That Summer: The hitch-hiker's guide to the fallacy: Seduced by his friends' tales of laughing peasants and lively girls, Neil Lyndon hit the road for the summer of love. The road hit back
Saturday 20 August 1994
Our joint income must have been nearly pounds 50 a week (maybe pounds 600 or pounds 700 today); but her work as a secretary made her bored; and my work wiped me out. The scrapyard was like the set of a Sam Shepard movie. Each working day at 8am, risking tetanus with every handhold, I had to scale mountainous heaps of piping and panelling, planks of high- tensile steel and rusting car bodies, to reach the powered guillotine where I worked until 6pm cutting metal into lengths and chunks. No gloves or overalls were provided, so my jeans and shirts became stiffly grimed with filthy oil and rust and the flesh of my hands blackheaded with metal splinters. The yard had no place to wash, so I travelled home on the bus looking like a miner up from the face. 'Mind your backs, ladies,' shouted the conductor one evening. 'Here comes the working man.'
One Saturday afternoon, I came home with fish and chips for lunch. My girlfriend was out. I put the food in the oven, spread some sheets of newspaper on the floor and dropped into a pit of sleep in my working clothes. When she came in, the food was cold in the oven, which I had forgotten to light, and the room was thick with the stink of sweat and old oil. She whined. I left. I was not going to spend any more of my first long vacation in a mockery of our parents' bitching cohabitations. I was off on the Grand European Hitch. Farewell marriage; hi-ho silver lining for the open road.
All the boys at Cambridge had done the hitch, to Venice, Athens, Kabul, Goa. I had listened covetously through the winter to their stories, ruefully contrasting the abundant hipness of their experiences with my own sorry sub-marital state. In India, they had fallen in with swamis; in Kabul with dealers in dope and rugs; in Florence they had met a young widow with a white Mercedes who let them drive to her flat in Munich where they made love day and night for weeks before she took them to Cannes to meet Alain Delon and Mick Jagger at parties. They had lived for months with no money, fed by laughing peasants in Italy and Greece who took them in. They had met a girl on the night ferry on the Adriatic who had done it with them under a tarpaulin on the deck. They had drawn sketches of St Sophia in Istanbul and had lain beneath the stars in Isfahan where Alexander walked. I had dragged myself round Tesco in Whiteladies Road for a basket full of Harpic, frozen chicken and chianti.
Two boys from my college were driving their father's Mini to Athens. For a share of the petrol they agreed to take me as far as Rijeka, where I would meet Bob and Dick, my two best friends of that year, following which, according to our detailed imaginary itinerary, we would cast our seed broadly upon the Baltic states and hitch-hike slowly and separately back through Europe, carried by the luck that our sensational good looks guaranteed us.
The boys in the Mini were careful chemists. They wore flannels and short- sleeved shirts and sandals. I wore my Levis, Cuban-heeled boots and a paisley- patterned pyjama top which, I had deluded myself, looked like the Liberty shirts that even the Small Faces were wearing that summer. (Everyone who saw me asked 'Why are you wearing your pyjamas?') The chemists had a tent, sleeping bags, a Primus, a tin-opener and a box of beans. I had packed my old canvas cricket bag with a pullover, some pants and (following the advice of a vegan friend) a plastic bag containing three pounds of nuts, raisins and oatflakes.
This diet had blocked my pipes by the time we got to Lyons and was all eaten before Milan. 'Too bad,' said the boys, opening another tin of chipolatas.
They had written out a daily target of miles, to get to Athens in a hurry. They were doing Europe as a study in physical endurance and mechanical motion. I do not remember that we stopped to look at anything. While they drove, I sat in the back, smoking untipped Player's and reading The New Left Manifesto by Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton, and a book about the theory of allegorical meanings, whose title and author I have forgotten. Little communication passed between the front and rear seats apart from demands for petrol money, conceded with ever-growing reluctance as the small wad in my jeans narrowed. In a northern Italian market town, I bought a dark-brown straw hat with a huge brim which I turned down in the shape of a Vietnamese peasant's paddy-field headwear. This drew eyes away from the pyjama jacket and was the envy of all.
Dick and Bob were waiting in Rijeka, tanned and merry with tales from the road: the polished routine, including lively girls and lovely food. Their luck must have run out when I joined them.
Three Australian girls, heavy and plain and worried about their make- up, were on the ship. Hungry for sex, we made up to them when the boat left but our ardour waned when it hit an Adriatic storm and we were sick while the girls touched up their lipstick. We stopped for two days on the island of Hvar, then undeveloped, where I got sunstroke and Bob and Dick left me fainting in the street while they went to a restaurant for dinner. I could afford and stomach nothing more than melon.
On the walls of Dubrovnik, some 10- year-old girls mistook Dick's big mouth for Mick Jagger's and screamed. On the beach, I played ball for 10 minutes with a girl so thin she made Twiggy look like Anita Ekberg. When she put the ball down, I propositioned her. She was astounded. 'You English boys are not human,' she said. That was the closest we came to sexual adventure.
My money ran out after three days in Dubrovnik. Kilburn High Road, not Isfahan, was calling. When I walked out of the town to find the road going north, I had one dinar in my pocket, the equivalent of seven old pence. I saw a man watering his vegetables and asked for a drink. He roared at me to drop dead.
I settled on a place to hitch at the beginning of a long straight where I could watch the cars winding towards me round the mountain turns. I stood there for a day and a half. On the morning of the second day, I saw a white Mercedes 300 convertible approaching. As it turned into the straight, I saw that it was being driven by a blonde woman, alone in the car. Cautiously, as if pushing apart the veils of deja vu, I held out my thumb. The car slowed. Then it accelerated past me. A drunk in a Fiat 500 stopped five hours later.
At 5.30am in Mostar, as I walked along the road on a broken heel, a man came out of some olive trees and punched me in the face. We staggered away from each other without speaking. At midnight in Sarajevo, while I was sleeping in a graveyard, a pack of wild dogs attacked me. I spent my last dinar on an ice-cream near Zagreb and left Yugoslavia in an old van whose engine boiled over as it panted into the mountains.
Near Geneva, in the early evening, a man scented with drink and aftershave picked me up in a white Citroen DS21 and, seeing my weakness and fatigue, offered to take me home. Demurring, I fell asleep and awoke to find his hand on my thigh. I pushed it away. He hit my face with the back of his hand. I opened the door. He stopped the car and I fell out into a deluge like a high-pressure hose, which drenched my clothes and everything in my cricket bag in seconds.
At Versailles, I went to sleep on a park bench where a gendarme woke me with a kick in the groin at 4am. North of Paris, a Morris Minor full of happy English kids stopped to take me to Calais where a perky stewardess on the ferry gave me a free meal, my first since Dubrovnik, in return for spending her money on my duty-free allowance. The Morris Minor dropped me in Kilburn High Road, 50 yards from a friend's front door. Within a week, I had got a job with a light engineering factory. The engagement ring we had bought for 10 quid came back in the post and I hocked it for pounds 5. In October, when I got back to college, I told lies about young widows in white Mercedes convertibles.
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