There is a pool just before a waterfall. Clear. Still. With no waves to churn trouble. No silt to be stirred. The water circles slowly there, unaware of the cascading chaos metres away. This pool is the known. The understood. The mastered and attained.
And yet inevitably streams of life are pulled away. It’s their nature to move. So they flow, the light carving new lines upon them, until they reach the precipice of their destinies. Momentum gathers. Water banks up against the ledge. It presses forward in desperation before, in one sickening lurch, the edge is breached. Gravity yanks the stream asunder, sending it crashing into the Unknown below.
Does the water quiver just a little, the moment it plunges over the ledge? Does it tremble once past the point of no return? I wonder.
“Do you think you’ll be alright driving a large vehicle in England? It’s the other side of the road, you know.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve driven a rickshaw in Jaipur, for Pete’s sake. What can go wrong?”
Oh how sure of myself I was back in Turkey when people had asked.
Now here I was, a few thousand kilometres north, freezing fog lacing the roads in smoky clumps, sitting behind the ample wheel of my new van, which wasn’t actually a van at all, but a truck – a mini white-boxed motorhome. And I was terrified. Because I was a Turkish fish out of water.
Roads in rural Turkey are blissful affairs; long fat belts of tarmac cruising over the steppes with no more than a handful of motorists cruising along them. You can drive for hours, wind in your hair, not a tailback in sight feeling like the smug protagonist of a Volvo commercial.
But Turkey was far away from here. I was now in south east England.
Certainly England has many things going for it, unfortunately the road system isn’t one of them. The country has strangled itself within a skein of tarmacked lines. Driving isn’t leisure, it’s serious, slow moving drudge. And the roads are very thin aren’t they? Skinny, winding cords of worriment with too many parked cars clogging up the left hand lane. I’d erroneously found my way onto such a conduit now. I should have been on the B somethingsomethingsomething, but I’d taken a wrong turning. Thus I found myself threading through rural Essex on the tiniest of lanes, muddy ditches leering at me from the edges of the asphalt.
The sky was a smudge. Grey and soggy. It filled the windscreen in ill-defined splodges. Brambles scraped the side of the van like talons on a blackboard. I puttered along the road chewing my bottom lip, guts knotted into a macramé of offal. So many worries crowded my headspace, I didn’t dare blink. I was staring so hard into the wing mirrors I had a headache.
And then I braked. Because directly in front of me, rising out of the road like a luminous yellow ghoul was a skeleton of metal rods bound in health and safety tape.
I peered down from my cab. There, occupying half of the lane, was a freshly excavated crater. Great. Just fantastic.
My every muscle tautened. Could I squeeze past the hole? I had to. I couldn’t reverse as I was on a sharp bend with those ditches on either side. Muttering a quiet prayer, I pressed the accelerator, trying my best not to think about would happen if my right wheel dropped into the hole.
And just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, a Range Rover appeared from the other direction. It faced me off, all black and brawny, the heavy tread of the tyres visible through my windscreen. It was then I felt the distinct urge to pull up the hand brake, stick my hands in the air and bawl.
How strange life is! How relative. I’ve spent the past five years dealing with snakes, bulldozers, forest fires, wild boar, and maniac hunters blithely firing shots over my head. I thought my days of heart-clutching terror were over. This is Europe after all. Safe and sound.
Yet in truth it is not danger we are afraid of. No. For danger is everywhere. In the food we eat, the air we breathe. Every time we cross the road. What we really fear is the Unknown. The not yet understood, nor mastered.
As it happened, the Range Rover slowed. To my surprise, it reversed a fair way back to the main road, and allowed me to pass. But as I pulled away and onto another traffic filled B road, an undertow of terror still dragged at my nerves.
That night I had a nightmare. In it, I filled my van with all my friends from Turkey, drove it into a tunnel and scraped the left-hand side clean off. The left-hand light was still dangling from its socket in my mind’s eye when I awoke. Whimpering, I grabbed at my duvet, just to check I was in bed.
The next morning I walked to the front room and pulled back the curtains. There was my truck towering over the drive. And I felt sick to the depths just to look at it. How could I ever have considered buying this monstrosity and driving through Europe in it? How? I slapped my hand against my forehead and fumed. Where had this trepidation skulked all those hours I’d scoured the campervan section of ebay? How had it remained silent as I dragged my dad round to various corners of south east England to find my van? Where had it been when I bought the thing?
