The Road To Wredenhagen: Part Three
It’s exactly one week since the blowout on the road to Prague which resulted in my car being towed off into the hinterland never to be seen again. After a painfully long journey involving a taxi, a bus and three different trains Ryan and I made it back to Maastricht. The journey had been hell, involving a great deal of sweating up and down station platforms with various guitars, amplifiers, boxes of records… By the time we had carted all of our shit onto the third train of the day I was feeling utterly defeated. At one point a severe-faced train guard had actually shouted “schnell, schnell!! at me like a bit-part player in a war movie.
The week off in Maastricht had started badly when I broke a tooth on a crusty chunk of baguette. That, I’d decided, was the last straw. Fuck the band and fuck the tour! I’m going home! But somehow I’d been persuaded to stay and in the following days I’d met a young lady named Jacqueline who took me under her wing and showed me the sights of Maastricht, some of which were strictly by invitation only.
I’m thinking about Jacqueline when I hear a knock on the wooden frame where the door would be if there was one.
“Go away,” I groan.
Ryan’s face peers in at me wearing sunglasses and an irritating grin. “Ready?” he says.
“No,” I snap. “Do I look ready?”
“Well. Better hurry,” he says. “Richard’s chomping at the bit for us to leave.”
Richard. The name of our annoying and--to be brutally honest--conniving booking agent makes my stomach churn. I told him that I didn’t want to do this, I grumble to myself as I pull on a cleanish pair of jeans, a less than cleanish t-shirt and a frankly revolting pair of socks that should have been discarded weeks ago. I shuffle to the bathroom, slam the door deliberately loudly and violently brush my teeth. I try to avoid looking at my reflection as I know it will only bring on a bout of anxiety. So I close my eyes as I straighten up and fumble for a towel. Then, satisfied I’m as ready as I’ll ever be I return to the kitchen where Ryan and Richard now both sit on one side of the narrow table, drinking beers. I pull up a chair in silence and sit opposite them, feeling like I’m about to be interviewed for a shitty job that I don’t even want.
“Well,” Richard says. “You probably should think about leaving soon. It’s a seven hour drive to Schoenefeld Airport and you never know what traffic will be like.”
“Mmm,” I grunt. “Any chance of a coffee before we leave?”
“Yes but there’s only instant,” Richard says curtly.
I make myself a mug of hot but watery coffee, scooping three heaped spoonfuls of sugar in to make it vaguely palatable. I swill down the depressing coffee, push my chair back and sigh “Ok, let’s go.”
Outside, once the last of the band gear and bags and records and t-shirts is packed into the trunk or thrown carelessly onto the back seat of the little blue Renault Clio, I climb behind the wheel still in disbelief that this is actually happening. Richard leans in through the window and hands me the keys.
“It’s all pretty straightforward,” he says perfunctorily. “Lights are here.” He flicks a switch on the dashboard. “Wipers are here.” He waggles the control arm. “Radio, pretty obvious,” he says with a yawn.
“Ok, ok,” I respond impatiently, “I’ve got it.”
Richard smiles wryly and says “Just be careful with my car eh? No accidents.”
“Don’t worry man,” Ryan says cooly then adds with a grin “What could go wrong?”
Richard gives the roof of the Clio a gentle pat and says “Safe journey. Enjoy the show. It’s gonna be great.”
I manage half a smile as I turn the ignition key and hear the comforting sound of a healthy engine begin to purr gently. I put the car into gear and reverse carefully onto the street. I glance in the rear view mirror as we pull away and see Richard still standing waving--a little wistfully perhaps--and then we turn a corner and he disappears.
By the time we’re approaching Cologne a few hours later—close to the location of our earlier disaster—the traffic has become heavy and our progress slows to a crawl. The sun is out now and the temperature inside the car threatens to reach hothouse level. To my intense relief though I realize the car has AC and punch it on jubilantly. But we continue to creep along and within an hour are at a virtual standstill. I’m beginning to fret now. It’s not yet noon but at this rate we won’t get to Wredenhagen until midnight. And we have to pick up Mark Browning, the band’s singer, from Schoenefeld first. Stay calm, I tell myself. No point fretting. But I do anyway.
It’s a little after 930pm when we finally pull up at Schoenefeld and I spot Mark sitting on a grass verge in oversized sunglasses. His already bushy beard appears to have grown an extra inch in the week since I last saw him. He has also developed an irritatingly healthy glow, I notice, from basking in the sun in Barcelona while we’ve been holed up in overcast Maastricht, biding our time, drinking expensive beer and bad coffee, breaking teeth. He grins wickedly when he sees us and gets to his feet, hoisting his small backpack onto his shoulder.
“Man, I thought you guys were never gonna get here,” he says and then stops in his tracks. “Whose car is this??”
Ryan gives a hollow laugh. “Just get in and we’ll tell you on the way.”
It’s another hour and a half’s drive to Wredenhagen and, once we’ve filled Mark in on the misadventures with the Audi, I feel myself starting to flag. Mark, who has chortled annoyingly through the entire story notices and says “Want me to drive for a bit?”
“Can’t,” I say tersely. “I’m the only one on the insurance.”
“Really? Why’s that?” Mark says a little doubtfully.
“You tell me,” I snort. “Richard said it was something to do with you guys being Canadian and me being a European.”
I continue to drive for another couple of miles but it’s getting harder and harder to stay focused. My eyes close for a moment before I immediately jerk awake again in a panic.
“It’s no good,” I say breathlessly. “I’m gonna have to pull over.”
