Crazy Mike. He became a local landmark, known to most. He was part of the town. When he was found dead in the bushes in 2015 there was an outpouring of thanks for his life. He was a Vietnam veteran. He’d lost his mind in someone else’s pointless war and spent the rest of his life shouting wildly in Haverhill’s streets, scaring some, fascinating others. It’s funny how huge events thousands of miles away can leave their mark on the places you’d least expect.
I watched a kestrel windhover above the washlands on the edge of town. The sky was blue behind her. She beat two chestnut wings and twisted a fan tail. In her flap, her head stayed dead still. It had to. Kestrel’s can see near ultra-violet light, revealing to their high-up vantage the urine trails of their prey. But only if their head doesn’t move. This one had no luck and after a while, she swept in an arc away.
Ollie picked me up. He wasn’t going far but he took me anyway. He was a serious man probably in his 40s. He was married to a Norwegian woman and had just moved back to Cambridge. He told me he used to live in London. “I was a trader, unfortunately,” he said, “I mucked around a bit in school and uni. When I left the only thing I could get was trading.” He went to work for Morgan Stanley. I told him now those banks employed the best. Or at least the best the business schools and economics departments produce. After a while, he left and went to Bali for two years instead. We didn’t have time to talk more.
John took me on. He had a lean face, cocked forward with a wrinkled brow. His accent was from Blackpool. We were on a single-track lane, and John's pick-up made a deep whoosh when we raced through puddles.
When he was younger he’d been a financial planner. He got sick of it and like Ollie, packed it in to go round the world with his new wife. “As a financial planner,” he added dryly, “it wasn’t a very financially stable thing to do.” He picked grapes in France and worked on a building site in Crete for nearly a year. He’d never done anything like that before but he was taught to plaster in return for English lessons. It was a fair trade.
John gripped the wheel with gloves that had padded knuckles.
“I had, and still have - but they’re dead now - a great deal of respect for my parents. God rest their souls,” John too was quite serious. “My father told me to get a proper job so I came home and applied for one.” He didn’t want it, he wanted to go back to Crete, but he took it all the same. It was in management training and he’d done it ever since. He still works a bit now even though he’s retired. “I don’t really need the money but it’s just to keep me off the sofa.”
We talked about hitchhiking. When John was younger he could hitchhike from London to his parent’s front door in Blackpool, all in an afternoon. Once he’d hitchhiked from Bari to Camberwell Green. It took him right to the traffic lights. “Now I imagine it’s a bit more salubrious round there.” He was a straight-talking man. The word salubrious seemed to come from nowhere, a sudden burst of colour that lit up the car momentarily. I liked it.
On I went, this time with a father and son. Dan the dad and Harrison the son turned around to come back for me. Dan loved making people’s day. He was a Londoner with a cockney charm and eyes as blue as glaciers. “I saw ya there and thought I’d pick you up. I wanna teach Harrison to be open to strangers.”
Harrison sat in the passenger seat watching the road in his black tracksuit. He was still in school and liked beatboxing, and football, and says he’s very clever. Dan agrees. Dan was proud of him.
Dan did most of the talking. He liked to talk. He told me he was a carpenter. “I’m a chippy by day, music producer by night.” He winked through the mirror.
He had all the best gear and half the house was devoted to it. Decks and recording mics, mixing desks and interfaces. Sometimes he’d check his watch and see it had gone 3 am. “You know what I mean!” he laughed loudly.
Dan produced all kinds of music, whatever he was feeling: techno, dubstep, trap, EDM, hip hop. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said cheerfully, “I set a beat and that, but I don’t just stick to one genre. Go on Harrison, put one on.”
“Who’s your favourite artist ever?”
“Oooo..” He screwed his face up, “That’s a tough one! There’s so many!” In the end, he settled on Paul Weller who was coming to play in Thetford in the summer. They were going. “Go on Harrison, put one on.”
Again Harrison obliged.
Dan grew up in Enfield. “Don’t get me wrong, I love London and that. But it’s not a great place to raise kids. It’s a bit dangerous.” He hoped Harrison and his sister would get into music like him. “Since they were really young, I wanted to get them comfortable with a mic in hand. Give them another way out. You know what I mean? Don’t want them to end up on the streets like the guys in the songs Harrison listens to.” He was talking about drill and the violence of the lyrics. Dan thought it glorified terrible things. “All the stabbing and robbing, and them saying look how rich we are from it. It’s mad!” He flicked the side of his head.
“I have to explain what they’re talking about to Harrison coz he doesn’t understand it. How can they be allowed to put those words out there, I’ve got a ten-year-old! It’s nuts. But… it’s good music though innit! Hahah!”
That’s why Dan preferred living in Norfolk. He liked having Harrison come up and visit him from his mum’s and they’d go fishing. He loved fishing.
I got out and Dan got out too, opening the door for me like I was a celebrity. He gave me a big friendly handshake, wished me luck and set me on my way.
I hope you enjoyed Chapter 38. If so please hit like and share it with your friends.