Sunday 5 April 2020

Old Jim Sleep and his incredible Land Rover. Episode One

An illuminated low-fuel warning light in an old Series Land Rover is an oddly reassuring sight, for two reasons. Firstly, in a car whose build quality very much depended on the prevailing mood at Solihull the day it made its way down the production line, it hints towards the likelihood that the next breakdown would be due to a simple matter of fuel shortage. The second pleasing thing about seeing that lamp glowing away is that it confirms that the thing actually works.

At the time of noticing it, I couldn't be sure just how long it had been casting its eerie amber light over the crackle-black edifice that is Bertha's dashboard, but it had been aware of the way it highlighted the crags and furrows of Old Jim's wizened face. This was a visage that even the kindest would say was notably improved in darkness, and to see only its most pronounced topography highlighted in pale orange was actually quite a privilege.

So, it was dark, and other than that I was sitting on the thinly cushioned, cracked vinyl of Bertha's passenger seat, I had absolutely no idea where in space or time I actually was. The fact that rivulets were cascading from between roof and door strongly indicated that it was raining, and was this was confirmed when I heaved the sliding side window forwards a few inches, to be rewarded with a volume of spray in my face that Americas Cup sailors would think a bit excessive.

Unimpressed, I slammed the window closed, or as closed as it went. The view sideways had been entirely lacking in useful information anyway. I had seen no hint of any landscape detail, nothing that even vaguely resembled a landmark, no hint, even, of where land touched sky. Just an unremitting ocean of gloom.

Bertha's usually feeble wipers were actually putting in a sterling effort at keeping a small portion of each of half of the windscreen clear, and, aided by the slightly anaemic illumination cast by those old headlights, I could determine that we were following some kind of road or track. With the darkness being so total, and with the headlights being so closely spaced, the spread of light was such that I had no idea how wide it was, though; it could have been an efficiently surfaced country lane or a motorway. I had absolutely no idea.

Where had Jim brought me this time? My mind flashed through the infinite possibilities. The vast plains of North Dakota, perhaps? The endless tundra of Siberia? Perhaps somewhere more celestially challenging; an isolated planet somewhere in the farthest reaches of the galaxy? Wherever we were, I had the distinct impression that I was going to be unacceptably late for dinner and risked missing out on toad-in-the-hole; and I knew that tonight's was going to be made with a particularly fine locally-produced black pepper sausage.

The reality turned out to be far, far more sinister than any other possibility I could have imagined.

"Jim, where the bloody hell are we?"

"I think..." he replied in his curious vocal blend of Eton scholar and country bumpkin, "I think..." (he seemed to say that bit in italics) "...we're in Norfolk."

My hopes blackened. An all-encompassing dull groan coursed through my body, starting at my ankles, sucking all the sensation out of my legs and rising to spiral though my guts and up my spine, and eventually grasping my vocal cords so tightly that my intended exclamation ended up as a rather pathetic croak.

"Norfolk?" I croaked, pathetically. "Ohhh, no. Not Norfolk?"

I had been through Norfolk before, you see. In my own car, on a nice day, with no particular schedule to keep, and in the very acceptable company of my wife. We even had some extremely engaging music playing. Yet still, the facts that we were in Norfolk, and that the view in front, behind and to both sides as far as the eye could see was of nothing but rows and rows of cabbages conspired to make the experience utterly miserable.

"We're a little low on fuel, too" Jim warbled.

As anybody who has strayed into Norfolk will confirm, being low on fuel in this county is no trifling matter. Norfolk can take days to cross, and in that time you might never encounter another soul, let alone pass any signs of civilisation. It's not like in the rest of the developed world, where you'll find a petrol station just around the corner and can duly pop in and not only take on a tankful but possibly stick around for a four-course steak dinner, take in a film and have your finest brogues repaired by the on-site cobbler.

