Every day is like Sunday here in the Backwards Van. We wake up whenever we want, usually brought back down to earth by some loud unfamiliar noise like the slamming of a car door inexplicably close by our sleeping heads or the sudden scratch and scrabble of some birds sharp talons scribbling on the steel overhead. Sometimes the sunshine wakes us, pouring through the pothole window and onto the bed and warming its way through wooly wraps although here in Ireland more often its the rain that greets us first, tapping and rapping on Dixies tin roof. However we are roused from slumber, it takes a moment for the fog to lift and we start to remember where we are. One of us will eventually get up, get dressed into awaiting pjs, put the kettle on, then kneel up on the bed, slide one of the homemade window blinds off, peek out the window and describe the scene outside.
Usually it’s William who gets up first. I’m not a morning person, never have been, vanlife hasn’t changed that. The problem is my brain is more active in the evening and we tend to stay up far too late reading and talking and planning and… anything to avoid sleep. William on the other hand, having been employed as a baker all his life, is used to rising for work at some ungodly hour pre-dawn and beginning his long day long before the rest of the worlds alarm clocks have begun to ring. I prefer my mornings served a little later thanks.
We can often be found (if not hugging the craggy wild Atlantic coast) parked up by some still blue lake, Dixies rear as close to the water as is safely possible, listening to the soothing sounds of the lightly lapping waves. There are so many lakes to explore, Ireland boasts about twelve thousand big blue puddles and a lot are easily accessible with ample adequate parking and in beautiful surrounds. These spaces are designed to be used by locals, by dog walkers, boaters and fisherpeople and I don’t think they mind a little van tucked away into the corner (we had heard no complaints otherwise… almost) Usually we meet nobody when we are overnighting by a lake, even at the weekend. Some of these sites (in County Cavan for example) have toilet blocks, some have taps and picnic tables and bins and all provide a lovely place to park your home on wheels for a couple of hours rest. A lot of communities will have a little woodland walk marked out or a forrest trail or maybe even a boardwalk to explore, sometimes it’s nothing but a grey slipway slipping its way into the water. Either way, whatever day of the week it is, we always look for new lakes and unsurprisingly, we always find the perfect one waiting.
This particular story took place on an actual Sunday, a real Sunday, a calendar one, shared by the vandwellers and the housepeople alike. We make a habit of avoiding parking areas we know to be very popular as the last thing we want is to get in anyones way or to inconvenience a local going about their business locally. We never block a gate, park overhanging onto a path or in the way of anything at all. We arrive in the dark, park up, get out with a torch and make sure our chosen spot is safe, especially when staying near water. In this instance we pulled up to the thus-far nameless lake late at night and carried out all these usual safety checks before blacking out the windows and bedding down for another quiet evening. With not another vehicle around for miles we slept soundly as usual.
William woke up first. A nearby door slammed me from my soft dreams just a few minutes later. I heard two loud voices, booming over at each other. Both men with thick accents, indecipherable to morning-me at first. We listened carefully and the voices got louder and louder until it was clear they were standing right outside the van.
“Would you look at these f*ckers, huh? Who do they think they are? You know as well as I do what they’re up to.” Inside Dixie we looked at each other and sniggered, its just some old man having a Sunday rant by a lake. As a writer I thoroughly enjoy eavesdropping and a stealthier-looking van facilitates this fetish frequently, a bizarre bonus of vanlife and something nobody seems to talk about. Aural voyeurs, hiding in the shadows, spying with our ears. William slid from the steel bed as silently as possible and filled the kettle from the jug, careful not to make any noise or cause the van to bounce and give ourselves away. The other man didn’t respond immediately and so the first, lets be polite and call him John Doe, continued, louder now and getting angry. “Them f*ckers were first ones here this morning! I know because I drove past here at half past six.” More doors slamming and the sounds of trailers unhitching, metal clanking on metal, the man cursing loudly under his breath. William lit the spark and flames jumped up on the hob with a little whoosh, we struggled to keep our faces straight.
“Are you going out now?” John Doe again. “Tell the lads these f*ckers went out early. Tell ALL the lads. First cast isn’t til 8. Nobody else went out before 8. Un-f*cking-believeable.” An boat engine revved and roared in the shallows. I pulled aside the corner of one back blackout panel and watched the ripples and the wake as a little blue boat put-putted away, fading into the vast blue expanse of the listless lake. As the boat disappeared on the horizon another car pulled into the carpark, more doors slammed and after a quick country greeting, John Doe started up again. “Do you see these f*ckers in this f*cking white van? Do you want to know what they did?”
Oh. So not just a Sunday rant, it dawned on us slowly like a long slow dawn, he means Dixie. He means us. I have never ever seen William put his trousers on so quickly.
We are not here to tell you how to spend your leisure time. Some people read, some write, some walk, some run, some knit, some take photographs and some people fish. We don’t eat fish. Here in The Backwards Van fish are friends, not food. We don’t go fishing but we do enjoy all the same elements of nature as anglers and standing by a body of water for hours in near silence is right up our street. Each to their own. Most fisherpeople we have met on our travels have been warm and chatty people, full of local knowledge and great story tellers. Seems to me it’s not so much about the catch as the act of waiting patiently for the catch, enjoying the water and the still of nature, or sometimes its about the comraderie as little groups go out to spend a few hours together on the water. It remains really important to meet with friends for outdoor activities like fishing, especially for men who traditionally have a harder time talking about life and its many mental challenges. In Wales we met some nightfishermen in a high spec purpose-built fishervan, they had cool canvas huts and telescopic ladders and they wore night vision goggles and enjoyed showing us their equipment. On Canvey Island, a group of fishermen in slippy knee-high slicks heard us talking as we walked past and when our paths crossed again an hour later they called over in poor Irish accents “Top ‘O the mornin’ to ya!” Their deep infectious belly laughs echoed down the empty beach and I was annoyed at first, by the stereotypical Irish leprechaun-ness of it all, but by the time we got back to Dixie I was belly-laughing too.
