My trip to the UK had started at 18.45 on Thursday evening with a local bus to Breda and a date with the unmarked bus stop on a empty side street near Breda's railway station. The station staff I sought reassurance from smiled as they told yet another baffled passenger that, yes, that deserted street really is the starting point for many a European-based bus-driven adventure.
Eventually it arrived, and, having found our seats, we left the sanctuary of Breda and were soon cruising along the motorway to Antwerp. At the back of the bus about a dozen or so young Dutchmen were having a party that occasionally spilled down the front where the rest of us were having quiet conversations with strangers or had found heaven in their phones. But almost as soon as we were on the motorway, we off it again, heading into a service station.
"We'll be stopping here for 30 minutes" shouted the driver to baffled passengers: after twenty minutes we stopped believing it was a joke.
Eventually we arrived in Antwerp and scooped up a few more unsuspecting characters, all of whom looked as keen as we did to spend a night on a bus.
This is how I met Silvester, another writer already one third of the way through a trilogy he's writing. How we got onto writing I'll never know, but once we did, there was no stopping us. It's always good to meet fellow writers, someone who also shares the madness, someone you can discuss ideas, problems and the never-ending marketing lottery with. He's much more focussed on that side than I am - he actually had a plan which he was following. I have nothing more than a vague idea and the desire to be writing. I know I can't afford to ignore getting my message out, but still I prevaricate. In fact if there's anything harder to do than the job of writing, it's the job of marketing.
Silvester and I migrated effortlessly from the coach to the ferry and propped up the bar talking long and deep into our writing experiences; we swapped emails and phone numbers and bought each other drinks. He had a pint of Murphy's while I drowned in a small coffee. Small seems to have taken on a different meaning since American fast-food chains fell into Europe from the heavens. Having a small measure of anything used to mean that you wanted only a limited amount of something. Nowadays it simply means 'smaller than' or smaller 'in comparison to' something much, much larger than is necessary at all, ever. But I'm clearly not in step with a world where having an excess of something for no reason is deemed to be a good thing; where being tempted into buying 50% more of what you really want is acceptable. Frankly, I'm glad I'm not dancing to their selfish little rhythm.
Back in the barrel, Silvester and I talk ourselves to sleep with dreams of success and plans of writing one novel a year from a different country. We're bounced back into reality as the coach takes yet another corner on one set of wheels and slams to a halt behind an lorry that is going nowhere. Outside I was surprised to see how many people there are waiting for buses already: grey faces and surprised eyes watch us as we hurtle past.
In no minutes flat we're right in the bowels of Victoria Coach station, which is as vast and unwelcoming now as it was when I was last there ten years ago.
Now that we're on unfamiliar territory Silvester finds that he's now the oracle of all London transport as we (a young German woman on her way to student digs, and a gentleman from West Africa on his way to Slough) ply him with questions about buses and trains. He has acres of patience, but in the end we leave him to catch his bus home alone. We trundled off through the chilly dawn to Victoria station and slid into London's warm belly.
Sometime later I'm at Paddington, somewhere that's not an essential part of my trip, but it's where the showers are, and they are essential. It's not later than 0600 and the showers don't open until 0700. I help my Africa friend to find his train to Slough (come friendly bombs...) and wonder how I can get through the next hour. I want to avoid eating breakfast for as long as possible as my interview is as 1200. I know it'll run into lunchtime so the plan is to have a late-ish breakfast and sarnie just before the meeting starts. I hate being hungry and it will be a complete pain in the arse if my belly starts distracting me.
Eventually 0700 and streaming hot water arrives, well after I'd tracked down the man who was looking after the loos it did. I take my hat off to the staff at Paddington who were always polite, cheerful and helpful at a time of the day that, if you'd asked me any questions, you'd have been rewarded with a complete lack of interest at best, and a tidal wave of swearing at worst.
There's something very odd about finding yourself naked at one of the country's busiest train stations, even though you're hiding in a locked cubicle several feet underground. I never quite relaxed knowing that thousands of strangers (of whom 99.99% were unaware of my existence) were wandering around outside. There's always the feeling that someone is going to reach over the top of the door and pinch your jacket, or slide underneath it and steal your shoes. Despite having the whole of the Gents to myself for the entire time I was there, I still felt the need to put my shoes out of reach. As scouts and cubs are always taught to be prepared, so life teaches you that you can never be too sure that nothing, no matter how ludicrous or far-fetched, will not happen just because the chances of it happening are practically nil.
The shower brought me back to life as sure as watering a wilted plant will and with a hop, skip and a jump I was up out of the ground and into the nearest cafe. Actually, not the nearest, I shunned the well-known coffee emporium and headed for somewhere that could supply a proper breakfast, not just a gritty brown liquid, bagels and sweet pastries. That is not a real breakfast, that is the breakfast of those who've given up choosing. No, I needed a real breakfast, a full English and a rousing cup of Camomile tea - and by God I was going to have them. And I did. And I enjoyed them both very much, especially the sausages and scrambled eggs.
I’d sat in an upstairs window over-looking the area between the entrance and the platforms, and watched the slowly building tide of commuters as they rushed hither and thither, or marched their bikes expertly through the crowd. I saw people meeting and separating; people dressed to thrill and others who were quite obviously on their way to a scarecrow convention. I felt at home watching them and could have stayed all day were it not for my appointment in Soho.
Reluctantly, I gave up eavesdropping the conversation I'd been doing (actually the management of the cafe, who spent ages discussing how badly they'd done over the weekend and that it's very important to make sure that the staff have been turned into lackeys to serve the likes of me so they can make oodles of cash). I'm so glad I do not work in that kind of business, the constant pressure to outperform yourself whilst smiling, bowing and scraping must devour the soul and leave you very little of your self that isn't stained and rotten. Dickens would have a field day I'm sure.
So I slipped out and away into the underground again where I knew that, temporarily at least, I would be insulated against the kind of corporate greed and selfishness that grinds decent human beings into the dust.
Wrong! Sadly everywhere you go in the tube there's some fool trying to sell you something. Posters and billboards line every metre of every escalator and many of the walkways; while across the platform the curved walls are lined with yet more marketing bollocks. Which is ok, but only if it's Art of some sort. Call me a snob if you like, but I think the only advertising we should see in the underground is for galleries, museums and the theatre. In other words, something that makes the trip back up into the real world worthwhile.
You can read Part II of the 36 Hour Slingback later this week.