COLUMN: October 26, 2017

A man walking, much as your writer did

I OCCASIONALLY have to travel by bus. It is possible I have already mentioned this in a previous column. By “occasionally”, I mean twice a day. It would be insane to travel by bus once a day, unless you wanted to go progressively further from home.

Unfortunately there was a bus strike. Now, I am all for the right of workers to withdraw labour in the event of a dispute, but this one affected me, and that is not on. Being forced to make alternative arrangements is easily the worst thing that can befall me because it just increases the number of events that could turn out badly.

But this bus strike was special, because it coincided with my local train station being out of action for three weeks. And the next nearest station was 20 minutes away. By bus. I can only assume that there had been an unusually productive meeting of the Inconveniencing Bainbridge Society (IBS, appropriately enough).

I don’t have a car, taxis were going to be as rare as taxis during a bus strike, and there were no lifts on offer. I had only one option left – Shanks’s pony. I was going to have to walk four and a half miles from home to my office.

So, the time came for going to work and I set off in the sunshine, like Hillary up Everest, and after about 10 minutes I walked down a hill and reached a bus stop. There was an elderly man waiting some distance from it, equidistant, it turned out from that stop and the opposite stop.

“Flipping buses, eh?” he said. “I’ve been waiting for ages.”

The poor man, I thought. “Oh, no, sorry! They’re on strike,” I said. “I’m walking to work because they’re off.”

He thanked me, and I went to go, when he said, “Hang on, is it all the operators?”

“No,” I said. “Just the one on this route.” At which point he explained that another bus would be along soon, operated by a different firm, and that would take me to a mile from my office.

This was a sort of victory, I thought. “When does it come?”

“Oh, in about five or 10 minutes.”

I did a tiny airpunch, and the man started to tell me the story of his life, with a level of detail that meant I now know more about his life than my own. Sometimes he would stop and ask me to explain my own poor life choices. It was like watching a very long episode of This Is Your Life, with no celebrities I had heard of, while occasionally experiencing a Chinese burn.

It was the longest 10 minutes I had ever spent in anybody’s company, and I sneaked a look at my watch. It had actually been 30 minutes. “Um, what time did you say that bus was due?” I asked.

“Ooh, any minute,” he said.

I walked over to the bus stop and looked at the schedule. Only one bus used that stop, and it was on strike. I returned to the man, my stomach sinking.
“Does… Does the bus I want stop over there?” I pointed at the bus stop opposite.

“No, lad,” he said. “It stops up there, up the hill. But sometimes it comes past this way and if you put your hand out sometimes the driver stops for you.”

“Excuse me,” I said, and ran back up the hill, to the bus stop I had apparently ignored earlier. The bus had been there 20 minutes previously, at roughly the time the old man had indicated.

Then I trudged back, past the old man, who is probably still there for all I care, and onwards to work, now at least half an hour late.

And about 30 minutes away from the office – precisely the time I had spent at the bus not-stop – the skies became a putty grey and parted to empty several swimming pools on me, and not especially gradually. I had no coat as it was sunny when I left.

And then, as I approached my office, dripping like a sponge, I saw a bus, run by a non-striking operator, which stops about five minutes’ walk from my home, and which it had not occurred to me I could catch.

So that day I only used the bus once – going home – proving that it really is the act of an insane person.

COLUMN: October 19, 2017

A park with a number of leaves on the ground

I DECIDED to go for a walk in an attempt to take advantage of the last bit of sun this year had to offer. An actual hurricane was on its way the following day, and I thought it would be nice to see where the trees were before they were blown over.

There was a destination in mind – a park I had last visited several years ago – but no route. All I had was a vague sense of the direction in which I would have to walk.

I pulled on a coat, looked in a mirror, and realised that I would have to do more to look less “prime suspect for any crimes that might have occurred in the vicinity”.

The trouble is that I have a shifty look about me. Even in the most benign of circumstances, I look as if I am scoping out the exits. If you combine that with the coat I was considering wearing, which is great if there is a sudden shower, but in every other circumstance looks designed for nefarious purposes, then you can see my difficulty.

I swapped my coat for something less practical. Yes, I might have been caught in the rain, but at least I would not look like “a lone man in a park”. If the past week has taught me anything, it is that women have enough trouble with actual sex pests; they don’t need me to make them uncomfortable too.

