written by: Tim Goldstone
Childhood: the middle of a long Summer, early Saturday evening, Birmingham, England.
A grey haze in the distance indicates the city centre, yet the skies over the simmering estates of the outskirts are clear; outskirts splayed out under the still-baking day-long sun as though we’re in a short documentary film, as growing up between pavement slabs listless grass scraps are drying to bleached blond along with gaudy weeds occasionally stirred by warm-air breezes. A tinny-sounding transistor radio balanced on a wall is turned up to a distorting full volume for Double Barrel – the song played at fairs that year where its beat mingles with exaggerated screams and shrieks and cheers, while the smells of white diesel from chugging generators and rapidly fried onions stick to clothes and hair and skin for days. It was good business to sell the children from the estates spoonfuls of onions dripping with hot oil wrapped in newspaper for just a couple of pennies, and afterwards the grease-soaked paper worked thrillingly as a fire-lighter. A few heroic dogs, braving chases and kicks, would scurry through the fair lapping up vomit and spilt food.
But look – back to the estates: here it comes now – known as “The Pop Lorry” and following the same route the ice cream van had before being stripped of its Grampian Horn loudspeakers and set on fire in a place where police don’t get out of their vehicles. See how the pop lorry has one of its tarpaulin sides rolled up, and instead of jangling tunes it has idling engine fumes, sickly sweet and cloying from a shuddering exhaust. On board are all the bottles of sun-warmed fizzy flavours children could want, including one per cent shandy that we pretend gets us drunk so we can imitate the uninhibited behaviour of intoxicated adults – staggering is a favourite.
The pop lorry comes with a swaggering driver – late teens, sunglasses, the tip of his tongue purple, and a leather pouch hanging off his shoulder in which he deposits our sticky coins, mainly copper but every now and then a sixpence, handed to him on sweaty glistening palms displaying a full day’s adventures-worth of cuts, grazes, bruises, ingrained dirt; while grubby fingers absentmindedly rub bare arms irritated by nettles, brambles, insect stings. Sometimes an older sister will hang around within viewing range of the driver as a distraction, so embarrassing shortfalls in siblings’ change might go unnoticed; or even detected but ignored if she meets the driver’s eye in a certain way. After each patient transaction – the driver waits for every straggler – he licks his indelible pencil and writes slowly in purple in his scruffy notebook. Then, when our pop money has all run out, abruptly, as though ‘The End’ has appeared on a screen, with a skilled, well-practised bounce and turn he swings expertly back up behind the big steering wheel and vanishes down the sun-faded tarmac road, leaving nothing behind but a shimmering disturbance in the hot air.