View from the Bridge: 60

by John Morrison


60: Travellers' Tales

If they have to make a choice between 'quality of life' and 'standard of living', there are many folk in Milltown who think: "no contest". When the highway of life is chock-full of frazzled motorists rushing headlong towards consumer heaven, we try to ensure that we are tootling along an empty carriageway in the opposite direction.

Milltown is a regular port of call, every summer, for a motley collection of clapped-out vans, for which MOT certificates and road-worthy tyres are but distant memories. The new-age travellers park up on a patch of waste ground just outside of town, between the river and canal: an area that attracts no attention whatsoever until a few crusties have the temerity to take up residence there.

The travellers come every year, but this year's a bit special. As part of Milltown's Midsummer Festival, they will be re-creating perhaps the most infamous event in their short history: the Battle of the Beanfield, when a bunch of travellers were given a severe pasting by over-zealous police. The travellers have even formed a troupe - the Frayed Knot - to research and perform this one-off event.

Authenticity is not a problem. It's easy, for example, to find original costumes: most of the travellers are still wearing them. The action, such as it is, mostly consists of running away and collapsing in screams beneath a hail of rubber truncheons: skills for which the travellers are already adept. And if an onlooker, concerned by these animated rehearsals, asks: "Are you alright?", a blood-stained traveller will be able to reply: "No, I'm a Frayed Knot".

Few aspects of life in Milltown polarise opinions so dramatically as the annual invasion of travellers. Dope Dealer thinks: "customers". The police think: "well-paid overtime". The old folk stuck in the Post Office queue behind a bunch of extras from one of the Mad Max movies think: "bugger, it must be Giro day". Ex-Councillor Prattle thinks "parasites" and, in demanding that the travellers be shunted across the county border, looks to win some easy plaudits from the beige-cardigan brigade. Professional Yorkshireman, writing his now blessedly infrequent columns in the Milltown Times, has some ready-made diatribes to offer, and so doesn't need to think at all.

New-age travellers make an easy target. And scapegoating one - preferably defenceless - sector of society is a ploy that's been used to devastating effect by tyrants and bullies down the ages. Even on the most pragmatic level, spending money from the public purse to shift a convoy of ramshackle vans out of Milltown is a 'solution' only to those with the most parochial of outlooks.

We have other visitors too, as the members of the Society for the Investigation of Unlikely Phenomena (Milltown Chapter) are only too keen to point out. The area around Milltown is known as UFO Alley, because of the large number of bizarre and unexplained sightings. What's really unexplained, however, is whether this signifies a genuine preponderance of UFOs, or merely reflects the number of people in town who, at any one moment, are gazing vacantly skywards.

We've even had a close encounter of the third kind. Following a protracted lunchtime session, Town Drunk was abducted by aliens and, due to a mysterious depletion in the available gene-pool on distant planet Zob, forced to mate - repeatedly - with a beautiful, silver-skinned princess. He was deposited back on earth, unsteady but otherwise unharmed, a mere hundred yards from the Grievous Bodily Arms, but only after he'd been forced - at ray-gun-point - to hand over all the money from the pub's collecting bottle. Money that was to have funded the next pub outing. The landlord reacted remarkably well, considering. "These things happen", he acknowedged, while wondering how he would break the news to his regulars. The seal-clubbing weekend had been the talk of the pub for months.

All told, the abduction has done Town Drunk's reputation no harm at all. Instead of being thought of as just another guy who could use a shower, he's rumoured to have been offered signing-up fees by a couple of other pubs in town. He's happy, in truth, to reprise his story to anyone who'll realise what thirsty work story-telling is. And by the time he's repeated the tale a dozen times, it has assumed truly epic proportions.

He'd been too modest, at first telling, to mention that the denizens of a grateful planet had asked him - begged him - to stay on and assume the mantle of Supreme Time Lord of Zob. "I'd be a liar if I said I wasn't tempted", Town Drunk concedes, "but the beer was crap. Go on then, I'll have another pint. The strong one. Thanks".

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