Saturday, December 17, 2005
"D'oh!" and woe in Wolverhampton...
Home, so sweet, sweet home. How glad I am to be here, writing those words, at this time tonight, rather than sitting, shivering, in a West Midlands industrial yard overnight. Then again, throughout tomorrow. Then again, overnight.
What a terrible prospect seemed to be in store for me, just a few hours ago.
I drove up to Wolverhampton this morning, to report on Wolves versus Leeds for the Sunday Express - my second football assignment for them, and, as it happens, my second Wolves home game for them.
I parked in the same place as last time, a Â£3-stay goods yard-cum-match day-car-park just ten minutesâ€™ walk from the ground, where I met my cousin Dan for a strategic exchange of Christmas gifts from our respective branches of the family.
He had parked up on the narrow lane you reached upon first entering the car park. I, on the other hand, was pointed through the steel silver gates into a more expansive depot space, just beyond, but which the chubby youngster seemingly placed temporarily in charge seemed to assure me would remain open for the duration.
After a pre-match drink in a nearby pub, we entered the ground for what turned out to be a fairly dire and dull match. I did find myself a little glad, though, that the second half proved quite as drab as it was, for it meant I could keep my freezing hands buried deep inside my coat pockets for most of the time, and only have to make very-occasional notes in a scrawl which came to resemble a two-year-oldâ€™s.
I phoned in my copy reasonably swiftly after the game, at least the 400 words they wanted and probably more, and felt pleased with myself - for overcoming the stutters and confusion that usually overcome me when obliged to phone in semi-improvised copy, and for having what seemed to be the newspaperâ€™s most prominent of tomorrowâ€™s Championship write-ups.
Then I got to listen to respective managers Glenn Hoddle and Kevin Blackwell give their brief Press conferences, before phoning in some of their more interesting quotes - all with Dan on hand, after Iâ€™d panic-strickenly texted him midway through the second half to ask if he wouldnâ€™t mind sticking around for a little while with his mobile phone ready to act as an emergency substitute if need be. This was because, despite charging mine last night, it started emitting alarming sounds shortly after the second half kicked off, and warning me with large exclamation marks that the battery was low.
Luckily, it lived long enough for me to phone all my copy through, and I thought Iâ€™d got away with it.
Dan and I strolled back to our cars, relieved with the 1-0 win for Wolves and to finally approach some warmth. He drove off happily, and I strolled through the open gates and into my car, pausing only to plug in my iPod, put on my seatbelt, and fire off a very quick, cursory text to a work contact who had texted me about a story Iâ€™d be working on tomorrow.
That brief gesture appeared to seal my fate, however.
Two minutes, maximum, was surely all that intervened between me walking through the open gates, then turning my car around only to find them hammered and locked shut in front of me. I was aghast and unbelieving, frantically fiddling with the bolts, then hollering towards the headlights of the last car ahead of me, the other side, only to see it roll away regardless.
So then it started to sink in. I was locked inside a goods yard, on a Saturday night, with no idea who to contact, when it would reopen - frankly, what the hell I was going to do.
And then a bleep, and another, as my mobile phone, on the passenger seat beside me, illuminated one last time to warn of imminent battery failure, before abruptly keeping its promise.
Wonderful. Now whatâ€¦?
Not that I knew who to phone, anyway, but it seemed to blast the last nail into the coffin.
Hopelessly, in both major meanings of the word, I drove a couple of times around the yard, desperately scanning for some secret exit, but of course, there werenâ€™t any. Just rows and rows of trucks, lorries and coaches. I scribbled down all the phone numbers on each one, more out of instinct than positive planning, before ever-optimistically driving back up to the locked gates. Still locked.
Well, suddenly I could see myself stuck here tonightâ€¦ and tomorrowâ€¦ and until 9am Monday. Yet without the ability to even call my family, or the office to explain why I wouldnâ€™t be in work tomorrow.
The only option seemed to be to leave the car here, clamber over the gate and at least look for a payphone, explain myself to my family and see whether I could kip overnight in the Midlands with family here, or get myself back to London tonight and worry about the car later.
First I had to get out. No choice but to hoik myself up and over the metal-spike-topped gates. Getting up was easy enough, but thatâ€™s when I abruptly had to pause. 15ft down seemed a long, daunting drop. I strapped my bag over both shoulders and in front of my stomach, brought my feet together on the same side of the gate, and clustered my long coat-tails tightly around me, but still had awful visions of the bag or coat catching one of those spikes and leaving me messily hanged for the workers to find greeting them on Monday morning.
