Saturday, 12 November 2011
We stand and watch the fire. Long licks of flame , red-orange embers. And a memory returns, as it does this time every year. Of what happened that night. Headlights flashing on and off. Car doors opening and closing. A high-pitched metallic voice repeating inane lyrics from a nauseating pop song:
'I'm a Barbie girl,
In a Barbie world.
Life in plastic,
The night when one world came to an end. The night we lost everything.
It had been a tough few days, but the last big push of the summer season was almost done. I'd left the house on Friday afternoon and had criss-crossed the South East and the Midlands, standing on the busiest one-day markets of the August Bank Holiday long weekend. I'd slept in the front of the van for five nights, washed in service station toilets, and worked the stall by myself all day. But it had been worth it. This new line was a killer!
It was Wednesday evening now. After packing down at Hull's Walton Street market, I'd driven to the Burgh Road Industrial Estate in Skegness to pick up a few sacks of fruit scented footballs from a local wideboy. All I'd got left to do was to call at the Unit, collect the week's takings from Our Kid, and then I could get home. I couldn't believe how much I'd missed Tam and our little smasher. I'd spoken to him on the phone a few times over the weekend, but you don't get much conversation from a one-year old.
Tomorrow would be the first day off in months. A quick trip to the bank in the morning, and the rest of the day was mine. Might even be able to get out for a run. I felt lost without it, but each day seemed so full nowadays, I just always ran out of time.
The future looked bright. After spells of heavy weather, it finally seemed as though things were going well.
It had been hard leaving him behind on the beach that morning, but I'd returned from the dark night with a new determination. Keep it up son. Keep it up son. My mantra both haunted and drove me. And now I had a wife and a beautiful boy, a family to provide for. I would make them so happy.
I'd resigned from my teaching job and joined forces with my twin. Together, we bought a ten-foot pitch at the Fantasy Island resort - home to the largest seven-day market in Europe. In two years, we'd grown from selling off table-tops to building our own shop unit and establishing ourselves as one of the biggest players on the gaffe. If you wanted pound items, Knick-knacks, household goods or toys, you went to 'RAINBOW SWAG'. We'd shunned the flash of the other market wanabees, ignored the fakery of the culture of gold watches, designer shades and sports cars on the tick, but had earnt the respect of every stallholder down there. They all knew we did well, took some serious money, and whilst some were envious and their respect grudging, most wished us luck. Because they knew we'd made it, not because we were smarter than anyone else, but because we worked the hardest. Sixteen hours a day, seven days a week, start of March till the end of September.
I guess when you invest that much time and effort into anything, it can't help but be successful. And there we were - successful businessmen. But concentrating on one thing to the detriment of all others has consequences. I had a son who's first year I'd missed out on. Our Kid had a family that was disintegrating in his absence.
We both knew things had to change. And change it would soon, because we held a card up our sleeves that would make us rich by Christmas and give us all the opportunity we needed to step aside and kick back.
Luck had smiled upon us, and salvation had come in the form of a sports car from China.
A month before the August Bank Holiday weekend, Our Kid had arrived back from Manchester with a couple of cartons of sheer heaven.
'I've got this line from Raj at Premier Discount,' he'd said. 'He reckons it'll be a flying machine.'
He opened one of the cartons and took out a small rectagular box. The box featured a picture of a red Ferrari, over which was written, 'SUPER SINGING ACTION SPORTING CAR. MADE IN CHINA.'
He'd opened the box and took out a cheap, plastic, yellow sports car.
He'd opened a panel on the underside of the cheap, plastic, yellow sports car and inserted four AA batteries.
Then, he'd turned to me, smiled, and said, 'Watch this!'
He pressed a button on the side of the car, OFF to ON, and placed it on the floor.
The car sprung into life. Its wheels rotated and it carreered round in a crazy, hypnotic bump 'n' go action. Then it stopped.
But only for a second.
Suddenly, its headlights flashed on and off. The doors opened and snapped back shut. Its roof retracted, changing the car in an instant from a hard-top into a souped-up convertible. And then the music and the singing started. A high-pitched metallic voice repeating inane lyrics from a nauseating pop song:
'I'm a Barbie girl,
In a Barbie world.
Life in plastic,
We both watched as the crazy car went through the same cycle time and time again.
'What do you think?' Our Kid had asked eventually, 'Cost us two quid, sell for a fiver.'
For the first time in ages, I was speechless. I just nodded.
We'd sold those first two cartons in a morning - 288 pieces gone in a couple of hours. The excitement was unbearable - this was it!
The following day, Our Kid went up to Manchester to do The Deal. The first few cartons had been flown over from China so that the wholesaler could test the market. Two containers full of them were now on the water - they'd be here in a fortnight, but there'd be no more docking after that until the new year.
Never ones for putting all our eggs into one basket, it had taken us no time at all to throw them all in on this occasion. This was our chance. We wiped out our bank accounts, used all the money the business had made, and bought the lot.
