After a mere seven days, the week visiting my in-laws here in Stuttgart is up. My girlfriend Margret tries one last time to persuade me to join her on the flight back home to Wolverhampton, but I simply do that Bruce Willis thing with my mouth. I know that if you fly in an aeroplane you will almost certainly die in a plummeting, howling inferno of aviation fuel and twisted metal, and one of us must survive for the sake of the children. And simple logic dictates that Margret should be the one to perish.
Thus, like the wily fox returning from Germany in the proverb, I, Millington, have arranged a less fatal way of arriving at B. I hold a Discount Coach Ticket.
Margret walks me to the S-bahn in Esslingen. She will stay on for another couple of days. We snatch a few romantic moments together and she fusses over my preparedness. We are Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard in Brief Encounter.
"Have you got the ticket?"
"And some German money?"
"Do you want to stop at the newsagent and buy some pornography?"
"No, I'll be fine - really."
I'm waiting for the coach at Stuttgart Hauptbahnhof. Been waiting for quite a while, as it happens. Incorrigibly English, I've taken the early S-bahn to get here - the assumption that the train would be late being our countrymen's birthright. I'm in Germany, however, and thus the train was precisely on time, leaving me to gaze back and forth between my navel and the windswept, concrete coach park while Pucktuality, the spirit of misplaced promptness, dances a teasing jig at my feet. Stuttgart coach station is, as always, freezing - elsewhere the sun is calling melanomas into bloom all around - Arschkalt, they say. One can Arsch most things over here - an expensive item might be cursed as Arschteuer, for example. In Germany the arse is the universal system of measurement.
The coach arrived. I dumped my bags on it. I came over, bought only a necklace and a spoon, left a pile of stuff behind, and yet the bags are now 30% fuller. As always. (Note to self; get round to finalising neo-Relativistic formula for the calculation of the rate at which Holidays are converted into Mass.) The driver of the coach does his routine - you only get this on the return journey, for some reason. There's a German driver who does a quickfire three minutes on the perils of blocking the toilet. I've heard him do the same gags twice now, with two years in between. You'd think they'd get round to writing some new material, but then the regulars, bringing along friends, would be disappointed and he'd only get requests for the classic set anyway. Today the driver is English, draws heavily on the lighter side of misuse of the emergency buttons, and favours irony and deadpan delivery. His observation "Pressing the Service button above your head for no good cause will result in a small explosion and you will arrive at your destination ahead of the rest of us though not in one piece," doesn't bring a wry smile to the face of the German passengers, but rather a look of genuine fear. I sense he is losing the audience.
We've stopped for food at Some Service Station Or Other. I have a plate of chips with an unspecified dead animal slice and a tiny Diet Coke. 21.90DM. That's about seven pounds in English money. I spar good-naturedly with the person at the till and am charged 21.90DM, which is about seven pounds in English money.
Heading towards Frankfurt. I was pleased to see, as I boarded the coach after our break, that the makers have their psychology down pat. As if to remind us why we're all here instead of flying, the DAF coach has the model name Ikarus. I draw succour.
I have, my dear friends, just been to the lavatory. A few of you may know that I regard going to the toilet on a moving coach to be endlessly entertaining, often likening it to crouching inside a tumble-dryer, or one of those rides at the fair where you spin round until the floor drops away leaving you stuck to the wall by centrifugal force. Worth the price of the trip on its own, in my opinion. Today, however, my stomach is being uncertain with me. This is worrying as, the day before I left, Brother-in-law Matthias came down with diarrhoea (durchfall - "through-fall," as they call it. The Germans only call a spade a spade until a blunter word presents itself). I'm fearful I may have caught his affliction, and I'm-Mark-Thank-You-and-Goodnight the coach driver stressed three times that the toilet was only to be used "for fluids." The contemplation of what, technically, consistency-wise, constitutes a fluid is not a thought you want to be trapped with inside a coach toilet rock 'n' rolling down a German Autobahn. Eh? Eh? I believe I've said enough.
||The authorities have implemented
For the benefit of the people who joined at Frankfurt, coach driver Mark has just done his routine again. Exactly. Even the pauses were the same length. The one exception was right at the end when he was talking about illegal immigrants. He said that anyone without the correct papers should come and tell him now and he'd drop them off at the nearest station, where they can get a train. "The Germans are selling one, I believe, though you can't use it for the next ten thousand years." (A topical reference to the train transporting nuclear waste which is in the news over here.) The man, quite simply, rocks.
