Chapter 69: All in the Delivery
Kings Lynn to Houghton
Philip had me in his van not far from Kings Lynn. He was a cheerful man of not many words. I asked him all about his asbestos removal company. Asbestos is something everyone knows is bad, it gives you cancer and is apparently in most of our old buildings, but beyond that, I couldn’t say I knew much.
His company must have been doing well from his list of clientele but he was humble about it. He operated from Norfolk right down to London. “By Royal approval mate,” he added with a proud nod, pointing to the dashboard. I leant forward to pick up his business card. The lion and the unicorn looked back at me. Dieu et mon droit. Underneath it read, “Appointed by HM Queen. For the management and removal of asbestos bearing materials.”
I told him it was the grandest asbestos removal card I’d ever seen. Albeit the only one I’d ever seen, but still, it would have held its own among the ones in American Psycho.
“Do you work at Sandringham then?” I asked. It was only a few miles up the road and in this part of Norfolk you’re never far from links to the royals. Every shop seems to have sold the queen chutney. It sounded like Philip’s link was a bit more substantial though. He’d worked at several of the royal residences, including Buckingham Palace itself.
“That’s cool. What was that like?”
“Yeah,” he replied cheerfully, “it was nice mate! Had to get a security check to get in.”
He’d also worked at other grand houses, Holkham Hall and the like. These old places had plenty of work and were full of asbestos. I told him I was off to Houghton for a festival but he said he’d never worked at that one.
I hadn’t realised asbestos had been used for millennia. They’ve even found Stone Age asbestos pots. It was only in the 19th century that it became widely used, when companies started shipping it out of huge mines in South Africa. Its properties of heat and electrical insulation made it valuable. Many of the same companies ended up in court a century later. Turned out they’d known it was bad for decades. For Philip, it was a case of assessing the immediate risk of exposure. The estates tended to remove it slowly. It’s so expensive they’d only get rid of the most dangerous bits to begin with.
“What’s the nicest place you’ve ever worked?” I asked.
“Err…” he thought for a moment, “Probably the queen’s house at Sandringham.” He nodded approvingly.
“What sort of thing is it you have to remove? Old insulation from the barns and stuff?”
“Sometimes yeah, but it’s mostly in the house. That’s the most dangerous stuff. The bits in the walls and ceilings and things. I did work in the queen’s bedroom once… and Prince Philip’s too.”
“No way,” I laughed, “I don’t think I’ve met anyone who’s been in the queen’s bedroom. Can’t be many who have. What was it like?”
“It was…” he looked over and nodded enthusiastically, “Nice!”
No shit I thought with a laugh and pressed him for more.
“Yeah, it was really nice mate,” he replied again, "There was a three-grate electric stove. Quite quirky.”
“Did you ever meet her?”
“No, I never did. I met Prince Philip though.”
“What was he like?”
He nodded enthusiastically again, “Yeah, nice!”
“That’s encouraging,” I replied, “It’s nice to hear when people like that are nice.”
I used to have a teacher at school who hated the word nice. She’d tell us that English had the world’s largest vocabulary and we should use any other of the great panoply of positive adjectives. But you’ve got to admire the word’s versatility. Philip and I had covered a lot of ground. Its real meaning, I realised, is all in the delivery. Philip could probably make it mean anything he liked.
“The rest are arseholes though,” he interjected suddenly, breaking my recollections and demonstrating the wider range of negative vocabulary still in use, “Except the Queen of course.”
“Have you met any of the others?”
“I met Kate and George.”
“What were they like?”
“Nice to be fair.”
“Sounds like you’ll be a royal yourself soon mate,” I joked.
“Nahh I’m as common as you mate. I like my beers going down the pub. Couldn’t be talking to all those yuppies…”
It wasn’t a long drive and by now we were in Kings Lynn. Philip said he could drop me in the big Sainsbury’s on the edge of town. I needed to pick up some supplies for the weekend. We came in and swung round the car park. I hopped out and we shook hands.
“Nice one mate,” he said with a friendly smile, “Have a nice time at the festival!”
“Thanks, mate. Nice to meet you too!”
I shut the door and walked into Sainsbury’s setting my bag down and pulling out my phone as I tried to make a plan.
“Do you need a lift?” A voice said over my shoulder. “You going to Houghton?” The owner carried on walking as he said it. I said I’d love one. “Nice one,” he replied, “Just gotta check out then let's go.”
“Have I got time to grab some bits quickly?” I said, suddenly realising I still had to decide what I’d need for the next four days. He told me to be quick, his stuff was already on the conveyor belt.
I wheeled off to grab beers, filling my arms with any snacks I passed on the way. I’d never caught a lift while not looking for one. I’d never caught one from Sainsbury’s either. It was actually quite inconvenient…
Two minutes later I unloaded an arm full onto the conveyor and shook hands with Johnny. Well done he said, that was quick. We both looked down at my haul. A crate of Thatchers Haze, a bag of crisps and a net of easy peelers. I supposed I’d have to get food in there. He probably thought the same.
As it turned out, Johnny had a food van in the festival. He was loading up on some last-minute things before the festival got going. Crisps for the team, kitchen roll etc. I gave him a hand loading everything, tossing the bits from his trolly into his van.
We piled in and set off, passing groups of scantily dressed blokes lugging crates of beer under their arms.
Johnny told me he was a bit pissed off. He sold grilled cheese toasties and had discovered that morning that he’d been put right next to the only other grilled cheese toasty van at the festival. “The worst thing is,” he huffed, “his are cheaper.” I could tell it was stressful and we both asked rhetorically why they’d do that agreeing it was stupid.
Johnny’s toasties were high quality, made with proper cheese, gouda, cheddar or mozzarella with sourdough that he picked up from London. Festivals were enough of a gamble as it was. You never knew how much people would eat. Sometimes he’d sell out in a day and sometimes he’d return with huge amounts left with hardly a penny to show for it. He wasn’t too hopeful for Houghton, especially not now. I apologised that as a dairy-intolerant coeliac, I wouldn’t be much help.
Over the years Johnny had had plenty of jobs. He’d been in PR, a production assistant, a courier and done a bunch of other jobs too. Over lockdown he realised he wanted to do something for himself. It took seven or eight months to convert an old horse box into a portable kitchen. He did it at the weekends, in the evenings, whenever he had a moment. He seemed like he was glad of his decision and didn’t regret it though it was hard to tell. I’d probably caught him at a bad time.
We turned off the road through aristocratic gates and hit a column of cars crawling under an oak-lined avenue. The afternoon sun blazed through the trunks and cut stripes on the road. Forearms hung lazily out of car windows and heads leant back bored.
I had to wait for my friends so I told Johnny I’d get out and sit under the trees til they arrived. I got my things out and wished him luck. I promised I’d come by and say hello at some point.
“Nice one man,” he said as we shook hands, “Have a nice time.”
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