Claire Jones took my virginity. It was in the back of her father’s 1968 Morris Minor van. The van, an F-reg MK II, crouched on the drive of 68 Moor View on four splintering wooden blocks. The engine removed, along with the bonnet, wings, lights and windscreen. It perched blind and unmoving in that pose for five long years of my life. Even today, years later, the ghost dark patch of dripped, fluids can be seen on the drive of No 68.
I remember the spring day Mr Jones and Bob Coles towed it to the estate. We were all playing out on the huge pile of earth that loomed behind our houses. This spot became our regular playground when the fields that ran along our joined back fence were scraped clean of all life. A developer planned to build two hundred and fifty houses and for three months the estate shook and rumbled with monstrous yellow machines that started their loud growling’s at six in the morning and went on till well into the dark night. Those bright yellow monsters gaily ripped the rocks and soil from the ground and playfully flung them, till they piled high into the air. After a month the weather-worn heap took on the same rounded shape as the earth a grave is dug from; our field turned into that empty grave.
The trees that grew were uprooted and piled huge like a game of pick-up-sticks in the far corner of the site. Over the months their carcasses turned stone grey, their roots withered dry and brittle. When the last colourful foliage was tossed onto that vast pyre, they set it ablaze. The crackling fire roared for eight days and nights, even drawn curtains couldn’t keep the glare from our bedrooms, vivid flames sending strange shadows cavorting across our ceilings. Clouds of black smoke tumbled into the air, staining our row of back walls, and rashing the washing across the whole village. Two weeks later the charred grey ash still gave off a faint dying heat and if you dug deep, red embers would sweep into the air.
The houses never arrived. The developer ran out of money. The machines and men went home. That winter the foundations and trenches filled with oily red water. The field became an expanse of sticky, clinging mud which every child carried home on ruined clothes and shoes. Our parents complained to the council, but it wasn’t until six year old Charlie Frances was sucked into one of the mud filled pits and drowned, that the excavations were filled and barbed wire and signs warning of the danger kept us out. But the huge pile of earth and rocks was outside that high perimeter fence, it became ours. We had nowhere else to play, and no matter what threats our parents devised we still went there. It was from this vantage point that Claire spotted her dad and Bob dragging the van into our road. By the time we got there all the local kids were helping them push it up the slight incline outside No 68.
“What you going to do with it Mr Jones?” I asked, licking the ice cream, our reward for helping with the pushing.
“I’m going to restore it, Pete, soon be back on the road.”
Bob and Mr Jones would be out from six in the morning till eight at night banging and swearing and laughing. Riding past on my bike on my paper round, I’d ask them how it was going. Mr Jones, oil smeared on his cheek, would say, ‘Fine, Pete, soon have it back on the road.’ Bob would raise his head from the bonnet and call ‘Ay, nearly there now’. They’d worked at the local abattoir until it closed six months ago. ‘Forty years of my life I spent working there, for what? A bad chest and an aching back, that’s for what, robbing bastards’, Mr Jones could often be heard saying in the reception room of the doctors as I waited for mum to finish up. The abattoir, the only real employer in the area, laid off one hundred and twenty men. Me and mum were lucky, we didn’t have a dad, so the closure didn’t effect us. You could tell the ones it had; all their gardens were freshly dug, all their houses freshly painted, all their cars freshly cleaned.
“What you going to do with it when it’s finished?” I asked one Sunday morning. “We’re going to sell it, Pete, make some money.” Then we had a month of drenching rain, and Bob Coles drowned on a mackerel fishing trip off Plymouth Sound. ‘Stupid sod, didn’t even like mackerel,’ Mr Jones told me.
The van sat untouched during that time, somebody stole the bonnet and the rear side window was smashed. Mr Jones taped the damaged window, and put a tarpaulin across the void where bonnet had been, holding it in place with two old tyres. It sat crouched and hibernating under its blanket covering all that winter.
When I saw Mr Jones after that, usually coming back from the doctor’s surgery, I would ask him the same question. ’Fine, Pete, soon have it on the road, yeah, soon have it on the road’. His cough became worse and he stayed indoors all the next winter, the doctor having to go to him now. As the weather warmed I would see him standing on his drive, mug of tea steaming in his hand, staring at his Morris van. Sometimes I helped him clean it, afterwards he would apply small patches of rust treatment to its rupturing scabs. One year he filled a hole in the front wing, smoothing the pink paste down with a large bread knife. It looked like sugared icing on a cake. He then taped a plastic bag over the repair ‘To keep the water out’ he explained. ‘Don’t want it rusting away do we?’ But every year another part would be gone. A carcass slowly being picked clean by vultures.
Mr Jones’s wife died the summer he brush-painted the remaining skeleton, and sold the engine to David Clark. I didn’t see him touch it after that, except to put his wife’s old mattress in the back, and two old brown suitcases on the roof rack.
It was later the van earnt its reputation, it became known as ‘Jones’s Jump’. It started with Julie, Claire’s older sister. Julie, like Claire, was a big girl, and as such people thought she was ugly. At fourteen, all fat people were ugly to me and my friends. Her flesh fell down her arms and legs ending at swollen feet and chubby fingers that used to pinch and tickle me raw when she could catch me. Julie got a reputation as an easy lay. I don’t know if the stories were true, but she became pregnant and left school and the area soon afterwards. Claire picked up the baton, but she was a little wiser than Julie, she saw an opportunity. If you knew the right people and could raise the three pounds she would accommodate you. She accommodated me on August, sixth, nineteen seventy-five, I fourteen, she sixteen. From start to finish the whole fumblingly, frantic, clumsy and sticky process took no more than four minutes and sixteen-seconds. I know this time span to be correct because Steve, who was after me, had his new Casio digital watch blinking away outside. Claire didn’t charge me, (I don’t think I fulfilled all the criteria for full fee paying coitus.) The experience, far from exciting my sexual appetite, put me off sex and women for the next two years. Three weeks later Claire was sent to a home up country somewhere. I never saw her again. I think I’ve seen Julie, but I’m not sure enough to approach her.
They found Mr Jones three days after Claire left. He had taken both suitcases from the roof-rack, and along with a bottle of whisky, and a vial of sleeping pills had curled up and gone to sleep in the back of his 1968 Morris Minor van.
Image – Google images
6 thoughts on “The Van by Peter O Connor”
I really did enjoy this.
It’s a bit of a snapshot but I think the sections about the van ties it all in. If there are any metaphor hunters out there, I’m sure that they would spot meaning regarding the district against the story of the van.
All the very best my fine friend.
I’m n American, so when I see “estate” I think rich people and costumed angst. Then I read on and after asking my UK Eds, I learned that an estate is like my neighborhood, and hardly Wuthering Heights. I recognized the way things were and are. Universal. Well done and a wonderful little slice of life.
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Like Leila, it sounds like something that could have happened in my part of the world. Most people pretended things like that didn’t happen and when I was young and one could pretend. It is out in the open now.
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Nostalgia! My fist motor was a Morris van (£40, back in 1969). Met my wife at a dance and took her home in it. Great first paragraph and perfect header image.
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I really enjoyed your slice-of-life story. Mr. Jones’s arc is tragic, as he loses everything that is important, one thing at a time. As for the unfinished van and the unfinished housing development, both are the results of, and represent, hardships. Yet, despite the negatives, children try to find the positive in them. Though, in this story, one child drowned in a mudhole, a girl got knocked up, and the other became a whore and went away. Funny that for all the negatives in this story, it was quite engaging and enjoyable.
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As Hugh pointed out, some metaphors here, and they work well. A good coming-of-age story set against a neighborhood that’s well past it’s better days.
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