I dream of a female friend with cancer, who shrinks and shrivels to a few centimetres wide. I pick her up and carry her around, weightless. It takes over a week to realise this is a dream about Dad.
Secretly, I shorten my plan further: just use the Iranian visa already in my passport, then head back overland to Dad. I could be two months, three max.
15th October, 2011
It’s 6:30pm and growing dark rapidly by the time I leave Brighton with “M25 East” scribbled on a piece of white cardboard. Still, Pawel has stopped before I’ve even reached my hitchhiking spot. He’s from Czech Republic and has hitched a lot himself, but he’s pretty impressed when I tell him I’m on my way to Iran. He takes me past his turning and drops me on a big lay-by on the A23. It’s now pitch black other than a barrage of white headlights rushing toward and past me. I try to adjust my facial expression from pure fear into happy hitchhiker.
Two lifts later I’m with a family. She used to hitch around Devon a lot; he’s travelled North Africa. We’re miles out of their way, but they insist on taking me all the way to Clacket Lane Services, where I arrive two hours early.
Finally, Lisa appears, grinning, wearing that silk scarf the woman gave her in Izmir what seems like aeons ago. She’s hitched down from Occupy London, just beginning today. “Why are we leaving now? It’s just starting to get interesting here!” she says as we march to the petrol station across the forecourt. Two huge trucks with IR number-plates grind to a halt in front of us: our lift has arrived. The rear truck’s door swings open and a man climbs down to hug Lisa. This is Peter, and this is the fourth time he’s taken Lisa over the Channel. Peter’s friend is John, another Irish trucker. The guys banter as they boil a kettle and make us tea. We get talked through an Irish sitcom – “Dya see that ther’? Thaht’s just exahctly what it’s loike in Ireland!” – while waiting to board the train.
At the Tunnel the little bus comes to collect us from the big train where we parked the trucks to the much smaller passenger carriage at the front. There are precisely three women on the train, including Lisa and myself.
Now in France, our eyes are drooping. Lisa and I climb up to the bed above the window and try to catch naps in the pauses between jolts and the radio banter between Peter and John.
We wake up in Belgium. We drink nuclear coffee from plastic cups in a service station disguised as a spaceship, mostly empty. Our heads nod involuntarily to 80s synth’ pop. Everything is surreal at 5am.
The sun lifts lazily from the horizon, perhaps as tired as me. Still nobody going our way. We have befriended an unlucky Bulgarian with a broken-down car. He’s been here all night too. We help push his car, but the ignition just won’t catch. It’s Sunday, everything’s closed and he’s skint. The woman working the counter is lovely. She traipses the aisles looking for out-of-date food to give us and calls her mechanic friend to help the Bulgarian. He’s having a bad week. He tells me he moved to Hannover in search of work, but like everywhere these days, there’s none to be found. He met a man who said he was also from Bulgaria and persuaded him to do a job: take four men over the Channel into England – only they weren’t really from Bulgaria, but Albania. Their ID was faked. He was charged with trafficking and spent twenty-four hours in jail. Eventually they released him, but without payment for the job he can’t afford to get home.
The cashier woman’s friend gets the car started and now the Bulgarian just needs petrol money. Our choice is this: leave him here, donate some money, or go with him to Hannover and loan the cash until we get there, when his friend can pay us back.
It’s early afternoon when we reach Hannover. We wait a long time for the friend, but finally a cheeky young chap with an East-European swagger arrives and climbs in the front of the car – his car, actually. He hands me two €20 notes as he gets in: my loan repaid. We drive to meet more men with similar swaggers. One with a green-black tear-drop tattoo under his left eye smiles at us. “Zdrastei!” I tell them: my only Bulgarian – unless you count political slogans. They buy us coffee in a bar. “The car is broken-broken”, our friend tells us, “or I would drive you to Bulgaria.” Damn. They drive us to a service station on the road to Magdeburg instead. We’re going a very different route than expected.
Lisa and I have asked a lot of people where they’re going. As is frequent in service stations, a coach has arrived, making our task slightly more difficult. We ask two guys who say they’re going to Magdeburg, but have to speak to their driver. We watch them join the crowd outside the coach and sigh, but then they wave us over. Outside the coach, we’re surrounded by a small crowd. We feel a little like zoo exhibits, but climb onboard and accept bottles of beer, settling down to watch the surreal in-coach movie in German. “So, who are you people?” I ask the man. “We are like a choir”, he says, “but not exactly like a choir.” “Oh.”
Now we’re looking for a lift to Halle. Nobody’s going our way. It’s getting late. “How about if we just go to Berlin, eat Yellow Sunshine burgers and sleep in a proper bed at my friend’s house?” I only understand half of what Lisa just said, but it sounds like heaven. “Err, yeah!?”
Minutes later we’re with Stefan in his car, hurtling down the autobahn in the direction of Germany’s capital. Stefan will quickly become one of my favourite hitching lifts and will join us for dinner at Lisa’s friend’s house the following night. It’s nice to have a pit stop, and Yellow Sunshine burgers are pretty amazing, even if their fries are crappy.
