Leeway Trading Estate in Newport is one of those forgotten pieces of industrial detritus that litter the South Wales coastal plain like souvenirs from a previous economic era. It harks back to the days when someone could earn enough in a forty hour week to keep a family without supplementary benefits, a second income, a forty year mortgage, and credit cards to pay off the credit cards. Did they really exist?
You will not find a call centre anywhere near Leeway, neither will it ever be described as “Leeway Commercial Park”, but what you will find are those islands of entrepreneurial spirit that characterise the best efforts of modern Britain to earn a living as an independent spirit, free from the demands of unreasonable bosses, a cash business that fulfils the most basic of needs: the need for food. I am, of course, referring to the burger van.
There are three burger vans within walking distance of each other on the estate, but only the most centrally placed of them offers that culinary masterpiece: the hot pork sandwich, a favourite that transcends the fad diet of the moment.
If I’m hungry, and I frequently am, there is nothing more satisfying than one of Mike’s Lo Cal, hot pork sandwiches, complete with stuffing and apple sauce. He says the reason he calls it Lo Cal has nothing to do with the calorific value, but rather because it was made just around the corner, so it’s LoCal. The bread is sliced thick enough to expose the limitations of a single hinge jaw and the meat has that distinct, burger van flavour that says; “I’m extremely toxic, but anything this tasty has to be..” I can almost feel my posterior ventricle closing up whenever I eat one of these monsters, but eat them I do, and with a frequency that exposes my background as a Grangetown boy. I was brought up on Clark’s Pies and Scraps, so LoCal Pork Sandwiches have nothing with which my constitution can’t deal, with or without bypass surgery.
The burger vans have another function; they act as social venues. They are the weekday garden fences of industrial Britain. Men, mostly men anyway, gather around, talking about work, football, sex and occasionally sex with their partners, often with a burger, bacon butty, or LoCal sandwich in one hand and a cup of tea and cigarette in the other. The air is often as thick with expletives as it is with the blue haze of cigarette smoke. You’d find a similar crowd at a professional darts match, or hanging around in a Pilgwenny snooker hall, their jocular demeanour only just masking the air of insipient sub-violence that bubbles below the surface of most masculine gatherings of this type. Friendly slaps on the anterior cranium for the acne bedevilled apprentices of this conclave, digs in the ribs for the late arrivals, scowls for the male office staff, who hug the back of the queue, staring at their shoes, hoping not to attract the attention of the workshop wag. Everyone’s “mate” or “son”, there is no other appellation, other than the gender distinguishing “darling”, which blankets any women brave enough to enter this last of the men’s worlds.
Atypically, today was wholly bereft of the local colour. I’d arrived at station at least half an hour too early, and I’d ordered and halfway devoured my LoCal before anyone arrived. Then with a slight squeal of tyres, a pickup with an inordinate number of ladders, the obligatory sweeping brush stuck in the stanchion behind the cab, and a sign on the tailgate advising that this was a vehicle in the fleet of Gwent Roofing, Cladding and Driveways. Out stepped a face I recognised, but with whom I am not on anything other than nodding terms. Mine host, Mike, a thorough professional in more ways than one, greeted him by his first name. He knows everyone who visits his van more than once by their first name. His discovery technique isn’t subtle, generally something like: “Where d’you work then, wassisname..?”
Then if that doesn’t work, he introduces everyone else: “Call me Mike. This is Ted, Andy, Phil, Lard-arse… no it’s not, it’s Tony. Only joking.”
I offered my name before he got to the third stage. Occasionally, I’m referred to as “Anytime”, as in: “Anytime, any place, anywhere, that’s Martini”.
I got a nickname because I am a regular; most regulars have some kind of nickname, if only in the form of the letter “O”, “I” or “Y” added to a concatenation of one of their given names. Occasionally, Mike will have a moment of inspiration and Billo will become Brillo, or some other pun on a common artefact. My nickname was taken a step further when one of the other regulars started humming the theme to the Martini advert, but it doesn’t rest easily with the standard theme, so it only makes an appearance when Mike wants to appear clever.
“All right, Johno?” Mike greeted the new arrival.
“I would be if wasn’t for that fucking twat I work for,” Johno wasted no time with pleasantries, he was a straight into the meat of the conversation type of guy. He added emphasis with a, “Fucking Twat”.
“What’s he fucking up to now? You having the usual?” Mike was equally adept at not wasting time – business came high in the priorities.
“Ay, put a bit more sugar in the tea will you? Would you fucking believe it…” Johno started, he obviously had a lot on his chest, “I been waiting since half past fucking five, but I haven’t done a fucking stroke ‘cos twat face hasn’t turned up with the fucking roofing permit.”
“Where’d he get to then?” Mike prompted.
“Where’d he fucking get to? I don’t fucking know, all I fucking know is he rings me at ten o’ fucking clock and says he can’t get a fucking permit until two.” Then, for good measure: “Twat.”
“Here,” Mike said, passing him a large white mug. That’s another distinguishing factor between the regulars and transients. The regulars get a mug, the rest a polystyrene cup. It says a lot when another man is prepared to wash up for you, and not only that, he values your custom so much he’s prepared to double the value of your purchases. Twice as much tea for the regs. He pushed the sugar bowl across to Johno. “Put your own in, I never puts enough in for you.”
“Tight fucking twat,” said Johno. All three of us laughed. Johno leaned against the serving hatch, took a swig of his tea, and then added three sugars. “Anyway, the cunt says he’ll be back on site by half past two, and expects us to work ‘til fucking eight. He wants the fucking job finished. Fuck that.”
“What’d you say?” Mike asked.
“It was un-fucking-printable.” Johno revealed. “Un-fucking-printable.”
“Too right.” Mike commiserated as he flipped Johno’s burger. I nodded my appreciation of the unfortunate Johno’s difficulties, threw my paper napkin in the wire basket with the “Newport Parks Department” badge, and pushed my mug across the counter.
“Thanks, Mike. Nice to meet you, Johno.”
“And you, son.” Johno nodded his appreciation of my appreciation. “He’s a fucking twat, eh?”
I could only agree.
Burger this was first published in the original readwrite.co.uk on Sunday 17th April 2005.