“… whatever objections I could devise against the trains, they were nothing compare to the horrors of air travel in China. I had a small dose of it when I left Urumqi for Lanzhou – there was no point in retracing my steps on the Iron Rooster. I was told to be at the airport three hours early – that is, at 7 o’clock in the morning; and the plane left five hours late, at three in the afternoon. It was an old Russian jet and it’s metal covering was wrinkled and cracked like the tinfoil in a used cigarette pack. The seats were jammed so closely together my knees hurt and the circulation was cut off to my feet. Every seat was taken and every person was heavily laden with carry-on baggage – big, skull cracking bags that fell out of the overhead rack. Even before the plane took off people were softly and soupily vomiting, with their heads down and their hands folded in the solemn and prayerful way that the Chinese habitually puke. After two hours we were each given an envelope that contained three caramel candies, some gum and three sticky boiled sweets; a piece of cellophane almost concealed a black strand of dried beef that looked like oakum and tasted like decayed rope; and (because the Chinese can be optimistic) a toothpick. Two hours later a girl wearing an old mailman’s uniform went around with a tray. Thinking it might be better food, I snatched one of the little parcels – it was a keyring. The plane was very hot then so cold I could see my breath. It creaked like a schooner under sail. An announcement was made, in a gargling sort of way, that we would shortly be landing. At this point everyone except the pukers stood up and began yanking the bundles out of the racks; they remained standing, pushing, tottering and vaguely complaining – deaf to the demands that they sit down and strap themselves in – as the plane bounced, did wheelies on the runway and limped into the Lanzhou terminal. Never again.” Theroux’s adventures continue.
DEVON AFTER DARK. Today was another baking hot day. I rang Linda at 7:30 am for a chat before we got to work.
Tonight, I stood out in the field behind our camp and watched the darkening patchwork around me. The rolling green hills had all merged into one: only their vague outlines visible against the backdrop of lights shining out from Torquay. Here and there, wispy patches of mist clung to the floor of the valleys and the lights of farm houses were scattered about. The last quarter moon, an angry, sullen red, stretched up to clear the haze on the horizon in the east, eager to pour it’s silver tears on the land and light the way of the night creatures. The air was good…
I accompanied Paul Theroux aboard train number 104 to Xian by candle light before going to sleep.
We slaved on the fence beneath the blazing sun and still air, which made it even hotter. In the evening we went down to the pub at Harpenden Ford called the Maltster’s Arms for a few beers. By then the heat was long gone but riding down on the back of the truck was pleasantly cool and the air was wonderful fresh and clean but for the smells of earth, damp grass and the woods.
Spent all day fencing in bright sunshine but a cool breeze kept the heat down to a pleasant level. About 5:30, Mark‘s girlfriend Bronwyn arrived with some money from Duncan for us, and a gas-operated fridge.
After we had all knocked off the five of us squashed into Bronwyn’s Honda Accord and drove down to Totnes. We wanted to go to the local baths for a swim but they were closed so instead we brazenly drove into a caravan park and used the showers there.
The rest of the evening was spent in a pub but I didn’t feel like drinking too much and kept a constant eye on the time waiting for 10:30 to roll around when I could ring Linda. I rang her from a phone box in the Market Square and shivered with cold as we talked.
We spent all day hard at it on the fence lines and after 1 1/2 days we have put up about 400m. It gets dark at about 7:45 and the nights are cold.
I am reading the book Riding the Iron Rooster by Paul Theroux and it is a well-written and wry commentary on life in China as seen by Theroux while travelling throughout China by train. I will quote from the book several times over the next few days.
“I began to think that long after the computers had exploded, and the satellites had burned out, and all the jumbo jets had crashed and we had awakened from the high-tech dream, the Chinese will be chugging along in the choo-choo trains, and ploughing the ancient terraces, and living contentedly in caves, and dunking quill pens in bottles of ink and writing their history.”
FIRST DAY ON THE JOB. We got up at 7:30 and had a cup of tea then went out and got to work. Tim and I augered out strainer holes then Shane and I went to strip an old fence. After lunch we got started on the fencing itself. Shane and Tim were driving posts with a post driver and Mark and I went along doing strainers, laying out gear and putting up the netting. Once we get a good system going we should be able to do a fair bit per day.
At 11PM I walked down to the owner’s old (200 years old) farmhouse which has been completely rebuilt and rang Linda. I couldn’t get any reply at Ann’s so I got onto Directory Services and got the number of The Dove where Linda was still at work. We yarned on for about 10 minutes and she told me that Ann had arranged for her to move into a flat at Duchess Newcastle’s house. I had to tell her that it could be awhile before I could get up to see her again. She was disappointed but understood how hard it will be for me to get out of here.
It was midnight under a shimmering full moon before I got back up to our camp where a stiff breeze was running across the hilltop, gently rocking the caravans.
GOODBYE AGAIN. We got up at eight and I rang Matt to check that the boys are on their way. After breakfast Ann turned up and sorted out some warm shirts and a woolly coat for me. Linda and I went up to the back garden for a while and talked and cuddled, preparing ourselves for parting once again. Both of us admitted it wouldn’t be so hard this time as we know what is ahead of us for the next few weeks.