A text message from Gill: Your dad is well, he’s very tired after a weeks’ worth of radiation therapy which is 2 b expected & he has a sore throat, but I don’t know if there is a connection. He has slowed up considerably but is just as belligerent! Will try 2 email u next sat. Take care.
A close friend of Lisa’s in Germany just broke up with her boyfriend. Lisa hitches to the South to be with her, while I carry on towards Turkey. Off-track and alone, my plans are suddenly thrown wide open. I can do anything I like. I decide to go to Prague, I’ve never been there before. I send two couch requests and am stunned to receive a text message an hour later, saying: Of course you can stay. I read your blog. You are my heroine!
Prague. I’m sitting in a main square watching crowds of tourists and horse-drawn carriages weave around one another. Narrow twisting cobbled streets spill off in all directions. Grand Gothic spires rise up behind tall narrow buildings decorated in what looks like gold leaf and cake icing. I sit on a bench beside a wizard and a small boy, not at all surprised to see them there.
Pavel is right about the hitching spot: I get a lift from the motorway slip-road in ten frosty minutes. The man is going to Brno: a great head-start. He doesn’t speak any English, so we mostly sit in silence. He makes one attempt to touch my hands and another my leg, both under the pretext of seeing how cold I am. When I get out he makes kissy-kissy noises as I shut the door in his face. I leave him in the car-park and go in search of Slovakian trucks.
At a service station on the outskirts of Budapest, my phone rings. It’s Gill. “Now, you don’t need to come back, but I thought you ought to know. He’s had another seizure. He’s in hospital. Can you hear me?” I don’t even know where exactly I am. A traffic jam is backing up alongside the service station, blocking off the entrance to all but the most persistent of motorists. A family of Roma musicians are inside eating dinner. They invite me to join them, offer a lift. But I’m going through Serbia, not Romania. I consider turning back. There’s an airport in Budapest – there isn’t one in Novi Sad, where my friend Aleksa lives. I wrap my coat tighter against the wind and peer through darkness at a truck just turning in. As he gets out, I paste a smile on my face – “Excuse me, speak English? Do you go to Szeged?” No, but he can put me on the right road. This guy knows all the back routes. He takes me out of the traffic jam, away down bumpy pot-holed roads.
Aleksa meets me at an abandoned truck stop on the outskirts of Novi Sad. He drives me home to his parents’ house, where I last stayed a year ago. We have plenty to catch up on, but I’ve hitched over 800km in one day, across three national borders. I’m pretty knackered.
My phone beeps in the morning as soon as I turn it on – Please call me urgently. My time with Aleksa largely consists of several hours on his internet hunting for flights.
I get the all-night train from Novi Sad back to Budapest. In my small carriage are a long-ginger-haired Polish guy I met on the platform and a man with small square glasses, light brown skin and a gently impassioned manner in whatever he’s explaining – “tourismy faschismy Serbski schmismay”, is how it sounds to me. There’s a feeling of warmth and intimacy in our carriage as we chug through darkened Serbia. The men quietly discuss and I write, somehow soothed by the incomprehension of their discussion.
In Budapest I take a taxi 22km to the airport. No flights for eight years, then two in a month. This time they have my vegan “meal”.
At Gatwick train station, my visa card declines. I have a spare card to an old account, but the pin eludes me. I call Gill. It’s an extra £50 to pay over the phone, making it £170 total. She says she doesn’t have her card with her. I pay the last of my English money to get to Victoria station, then Euston, messaging friends on the way: I need to find an open bank branch. A friend calls with directions to two. I run through streets, phone to ear – they’re both closed. The train leaves in ten minutes. I peg it through the station to the front of the ticket queue. The cashier tells me to get to the back. “My dad’s dying in Scotland! You have to help me! I have to get on that train!” She won’t let Mango pay over the phone at all – not even for £50 extra. He has to cycle to Manchester station and buy the ticket there under something called a ‘silk arrangement’ before tickets can be issued in London. I miss the train and pay 50p for the privilege of unrestrained sobbing in a toilet cubicle. Back at the queue, I wait for the man to call Manchester and arrange the tickets and realise I’ve left my backpack in the toilet. I run back – past the same people in the same queues, tears streaking my face. It’s still there. Breathe.
Another half hour to arrange the tickets. I almost miss another train. They charge Mango even more than the quote at Gatwick. Tanya and Eddie, on holiday on the Isle of Wight, somehow find an open bank branch within minutes and deposit money into my account. My friends are beautiful and I love every one of them. I am going to Glasgow.
The hospital is far. From Glasgow it’s another train on an obscure line, fifty minutes to the next one. My heart beats faster the closer I get to Dad. I get a different train on an adjacent track, jump off and into a taxi over the road. “Please hurry”, I tell him, “my dad is dying.” He nods.
Inverclyde Hospital looms dark on the horizon. It looks more like a Bond villain’s headquarters. Dad is sitting up in bed. “Ohh – you didn’t have to do this!” he says as I drop my pack by the door. Gill sits next to his bed, holding a bloated white hand. I hug my sister, nod at my brother. “Didn’t I?” He’s hooked up to a machine, dripping somebody else’s blood into him. His head looks like a peeled potato with glasses assembled on it by a five-year old. “Your father’s looking a lot better – a lot better – than he did yesterday”, says Gill.