“My father worked on the lorries. His checked shirt billowed gingham; his sod-brown arm lugged snug at window. He'd fit the coupling to the trailer, hugging the waggon cab close as a babe in arms.
An expert. His white arm aiding brown to steer the great wheel tight and right; his eye narrowed and angled at the road,
mapping the route exactly - back to Shropshire hills.
We pestered on the plastic passenger seat; we even slipped sometimes from the polished cab. Sometimes he drove us on his lap in these days before Health and Safety, pretending we were doing the job.
I wanted to grow up and drive, to ride the open road, stiffen one arm. All I ever did was fidget in his broad shadow, safe from harm. I was a nuisance : fiddling, twiddling, yapping always.
But today, the journey's end is nearing and the load borne cannot stay.”
My Dad’s life has always been more pragmatic than poetic - a practical man. Trucker. Trade Unionist. Good old Clem Redman. Mr Fix-It. But everything he did was poetry when you peeled away the surface. Everywhere he’d been : Rock Cottage. The Tupsley Mangle. The Munsty Swing. And this place : the Albion Cafe, Prees Heath lay-by just off the A49 between Shrewsbury and Whitchurch.
I couldn’t resist pulling off the killer road into the gravelly lay-by when I saw the family-famous truck stop. Already a couple of wagons had pulled up under orange lamp-posts for the night. Every lorry cab I’d seen on the way down had had his face at the wheel. I was driving down to watch him die, basically, and so the odd stop was needed once off the Manchester motorways, just to wipe away the tears and curse the world. I was practising his eulogy already, but knew there would be scores to settle before any Glen Miller versus Glen Campbell arguments took place over funeral arrangements.
A Deathbed Confession. That’s what I was anticipating. Mum had dropped hints as subtle as an elephant’s anus all the way through his illness - like her suffering forty-odd years ago meant more than his actual Cancerous suffering meant right now. We’d caught snippets of it during our shared childhood whenever they’d row. She’d chuck it at him whenever a Christmas present wasn’t up to scratch or when he was too tired to clip the hedges : “You weren’t too tired to clip her hedges next door back in the day, we’re you?” Making an innuendo out of any innocuous activity.
The rumour / accusation was that he’d strayed twice : once in 1971 just before Greg was born; then again in 1979 during the Winter of Discontent, just after Mum had dropped Albie. The first one was “that Gypo slag next door”, which always confused me because surely the very definition of a ‘gypsy’ is that they would not live “next door”. The second time was an alleged liaison with Alvira from the Albion Cafe in Prees Heath lay-by when he was passing on a long-haul job. She’d always give him “bit of extra toasted sausage on the bread”, by all accounts. Circumstantial, perhaps, but it was enough to convince my Mum that the sooner he metriculated into management and came ‘off the road’ into an office job where she could keep at least half an eye on him the better.
Which is why I’m sitting here now, peeling at a ketchup bottle on a Formica table, sipping at a frothy coffee and studying my surroundings, looking for inspiration as to what actually went on here all those years ago. I could ask the woman who served me who presumably is the owner I’ve heard so much about : Bou Dykes. Her roadside diner has made the papers on many occasions - usually when some tabloid rag needs a ‘Little England’ microcosm to flag wave a bit of patriotism in the press. Basically, I’m sitting in a caravan painted red, white and blue full of Union Jacks and walls pasted with photos of every British icon from Queen Victoria to Ginger Spice. It’s different, I’ll give her that.
But Bou only looks like she’s about in her late fifties. Not much off me. She would have only been a kid back in the day I’m obsessing over. So I’m back to Square One as I check the walls for photographic clues on the way to the toilet - a group snap of her clientel; a Royal Wedding garden party, perhaps. But no. Nothing. Not unless my Dad had an affair with Churchill or Frank Bruno.
When I come back from the toilet something very strange has happened to the Albion Cafe. The Union Jacks are still there but there are fewer photos on the walls and they’re sharing space with posters ‘Supporting the Striking Truckers’. The owner has seated herself on the far side of the front counter and now a sultry-looking twenty-something waitress with raven hair and olive skin is manning the ancient-looking till, dancing along to ‘Do Ya Think I’m Sexy’ rasped out of the analogue radio by Rod Stewart.
Before I have time to grab a racked newspaper to confirm my ‘Marty McFly’ moment, a face walks into the Albion Cafe which serves only to intensify it. Brylcreemed hair slightly thinning on top but black as the day he’d dyed it. Open necked check shirt and jeans stained with oil over brown tasselled cowboy boots. And that face : a little more crinkly round the edges than the matinee idol of their wedding photos - but still handsome with his bright blue sparkling eyes staring out of his tanned trucker thick skin. Thirty-nine year old Clem Redman. My Dad.
