THERE must have been 40 or 50 vehicles beside the road. At first sight you thought they had all been abandoned by their owners, so rusty and paint-free were they. Then you realised that most of the vehicles had people in them. This was not a car dump - it was a convoy going somewhere. Women and children were moving around in the sunshine. There was a smell of cooking. Wherever they were going, they were not in a hurry to get there.
Near the leading van five or six people stood together having what they hoped looked like a council of war: 'We could push on through the night and take them by suprise,' said one.
'Take the police by surprise, Tom?' said another. 'At our average speed we couldn't take a hedgehog by surprise.'
'Well, we've got to be in Taunton in two days for the meeting,' said the lone woman present, 'and if we don't move now we haven't a hope of making it.'
'Yes, but this is the first good patch we've found for weeks,' said someone else. 'If we move out, we'll lose it to some other convoy.'
'Well, let's take a vote on it,' said the one called Tom. 'As chairman, I can't vote, but I would like to propose the motion that . . .'
'Oh, for sweet heaven's sake, Tom,' said another. 'We're not on your sodding parliamentary sub- committee now.'
Tom was a tall, imposing man of about 42, who, this time last year, was chairman of a committee in the Houses of Parliament. He had been an MP, too. And a merchant banker. And a Lloyd's name. He might still have been an MP and a merchant banker if he had not also been a Lloyd's name, but by the time his syndicate at Lloyd's had gone down the Swanee and he had paid as many of his debts as he could, everything had gone. Even his wife and children. No, he hadn't sold his wife; far from it. He had put the house in her name. She was still living in it. She had thrown him out, but let him keep the old Sierra estate, in which he now lived. Thanks a lot, Jessica . . .
'Do we really have to get to this meeting at Taunton?' asked a voice.
'Yes,' said Tom. 'It's the only one this summer at which we can learn if any compensation is coming. I think it's extraordinarily nice of the Lloyd's people to come and talk to us at all. They'd all much prefer to be at Wimbledon.'
So, judging from the long silence that followed this remark, would most of them. They were in their 30s and 40s, these men, wearing ragged, striped shirts that had seen better days in the streets of the City of London or Westminster. They had aristocratic faces - noble brows, weak chins and floppy ears. They looked like rejects from an audition for Lady Chatterley's Lover.
This time last year they were all rich men, on paper. Now they were travellers, and not one of them had a bank account. You can't when you're bankrupt. Still, as Tom once said, who would accept travellers' cheques anyway? 'Hey - do you hear what I hear?' asked one. They all listened.
'My God, you're right,' said Tom. 'It's the police] We're going to be moved on again.'
Ten minutes later the convoy was groaning into movement and the police inspector was thanking Tom for his co-operation.
'We don't like having to move you on, sir,' he said, quelling the urge to salute this once-rising Cabinet minister. 'But we've had orders to make this new law bite . . .'
'New law?' said Tom. 'What new law?'
'Crack down on wayfarers and travelling folk, sir. Like yourself, sir. Protect the property of land- owning folk, sir.'
Tom's memory stirred. My God, this was one of the last laws he had helped to vote through Parliament before he had been thrown out. Got to protect people's land, can't have beggars squatting all over it. Rally round the title deeds, boys. How pleased the Tory party had been to crack down on the riff-raff. And now here he was, one of the riff-raff. Along with a dozen ex- Tory MPs, all gone crash in Lloyd's.
My God, thought Tom, if the ex- Tory MPs in this convoy alone had known then what they knew now and had voted against the Bill, it would never have become law. What rich irony]
(Another extract from this moving saga tomorrow.)Reuse content