Not in Norfolk. It's not really a place for cars. If you see another, it'll probably have just wandered errantly in from Cambridgeshire or Suffolk and be desperately looking for a way home. Many, I'm told, never make it out. They're condemned to eternity on the A140, trundling along, forever convincing themselves that "Norwich must be just ahead. Maybe a few more miles. We'll be there by teatime", but teatime never comes. Countless motorists have perished on just such fruitless journeys; they grow thinner with every long mile, their cars gradually rust away around them until, still forging on towards their unreachable goal, car and driver fade out of existence altogether.

If there's a way you can make an old Land Rover sound even more agricultural than it does when it's in perfect health, it's by running it low on fuel. Determinedly sputtery at the best of times, Bertha's usually offbeat chug was becoming increasingly syncopated and now sounded rather like the drum accompaniment of a Bontempi keyboard with failing batteries. Occasionally, but at increasingly more widely spaced intervals, it would gird its loins and push on, but pace was certainly on the wane. And then, with one final chug, we were thrown forwards in our seats and all was silence.

Actually, that's a lie. It seemed like silence now that the rain had stopped and the old four-cylinder engine was muted, but it didn't take long for our eardrums to readjust. Soon we heard the distinctive sounds of Norfolk, sounds which have bewitched countless unwary victims, hypnotised them, and slowly driven them insane.

"Pass me the shotgun"

Jim had turned to me and was glaring severely, his face a silhouette but the moisture in his eyes, and the hairs that sprouted majestically from his ears, were picked out in astonishing detail by the dashboard lights. I duly twisted in my seat and reached for the trusty Enfield that was usually just behind me.

"Wait here, I'm going to search for fuel. I don't know what I'll find, and I might be gone for some time. There's a revolver in the tool box. There's a Twix in there, too."

He didn't wait for a reply, just broke the barrel of the Enfield, shoved a pair of cartridges in from his pocket, slammed it straight again and vacated his seat. I didn't hear the door open, but I definitely heard it clang shut, after which he issued the following advice through the window:

"Remember, you're in Norfolk. Hum. Hum for your life. It keeps the noises out."

He faded from view to the side, but the headlights picked out the unmistakeable form of his wellies and sports jacket as he headed off to the front and right. It felt like he was headed due South, but my internal compass was never to be trusted anyway.

It didn't take long. An owl hooted thrice, in call and response with a distant wolf or wolves. It was already starting. They were already starting. Gradually, the chorus of evil intensified and became more complex, yet it was always easy enough to identify the individual voices. A burst of whalesong here, chanting natives there, the relentless pounding of a distant train that never grows closer or fades away. What was I doing?!

"Hum!" I reminded myself chastely, but struggled to grasp a tune. I couldn't think of anything. In the rush to prevent my assured descent into lunacy, I couldn't even assemble the most primitive of jingles to keep my mind occupied. I kept reaching for familiar sequences that I know full well I'd whistled with note-perfect accuracy countless times in the past, but they evaded me. Anything! Come on, anything will do! It doesn't even need to be a tune that I like!

I tried to tune my brain away from the more savoury shelves of my internal CD rack in the hope of pulling something catchy and awful in that I could latch onto in the hope of salvation. Come on! Anything! 2 Unlimited, fucking Mmbop, Ed fucking Sheeran, any old shit will do! Just something to hum!


No sooner than I had managed to force the theme music to Challenge Anneka into the forefront of my mind than Bertha's flimsy driver's door burst open and Jim excitedly exclaimed vegetables.

"Onions!" he reiterated, and he was actually clutching a bunch of the things in each hand. "loads of 'em! Get out and grab 'em! Stuff your pockets! Stuff your trousers! Onions!"

All of my mind and being was immediately fixated on onions and the rapid accumulation of same. I leapt out of my seat and dashed after Jim, who was scooping up armfuls of premium-quality onions into a pouch he had formed with his chunky knit jumper. Never had I seen the old man move with such animation. Quicker than a flash, he had filled his pouch, darted off to deposit his haul in the back of Bertha, and returned to collect yet more of the savoury bulbs.

