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Chapter 44: Scrawny the Third
Southampton to Lymington
“Put your seatbelt on, Nico,” Rob breathed in my ear slowly.
I put it on.
“Okay…” he breathed again, “I’m just going to wait here while the cars go past. Then, I’ll pull out.”
We waited in silence for a few moments. There was a robot army of Teslas waiting behind a barbed wire fence and a cruise ship towered behind it.
“Okay… I’m pulling out.”
Rob had a woolly white moustache and told me he’d been at church.
“How was it?”
“Huh,” he laughed dryly, “Noisy.”
“In what way?”
“I don’t know.”
Rob was a catholic, a left-footer. There was another moment’s silence. I asked where the phrase came from. “It’s from Glasgow: the Celtic-Rangers rivalry,” he replied seriously, “Celtic fans were left-footed and Rangers fans were most definitely not. Not nearly as friendly as the Everton-Liverpool rivalry.” I didn’t know what he meant.
Between silences, Rob told me he’d once hitchhiked to northern France and back. It was the week after England won the world cup. I was surprised, “You don’t look that old!”
“Huh,” he laughed again, “Flattery.”
Another silence. “Football’s gone to the dogs now,” he murmured, “I’d be a rugby fan if I could afford it.” I nodded along confused.
We approached a lay-by, “Okay… I’m just going to pull in here now.”
I said goodbye with a cheerful “See you soon”.
“I doubt it,” he breathed and slid back into the traffic.
Totton’s on the edge of Southhampton, at the tip of the deep cleft of the Solent. It’s also the gatekeeper of the New Forest. Michelle picked me up there. She spread wide in her seat and had frizzy hair that matched her fleece.
“I’ll give you a ride,” she said casually, “I’m used to picking up strangers. Other people won’t pick you up,” she seemed pretty sure of it.
“You’d be surprised,” I replied.
“Well, the people that do probably all work in transport.” She was confident of that too.
She was a taxi driver and was coming back from the cruise terminal in Southampton. We drove into the forest, a link in a long chain of cars, snaking beneath the boughs. Bright green buds betrayed the changing season.
“People ask me if I get bored of driving to Heathrow and back all the time,” Michelle explained, “and I say no. It’s different every time!”
It’s a bit like hitchhiking I supposed. You must get all sorts of people coming through, but it wasn’t that that Michelle thought stimulating.
“Each time I go to Heathrow, the road conditions are different, different traffic, different weather, sometimes I have to take a slightly different route…Not boring at all.”
Michelle knew quite a bit about the New Forest. She explained it dates back to William the Conqueror. He planted it as a royal hunting ground. It had been open ground before and in fact much of it still is. Only about 20% of it’s what they call ‘ancient and ornamental forest’. The forest was used for timber for the British navy too - around 2000 oaks were needed to build one ship in the 18th century - so careful management of the forest was required. It still is. The oaks being felled now were planted to replace those used for the ships at Trafalgar. Michelle was a good tour guide.
She dropped me in Lyndhurst, telling me the town would be full of tourists on a day like today. She was right. It was an odd town too, a mix of kagooled walkers and Ferraris. There were dozens of both.
I didn’t hang around and walked to the edge of town, past an obscure blue plaque. It read, “Admiral Philips, first governor of New South Wales and founder of Sydney lived and farmed here.” That’s interesting, I thought.
A car screeched into the bus stop, just managing to stop before battering into the curb. The driver hopped out, a ratty man with a thin smile. He was called Pete.
I got in the back.
“Sorry,” Pete apologised to his wife Les who looked a bit cross. He had an airy voice that sounded like a stoner’s, “I couldn’t resist! I used to hitchhike, yeah, yeah yeah, I used to hitchhike loads!”
“I know you did.”
“This is Isabel, say hello Isabel!” Pete added. Isabel was encased in a car seat next to me. She smiled and waved.
Pete told the three of us how he used to hitchhike to Dreamscape raves in the 90s.
“Dreamscape? What’s that?” I asked.
“Google it,” Les said with a nod.
“Yeah yeah google it!” Pete agreed. “They were these legendary raves in the 90s.
“I had one journey, yeah,” Pete was very friendly, “coming back from London just getting smashed with these Poles. It was hilarious. We’d not had any sleep yeah, and then they just stopped on the motorway and made us get out! We had to walk miles! Her-her-her!”
“Was that after one of those raves?”
