I was walking home to Hillsborough through Malin Bridge, glad of the early finish because I hated wearing a tie.
There was a lot of traffic on Holme Lane, where the tram lines run in front of the gardenless terraced houses. It was getting towards rush hour, but it seemed worse than usual, as though there’d been an accident or something. As I passed the Cash Converter on the corner of one of the side streets I realised that there was a yellow Streetforce van that was aggravating things.
It was parked on the pavement, but its side protruded into the road. There were two blokes working from it on the patch of damp, heavily littered grass that sits between the advertising billboard and the strange pay-to-use sci-fi cubicle toilet, incongruous on the pavement. One of them had a proper dark blue Streetforce uniform on and a face I actually recognised from the poster adverts the council had put up round town with photos of Streetforce staff holding sweeping brushes and suchlike, captioned with ‘I’m helping to keep Sheffield clean’ or some other bollocks that did nothing to reassure me. He was ordering a colleague around the damp grass. The colleague was wearing scruffy clothes and a hi-viz vest with ‘trainee’ stencilled on it. He looked too old to be a ‘trainee’. He had a comedy bald head fringed with ratty, brown neck length hair and the complexion of a preserved corpse. Most probably one of those dole monkeys on a training course, I thought. He could barely work the litter picker anyway and his boss was looking red-faced and angry as he glanced worriedly at the traffic that was moving slowly around and past his van.
The cars had to swerve out into the middle of the road to avoid the van. Not too much, but to keep the traffic flowing everyone had to use courtesy and concentration. The motorists seemed capable of this for once. What did I care, I was a pedestrian.
It was the snap wagon I found interesting. One of those portable burger bars was being towed through the traffic with its serving hatch open. It was already an ugly white vehicle clogging things up with oversized oblong edges, but with the serving hatch open it looked awkward and dangerous too.
It was a good job the hatch was on the side of the snap wagon facing the kerb, otherwise it would have removed the roof of every car passing in the opposite direction.
The driver of the van towing the thing didn’t seem to realise. As he passed me, then paused in traffic so that I overtook him, then passed me again as the traffic restarted, I could see him engaged in enthusiastic and hilarious conversation with a youthful, buck-toothed passenger who seemed to be rapt by the exaggerated comedy of the driver’s monologue, only moving to shake his shoulders with occasional laughter. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.
The woman sat in the car behind wasn’t. Driving a green-grey Micra, she looked busy and intense. Her hair was dyed a purplish shade of red, her face was pretty and bespectacled and pale, blushing circles on her cheeks betraying an anxiety that I could sense was verging on hysterical as she waved her hand around in a vain attempt to catch the van driver’s attention.
She was trying to help. She tooted her horn a couple of times and then tried flashing her headlights. The burger merchant pretended not to notice and continued sharing his quirky insights with his pal in the passenger seat.
The traffic moved forward a few yards away from me and then paused again to allow me to draw level. I saw the woman in the Micra try again. This time she tooted her horn, flashed her lights, wound down her window, waved an arm, poked out her head and shouted something difficult to hear over the humming traffic but clearly a monition of some kind.
The burger merchant stuck his own head out of his van window and yelled back. Yelled so loudly and with such perfect coarse diction that I could hear every word. “Fuck off! You tart! You lousy fucking bitch! Fuck off! Fuck off! Just fuck off!”
She tooted her horn again by way of reply, and waved and shouted again. This time her higher pitched tones were audible over the traffic. “The side’s open! The side’s open!” I heard her yell, hysterical yet solicitous. For some reason I began to think that she was probably a school teacher.
The van driver didn’t care what she was, he just went raving mad, bellowing out of his window, “Just fucking shut up you mad bitch! I haven’t got a clue what you’re going on about you mad fucker!” He finished his rant with a massive headshake and even through the window of his van I could see the foam splatter from his blushing, flapping cheeks. His colleague tittered through buck teeth.
Then the traffic started again and the open flap of the snap wagon tore into the roof of the Streetforce van with an ugly wrenching sound and dragged most of it off, the yellow metal curling and tearing with unnatural ease into the concertina shape of a Chinese fan.
It took a couple of seconds for the van driver to actually realise what had happened. When he did, he stopped the van and leaped out, flinging his door open despite the traffic. He trotted round the front of his now stationary vehicle to have a look at things. The Streetforce bloke, the one off the posters, had turned round from his damp patch of grass and walked over to his damaged van. His expression betrayed the effort of will it was taking for him to mask his incredulity. He didn’t sound angry when he asked the burger man, “What ‘appened theare, mate?”, just fill of comradely concern. He even managed a stressed looking smile. Then he saw the open hatch and his face changed in an instant, contorting as his voice raised its pitch to that of a thwarted schoolgirl and he shrieked, “You’ve left t’fucking ‘atch oppen ya prick!”
The burger man’s eyes goggled as his podgy face reddened. He looked at the man from Streetforce, then he looked at the woman in the Micra, who had stopped her car and got out and was standing, lips pouting with worry, arms folded protectively across an ample bosom. She was younger than I’d thought.
Then he stared at me where I’d paused on the pavement, his eyes full of questions I couldn’t answer. Then he stared at each of the three of us in turn again. Still not finding the answers his hysterical, spherical eyes sought he shrieked and waved both his hands around in frantic circles. Then he ran. Ran across the road and then away down Holme Lane, heading for the tramstop and the distant green smudge of the trees that marked the beginning of Rivelin Valley. He could shift for a fat lad too.
We watched him for a while. Then the Streetforce bloke looked at me and then at the burger man’s idiot colleague, buck-toothed beneath his grease smudged baseball cap. He glanced across at the woman from the Micra and then back at me, saying bitterly, “Why the fuck is allus me? Why? Why is allus me that ‘as to get involved?”
I couldn’t answer him, but looking at the woman from the Micra, purple hair and glasses, arms folded with an appealing vulnerability and eyes moist with worry as she pushed her specs back up the bridge of her nose, I’m quite glad it was me for once. Me that was getting involved.