And so, the first post of 2014: a new year and the time when bloggers turn to tales of resolutions for the coming 12 months… but being contrary, I’m going to share a short story with you instead, written a couple of years ago when I was still a card-carrying London resident – as you’ll be able to tell from the gritty realism of this tale of bus travel in the 21st century (possibly).
The destination of this bus has changed
Beep, beep, beep!
I have a dim recollection that I should be somewhere. It’s nothing too insistent. Just a niggling little feeling that something important was happening today. But I hit the snooze button on my phone and roll over again, back into the all-encompassing embrace of the duvet. Six thirty in the morning is no time to be getting out of bed, or so my semi-conscious brain tells me. Ten minutes more is all I need.
It seems like only a few minutes have passed when I’m jolted back into reality by the front door of the building slamming shut with a bang. Must be Anna in flat 2 leaving for work…but she doesn’t usually leave until eight o clock…
I spring out of the bed in one leap and scoop up my mobile from the bedside cabinet. Blinking away the sleep, I try to focus on the time. It’s eight o’ clock! Shit! I must have turned the alarm off completely in my stupor. That gives me approximately ten minutes to shower and get out of the door – this is going to be cutting it very fine indeed!
I pull the heavy front door closed behind me and run down the stairs, checking my pockets to make sure I have the requisite keys, wallet and Oyster card – affirmative on all counts. That has to have been the fastest shower of my life. The water barely had time to morph from ice-cold to tepid before I was out and throwing on the suit (my only suit, as it happens).
It’s a cold morning and I can feel the chill in my still-wet hair – no time to dry it properly. Not if I’m going to make this interview. Jeez, of all the days to oversleep! I make a mental note to buy a new alarm clock tomorrow. One of those crazy ones with wheels on the sides that jump off the night stand and run around buzzing and squealing until you get out of bed and turn the little bastard off.
The bus stop is only a few roads around the corner, but that walk always seems to take forever when you’re praying that you don’t miss the next bus. Every flash of red in the distance is an approaching 91 and every low-pitched engine is the growl of a double decker.
I turn the corner and hear the strained squeal of brakes as the bus pulls up, a good 100 metres in front of me. I’m going to miss it! There’s a fairly long queue of people shuffling forward to get on, so I chance it and start sprinting full pelt up the road, praying that the bloody thing doesn’t pull away and leave me standing there like an idiot – that’s happened more times than I’d like to remember.
I reach the door as the last person steps up to swipe their Oyster across the reader. I’m breathing so hard you’d think I’d just beaten Usain Bolt in the Olympic final, but I manage to jump aboard without too much mishap. I take the stairs to the top deck as the bus lurches away up the hill. There’s not much space up here, but I spot two free seats near the back and make a beeline for them. The top deck seems mercifully clear of people having loud conversations, or school kids blaring out the latest piece of urban choonage on their mobile phones, so it could be a reasonable journey – tempting fate, I know, but hope springs eternal.
I glance at my watch. It’s a quarter of an hour since I woke up, so that gives me forty five minutes to make it to Holborn for the interview. Should be ok, but I’m beginning to wonder if I should have taken the tube. I avoid London Underground if at all possible, preferring the cultural mish-mash of the double-decker bus to the human crush of the tube. The Piccadilly line is kept at a constant temperature of thirty degrees whatever the time of year, so if the squash of people doesn’t turn you into a claustrophobic mess, then the heat almost certainly will. I’ve lost count of the number of journeys I’ve had with my nose pressed to a business man’s perspiring armpit and my back against a hapless tourist’s rucksack. Not a good way to start the day.
I jump noticeably as the woman sits down next to me with such vigour that I half believe I’m going to bounce up into the air, seesaw fashion, as her ample behind hits the upholstery. I turn to give her the evil look of a commuter who believes their space is being invaded, but she’s oblivious of my presence and is too busy rooting through one of the biggest handbags I’ve ever seen. I’ve often marvelled at the size and contents of these bags, but this one is huge – I think the kitchen sink may well actually be included in this colossal holdall, but I also doubt she’d ever find it amongst the cosmetics, old receipts, half-used paracetemol packs and other detritus. She sings to herself as she searches the uncharted depths of her bag, a tuneless nonsense that I am pretty sure bears no resemblance to the melody of the insipid R&B that’s buzzing from her iPod headphones like a wasp at a karaoke party.
