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The road to Autumn Fair: Part 3 - White Van Men

I first joined a gang when I was about 6. It wasn't the murdering, thieving, cocaine-selling sort of gang you might be picturing. We dealt primarily in daisy chains and plaited reeds which we traded with neighbouring gangs in return for twigs and grass. Our territories were the 'dens' that we had built in a ditch at the bottom of the school field and we occupied them at almost every opportunity. Aside from gathering and exchanging the various items that we found in our surroundings, there were very few rules to the game. There were no winners or losers; nothing ever really happened other than the odd scrap over some stolen conkers and yet it was undeniably one of the most popular playground activities in our school. I suspect that what we enjoyed most about about being in a gang was in fact being in a gang. The tribalistic instinct that was so important in our evolutionary history is clearly alive and well in us today. We enjoy the feeling of belonging to a group of people with whom we feel some sort of common identity, whether that be supporting the same football team, believing in the same god, being born in the same country or simply driving the same vehicle...

The first time I drove a van was a few years ago when Jack and I moved house. When I think back, the whole situation was really rather odd. I was being very difficult in the run up to the move because I had been suddenly overcome with inconsolable sadness at the thought of leaving our first apartment and as a result I was refusing to pack my belongings and generally digging my heels in at every opportunity. Jack, therefore, had to take charge of pretty much everything. He left me with one task: hire the van. 

I don't know what sort of illegitimate rental company I sourced in the depths of the internet (and I've never found them again since) but I don't remember ever speaking to anyone or even showing anybody my driving license. On the day of the rental I received a text message containing some co-ordinates which described a secret location. (For the sake of honesty I'll admit that the text message actually contained an entire address, a vehicle registration number and some other instructions but the co-ordinates version lends extra mystery to my story and enhances the weirdness of the rental company so I'm going to continue with it. Every other detail is entirely true.) We plotted these co-ordinates on a map and drove to the location which turned out to be a regular suburban street. Upon our arrival we spotted a plain white Ford Transit. There were no markings on it identifying it as a rental vehicle but the license plate matched the one we had been given so we approached it. As we stood peering in through the passenger window, another text message arrived. It simply stated that the keys were in the glove box and that we should ring a number and key in a code. Suddenly we heard the vehicle unlock. 

We scoured the street hoping that this was all some sort of elaborate rental company prank. Perhaps we were the millionth customers and all the staff were about to jump out from behind bushes and throw confetti and there'd be a prize and a local news team would interview us and afterwards we'd be led to a real rental van and we'd laugh about it for years to come. This didn't happen. No one jumped out from behind the bushes and so eventually I climbed into the van and Jack returned to the car making a mental note to never leave me in charge of vehicle rental ever again.

I started up the van and began to drive. Almost immediately it struck me - I had a completely new perspective of the road. I was so high up! All of the regular cars around me dwarfed into insignificance. I could see over all of their heads, all the way down the street! This was amazing. I was the biggest thing on the road. All of my fears about my potentially illegal use of a potentially stolen vehicle just drifted away. I couldn't have cared less. Suddenly I spotted another van driving towards me and instinctively I knew what I had to do. As we passed each other I gave him 'the nod'. He nodded back in acknowledgement. That was it, I was in the club. I had become a white van man.

The rest of the move went smoothly, we returned the van to another secret location, left the keys in the glove box and somehow didn't get arrested. I often thought about my time in the Transit but it would be another four years before I found myself back in a van. We were preparing for our fifth exhibition which was taking place in Birmingham at the Autumn Fair and we decided that since we had built an entire retro cinema for our stand, we should probably hire a van. This time Jack, having learnt his lesson, organised the rental himself. We went to an actual showroom and dealt with actual humans. There were no codes or co-ordinates, it was all very boring and above board. Just what we needed really.

We had spent the last six weeks working on fast-forward. In that time we had undertaken a whole new stand design (aforementioned retro cinema) because we had found that we would be inhabiting a stand that was nearly twice the size of the one that we were expecting. The preparation had been difficult to say the least; Jack nearly poisoned himself by excessive inhalation of perspex during the construction of light boxes, I nearly poisoned myself by covering my limbs in toxic paint during the refurbishment of the cinema chairs, and we were both running on low due to a dangerous lack of sleep. Besides building the cinema we were releasing a brand new range of cards, updating two existing ranges and producing a new brochure all whilst trying to keep a handle on the day to day affairs of Lanther Black, which had decided to be extra busy just to make sure that we were absolutely stretched to our limits. With a week to go until show-time, we tore up the to-do list and replaced it with a worst case scenario list. We had only just given in our brochure artwork so we were fairly sure that we wouldn't have them in time, we hadn't received a full set of samples of the new range or the updates so we were preparing to deal with some big glaring gaps on the wall and we still hadn't bought or painted any of the wooden panelling that we'd be using on the stand. The only thing that we were sure of was that in seven days time, we would be in a van driving up to Birmingham, we just had no idea what would be in the back. 

But by nothing short of a miracle, the stars aligned and a week later we were stood on our driveway staring into the open back doors of the van in disbelief. Our printers had pulled out all the stops and the brochures were there along with a perfectly printed set of samples of all the new cards. The cinema chairs were there, the light boxes too. The wood was there, cut and painted and best of all, we were there, a little broken a little battered but with just enough left in the tank to finish the job. We hopped up into cab and as we looked down from the mighty heights at the world around us, the difficulties of the past six weeks faded away.

In true white van man style we grabbed a couple of sausage and egg McMuffins to go (although navigating the tiny lanes of the McDonald's drive-thru in our oversized vehicle was perhaps slightly more troublesome than we had anticipated). I spent the journey giving 'the nod' to every fellow van driver that we passed but they seemed a little more reluctant to return it this time. I suspect it had something to do with the giant, green 'Enterprise' logo emblazoned on the side of the van revealing our amateur member status, but I didn't care. For the next three hours, we weren't greeting card publishers who had bitten off just about as much as we could chew. We weren't exhibitors heading off to display the creations that had cost us our sleep. We weren't a weak and weary Lanther Black. For the next three hours we were nothing more than Dominique and Jack, white van men, whether they accepted us or not. We had thrown our whole selves into the preparation for this show and we had come through the other side. We had persisted and persevered and we had achieved the improbable. After a tremendously tough and personally challenging six weeks everything was ready and in its place and we were going to enjoy our little lap of honour. We were finally on the road to the Autumn Fair. 


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