Trade Plating Around England, Part Twelve

Photo by Samuele Errico Piccarini on Unsplash

This time, Security vans, a trip to Rochester and a stranger in my own country.

Brief recap, I spent two and a half years trade plating round England with the occasional foray into Scotland and Wales.

I was sitting in the minibus along with other drivers on my way to be dropped off just outside Bedford where we were all doing the same dealer transfers. Sitting next to me was a black lad in his twenties, Danny had attitude issues, would argue with anyone abou anything and tried to play the race card when things went against him. We were talking and I was being careful with the replies I was giving him and not answering when I thought he was trying to start something. One of the things he said to me was “I don’t think the people in the office like me, I think it’s because of my colour”. I’m not sure what he expected me to say but my reply shut him up. “Look Danny” I said, “It’s nothing to do with your colour, it’s not even anything to do with you, the people in the office hate all of us, so shut up”. He didn’t talk to me again for the rest of the journey.

I am a bit claustrophobic, I hate really busy tube trains and have had to get off one before as I was starting to panic. I can normally keep it well under control and had been dreading for ages being given a job that involved moving one of the “cash in transit” vans.  These vans have no opening windows, the front doors do not open and everything is reinforced, the doors, the windows and the bodywork. Access is through a side door which leads to another door, the outer door has to be closed before you can open the door that gets you to the cab. It is very claustrophobic.

The company has a contract to move the vans from their various depots across the country to workshops where they are to be repaired and kept going. Due to the cost of converting them, they are kept on the road long after they should have been scrapped. Moving vans that have done up to 250,000 miles is not uncommon. The vans have lived a life and most have worn out seats, worn out engines and lots of dents and bashes on the bodywork. The vans are still “live” when we are moving them and all the security features are still active. There are cameras within the cab monitoring the driver and his assistant.

When we pick them up we have to go through the same procedures that their drivers have to do to get in and to start the van up.

My first experience was a job from the south west going up to the midlands, I am not going to be any more specific than that for obvious reasons. All my personal info had been sent over the day before and when I arrived at their depot I had to repeat all the information again for them to check before they let me through the turnstile and into the yard. I had been told to wait by the parked vans and someone would come out to see me. Looking round, the whole place is bristling with cameras. A steel door opens and a man in overalls with a smile on his face comes out and over towards me. He has a large bunch of keys which he hands me. “There are two van keys and numerous other keys together with a electronic fob.” I admit to him that this is my first pick up and can he show me how to get in. He explains about the doors and how the outer door has to be locked before the inner door can be opened, he tells me what to do with the fob. Most importantly he says not to get out of the van unless you have the keys in your hand, the doors automatically lock. If you leave the keys inside then the only way in is through the escape hatch on the roof.

The vans are always fuelled up so there should be no need to stop on your journey he said.

I went over the van doing my checks and noting all the many bodywork defects, I practised getting in and out through the “air lock” and once I was happy I was signed off and ready to go.

The one I was picking up only had one seat and where the passenger seat would be was a safe, I had no idea what was in the back as couldn’t open the door to the rear area. The cab had quite a lot of space but it still felt enclosed. I think it was knowing that the windows and the doors couldn’t be opened was starting to make me feel hot. I turned on the air con and the fan to full blast straight into my face to keep me cool. Once out their yard and heading up north I began to feel a bit more comfortable and turned the fan down. There was no radio, no amount of pressing the on/off button would bring it to life. There was also an intermittent buzzing from the dashboard that I had no idea about. It was a fairly long and boring journey with no mishaps, the van was slow to accelerate and needed more braking distance which I guess was due to the weight. This was my last job of the day and one of the minibus drivers had rung me to find out my ETA as he was collecting me and taking me back to the yard. “Hopefully around 16.30” I replied. “I’ll be there around five then if other drivers are on time”. The minibus arrived around 18.00, the other drivers hadn’t been on time.

It was months before I had another security van and this one was going from outer London up to the midlands. It was much larger than the previous time. One of the type with the slot at the back where cash boxes are put in or given out. It had a different door set up with an additional door to the cab. The door was set in between the two seats and made the cab feel really enclosed. I decided to jam my backpack against the door to stop it closing. This set off an alarm on the dashboard which sounded all the way. The radio worked in this one which was a bonus. Once my checks were done and I was about to leave, I was given instructions on leaving the complex. I had to wait until an anti ram barrier dropped into the ground, Then the gate would slide open, the traffic light would turn green and then I could exit. When through the gate I had to stop and wait for the gate to close before driving off. This ensured that no other vehicle could get through before the gate closed and the barrier rose.

The email with the jobs for the next day came through quite late one evening, around 21.00. They must have been working overtime to sort out the jobs for the following day. I had only two jobs. A van from the local auctions going to near Dorking and a car from BCA Rochester to be delivered to Preston. That wouldn’t be going to Preston with me driving, I would only be taking it as far as the yard for someone else to complete the job the following day. A 07.00 start from the auctions which meant 06.30 in the yard an hopefully a lift to the auctions from another driver. Down to Dorking, train over to Rochester and then back to the yard. On paper it looked like a good day.

