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Research and the Road Novel
by Albyn Leah Hall
Author of The Rhythm of the Road: A Novel

It's hard to be original when you're writing a road novel. One invariably thinks of truck drivers, country music, seedy motels, men drinking behind the wheel and the heady freedom of the great open highway.

And my novel, the story of a truck driver who raises his daughter behind the wheel, doesn't disappoint. It has speed freaks, god freaks, gun toters, cops and stalkers and lovely hitch-hikers and lonely, whiskey-swigging guitarists.

There are some variations on the classic road theme: my truck driver is Irish, his daughter is English, the truck is a British lorry and their open highway is in England, a country that you can cross in a day. 

Research has always been one of my favorite parts of any work, and The Rhythm of the Road was no exception. As part of it takes place in California, I kicked off easily with the American truckers. I hung out at truck stops between San Diego and Bakersfield, but I got most of what I needed by sitting on a bar stool at the Country Girl Saloon at the Giant Truck Stop at Castaic, holding court with an amicable array of beefy, baseball-capped truckers telling me their tales of "lot lizards and murdercycles and bears in the air" before taking me outside to behold their magnificent rigs: Macks and Peterbilts and Freightliners that preened like lions in the Valencia twilight. Yet unlike these 10-4 truckers who seemed virtually gagging for a strange woman to interrogate them, the English lorry drivers ran a tighter shop. English truck stops, by and large, were dingy, dark and worried places, steeped in fried food, a fug of Benson and Hedges, and huddles of shifty-looking middle-aged men reading The Sun and wolfing down their fry-ups to beat the rush hour in Birmingham.

I needed a way in. I didn't think I could find it among the lorry drivers themselves, so I found the next best thing: a fan club called, the "Lorry-loving People," who, as luck would have it, were due for their monthly meeting in the annex of the Best Ways Hotel, an hour north of London. Thus armed with my thickening Truck Portfolio and a new CB antenna attached to my tiny Nissan Micra, (through which I could only get static) I hit the highway on my lonesome, excited at last to be living the American dream, albeit on the M1 bound for Watford.

The function room was down a long corridor behind the cleaner's quarters. It was small with one narrow rectangular window, over which the shade was drawn. The lorrylookers, a morass of beige and navy, were packed into six neat rows and facing a small screen, upon which was projected a chart of lorry registration numbers. They met my entrance with a collectively worried expression. One of them peered behind me, as if searching for the cosmetic or cooking convention I had surely come for instead. As my eyes settled into the half-darkness, I took in their windbreakers, blue and brown trousers, sweaters with checked or ziz-zag patterns. There was a smell about them. It wasn't a bad smell -- not sweat or BO -- but something damp and airless, like laundry that hasn't dried properly or simply men unaccustomed to women.

The man at the projector nodded at me.

"You're the girl who emailed me, aren't you? I'm Nigel."

Nigel Renfrew, my coordinator, was a nice enough looking man but for the slightly walled eyes, which enabled him to have one eye on me without taking the other off the screen. "Right, you lot -- this is Albyn, she's American and she's writing a book about lorries."

I thought to say that my book wasn't exclusively about lorries, but my being here seemed complicated enough, so I sat in the only spare seat in the fourth row, vainly searching the room for another female.

Three orange lorries flashed upon the screen.

"As you can see," resumed Nigel Renfrew, "Stan Hamilton has just brought out his new fleet of DAF Super Space Cabs in Thurrock."

"I spotted one of them Space Cabs Nigel," said a stout, ginger-haired man, who sat beside his teenage, ginger-haired son, both wearing sweatshirts. "We both did, didn't we Trev?" 

The boy referred to his notepad. "Five miles west of Leatherhead on the A246, Fetcham exit. At six-forty-five am, last Tuesday. A Y511 UCF."

"I don't think that's possible," corrected Nigel Renfrew. "These beauties were only on the road last Thursday."

"An idea for you, young Trevor," piped a voice from the back, "Could you have seen instead a DAF Space Cab from Dan Martin's livery, Woking? It's similar, but Martin's is plated at 50 tonnes for Special Types Operation."

"She has a point, Trev," said Trev's dad.

At the word "she," I turned around to look at the speaker, a pudding-like figure in grey trousers and a green anorak, longish hair to the neck, and milk bottle glasses. I could see that she might be a woman, just about.

Two green lorries flashed on screen, their backs splayed out and their noses touching, as though about to kiss.

"See the new Scanias?" sang out Nigel. "A rare bird in 8X4 form. Gearbox retarder and all."

"I saw the very one, Nigel," said the person who might have been a woman. "Reg. JLZ 9876 at eight-fifty, last Sunday night, just outside Kettering on the A427? Mick and I have been going there every Sunday since March."

