|The Sofa Bed, the
Van and the Breadknife
© Copyright 2018 by Paul Waddington
A number of years ago I was sharing a flat in that leafy suburb of Northern London that is Muswell Hill. For those of you not familiar with the area, it is lovely pretty neighbourhood of Victorian terraced houses, wooded parkland, a bustling high street, avant-garde coffee outlets and eccentric shops, all high up above London on a hill, with beautiful views over the city. I had recently started my flat share, and my flatmate was easy to get along with, laid back, and had a philosophy of expending as little energy as possible. I often thought that Dylan had been born in the wrong decade and would have suited the late 1960’s perfectly rather than the early 2000’s. We had come to an arrangement that equal division of labor was to be the solution in running the day to day chores and issues. The apartment was one floor up from ground level, with a flat above and below, with entry through a communal front door, with a steep internal staircase, it dated back to the 1870’s and had great views across London from the front room.
At the time I had an acquaintance who worked in television and the media. His conversations usually centred around projects that existed purely in his imagination, and consisted of avalanches of words, strange ideas and odd script outlines for television pilots, all of which would invariably fail to materialise. Tarquin always believed that fame was just around the corner and I would always do my best to humour him. Any conversation would always be totally one sided, whilst I would be submerged in a sea of gregarious platitudes, ideas and plans that would lead to fortune, and which famous actors were going to be involved in his projects. Tarquin lived out of town in a small rural village in an expensive cottage that suited his view of himself as a modern-day William Shakespeare.
One afternoon the phone rang, whilst I was looking out of the window of the apartment, admiring the clouds in a blue sky floating over London. It was Tarquin, his rich plummy and posh accent assailed my right ear. “Paul how are you!? How is your new flat? I must come and visit! Now I know you love good furniture!”, I was not sure where he had got that idea from, as far as I could remember I had never discussed my love or otherwise of furniture with him. “What kind of sofa do you have? I bet it’s not a sofa bed!” I confirmed that I did not have a sofa bed. The intensity of Tarquins evident excitement increased on the other end of the phone at this news. “You need a sofa bed Paul! For guests! Now I have a sofa bed you can have! It’s never been used! I obtained it from Harrods six months ago. Not cheap you know! No rubbish! It has this fantastic system where you just pull a lever and the whole thing magically folds down! Wonderful design. Well I have no use for it now as I bought another bigger one last week, and I just know that you would love it! You can have it for nothing! No! I will not take any money for it! It’s free, if you could just come and pick it up that would be wonderful! Don’t say I don’t give a good deal! Just sent a script through to the BBC the other day, and they are very interested, did I tell you about it?” Tarquin then spent fiteen minutes outlining how the script was going be the best thing ever on the BBC. Suddenly he recalled the sofa bed to the conversation. I hadn’t even had time to say whether I actually wanted it or not. I really didn’t want it all. It would mean having to get rid of the perfectly good sofa I was already sitting on. “So when do you want to come and pick up the sofa bed Paul? No, don’t thank me! That’s what friends are for!” It had been a typical ‘conversation’ with Tarquin, without even saying I would want the sofa bed, somehow, I had been manoeuvred into agreeing to take it, and drive out of town to collect it.
Later that evening I discussed the call from Tarquin with Dylan. He had previously met Tarquin so knew the type of conversation I would have had. He agreed that he would help me in collecting the sofa bed. The question was how we were going to pick the thing up. Dylan had never learned how to drive, so I would have do the driving. Neither of us had a car, so we would have to hire a van. I hadn’t driven for a few years, but I reasoned that hiring a small van to put a sofa bed in wouldn’t be too stressful for me. The conclusion we came to was that as I was driving, and as that took up time and energy, Dylan’s part would be in booking the van from a hire company for the day, and helping to map read. These were the days before Satnavs, so I would need help in getting to Tarquin’s as I had never driven to his place. We agreed a date and I sent a text to Tarquin to let him know. (I really didn’t want to have another ‘conversation’ with him so soon.)