"That's enough! Back in Bertha!"

I didn't hesitate. I leapt after him, grimly holding the five onions that I'd managed to harvest, and made a dash for my side of the Land Rover, losing my grip on three of them due to considering in too much detail the bit in the Challenge Anneka opening sequence where she magically creates a tunnel so that hedgehogs can pass harmlessly under the road rather than be flattened by her speeding blue Iveco. Regaining my seat, I tossed my two onions onto the vast pile that Jim had assembled, and slammed the door shut.

"Onions?" I queried.

"Fuel!" He explained. "Fuel! Get 'em in the tank. They'll get us out of here. They'll get us home. Safety! Home! Onions!"

"How? I mean, onions?"

"Fuel! Get it into the cylinders and Bertha will burn it. That's the joy of these low-compression engines; they'll run on pretty much anything. She's not like your Ferraris, which need a high octane blend of rocket fuel and unicorn piss; if you've got a flat-plane crank V12 at one end of the scale, Bertha is the steam engine at the other"

I felt powerless to argue. Jim, I had come to learn after all these years, knew his shit.

"Look, Farmer Giles over there has left all those onions unattended; it was almost as if fate had determined that we should pick them up. We've got more than enough back there to get us back home. And fast. Come on, hop to it. Norfolk's closing in."

"But, what am I supposed to do?" I figured my incredulous tone was justified.

"Dice 'em! Get 'em in the tank! You dice, I drive. No time to waste. There's a knife in the tool box. And a Twix. Actually I'll have the Twix now."

I dived into Bertha's rear compartment, my landing cushioned by the impressive hill of onions that Jim had gathered so quickly. I threw the switch for the bulkhead light and it flickered unwillingly into life, so I could try and unearth the toolbox that was now concealed by stew ingredients. Happily, its gently rusting handle was jutting proud of the pile, and I swiftly heaved it to freedom and swung the lid open on its well-oiled hinges.

Jim's knife glinted like it had never glinted before; a sharp, determined glint that demanded attention and justly received it. I grabbed it and and immediately turned my focus to the rapid chopping of vegetables, using the lid of the toolbox as a makeshift board.

"Erm... how fine do they need to be?"

"Oh for goodness sake. Use some common sense lad. Fine enough to get down the filler, into the tank and along the fuel line. Once they're in the line, the pump will do the rest." He broke off and turned his thoughts to catering, "hrm, okay, imagine you're making lots and lots of minestrone soup."

I had never made any kind of soup before. I am verifiably not a soup man. I did the mental arithmetic required to get the message, though; the requirement seemed to be for onion that was chopped very very finely indeed. I hopped to it.

Knife in hand, and paying scant regard to health or safety, I feverishly attacked the onion, reducing it to a pile of unevenly diced chunks at a blitzkrieg rate that I was actually quite proud of. Had my mother been there with me, she'd have smiled lovingly and felt warm inside in the knowledge that her son was capable of constructing the basics of a soup without losing whole limbs. The only thing that I hadn't thought to deal with was that raw onion vapour is widely acknowledged to make one's eyes water.

My eyes were watering. Nay, streaming. Victoria falls had nothing on what my face was up to right now, but I must fight on and not show weakness at such a desperate time. "Fist handful of delicately prepared cuisine-grade onion ready, Cap'n!"

 "Good lad. Get 'em in the tank. You'll have to hop out and drop 'em down the filler. Couple of onions should get her started"

I unlatched the side-hinged rear door and bolted round to where the filler cap nestles in a little cove in the right-hand flank. The darkness was more oppressive than ever, weighing down on me like a lead duvet. With two hands full of diced onions, I looked at the filler cap with horror. It winked back with a smug look of "you're going to really struggle to open me, aren't you?"

