"......welcome you aboard the 13.05 service to Liverpool, thank you for travelling with National Express. To start with, can I just say sorry that this coach has been three quarters of an hour late leaving Cambridge: this was due to us having to take a diversion on the way in....."
No need to apologise to me, I thought: if the coach had been on time I wouldn't have caught it. I fumbled through the socks and soap in my hold-all and eventually managed to fish out a Wordsworth Classics Jane Eyre, two cans of coke, and the Guardian.
"....can I also say that I've been driving coaches for nearly seventeen years and I think I know the regulations pretty well. So to the lady who couldn't see why we didn't set off straight away, that's because the law does say that I have to have a twenty minute break after I've been driving for three hours. To the man who wanted to sit in the coach while we were waiting, regulations say...."
I smiled to myself as the driver continued to moan at us over the PA. I didn't blame him. There was always some old lady who thought that if the coach was late then the driver must have especially organised it to irritate her. Nice to see one of them hitting back, for a change.
"Do you want some coke, Jamie? I've got some chocolate...? Well then, you can have a sandwich when we get to Bedford..."
I glanced at the seats behind me. A middle aged woman with a lapful of red knitting wool and a young boy in a well ironed tee shirt. He looked slightly sullen, obviously wishing his mother would be quiet and let him concentrate on the well-thumbed paperback he had in front of him: Masques of Oblivion. Its cover showed a grotesque mask, hanging on a tree, surrounded by impaled human heads. A chose your own adventure book: I remembered the sort of thing from when I was his age. From the other side of coach came the subliminal throbbing of someone's walkman. In the seats in front of me, were two little girls. The bigger one had a rag doll with improbably coloured hair. She kept pretending to whisper into its cloth ear. The smaller one was scribbling on a tiny, wire bound notepad with a couple of coloured pencil stubs. Every few minutes, one of them would say something out loud, and they would start giggling. In the front seats of the coach, was a woman in a loud floral dress that was slightly too large for and a man with skinhead hair. The two of them were French kissing with the sort of enthusiasm that I thought only happened in bad American films. The old boy in the seat next to me had already dropped off over his copy of Sporting Life.
I drank my coke and put the empty can down by the side of my seat. I always take thicker books with me on coach trips than I can actually be bothered to read, and the giggling, the music, and the chatter of the woman behind me didn't help:
....this girl, this child, this native of a Christian land, worse than many a little heathen who says its prayer to Brahma and kneels before Juggernaut, this girl is - a liar...
I rather envied the school boy his Choose-Your-Own-Adventure.
Your journey lasts for many hours. (If you brought some provisions, you can eat them now.) Eventually, you see the castle of Chansor appearing in the distance. You can hear the blood-curdling screams of his prisoners issuing from the dungeon beneath.
Will you risk fighting the two headed gargoyle who guard the door (page 27)?
Will you try to sneak in via the secret tunnel (page 78)?
Or will you go and seek the advise of the oracle at the temple (page 296)?
"You're fat!" One of the little girls had poked her head over the back of the seat. She looked about eleven or twelve: a wilting pink ribbon was tied untidily into her hair.
"Well you're small", I retorted. She shrieked with surprise: amazed that I, unlike her doll or the TV was capable of answering back, and collapsed behind the seat, giggling hysterically. Her sister joined in. Oh God, why are kids, particularly female ones, so bloody noisy?
The driver picked this moment to hurl the coach at a round-about, causing all the passengers to lean to the left, and my coke-can to fall over and rattle down the centre aisle.
This brought the driver's PA back to life.
"Have we started already? Dear oh dear oh dear..." He shifted to a slightly more 'official' voice. "Could passengers please have the sense to put their empty cans in the bags provided, otherwise we might have a very nasty accident."
I considered making a very rude sign towards the front of the coach, but didn't quite have the nerve.
"Shut up!" The woman at the front of the coach had detached herself from the skinhead, and turned round towards the two giggling children. "Just shut up, can't you."
The giggling stopped. The skinhead made a weary face, and then moved his lips as if to start kissing the woman again. But she had just noticed something: she got out of her seat and moved a couple of steps up the aisle towards the two girls.
"Put your shoes back on." The younger kid was about four or five, and was, indeed, in her stocking feet. She reached for a pair of red sandals and started to fiddle, vaguely, with the buckles. "Do as you're told, can't you?" said her mother.
Suddenly, the skinhead came to life. He didn't move from his seat, but yelled in a surprisingly angry voice: "Do as your mother says or I'll smack your bums."
The bigger girl started to help the little one with her shoes. The mother went back to snogging the skinhead, and there was about five minutes of relative quiet: only the sound of the engine, the walkman, and the story of Aunty Cathy's wedding to distract me from my reading.
But the noise soon started up again. "For Christ's sake Tracy we've only been gone five minutes, of course you can't have any bloody drink. Now shut up and go to sleep. No we are not nearly there: if you weren't such a bad, impatient kid you wouldn't keep asking, would you. Now go to sleep."
The wheedling, maddening sound of a child begging for, drink, sweets, attention. The sound of a slap. The coach filled with the screeching of a small, injured animal.
After the crying had stopped, the two girls walked past me up the aisle towards the lavatory. (What is there for little girls do on coaches apart from drink and pee?) The bigger one grinned at me as she went passed and sniggered noisily as I grinned back. While they were gone, their parents continued to kiss with renewed enthusiasm. But their romance was interrupted once again: the kids weren't back five minutes before the little one started pulling at her mothers sleeve. "Want toilet!"