After a few weeks, the day finally dawned on ‘Sofa Bed Day’. I had booked the day off work, and Dylan was working a night shift that night. He said it would be fine, as we would easily be back in plenty of time. We would get over to Tarquin’s place, pick up the sofa bed, zoom back, take the sofa bed upstairs, drop the van off and be finished by mid-afternoon. Dylan would then be able to have a rest before his night shift. Over a breakfast coffee with Dylan I asked how the booking of the hire van had gone. “Yeah, great, no problem. I had a good look round and got us a really good price. You couldn’t find cheaper man!” I was happy that costs would be low, as I was spending money to obtain something that I really did not want at all. Dylan had booked a taxi to take us to the where we going to collect the van. I called Tarquin to let him know where on our way. “Fantastic! Paul! You are just going to love this sofa bed! Hurry up and get here! We need to talk about me and the BBC!” The taxi arrived and we were off. After 20 minutes the taxi pulled up next to set of railway arches, there was some rough spare ground, rubbish and trash blowing around, wilting plants, rubble and general unkempt horrible mess everywhere. “This is the place you wanted mate!” declared the taxi driver. I looked at Dylan. This was not the Avis or Hertz Car and Van Hire Centre I had been expecting. Dylan told me he had found the number and address in a small ad in the Yellow Pages. We got out of the taxi and it drove away. Around a corner, I spotted a grey flat roofed oblong porta-cabin. It was surrounded by dirty looking weeds, old tires, black bags of rubbish and there were a couple of old cars parked around. I walked up to the shed like structure and knocked on the door. I really didn’t want anyone to be inside so I would have an excuse to go home. From inside I heard something falling on the floor and a deep hacking cough. I shot Dylan a look. “What the hell is wrong with Avis or Hertz?!” I hissed. The deadpan answer came back. “The cost.” There was a fumbling noise from inside. With a slow creak the door opened. I was greeted by a short scruffily dressed man, with about two or three days growth of stubble. His thinning hair was a tangled mess, from the corner of his mouth dangled a smouldering crumpled hand rolled cigarette. “Yeah?” he wheezed at me in a thick East End London accent. I explained that we had come about the van hire. His brow creased and he looked puzzled. “Van? What van?” Dylan told him that he had spoken to some bloke called ‘Frank’, and that a van would be here from nine am this morning. It was now past nine thirty. The man gave a deep long throaty cough. “Bloody Frank. Come in, I’ll get it sorted for ya.” Inside was a sea of filthy coffee mugs full of dried up dregs, overflowing ashtrays, yellowing pictures of scantily clad women stuck on the walls, sheets of papers, receipts piled high, and greasy unwashed plates. We sat down on a couple of squeaky chairs, next to a filthy desk. The guy went over to a phone. “Frank? It’s Sid ‘ere. Got a couple of blokes ‘ere ‘bout a van. Yeah. What’s this about? So now ya tell me! Where is the bloody thing? Aw for Gawd’s sake! Okay. Bloody hell” He put the phone down. He took the disintegrating cigarette from his mouth for a second. “Don’t worry” he said showing us a fine set of gapped yellowing teeth. “The van’ll be ‘ere soon’. He collapsed into a rickety swivel chair and started looking though a pile of papers. “I’ll get yer insurance sorted now.” I looked around. You might pay a little extra with Avis or Hertz, but at least the waiting areas they provided for you were not dangerous to your overall health. After about fifteen minutes there was a crunch of gravel and the sound of a motor outside. “yer got the readies mate?” he asked. Dylan went up and gave him some cash. I looked out of a greasy window. What I saw outside was not the small van I was expecting. I had never driven anything larger than a small hatchback. What was outside was a large box van truck. It was huge. I checked my driving license in my wallet. For some reason I was cleared to drive such a vehicle. Sid lurched up to me, and he handed me a crumpled bit of paper. “ ‘Ere’s yer insurance, runs out at six tonight.” A tall very thin man came in through the door. He looked at Sid. “ ‘Ello Frank, yer got the keys?” gasped Sid. Frank nodded. I stood up and took the keys from Frank. “Just post ‘em through the letterbox tonight when yer done mate.” Said Sid through a cloud of smoke. So this was it. I was going to have to drive this thing.
