The Journey


Few people, and no coaches. London and Birmingham are close together for people who use the train: day return, commuting distance. For those on the coach station - the old, the young, the foreign - they are a journey apart; an expedition: a long distance through the night, linked by a long thin ticket, laboriously written out by hand.

Elderly couples with bald heads, carrier bags and a well thumbed copy of the Daily Express between them, chattering, happily, meaninglessly, for hour after hour. Students with ruck-sacks and thick novels whose parents and girl friends happen to be at the wrong end of the country. Young Americans for whom "Europe" is a network of drab coach stops on the edges of unpromising cities. Asian women whose flowing green Saris no longer seem exotic, with well behaved children in little pink dresses.

A woman is talking to a man in uniform. The uniform is meant to look smart but he has worn it for so long that it has become just one more set of work clothes.

She is one of the old ones. Greyish hair; crumpled dress; sensible coat. A carrier bag, with a thermos and some sandwiches. She always takes tea at seven of clock, some sandwiches and a cup of tea and a bun, and will do so even if she happens to be on a coach.

"A suitcase - white, with sort of tartan stripes on it. One of those elastic things with hooks for holding it together."

He gives her a form to fill in.

"It will probably turn up tomorrow, lady, these things usually do."

She shambles away from the lost property desk.

The Asian mother coos at her baby in Urdu. The student's walkman is just slightly too loud. The elderly couple are talking about their daughter-in-law's garden.

The lady is looking at a baby in a push chair; she looks at it for a very long time.

It makes no difference if it is midnight or one in the morning. They drink tea, tasting of light brown plastic; the cup bulges as the hot liquid melts it. The smell of urine and disinfectant is somehow comforting.

Finally, there is a coach, and a uniformed man puts luggage in the great cavernous boot and checks their long thin hand written tickets. The coach travels on other people's roads: past houses that contain people's whole lives; up roads with dingy shops on them that for whole groups of people are the shops. The coach is dark; the roads outside are dark. You can turn on a tiny light above your seats just bright enough not to be able to read by. It is neither today or tomorrow; you are neither asleep nor awake: half dreaming, half thinking, half looking out of the window.

"Whatever shall I do?" she mutters, fixing on nobody in particular and talking at them. " I said I'd always keep it, you see, and I have. We was only little, and we used to play together, tea-parties and picnics. In the park, round the back of our street. Where Sainsbury's is now. I said I'd keep it with me forever, and she said we'd grow up and those things wouldn't matter any more, because we'd be mummies and grannies and have to do the cooking and the knitting. But she was wrong. I kept it with me for ever. And I've lost it now. Whatever shall I do?"

It is 7 AM in London: there is a sense of bustle and efficiency. The coach station is less desolate because you are leaving it.

A tired man in a crumpled uniform is sweeping a waiting room. He sees an old, white suitcase, and picks it up, to put in Lost Property. He staggers backwards, slightly, as he picks it up, because he expected it to be heavy: but in fact, there is hardly anything in it.

He opens it to examine its contents. There is nothing in it but a child's doll.