I was like the water in the pool, oblivious until the point of no return.
There was nothing to be done. I had the van. So I had to drive it. Pulling my guts together, I resolved to get behind the wheel every day until I was no longer scared.
For three days, my dad sat stoically in the passenger seat and transformed himself into a human Sat Nav. I tackled roundabouts, weaved along narrow streets full of parked cars, negotiated great armies of bollards (Britain seems to breed them). The dimensions of the van began to feel normal, while sitting in an ordinary car felt like being squashed. Soon enough, as is the case in every new event in our lives, the territory of the Unknown was pulled under my wheels. And as I rolled over it, I absorbed it, integrated it, until it became me. And I became something new. Namely White Van Woman.
In reality, the potential danger remained the same. But the Unknown was now known.
Why we are so mortally afraid of this Unknown, I have still to work out. Our fear makes no sense. It stunts our growth, reduces our capacity to adapt and thus our ability to survive and thrive. Yet this fear is everywhere; in the laments of those who want to return to bygone eras, in the repetitive blaming and suspicion of foreigners (foreigner = Unknown), in the resistance to the learning of a new skill, or the moving to a new place. When most people say they can’t go for a dream and cite any number of reasons, it is usually fear that is speaking.
What happens to the water in the pool after it plunges thousands of feet below? It bubbles and moils, pummelled by the force of the fall. But after that, it gathers itself and moves forward. If the water had eyes it would see, it now flows down a wider, brisker river, decorated with exotic new landscapes and plenty of oxygen. If it had a head it might think it was a good job it didn’t remain all its days in the pool. Because there’s so much to experience, and so little to lose.
Soon enough, I itched for the road. A solar panel was attached to my van. I bought a ferry ticket from Portsmouth to St Malo in France and packed the cupboards to the brim with what was left of my belongings. Then I opened the door and my dog climbed in. Finally, I pressed the accelerator.
“I don’t know, I’m not certain you’ll be able to get the exact van you want in the time you specify.” My dad was pulling flakes of bass on to his fork. The Mediterranean was lapping opposite us, a pool of treacle in the warm autumn night.
“Yes of course I will! Just think positive. It will happen.”
Dad munched on the fish, expressionless.
“But how will you convert it? And live in it?”
“How hard can it be? I’ll stick a small wood burner in it, and a sink. That’s all I need. I’ve seen it on Youtube.”
My long-suffering dad placed his fork heavily onto the tablecloth and picked up his beer glass. I just knew what he was thinking. You’ll be staying in my house until you finish this project, won’t you?
That had been October. But since that balmy evening in Adrasan bay, much had changed.
On November 8th, Rotty and I flew from Turkey to Amsterdam, then boarded a train to the Hook of Holland, and finally we crossed a steely North Sea via a Stenaline ferry. My dad picked us up from Harwich on the cold, dark night of November 10th, a night pulled out of a tale. The wind buffeted the car as it roared round the back lanes of Essex, hedgerows swaying wildly.
Here I was at last. In the UK. As Dad predicted, I camped in his spare room, belongings salvaged from Turkey piled up in the corners. From my bed, I could see the blue weave of my Anatolian rug spilling out of a suitcase. My dog was curled up in the front room, my jigsaw was stored in the back.
Yes. It’s not easy to be a parent sometimes. Children never grow up.
For the next week I relished the central heating from my perch on the sofa, laptop open, scouring the virtual forecourts of Ebay, desperately searching for a van. I hummed and hawed, until my dad lowered his newspaper. “I think you need to speak to Ian,” he said. Ian ran the local garage.
So it was one morning, I bumbled down to the Wivenhoe garage, sheaths of Ebay printouts in hand. Opening the door, I was greeted by a small office characteristically decorated with MOT sheets, mugs of tea, and clumps of car keys skulking in niches like silver jagged-legged insects. Soon Ian appeared from a door out back wearing a blue boiler-suit and looking suitably mechanic-like. I thrust my A4 winnings under his nose.
Now, what I didn’t realise then was that there is a secret society of campervan enthusiasts strewn the width and breadth of the British Isles. These vansters come in all sorts of unexpected shapes and sizes; anglers, golfers, consultants, pensioners, writers, artists, surfers to name but a few. If you’re really lucky you’ll meet one who is a mechanic.
