Long before prime-minister Boris Johnson stepped down this morning, the UK has felt like it is slowly falling apart. And this little tale of a ukulele player with a broken car touches on the growing sense that our transport and other public systems are not what they used to be.
Meanwhile, as McShane & Shaw gear up for our trip to the Prague Ukulele Festival, I’m pleased to announce that we just put the finishing touches to our album. It’s ready for manufacture and it’s a goody!
Here’s how I spent my weekend:
Vicky, is cheerful, if a little moist and breathless, when she meets me at the side gate of the Care Home. She is the Activity Coordinator, and in her arms are bundled several fake leis, some plastic Aloha banners and an inflatable palm tree. These, the last of the festive summer decorations, are being hurriedly brought in from the lawn to be rehung indoors because the weather, which had been warm and sunny for several days – perfect for the family open-day party – is now turning cruelly uncooperative. The wind is already here and rain showers are imminent.
This is doubly unfortunate because my partner Jane, who has been looking forward to seeing my “Hawaiian” show, now has to wait in the car as ongoing covid precautions limit how many people are allowed indoors. (I only mention this because it turns out to be the beginning of a lot of time that Jane will spend with the car on this ill-fated afternoon.)
I enjoy doing the Hawaiian songs and Hapa-Haole numbers. The whole thing is colourful, fun and a bit silly. You could say my tropical island music show is in the same category as the fake leis, raffia skirts and plastic palms: I’m no authentic purveyor of Hawaiian culture, just a guy with a couple of ukes bringing some tropical musical sunshine to northern England. But, at the end of the gig, I get paid one of the most surprising complements in my career to date. After the final song a resident called John makes a brief speech to the gathering to thank me – before purposefully rolling across in his wheelchair to meet me in person. He tells me how much my show has meant to him.
Unlike the other residents in this place, he shows no sign of dementia. The very opposite in fact: his eyes are bright, his mind is sharp as he weighs and considers his words when he speaks,
“What you’ve done today is nothing short of a miracle …and I truly mean that.” he says,
“I’ve looked around and seen people enjoying themselves and dancing together when just this morning it was all completely different. It’s often a terrible atmosphere in here, people are crying, shouting, attacking each other …my own daughter has been having a difficult time with her pregnancy and I worry about her so much. There are times in here when I just want to kill myself. There’s so much fear and anger among these people: one woman is always shouting for coffee and another one will attack you for no reason. And now you have come here and, I’m not trying to be sentimental about this, but you worked your magic and completely changed everything and for that I want to give you my deepest, most heartfelt thanks.”
Care homes have been a weekday bread and butter income throughout my career but never have I been thanked so eloquently and emotionally. I try to acknowledge John by saying that I rarely, if ever, get such feedback from residents. And certainly I have never heard expressed in such a stark way the raw reality of daily life in Care. I am lost for words. I tell John that what he has just said makes up for all the times when I never hear anything at all. My words are too inadequate but it’s all I can find. Although, it looks like we’re going to do it all again: for Vicky has booked me to come back in August, to play on John’s birthday.
Outside the Care Home, and with my instruments and PA packed in the car, we set off for the main event: our first overnight outing since our holiday last summer. Four ukulele friends from the US, who I’ve known for twenty years, have rented a narrowboat in Oxford and are spending a week navigating the waterway between Oxford and Banbury in serene and slow, watery motion. I can’t wait to meet them.
The date of their visit has been in my calendar for weeks and I’ve vowed to see them so we can have a catch-up. After all, they’ve made the effort to come here, the least I can do is show up in my Hawaiian shirt for a strum at the canal-side. So, Jane and I have put all the preparations in place so my parents are looked after while we take off for a night and a day. Within half an hour we are already out of Sheffield and marvelling, as we always do, at Chesterfield Cathedral’s crooked spire. By 4.50pm we’re hurtling south on the M1 motorway – but not for long. I can feel the car faltering. I say, “That’s not supposed to happen.”
Looking at the dashboard, a picture of a spanner (that’s a wrench in American) flashes on and off. The car is on the edge of giving up altogether and we use our last morsel of forward momentum to glide up an exit ramp to park on the strip of asphalt by the motorway side known as the hard shoulder.