Sure enough, in the yard the next morning there were plenty of drivers and I found one of the other agency drivers to give me a lift. With the van collected and the sat nav programmed, arrival was due at around 09.30. All went well until on the M25 approaching Heathrow where it was down to walking pace and stop start. Off the M25 the traffic was back to normal and as I approached Holmwood, I could see the drop off on the other side of the dual carriageway. Down to the next roundabout and back up to the garage to drop off. It was a quick one and the staff there were very friendly, I asked for directions to the station, “along the road and take the first left, you cant miss it.” The delay on the M25 had set me back a bit and the 09.47 train I had aimed for would now be the 10.47. A walk up through the pretty village and I’m at the railway station just after the 10.30 train had left. The station is just two platforms with a ticket machine and an open shelter on each. I get my ticket and sit down to wait. A message appears on the overhead screen saying the 10.47 train has been cancelled. Checking the Train Line app, the next train is 11.30 with a change at London Victoria. The day is starting to unravel. There is nowhere to get a drink and I hadn’t passed any shops walking to the station so there was no other option but to sit and wait. I walked up and down the platform a couple of times and watched trains going straight through, I was the only person on the platform. The train finally arrived and the carriage I entered had only three other occupants. Off we set and a couple of stations further along was Box Hill, I wracked my brains thinking I know that name, It wasn’t until later that I remembered that it was the scene of a picnic in Jane Austen’s novel Emma.

I had twenty minutes to wait for my connection in Victoria and I took the opportunity to buy a coffee and a bottle of pop in case there was nothing later. ETA at Rochester was just before 14.00 and it was going to have to be a taxi to BCA Rochester. A lot of the auction companies have large sites in the middle of nowhere and name the site after the nearest town. The BCA site in Rochester was a case in point, It is seven miles from the town on the edge of an industrial site that has one bus in the morning and one in the evening. Whilst on the train I rang through to get approval for the taxi, grudgingly it was approved but they added, once you have your car, can you pick up George from Gillingham and take him back to Rochester. Straight out of the station and into a cab, the driver knew exactly where I was going as soon as he saw I had trade plates. He said he does the trip out to BCA several times a day. It truly is in the middle of nowhere There are just fields and then an industrial estate. There’s a security guard who looks bored and probably wishes he was somewhere else, he tells me where to go and I walk across the site to find the BCA office. There is no auction hall, I discover that it is a distribution hub with cars coming and going all day by transporters and drivers like myself. I see a lady who looks like she might be helpful. I give her the registration number and she asks me where the other two drivers are. “There are three cars you are collecting” the others will be along soon I say. George must be one of the other drivers, but I have no idea about the third. I did my checks and looking at the fuel gauge, said I hoped there would be enough fuel to make it to Rochester. “As long as there is enough to get you off site, I don’t care after that” she replied. She signed me off and I drove as conservatively as I could the seven miles back to Rochester and fuelled up. I rang George and asked for his address, about twenty minutes later I picked him up and we are back at BCA by 16.00, I drop him off at the gate and my phone starts to ring, “can you pull another car from BCA, there is a driver who is running late and won’t be there before 17.00 when they close.” There are “No Parking On The Roadway” signs everywhere so I bump up the kerb and park on a grass strip just outside the site. I head on in with George, telling him I have to pull a car for a late driver. Neither of the two cars has much fuel and once we are out George asks if he can phone me if he runs out before he gets to a fuel station. I parked the last car next to one I arrived in and my phone is ringing again. This time the office want to know if I’ve pulled the car and would I wait until the last driver gets to Rochester, pick him up and take him to his car. “He’s a new driver and not sure what he is doing”. I ask when he will be here, they’re not sure about that either. A text pings on my phone while I’m talking and I guess that they have just sent me his contact details. I finish the call and look at the message, Derek and his phone number. I call him to find out his ETA in Rochester. “I’m not sure when I will arrive” he says, “where are you now” I ask, “I’m not sure about that either” he hopelessly replies. “Are you on the train to Rochester”, “Yes” he says, “When did you get on the train”, “I’ve lost track of the time, but I think it was about twenty minutes ago, hang on, we’re slowing down and might be coming into a station”. “Tell me the name of the station” I asked, “Longfield” he says. “When you get to Rochester, come out of the station and wait by the entrance to the car park and I will come and pick you up.” “Jolly good” he says and hangs up.

I drive back along the road again and head for the station, by now it is 17.00 and the traffic is nose to tail. Derek is easy to spot, he is wearing what looks like a 1970’s shell suit, he has a Tesco carrier bag in one hand and a pair of trade plates under his arm. “Derek?” I call to him, he nods and climbs in, he goes to shake my hand but me moving off makes him change his mind. “This is all very exciting”, he says like a schoolboy. “Is this your first day” I ask, “yes, I’ve been to Birmingham then to London and now here I am in Rochester”. We head back to pick up his car, the office phone me yet again to make sure I have picked up Derek and they want me to use my fuel card to fill him up. I tell them that I will need extra for all the running about I have done and ask if they have paid the Dartford crossing for the cars. They assure me they have.