"I think you'll find we've missed one Sunday," said the man beside her, who must have been Mick. "Truckfest, Peterborough. Are you going potty, Carole?'

"Oh crikey. How could I forget that?"

From the way the others chuckled, I gathered that Truckfest, Peterborough, had been quite an affair.

Nigel turned one of his eyes on me. "I suppose this is all very overwhelming for you. Feel free to ask if you have any questions."

"I do have a few," I said. "but more about -- the life of the lorry driver."

Nigel Renfrew turned both of his eyes on me, the best he could. "The life?"

"Don't get me wrong -- I'm interested in the lorry itself, but it's more -- the lifestyle, and the way the lorry feels -- I mean, has anyone here actually driven a lorry?" 

Nobody had.

"It's funny," said the man near the door; "You don't sound hugely American."

As if to prove that I was, I produced my photos of American trucks. 

"You can pass them round so everyone can see them," I said. 

Slowly, as if they didn't really want to, they did.

"That's a bit over the top, isn't it?" said Mick, handling a photo of my favorite; a red and silver Freightliner with chrome finishings. "Loves itself, that one does."

"A truck like that doesn't have to be modest," I snapped.

Trevor's dad was studying one of my Macks, his brow furrowed. "I know that you yanks are all very big and flash and everything," he said, "and I know you think we're just a bunch of cabovers and all that -- but there's something about the good old English lorry -- do you know what I mean?" He stopped to scratch his ear, then let his hand rest on his son's shoulder. They both looked at me the same way, as if wanting some kind of reassurance.

"Sure. I like them equally," I lied. "But you must admit -- I'm not a wild patriot or anything, but in the same way as there's some great British jazz, there's still only one Charlie Parker, do you see what I'm saying?" 

By the way they looked at me, they didn't look as though they did. 

"I mean -- look at this one," I held up a photo of a black Peterbilt. It's beautiful, sure, but it's not just that -- it's dripping with testosterone; look at its nose, it's so -- bold -- so rude, almost -- it'll take on anything -- any desert or mountain -- two thousand miles of highway in one day . . ."

Nigel Renfrew cleared his throat. "As long as we're having a little break, I'd like to show you all something --" he fiddled with the projector, and a new image flashed upon the screen: a website titled THIS TO THAT.

"Has anyone here heard of "THIS TO THAT?"

We all shook our heads.

"Right. Name me two substances, anything --"

"Ceramic," someone said.

"Metal," said Trev's dad. 

John Martin typed in "ceramic" and "metal." He pressed his mouse on the words, LET'S GLUE! A third substance flashed up on the screen.

"See, lads and ladies! It tells you here. If you want to glue metal to china, what you need is Epoxy Putty."

The snigger started to my left and spread across the room, a low tidal wave of mirth.

"Tell it to the wife, John."

"That's a bit of a "˜get a life' one, isn't it?"

In the end, were extremely helpful. It was through them that I met Debs, the line-dancing lorry driver from Felixstowe, and Jill, a strapping lady driver with whom I drove from Lincolnshire to Purfleet in a red Scania, the words DOES MY BUM LOOK BIG IN THIS embossed on the back. I also met Donald, a wizened and retired driver -- all hard rrr's and Suffolk accent -- for steak and kidney pie at a transport caff in Bury-St Edmonds. Several times, Donald would begin a dirty joke, something of the chambermaid and spanking variety, which he refused to finish, due, he said, to my "slight build and ladylike ways" (first I've heard of it) though he did finally confess, while driving me through the backwaters of Suffolk, that he had temporarily lost his license due to "mental health issues." Through Donald's help, I got a signal on my CB too, though that was a disappointment; most of the drivers had graduated to mobile phones. And in the end, I finally made it to Truckfest, Peterborough.

Several months ago, my rear view mirror fell out of its casing. I didn't want to take it to a mechanic, who would charge me £100 just for being stupid enough to take it to him. I went instead to Google, brought up THIS TO THAT. I typed in 'metal' + 'glass,' followed by LET'S GLUE! The result came up, along with some helpful hints:

For the strongest, fastest, and most invisible bond we recommend: Locktite Impruv. Whenever you are gluing metal it's a good idea to clean it first with steel wool or sandpaper. (Rust never sleeps.) Maybe you are gluing a rear view mirror?

It's amazing, the things people know.

Copyright © 2006 Albyn Leah Hall

* All names have been changed

Albyn Leah Hall is the author of two novels: The Rhythm of the Road (published by St. Martin's Press, January 2007; $24.95US/$31.00CAN; 0-312-35944-6) and Deliria, (published by Serpent's Tail, 1994.) She is also a screenwriter; her screenplay, The Rose of Tralee, is currently in development. Albyn's childhood was divided between New York and Los Angeles, but she has spent most of her adult life in London, where she works as both a writer and a psychotherapist.

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