It’s summer 2006 and I’m about to set off on tour with a Canadian band named Controller.Controller. They’re a five piece from Ontario and I like them immensely.
I meet the band at Heathrow airport and we all pile into the decommissioned red post office van I have recently bought. About five miles outside Heathrow the van starts to make strange noises but, as it has recently been serviced and deemed perfectly roadworthy, I don’t pay much attention to it. An hour later we pull up at at my mum’s house in New Marston, Oxford to pick up some amps, drums and other stuff. Once the van is loaded with the band’s gear, their manager and me, we set off for Bristol.
Fifteen minutes later the van suddenly and unexpectedly grinds to a shuddering halt outside an NHS clinic in East Oxford. I frown and turn the key to restart the engine. Nothing happens. I turn to the band and smile awkwardly, feeling a light perspiration breaking across my brow. I try the ignition again. No response from the engine.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” I lie. I know it’s definitely something.
Colwyn the rockabilly-bequiffed guitarist looks out of the window, squinting.
“Y’know, I’m pretty sure this is the exact same spot we broke down on our last tour.”
I look at him suspiciously.
“What do you mean?”
“Oh, this happens to us all the time,” laughs Nirmala, the band’s singer. “We’re always breaking down somewhere.”
“Well, I’ll just give the AA a call. I’m sure they’ll have us back on the road in no time."
The band laughs, remaining surprisingly good-humoured.
Half an hour later a mechanic from the AA arrives, pops open the hood and gives the engine the once over.
“So,” I say hopefully, “how long do you think it’s going to take to fix?”
“Sorry mate,” he says with a sympathetic smile. “Yer big end’s gone.”
I look at him blankly.
“Where’s it gone?”
“I mean it’s finished,” he says. “The engine’s buggered.”
“Sorry mate,” he says again. “You need a new engine and, to be perfectly honest, it’s not really worth your while. It’ll cost more than a new van.”
I turn and give the band an embarrassed smile. Not one of them seems even remotely fazed which further endears them to me.
I watch in mournful silence as the mechanic winches my van onto the back of his truck. This seems to be turning into an annual event.
We drive back to my mum’s where the tow truck deposits the van onto the road like a dinosaur squeezing out an enormous red turd which is what it may as well be now. It will soon be taken to its final resting place, a scrapyard somewhere near Bicester, where it will be cruelly crushed into a tiny cube, much like my spirit at this particular moment. I wipe a tear from my eye at the thought.
There is no time for grieving right now though. I frantically search my memory bank for someone, anyone, I can ask for help and after a couple of frantic phone calls I'm directed to Tarrant Anderson who runs something called Vans For Bands.
“Hmmm… I don’t really have anything appropriate right now,” he says apologetically.
“Please,” I squeak, my voice breaking in desperation. “You’ve got to help me. My life depends on it!”
“Let me call you back,” Tarrant says and hangs up.
I notice a few curtains twitching as the band begin hauling amplifiers, guitars, drums and suitcases out of the back of the post office van onto the pavement on a quiet Saturday afternoon in Suburbia. The stick-thin lead guitar player in the band is dressed in a heavy black fur coat and a Russian fur hat with a feather poking out of it. I’m pretty sure that nobody in Crotch Crescent has seen anyone like him before.
Suddenly my phone rings. It’s Tarrant.
“Ok, I’ve got something for you. It’s pretty knackered but it should get you to Bristol. You’ll have to bring it back tomorrow though.”
“Fantastic!!” I shout wildly. “How can I repay you?”
“Well, wait until you see it first,” he says warily. “I’ll be over in a bit.”
I’m hugely relieved. There’s still the issue of the rest of the tour to take care of but at least we’ll make it to Bristol. I break the good news to the band who are still in excellent spirits which is a huge credit to them and the sign of a well-seasoned and highly professional outfit. We all troop into my mum’s house to wait for the new van. My mum’s used to me bringing scruffy musicians round--though I don’t even live in Oxford any more--so she isn’t remotely bothered by our unexpected return.
“I’ll put the kettle on,” she says. This is standard procedure by now.
A little later, as we sit eating our fourth packet of custard creams, I hear mum exclaim from somewhere upstairs. It’s the kind of sound normally reserved for the discovery of a dead mouse on the landing carpet. I rush to the front window and look out. I’m shocked when I see a hideous dirty white van adorned with the words “Oxford Granites and Memorials” in bold, gothic lettering, pulling up outside. I hurry to greet Tarrant.
“Now, the first thing you need to know is that the ignition doesn’t work,” he begins, before I have a chance to say anything other than “hello.”
“Oh. How am I supposed to start it then?”
“It’s very simple,” he says and from experience I know that this means it will be incredibly complicated.
“You just need to turn the ignition key,” he begins “while someone else” and at this point he leads me to the hood and forces it open with some difficulty “using something metal, a screwdriver would be the best thing, touches the spark plug at the same time.”
I stare at the engine apprehensively.
“Now. It’s really important that you don’t leave it in gear when you do this,” he says. “If you do the van will lurch forward and it’ll break your fucking legs.”
“Break your fucking legs,” I repeat under my breath. “Right, got it.”
“Next thing,” he says, leading me to the passenger side and pulling open a sliding door to reveal an eclectic collection of seats, ranging from a fold-up garden chair to a double seat that may possibly have come from a 1970s aircraft, “the seats aren’t actually fixed down. So you’ll have to take any corners very slowly.”
A strange floating sensation begins to come over me.
“And try not to go up any hills if you can,” Tarrant says. “It’s not very good on hills.”
“Ok,” I say quietly. “We’re going to Bristol.”
“Good,” he says, sounding reassured by this for some reason. “Now, let’s get her started up, just so I know you’re ok with everything. Got a screwdriver?”
I slow-motion pat down my pockets, then, coming back to earth, I hurry to my mum’s shed.
Mum appears from the house in a minor flap.
“You’re not going off in that thing are you!?”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine.”
“It doesn’t look fine,” she snorts. “What are you doing in the shed?”
“Just looking for a screwdriver."
“A screwdriver? What do you need a screwdriver for?”
“Nothing important.” I grab a small handful of different sized screwdrivers and hurry back to the van.
“Right,” says Tarrant turning to Colwyn. “You turn the key, I’ll do the screwdriver. You” he says to me “Watch.”
“Ok, go,” he shouts. I hear the ignition clicking. Tarrant touches the head of the screwdriver onto the spark plug. There is an almighty flash and the smell of hot metal and the engine lurches to life.
“See,” says Tarrant confidently. “It’s very straightforward.”
I furrow my brow and try to remember a time when I’ve had to do anything less straightforward.
“The van needs to be back tomorrow evening at the latest,” Tarrant says. “They’ve got to make a delivery to the crematorium on Monday morning.”
“Ok,” I reply. “I’m sure it will all be fine.” This is rapidly becoming my self-deluded mantra for every ridiculous situation I find myself in.
Part Two coming next week!
Photos courtesy of Controller.Controller