I fixed the filler cap with the most threatening gaze I could, opened my jaws as wide as their hinges would allow and attacked it with my teeth; all the while trying to hold my palms horizontal to prevent spillage of precious emergency onions. I heaved the filler cap with all the might that my neck muscles could muster. It really didn't taste very nice at all, and my eye socket was getting rather too intimate with the surrounding metalwork. Although the onion-induced tears that were still cascading did add a whimsical twinkle to its paint.

The macro view I had of riveted aluminium and flaking paint was far less sinister than what I'd have seen if I looked around me, though, and this gave me some consolation. Norfolk was indeed closing in. Piercing red eyes shone like hungry pokers in the middle-distance, while flames played vividly on the horizon, which seemed to be rapidly advancing towards me. With an angry groan from me and a lazy graunch from Bertha, the filler cap inched open. I unclamped my teeth from it and turned to unscrewing it with my nose until it wobbled free and splatted onto the mud below. I instinctively scraped both handfuls of veg into the filler, while kneeling in the mud to retrieve the cap.

"First onions delivered, Cap'n!" I didn't really know why I had taken to calling Jim 'Cap'n" all of a sudden, but he didn't seem to object.

"Rightoh, keep it up" he replied, glancing up from a crossword that he'd become inexplicably involved with, "eight down, 'battlement florists fear repercussions'" At least I think that's what he said; his voice was muffled by the chewed Biro between his lips. After what felt like far too long, he glared at the crossword with a 'we have unfinished business, you and I' expression and tossed it back onto the top of the dashboard, before thumbing the key in the starter.

By then I had whipped back to my onion preparation area and slammed the door tightly closed for what little security it afforded me. Immediately, a sense of absolute elation rose when Bertha's ancient engine rumbled into life with a voice that sounded very much like "oh, this is something different and a bit yummy".

"Keep dicing, we're off!"

We were indeed off. Bertha launched forward with a sprightliness I couldn't remember ever noting before. Gleeful that we were evidently onto a good thing, I diced, I diced and I diced. The onion pile was diminishing at a rate exactly proportional to that at which the stack of unevenly sliced tear-gas capsules was expanding. The air in Bertha's enclosed rear compartment grew increasingly toxic and was soon so thick you could cut it with a brick.

"Hurry up lad, she needs more onions."

Well, I knew that, didn't I? For Christ's sake. Still, this was no time for petulant teenage strops; I gathered a handful of onions and rushed forward. Now that Bertha was moving, I had to trial an ingenious new method of keeping her fed.

"Lean forwards, Jim, I'm going to have to try and squeeze behind you and feed the tank through the window."


Bertha's sliding side window was absolutely no help whatsoever. I considered penning a note for Land Rover's mid '60s design team along the lines of "please reconsider the design of your side windows to allow the forced insertion of diced onions into the fuel filler while the vehicle is in motion at high speeds", but hastily rethought my actions in favour of something more proactive and time-efficient.

I swang (swung, or swinged, depending on which of those is the proper word) the whole door open, using all my might to work against the force of the rushing wind that was pushing it back against me. "How fast are we going?"


"That's pretty good," I thought, as I leaned out and forced another handful of choppings into the filler. Unloaded, I had then to dive back into the production area and restock. My folly in placing building a pile of diced onion at the very rearmost end of Bertha's load area suddenly struck me. A rethink was in order, but right now, my eyes were on fire.

They weren't, of course, but I was shedding tears at a rate that I hadn't since Sam met his "new mum" at the top of the Empire State Building in Sleepless in Seattle (an admission that I make freely and without fear of being judged). Those were the tears of hopelessly unconcealed emotion, though; these ones were the external manifestation of discomfort on an epic scale.

"My eyes, Jim! They're in agony."

"Ah, yes, well.... you need water, don't you."

"That's right, Jim. I need water, and I need it reasonably urgently. Have you any?"

"I do, yes."

"This water of yours, Jim. Whereabouts is it?"

"Right here in my flask. Do you want it?"

"Why yes, Jim. I'd appreciate it very much."

