5. The Van
The freedom of the open road; the remote isolated locations that could be reached anywhere in the country; the ability to up sticks and move at a moment's notice; the anonymity of a mass produced vehicle; the privacy of metal walls. Buying a van seemed like the perfect "plan A".
However, the plan didn't bear close scrutiny. With cold hard rational analysis, there were a number of flaws.
In order to buy a street legal van, it would have to be taxed and have passed an annual safety inspection to certify that it was roadworthy. This would increase the asking price considerably and make a cash transaction unworkable. A sizeable bank transfer would be something that would catch somebody's attention and warrant further investigation.
There was a risk of being caught driving without insurance. There was the question of the name and address where the van should be registered. Both of these posed a significant problem, as the insurance company and the vehicle registration agency would both send postal mail and anything undeliverable would alert them to the fact that a false name and address had been given.
By doing things legally, the police could search the vehicle registration database and then alert the national force to look out for a van make, model, colour and a certain numberplate.
Public roads were a hazardous place to be. An accident would trigger an avalanche of issues. Even finding safe places to park a van would be extremely difficult. Anywhere that could be reached by public road was hardly isolated and remote.
Neil decided to relegate the van idea to "plan B".
When he remembered the caravan Neil's new "plan A" began to take shape in his mind, but he still needed some way of travelling around when he reached the caravan. Initially considering cycling, he dismissed the idea because he knew it was a remarkable sight to see somebody on a bike in winter on steep hills. A vehicle seemed to make sense, because he could drive to local towns and villages on quiet country lanes, park on the outskirts and walk the short distance to get what he needed.
By buying a vehicle that was declared as an insurance write-off, scrapped or otherwise off the road, Neil wouldn't have to worry about the vehicle registration. He would just keep to the back roads and only make short trips. He would buy a van, so that he could use it as accommodation if the caravan was no longer there or useable.
Neil's journey to the caravan had brought him to the city where Westbound motorways ended. From there, only smaller roads continued deeper into the Westcountry. His first task had been to buy the local newspapers which had classified adverts in them.
Walking away from the city centre, Neil found a quiet residential area and an empty bus shelter. Here he got out a local area map, notepad, pen and his mobile phone. He started dialling the numbers of any advert for a van which was marked "No tax. No MOT". He started with the ones at the top of his budget, hoping that they would be more likely to be reliable good runners.
After a few calls that weren't answered and sellers who abruptly told him the van was sold and immediately hung up, he found a more promising lead.
"'Lo, s'Andy" said a male voice as the phone was answered. He spoke with a broad Westcountry accent. This was a good start.
"I'm ringing about the van" Neil tentatively began, not saying much other than the bare minimum to establish whether it was still for sale.
"Yar. Still got 'em." the man said.
"Is it a runner?" Neil asked.
"Yar. Use 'em every day to get around the farm see" the man replied.
This was great. Neil wanted this van.
"What d'you want 'em for?" the man asked.
"Just getting around on the back roads, the lanes, cheap like, you know?" Andy replied, put on the spot by a slightly unexpected question.
"Well if you ever broke 'em for spares, you should know the tank's no good" the man said.
"Fuel coming out a bit rusty, is it?"
The man laughed heartily at this.
"Yar. Yar. Sure is" the man said, chuckling again.
This codified exchange confirmed something far better than Neil could have possibly hoped for. The 'rusty' colour of the diesel meant this man was a farmer who was running the van on fuel that had been marked with red dye, because it was untaxed and intended only for farm equipment. It also meant that Neil would likely be able to purchase a tank of fuel from this man for cash, without having to visit a petrol station.
"The van is just what I'm looking for" Neil said.
"Yar. I speck 'tis" the man chuckled, knowingly.
"What's your name?" Neil asked.
"Andy, like I said"
They made arrangements for Neil to travel to a large village about 20 miles outside the city. Neil would take a local bus to the village and then walk up one of the lanes for about half a mile, where Andy would be waiting to pick him up. Neil would drive the van back to Andy's farm, to check it was running OK, then he'd buy the van and a tank of red diesel too.