At this point I already know our weekend is ruined – our plans in vain. I call the Breakdown Service who say we could be waiting up to two and a half hours. But we’re lucky, because a genial breakdown man called Mark arrives one hour sooner than that in his well-lit orange RAC van. He insists we get out of the car, saying,
“You’re parked on the hard shoulder which makes you vulnerable to be hit from behind. I’m afraid you can’t sit in the car. You are required to stay on the grass verge: it’s for your own safety.”
While Jane and I sit on a groundsheet in the long grass Mark fiddles around with things inside the car before announcing that, not only can he not fix the problem, he also cannot tow us because our automatic gearbox is stuck in fifth gear. We’ll need a flat-bed truck to take us away. He calls for one and drives off.
The Breakdown Service has updated me with the news that, of a dozen possible towing companies, only one is able to send a tow truck for us. Unfortunately, they can’t make it until 10:00pm; or 10.30 at the latest. (I assume that tow truck drivers don’t like working Saturday evenings but later I learn of another possibility.)
Now resigned to the situation I text my friends: Peter, Donna, Dave and Sue, that we won’t be able to make it to Oxford. The grief for our ruined plans washes over me for a minute or two until it is replaced by a new feeling: hunger. I need to eat and all we have are some bits of fruit and some water.
Searching Google-maps, I discover the Royal Chippy & Pizza. I say to Jane,
“There’s a fish and chip shop nearby. It’s only a seven-minute walk away. What do you want to eat?”
After deciding our order, I head off towards the busy motorway with a Tesco shopping bag in which to carry the meal home. The route on google maps shows a dotted line leading from the side of the slip road. I search eagerly for the pathway but it soon becomes apparent that the path does not exist. All I can see are brambles and trees. Locating a thinnish area in the brambles I fight my way through as branches and blackberry vines claw at my clothes and pull my hair. Once through the brambles I look up to see a slope, topped off by a ten-foot-high green wooden fence stretching off endlessly in both directions.
I fight my way back through the brambles and onto the roadside, and return to Jane, with my clothes now covered in sticky-bobs.
“I’ll try this way instead.” I say, still confident in my abilities to bring home a meal.
Soon, I am walking along, balancing precariously, on the edge of a major road that has no sidewalk. Cars speed by on my right while the brambles on my left try to push me into the traffic. Checking the map, I see this route is now going to take me at least an hour to get there. It’s hopeless but I feel like I’m on a mission now. I promised Jane fish and chips and I don’t want to let her down.
The brambles suddenly end and I look up to see a break in the ten-foot fence. I clamber up and step through the gap to find myself in a hoity-toity housing estate inside someone’s back garden. I move slowly forward, figuring that I’m now officially trespassing. Looking round the garden I see patio furniture all neatly covered over. It appears that the residents are away. I knock on the door – tentatively – taking a step back in case some mad person or an angry dog comes bounding out. But no answer. It seems I am locked in the back garden with no way forward.
I realize I could be getting myself into all kinds of trouble: dogs, police, drive-by thugs? I could get murdered on this fish and chip hunt and no-one would know. I decide, sadly, that there will be no fish and chips. I’m going to have to give up. But, as I cross the lawn towards the hole in the fence, a thought comes to me, “I wonder if they deliver?”
I google Royal Chippy & Pizza again. They DO deliver. Oh, what joy! Within seconds I am standing, just outside the fence, ordering fish and chips with mushy peas, twice, plus two cans of Fanta. Then the man asks,
“And what address is that?”
I explain our situation, “We actually don’t have an address, but we’re quite nearby. We’ve broken down on the slip-road coming off the M1 south on junction 25”.
The guy sounds dubious but after some hmm-ing and aah-ing he takes the order.
Jane is at first disappointed to see me with an empty Tesco bag but then delighted to learn that food is a-coming. Twenty minutes later I meet the delivery man just fifty yards away, up at the roundabout and give him a generous tip (a rare thing in the UK) for his trouble.