Then, suddenly, down, and Iâ€™d made it - landing a little heavily on the palms of both hands, leaving both grazed and pained, but it could have been a lot, lot worse. And I was out.
Now to find a payphone.
Hmm, a payphone. What a quaint concept, in this digital era of always-ready-to-hand personal mobiles. Finally I found a botth, started pouring in coins and dialling each of the numbers Iâ€™d noted down - starting with the security firm whose notice was posted on the gate - but all kept ringing out, obviously office numbers.
A woman waiting for the phone finally tapped on the window and asked if I would be long. I gave an apologetic shrug and said I had to make a few calls, which she seemed to accept, before disappearing.
Unfortunately, a few minutes later, more violent bangs on the door interrupted my latest fruitless phone call, before the man responsible yanked open the door and began bellowing me about what was I doing, why wouldnâ€™t I let his wife use the phone or tell her how long Iâ€™d be. My anxious instincts kicked in in the face of this almost-incomprehensible onslaught, and I tottered out of the booth, tried to explain I was in a little trouble and just needed a little longer, but to no avail as he pitched himself into an intenser fury, demanding to know who I thought I was and what he was thinking of doing to me, etc etc. I was expecting the steam to start issuing out of his ears. Actually, I was expecting him to draw a knife and put me out of this eveningâ€™s developing misery - either that, or spontaneously self-combust, which Iâ€™d happily accept as a technical knock-out in my favour.
I stammered out that he could have the phone if he really wanted, and with an indignant â€˜Iâ€™m going to!â€™, he took a step that way as I more quickly ventured the other, before firing off furious cries of â€˜Fuckinâ€™ white prickâ€™, â€˜Youâ€™re in the Reans now, manâ€™ (referring the notorious local estate, I gathered) and â€˜Iâ€™ll raaaaise yaâ€™ (reminding me later of Dudley Moore exclaiming â€˜Iâ€™ll raaaze them to the ground with my knobâ€™ when discussing the BBC in one of the Derek and Clive tapes, though I wasnâ€™t paying this much attention at the time). I beat a hasty retreat, considering it wise not to point out I had 30p of credit he was about to rudely seize for himself.
Honestly, though. Fancy me having the AUDACITY to use a phone booth Iâ€™d reached before anyone else. Shocking behaviour, and thankfully not to be tolerated at such a LOCAL phone box, for LOCAL peopleâ€¦
Sure enough, the next booth I found was already in use, but instead of adopting my recent friendâ€™s tactics, I headed to the Asda supermarket opposite the football ground to try third time lucky.
I knew my dad had the Walsall game that day, and was hoping he wouldnâ€™t yet be too far towards home and could come to collect me.
My latest thinking was to at least get back to London that night, travel by train to and from work tomorrow, then somehow prevail upon dad or brother to drive me back up to Wolverhampton in time for 9am opening on Monday. I could then retrieve my car and drive back in time for my 4pm start at the office that day.
Of course, my dadâ€™s phone went straight to voicemail.
Phoning home was more successful, as my mum revealed he was still at my great auntie Ivyâ€™s in Walsall. She phoned the landline, told him to switch his mobile on, and a few minutes later I was spluttering out my plight.
He agreed to meet me outside Molineux, by the Billy Wright statue within 20 minutes or so.
Of course, it was more â€˜or soâ€™, about 45 minutes I spent shivering and watching endless taxis stop by and drop off scantily-clad boys and girls entering the ground for some kind of Christmas special disco.
Eventually, dad arrived = ready, so I thought, to head onto the motorway and home as quickly, relief-fillingly, as possible.
Instead, he asked for directions to the yard where my car was pathetically parked. I couldnâ€™t quite see the point of going and taking a look through the bars to where it inaccessibly lay, but pointed the way anyway.
At first, I thought I had got the final turning wrong. This one looked wrong - ie. There were no hefty gates blocking the distant way at the end of the alley, and what seemed to be an in-action white van had its headlights twinkling.
But, wait a minute - as we pulled slowly closer, there indeed was my car, plonked where I had left it, and within physical grasp.
Someone had returned to the yard, opened it up for some purpose or other, and I was back in business. A miracle! Well, it certainly seemed so, anyway.
I beamingly urged dad to turn around as soon as possible, and weâ€™d hare our way out before the gate-keeping jokers pulled a similar stunt. But he leisurely-ly asked for the Christmas gifts from the boot of my car, before finally we could pull away and begone.
If Iâ€™ve ever felt so delightedly relieved by an unexpected development, then I canâ€™t remember it now.
But then again, I am still feeling a little odd, disoriented but overall delirious at how it all turned out nice again in the end.
It really was a terrible match, thoughâ€¦