I like to think of myself as a helpful person, a net contributor to the society. Take, for example, the time I helped a Polish lorry driver who’d got lost in the town where I grew up. I was on my way to the pub to meet friends and was running late when I spied the huge truck parked up half on the pavement of a narrow road. The driver was standing in the headlights with a big map flapping in the wind and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. His unruly hair was all over the place.
I checked the clock on my dashboard. I was very late. But then, what if nobody stops? I decided to do the right thing and pulled over. I jogged back up the street to help my fellow motorist.
‘Are you lost?’ I said.
He looked at me over the top of his map. His face was podgy and he had a five o’clock shadow. His eyes had big bags under them and he was clearly exhausted. He then said something to me in a foreign language that had something of the Slavic in it. I said earlier that my road companion was from Poland but in fact he could have been from anywhere in Eastern Europe.
‘Do you speak English?’ I said.
Map flapping in one hand he produced from his pocket the name of a company and an address. And I knew the address. The industrial estate for which he was headed was an old friend of mine. Legends nightclub was there, the only nightclub in a five mile radius. The only thing between my new friend and his destination was the language barrier. The directions were too complicated. He would never make it. I looked at my watch.
Bugger it, I thought. I am going to enhance Welsh/European relations with an extraordinary act of kindness. There was so much hate in the world about Polish immigrants stealing our jobs and here I was fighting the good fight on the ground.
‘You,’ I said, jabbing a finger at his chest. ‘Follow… me.’ And I motioned with my arms as if I was at a steering wheel.
He nodded enthusiastically, not unlike a dog. I nodded back, also like a dog. Two old dogs of the road.
‘Yes!’ I said.
‘Yes, yes,’ he said.
This was awesome, I thought. Here we were, two people from different parts of the globe coming together in a moment of friendship. We practically bounced back to our vehicles.
I smiled to myself as I turned the key. He’d tell stories of this when he returned to the taverns of his hometown. I pulled off and drove down the hill. It would only take ten minutes. My friends could wait. I kept my speed nice and easy so that he could follow in his huge wagon.
Down the hill and under the bridge and round the corner I went. On to the first roundabout. I slowed to make sure he could follow me. But when I checked in the mirror there was no truck in tow. I waited. Still no sign. Probably having a bit of bother on the narrow roads, I thought to myself. I circled the roundabout a few times but still my friend did not appear. And then a thought hit me. Not a good one.
I headed back up the road towards the truck and when I rounded the corner my fears were confirmed. My new friend had got his massive lorry wedged under the low bridge. There was a sign saying “low bridge,” I suddenly remembered. It didn’t register at the time. He either couldn’t read it or just was so worried about being lost he’d decided to take the plunge. Either way, he was in there and I was very late for the pub. I glanced up to the ceiling of the bridge and saw the only slightly mangled top of the big container bit behind the cab. It wasn’t so bad. And then I looked through the windshield. My new friend and I made eye contact. He was gesturing wildly at the roof. We stared at each other for a few seconds and I nodded apologetically and waved that it would be okay.
I always imagine the next part of the story from the point of view of the Polish driver. He’d been lost but a kindly local man had stopped his car and not just offered directions but agreed to take him all the way to his destination on the industrial estate. Soon he would be heading back to his homeland, the thought of his wife and children in his mind. Maybe she had prepared a simple fish supper over the fire for his return. What a service this young man had done for him. The metal screech as he crunched under the bridge probably darkened his jubilant mood somewhat. He probably thought, as I would have, just slam my foot down and try and get out the other end, but this would only have driven the truck deeper into the bridge until he could go no further. Disaster! he would have thought. Disaster. He would have raised his face to the heavens and relinquished control of the wheel.
But all was not lost. A minute later he would have seen a set of headlights appear, a beacon, and then the very car that had offered help would have come into his vision like a white horse at the most critical point of a battle. Yes, the young man has messed up by taking me under a low bridge but thank god he has come back. A speaker of the native tongue he will be able to help get me home. What an ambassador for his country he is. Look, he is waving to me.
And I wonder about the feeling in his chest as he saw me there, his only chance of escape, as I realised I really was very, very late. He would have watched my car reversing a little way down the street, before making a very slow and awkward three point turn (I’m not a great driver) and then disappearing into the darkness. I sometimes wonder, what did he think as he watched me do this? And I contemplate what happened to him afterwards, before I remember that I already know the answer. Because I was told the following day, about how the road was closed for several hours that night as the fire brigade de-wedged my new friend from the stony grip of the bridge.
I like to picture a happy ending to the story. I like to think of that driver as heroic. I imagine him like Tom Hanks at the end of Castaway where at last he delivers the package. I see the Polish driver walking down the middle of Coedcae Lane Industrial Estate with his package under his arm, past Legends and the TNT depot until he came at last to the place he was looking for, where he knocked on the metal goods in/out door of the warehouse, proud of a job well done. I’m pretty sure that’s what happened.