229 – The Traveller

The Somerset Camel: proof that camels who smoke really ARE cooler.

Already, with only the post’s title in mind I have that stupid song playing in my head: A Spaceman Came Travelling by Chris de Burgh. If you haven’t heard it – and lucky you if you haven’t – it’s a retelling of the Christian nativity that mixes religion with UFO mythology. In it, Jesus was a spaceman (no, Jesus was Batman; oh wait – that was Bruce Wayne) and the star of Bethlehem was a spacecraft.

(And the guy on a donkey? That’s just a guy on a donkey.)

It was written and released in the seventies, after Erich von Danicken’s Chariots of the Gods had been published and flower children still dancing to Age of Aquarius wondered “My God, what if this guy is right?

What if the Earth was visited in ancient times by star-travelling races, who had pre-historic tribes worship them and left us here with only legends to remember them by? What if aliens built the Teotihuahacan pyramids, Stonehenge, the heads of Easter Island? What if drinking herbal tea really has scrambled my brain-box?

This culminated in television executive Glen A. Larson asking a question of his own: What if I blended pseudoscientific idiocy with the style and marketing drive of Star Wars? His answer – Battlestar Galactica – simultaneously ended this age of false enlightenment while ushering in an new age of talking cars and shows starring Dirk Benedict – an age for which we’re all duely thankful.

Just that one word – traveller – puts me in mind of life here beginning out there, and that god-awful chorus, that has no lyrics but, like the inverse of a greengrocer during the second world war, only na-nas.

When I was young travelling – particularly when travelling on our summer holidays – always began the night before the day itself with me being tucked away for sleep fully clothed or. as time wore on and I grew older, in my socks. I’m not sure how much time spent dressing was saved by having me sleeping in my socks; slipping them on today only takes seconds, as is only right for someone without any motor-impairment, but back then for whatever reasons putting socks on seemed like such an arduous task. Well into my teens – until I left school. even – dressing took forever, and now it takes minutes to dress each morning I can’t for the life of me figure out why that was. I know there was a little more to my outfit back then, what with the blazer and tie and space helmet for class outings to the moon, but seriously, it took on average half an hour to dress every morning. Did I knit my own pullovers? God only knows: I certainly don’t.

Falling asleep beneath the cover, my feet be-socked, I felt the first frissons of excitement for what would turn out to be an excruciatingly dull day. Time travels slower when you’re a kid; it moves in proportion to the amount of life you’ve lived. At five years of age summer slips sluggishly like the last ketchup from a bottle, only you can’t whack it on the bottom thus hurrying its decent but only whine every three minutes from the back of the car: “Are we there yet?”

We’re going on holiday! To Poole, usually; to Bournemouth and places familiar from last year’s trip. Freshly bathed and dried, a little bathwater still sloshing in my ears and lying on fresh sheets I’d kick on my socks and mum or dad shook out the quilt and laid it over me like they were laying a tablecloth. It was still light outside – as it always was on those summer sleeps – but sleeping it would grow dark and then, in the direst, darkest hour of the night I’d be shaken awake.

“Wakey wakey, it’s time to go.”

Living in the West Country meant living a long way from anywhere, and going on holiday meant a long time travelling. To prevent getting caught in holiday traffic we’d be roused from our beds long before dawn and tumble downstairs to breakfast, toothbrush and washcloth and, fed and cleaned and ready to go, be ushered out into the cold, dark air.

Already dressed, I’d be helped into a jumper. It was early summer but this late at night chills still dared to dance in the streets and we wrapped up warm only to strip off our winter-wear once the new day had dawned. Every home slept, unaware of our passing. The roads were empty of all but a few night-workers off to unknown places, and I wondered what manner of person drove so late at night to play in a deserted playground as we did.

Minutes after setting out we’d return home to collect something that’d been left behind: car sickness medication, a small suitcase of equally small clothes – once I think a set of keys were left in the front door, their disappearance only being discovered once we were up the street and zooming away. “Make sure you’ve got everything,” said my dad, and we’d pat our pockets for money, LCD games and books.

Minutes later, assuming we didn’t set back again to reclaim something else that had been left, he’d ominously intone: “That’s it; too late to go back now.” And we’d travel though moonlit Plymouth still worried we’d forgotten something, and out onto the motorway.