All these thoughts were going through my mind as I jumped in the van that Wednesday evening to make my way to the Unit. Our Kid had done some cracking business over the Bank Holiday - record days all the way, and all down to that singing car. And what's more, we had thousands left - the only ones in the UK. The run up to Christmas would be amazing! Maybe I'll take Tam into town tomorrow - book a nice holiday for January, I'm thinking, when the phone rings.
I pull over, reach for the 3310 on the dash and answer the call. It's Our Kid.
'Alright?' I ask, 'I'm on my way down now. Keep those takings safe. I'll stick them in the bank tomorrow.'
'Yeah, alright,' he answers. 'Hey, guess what?' he continues, ' that bedding stall at the end of our row is on fire. Smoke everywhere.'
'Serious?' I ask.
'Nah, ' he goes on, 'They've called the Fire Brigade - they'll be here any minute.'
'Right,' I tell him, 'I'll see you in ten minutes.'
Ten minutes later, I'm stuck in a traffic jam on the Roman Bank. Ahead, in the direction of the Fantasy Island resort, a volcano is erupting. Flames leaping a hundred feet high, smoke smothering the horizon. Lot of smoke for one small fire, I think.
As I pull on the market car park, a large crowd has gathered. Reminds me of Bonfire Night. I jump out the van and bump straight into a familiar face - Old Vic from Mansfield, our most regular customer. He sees me and there's tears in his eyes.
'I'm so sorry, Chris, ' he says and puts his hand on my shoulder.
'Alright, Vic, ' I reply. 'What you on about?'
'Oh, I thought you knew, ' he goes on, 'Your unit's on fire.'
I find Our Kid by the taped-off area. The whole of one side of the complex is alight.
We don't say anything for ages. We just stand and watch the fire. Long licks of flame, red-orange embers. We watch as the flames engulf our Unit. We watch as the flames swallow up the first container of singing cars. We watch as the fire destroys the second container, burning until the metal walls are bent and blackened and the air is full of the sweet scent of melting plastic. We watch, hypnotised, as we were when we first saw that car, and I'm sure, amongst the flames, I can see headlights flashing on and off. Car doors opening and closing. And, if I listen carefully, above the sound of exploding glass and Fire Brigade generators, there's that high-pitched metallic voice repeating inane lyrics from a nauseating pop song:
'I'm a Barbie girl,
In a Barbie world.
Life in plastic,
After a while I turn to Our Kid. 'Wish we'd insured it all now,' I say.
'Yeah,' he replies, 'but those premiums were a bit on the expensive side, eh?'
I can't help but laugh.
'Well, things could be worse,' I go on, 'At least we've got the week's takings. Where are they?'
'Things are worse,' he says. 'The takings are still in the stall.'
'What?!' I yell.
'The best part of twenty grand. It's still in the stall. The Fire Brigade got us to clear the site and I forgot all about the money. It's still in the stall.'
'What, in the safe?' I ask. The fire-proof safe, I pray.
'No - in a plastic bag inside a cardboard box in the stock room.'
Looking back on that night, I'm amazed at how calm we were. Of course, I know that we argued, fought, laughed and cried before we were allowed back on site in the early hours of Thursday morning. Most probably a discarded cigarette, the Fire Brigade had concluded.
We creep around the remains of our livelihood. Embers smoulder as we poke them with sticks. The money's gone. The stock's gone. The Unit will need to be pulled down. We've lost everything.
'Let's go home,' I say to Our Kid. 'We'll get back early tomorrow. Decide what to do then.'
'Alright,' he says, ' Not be early though.'
'Eh?' I reply.
'My bike was in the Unit!' he says, and now we're laughing. Laughing so hard we can't stop.
'Got enough for bus fare?' I splutter in the middle of it all.
'No,' he goes, ' All my money was in the Unit!' We're laughing again as I make my way to the car park and he heads for the main road.
I've taken a few steps before I stop. I turn and yell. 'Dennis!'
He stops and looks back.
'Keep On Burning!'
'Yeah,' he shouts back. He punches the air and jogs off like Rocky. 'Keep On Burning!' he's shouting, 'Keep On Burning!'
I hear his voice all the way back to the car park.
We stand and watch the fire. Long licks of flame, red-orange embers. Bonfire Night. The superheroes press their faces to the window, looking over at the crowd in the garden across the lane. The fireworks'll be starting soon. Tam comes through from the kitchen with some mugs of hot chocolate.
Sometimes, it's only when you've got nothing left that you realise how much you've got. That night was a turning point - the moment I turned my back on a life that was so absolutely full of not much.
In the years that followed we started anew, built another successful business around the important things in life, not on top of them. Before long, Our Kid realised he wanted none of it. He gave up his partnership, studied yoga, bought a small caravan and found a girl who loves him for what he is rather than for what he can buy her.
And me? Well, I continue to work hard, but my job doesn't define me. I'm a runner now, an empty miler, a Dad, a husband.
As the fireworks start, we all huddle together to watch the display. Via the reflection in the window, my sight is drawn from the explosions in the night sky to the three most important things in my life. It's only now that I realise how much I've changed. Back then, I thought I needed everything. Now, I know, I have everything I need.