With Dylan I walked around the truck. My horror and trepidation mounted. It was old, rusty, bashed up and was covered in deep dents and scratches. I pulled open the creaky door at the back. I estimated we could get around fifteen to twenty sofa beds inside it. I was now on ‘commit’. There was no way I could back out now. Sid and Frank had already been paid by Dylan. Tarquin was expecting us, full of hubris and platitudes about the wonders of the sofa bed. It was pointless getting angry with Dylan. I knew I should have checked things myself as I was doing the actual driving. More fool me. I climbed into the cabin, the floor was covered with rubbish, old plastic coffee cups, cigarette ends and dirty looking items I couldn’t identify. There was a hole in the floor just next to my seat, and I looked through it to the ground below. Dylan joined me. He pulled out a drivers atlas. Now we had to actually get there. I inserted the key into the ignition, after three or four turns the engine grumbled into shuddering life. The gear stick was very long and very wobbly. With an evil crunch I got the thing into first gear. The gear stick shuddered horribly as I let it go. I eased the truck forward. It leaped forward and came to a shuddering halt. I tried again, and with a grinding noise of complaint the thing moved off. Going around a bend onto the high street I caught a concrete bollard on the left hand side, adding to the number of dents and scratches. The rear-view mirrors were cracked and provided next to no view of anything behind me. It was truly horrible to drive. I had to lean over in my chair to change gears due to the amount of space between gears that the gearbox required, my arm was simply not long enough to do the job. Doing this and keeping my foot on the clutch and my other hand on the steering wheel was almost impossible and sent nerves of high fright through my body, as I drove through the busy high street of cars, bicycles, and pedestrians. After half an hour of terror, heart stopping lane changes, praying I would not hit anything or anyone, and learning that the brakes were next to non-existent, we were on the London Orbital Motorway the M25. Due to sheer fright, I hadn’t taken the wreck out of third gear yet. As we trundled along the inside lane I attempted to force the thing up a gear. The gear stick vibrated wildly in my hand. There was a grinding noise as though the pits of hell had opened. It echoed through the very fabric of the van. I could not get it into forth gear. I was pushing the clutch as far down as it would go. The grating vibrations shook my hands, arms, up into my spine and throughout my body. The plastic coffee cups and garbage on the floor of the van jumped around crazily and vibrated around my feet and legs as if they had been infused with a deranged life of their own. It was clear that the thing could no longer shudder past third gear. Suddenly it was then in no gear at all and traffic was building up behind me as I was now going about 30 miles an hour. I was slowing down and had lost all power. Using all my force, fighting with the gear stick, I got it back into third gear with one hand, holding on for dear life to the steering wheel with the other hand, as I leaned across the cabin in some awful contortion. There was no power steering, and the massive steering wheel sapped all my strength as I struggled to keep the thing in a straight line. Behind me traffic was building up, and cars were angrily flashing their headlights at me. The engine strained and whined as I got it up to its maximum speed of forty five miles an hour. Dylan was staring straight ahead, his face was white, he shot me a glance. Cars overtook us, with drivers giving me the finger as they passed. The gear stick was alive, twitching and shaking around like some sort of demented trapped animal trying to escape its moorings. We were both wondering how this would all end.
The remainder of the drive had no let-up in the levels of fear it shot into me. Dylan was just about able to map read. “Which exit is it?” I asked, staring straight ahead, gripping the steering wheel with white knuckles. “Errrr….” Came the reply, as Dylan fumbled with the map. “The next one,” he said, with a total lack of conviction. I gritted my teeth, “Are you sure?” Dylan struggled with the map, which was not easy due the quaking convulsions going through the van. “No the one after the next one!” Ten minutes later, somehow, we were off the M25 and on the road to the village where Tarquin lived. Getting through junctions where I had to stop was horrendous. Once stopped, trying to get it to move forward again was almost impossible, as is shuddered at a creaking snails pace across the intersections. Another twenty minutes and I pulled over about fifty yards or so from Tarquin’s cottage. Weakened and pale I descended out of the hideous truck-van. My arms were half numbed, my knees were trembling. I felt drained and just wanted to hide in a corner in some place well away from the van from hell. No such luck. I had to deal with Tarquin. Both Dylan and I took a deep breath and walked up to the cottage.