Lakes provide parking and scenery and an abundance of birds and animals, insects and plants call them home. Insects in paticular, our advice is keep your doors and windows closed, especially around dusk. One evening in the Lake District I was convinced somebody was tapping on the back window but no, it was just a cloud of ginormous wingy thingys, head banging repeatedly against the glass, attracted to the only light around for miles. That Sunday morning, William was about to burst open the door and ask this man what exactly we had done wrong but it was so very early and I was still so very bra-less and so we waited, maybe the man would explain himself and we could avoid any conflict?
Nope. Three more cars came pulling three more boats and three more fishermen heard this absurd story, as John Doe vented his anger and each time the tale grew a little more detailed. We were, apparantly, the McCarthys, we were Travellers, and according to our angry friend John, we had driven all the way from Athlone and got there some time before 6am. In order to get out onto the lake first, to get a head start. Basically to cheat. In the fishing competition.
What fishing competition? What?! We are not the f*cking MacCarthys! I had to bite my tongue, listening to this nonsense, grabbing my clothes from the hook and flinging them on in record time. William put the coffee pot down on the bed tray and sat back to roll a cigarette. I wasn’t entirely sure where exactly we were, in the car park scheme of things, so once dressed I kneeled up and peeked out all four windows, one by one. We were legally parked, of course, and not in anyones way. Plenty of room around us to turn a trailer or park a bus should anyone have need to. There was John Doe, dressed head to toe in fisherman-camo, arms folded, leaning on his landrover, staring over at Dixie. His anger was palpable, his brow furrowed, hands balled up into tight fists crossed across his chest. Another car and trailer came to the slipway, unhitched and unhooked noisily and after John launched his now-predictable, ever-expanding tirade about the f*cking MacCarthys from Athlone in the f*cking white van at the unsuspecting fisherman, the next little boat launched into the lake. The man just got angrier and angrier each time, using more colourful expletives to describe us than I would like to repeat. At one point he called Dixie a “piece of shit van” and in the back William almost had to be restrained. One by one the boats came, heard the story and went. John meanwhile was stubbornly going nowhere.
We hear all sorts, sitting in the van in public places and minding our own business. Couples arguing, parents wrangling children, children wrangling parents. Single people talking frankly and respectfully to their dogs. People singing aloud or whistling with abandon, chatting away to themselves, assuming themselves alone. “MAMMY THERE ARE PEOPLE IN THAT VAN!” is frequent enough as is strangers stopping dead in their tracks to poke their curious noses in or stare through cupped hands into our back window and one time the police interrupted their busy policing schedule to come by and tell us we had been reported. For sitting in the back of a van. On an ordinary Dublin street. “Sort of strange”, he said it was, “isn’t it, sitting in a van”. Strange indeed Garda, strange indeed. Good day to you.
Speaking of the police, we met a plain clothes one one evening in a secluded carpark by an Iron-age fort somewhere near Winchester. “Just checking you weren’t travellers” he said, in his first of many sprawling spewed-out sentences, “or the IRA, and that you have no bombs in the van.” Whoah, that escalated quickly. Ok Officer, it might LOOK like a bomb has gone off in there but we assure you neither of your first three assumptions are remotely correct. What an opening line though. Eventually he left, after a quick tour of the van, having confirmed no law exists to stop us staying exactly where we were that night and forevermore should we choose, and slightly embarrassed at being unable to tell us the name of the sizeable river wending its wet way nearby, in spite of his “growing up out here, all his life”. Incidentally, it was the River Test, and the policeman failed it. Strange indeed.
Back at the lake, our big competition HQ, the sun was rising above the trees and traffic thinning in the carpark as most entrants had already left the shore to begin the fish. It was after 10am and John had almost nobody left to listen to his bullshit. He had wasted almost two hours of his own fishing day, standing there slating some random family to anybody who would listen. I was still watching, peeping through the blackout blind and reporting back in whispers to William, who was trying his best to swallow his laughs and snorting into his coffee, when it became clear John was eventually about ready to give up the gossip and take his own boat out. Having himself helped the other entrants he was left now to unhitch alone and push his boat from further up the shore. Unseen, William had snaked his way into his driver seat as I tucked the coffee pot and cups away in the sink, stripped the black out blinds off the windows and secured the interior for the road. John was climbing aboard his boat, still staring backwards at the backwards van. We waited until he had floated just far enough from the shore before William turned the key and kicked Dixie into life, revving her up noisily, resting his elbow on the horn and surely and suddenly breaking the miles of Sunday countryside silence. The look of shock on Johns face at the echo of the engine and the blast of the horn as we rolled away, rolled down windows and rolled up middle fingers waving at him from the shore, clearly having heard all he had to say, all morning, clearly NOT cheating in the fishing competition and clearly NOT the f*cking MacCarthys from Athlone.
Dixie may be getting old and looking slightly battered but shes taken us all over on and on all kinds of adventures, all the while he’s been stuck in the sand, standing still at the shore, spreading stupid, meaningless, begrudging lies. If you see our piece of shit van on the road, stop and say hi. I promise you we are not the IRA, Dixie contains no bombs and if you are angling, we definitely won’t threaten your position on the podium.
I often wonder who won the fishing competition in the end. I hope it was the MacCarthys, you know, the ones from Athlone 😉