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Chapter 54: A Sketch and Two Poles
Kings Lynn to Ely
“Where ya going?!” The man screamed, “Get in! Get in! Get in!” There were three of them all screaming, all topless, all looking mean. They leapt with rabid excitement.
No, I said flatly. I’d never turned down a lift but there was no chance I was getting in that car. “Get in! Get in!” They went on. No, sorry. “Owwh fuck off then!” They suddenly turned rude, and the car screeched away. I was relieved by my decision. I’d often thought about what I’d do in such a situation. I was glad I had it in me to say no.
It had been a tranquil afternoon til then, and it was once more. I watched the horses over the fence. A beautiful black mare had her mane plaited in four. Some teenagers threw their bikes in a pile to feed her flat hands of grass.
A man called Marcin stopped after a while. He clunked onto the curb and reversed. He looked like Popeye. A hard-baked face and an even harder-baked head. It had a dull bald shine. He spoke out of a clenched jaw from the side of his mouth and his Polish accent was thick. I didn’t catch much. A jumble of sounds punctuated with fuckin’ and you understand my friend? Mostly I didn’t.
He jabbed his chin at me and asked how old I was. He told me that by my age he had a wife and a kid. I didn’t catch the rest. I did get that he’d lived in Peterborough. He mumbled a load of words then signalled throwing something, “You understand my friend?” No…I replied. I think it was to do with littering. “People….kebab…nom nom nom…Bang!” He tossed his hand. “Many…how do you….” He held his hands up about a foot apart, “Not mouse…”
“Yes!” He grinned snapping his fingers, the thick wrinkles around his bright blue eyes deepening for a moment.
Marcin was going to work. It was an extra job, making fridges and freezers. He only did it on Sunday evenings and he was supposed to start at 5 o’clock, a few minutes away. We’d passed his turning but neither of us understood each other which made logistics tricky. He mumbled something about Kings Lynn being full of Afghans. “You understand my friend?” No again.
He took me all the way to Downham Market. Bunting wigwagged above the streets. I caught eyes with an old hotel on the corner. It was boarded up with black and white stripes. It was an interesting building, behind the wire fences. It had been a hotel since the 17th century. The last owner devoted 30 years of his life to it but then got ill and had to sell up. Nobody wanted it. He had to sell it for flats, he was devastated.
I climbed the ugly stairs to the church and looked out across the fens from the sudden vantage point. A pigeon banked steeply onto the lip of a beacon and I imagined it full of fire, sending a message across the marshland. Now it was only lit for the jubilees and royal weddings.
I found a lay-by and waited next to a single blue portaloo. I wondered who put it there, who looked after it. They’re strange things portaloos. That hollow thbang of the closing door.
The sun was getting low across the Fens. Magic was sunburnt. His wide thighs were the colour of strawberry ice cream. He told me hitchhiking’s common in Poland. “People just put their thumb out though,” he chuckled, “They haven’t advanced to signs yet!” Ely was written on mine. He chuckled again, “It’s orrr right.” He said that at the end of everything, rhythmically, musically even.
Magic was coming back from a fishing trip. He loved fishing, it was his favourite thing in the world. He’d been by a lake, he wasn’t sure where, fishing for carp. He’d not had much luck - perhaps it was because carp are spawning at the moment - but catching nothing wasn’t so bad. He fished because of the presence of mind he felt. And it was deeply relaxing. He’d been with friends and they’d had a BBQ and camped, had a few beers. The splosh and ripple of a fish surfacing in the gloom was the only occasional distraction. They hoped they’d catch it tomorrow.
Now it was back to Chatteris and back to work in the morning. Magic was a mechanic by trade. He’d trained back home in Poland and he came to this country when he was 18. He’d been studying mechanics at college but it was difficult to get a job in Poland. “They say they want five years’ experience, but the apprenticeship’s only three. In England you don’t need papers really, you can do any job. You go to a garage, you look up how to fix a break pad on YouTube, you tell them you know how and you get a job! It’s orrr right!”
Magic liked England very much, “In England you can do anything. England! You are English so you know this, it’s a great country, you work hard, you go up.”
Magic felt strongly that in public he should speak English. He knew Lithuanians who didn’t share his view. He thought Lithuanians were selfish: “I was in the pub with some last week,” he explained, “They speak perfect English but they were talking in Lithuanian!” Magic looked at me with his blue sunglasses. “I couldn’t understand a fucking word!”
He told me about his wife. He’d met her on holiday in Poland and they’d come back to the UK together. She began work as a cleaner in St Edward’s College, Cambridge. Magic’s mum also worked there, as did his dad, a kitchen porter who’d been there for twelve years. They both had great work benefits, lots of holiday and things. Those old colleges treat you properly.
A few years ago Magic and his wife moved to Chatteris just outside Ely. It was much safer there than their old home in Arbury, Cambridge where they’d lived next to a drug dealer. Nice guy, but dodgy. In Chatteris, kids can run around at 10 pm and be safe. That was nice.
Magic’s wife took work in a packing factory nearby. It was a big company, it turned over 44 million a year. She started line packing, worked hard and now she was a quality control manager. She earned more than Magic. Magic was maxed out with work. He couldn’t take any more cars if he wanted to, but it was orrr right.
Ely was ahead of us, the cathedral prevailed over the flat. ‘The ship of the fens.’ I’ll never tire of the sight.
I asked Magic when he was next going fishing. Tuesday he replied. He was going with his boss after work. They’d get to the lakeside for a few hours before dusk, camp and then fish again in the morning. They’d be in the garage for 9. “It’s orrr right.”
It was still in the city centre. Faint warm laughter echoed from a pub on a cobbled street, wet with evening light. The sun shines different on a Sunday. Softer, gentler, altogether more peaceful. It’s as if the sun itself is taking it easy.
There was a cannon on the green. It looked skinny on its small wheels, out of proportion and out of place, as if it had been left there by accident. It was captured in Sevastopol during the Crimean War. I wondered who it had killed and I imagined the Russian soldiers tapping it with a taper, imagined the grime-covered workers forging it in some furnace-lit factory deep in Tsarist Russia. Now here it was under the cathedral. A memory of a long-finished war.
A young man with untamed hair was sitting on the wall at the edge of the green. His chin was in his chest. There was a small square notebook in his lap, the stub of a pencil in his hand. He’d look up to the top of the tower, then squint at his page again.
His name was Patrick and he liked drawing cathedrals. He placed the notebook on the wall and we both admired it.
“This is only the second one I’ve drawn,” he said, “The first was the Duomo in Milan.” He flipped a few pages back and we looked at it, “I prefer this one though.” The lines were sharper and straighter, “That one’s a bit scratchy.”
Patrick told me he was only a young artist. He’d been doing six months or so. He wanted to draw digitally too but it was a beautiful evening. He wanted to be outside.
“The shadows don’t really change from here. I’m not very experienced at drawing shadows.”
“Maybe you should go around the country and draw all the cathedrals,” I suggested.
He liked the idea. “They’re good to draw because you’ve got a fixed perspective point, churches too. And, they were built to be beautiful.”
They certainly were beautiful. Patrick took one last look and closed the sketchbook.
“Let’s see how long that took,” he looked at his watch, “An hour and a half. Not bad I don’t think.”
Not bad I agreed. I realised it had been exactly an hour and a half since I refused that lift. Funny to think he was just opening a blank page at that very moment. Now his page was full.
And so was mine.
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