“Come in!” Announced Tarquin, opening the door “How was your journey? Did you have bad traffic? I was wondering where you had got to!”, Our journey had taken considerably longer than I had anticipated, and we were running well behind time. He looked over my shoulder at the van down the road. A look of slight disgust crossed his face. “Is that your van over there? Looks like a good solid workhorse!” The platitudes continued as we entered the cottage. “Yes sit down! I’ve got some canapés and finger sandwiches in from Marks and Spencer. English Breakfast or Earl Grey? Did you know that canapé is French for ‘sofa’? Ha! Ha! Yes the sofa bed! Here it is! What do you think? Harrods got it in to my specifications!” On and on he went. Any interjections me and Dylan tried were swept down the raging torrent in the river of words coming at us from Tarquin. “A wonderful sofa bed! Look at this handle! You just pull the lever here and it folds up or down like magic! Do you like the fabric? Pretty nice stuff there! Try it out for size! Let me tell you about my script proposal! I was on the phone for ages yesterday to the producer at the BBC!”, That did not surprise me. “He loves the story synopsis!”. Time was ticking down. Dylan had a night shift coming, and the insurance on the van would expire at six. Would Tarquin ever shut up? The next forty minutes were spent listening to Tarquin’s script outline, whilst we nodded and agreed through fixed smiles how wonderful it all sounded. When were we going to actually get the damn sofa bed into the van? I attempted to steer the flow of Tarquin’s words back to the topic of the sofa bed. It worked. As Tarquin gave us an endless outline of all its expensive attributes, I nodded to Dylan that we should make to move the thing.
“Here let me help you guys!” Declared Tarquin. “It’s not light you know! Made from the finest solid wood and iron components!” The thing was indeed very heavy, with the three of us it was a struggle. With a heave and a push we got the thing into back of the box van. I climbed inside. The sofa looked tiny in comparison to the amount of space inside. With Dylan I pushed the thing to the back and tied it down with some bits of rope. If only I had done the booking of the van. Then I would be driving something that would actually be drivable, and have space for one sofa bed rather than at least twenty of the damn things. I looked at my watch. We had wasted ages of time. It was now well past three in the afternoon. I pulled the shutter door down on the back of the van. The lock was broken. To be honest I would have been amazed if was not broken. I felt a knot of fear tightening within me. I now had to drive back into London. “You’re going to love having the sofa bed Paul! Make sure you drive carefully and that you don’t damage it! We wouldn’t want that would we?!” Myself and Dylan clambered reluctantly again into the cabin. “Cheerio!” Waved Tarquin. I forced the horribly long gear lever forward into first gear. Eventually it locked into place with a noise that said that the thing really didn’t want to do this basic function at all. We lurched off onto the road.
Words cannot describe how much I did not want to be driving the awful thing. Soon we were on the slip road leading onto the M25. I dared not risk putting the shuddering heap into forth gear again. I put my foot flat to the floor in some effort to get some type of speed up. The speedometer wobbled around forty-five miles per hour, and refused to go any higher. The engine was making the most horrible screeching sound. All off a sudden I felt a sickening clunk through the steering wheel. Dylan’s was staring straight ahead, eyes fixed onto the middle distance. I tried to steer a little to the left. I couldn’t move the steering wheel. It had locked up. I was unable to steer. The engine was somehow still engaged. Traffic was all around me. I needed to carry on going forward because of the cars and trucks behind me. I dare not slow down, but I had no control over the vehicles direction. In a few short seconds, I would start drifting out of the lane. I tried not to panic. Pure fear ran through my veins. I grabbed the keys and frantically jangled and twisted them in the ignition. Nothing happened. My mouth was dry, I tried to swallow in fear, but the back of my throat was devoid of moisture and all I felt was pain. I tried the keys again. Please God let the steering come back! I felt a pull to the left come through the steering wheel. I had steering control back. I was able to breathe again. That had truly been one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. My whole body was convulsed with the amount of adrenalin running through me. My heart was pounding in my chest and my hands were weak and trembling. I kept the speed to forty miles an hour. I was not going to try and force the speed any higher again. Everything on the motorway was overtaking us. If the police were to see us dawdling at such a slow pace I knew that we would be in deep trouble. After what seemed like an eternity of unrelenting fear we were back in North London. Now I was faced with narrow streets, and all the normal hazards of city traffic, whilst driving a rust bucket death trap. Neither of us had any idea how to get back to Muswell Hill. Dylan had gone beyond caring about his inability to map read. We both just wanted to journey from the ninth circle of Hell to be over.