He reached down into the footwell and then stretched his arm back over his seat, clutching a tartan patterned flask of the kind I'm sure my grandparents had when I was little. From memory, it always contained tea that was far too weakly brewed and over-milked for anybody to enjoy.

 "Thank you, Jim."

I rushed to twist the cap off and allowed the content to bathe first my left eye and then the right. I administered what I considered a well-judged ration; I couldn't afford to waste it as there was lots more chopping to do. It did offer some relief, but not as much as had it been water. Because it was tea. Of course it was tea. I knew it was because I could feel the sodden teabag in contact with my eye.

Vision partly restored, I flashed through chopping another dozen onions or so and shoved the resultant acrid yellowish greenish whitish pile up as close to the front bulkhead as possible. I then shoved Jim up hard against the steering wheel once more, eliciting a pained wheeze from somewhere deep inside him that made me wonder if I had actually killed him. I paused for a moment, grimacing until a second reassuring gurgle came as a sign of his survival.

Safe in the knowledge that the driver was still alive, I again squeezed behind him and heaved the door open. In a flash of what struck me as, frankly, brilliance, I slid the window open first in the hope that such an act of aerodynamic cunning would reduce the wind resistance a little. It possibly did; there didn't seem any more force working against me than there had earlier, and the speedometer needle was now hovering around ninety five.

This was remarkable, I thought, and shovelled more and more onions down the spout. After eight or nine handfuls (I really wasn't counting), I felt a slight surge in velocity, and Bertha's engine grew somehow smoother. With such positive signs, I made pace back to the travelling room of much onionry and got back to alternately chopping veg and dousing my eyes with tea that was far too weakly brewed and over-milked to be enjoyable for any other purpose than to clear onion-infused tears from my eye. Before very long, I'd chopped the lot.

"How's the tank looking, Cap'n?" I thought I might as well continue with what had become habit. 

"'Bout a third full."

"This lot ought to fill 'er up. Right, er, move aside, Jim; I've got some very serious cramming handfuls of raw onion into a Land Rover's fuel filler to do."

"Er, ah, yes okay. Pass me the tool box, I've had a bit of an idea."

I did just that, thrusting it through to the flat cushion that's often miss-advertised as the Land Rover's central third seat. Jim shuffled up on his chair and heaved the heavy tool box into the footwall, kicking it as far forward as he could.

"Cruise control!" he sang with a celebratory air. And to an extent he was right. Bertha had no more gears left in stock, and Jim's immovable mindset was clearly fixed on gathering as much speed as possible, so what worked for him, worked for me. And with no need for feet on pedals, he was free to sit in rather greater comfort on the passenger seat, freeing up working space for me to do my onion shovelling from the driver's side. All he had to do was lean sideways and do the steering.

"I hate to alarm you, while you're perilously leaning out of the door in a manner that has you teetering on the brink of calamity..."

"Yes, similarly, I hate being caused extra, bonus alarm when I'm in such a situation."

"I rather thought so, but nevertheless, we're being followed."

Such had been my concentration on the matter of cramming Bertha's tank with decidedly next-level alternative fuel, that I'd completely lost track of my surroundings, and a stolen glance around revealed them to be the A134 heading in the direction of Bury St Edmunds. Very much the right direction, because it meant that much of Norfolk was now falling behind us. Not such good news, though, was the nature of our pursuers.

My cerebral vehicle identification system could clearly make out the distinctive lights of a Claas Xerion 5000 tractor, itself being paced by a New Holland CR10.90 combine harvester, lights ablaze and with front blades spinning as if gripped by an insatiable appetite for foreign blood. I could scarcely believe they were gaining ground on us; Bertha's speedometer scale had extended itself to handle new territories of velocity, and the needle now hovered at a hundred and sixty.

"We're now travelling at speeds that no Land Rover has seen before" said Jim in a very matter-of-fact manner.

"Clearly not fast enough, though, eh Jim! When those angry...well...Norfolk people catch up and overwhelm us it'll be game over! No more Jim! No more Bertha! No more me, whoever I am!"

