Saturday, 27 February 2010

Should Know Better

My first night coach was surprisingly smooth running and comfortable considering I was in Peru, and had expected the worst. Embarking on a National Express Eurolines coach journey from London to Holland I wondered if I would also get a blanket, pillow, food and drinks provided, as well as DVDs playing to fill the long journey time.

Surely us Brits boarding a coach should be a sedate affair with our regimented systems, manners, niceties and over-apologetic tendencies, not like the all out survival-of-the-fittest mentality I experienced in China where men in business suits used small children as stepping stones to the coach door and women lashed out with fully developed talons to delay anyone attempting to board and claim the limited seats.

Unfortunately this British stereotype seemed to belong to a lost time as bodies bundled around the coach door occasionally surging forward with the force of the few particularly desperate borders propelling their weight forward with a complete disregard for the queuing system we had been asked to follow. Amid all this chaos, two well dressed middle class women who should know better and should have been at the back of the queue, if there had been one, instead stand near the front of the bundle with the audacity to loudly complain that people are pushing in: “But we were at the front of the line.” Meanwhile someone who has lost all logic and reason tries to bribe the driver £20 for a good seat, failing to consider that for the price of the return coach tickets and the additional £20, they may as well have flown in greater comfort.

Finally all seated and ready to depart, there is still time for one last confrontation. Tickets advise passengers to arrive one hour before the 7pm departure time – something that five latecomers who arrive at seven clearly never read, much to the driver’s glee. He seems to relish informing them through the still open coach door that the coach is ready for departure and the door is now closed. No it isn’t. After a loud altercation and someone obstructing the coach’s path by refusing to move, we finally set off with our smug driver.

Much of the journey to Dover was uneventful. No DVDs, just a radio station and the sound of a female passenger loudly singing along, much to the driver’s admiration: “You’re a good singer.” No, you are a good liar. Her unrelenting chorus reminds me of my oblivion to others as a child – plugged into a walkman enthusiastically singing along during long coach journeys on school trips. No-one ever complained but maybe the rest of the coach in their adolescence shared my complete disregard of others and lack of shame. This tuneless songbird is also old enough to know better but is at the same time protected by her age. If I was to interrupt her private concert and start playing music through my phone, I am sure she might have something to say!

Saved from the drone of our tone deaf songbird, the coach pulls onto the ferry – a strangely nostalgic exciting experience as a mode of transport I used to regularly use as a child at the start of family holidays to France in the days of Hovercraft. I am warmed by the pairing up of two singular travellers, declaring: “Two minds are better than one.” Amid their solidarity is the uncertainty of the lone traveller - a Bulgarian girl asks us several times where to meet to re-board the coach and then seems to follow us around the duty free shop, always keeping us in sight.

As we peruse the overpriced selection of duty free, a sickening smell of perfume fills the air. Having scoffed at the Bar's appalling cider selection and escaped the stench of eggs the quiet lounge area exuded, we tour the boat. The most popular way of passing journey time seems to be in the games area. Bursting full of tracksuit clad teens clutching cans of aptly named Relentless energy drink with gold chains carefully displayed; the ‘amusement’ area is a Paedo’s heaven. At this moment it seems the world is full of chavs and I am in the minority. Their fervour with the games machines reminds me of my childhood belief that, like traffic lights, the more you press the fruit machine buttons, the more likely they are to suddenly allow you play time, despite depositing no money in the coin slot.

Keen to escape the relentless flow of track suited youths and exhausted by the dizzying motion of the ferry combining with the draining stuffiness, we retire to a less smelly lounge area. Here, a man is watching Tom and Jerry cartoons – open mouthed with enormous protruding gnashers and a half-smile on his transfixed face, omitting the occasional eruption of laughter. Even the neat row of children positioned directly in front of the TV aren’t laughing. How can a man that old be this entertained by a lame Tom and Jerry cartoon? More to the point, how can a mouse drag a cat in on a fishing line?

Two men in suits lean around to get a better view of the screen – maybe they are not watching and just in the throes of thought, doing the scary slightly deranged blank looking face my dad sometimes pulls when his “elastic band” has rescued him, dragging him back to the momentary peace and safety of his “man cave”.

The “Tom and Jerry Room” starts to fill up and much to my surprise even one of the tracksuit wearing teens expresses joy when a new “episode” comes on: “Oh, I’ve seen this one.” I recall that even as a child the cherry Tom and Jerry shaped ice lollies you could buy were preferable to watching the cartoon. But maybe even at that early age, I knew slapstick comedy wasn’t for me.

Back on the coach, relievingly our resident entertainer appears too tired to sing – instead the door has jammed and the driver is struggling with it while various passengers share useful insights and discuss possible solutions: You should be able to manually shut the door. What about removing the fuse and putting it back in? Maybe something is stuck in the frame. Perhaps we could superglue it… After 50 minutes of battling with the door, a ‘slow’ passenger goes to ask if something is wrong. A small crowd is forming at the front of the bus watching over our increasingly irritable driver who is losing his patience and phone credit as a co-worker talks him through the correct procedure to follow on his mobile phone. Finally our driver appeals to us passengers for the use of a belt with the right number of holes to tie the door shut.

The rest of the journey was spent with an unrelenting loud ringing noise emanating from the faulty door and a slightly less grumpy driver marginally appeased by the feeling of solidarity in a crisis, trying to encourage all passengers to sing “The Wheels On The Bus Go Round And Round” with some success, honking his horn twice in victory.

Amazingly, despite all this drama and delays caused by the door and the driver’s apparent constant desire to stop for lengthy rest periods, we arrive earlier than scheduled – something the return journey cannot boast after three hours waiting at the channel tunnel, repeatedly being given conflicting information. Perhaps sometimes the older methods are the best?

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