Suddenly Dylan spotted a road sign to Muswell Hill. After about fifteen minutes I brought the van to a juddering halt outside the flat. I looked at my watch. It was half past five. We were running out of time. Climbing into the back we dragged and heaved the sofa bed into the street. “Can you remember the way back to place to drop off the van?” I asked. “No, didn’t think I’d need to.” Came the reply. Neither did I. What a couple of chumps. We had no time to get the thing upstairs before the insurance expired. We couldn’t leave the sofa in the communal entrance as it would block other the other residents. There was no front garden or any space to leave I where it would be safe. “We’re just going to have to leave it here in the street.” said Dylan. By luck it was a warm sunny evening and not raining, otherwise the thing would have been ruined. If someone came along and helped themselves to the thing then so be it. We had to go. It was ten to six. I climbed into the vile van again, leaving the sofa bed sunbathing in the street in the evening sunshine. Aimlessly I drove around. Which way to go? I knew that the place was near a railway line, and behind a high street in a suburb called Cricklewood, I just didn’t know how to get there. It was now gone six o’clock, the van was now uninsured. Stay calm, I would soon be free of the van I told myself. To my right I spotted a small shop I remembered from the taxi drive in the morning. Dylan yelled out to me at the same time as he recognized the area. The place had to be somewhere here! All I had to do was find the place without causing or having an accident, which as you may appreciate, was easier said than done.
Driving the thing completely uninsured did nothing at all to ease my stress levels. The van shook and shuddered with a wrenching and screeching of gears as I took it down into second, the steering wheel was sapping my remaining strength. Suddenly, around a corner it was there: The low grey porta-cabin, the mess and garbage strewn around and the railway arches. I pulled up and the van gave a final hissing death rattle as I let the engine die. We were both exhausted and slowly got out of the van for the last thankful time. I locked the door the van. I was doing any thief a favor by locking the thing. I shoved the keys through the letterbox of the cabin hut. That felt good, but the madness was still not over. We had to get back home. We had to get the sofa bed into the apartment, and then Dylan had to do his night shift. There was no time for rest.First we had to get back to Muswell Hill. Cricklewood has no Underground station, so we had to find our way back on three separate busses. This devoured another hour of time.
Finally we were back on our street. It was twenty past seven in the evening. The sofa bed was still there, providing any one passing by a nice place to comfortably sit and admire the sunset over London. I took one end of it and Dylan took the other. It felt as if was made of solid lead. My arms strained as I pulled it into the hallway. I was weakened from the strains of driving the van, and the strength of my body and stamina had all but gone. With a clunk I dropped it onto the floor. The staircase to the floor above had a tight right angle turn halfway up before you went up more stairs to the door of the apartment. Only now I realized how wide the sofa bed was. Puffing, gasping and groaning with the strain we had to angle the sofa so that it pivoted on one side so that it would fit into the gap of the stairwell. It weighed a ton. Push, pull, heave, shove, gasp. The thing was almost alive as gravity wanted to make it fall one way or the other from the pivoted angle were struggling to keep it on. It pulled to either side with its dense weight every time it was even touched. It was solid, with pointed edges that trapped my fingers against the wall as I tried to move it, and I had developed an utter hatred of the damn thing.