Everything went smoothly. The van was quite small with faded red paint that was almost pinkish in places. There were patches of paint that were a much deeper shade of red and still had some shine, where stickers had been removed. It was clear that this van had formerly been owned by the Royal Mail, for a postman to do delivery and collection rounds. How ironic, Neil thought.
Neil drove out of Andy's farm gates just as it was starting to get dark. Finding the caravan and checking it was still OK to use would have to wait for daylight the following day and Neil would sleep in the back of the van that night. Driving through the forest with his headlights blazing was a risk, but it would only take a few minutes for him to be buried deep in the maze of tracks before he parked, isolated and remote.
How long ago was that? Neil had no idea. He knew it was weeks ago, but he didn't know exactly how many. Had it been months? He couldn't be sure, but he had the vague sense it was probably between two and four months. He'd arrived in the autumn and there was no sign of spring, so he felt certain that it was less than five months.
Although he had parked close to the caravan, Neil's damaged body felt as though it could barely carry him a hundred metres, let alone down the steepest part of the hill and through the trees to the gravel track where the van was. Escaping his predicament seemed unimaginably hard. He knew that his mobile phone had no signal. This part of the rural countryside was remote and black spots for phone coverage were common. Reaching the van was his only hope.
Pushing himself upright, he shuffled to the end of the bed. Bending his legs was incredibly painful, but if he kept them completely straight the pain subsided to an ache which was tolerable. He grabbed at the doorway and pulled himself onto his feet. Sharp shooting pains in his back caused him to yell aloud, wince and jar his body from the shock. He could do nothing more than stumble out of the bedroom, hunched over. He propped himself up on the kitchen worktop, opposite the bathroom door.
Neil really didn't want to open that door. Around the edge of the door, moistened toilet tissue had been used as improvised papier mâché, hardening as it dried to create a better seal. Instinctively Neil drew a deep breath and held it as he pulled the handle. The door creaked open. Inside the bathroom, the chemical toilet was filled to the brim with unspeakable filth. It was regrettable that the only mirror in the caravan was on the back of the bathroom door, but Neil wanted to know what his face looked like. The smell from the toilet had been unleashed and it was disgusting, but Neil was in such physical discomfort that he barely retched.
His eyes shone brightly: two glassy baubles in the murkiness of the caravan. His pupils were fully dilated in the half-darkness; two inky black circles taking in all the horrific detail. His eyes seemed sunken into dark blackish-purple skin, which served to further emphasise the deathlike pallor of the rest of his face. Facial hair sprouted unevenly from sideburns, top lip and chin, as well as other patches on his face. The hair was coarse and wiry. The bridge of his nose bore a scab. Perhaps he had broken his nose at some point? He couldn't remember. There was a scab on his right cheek and one on his chin, which caused another patch of missing hair on his unkempt and unruly beard. The hair on his head had grown untidily and surprisingly long, and it was greasy.
Able to better examine other parts of his body with the help of the mirror, Neil noticed that there were deep hollows above his collar bones and the contours of his ribcage were clearly defined as they ran down the centre of his chest. He was clearly malnourished and his muscles were wasting away. Things were worse than he had imagined. Seeing his own reflection shocked and scared him a little, although there was no sense of panic or alarm. He feared his own image in the same way he would fear any ghoul that surprised him in the darkness. He could barely recognise himself. He knew that his appearance would be extremely shocking to anybody who saw him. This presented additional difficulties.
Closing the bathroom door in the hope of trapping the noxious smell within the tiny room, he contemplated whether he should open the outside door in order to recycle the air in the caravan. He decided instead to keep the heat in, given that he was naked and everything was quite damp. Stumbling back to the edge of the bed, he clawed his way back to the position he had been laying in before. He felt exhausted and queasy, although he knew that he would not be able to vomit. His bile had dried up.
The momentary nausea passed and Neil reflected on how he would have found it easier to make his next move if he was in the back of the van, rather than in the caravan.
With hopelessness came apathy, calmness and philosophical thoughts. Neil noted with macabre amusement that he wasn't praying to any deity or whimpering for his mother.