Regarding the above, this service - it's the 163 from Munich to London; please feel free to impress at dinner parties using this fact - is under threat. It apparently carries such a high proportion of asylum seekers, illegal immigrants and people travelling on stolen or forged passports that the Customs at both Calais and Dover have threatened to stop it running if things don't change. Thus the authorities have implemented checks, double-checks and safeguards - passports are photocopied, luggage is heavily screened, etc - to hold back the tide. It's a travelling Berlin Wall, if you will. "Ladies and gentlemen, please sit back and enjoy the ride. In a few moments attendants will be passing among you with crisps, light refreshments and attack dogs." Cutting edge of history, that's where you'll always find me. Oh yes.
Cologne. A lovely city. Just shows that the Germans, spurred on by the results of just a few years' heavy bombing, can do some very nice building. The driver - by switching on the radio and asking the passengers to listen for the football results while he goes to the toilet - has just revealed his home town. And who better to screen the hopeful foreigners trying to get into England than a Millwall supporter, eh?
Another service station stop. This one (like it matters) is just outside Aachen. On the urinals - my, but don't we spend a lot of time together in lavatories? - are little plaques reading, "Wir sparen Trinkwasser."
"We save drinking water"? Maybe my translation is ropey. I mean, they wouldn't, would they? Would they? Anyway, I don't have anything from the restaurant.
In Belgium. Lining the road are irregular strings of young people holding cardboard signs written on with marker pens, in the style of hitchhikers. As we approach more closely, we see that they read, "I live here. Please God, run me over."
We're heading into Liege which, at night at least, the only time I ever see it, is really pretty. Neon and water. Lovely. It appears that Liege only has two types of shop, cafes and strip joints, which makes it my kinda town. There's also a bronze, Romantic-style statue in one of the squares (though I've probably got this wrong, what with only glancing it through a coach window in the dark) of a man waving a pair of underpants in the air. Which makes it my kinda town.
"Ladies and gentlemen... for those of you travelling on the ferry who suffer from seasickness, please remember to eat lots of bread and jam. It won't help you, but the seagulls love it." And with that, coach driver Mark leaves us. He's been replaced by someone who hasn't said a word as yet. Bummed out by his place on the bill, I suppose. "What? I'm going on after Mark? What chance have I got? He'll have been storming it since Munich, man."
We pause for a Let Us Stretch Our Legs Or There'll Be A Bloody Uprising stop at a petrol station in a place called Drongen (naught but a petrol station by a Belgian motorway... forget the name. Forget it now). Everyone stays right within Christ-I'm-not-getting-left-here distance of the coach and the passengers spontaneously coalesce into national groups: the Southern Europeans, South Americans and Yanks chat rapidly, the East Europeans grunt to mark out long, grim pauses, the Belgians exhale great clouds of cigarette smoke through the lazy, cold night air into the beams of the coach headlights, the Germans eat fruit. I stand alone - perhaps they think me imperious and aloof, perhaps something in my eyes, the knowledge I silently, fearfully carry about the drinking water at Aachen service station sets me apart from other people. Perhaps I smell funny. Could be anything, quite frankly.
Without any announcement, the driver pulls off the motorway, drives a short distance and comes to a stop in a deserted industrial estate. It's been pre-arranged, obviously, and police cars pull up either side of us. We're told to get our passports out and two officers board the bus, examine papers, ask questions and generally give off don't fuck with us vibes. It's all so utterly thrilling I just can't tell you. It'd work great in a movie. Opening sequence, I reckon. It'd end with the police motioning wordlessly to the driver to get off, then machine-gunning us from outside (exploding windows, yells, panic - all from different POVs, internal and external) with clinical efficiency. Closing shot of the sequence is the coach, ripped to pieces, standing there lonely and dead as the police calmly get back into their cars and drive away.
That didn't happen, though. They checked my passport, I ate a flapjack and now we're back on the motorway. Bummer.
At the ferry port. More passport checking, for we are the 163 service and we are bad, bad Mo Fo's. One person is taken off by the French Customs officers, which is sort of a shame after getting this far - bit like Steve McQueen on that motorbike in The Great Escape.