Linda came with Ann when she dropped me off at Wylye where I had arranged to meet the boys and we said our last farewells on the side of the road. I am now sitting beside the A303 waiting…
I waited beside that road for six hours and I had given up on being picked up and was glad of it. While I was waiting I had plenty of time to reflect on going away and when it came on to rain it decided me: I would get down off the road into the shelter of some trees and wait till four then start walking home. Then, dammit, Duncan turned up. I crouched under the trees and hurriedly tried to decide whether to stay in hiding or go with them. I decided to go.
Three hours later we arrived at the farm in Devon not far from Totnes where we will be working. It was cold and drizzling, the leaden mist clinging to the hedgerows and hills, and swirling whiteley around the two caravans which will be our home for the next few weeks.
We unpacked then went down to the local pub in the tiny village (hamlet would be a better word) for a few beers. We stayed until 10:30 then went back to the camp where I had a surprisingly good night sleep considering I miss Linda deeply after only 12 hours.
BACK TO CORTON. We spent all morning fucking around but I managed to at least get a straight answer out of Duncan that I would be going down to Devon fencing. Duncan and I went over to a nearby farm to measure up a proposed fence line and when we got back at around 2:30 I told him I was going to go and see Linda and the boys would be able to pick me up on the way down to Devon tomorrow.
Mark gave me a ride out to the road and I walked for an hour before a bloke in an empty bus gave me a lift out to the road to Cirencester. After about 20 minutes I got a lift with three larger layouts in a small car which travelled 80 to 100 mph all the way to Portsmith turn off. I was fucking glad to get out of that car!
The next ride which I only had to wait about 10 minutes for took me to Southampton where I got on the train to Salisbury without a ticket. No one asked me for a ticket however so that ride was free, and I rang Linda from the station to tell her I was on my way.
An hour later I was walking across the fields behind Corton feeling very pleased with myself and glad I had made the journey. Linda was working so I had plenty of time to have tea and then a bath and to rearrange my gear which I had hurriedly stuffed into my pack at the farm.
When Linda turned up at 11 pm we sat by the fire talking for ages about our jobs and how it felt so bad to be apart. When we went to bed we zipped both sleeping bags together so we could sleep close together on the floor.
A NEW DECADE It is now 6:15 in the evening and I have been away from Linda for only 14 hours yet it feels like much longer. The last I saw of her was her sad and lonely face looking out of the National Express bus as it sped away from Victoria Coach Station taking her back to Corton and certain uncertainty of a new job.
We came to London town on Saturday morning by bus from Frome which landed us in the city at 11AM. We caught the Circle Line round to Earls Court and booked into the Hunters Lodge Hotel, the same hotel we stayed in when we arrived, tired and broke, back from Africa last year. From the hotel we caught the Underground over to Lambeth making a detour to the St Thomas’s nurses hostel to look for my Visa card which I discovered I had lost on Linda’s birthday. It wasn’t there so I must’ve lost it on the street or perhaps (hopefully) it was thrown out by mistake with our rubbish. Anyway I cancelled it on Friday night and rang Joe to tell him to arrange a new one for me.
At the Red Lion we picked up our tickets for the Fleetwood Mac concert and had a quick drink then made our way over to Baker Street where we caught the metropolitan line out to Wembley. The open air concert, which started at 3 pm, was brilliant. The first act was the Liverpool band River City People then the hateful Daryl Hall and John Oates played for an hour. Jethro Tull then came on for an hour and a half and they were amazing. They played a few new songs and a lot of the old stuff, Ian Anderson prancing and leaping like a crazed demon and standing on one leg as he grunted and screeched into his flute.
Then at 8:30 Fleetwood Mac roared into life for a 2 1/2 hour show with three encores and they were brilliant. When the concert finished we caught a free bus back into the city and caught the tube back to Earls Court.
Linda cried softly against me when we woke up yesterday morning, the prospect of us splitting up and her starting a new job without me scaring her a little. After we checked out of the hotel we went over to Marble Arch where we saw the brilliant movie Diehard 2: Die Harder, then went over to the Red Line for a last drink with Jenny and Louie who are off to Africa soon.
Then we walked hand-in-hand over to Westminster Station and caught the train round to Victoria. We kept our goodbyes to a minimum and Linda got on the bus. I waited at the corner and waved to her all the way up the street until the bed the bus sped off taking my love away.
Later I caught the 8PM train to Pulborough and when it arrived I got a taxi out to the farm. Today we have mucked around various jobs and I haven’t been happy at all. Soon I will ring Linda to find out how her first day went and how she is…
I had to go with Duncan’s wife Claire to pick up a horse at 9:45 pm so I rang Linda for a quick chat and told her I’d ring back later. We had to go almost to Bognor Regis to pick up the horse and it was almost 11:30 when we got back. I rang Linda again and we talked for half an hour. She wasn’t very happy about her new job or being alone and nor was I but we both felt better having talked to each other.