On Channel

1. DRIVING HOME

"Breaker one-nine for a ten-thirty-six," the disembodied voice crackled from the ether. "Breaker for the thirty-six, it's a bit after oh-two hundred hours," another voice replied as if awaiting the chance to furnish this information, "want a copy?" "Negative, the wet stuff's coming down and I need all my concentration for the highway. Thanks for the thirty-six, this is the Moonman saying ten-ten 'til we do it again."

Dave Richardson smiled, though no one saw it. He was making his way back from a client visit in the north, driving along unfamiliar roads in the early hours of the morning. With luck he'd be back home within a few hours and could go to sleep before it started getting light. If he were delayed he'd go to bed in daylight and would toss and turn for ages before Morpheus finally took him under his wing.

The LED channel indicator on the CB rig mounted in the car's central console glowed 19 out of the darkness. Dave listened to the sporadic traffic on the breaking channel, some asking for directions, some like the Moonman wanting to know the time, others just wanting to hear another human voice.

Citizens' Band radio had arrived unannounced in Britain in the mid-1970s. Films such as "Convoy" and TV series like "The Dukes of Hazzard" brought CB and its attendant culture to British audiences. A considerable market arose for CB equipment, waiting to be tapped. It wasn't long before hundreds of rigs were being illegally imported, hidden in freight containers, supplanting those smuggled in by travellers returning from the USA.

In the early 1980s CB was officially sanctioned, using a set of FM frequencies unique to Britain. The illegal AM equipment soon gathered dust as it was replaced by UK-spec rigs, sold by shops that mushroomed all over the country. After the CB craze passed, many of these became mobile phone shops and continue as such to this day.

Dave's rig had been upped to 6 watts and operated via a linear amplifier, effectively giving him a 72-watt output. This was sufficient for a 20-plus mile copy in the right conditions but put him far over the legally permitted 4-watts. Right now he was running light with the extra power switched off; it just wasn't necessary in the small hours.

He continued listening on the side, occasionally following breakers to other channels until he became tired of their conversation or the copy ceased. Then it was back to channel 19 and the jargon of the make-believe truckers with their imaginary 18-wheel Kenworths and Macks, in reality Ford Transit drivers on overnight parcel delivery services.

A woman's voice broke the silence and half-a-dozen male breakers chipped in to offer a copy. CB was an overwhelmingly male-dominated media and could be intimidating, even for those women who felt comfortable using it. What few females were on channel at this time of night were usually businesswomen soliciting customers.

In doing so they were taking a risk because names, phone numbers and addresses given over the air were audible to anyone monitoring that channel. The police might no longer be interested in illegal rig possession but they certainly monitored the system. Careless talk on the airwaves had help deprive more than one criminal of his liberty!

Dave tried calling the "handles" of some breakers he remembered from previous travels along this stretch of road but with no success. He got a response from a breaker, a mutual acquaintance of one of the names he'd called, and they took their conversation to channel 37. This was one of his favourites. Certain channels – 1, 18, 20 and 40 – were nearly always in use, especially during the day, but channel 37 was usually vacant.

They talked about everything and nothing for the best part of an hour until their paths diverged and conversation became difficult, even using linear amplifiers. They gave each other the Golden Numbers, a CB valediction that was a crossover from the 73s and 88s of amateur radio, and Dave retuned the rig to channel 19.

2. THE COPY

He was just over an hour from home and it looked like he'd make it in before daylight. The CB rig was almost silent now, most mobile traffic had ceased and the home-base insomniacs had fallen asleep over the cold dregs of their coffee. He'd put the car radio on as an aid to wakefulness and was listening to the usual anodyne output that radio stations broadcast to keep their transmitters warm overnight. Trainee presenters, transmission breaks - who cared? The audiences could be numbered in hundreds – the stations were only on-air to fulfil the terms of their broadcasting licence. Very few advertisers bought time at that hour in those days.

He nearly missed the call, it was that feint, a voice from a few years back when Dave had had a regular place of work and travelled the same return route every weekday. Foxfire, personal name Jimmy, had been one of Dave's morning copies. Every weekday they had regular conversations on their net (a gathering of CB users), based on the morning's newspaper headlines. A real trucker, Jimmy always had that day's edition of The Sun with him in his cab and could be relied on to get a discussion going.

Dave's opinions were usually in line with Jimmy's but with less of the "hang 'em and flog 'em" approach that was the hallmark of The Sun's stance in the '80s. Not so Clive, a gentle-mannered teacher at an East End comprehensive and a committed Guardian reader. Jimmy delighted in winding Clive up and Clive couldn't see why.

Clive would sometimes leave the net in a huff and Dave would suggest a break for a muddy coffee from a refreshment van parked on the edge of Wanstead Flats. There he'd calm Clive down before the teacher had to face his class of 15-year-olds for registration. Clive just couldn't see why the sacred cows of liberal-left public servants should cause others such amusement. Like most of his ilk, he hated Margaret Thatcher. With two of her most ardent admirers in the net, there was bound to be a regular show of fireworks!

Dave keyed the microphone. "Is that Foxfire? You've got Simple Simon, d'you copy?" "Reading you strength 3, Dave, take it to the usual?" Dave racked his tired brain to remember what "the usual" was; it had been so long since he'd been part of that net. He tried 23 to no avail but found Jimmy awaiting him on 5.