As I approach the counter and look sideways at him I realise I was half right - only one blue eye sparkles at the waitress as his other is puffed up and black and blue. When she sees it the waitress leans over, taking his head in her hands, and covers his broken face with kisses.
“I knew it! I knew those damn scabs would catch up to you!” the waitress says in her thick Spanish accent.
“It’s not them, Alvira.” says Clem, taking her hands from his face.
So this is the famous Alvira I’ve heard so much screamed about. Sprite of my mother’s spite.
“She did this to you!?” I can see the Mediterranean passion welling up in her petite body as she fumbles him a tumbler of whiskey from the bottle she keeps hidden in the paisley bread bin.
“It’s not as bad as it looks.” he lies, smacking his lips at the whiskey. This was news to me. I’d never heard that he was a victim of domestic abuse before. But then I wouldn’t would I? Because they wouldn’t have seen it as that back then. This was the ‘seventies, for crying out loud - the decade where everyone was fair game. And when Clem defended his wife and reasoned about her ‘Baby Blues’ this went some way to explain why this became a Redman family secret - although it clearly didn’t wash with Alvira.
“It’s not like she has not done it before!” she argues, citing the time she had to dab his lip with Dettol seven years earlier during ‘Gypsygate’. He’d defended her with excuses then, too, she reminds him. They’d been trying and failing to get pregnant and Mum had not long got over her ten year abstinence that she blamed herself had led him to stray in the first place. He shushed her at the time and called her silly for such thoughts, but the truth was he did stray. He’d admitted as much to Alvira at the time. But it was just a kiss. A fencepost clinch at best. He’d stayed faithful to his wife, my mother. He’d resisted. Just as he had when Acker’s Missus tried to cop a feel at the Sticky Carpet at Marston’s works do that night. And just as he had with Alvira. Until tonight. Tonight was the night, they had told each other, when they were going to take things up a gear. Or so they had promised.
I look towards the cafe owner, watching the floor show along with me and I’m wondering if we should be eavesdropping on such a private and personal conversation. She just looks at me and blinks her eyes as if acknowledging my sentiment, but then looks towards the agonising couple once more as though she was telling me to “keep listening”.
“You know the reason I want to be here.” he’s telling her, “I want to be able to whisk you off in my wagon cab to some hideaway and do … what we planned to do.” He blushes as red as his shirt. As his politics. “But I’m not here in my wagon, Alvira. I drove all the way here in my poxy Marina.”
Of course. The lorry driver strike. There were no wagons on the road in ‘79. Dad and his flying pickets would have seen to that. The wagons were well and truly circled.
“I drove here to tell you…” he pauses.
“I know.” Alvira is making it so much easier for him. She kisses him, lingeringly on the lips and the older woman to my right looks from them to me with tears in her eyes.
Clem Redman left the Albion Cafe that evening in 1979 and went back to his wife, my mother. He went back to his picket line and continued the good fight for his men for years to come as the most committed Trade Unionist the Transport Industry has ever had - even fighting to keep the lorries off the road in solidarity with the miners in ‘84. But he did so from behind a desk as a manager. Mum got her way.
It wasn’t her decision, though. Or his. It was Fate’s. Because when he left Alvira that day he went straight to the Bay Horse further down the A49 to drown his sorrows. He’d already had some Dutch Courage in the Salwey on his way up - plus the whiskey she’d given him to calm his nerves. This was the seventies - folk thought nothing of a drink while driving back in those bleak, biting days. They thought very little of seat belts, come to that. Clem’s accident made the decision for both of them. He was off the road for good because he could no longer pass the medical to stay on the road.
I pieced all this together with my Mum later when I got to Dad’s deathbed. At about the same time as I watched his younger self being saved from ditching Alvira in the Albion Cafe, he was ready to give Mum his full confession from his MacMillan hydraulic Bed Downstairs. But something made Mum stop him from telling her. Instead, she informed me, she’d just simply told him : “I know.” And they’d shared a last, long lingering kiss.
I watched my Dad drive away through the window of the Albion Cafe after he’d left the place weeping. When I turned around young Alvira was gone. Instead, the older woman was back behind the counter and we were back in the present again. I knew this because the ‘Strike’ posters had been replaced with ads desperate for truckers and the place had started filling up with Polish long-haul artic drivers.
Who I thought was the owner Bou Dykes came to take my glass mug and ask if I wanted another when I sat back down at Formica. When I smiled a decline, she asked if I wanted anything to eat? How about a “bit o’ extra toasted sausage on the bread?” in a thick Spanish accent.
I looked up wide-eyed and Alvira - well preserved with her olive skin and her olive oil - winked at me as she crossed to serve her customers at the counter of the Albion Cafe in the Prees Heath lay-by off the A49 between Shrewsbury and Whitchurch.