No, we’d just been…”
Suddenly there was a retch and a wet splat. I turned to see Isabel being sick in a bucket. She looked up meekly and half smiled.
“Are you ok?”
She managed a nod, “Carsick,” she stammered as she wiped her chin. We all gave her plenty of sympathy.
“It’s a horrible journey this, isn’t it Isabel?” Pete said from the front. They had to make it quite often since Pete’s mum lived in Lymington.
“Wouldn’t wanna walk it either though,” he observed, “Actually I ‘ad a mate who used to walk from Lyndhurst to Southampton all the time, yeah yeah yeah, he used to do it all the time. This one time he got attacked by a badger! There was this badger on the path and he thought he’d shout and it would go away or summin, but it just went straight for him and attacked him! Her-her-her!”
I asked Les what she did. She was a teacher but she liked to reinvent herself every ten years or so. She’d been a gemologist for a while, then a diamond seller. She’d been an air hostess too. Les didn’t like to stick to anything for too long.
By now we were coming into Lymington. Isabel still had her head suspended above the bucket, a thin string dangling from her chin. She was being very brave, I’d not heard a squeak of complaint.
Les said Lymington had a more mature demographic which I couldn’t verify since the high street was deserted. There was red and blue bunting fluttering overhead, charity shops and Poundlands and estate agents listing ugly two-bedroom houses for over a million pounds.
Towards the harbour things got smarter. Charity shops turned to posh cafes with granola and avocados on the menu. The expensive houses made a bit more sense. I ducked into the greasy spoon next door and ordered the ‘brunch’. It arrived steaming and sculptural, a perfectly round egg and burger, pill-shaped sausage, clutter of chips and a slash of bacon that was the shape of a dinosaur.
I slipped down an alley on the way to the harbour and spotted a blue plaque on a side wall, “Admiral Philips, first governor of New South Wales…” The guy obviously got around.
Lymington harbour’s tacked onto the side of a river. It’s small and had a lovely, gentle atmosphere. A forest of masts bobbed and slapped, gulls cawed and a family swung their legs and dangled lines for crabs. Every bench was occupied with people eating ice cream or fish and chips, polystyrene pots of mushy peas and all. There were people and families of all races and everyone looked happy to be there. It was a fine sight. The weather wasn’t even good.
Puffin Tours. A lady was sitting in a tiny kiosk. Did they have puffins around here, I asked myself. Probably, the Isle of White was just over there. That sounded like the sort of place that would have puffins. I bought a ticket.
“Ahhaaa me hearties!” Roared the captain ten minutes later. The kids leapt up in excitement, “Welcome aboard the Black Puffin.”
He was dressed as a pirate, head to toe. The boat was fully dressed too. Parrots clung to the rigging and a skeleton sat at the bow grinning. There was a barrel of dressing up kit which the kids, who made up most of the crew, quickly rifled through. In front of us lay several toy muskets and cutlasses.
I realised I probably wasn’t going to see any puffins.
“Ok pirates,” the captain growled, “I’m Captain Jack Budgerigaaaar,” the kids screamed and the tiny vessel pulled away from the pier. “First I want you all to arrrrmm yourselves.” We all got hold of a weapon, “Now on the count of three I want you to shout as loud as you can, FIRE THE CANNONS!” We all did as he said. It was very loud.
“Very good pirates,” Captain Jack approved as we putted through the harbour, “Look! I’ve spotted some enemies approaching! On the count of three…” We all pointed our weapons at the Lymington Yacht Club. FIRE THE CANNONS! The patrons looked up from their lunch a little annoyed.
“Ok pirates, now I want you to find your pirate names,” Captain Budgerigar handed round a laminated sheet. The first letter of your name linked to a pirate one. I ran my finger down, N… Scrawny. The other side, L…The Third.
Scrawny the Third. I liked it.
We didn’t leave the harbour and we didn’t see any puffins. Instead, we spent half an hour blasting passing boats which was much better.
“Ok pirates, as we come back in, make sure you keep your arms and legs inside the boat. Wouldn’t want to get them trapped. Nothing worse than a bit of pier pressure…”
“That’s shocking,” one of the mothers snapped, she’d had enough.
Captain Jack sighed, “Try making it five times a day.”
I popped a couple of coins in his tip jar and stepped onto dry land.
“How was it?” the lady in the kiosk asked.
“Huh,” I replied, “Noisy.”
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