Derek on seeing the car he has is off on one saying how he likes the car and he hasn’t driven anything as new as this before. I help him with his checks and again the fuel gauge hasn’t moved. I say to him to follow me to the garage and to flash me if he runs out of fuel. He tells me that he has never run out of fuel before and he wouldn’t know what to do. “Just coast into the side of the road if the engine stops.” Fortunately we made it to the garage where Derek put in his allocation and I put in an extra 5ltrs. He thanked me for helping him and I made sure that he knew to take the car back to the yard and not to its original destination. I saw him in the yard a few more times after that but I never worked with him again. Then he was gone, like a lot of the agency drivers, the reality is very different from the picture painted at the interview and they don’t stay.

The company website boasts that “all of our drivers are professionally trained”. What that means is we have all had driving lessons.

I know London is a multi-racial city, just how much so I was about to find out.

My last job of the day was to pick up a van from east London. I had dropped off my prior job in Reading and taken the train into Paddington. It would just be a tube across London to Stratford and a short walk to make the collection. The tube journey should take half an hour. Hopefully I should be there by 16.30, I had called ahead and the depot where I was picking up was open until 17.00. I had been to Walthamstow a couple of times before in a previous job, but never to Stratford. I remembered that there was a big new shopping centre there and the Olympics were held nearby. The closer the tube train got to Stratford, the more ethnic the make up of my fellow travellers became. They were a mixture of women who had been shopping, people going to or from work, kids in school uniforms and a selection of hoodie wearing youth larking about. It all appeared friendly enough but very noisy, some of the women were talking in languages I had never heard before. Going through the city, the tube had been busy, then it quietened down but by the time we got to Stratford it was standing room only. I looked round the carriage for anyone else white and there was one other person standing by a door ready to get off as soon as the train stopped. Once stopped I joined the mass of people exiting the train and tried to look like I knew where I was going. I stayed with the crowd and was walking along a raised concrete walkway. This opened up to a flight of steps going down to street level. I stopped at the top to take in the scene. It looked like down town Lagos. It was a thronging mass of non indigenous peoples. Again I scanned round looking for other white faces and there were very few. My problem now was that I needed to check my phone for directions to the collection point. I didn’t want to walk along the street holding my phone looking at the screen. Doing that would probably render me phone-less within a few yards. I doubled back into the walkway which by now was almost empty, got out my phone, put in the address I wanted and looked to see which way Google was sending me. I tried to memorise the route, it was only a few streets away, put my phone back in my inside pocket, turned round and headed back down the stairs like a man on a mission. There were groups of youths hanging around at the bottom of the steps, others were going round on skateboards, there were plenty of people just standing there waiting. Further on, from the station there were groups of three or four on mountain bikes just talking and looking. Away from the station and across the main road it was now quieter and I took the chance to check my phone. I had gone to far and missed the turning I should have taken. Quickly retracing my steps I got the right street and walked up looking for the address. I was collecting from a depot and all I could see were office blocks. I stopped at the one with the correct address and the company name on the plaque matched the one on my paperwork. I went to go through the glass entrance door and it didn’t move, it was locked. There was an intercom outside which I buzzed and was answered by a Caribbean voice asking me what I want. I tell him and the lock on the door buzzes and I push my way in. Inside I can see a reception desk with a security guard behind it. He greets me in the same Caribbean voice. He hands over two van keys, “where is the van” I ask. “It’s in the basement”, he points to a door at the side of the lift. “Come back when you have done your checks”. I go through the door and down into the basement where there are about twenty vans all parked on rows . I find the one I have the keys for and check the paperwork to make sure they are the same. It is a property maintenance van and it looks like it’s had a rough time. There is hardly a panel on the van that isn’t dented. The bumpers are scuffed and round the back you can see where a tin of paint must have tipped over and run out underneath the doors. Back up the stairs to get signed off and to ask how to get out, I could see gate out of the car park leading to a ramp. The security guard said to drive up to the gate and he would open it from where he was. Once on the ramp, he would open the gate onto the street. He said the turn out of the car park was tight and to pull over to one side to get the angle right. I thanked him and headed back down. It was tight getting out of the parking space and I headed to the first gate. There was a camera next to it and as I approached the gate slid open. I now knew why the bumpers were scuffed, you had to get the angle right to make the turn. By the marks on the wall, many hadn’t. At the top of the ramp the gate to the street opened and I was out and onto the road. TomTom gave me the directions to get on to the M11, M25 and then the M1. I was dropping off at the local auction which is open 24hours a day.

Stratford was an unsettling place, The only other place I had felt like an outsider in my own country was in Saltley Birmingham but that’s a story for another day.

Next time, Covid, furlough and enough is enough.

© 10210ken 2023