He's tied up outside and beaten about the legs and body with lengths of rubber hose as an example to the rest of us. (No, not really. Well, actually, yes.)
Aboard the ferry, and it's moving. The captain's just made the usual announcement. He sounds pissed off, and who can blame him? All those years studying boating at university, and he ends up going backwards and forwards between Dover and Calais carrying loads of housewives from Essex who're only there to fill up their Nissan Micras with duty free lager. Like training as a Navy SEAL and winding up as a swimming pool attendant, I suppose. Anyway, he's in good company; it's the 2.00am crossing from Calais and absolutely everyone from bar staff to passengers is doing various nuances of sullen.
There is a party of Orthodox Jews across from me here in the (Lord help us) "Peninsular Bar." I couldn't stop myself from thinking - my mind turning to death, it being a good four minutes since I contemplated it last - that if this thing goes under I'll hurl myself over among them and sneak into heaven in the confusion. Half an infinity from now in paradise it'll be, "Abby... just who is that guy sitting over there smoking the odd cigarette and reading Hairy Women Who Are Up For Anything?"
"What you talking, Isaac? I thought he was with you."
In other news, I visited the lavatory uneventfully. I'm sure you're all very glad for that, at least.
2.15am (British time)
Navigating British Customs at Dover. A joy, as always. I have a present from Father-in-law Joachim.
"What's wrapped up in the bag, sir?"
"A small wooden pyramid that revolves by candle power. My reasons are my own."
"I see. You know, sir, of course, that as an officer of Her Majesty's Customs and Excise I am legally entitled to stab selected travellers at my own discretion."
"Yes. Yes I do. Nice cap."
I embellish. The only aura you EVER want to give off to a British Customs official is "I am a worm. A slithering worm, not worthy of your attention." You NEVER want to approach even the furthermost edges of banter with a Customs official. Forget all the "Sure, you can check the contents of my camcorder. No, hang on - could you just clarify this whole child pornography thing for me again?" unless you want to be standing naked in a cell being blasted with jets of icy water thirty seconds later. Customs officers enter into a Faustian bargain whereby they are given absolute power in exchange for their sense of humour. Hitler's dad, you will remember noddingly, was a Customs officer. And Hitler thought he was a nasty piece of work.
On the coach once more, heading for Victoria. I watch the black countryside swing by.
Arrive at Victoria coach station. It's not even open yet, we have to scratch at the glass like the zombies in Dawn of the Dead (the analogy works in lots of ways, I assure you) for ten minutes until we're let in. This is the worst part of the journey. I'm now here until the coach for Wolverhampton leaves. At 9.30. That time again is 9.30.
Nice grouting on those tiles.
This is Donald. Donald the handkerchief. Donald is my friend.
On the coach back to Wolves. I am pleased to be on the M40; what does that tell us about my state of mind, do you think?
What's that rising from the very earth around us? What's that in the air, seeping from the buildings and shining from the faces of all the people we pass? Failure, despair and desperation. Yes, we must be! We are! We're in Birmingham! Almost home now.
Arrive in Wolves. I'm pleased to see the whole place still looks like a building site. I'd hate to have lived patiently in Wolverhampton for all these years and then, just while I'd popped away for a few days, they go and finish it.
Home again. Margret fills in every "consumer survey" she finds, lured by the promise of "a free mystery gift" (it's a biro. It's always a biro) and as a result we get a wheelbarrow of junk mail every morning (and people phoning every time we sit down to eat tea and declaring, "Ms Hotze/Huts/Hots/Hats/Asda/Uzi? I understand you want to know more about pensions/laminated glass/Bolivian death squads/tarpaulin/plums/astral projection by the use of scented oils..."). There is a bleeding wall of the stuff here because we've been away. Haven Holidays have sent us their brochure twice.
I suppose the one benefit to flying is that sorting out all the junk mail that comes while you're away will be down to the executors of your will. But that's churlish of me. Long may the 163 be the way to travel across Europe without the phrases "ice on the wings" or "exploded on impact, demolishing the block of flats and scattering debris up to a mile away" being involved in any way at all. I am home. I am gloriously alive. I need the lavatory.
|I'M TWO MONTHS LATE BECAUSE
I fell in the sea
Of my furniture
I thought "Sept" stood for "Septuagesima" and got it furtherly wrong
I had to go back for my keys
It's my responsibility to be