I generally go down there once or twice a year myself, to have a chat, and to give the tackle an airing. On very hot days Jack's car park is chock-a-block by 10, so I ring and let him know I'm coming and he saves me a space. I like Uncle Jack. I like him above all because he really is a car park attendant, even in his heart. Before he took the job he was retired and miserable. Now, as a car park attendant, he is back in the swim and happy. He has a reason to get out of bed. He even has a certain amount of de jure power (which he exercises in a capricious, sometimes eccentric fashion). And he has a council uniform. The uniform consists of black trousers, blue shirt, black tie, epaulettes and peaked hat. None of it is actually compulsory; but he makes a point of wearing all of it, even on the hottest of the dog days.
It might be so hot that the tarmac is melting, but Jack's hat and tie will be on, and straight, and the top button of his blue council shirt will be done up. This absurd fastidiousness is partly satirical, I believe. He's like that, is Jack. Of course another reason for his liking the job is because it gives him a splendid opportunity to enrich himself at the expense of his employers. The amount of people he lets in with a discreet little wave while I'm standing there talking to him is nobody's business. And it is telling, I think, when he says that at Christmas a significant proportion of the cards he gets comes from the naturist friends he has made over the summer.
You wouldn't guess they were from naturists though, he adds - as if naturists ought to have their own Christmas cards featuring nude Wise Men and so forth. When we chat, Jack sits on his stool in the inner sanctum of his hut, and I usually lean on a door jamb, facing in. I love Jack's hut almost as much as he does. One whiff of the sun-warmed creosote and I'm a child again.
And it is so homely inside. There is his signed photograph of Harry Redknapp; and over there, on a plain wooden shelf, are his spare ticket rolls (dinner- ticket orange), his money satchel, his unbreakable Thermos, his binoculars, and his Daily Express. There might also be on display a small bribe he has received. If he lets someone in when technically the place is full up, they very often give him a small gift as a token of their appreciation. Four tins of light ale perhaps, or a cheap but useful car accessory. Last year he passed on to me a "multi-purpose car light with flashing light facility" (batteries not included). The flashing light facility will come into its own, apparently, when I break down on the hard shoulder at night.
Unfortunately, this year when I went down to see Uncle Jack, his hut wasn't there. It had been burnt down by vandals and Jack was waiting for the council to send out a replacement. The hut had literally burnt right down to the ground, leaving only the metal frame of his stool, a charred padlock, and a neat rectangle of ashes around the concrete base, from where Jack was still resolutely issuing his tickets.
It was a stinking hot day. The policeman who came to investigate was hatless and tieless. But uncle Jack had it all on - hat, tie, epaulettes, the lot. And he was able to tell the young constable about the tip-off he'd received. The arsonists, he'd been told, belonged to a splinter group of hard-line nudists who had taken exception to his uniform. Initially the constable's hand had moved towards his notebook, but then he'd thought better of it.