I started out on my journey, and immediately pulled out my phone in order to check the route. Then I told myself: “No, you are a human being who for the first 38 years of his life had nothing to direct him save an A-Z and some persistence.”

The persistence is important. Some people are born with a sense of direction. I need a map to get to my kitchen, and even then I’m probably holding it upside down. But if you persist, eventually you reach your destination. It just means that you visit quite a lot of locations beforehand.

And, besides, what if it took a long time? There was a pub/restaurant in the grounds of the park. I could get my tea there. This was going to be great.

It was not long before I was in territory I vaguely knew, and not long after that I was in alien territory. This is because whenever I visited this park, I approached it from my previous home. I’d have had to have got very lost indeed to have come this way. And now, coincidentally, that is what I was.

I thought about my phone again. “No,” I said. “You’re going to ask somebody for directions.” But there was nobody about. It was Sunday afternoon. I was on a road, but I hadn’t seen a pedestrian for ages. The only people I saw were occasional drivers, and jumping into the road to flag somebody down to ask where a park might be is not in my skill set.

And then, as I walked past the walled golf course, in the distance I saw him. A respectable looking man in his forties, a man who had also spent time finding an appropriate coat, walking with purpose. Surely he would know.

I quickened my pace towards him, more than ready for a nice tea. I noted a pile of three car tyres incongruously piled up against the wall of the golf course, but thought little of it.

He reached the tyres before me, but, instead of walking by them, he turned towards the wall, stepped on them, and tried to climb over the wall.

He dealt with the task much as I would, flailing, kicking away the top tyre into the road, presenting his bottom to spectators, as he tried to pull his body over. I briefly considered assisting him, but he was clearly up to no good, so I walked by, allowing him to be “prime suspect for any crimes that might have occurred in the vicinity”.

Persistence paid off. Five minutes later I was walking through the gates of the park. And the only other people there were dog walkers. I could totally blend in as Man Who Is Looking For His Dog. “Krypto!” I shouted. “Come on, boy!”

And so I headed finally to the pub. An aluminium fence surrounded it. “Closed For Refurbishment”, a sign said. “We Apologise For The Inconvenience.”

I suppose I would have known had I looked on my phone.

COLUMN: October 12, 2017

A number of old-style pound coins

I HAVE spent a silly portion of the past week trying to get rid of my money. I am not dying, nor was this a Brewster’s Millions-type scenario.

It is just that I have a jar of change that I top up with the shrapnel I have in my pocket at the end of the day, and I realised there would be a few soon-to-be-worthless pound coins in there.

It will amaze those of you who see my byline picture at the top of this column that I remember the replacement of the pound note with the old pound coin. “But you are only a strip of a hint of a boy,” you say. “I bet you can’t remember a time when a JPEG was something you used to hang up your dishcloth. I bet you can’t remember when the Yellow Pages would hurt you if you dropped it on your foot.”

But in fact I can remember when Top Of The Pops was on a Thursday AND I can remember Top Of The Pops, so it feels odd to see something that was shiny and new and “the future” become defunct. And I work in the media.

So I had just a few days to get rid of the old-style pound coins still in my possession (four), and so I visited the vending machine in work to buy a can of fizzy pop. I dropped an old pound coin in the slot, but it fell through the mechanism, as these things occasionally do, and was spat out again.

I tried a second time, with the same result. But, instead of picking up the money and walking away, perhaps to visit a local shop in order to get rid of this coin, I was briefly confused by my mission.

I was standing in front of a vending machine, it had not accepted the coin I had proffered, and so I automatically found a coin of a different denomination – a £2 coin, put it in, and chose the drink before I could stop myself.

That one worked and the vending machine gave me a drink and my change – a 10p piece, a 20p piece, and an old-style pound coin. Now I had five almost-out-of-date pound coins, and a drink I didn’t really need.

Later that day I managed to exchange a couple of them in Greggs in an attempt to “keep it real” and also have a steak bake. I now had three nearly-useless pound coins, which was disappointing but at least some progress.

Even later that day I alighted from the bus and remembered I needed to buy a couple of items from my local small version of a large supermarket. They would take care of the last of my dangerously-close-to-pointless pound coins.

I was delighted. I was spending money as if it were going out of fashion, which, technically, it was. I picked up the items excitedly.

