Me on a coach. Not just any old coach, on no, me on the National Express coach that was taking me from Sheffield to London Heathrow. I didn’t get my act together to take many photos today with all the excitement of departure day, for which you may well be thankful. I am too in a way, putting photos in the blog is a faff sometimes, ideally it’s a task I’d like to outsource once I’m successful enough to have my own support staff and PA to attend my every whim and anticipate my every need.
On the subject of having someone who anticipates my every need, sometimes before I even know them myself, I do fortuitously have Cheetah Buddy (from Smiley Paces) who has been rallying round for me with a notable degree of awesomeness to help me get off on my travels OK. I like to interpret this behaviour as being incredibly supportive and will have no truck with naysayers and doubters who choose to believe it is only that she is desperate for me to leave, so she can start to sublet my flat. You are too cynical people, acknowledge and embrace the good in the world, there is little enough of it!
So it was, that although my coach didn’t leave until 12.45 p.m. I was up and about ludicrously early. Everything packed, house cleaned (I really hate coming back to squalor after travels) bleach down the toilet (is that sensible, or environmentally dubious?), and then resorted to roaming from room to room doing last-minute checks. Opening and closing rooms, contemplating which electrical appliances might take it upon themselves to spontaneously combust in my absence despite never having shown any signs of doing so previously. I’m not even consistent, I diligently unplug the telly, dim memories of having to haul TV aerials out of their sockets during lightning storms of my youth echoing in my mind. The consensus then was that forked lightning would tear through any cable and electrify the whole house not only causing shock and awe as it burst into flame, but no doubt resurrecting all the mouse corpses under the floor boards as the shock of electricity brought them back to life. I believe so anyway. As we always unplugged the aerial, we will never know. I follow the same logic even though I’m in an attic. I don’t really have floorboards as such, but I do have cubby holes and corners, and there are lots of huge curled up dead arachnids lurking I’m sure. I certainly don’t want them resurrected in my absence and find an army of pissed off house spiders awaiting me on my return…. The fridge however holds no such fear. That can stay plugged in. Logical? Nope.
I was saved from this curse of endless roaming, by Cheetah Buddy who arrived to scoop me and my worldly goods (well the ones coming to Cambodia) up, and take us to a coffee rendezvous at Tampers. She insisted on carrying my ridiculously heavy backpack, I winced inwardly as she did so. Amazingly, we located a solitary parking space in the otherwise heaving carpark nearby. She squeezed the car in whilst I went to get a parking ticket. For the record, she did her bit brilliantly, executing a manoeuvre with pinpoint accuracy despite narrow margins for error. I had an epic fail on my area of responsibility, getting just an hour’s worth of parking, not realising that we’d leave the car here and walk to the coach station, so two hours were needed. I hate being me sometimes, I’m so crap, and such a parasite. Oh well. It was sorted.
We made our way to tamper coffee bar, where fell-running smiley was already in situ and had secured a table. We were joined by a fellow smiley buddy to make up a cheery farewell foursome. It was a really good way to spend the last hour or so in Sheffield. I’ve never had such a send off committee before and it was genuinely lovely. Plus, quality coffee, it really is good there, though I still find the concept of kiwi coffee a bit puzzling. It was pretty busy in there, so not easy to hear, but we managed to do the important things i.e. share smiley anecdotes, and laugh at the presentation of fell-running Smiley’s humous themed breakfast. Ironically, later on today I had the very same experience. Since when has piping humous become a thing? It isn’t a good look. You can’t look at tubed humous and not think of watery poo. You really can’t. I don’t know that I am altogether influential in the catering community, but if you are listening to me at all, please stop. Stop now. It isn’t necessary and it isn’t nice, however delicious your horse-radish or whatever and humous combo.
