Chapter 68: Fighting a Bear
It wasn’t long before a lorry pulled over. It was small, somewhere between a lorry and a van. The back was open and empty, a long boardwalk of wooden planks. I climbed into the cab, joining a thin man hunched over the wheel. A narrow tongue of grey fluff held the top of his head. His eyes were grey and the skin on his arms was loose and wrinkled.
He said he delivered security fences. I asked if he’d been doing it long, filling the opening silence. “A year,” he croaked, letting the silence return, “I drove HGVs for thirty fuckin year. But I lost my licence. So now I’m driving this wheelbarrow.” He slapped the wheel gently. I asked what happened. “Ahhh…” he wobbled his hand and didn’t say anything for a while. “Let’s just say stress…”
I said a lot of people had told me driving lorries is more stressful now. None of them had quite been able to put their finger on why. Something about the road and drivers.
“Well,” he began slowly, “I spent 30 year drinking and smoking fags. I used to drink. Proper drink. Eight pints of Stella a night. 15 hour working days, six day a week, 50 week a year… And it just got too much.”
I couldn’t think of what to say for a while. It was quite a change from my last ride. The engine whined loudly and the scraggy hawthorn blurred past the windows.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said and he croaked in acknowledgement. “Well it sounds like you’ve come past it and if so that’s a hell of an achievement.” He nodded slowly, the drapery beneath his chin corresponding. He had, he said, but it had been a close run thing. Work and drink had taken him to the precipice.“Us being British and that, you just get on with it don’t ya?”
Eventually, the stress began manifesting in his body. A small rash appeared on his chest. He ignored it and it spread until it was all over him. Then the skin on his feet became strangely thick, over a centimetre of dead skin, solid. His legs began to swell up too. He inflated his hands to demonstrate as he drove, holding them around an invisible trunk. Despite the signs, still he drank, still he smoked and still he worked.
I realised I didn’t know his name. “Kevin,” he rasped, before continuing his story unchecked.
He went to a doctor, realising he had something serious. “She was Japanese, but she didn’t know what it was. In the end she said it was stress.” His voice was loud and frank. He was almost shouting over the engine. “Ya know, she was oriental and that, they think differently don’t they. She says to me, ‘You’re fighting a bear Kevin,’ and I says I’m fighting a what! ‘A bear Kevin!’ And she was right. It doesn’t matter if you’re fighting a bear, a dog or some gremio down the pub, your chemicals change. You go into fight or flight. She said that’s what I was doing, fighting this invisible bear. You’re only supposed to be in that mode for a short time - I was in it constantly. My body couldn’t take it.”
I nodded grimly. It sounded like a horrifying state to be in. He wasn’t finished.
“I was so depressed. I…I… just felt nothing.” He shook his head, mouth part open, almost amazed at the memory, “I wasn’t alive and I wasn’t dead. I wasn’t on earth and I wasn’t in heaven. I was just…in between. It was the weirdest fuckin feeling of my life mate. People say owwwhh I’m so depressed I wanna kill myself, but that takes effort to feel like that. I never felt like that. I just felt nothing.”
We looked out at the fields, perfectly flat and furrowed, the neat lines converging on the horizon. The sun was high above the poplars.
“It was like frostbite, that’s the only thing I can think to explain it. It starts on the edge, makes your fingers go black and die and then it works its way up your arm.”
I was confused by this. “What so your fingers and toes were going black?” I was thinking of his swelling legs. “No no!” He replied, “It’s metaphorical… Or like a tree. I was like a tree with rings and as it went on the rings fell away one by one.”
He was like this for a year and a half. The doctor said he was unfit to drive so they revoked his HGV licence and with no income, he moved in with his mum. He was still desperately unwell, “On hot summer’s days, I’d be wrapped up in jumpers, hats, blankets and all, just shivering. I knew it was hot because I could see people outside, shirts off and that, but I was freezing!”
But slowly he began to recover. He fed himself up. He ate meat, cheese, vitamins, vegetables. Everything to get his diet back on track. Then he got off the drink. Now, months later, he was much better.
“That’s amazing. It shows an incredible amount of strength.”
“I dunno,” he replied, “You do what you gotta do.”
We fell back to watching the road. “Don’t get stressed mate,” his advice to me was simple, “It’s not worth it.” I said I’d heard that enough times to believe it. “I used to think it wasn’t a thing,” he went on, “People would say owwwh I’m so stressed and I’d say shut up you prick. But believe me it’s real. Look after yourself.”
He thought money was one of the biggest problems. “Don’t follow the money,” he said, “‘coz you’ll never have enough of it.” He felt we’d got something wrong in our system, particularly with debt. “You go to a bank with not a pot to piss in and ask for a loan - they won’t give you one. So you go get a job at Macky Ds or whatever, put 400 quid in your account and suddenly you get an email asking if you want a loan for ten grand!” He tapped the wheel. “That’s how they get you hooked.”
The government was the other problem. He said he knew we’d been run by Nazis for the last thirty years. “Remember Maggie Thatcher and how she said we could all have houses? Houses were 40 grand so people borrowed 60 and pissed the rest up the wall and then complained about being in negative equity.” I didn’t see what that had to do with nazis, or Thatcher, but I didn’t say anything.
“Now those same houses cost £650k! I don’t mean to be disrespectful, but how are you gunna be able to afford that!” He knew people that were builders and he knew for a fact that building a house didn’t cost that much. “People get a little tiny house with a little tiny garden and that’s it….650k! If you’re doing well you’ll earn 40k in a year.” He made it sound dystopian. Perhaps it is.
“When I was with my first missus…” he tailed off, “You know, when you’re young, you think you can change the world,” he looked across at me, “And then you realise you can’t. You get stuck. Her tits went south, I got fat and my teeth fell out. Nothing’s changed!”
We were several miles from Kings Lynn. Kevin had already gone past his junction. He asked what I was doing in Norfolk anyway and I told him I was going to a festival. “Three days of partying? Ah mate that’s what it’s about. Sex, drugs and rock n roll.”
“It’s a techno festival sadly,” I replied, laughing with him, “there won’t be any rock n roll all weekend."
“Ah well mate,” he said smiling. “You enjoy yourself all the same. That’s the only thing that matters.”-0
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