Colin Birtles is stuck in traffic

by | Feb 22, 2016 | Look Out, Sketches

Colin Birtles is stuck in traffic, or more to the point, stuck in his car, in a queue, at a service station, although it’s not strictly speaking a ‘service station’, it’s a misnomer, an insult to those who serve, a filling station. He is idling his engine, along with other unfortunates, in traffic, victims all of a garish advertising sign offering a fuel price discount, pock marked on the side of the road, with all the other pock marks, blathering the health benefits of Gatorade, the communication benefits of a mobile phone, or the freedom offered by the latest Jeep.

The irony, the irony, the wicked little irony, is of we the people being able to read fully the aforementioned advertising hoarding only if we are stuck in traffic. We the people swallow any little pill and let our stranded souls delight in the latest sweetest offering as the advertising hoardings continue to get erected. Anyway, Colin Birtles is currently stuck in traffic.

There is further irony, the man Colin Birtles has cancer, the sort that puts doctors to work with their bed side manner, attempting to be as vague as possible, anywhere between a couple of months and a couple of years they will say, not exactly precise, its part of their job, to be imprecise in circumstances like this. Bill, you have a form of lung cancer that we really cannot treat and even with a transplant, the odds of the cancer spreading are better than even money. Always check with the bookies.

The ironic bit is that Colin Birtles doesn’t have time to sit in traffic, in a car, at a filling station, even if it saves him $5, what to do with that $5, his days have now been measured for him. What would a person with cancer want with a spare $5. I did, and still do, wonder that if visitors from another civilisation looked at this phenomenon would they think us deficient of sense. An Aunt of mine used to drive half an hour around a toll collection point just to avoid paying it – You know how much you’re wasting Aunt Phyllis? Not to mention the time out of your life you’ve just thrown away. Talking of time.

For a man with a marriage and children, a mortgage, a responsible job, a lawn mower, his world is to become a serious of avant-garde experiences, that he doesn’t have time for. For when one has the days set out one does not sit in a queue in traffic waiting for the driver of the motor vehicle in front of him, who drives around for half an hour looking for the best discount deal, to fill up his now empty tank so that he, one, can spirit away with the $5, like a school day prize. Enough of queueing for fuel, the man has cancer, the word will be used many times over, it can’t be avoided.

He has told us what type of cancer he has but he has not, to this point, been specific. He isn’t interested in keeping us guessing but at what point do you? How many types of cancer can you name, can you have, can you spell before you call it.

I read a story about three young, black American brothers from New York, he tells me, musicians all of them, one a violin player, one a cellist and the third a player of the double bass who busked in the subway in order to pay the rent. Their father, who hit them when they played the wrong notes, died, their mother left them when they were young, they’d been in jail for a while, for dealing drugs. What have I got to complain about? he asks, other than cancer I suppose. Everything is relative he says, even cancer, which leaves me contemplating whether he would swap places with the three brothers in New York.

Right at the moment he would dearly swap queueing for fuel for just about anything, suckered in by the discount sign, advertising obviously works then, with its promise of a $5 saving on filling up his car, my car, any car, as long as I am prepared to sit and wait in a queue to nowhere. Queueing has become a national pastime but when one has The Big C waiting takes on a slightly more poignant significance, in that the time I have left, in this world anyway, has been set for me. Set by doctors being as vague as possible, anywhere between a couple of months and a couple of years, not exactly precise but, I’ve discovered, the medical fraternity doesn’t deal in the precise. There are all sorts of factors at play when they sit down and give you the news, that the tests have come back and it’s not good news unfortunately Mr Birtles, you have a form of lung cancer that we really cannot treat and even with a transplant, the odds of the cancer spreading are better than even money.

So forgive me, he says, if I complain about watching other people wait in their cars, idling, while they contemplate how they’ll spend the $5 they’ll save by swinging their car into the service station and taking up the mouth watering offer. It’s my own fault, of course it’s my own fault, I didn’t have to succumb to the temptation, I could have done some simple mathematics and worked out that I’d spend my $5 on idling the car, or surmised that my time, the time I spend sitting, waiting, is worth rather more to me than any amount of money, particularly now that I’m slated for an early exit.

So now Colin is stuck, with half a dozen in front of him and one, two, make that three cars that have crabbed up behind, thinking the same thing. Although I suspect they’re not. At least he has Charlie Mingus to listen to, small consolation to being tricked, taken in by this type of thrift and irony.

It’s not even the kind of queueing for fuel, as desperate commuters on scooters in Pakistan would, as small business people, guides and couriers on motorbikes in Kathmandu would, as holiday makers heading for California from Michigan would, its purely based on desperate minds scrimping here so that we can spend there. On what? a drink when we get to the checkout?

The irony of it, although the service station attendant, like a felon on day release, community service at $12 an hour, wouldn’t appreciate the irony, the symbol of freedom, the motor vehicle, that he was trapped in, waiting, free, like all the others, waiting, free it must be emphasised, the machine enables us to go anywhere, at anytime, has us trapped. The very machine that enables us to just go, the same backseat that brakes a mothers heart and makes a father laugh or rage with fury, depending on whether he has a son or a daughter, the accelerator that weeps a million tears. Makes us free, while we await our turn at the filling station. You may have gathered that I don’t have a lot of time to await my turn, although how much time I don’t know, do any of us?

Colin will move on from the waiting in a queue that he shouldn’t have in the first place joined, there are weightier things to discuss. Time? Death? Is it so bad? are the two so intimately connected, and if they are, what do we do with the interregnum? Make our desk tidy? Make our lives tidy? Oh, the tidy lives with the tidy desks, coming back to the tidy home with tidily arranged furniture. Is death so bad? Life’s bum rap some would call what Colin has, they may be right but what difference does that make to them, and when I’m gone, who will be comforted? who will be at rest? They will worry more, that they may get something and not be able to cope. And will they be coherent enough to avoid filling station queues?

I had to push hard for answers to questions, doctors aren’t naturally obstructionist, they’re mostly just careful, wanting to prolong life, most of them. Why? One asks that question when one is given the news, after a week or two of asking other questions, such as why it has to be me. Why? covers a broad sweep of emotions, encapsulating everything that is reasonable and unreasonable, mostly unreasonable. Why? when I haven’t achieved everything I want to achieve. Naturally, one question inevitably leads to another. In this instance, one might ask, why don’t you think you’ve achieved everything you wanted to achieve?

Certainly, if a child is taken early, or even a young adult, the sentiment is valid but a forty two year old, with two teenage children? Colin told them. They are coping, as much as they attempt to slag their father at most available opportunities, now they are more careful, making sure, as best they can, that he’s in a good mood. Queueing for fuel doesn’t help but at least the car will have a full tank and he’ll have a fiver in his pocket.