The train pulled into Nottingham station a little after 11:00pm. As much as I enjoy traveling on trains it had been a grueling day going literally from one side of Britain to almost the other side. You can look at this map of Britain to get an idea of my trip: I’d had to take a train from Carmarthen in southwest Wales to Cardiff, then, after about an hour layover, an uninterrupted ride to Nottingham—uninterrupted, that is, except for stops in every major city and several minor ones along the way. In spite of that I held the foolish hope I’d get to Nottingham in time to catch a late train to Grantham which doesn’t appear on the map but it’s east of Lincoln.
I should have known better. Not only did I have hours and hours to pore over the train schedules, but a month before I’d taken a trip to see an evening play in Birmingham and ended up spending the night in the Nottingham train station because I missed the last train to Grantham. My trip to Carmarthen had me on exactly the same schedule.
While spending the night in the Nottingham train station the thought “call a taxi” crossed my mind but I thought, no, that’ll cost a bloody fortune. Facing the possibility of another night ambling through Robin Hood’s hunting grounds I went to a shop and bought a couple of kebabs. (If you don’t know what an English kebab is Pinknoam previously proffered a paean to them here. In America we call them “gyros”, pronounced like a flavor of international currency that terrifies the British, but that’s another story.) I wasn’t really hungry but I was still in travel mode and hadn’t consumed anything except apples and Guinness for thirty-six hours. Sooner or later I was going to be hungry. I wrapped the kebabs up tightly and stuffed them in my bag. Maybe I’d eat one in the middle of the night and have the other for breakfast.
After an hour I broke down and decided it wouldn’t hurt to get a price quote. There was a Grantham taxi company called KC Cabs that offered discount rates to students. And £16 was a very small price to pay to sleep in my dorm bed rather than on the train station steps. Small enough to make me wish I’d called them before, but hindsight is always crystal clear.
When the cab pulled up I could see the driver was Big Dave. He was called Big Dave because he took up the whole front seat of his cab. That’s not an exaggeration. I liked him. Big Dave was friendly and funny and always had a story, like the time he was so drunk he decided to go for a swim in the fountain in Trafalgar Square. Fully clothed. On New Year’s Eve.
This particular night he was unusually quiet. The cab sped through country dark. Swirls of mist curled away from the headlights. When I looked out the window I could barely make out the jagged edges of treetops. Finally I broke the silence.
“There’s no moon out tonight.”
“Yer,” said Big Dave. “I noticed that too. It was a night like this I drove myself to the hospital.”
This sounded uncharacteristically unfunny for Big Dave, but if he had a story to tell I was along for the ride, both metaphorically and literally. And since he was still alive I knew the story would have a happy ending even if it was going to be a bumpy road getting there. I strapped myself in.
“It was in the Lake District. You been to the Lake District?”
I hadn’t. Going to Wales to visit the home of Dylan Thomas was a much higher priority for me, but I really dug Coleridge too and had thought about planning a trip out that way. Friends told me how trippy it was to go and see the exhibits of his drug paraphernalia. Plus it just sounded beautiful.
“It is beautiful out there. Gorgeous scenery. I do photography. I like to photograph the goats out there. Not many out there but sometimes you can find them. I was out there in the middle of the country and I see one standing on a crag all lit up by the setting sun. God he was beautiful. To get the best shot I had to get closer so I got down on my belly and started inching forwards.”
I stifled a laugh. Big Dave always wore the same gray green sweater and with his salt and pepper hair I imagined him looking like a big mossy boulder.
“As I was inching along that’s when I felt the little nip at my ankle. Like a needle.” He paused. “There’s only one venomous snake in Britain and I’d just trod on it.” He laughed and I laughed too, glad for a break in the tension.
“I hadn’t got the worst of it,” he went on. “Drove to nearest hospital and they tell me they can’t treat snakebite. Can you believe that? Not enough call for it but they tell me there’s another hospital that can help, but it’s miles away and their only ambulance was out on a run. This was a little country place. So I drove myself. Whole trip was about as far as I’m taking you tonight. Miles of empty country all around. No place to stop.” He chuckled. “Well, do you think I made it?”
“Seems like you did,” I said.
We were both silent after that, then Dave said, “No place to stop around here. I wish I’d thought to bring my flask of tea with me or a sandwich. Could really do with a sandwich right now.”
Suddenly I was hungry too and I remembered what was in my bag.
“How about a kebab?” I said.
They were still warm. Dave stopped to unwrap his. “Thank you sir!” he almost yelled before biting it in half. Then he put the cab back in gear and we started off.