“Hmm...” Ian peered through his glasses at my paper offerings. “Nope. Nope. Nope.” The white sheets hit the worktop in a flurry of clear-cut rejection. Another mechanic appeared, also boiler-suited. He glanced over Ian’s shoulder. “Urgh Ford Transit,” he said, and shook his head.
“What’s wrong with them?” I began to gather up the papers, holding them to my chest.
“Van conversions...” Ian’s face was deadpan. He let out a long, experienced sigh. “Looks like a great idea, dunnit? But what you’ve gotta remember is..." and he paused here to sigh again. "...White Van Man’s been driving these full pelt round the country for a decade. You need somethin’ with less than 80 000 on the clock. At least then you know it’s got a bit of life in it.”
“Oh. Well yes, I’m going to travel Europe in it, so I don’t want it to conk out on me.”
Ian looked me up and down very dubiously. “‘Ow much you lookin’ to spend?”
There was a sucking in of breath, followed by various protracted facial movements. Cheeks inflated and deflated. Finally the verdict came. “Well, it is what it is, innit?" Another sigh. "It is what it is.”
Standing there in the garage office, I clutched at my vision, albeit a little forlornly. I had to find something cheap, because I didn’t want to throw all my money into a vehicle. I needed land. That was my first priority.
“Why don’t you have a look round my van. I’ll show you what to check for before you buy one. It’s out back.” Ian nodded at the door.
Outside, the air was a cold, wet glue that stuck to everything. Even the concrete forecourt seemed to secrete it. As we walked through the grey, I shivered and dug my head lower into my coat.
At the back of the garage, Ian’s camper was parked. It was an enormous cartouche of wheeled, sheeny splendour. A proper motorhome. Opening the door, I stepped into the carpeted, closeted opulence of the vehicle. It was more comfort than I’d seen in five years. Ian was in the secret society. In style.
“How much did this cost?” I asked blinking. Because this was a house not a van.
“More than £3000,” he said and chuckled. “But these things don’t lose their value like vans.”
That comment slid over me. But fragments of it must have come loose and adhered to my skin, waiting for the right time.
In the coming month, I made countless trips to the Wivenhoe garage armed with an ever increasingly perfected wad of printouts. Ian said “It is what it is,” quite a lot. Every now and again, one or two of my choices were deemed ‘worth a look’. My dad drove me all over south east England chasing these van leads. We endured a loose-lipped caravan dealer in Epping, I reversed a camper for the first time in a Norfolk farm, Dad jump-started a van in Ipswich, I drove a motorhome round a doctor’s car park in Saxmundham. But there was always something not quite right. I just didn’t get 'that' feeling.
The reason none of them worked for me, was because I’d already been smitten. I’d seen a van the first week I’d arrived in England, because it was parked rather auspiciously opposite my dad’s house. (Ain't that always the way?)
“I heard they want to get rid of that,” Dad had said. This information had reached him via the well-greased cables of Wivenhoe’s grapevine.
The van had been parked in the drive of a beautiful 17th century cottage. I had knocked on the door, and a friendly lady had appeared. “Yes, we are thinking of selling it, but haven’t got round to putting it on the market yet,” she had said, before disappearing to find her key.
Soon I was inside the van. I sat on the plush sofa exhaling happily. It was perfect. Spacious, clean, and beautiful. Not too big, not too cramped. A dream van. Just right for me and Rotty. But it was over budget. Way over. So I had there and then pushed it over the periphery of my quest.
Motorhomes don’t lose their value like vans.
Eventually, the motes of that comment collected and congealed into an idea. Because if this mini motorhome wasn’t going lose too much of its value, perhaps it was worth investing in. If nothing else, it would stop me from spending everything I had.
So it was in mid-December, I bought the very van that was parked opposite my Dad's house. Ian said "It is what it is," again, before charging the battery and driving it to the garage. I cleaned it courtesy of the Wivenhoe garage's brush, and spent a fair while hunched over the manual trying to comprehend the geekery of the gadgets. The convenience amazed me. There was an oven, a sink, a toilet. Even hot water, something I hadn’t known for five years.
Before Christmas it was taxed, insured and ready to go. All I had to do was drive it...
Many many thanks to my dear dad, without whom this would all have been so much more difficult, and of course to Ian at the garage for sharing his wisdom.
Atulya K Bingham
"This is such a compelling book. It will make you want to abandon everything you know, move to the forest and commune with the trees and earth." Luisa Lyons, actor, writer and musician.
"Inspiring and beautifully written."
The Owner Builder Magazine.