AFter a bit, I had my final precautionary pee, and we headed in convoy to the coach station, which really isn’t far at all … unless you are carrying an enormous backpack, which cheetah buddy still was. Her insistence in my defence, but I couldn’t help but wonder if I should have put up more of a fight as I heard fell-running buddy querying her behind me. ‘Is that such a good idea, what with you recent back spasm?‘, that sort of thing. It’s never good is it, if you have laden down someone with a ludicrous amount of gear and then you hear those words ‘back’ and ‘spasm’ floating through the air towards you in reference to your Sherpa’s physiological health. Oh well, we made it.
A coach for London was already at the stop, so that was good timing I though, confidently handing over my ticket. Wrong coach apparently. Not an auspicious start. It didn’t exactly throw me, but does once again highlight how much of a sheep-like follower I can be. It happened to me before at a conference venue. I’d gone for something careers advisor related, but it was a multi-venue conference centre. I’d been sitting around hobnobbing with other delegates. Drinking coffee, eating my body weight in miniature pastries that sort of thing, when we were called in for the key-note speech to kick off the day. I dutifully got up and traipsed in after everyone else. I was sitting the midst of a huge auditorium as the lights were about to dim, when someone sitting behind me gently tapped me on my shoulder. ‘I don’t wish to be rude, and apologies if I’m wrong, but are you absolutely sure you are in the right place?’ I looked around me. Everyone else was wearing a white lab coat, I was wearing my v-necked jumper and a reddening visage. Oops, I’d joined the delegates for pharmaceutical reps as opposed to going to the talk on recent labour market information for career advisers or whatever. Cue many ‘excuse me’s as I picked my way out of the auditorium and back to the sanctuary of my own kind…
After a bit the right coach arrived, I checked a bit more confidently, and flourished my ticket with renewed confidence. My bags were stowed and I piled on. My trio of waving Smilies were the other side of the coach from where I was sitting, so I went to gesticulate to them let them know. I then returned to my seat at the front of the coach, a bit disappointed not to be able to see them any more. It’s a weird thing, because it’s lovely to be waved off, but funnily enough it makes you feel a bit sadder to be leaving because there is a sense that you have left something behind. Glancing round as the coach pulled out, I saw the three of them frantically waving. They had moved into position at the other side of the road, but unfortunately, were waving at the back of the coach, rather than the front. I waved manicly, but of course they couldn’t see me. Never mind, the lucky people at the back would have appreciated such a lovely and enthusiastic send off! I really wished I’d thought to have my camera at the ready as it would have been a great shot. Then I realised I’d missed out on documenting any of the grand depart, so contented myself with the on-coach selfie, which you’ve already enjoyed/seen. Never mind, I have my memories!
I was on my way. I felt a lot of tension lifting as we set off. Tension lifted, but queasiness soon set in. Why do I always forget I feel coach sick. It wasn’t dire, but it was unpleasant. I was glad that I had two seats to myself and hadn’t had lunch. It got better once we had some adventures and distractions and got onto the motorway.
So, fellow passengers, well there was a loud man at the front who was a National Express regular and so talked at the driver(s) – (there were two, they changed at some point), which was annoying because he had a particularly booming voice, but also good because I do like to eavesdrop on good conversation. So, I got to find out that National Express coaches do about 1000 miles a day and are replaced every 4 years. This particular coach is from March 2016 (or possibly May), and is therefore quite a new one. It seemed new. I also learned loud man has a ‘lady friend’ in Bradford, who he visits frequently, hence the commute. He was friendly, but I didn’t really feel like chatting, so was glad he was focused on the driver, who was probably viewed as a higher status talking companion in any case. Loud man pointed out interesting sights along the way, written off motor vehicles in hedges, dangerous driving manoeuvres, that sort of thing. Nice.
The first driver was exceptionally careful. Drove defensively, and I was impressed. He was also a really heavy smoker. Every stop he got out and puffed away inhaling as deeply as he could before having to stump his cigarette out and get back behind the wheel. I think it was Nottingham, where there was a particularly amusing smoking contingent. The coach and bus area is under cover with really prominent NO SMOKING anywhere signs, but huddled groups just positioned themselves either the other side of such signs, or with their backs to them, with a sort of ‘if I can’t see them the rule doesn’t apply to me’ logic. The driver did likewise. It didn’t bother me to be honest, but it did amuse me. It was such a poor attempt to claim the ‘I really didn’t know‘ defence which was presumably their gamble if challenged!