I pushed my knees up against it, and this helped a little in forcing it up the staircase. We were halfway up to the right-angled turn. This meant that it had to be made to stand upright as we got there to negotiate the turn. The effort in doing this without letting the damn thing fall down the stairs further sapped our strength. Suddenly it fell forward with a crunch. The top part gouged a deep gash out of the plaster of the wall. As it fell it had jammed itself into position against a stair and the wall. It wouldn’t budge. My arm muscles were quivering in weakness. We both got behind it and with a last superhuman effort we used our combined weight to push it around the corner. It took a further chunk out of the wall with a shower of plaster and paint shards. Just four more stairs now and we would finally have it at the door to the apartment. Suddenly Dylan started coughing uncontrollably, he went pale, and sat gasping on the stairs. I wondered if we were going to get to end of this day from hell alive. He pulled himself up. “We’ve got to get this thing further up Paul.” He said weakly. “I need to get into the flat to get my stuff for tonight, and I can’t do that with this bloody thing in the way.” Gathering what was left of our strength we got it up the last four stairs. Heaving for breath I looked at Dylan. “We’ve done it!” What a day it had been. An utter nightmare. I pushed open the door. It was a fairly narrow door. I had never noticed that before. We pushed the sofa bed forward. It wouldn’t fit through the door. Despair crept through my body. We forced it around and tried again. Push. Heave. No good. I had the idea that getting the backrest part through first would help. Maybe I could then twist it in through the door. We pulled it out of the door again. Angling it we fell against it and pushed the backrest through the door. With a creaking of wood it came to an abrupt halt. We tried to move it again. This time it really would not move. It was wedged fast in the door. The sides of the door were locked like clamps onto the sofa bed. I sat on the stairs. I cursed it honestly from the depths of my soul. There was a small gap whereby you could crawl through a space between the sofa and the door. I saw Dylan drag himself inside. A moment later he emerged with his rucksack. “Sorry Paul. I’ve really got get to work. I’m late. I’ve done my best.” I thanked him for his efforts, but there was nothing more he could do. I heard the front door close as Dylan left. So here I was. Alone in the stairwell. All was quiet now. What the hell was I going to do?
The bottom part of the sofa bed was jutting forward out of the door and was blocking the access to the apartment above. The realization came to me that I was going to have to destroy the sofa bed. After everything that I had been through, all the agony, danger, stress and effort it was going to have be destroyed. It was the only option. If the people above were in, they were trapped. If they were out they would be blocked by the angled sofa bed. How was I going to do it? I had no tools. Not even a hammer. I crawled into the flat through the gap and went into the kitchen. I had recently bought a nice new kitchen cutlery set for the flat. I pulled out the breadknife from the kitchen drawer. At least it was new and sharp. I turned and faced my foe, locked fast in the doorway. I held the breadknife tightly. I looked at the expensive upholstery. I dug the breadknife deep into the fabric and foam cushioning. I began hacking away at the wood. If ever there was a cathartic experience this was it. I ripped and tore the fabric and foam away, exposing the frame. My arms were still drained and weak, but my hatred of it drove me on. I sawed away into the backrest. Sawdust began to build up on the floor. I started on an armrest. Suddenly the armrest collapsed and the whole thing fell forward into the flat with a crash. I took a deep breath. The wreck of the sofa bed lay there inert. I cut into it at strategic points. I was going to have break it up into chunks if I was going to get rid of it. Once I had sawed into the wood weakening it, I stood up and launched into kicking those parts with all my force. Bruce Lee would have enjoyed the spectacle I am sure. Parts broke off with a satisfying crunching and splintering of wood. A spring leapt out and flew past my head. Would this monster ever yield and die?! The breadknife was bending and wobbling as I forced it into the wood, sawing back and forth as fast as I could. This thing that had been the cause of so much stress, danger and madness, now it was meeting its end. Another fifteen minutes of attack and the deed was done. The beast was dead. The breadknife was bent and blunted and lay on the floor. Around me lay a mess of wood, sawdust, fabric, clumps of foam stuffing and horrible metal parts. I went into the kitchen and pulled out some large black bags. I gathered up its mortal remains and filled up the bags. Tying them up I carried them downstairs and left them outside with the household garbage. I pulled the vacuum cleaner out of the cupboard and hovered up the rest of the mess. The only evidence that it had existed were the dents and gashes in the walls and the sides of the door. I closed the door, went into the front room and went to my own friendly sofa. My sofa had survived the attempt to usurp it. I collapsed onto my sofa. It enveloped me and I fell into a blissed-out coma.
Tarquin never did visit the flat, he never learned of my day that was ‘The Sofa Bed, The Van and the Breadknife”, and the fate that befell the gift he bestowed on me.