"Didn't Tracey just take you?"
"No." said the little one. "She said she was, but she never. She lied."
The skinhead emerged again from his trance, and, without warning, thumped the bigger girl. "That's for lying." he said. Unlike the toddler, she didn't regard this as an excuse to start yelling the roof off the coach.
"Come on then" said the mother. She put the toddler under her arm like a bag of shopping. "Mummy take you for a wee-wee." As she said this, she slapped the child on the arm, as if for emphasis. Maybe she meant it as an affectionate tap. The child didn't think so, and started howling again. The skinhead sighed, stood up, and hit her hard on the backs of her legs.
"I said be quiet." he explained.
I shot a disapproving glance at the old man with the racing paper, who raised his eyebrows non committally. The woman behind me was still knitting and explaining some complex piece of family history to her son. The boy was still absorbed in his book.
I tried to bury myself in mine: shut myself away from the niggling cycle of high-pitched noise: a giggle, a squawk, a slap, squealing, a deep throated bellow, another slap, more squealing. I lent against the window and tried to doze.
You are on travelling between Cambridge and Coventry on a National Express Coach. A little girl leans forwards, and sticks her head through the gap between the two seats in front of you. She has mousy hair and a pink dress that would look pretty if it had been properly ironed.
"Curly locks, curly locks" she starts to chant at you.
"Do you think its too long?" you say tugging a clump of your fringe down over your eyes.
"Its curly, curly, curly locks" says the child and starts to giggle. Her big sister joins in, chanting to a completely different tune "She fancies you, she fancies you."
Their father advances down the aisle of the coach, making more noise than both of them put together.
"I've had enough," he says "I warned you I'd smack your bums if there was another peep out of you" and raises his hand to them. He is a big man.
Look at the man and say "Oh for God's sake, the kid's not doing any harm."
He looks at you, with the same look as his daughters: amazed that you are a real person, amazed that you can talk back.
"Say that again."
"I said, leave her alone, she's not doing any harm."
"What the fuck do you think you are, you fucking nancy boy."
"Just don't keep thumping the poor kid, Ok?"
Holding the child roughly by the upper arm, squeezing enough to make it squeak: "I'll thump you in a minute, you stuck up" (under his breath, as if in deference to someone's sensibilities) "wanker."
You grab his forearm, and say "Make a change from hitting a kid girl then, won't it?"
Fists don't make any sound when they hit lips: you haven't been punched since you were at school. You were a hero in the gamebooks but a wimp in the playground. You'd forgotten what it feels like. The blood goes to your head and you feel a bit high and a bit sick before you even notice that your lip hurts, that you've maybe put a tooth through it. The passengers have put down their papers and books and knitting. They are shocked: two grown men hitting each other. The driver is shouting down his PA, pulling into a lay-by, he has never seen anything like it, you are damaging company property, regulations give him the right to kick you off his coach. You say call the police, press charges, the bastard punched you, everybody saw what happened. Through the pain in your lip you feel the heroism of righteous indignation, the moral superiority of the martyr.
Do you sit and watch as he hits his two kids. He stretches and slaps the little one twice on the arm: then pulls the big one into a standing position and hits her backside. You rationalise to yourself: they don't know any different, its over-and-done-with and better than being nagged: its his business, its hardly abuse, its mild compared with what used to be done at our school. When the little kid has stopped yelling, and the mother has stopped telling them to shut up and go to sleep you feel guilty and slip them a Rolo. You try to think of something comforting to say, but realised that that might make them giggle and provoke more thumps. So you concentrate on your journey and your book. But when the coach reaches your stop, you crouch beside one of the girls for a moment, and say, "Bye-bye; it was nice talking to you."
Then, suddenly, he is on his feet, spitting like a cat when someone threatens its kittens. He's talking to my little girl: it must be one of those child-abusers, those perverts, those strangers. Bribing kids off into the woods with toffee. Kill them, I would, if I could get my hands on them.
"You talking to my kid?"
"Yes. You should try it some time, in between hitting her."
You step out of the coach, on the moral-high-ground, and then spoil it at the last moment by shouting back "A few years from now we'll be able to put people like you in prison."
Do you look disapproving at him, tut-tut slightly under your breath, and move to the back of the coach, so you are away from the noise and cannot tempt the little girls to be naughty. But, when the coach is pulling into your station, and while the driver is unloading the luggage, you sit down, on the seat opposite the man and the woman and say, very calmly and politely.
"Before I go, I just wanted to ask you: why do you hate your kids so much?"
Threateningly: "What do you mean."
"Well, I couldn't help noticing that you kept hitting them, yelling at them, making the little one cry. It seems an odd way for someone to treat people that they love, and I was just thinking..."
"...what, have you finished that book already..."
"Yes. It was good though." It was the first time he'd spoken to his mother in the entire trip.
"Oh well. Perhaps we'll find you another one for the trip back."
We were only half an hour from Coventry. My mouth always tastes ghastly when I've dozed off in the day time. I drank my other can of coke, and put the can carefully away in my hold-all. As we pulled into the station, I slung it over my shoulder, and squeezed past the old man and stretched and left the coach and walked home.