Wednesday, 5 May 2010
In the long summer of 1996 - the summer in which they both turned 21 - two young women travelled all over the length and breadth of the U.K. with nothing but two back-packs, a guitar and a couple of sleeping bags. They hitch-hiked from place to place, going to almost every major festival that they could manage to sneak into unticketed. Scrambling over and under fences beneath the cover of darkness, those sleeping in nearby tents might have heard them giggling as one would try vainly again and again using a wild under arm swing to throw the back-packs over the fence for the one on the other side to catch. They bathed in the reddish tinged quagmire of Glastonbury, only to wash themselves gratefully clean under the solar powered showers of the Green Gathering, and between different festivals they visited various friends flung far and wide by their own travels and adventures. Lounging on pebbly Brighton beaches, walking for miles under cloudless Cornish skies, and dancing all night to repetitive beats in a wet and lushly verdant Welsh wood, they told each other that the one and only rule that would exist that summer was that they would never stay anywhere for more than three days. They were free as birds, focused on their own flight, propelled happily along by the summers breeze - getting stuck anywhere was never going to be an option.
Many hours - even sometimes days - were spent hitching up and down the countries motorways and major roads to get to this place or that. They had a map; they would plan their route and set off, usually in the morning. The travelling itself was always as much a part of the experience as the getting there, they rarely had to wait long for a lift, and when they did - usually because the motorway had long been left behind and they were drawing close along B roads to their destination - K (who was the eldest of the two by a couple of months) would get out her guitar and sing. The other - M - would sing along and act the fool, and forget half the time to even stick out her thumb when a vehicle went past. They were blessed with that invincibility of youth, which for them translated into a perfect confidence that the right lift would always come along at just the right time. And so with that they were perfectly happy to be just where they were, singing and laughing and sitting on their back-packs, sharing some bits of food by the side of the road.
One late afternoon they had been waiting a rare couple of hours on a grassy verge next to a small rural road somewhere in the South West of England. It was bright, leafy and warm and they were stretched out lazily on the grass enjoying the sunshine. M spotted a white transit van shimmering in the distance and the heat, and so grinning, jumped up and stuck her thumb out as it drove towards them. It gradually slowed and began to pull over, the driver - a small man with glasses and grey hair - winding down the passenger window as he came to a stop.
"I can drop you off 20 miles further down"
M could only just make out what he was saying. His voice had a strange buzzing quality (nasal was how she would later describe it) which made her think briefly of fly paper. She turned questioningly to K who shrugged and began to throw their back-packs into the back. They climbed into the front passenger seat, M first next to the driver and then K on her other side by the window. It did not take M long to realise that any attempt to exchange pleasantries was going to be futile and so after a while she fell quiet and looked instead out of the window at the canopy of trees that formed a green shadowy arch over the road. K was turned slightly away from her on her side, her breathing deep and even. M presumed she had fallen asleep.
They had been driving in silence for about fifteen minutes, when the driver suddenly said apropos of nothing, and with a pronunciation that was as clear as a bell:
"If I give you ten pounds will you watch me play with myself?"
Perhaps she had not heard correctly. M shook her head slightly. But once again, his voice as sharply clear as glass, the driver repeated his request. M thought quickly. She felt no real fear - after all there were two of them and the man seemed more pathetic than predatory - but still decided none the less that the situation probably called for a degree of assertiveness. She looked at him straight in the face and said calmly but sternly:
"No. Now I think you had better pull over. We're getting out now."
Which might have been fine were it not for the fact that there was nowhere for the driver to pull over. There was no choice but to plough on, with him visibly squirming in his seat and casting around desperately for a place to stop. M sat tall and stared stonily straight ahead. Gradually though she became aware that beside her, K was shaking. It seemed almost as though she were vibrating. Alarmed, M turned to look at her and the reason became immediately apparent.
K was slumped in her seat with her hand clamped over her mouth, her whole body convulsing with silent, suppressed laughter. Unable to get a grip on herself, her mirth proved highly contagious. M at once let out an involuntary snort which only served to tip K finally and fully over the edge. She let escape a strangled howl and that was that. Both girls were completely and utterly helpless with the sort of hysterical, unrestrained laughter that always has a tiny percentage of your brain wondering 'when was the last time I laughed like this?' Still the poor driver could not stop, and M and K clutched at eachother - the tears rolling down their cheeks - any attempt to stifle their hilarity simply resulting in fresh further fits of delirious giggling.
When they finally came to a lay-by, K opened the passenger door of the van and the two girls literally fell out of it, tumbling over each other onto the grass verge and laughing so hard that it was all they could do to collect their belongings out of the back. As soon as M had slammed the door shut the white transit van sped off like a demon, leaving them once again at the side of the road; fresh peals of their laughter ringing out into the air as the late afternoon began to slide into evening.
This is a post about how shared experiences can help create and nurture strong bonds. M is me you see. And K and I are still friends. She travelled the world before settling in Australia to train as a midwife. Right now she is cycling some 1860km with some other women before coming back to Britain for the summer. I gave birth to my first son just two years after that little escapade. I only ever see K once every few years now, but she is still a very special person in my life and I know that the feeling's mutual. The memory of that day can still reduce us to helpless tears of laughter. I can't wait to see her soon.