We’ve been cruising on a quiet stretch of road for the last half hour--in fact we haven’t passed another vehicle in a long time--so, without even bothering to signal, I coast onto the verge and turn off the engine.
“Just need a few minutes rest,” I mumble.
“Come on man,” Mark begs, “let me drive. There’s nobody around.”
I know I should refuse but I’m so tired that I don’t want to.
“Ok,” I relent. “But be careful. Please.”
I open the door and step gingerly out of the car, breathing deep lungfuls of the cold night air.
“Trust me,” Mark says with a grin, as he adjusts the driver’s seat for his shorter legs and buckles himself in.
I clamber into the back of the car and stretch out on the surprisingly comfortable seat as Mark starts up the engine. I feel my body instantly relaxing, free of the burden of driving after the tortuously long journey in the baking sun and the slow-moving traffic and Ryan’s snoring and the still-fresh memory of the preposterous events of the previous week. I allow myself the luxury of a little chuckle about it as I put my head back against the soft bag of band t-shirts and close my eyes.
“Hooolyyyyy shiiiiit!!!!” The car tires shriek angrily as Mark smashes the brake pedal into the floor and we shudder to a barely controlled stop. I am immediately wide awake and grasping at the headrest.
“What’s going on??” I ask breathlessly.
Mark’s white-knuckled fingers clench the steering wheel in a death grip. His shoulders push tight into his jawbone. “What the hell was that!?” he gasps.
Ryan measuredly removes a packet of tobacco from his pocket and slowly and deliberately rolls himself a cigarette. “Whatever it was,” he says casually, “it was big.”
I peer out through the windshield, heart thumping, straining my eyes as I search the road for whatever it was we just hit. But there’s nothing to see. The right headlight of the car shines out into the darkness, illuminating nothing but the light mist that has descended and now hangs over the stretch of empty highway ahead of us. The left headlight, it seems, is dead. The road is now totally silent, totally still. And then--somewhere on the edge of my perception--I think I see a dark porcine shadow vanishing into the blackness of the forest. I bury my face in my hands. “Oh God,” I moan. “I knew this was a bad idea.”
Mark starts cackling like a lunatic and turns to fix me with a demented gleam in his eye. He’s loving this! I say to myself. He bounds out of the car and examines the hood carefully, lit up by the one functioning headlight. He comes back to the open driver’s door and leans in. “Left headlight’s blown but other than that everything looks fine.”
I climb out and take a look for myself. There are shards of glass on the ground and traces of blood on the cracked pieces that remain wedged into the headlight socket. The bulb has been obliterated. I shake my head, roll my eyes and say with a nervous laugh “What was that thing?! It was as big as a sofa!”
“A boar I think,” Ryan says calmly, as he leans against the hood blowing out a cloud of fresh smoke. “Lucky we only clipped it or…” he trails off. Yes, I think, had we hit it a second or two earlier… God. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
After a moment of respectful silence in which we do our best to catch our breath, we mutually agree it’s time to move on. I resume the driver’s position now. I figure that we can at least pretend that I was driving when the incident occurred. Even if just to ourselves.
It must be all of two miles to Wredenhagen now. We drive for a few minutes while Mark looks at the directions he’s printed out from Richard’s email. “Man, it’s hard to get a good grasp on where we are exactly,” he says a little perturbed, “I think it might be this turn ahead.” I follow Mark’s instructions but it’s impossible to tell whether we’ve come the right way or not as there is nothing but darkness around us. Darkness and trees. Then, all of a sudden, the trees clear and we arrive at a small war monument and a couple of stark brick houses. It’s coming up on midnight now and there are no lights on in either building so we pull over to get a better look at the map. We know we’re close but, as it’s so late, we don’t want to go knocking on the wrong door and risk an angry exchange with an irate villager.
As we sit and pore over the not very good directions I become aware of a rumble in the distance that starts quietly but rapidly rises in volume. A moment later the glare of half a dozen headlights dazzles us and we’re suddenly surrounded by a gang on mopeds, revving their engines and spinning their wheels in the dirt which throws up a cloud of grey dust. It’s only a small gang, and they’re probably just bored teenagers, but their presence is sufficiently menacing to make me break out in a light sweat. There are six of them and only three of us, I reason, and although we are locked inside the safety of the car, I don’t fancy our chances.
“They’re just trying to intimidate us,” Mark says, feigning indifference though his voice is a semitone higher than normal.
“Yeah?” I say slowly, “well, it’s working.” I watch them closely, wondering if they’ll soon tire of playing with us and vanish back into the darkness where they came from. Or maybe there’s worse to come--maybe far worse. Maybe we'll end up dead in a field somewhere, daubed in our own blood with crosses carved into our foreheads! “How much further to the venue?” I ask anxiously.
Mark is still studying the map while keeping one eye on the gang of bikers. His expression is blank which worries me further. “I’m pretty sure it’s just round the corner,” he says, though his reply is more question than answer.
This isn’t what I signed up for, I say to myself. I was just supposed to be the bass player.
And then suddenly the gang disperses and they are gone. I let out a long breath and loosen my grip on the steering wheel. “Thank God for that,” I breathe. “Let’s go.”
I pull back out onto the dark road, hoping we’re going the right way, hoping there is nothing worse lurking around the corner waiting to jump out at us. Because after everything we have been through to get here; the breakdown, the terrible night in the car, the police shakedown, the backbreaking train journey, the long week of waiting, the terrible traffic, the wild boar… hope is all I have left and I know that somewhere nearby--maybe even just around the next corner--there’s a welcome light shining in the darkness for us.