At night motorways bind those travelling on them in an odd camaraderie.  Freight trucks, postal vans and other holiday makers – some with roof-racks laden with luggage; others towing caravans or tent trailers – were our brothers in locomotion. There were never too many of them in those early hours, but as we drove on and the sky lightened more travellers joined the procession and soon we weren’t lonesome members of some nocturnal sect but traffic, merely traffic, filling roads as traffic does.

We stopped at Exeter service station where we slid down an elephant’s snout, and stopped again later – sometimes, on special occasions – at the Little Chef to have pancakes and maple syrup. Maple syrup was part of the holiday ritual; we couldn’t afford it from the supermarket but being my father’s favourite condiment and holidays being a time to let purse-strings go we stopped in. The pancakes were probably cardboard and the syrup artificial, but those were the best times for us: sharing plates of cardboard cuisine while on the road to summer.

There was a camel on the motorway near Bridgewater. “It’s coming up,” said my mum. “Don’t forget to look out for the camel.” Sometimes my sister or I would be asleep and she’d whisper to whomever was awake; I craned my neck to see it approach. It’s a fibreglass thing, a statue that’s been at the road’s edge for many decades watching traffic pass by. In recent years – and by that I mean, in the last dozen years or so – it’s even spawned a baby that stands by its side just as immobile, just as watchful.

Sometimes they wear hats, sunglasses or scarves.

As we approached the junctions of main thoroughfares – and if it was still dark enough – we pointed out chains of lights hanging across the road which we called ‘boats’ because they were the approximate shape of battleships. By this point, the sky had usually turned an early morning blue, the sun had reappeared, watery on the horizon and these lights and the headlamps on the cars around us were the only vestiges of our secret night-time travels.

Day broke in purples and pinks; we shimmied from our heavy clothes – no mean feat when you’re strapped into a booster seat – and played car games my mum had devised until we grew bored. Count the green cars you see. How many cows have we passed? Don’t forget to look out for the camel.

My sister was always terribly car sick. She took pills, wore acupressure bands and my dad fixed a rubber anti-static strap to the back of the car – more pseudoscience, perhaps, but as I still wear Sea Bands when flying I’m hardly in a position to mock. We’d stop several times for my dad to exercise his legs, for us to use the toilet and for my sister to lose her unhealthy palor and regain control of her gorge. With every stop my dad became more irritable. “This is the last time I’m stopping,” he’d inform us. “Otherwise we won’t get there before night.”

Occasionally – and it seemed to happen more often on these long drives than at any other time in the year – something happened to the car. It’d break down or we’d have a flat tyre – once I woke from a nap curiously cool, my hair ruffled by a breeze and little stars of glass nestled in my lap: a piece of gravel thrown up by the car in front had hit the windscreen just so and shattered the thing delicately. “Just sit still,” said my mum, and I sat still until my dad found a place where he could pull over and call the AA.

Finally, after hours of dreary, endless identikit highway we’d recognise landmarks and become excited. “Are we there yet?” we’d say – the childhood cliché to a tee  – and my mum would reply“Yes, we’re nearly there – now be quiet!”

My sister – still green of face – and I would look at one another and grin, and as the car pulled into the familiar campsite, with its familiar go-kart track and familiar static caravans I’d jump in my seat, itching to be out and – at last – on holiday.

Two weeks passed of building sandcastles and peeling shoulders; nightly cabaret and pocket money whirligigs, forever lost on rooftops; of amusement arcades and teenybopper discos; of McCaine oven chips and and Kellogg’s variety packs; and of mattresses that by daylight masqueraded as mild-mannered sofa cushions. Day by day our holiday dwindled until finally, tearfully packed and still lamenting the ripcord helicopter that had landed on the caravan’s roof,  we set off home, no longer holiday makers but travellers on the road once more.

In our absence everything had changed. The house smelled different. I ran from room to room flicking light switches, so unused to them after a fortnight away it was as if every room in the house held a toy fixed to its walls.

And then, just as suddenly as it had arrived, the novelty of returning home disappeared and our holiday was over.

Chris de Burgh, left marinating in his own smugness at the start of this post returns once again singing about Space Jesus and his interplanetary journey: I tell him to get knotted. You don’t need starships to take you, or a holy message to spread: all you need to be a traveller is starting place, a destination, and open road between them.

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