I think from Nottingham, we went to East Midlands Airport, but really I may be wrong. There was a stop off somewhere first as we changed drivers briefly. The new driver was curious. He had a gruff manner, but was actually kind. His driving though was quite aggressive compared to our first one. This driver kept bearing down on cars in front and flashing at them to move over, he was right, some were lane blocking, but it must have been intimidating for those drivers to have this vast monolith blocking out their rear view mirror. Think Duel.
So, the first test was at East Midlands Airport. Their was a middle-aged woman who couldn’t speak any English and turned out to be Polish. She wanted to board the coach to Leicester but didn’t understand you can’t just get on, you need to have bought a ticket in advance. The driver isn’t authorised to take payment either. He tried to explain by getting louder, then he got on our coach and asked if there were any polish speakers aboard, but there weren’t. ‘Why no polish people today?’ He fumed. ‘Always there are polish people, but not today‘ and he stomped off. He then angrily ushered the woman onto the coach anyway, refusing payment and gesturing her to sit down. She looked sort of half-scared, half- relieved and half confused. I know that’s essentially impossible three halves making more than one whole, but this is where Venn diagrams come in. It was quite classic really. He did the kind thing, couldn’t leave her, gave her a free ride to Leicester, but with such a scary demeanor she must have been utterly nonplussed.
The next couple of hours were relatively uneventful. There was a bit of team bonding when I went up to use the on-board loo. There was a woman already waiting. She looked pleased to see me as there was a problem. ‘There’s someone in there, but they’ve been there for ages and I don’t know what to do’. We debated. ‘Are you really sure they are in there?’ A voice from further down the coach replied ‘yes, there is someone in there, definitely.’ We waited a bit longer. Quite a bit longer. Too long now. ‘The light’s not on, I don’t think they can be in there.’ Lamented already waiting woman. She knocked on the door, and gave it a good yank. Nothing. Eventually, the guy who’d thought someone was in there came marching down, he used brute force to heave-ho the door and it gave. There was obviously a knack. No-one was within. Phew, literal and metaphorical relief all round!
I went in afterwards, and then this is when the adventure hotted up! We’d passed Luton Airport and were heading to Heathrow on the motorway but stuck in traffic. As I returned to my seat which was just behind the driver I realised there was a woman in my seat. Seeing me return she got up to let me sit, but then she and her (husband/partner/ son) continued with frantic remonstrating with the driver. This was a bit scary because we were on a motorway and he needed to focus on driving. As far as I could gather they had missed their stop at Luton Airport and were now distraught at having done so. They were blaming the driver for this (which was unfair as he did announce each stop very loudly and we’d pulled in at Luton Town before the Airport itself where we were stationery for a good 5-10 minutes or so.) They saw the solution as either getting him to turn around (U-turn on the motorway) or making him stop on the motorway and call a taxi for them. The driver was understandably less than impressed by this, and because his manner was gruff, they thought he was being obstructive rather than truthful when he said he couldn’t stop. By the time I arrived on the scene, the woman, who was wearing a splendid long pink gypsy-style skirt with gold braid and launched into melodramatic, brow beating weeping. Gesticulating ‘but I have four children!’ It was all a bit desperate, and frankly alarming, she was literally bearing over the driver, standing right next to him in what is normally regarded as ‘no man’s land’ for passengers’ purposes once a coach is in motion. I persuaded them to sit back down and asked them to tell me the story. It turned out they were Romanian, so language problems again weren’t helping. We went through it slowly and worked out what happened. I did lots of earnest nodding, and what I hoped was reassuring smiling. … I was particularly mindful that in a couple of days it could be me struggling to make myself understood in a strange land. I explained that the driver was not being deliberately unhelpful but the police would not let him stop here because it was unsafe, but we would try to help. Once things calmed down, and I spoke slowly communication was a bit easier. A