"Long time no copy, Dave," said Jimmy once the standard CB greetings had been exchanged, "I thought you'd gone down for good." Dave explained to him how his job had changed and why he was rarely on channel during the morning rush hour. "Me too," Jimmy responded, "I was made redundant and then spent a few months doing casual van driving until I got this job. Too many overnighters for my liking – and the wife's – never knowing where you're going to be or able to make any plans; still, it's a job and there's plenty without one."

They talked of the places they'd been to, of old times and the members of their net. "Roger's still doing the same journey, Bill died suddenly of cancer and Clive got a deputy headship at a school in South Wales; left the area some time ago. He couldn't tell that I liked him a lot, a thoroughly nice guy, otherwise I'd never have wound him up so much."

"Damn!" said Dave, "I loaned him a couple of my Led Zeppelin albums and hoped I'd bump into him on channel sometime so I could get them back. I might as well forget them now." They talked on until Dave turned into his driveway. He bade Jimmy goodbye, locked his car in the garage and opened the front door.

3. REVELATIONS

It was four weeks later that Dave found himself driving along the old route at the old net rendezvous time. He'd been away on a fortnight's holiday and was going into the office for a "normal" day, otherwise he'd never have tuned the CB rig down to channel 5 at that hour. He heard some unfamiliar voices and listened a while before venturing to interrupt. "On the side," he cut in. "Breaker on the side – slide" came the standard response and Dave announced himself.

"Ah, Simple Simon, I heard mention of you when I first joined this net, welcome back!" said a voice who introduced himself as Bob, handle The Godfather. He wasn't a Mafioso, he said with a laugh, but had stood sponsor at his nephew's christening the week before buying his CB equipment and the handle seemed appropriate.

Dave joined in the conversation but was careful not to dominate it, observing one of the rules of CB etiquette when joining other people's nets. In a conversation lull he mentioned having copied Foxfire a few weeks earlier. The channel went silent and Dave asked if anyone had heard him.

"You what?" replied The Godfather in a change of tone that indicated he was far from amused. "Are you taking the rise?" Dave assured him he wasn't. "Are you coming back this way tonight? If so, I'd like a private word with you. D'you know the Wheatsheaf?"

Dave agreed to be in that pub's saloon bar about six-thirty that evening and took his leave of the conversation. In any case, he was within a mile of his office and would have lost communication as soon as he entered the underground car park.

The first day back at work after a break is always a busy one and Dave's was no exception. There was a lot of catching up to do on the project status so he gave little or no thought to that evening's meeting.

At ten to six, Dave was making his way back from work, wondering what was in store for him at the Wheatsheaf. Should he forget the whole thing and go straight home? The anonymity of CB meant he'd probably never encounter The Godfather again unless he chose to do so. Curiosity got the better of him and he pulled into the pub car park.

A quick look over the few cars already there showed no signs of CB capability, unlike the K40 whip antenna that towered over his car's roof. He went inside, ordered a pint and dropped a coin into a fruit machine. A few plays later he had a modest win but managed to feed all the money back into the machine without further success.

As the wheels spun for the final time a voice from behind him said "Simple Simon?" Dave turned and nodded to a middle-aged man in a dark grey business suit, a sales rep if ever Dave saw one. "Bob, The Godfather," the man said, extending a hand. His firm grip and eye-to-eye contact reinforced Dave's assessment of Bob's profession.

Bob offered Dave another drink (which he declined) and led the way to a table in a quiet corner. He took out a packet of cigarettes, offered them to Dave (which he also declined), lit one himself and drank deeply from his pint. A full fifteen seconds passed before he spoke.

"Thanks for meeting me, I hope I didn't seem rude this morning," he said before drawing again on his cigarette. "It's just that I was taken aback when you said you'd spoken to Jimmy. Exactly when would you say that happened?"

Dave sipped his beer as he thought aloud. "It was about a month ago. I'd been to Leeds and drove back overnight." There was a brewery calendar hanging from a nail on the wall. He walked over, took down the calendar and brought it back to where they were sitting. He turned it to the previous month's page. "It was a Monday, no – I tell a lie – early on Tuesday morning, the ninth of March, at about 5am. Why do you ask?"

Bob ignored the question and asked one of his own. "What did he talk about?"

Dave felt uncomfortable. What's this guy's interest, he thought, has Jimmy been messing around with his wife or something? "This and that, like you do on channel; faces, places, members of the old morning net, jobs, that sort of thing. You still haven't said why you're interested."

Bob ignored his question again and looked him firmly in the eye. "Are you quite sure it was Jimmy and it was the ninth of March?"

I knew it, thought Dave; he'll use what I tell him to build a case to divorce his wife. He relaxed a bit when he realised he'd said nothing that could possibly incriminate Jimmy. He took out his diary and opened it at the appropriate week. "There, system installation at Leeds on Monday the eighth, drove back home overnight." He shut the diary with a thwack and returned it to his pocket.

Bob lit another cigarette from the stub of his first and leaned forward, elbows on the table. "I'm Jimmy's brother-in-law, his wife's my sister," he added as if further explanation were needed. "Jimmy was killed in the early hours of the ninth of March. He fell asleep at the wheel and his truck hit a tree. Death must have been instantaneous."

Dave blanched. "Oh God," he said, "I'm so sorry. I've not been on channel much around here lately, and I've been on holiday the past fortnight, so I'd not heard. It must be awful for Sally and the kids. I only ever met them once but please give them my condolences. I presume the funeral's already taken place?"

Bob took another drag on his cigarette. "It certainly has. You see, Jimmy died on the ninth of March last year, not this one!"

© Brian Smith 2002-2007

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