There was once a time when I did something very, very stupid, but also a bit brave, too. Actually, that gets me thinking…in truth, there was many-a-time when I did something very stupid and a bit brave – there was that time I got chased across a field by a rampaging stag, which stands out a lot, and then there was that other time when I dropped a customer’s photographic film in a toilet which contained all the pictures from his daughter’s wedding day, which is also noteworthy (although it’s probably more cmind-bendingly stupid than it is brave) – but I have selected this specific one for its sheer stereotypical manliness which I know some readers will relate to. It’s the time I almost got into a fight with a National Express driver. Oh, happy days.
I had a very early flight to Cologne, Germany, and the coach I needed to get on was leaving from Cambridge at 6am. I’m not the kind of person who likes to be awake before 8am – I’m lying, I’m a late-night-person so if I had it my way I’d never get up until 10 – so this was a horrible experience filled with dread and doom and all the things you might get if you had a sexy nightmare with Ann Widdecombe in it (so I am told). And it was to get even worse, too, because as I got out of the taxi at 5:45am and saw the massive queue for the coach I was getting, I knew we were all in trouble. More trouble than a sexy nightmare with Ann Widdecombe at its centre, hard as that is to believe.
To begin with, I stood about with my great big annoying rucksack on, hoping that somehow, the number of people would seem less and the coach’s front doors would open, all of us filtering on in single-file and leaving for the airport on-time. Maybe some people could go up on the roof if they had to, because that would make sense, under the circumstances. But as minutes began to pass, that soon became an obvious impossibility, and it also dawned on me that they would not let us up on the roof: even more people were arriving to get the coach — travelling maniacs hoping to just appear and buy a ticket, too! — and all of them had that same expression on their face…one of knowing that they were doomed, but not wanting to admit that fact. Credit where credit is due, though, they were doing a fine job of deceiving themselves, which was quite impressive under the circumstances.
By the time 6am struck, though, I was ready to admit that fact 100%, even if the driver wasn’t. He was standing around looking at everyone in a vague kind of a way, smoking a fag and generally acting as though he could see a much smaller queue of people than was really there (I call it a queue…it was, by now, more a huge swarming mass of people). The driver was exactly the sort of man that if you saw him as an extra in, say, the original version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it’d put you in a foul mood for days to come and you would never really know why. That, on top of the Ann Widdecombe thing — no pun intended — could really tip a person over the edge…
Then the driver, five-foot-nine, overweight and indifferent-looking, with faded forearm tattoos, said, in a voice that had never heard of Customer Service, “people who bought a ticket online are getting priority. All those people on first.” I had bought mine from the ticket station, which you’d think would give me as much right to travel on a National Express coach as anyone, but apparently not.
Which meant that, in plain language, I was fucked.
Hearing this, the queue was instantly split into two polarized groups: group 1 consisted of baffled people who knew that if this was true, they were all in a great deal of trouble, and group 2 consisted of the people that group 1 utterly detested. Group 2 was also largely made-up of Italian and Spanish foreign students, which helped me to hate them even more, seeing as not one single student had been able to shut up from the moment I got out of the taxi. Don’t get me wrong though, normally I love them, even if they can’t queue for shit and easily speak several languages.
Ten minutes later, with the coach already a few minutes late now, the numerous smug people of group 2 were sat comfortably in the coach, looking out and no doubt feeling content in the knowledge that they were going to catch their flight. Conversely, group 1, me included, were standing there in the dark and the cold wearing annoying big rucksacks, wondering what the bloody hell was going on. The curious thing, for me, was that not one person with an online ticket — also known as a flimsy piece of un-ticket-like A4 paper — had voiced any real concern to the obvious fact that was making me feel a terrible sense of doom. People looked annoyed and bemused, but nobody was saying anything about how ridiculous this all was, so, without exaggerating how brave I was feeling – at least I’m going to try hard not to – I said, “this is bullshit, what about us? What the hell are we supposed to do?” The bluntness in my voice combined with the eerie white-middle-class-Cambridge-quietness perfectly to produce quite an effect: one very angry driver looking straight at me and aware of seemingly nobody else.
“Don’t you swear at me!” he said, and he really meant it. He quite clearly wasn’t even middle-class.
“Ah, but I will swear,” I said. “Why don’t you call headquarters and get them to sort out another coach?” In my head I said even more, so it’s a good job I had the good sense to keep my big mouth shut.
At this, the driver made his way towards me and appeared a bit calmer, only he wasn’t calmer, was he? No, it was an illusion, and he was actually angrier — it was obvious from the way he looked like he actually wanted to drown me with his bare hands right there and then in the nearest shallow puddle (the shallower the better, his malevolent eyebrows seemed to suggest). “There’s nothing I can do,” he said, pointing at the coach. “You can see there ain’t enough space on-board.”
Some people had now started calling taxis. Others had, presumably, resigned themselves to being late or missing their flights. I’d have called a taxi had I had more money, but I didn’t, so I wasn’t about to. All was not good.
“There’s nothing you can do…” I started going on, sort of looking about me for support, then wondering why the hell I’d bothered, seeing as everyone seemed pathetic and feeble and like they didn’t want trouble, the outrageous bloody fascist-supporting wimps who should’ve been ashamed of themselves (and now very well might). “…There is and you will, or else I’m going to report you…” I pointlessly looked for his name-badge again. “…Mr National Express coach driver!”
By now, the nameless angry man driver was standing a few feet away, looking menacing. Under the remnants of light coming from the nearby lamp-post, he said, in appropriate menacing tone: “Swear at me again and see what happens. Go on, I dare you.” Human beings are amazing. With one glance, he motioned to the back of the coach and made a step towards me, clearly signifying the international language of I want a fight behind this coach, now.
“Fine by me,” I said, “but this won’t be the end of it. There’s quite a few witnesses standing around who I’m sure will be happy to make a statement if you try and assault me.”
Ha! How I now laugh. There wasn’t one single person nearby who I’d have counted on to tie their own shoelaces, let alone back me up in a court of law against a National Express Vigilante Driver who’d gone right off the rails.
I’d love to say there was cheering and, as the driver’s brain actually started to work — he gave in and said I could get on the coach — people patted me on the back and cheered stuff like “You’re amazing!” and “Here’s 500 English pounds for being such a legend!”. In fact that didn’t happen. I didn’t even get 5 English pounds, which you’d thought I might’ve. What actually happened was people looked at me with sinister eyes, presumably annoyed that I was getting on the queue and many of them wouldn’t be, even though they should have been spending too much energy on being ashamed of themselves to do just that. Not that I felt guilty in the slightest. Actually, I’ve never felt so right and like something was worth a fight in my whole entire life. My only regret as I think of all this now is that I didn’t make a complaint to National Express. Had I done, who knows? I may have won a 20-hour round-trip to London or Liverpool, or something. With National Express, the possibilities for spending many hours in a coach environment are virtually endless.
And that feeling of relief, of almost-doom, of things turning themselves around, was precisely how I felt when I woke up this morning and heard — or rather saw, on my mobile’s screen — the news that Barack Obama had been re-elected, winning by a comfortable margin against Mitt Romney. I was in bed at the time, needing a wee badly, and this was just the news I needed. In fact, it was almost as good as having the wee itself.