But then, just as in front of the vending machine, I was confused by my mission. I remembered I needed bleach, and kitchen roll, and, oh, some milk, and I picked them up and suddenly it cost more than the change I had on me. I would have to use my card.

“No,” I thought. “I will not be defeated now.” Instead I went to the cashpoint inside the shop and withdrew £10. And then I marched to the automated checkout, and put my plan into operation.

I fed £13 into the machine. It would be weird to have handed £13 to a cashier, but machines only judge you if you place an unexpected item in the bagging area, and all my items were completely expected. The worst thing that could happen would be that I got my three pounds back, and I was prepared for that…

The machine gave me change. Three pound coins – ALL NEW – and an odd amount of copper. This was a result. I punched the air. Now all I needed was a five-pound note.

I heard the whirr of the automatic change maker. But it did not give me the money. “Please, no,” I thought.

The machine had run out of fivers. It spat out five pound coins. Five old-style pound coins. Because everybody had been trying to get rid of their own before the deadline.

So now I have five beautiful round pounds, which would grace any collection of obsolete coins, and will accept any reasonable offer for them. Cash, obviously.

COLUMN: October 5, 2017

A quantity of fish and chips, similar to those which I ate that Friday night

FOLLOWING a trip away, I visited a couple of youngsters of my acquaintance. Traditionally I would have brought back a gift, but circumstances of the sort regular readers of this column would understand had mitigated against this.

And so I promised that I would bring one on my next visit. I have to point out that the youngsters concerned are uncommonly well brought-up, and had not demanded a gift. Nevertheless, a promise is a promise…

I had a day off the day before my next visit. It was a Friday and I had spent most of that day in the company of a much-loved TV celebrity, and then on an unfamiliar bus in an unfamiliar area.

There is little worse than an enforced trip on an unfamiliar bus in an unfamiliar area. It combines the tedium of being on a bus with the low-level anxiety of a) not being entirely sure the bus is going in the right direction; and b) not being entirely sure where you have to get off. If I wanted to feel like that I would just think about my own life.

I arrived back in town at about 4pm. Although I was off work, I was meeting workmates for a colleague’s leaving drinks at 5pm. It was at that point I remembered my gift promise.

It was no problem. I knew what I wanted to buy, and at 4.30pm I had both items in my relieved hands. But then I realised that I was going out for a drink with people from work, and these things usually wander, and I was going to have to remember the bag of gifts when I left each place.

It was a recipe for disaster, so I took the bag to my office, even though it would clearly mean the massive inconvenience of having to explain to everybody why I was in the office on a day off. I would pick it up afterwards before getting the bus home.

I dropped the bag at my desk. Nobody asked why I was in on my day off. They must have just thought I had been quiet.

Eventually a group of us went to the bar, where I had a couple of drinks. There was talk of going on to somewhere else. But I remembered I was visiting the youngsters early the next day, and really this was where I had to bow out. Luckily, the editor of this column, who is only just finding out about this as she reads it, was also leaving, and she offered me a lift home.

I explained to my leaving colleague why I was leaving before him, made a big deal of my regret at not being able to go on to the next place, and we shook hands, then I left with my editor. No bus for me – I was delighted.

Normally I work on Friday nights. I took advantage of being at home at 8pm by buying fish and chips, eating them, and then flopping onto the sofa. This was indeed the life. This was what normal people with lives and a knowledge of what is happening in Coronation Street did, and it was great.

I kicked off my shoes and settled back. I was going to have an early night and be fresh for the youngsters in the morning. But first a spot of telly…

And then I remembered that the bag of gifts was still sitting on my office desk.

A promise is a promise… I said a rude word, put my shoes back on, and blasted out. Rarely have I been so disappointed to be on a bus on a Friday night.

I disembarked and walked quickly towards my office. If I timed it right, I would return to get the bus home without having to wait half an hour.

But as I closed in on the office I saw a gang walking towards me. They were my workmates, including the leaving colleague. How could I explain why, two hours after leaving them to “go home”, I was now 50 feet in front of them, AND get my bus home in time?

I could not. It has taken me 700 words to explain it to you.

Which is how, on a Friday night, I found myself in circumstances of the sort regular readers of this column would understand, i.e. crouched behind a car outside my office, hiding from 20 people I see every day as they walked past.