Well, doesn’t this just take the biscuit! My dreams of a quiet journey lie on the chewing gum-covered floor of the 91, battered and stamped upon. She’s still searching for something in her massive hamper, emitting a particularly grating high note as she hums along to the chorus of the song. I shift irritably, attempting to remove the connection between my legs and the bulk of her thighs, but I appear to be drawn back towards them, like Titan caught in the stronger gravity of Jupiter. I slide as close as I can to the window, but we’re plugged in next to each other like two ill-matched peas in a pod. She does appear to have found the item she was looking for though and pulls something vaguely woolly from the handbag.
To steal the vernacular of the two sixteen-year olds who are sniggering and laughing behind us, O-M-G! She’s got her knitting with her! She’s knitting! On a bus – next to me! The small god of commuters jumps a little higher and harder on my hopes of a peaceful journey into London and does a little dance for good measure. The Wool Monster, as I have now internally named her, slides her buttocks even further across the narrow seat and really puts her back into the knitting process. Click, click, click go the needles as she beavers away at what looks to all intents and purposes to be either a scarf for a dwarf, or an exceptionally narrow tea cosy. It’s at this point that I feel her elbows beginning to dig into my ribs as she puts some serious arm action into the scarf-making process. Click, jab, click, jab, click, jab. Each stitch provides a glorious dig into my sides with an elbow that seems to be incredibly bony and hard for an arm that’s so fat and hefty. Does she not realise she’s hitting me? Surely she must do. Any second now, she’ll apologise and move those razor-tipped elbows away from my tender ribcage.
But no, she doesn’t. She continues to knit at a speed which I think would make most arts and crafts teachers break into spontaneous tears of happiness. Click, jab, click, jab, click, jab. As we bump along past Pentonville prison, I idly speculate how many years I’d get in jail for stabbing the Wool Monster to death with her own knitting needles, but this is pure speculation, as I can’t raise my arms high enough to grab the steel needles even if I wanted to. ‘How long can I stand this before I crack?’ I wonder to myself. If I really concentrate, maybe I can actually escape from my physical body and float above myself, marvelling at my self-restraint and apparently air of extreme serenity. Maybe.
I clear my throat in that over-exaggerated way which has less to do with a need to expectorate and more to do with highlighting the ill-advised behaviour of someone in the proximity. Perhaps the Wool Monster will take the hint and realise she’s being a monumental pain in the arse (or the ribs, if we’re going to be more anatomically correct). I cough a few more times, just to reinforce my mute displeasure at the irritation of being jabbed consistently in the sides, but to no avail. She takes no notice, her attention clearly focused on the over-produced soul-lite that she’s still humming along to. There is, I think to myself, nothing for it – I will have to ‘make a stand’ and say something. I clear my throat, this time for a genuine reason, and turn to face her.
“Excuse me, but do you think you could stop jabbing me in the ribs” I say, attempting to maintain a tone which sounds at once reasonable, but also fairly pissed off. She clearly hasn’t heard me, but – wonder of wonders – she does unplug her headphones and frown at me.
“What d’yer want?” she says, looking me in the most accusatory manner.
“Could you stop jabbing me in the ribs, please,” I repeat “You’re digging your elbows into me as you’re knitting!”
The Wool Monster tuts loudly at me and draws the air between her front teeth in a manner which does little to disguise the fact that this is clearly the most ridiculous thing she’s ever heard. She turns back, though, and stuffs the knitting back into the depths of her bag. A small victory! I’ve won! I should play the ‘outraged commuter’ more often. Nothing more is said as the bus continues down Caledonian Road at a pace more readily associated with a lethargic garden snail. We sit in comparative silence – save for the fizz of her iPod headphones, now replaced in her ears – and I can almost physically feel the heat of her outrage. No doubt she’ll soon be telling her mates a story about the twat on the bus who stopped her knitting.
She jabs at the red button on the hand rail and the bus judders to a halt at the next stop. The Wool Monster heaves her bulk out of the seat and I can feel the upholstery breathe a sigh of relief as she collects up her gigantic handbag and thuds her way to the stairs and down to the bottom deck of the bus. Thank God! I’m released from the iron grip of her thighs and can once again spread out in my seat. I relax a little and, now that I can raise my arms again, I take a quick glance at my watch. Half past eight! I’m still cutting this fine, but I think there’s just enough time for the double decker to snail its way through the crush of London traffic to Holborn fast enough for me to make this interview. I really should have read up more about the company last night, but I think I can wing it. Let’s just see if anything else can mess up this journey first, eh!
A guy in a suit thumps down into the seat next to me, and immediately forces me to shift up to the window again. He spreads his legs in the manner of the City boy who believes his balls are so big that his knees can’t possibly remain together when sitting down. The bus speakers crackle into life.
“The destination of this bus has changed. This bus will now terminate at Kings Cross St Pancras”.
Bugger! Ah well, I didn’t fancy the job much anyway.