For a while we are elated. Not only do we have sustenance, but the fish and chips are actually really, really good. As a rule of thumb, when a place advertises itself as a chippy and a pizza place, I would expect it to be good at neither. Afterwards I spend a good twenty minutes writing a generous 5-star review for their excellent food and speedy delivery service. I do this partly out of gratitude but also because it helps kill some more time.
Saturday 10.30 pm
Still no tow truck. I call the Breakdown Service who tell me it’s now going to arrive at 11:10pm. But, as soon as I hang up, I get a text from the tow truck company saying they’ll be here at: 12:30am. I call the Breakdown Service back to find out which of these times is correct. A helpful fellow called Ashley tells me the truck has been delayed on the way from Crewe (about eighty miles away) and that actually it will be 12:30am – in the early hours of Sunday morning. He confirms that, of the dozen or so towing companies available, only this one took the call.
I am beside myself with, well, whatever this feeling is… I say to Ashley,
“We’ve been told not to sit in the car. It is now dark and cold – are we to keep sitting on the grass verge – even though there’s hardly any traffic now? Also, it looks like we’re not going to get to a repair place until the middle of the night. I’m a musician, with a car full of musical gear, which I can’t leave on a street outside a garage. And even when that is done, we still have to somehow get ourselves home. I pay for this breakdown service with the expectation that it will help us in our time of need – but it’s really not looking very good right now.”
“I’ll see what I can do,” says Ashley.
He calls me back with the news that he can’t make the truck arrive any sooner, but, he’s instructed the driver to drive us, and the car, home. They will send another truck in the morning to take the car away again to be fixed. Well, that’s something, I guess.
Our tow truck arrives 12:30 on the dot with lights flashing blindingly. The driver, Mike, greets us in a way that comes across as very kind and sensitive to our situation. Jane, for seven months, has been enduring a lung condition that our National Health Service has been unable to treat because, frankly, it is overwhelmed. It drains her energy and keeps her coughing. She is seriously flagging now. This is when Mike tells us that he is due for his break and he will drive us ten minutes up the road to a nearby service station where he will refuel and then take his half-hour break. I laugh out loud,
“Yep, that’s par for the way this trip has gone so far!”
At the service station Mike fills the truck with diesel: £212. “It used to be half that,” he tells me. I comment on the high cost of fuel. Mike says, “I’m glad I’m not paying for it!”
He also says that Jane looks shattered and that he’ll skip his break and take us straight home. While Jane sleeps on the back bench I sit up front to chat with Mike. I ask about the economics of operating a towing company during a fuel crisis. He tells me that the tow truck contractors are not being paid any extra to compensate them for the huge rise in fuel costs. In fact, they are no longer making a profit from going to breakdowns. This explains why no trucks were available to send out to us: they didn’t want to be.
I ask Mike how long he’s been tow-trucking and what he did before,
“Twelve months.” he says, “I used to be a full-time carer for my wife. She has an incurable form of MS. But now the youngest kid is able to do more to help with her – and I was needing to get out more.”
“How many kids do you have?”
Mike thinks about this at some length, “Eleven,” he finally concludes. And then explains, “she had six from her first marriage, I had three and we’ve had two together. The oldest is thirty-five, the youngest, fourteen.”
Every question I ask produces answers that paint a picture of complexity about this man and help explain the sense of empathy he showed us on his arrival.
2:30am Sunday morning
Mike gets us home and unloads the car expertly off of his ramp and onto our street: steering the car through the window with one hand and operating the button of his electric winch with the other, getting it nice and snug up against the kerb. He then tells me he had no problem putting the car in neutral and that he can’t understand why the RAC guy (Mark, who we met eight hours ago) couldn’t have towed us in the first place. He adds, “…unless, perhaps, he just didn’t want to; it could have been the end of his shift maybe?”
I give Mike a tip and we say goodnight.
Jane and I are exhausted but glad to be home and we manage to enjoy a hot cup of tea and a nip of whisky to warm our insides before bed.
A toast – here’s to our next holiday, whenever or wherever that is. Maybe we’ll actually get there next time!