About 9 months after I moved from London to Dorset in the mid 90s, I picked up a job at a Texaco petrol station about 8 miles from home. It was just something to do till I got something better. It turned out that the ‘something better’ was Mexico, nearly ten years later. I had a range of shifts to do, but mostly lates (2pm to 10pm) or nights (10pm to 6am). Back in those days, most stations were single manned, other than a manager or supervisor during the day. I liked single manned shifts. At night it was even better. Despite being on a busy dual carriageway, the roads were dead quiet at night. After midnight I might not see anyone for hours. If I did, it would be a stray taxi driver. Perhaps a police officer on patrol. The occasional HGV stopping to fill up. No one hung around for long.
I didn’t provide the sort of welcoming conversation that would encourage anyone to loiter. I preferred the solitude. Just me, the pitch dark of night, the store’s radio system. A system which played a selection of tapes over and over again. My favourite tune to listen to at night? Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road. Even now if I hear it on the radio I can close my eyes and quickly find myself back in the 90s in a Texaco service station. Stacking shelves. Cleaning the coffee area. Giving the loos a quick once over. Reading magazines.
Sometimes, if I could be bothered, I’d plug the office radio into the tape system. I’d bought the appropriate cable myself. I like talk radio, particularly BBC Radio 5. News and sport. Twenty years ago this very day, that’s what I did. Exactly twenty years ago. How time flies. I wanted to listen to live coverage of the US tennis open where the great British hope, a big serving Canadian called Greg Rusedski, was playing. He went on later in the week to reach the final. He lost, as all ‘great hopes’ inevitably do. After he’d won this particular match, the station went back to news. I was pottering around on the shop floor when the first mention of the crash occured. I didn’t catch it all, but it sounded potentially serious. So I moved back round the counter where I could hear better. A second news flash came a few moments later. It was, clearly, quite serious.
Events moved rather quickly, from newsflashes to blanket coverage. Rumours to semi-official reports. And then, within the last hour of my shift, from unnamed sources to official confirmation. The odd customer or two were starting to come in to the store. The first was a young woman. She started listening in to the radio, her mouth opening in shock. It was clearly the first she’d heard of it. She asked me, in a certain amount of disbelief, what had happened. I told her. She left. A second lady came in shortly after. She too started listening in to the radio. She too asked me what was happening. I told her too. She gasped, let out a couple of muffled sobs and left. Princess Di has been killed in a car crash.
I sighed. The lady couldn’t even blame mass hysteria. It was just her and me. And I was not hysterical. I sighed again. Because I could see how this was going to go over the next few days. Or weeks. Or maybe years. I sighed a third time, as it dawned on me that newspaper sales were going to rocket. They were a monumental pain in the arse as it was, unloading, collating and displaying them. Having killed Diana, the print media was all set to make a killing. Florists did pretty well too. I slept through the funeral itself. I was was still on night shifts.