"Ah, stop your whining."

"Stop your whining? That's great! Very productive! If it's all so easy, you might as well get your crossword out again. Yes, go on, eight down, 'seamstress in custard arc-welds unexpectedly', wasn't it? Carry on with that! Meanwhile, we're out of onions. That's the lot. What kind of miracle can we expect now, then?"

"Did you finish all my tea?"

"There's a bit left, actually. You're very welcome to it. I sincerely hope it tastes all oniony."

"Listen, what you have to remember is that Norfolk has been running its vehicles off onions for years. They know all about the magical properties locked up in the things. The difference is how their engines use them."

I settled in for a quick science lesson.

"Look. Those tractors and combines chasing us all have socking great big diesel engines, don't they? They're compressing the onions with so much force the heat generated produces energy and turns the crankshaft, right? A few more strokes later, suck, squeeze, bang, blow; all that's left from the explosion is forced out of the combustion chamber and out into the exhausts, which fire straight up into the sky. Right?"


"Now, Bertha here has never run on onions before. It's all new to her, and she loves it. And thinking logically, because she's used to burning petrol, rather than compressing diesel, she's basically cooking them. And what do you basically get when you cook onions in a bit of oil?"

I knew this one. "Fried onions!"

"And what if the net result is a bit on the thick side, and resembles a kind of sludge?"

I didn't know this one.

"Onion gravy! Bertha's exhaust is at the back, you see, and I've a pretty good idea that her silencers are getting pretty full by now. Pretty soon that Norfolk crowd is going to rue the day it trifled with Bertha". He paused as if to gather his thoughts, and I got a sudden, terrible sensation that a pun of near-criminal tenuousness was heading my way. I braced myself accordingly.

"You might say, she's going to Bisto a terrible gift upon them."

Before I had time to indicate my displeasure, the rumble that had for a while been soundtracking our impending doom escalated to a deafening roar, entirely drowning out the aural cacophony that you experience in an ancient Land Rover when it's accelerating through one hundred and eighty miles per hour. The New Holland was almost upon us, its awful blades glowing blood red from Bertha's feeble tail lights; a redness that harmonized perfectly with the demonic glow of twelve pairs of eyes in the packed cab. Actually a quick recount told me that a few of the Harvester's occupants had rather more than the usual number of eyes; a good few of them seemed to have quite an excess. This was no time for ocular audits, though. After catching a quick dazzle from the reaper's scythes that were swinging out of its open windows, I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable.

What came instead of the inevitable, though, was a sudden lurch of increased speed, followed by near-total mechanical silence. I quickly looked at the speedometer, which was now glowing in electroluminescent blue and had switched to digital. 200. 220. 260. 300. 380; we were accelerating at an exponential rate. A sudden screech filled the air; I rushed back through the onion zone to the rear window, through which I saw our erstwhile captors and murderers pirouetting on a dual-carriageway slicked with delicious onion gravy. Speeding agricultural machinery of all kinds span out of control, making contact with a terrible rending of twisting metal and demonic animal screams, before they all began exploding one by one.

Gradually the chaos fell farther behind us. The speedometer now read Mach 0.8 and silence was once more with us. I struggled to think of a time that I had been more impressed by a vehicle's performance in terms of noise, vibration and harshness, or a lack thereof. None of Bertha's interior panels displayed the faintest murmur of movement. It was as if approaching the speed of sound was what she was designed for. 

Behind us, the skies lit as the entire farming community of Norfolk (that is to say everybody in it) exploded in a supernova that sent shockwaves through the entire universe and tore a rift in space and time, centred, appropriately enough, in Thetford. I looked over to Jim, who was playing the violin while sucking on the second finger of his Twix.

As we passed the Suffolk border at an indicated 865mph, the silence was broken by Boards of Canada playing ROYGBIV from the excellent Music has a right to Children album, whereupon I realised how ridiculous the whole series of events had been and reached out of the bed to turn the radio down. 

The sun was shining.