couple of other passengers joined in with varying degrees of helpfulness! One said, ‘they don’t want him to turn around, they just want to be dropped off here‘ weirdly I think they had an American accent, so I was a bit surprised they didn’t register that it wasn’t possible or safe to do so. I explained it was a motorway and they couldn’t be dumped here, and he accepted that and went off back to his seat. Meantime we established that their flight from Luton was at 9.25 p.m.. The coach driver reckoned we would get to the first Heathrow stop in time for him to put them on a 7.00 p.m. coach back to Luton airport, if that arrived a bit early it would be 7.45 so they should make their flight. There was a plan! I looked at the plane ticket, it definitely said 9.25. Hooray. It took a while to communicate all of this, but I managed to do so successfully. Now the poor woman was weeping with gratitude, putting her hands together and making little bowing motions. She was so overwrought. I tried to offer reassurance. ‘When you get home, you will tell this as a funny story‘ I said ‘ha, ha, such an adventure we had on our coach!’ I mimicked, slapping my thigh and wondering if I’d gone a little OTT with my Principle Boy performance. The man smiled a bit nervously, the woman looked appreciative but utterly unconvinced. Then the man was worried about how to pay. ‘No charge‘ said the coach driver. The man wanted me to go and explain for them at Heathrow. I couldn’t because it was a different stop (I was heading for terminal five), but the coach driver undertook to do this. Amazingly, I did manage to get all this across. We got to Heathrow, and at the driver’s request I got them to stay on the coach until everyone had disembarked and then he frog marched them into the custody of the return coach driver. Literally handing them over with a firm directive that the new driver must personally shoo them off at Luton Airport. It was good really, though strange. The driver was really genuinely kind, but his manner was so abrupt. He did help them, but I’m not sure they could see that.
As the other passengers got off, at the two Heathrow stops before ine, a few congratulated me for my intervention. One even patted my shoulder with an appreciative ‘well done’ I hadn’t really realised up until that point just how much of an audience there had been for the whole altercation. Still, it’s enrichment isn’t it, made the coach journey pass more quickly for everyone, and hopeful all’s well that ends well…
.. except that then I was consumed with doubt. Aren’t plane times normally in a 24 hour clock, had I misread it, was it actually 19.25 so their flight would have gone at 7.25? I don’t think so, I definitely saw a 9.25 – I had a chill run through me like ice. Oh Gawd, what if it was a morning flight they should have caught? Oh well, at least they’d be at Luton, and if that was the case, then missing their coach stop would have made no difference. I hope they made it safely though I really do.
It was just me and the coach driver to Terminal 5. We chatted a bit. He is originally from Croatia, hence he remembers how hard it was when he first arrived in the UK nearly 20 years ago which is why he likes to help. He had interesting stories, he used to drive premier team football clubs to their fixtures and has driven all over the world, including a spell living in Germany. I also got stories of mixed up and missing luggage and other passengers sleeping through their stops, and one who got off at Luton instead of Heathrow – presumably a knee jerk reaction to hearing the word ‘airport’ though bizarrely, I noticed the signs say ‘London Luton Airport’ but really. Is Luton London? I don’t think so. Even so, the entertainment of the trip and the conversations that ensued serve to demonstrate that it is so worth stepping out your front door and talking to new people. It was ‘only a coach trip’ but a little microcosm of the world in a way.
When I finally got off at Heathrow I felt like my traveling adventures had properly begun. Let’s get out there and explore. However tiring, keep smiling, keep saying yes, keep connecting with people. There really are more good people in the world than not, however it may feel at present. Clinton still won the popular vote we have to tell ourselves. And grumpy coach driver had an abrasive manner it’s true, but he rescued both the Polish woman and the Romanian pair today albeit I suspect none of them really understood quite how.
So bye-bye National Express coach, that was money well spent. (Photo isn’t at Heathrow though, in case you were wondering)
Now I’m at Heathrow. Eek. Unleash the adventure!