by John Morrison


74: Life in the Bus Lane

In a society that seems to deride the wisdom of age and worship the cult of youth, it's heartening to find that Arthur and Martha Fustian, Milltown's oldest hippy settlers, enjoy the respect their longevity deserves. Theirs, after all, was the first covered wagon to head west, in search of freedom, opportunity and an unlimited supply of recreational drugs.

Despite coming in peace, they weren't initially welcomed with open arms. Suspicious locals eyed their loons, Afghan coats and three-button tie-dye T-shirts and came to predictable conclusions about the in-comers' lifestyles. The Milltown of old - the Milltown that died - had been a place of stolid industry. It was spinning, weaving, cloth-making and millstone grit (rather than face-painting and fortune-telling) that had transformed a swampy river-crossing into a bustling town. So it was perhaps understandable that the locals, dispirited by industrial decline, should have had qualms about the intentions of the first hippy settlers. The locals' antipathy gradually faded when they realised that the hippy settlers weren't after their jobs. Hardly surprising, really, since there were hardly any jobs to be had.

Life was very different during the 1970s. Milltown was a town in decline; for years it had been a point of departure rather than a destination. So we should raise our glasses in a toast to Arthur and Martha for being the first to see a viable future for themselves in a small, defeated Pennine town.

From their damp squat in one of Milltown's empty terraces, Arthur and Martha wrote long letters to friends. They extolled the pleasures of life in Milltown and expressed their hopes for the future. They wanted their enthusiasm to be contagious, thereby encouraging more people to join them in colonising the town. So who can blame them if they occasionally lapsed into imaginative hyperbole?

The recipients of these letters - mostly disgruntled city folk stuck in dead-end jobs - were entranced by their visions of a better life, and wanted to believe every word. They read avidly: about the friendly locals, the balmy climate, the mild winters, the cheap and plentiful drugs ("A quid deal... as big as a shoe-box ... Wow!"). They were amazed to read that little 'top & bottom' houses could be bought for a song; this, at least, was incontrovertibly true.

One by one they visited Milltown, to check the place out for themselves and sleep on Arthur and Martha's floor. Some came for a long weekend, were overcome by the beguiling scents of incense and patchouli oil... and never went back. They were quick to forgive Arthur and Martha for their wilder flights of fancy; if Milltown wasn't quite as Utopian as it had been painted, it certainly held promise. Here was a place where unusual belief systems might be welcomed, rather than derided. Where they could make a living, of sorts, by harnessing their rudimentary skills: stringing beads and constructing nail-and-string pictures. Where they could found complex family dynasties through a combination of casual bed-hopping and drunken forgetfulness. Where, after years of feeling like aliens, they could find a place that seemed like home.

Arthur and Martha are celebrating their ruby wedding anniversary... or they would be if they had ever bothered to plight their troth in the sight of anyone other than a wandering troupe of shamanic nomads. They are surrounded, on their special day, by all the members of their extended family. From the size of the gathering it seems that most of Milltown can claim Arthur and Martha as antecedents. On arthritic knees they bounce their youngest grandchildren (three and four: crazy names, crazy kids...) and regale them with bitter-sweet reminiscences about the good old days. Innocent times when dope dealing was a more gentlemanly pursuit than it is today, and Aids was merely a brand of slimming products.

Martha is prompted to recall how Arthur had won her heart, all those years ago. "Well, I've never admitted this to anyone", she blushes, girlishly, "but the truth is that it was me who made the running". "So what did you say to him, grandma?" Martha, misty-eyed at the memory, reaches for Arthur's hand and gives it a reassuring pat. "I said 'Whatever bizarre and degrading act you've ever wanted to do with a woman... well I am that woman'. And then I hid his clothes...".

"Well, Arthur", says Wounded Man, toasting the happy couple with a glass of elderberry wine, "you've had a long life, fathered many children and witnessed some of the most momentous events of the twentieth century. If you could have your time over again, is there anything you would change?" Arthur strokes his chin and takes some time to reflect; a lifetime of substance abuse has left him a little hard of thinking. "Well, yes", he answers, slowly, "I guess I'd like to have seen more women naked."

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