There are certain disadvantages to not having a car, a situation that we find ourselves in since returning from Spain. You have to rely on the kindness of others to ferry you back from the supermarket with mountains of shopping, or else do it in several smaller trips, which is probably no bad thing as you tend to buy less stuff. There is the general inconvenience of a bus service which runs when it chooses to do so, something I have ranted about at length on previous occasions. And then it’s a bit of a pain when the weather is bad although you tend to become hardened to it and go out anyway.
The advantages, however, do tend to outweigh the aforementioned disadvantages. At least for those of us who have passed the magical age of 60, bus travel is free most of the time and very cheap even at peak times. Provided the windows of the bus are not too streaked with dirt you can relax and enjoy the scenery which around here on a good day means that you look out over the hills towards the Peak District, a rather fine view on the whole. I take advantage of my increasingly frequent bus rides to brush up my Portuguese grammar or listen to music (depending on how virtuous I am feeling) on my iPod.
Best of all though are the other passengers on the bus. OK, some of them may not be very attractive and some seem to have personal hygiene problems. I have been known to arrive home protesting about the fact that the fattest and smelliest person in Greater Manchester chose to sit next to me on my journey home from one of my jaunts. I would say, though, that in general they are more interesting than off-putting. And the conversations you overhear can be enlightening.
One middle evening recently I sat behind two young ladies who drifted into discussing a possible career as striptease artistes. To begin with they appeared to be discussing fashion pictures on the i-phone or Blackberry belonging to one of them. The conversation went something like this:
Girl A: Oooh, this one looks like what you wear for stripping.
Girl B: Would you do that?
Girl A: Yeah!!! It keeps you fit, keeps you in shape and you get worshipped!!!
Girl B: And think if the money you’d earn!
Girl A: Shall we do that?
Girl B: Yeah, you could go somewhere where no-one would know you.
Girl A: Yeah, no-one else needs to know you do it.
Girl B: If someone offered you a job for life where you get paid loads and you have to be a stripper ’til you’re 25 and a Page 3 girl ’til you’re 30, would you do it? Oh, and you have to have a boob job. Would you do it?
Girl A: Yeah!!! Let’s do it!
No comment. This conversation was at top volume. Granted the bus was very nearly empty and maybe they did not realise that I was sitting behind them. And then they got off the bus so I never found out about their more concrete career plans.
As a rule, however, it’s the conversations I get into that are the most fascinating, such as the ones I had today.
There is an elderly lady who lives around the corner from us. I often meet her at the bus stop and pass the time of day. Last time I saw her she was complaining about how cold it had been but today was fine sunny day and she was feeling more enthusiastic about life.
One way or another our conversation, which began at the bus stop and continued on the bus, drifted into her reminiscences of long ago when she worked as a land girl during the World War II. Her story today was about the period just after the war. Her young man had taken advantage of a scheme to get returning servicemen into education or training and was studying at the University of Oxford while she continued her work as a land girl. In order to have time off to go to the ball at his Oxford college she worked extra hours, taking extra leave instead of overtime pay. She borrowed money from her aunt, an extravagant £20, in order to have a posh frock made, swearing her aunt to secrecy. Her mother was not to know that she had approached her aunt in this way. The dress was made, she had managed to find accommodation for a couple of nights in Oxford and off she went, taking with her fresh eggs which they would have for breakfast on the morning after the ball.
Now her young man had told her that he could not meet her at the station; a friend of his would do so. Almost as soon as she met the friend she could tell that something was amiss. “If you are a sensitive person,” she told me, “and I was an actress so I was sensitive, you can tell when something is not right.” And it definitely was not right. The embarrassed friend took her to meet her young man and they all went to the ball where, at some point in the evening, her young man told her that he had met someone else and it was all off. What a cad! So the next morning, instead of eating breakfast with her intended, she took her eggs and headed for home and presumably a career in acting.
I could have listened to her all day but she alighted at the big Tesco store where she was to meet someone who would then help her carry her shopping home. 80+, still dressed up to the nines and still doing her own shopping – with a little help from her friends! Amazing!
Meanwhile, I continued into Oldham where I changed buses in order to go on to Manchester. My second bus of the day was very crowded and I found myself on one of those fold-down seats that face the wrong way. Opposite me sat an ancient mariner kind of character: a little unkempt, straggly bear and moustache and a twinkle in his eye.
He observed me for a while and then leant forward to ask if I was going away for Easter, clearly an opening gambit as he went on to tell me many people he knows are planning to go off somewhere. He went on to talk about the weather and how in his younger days he used to go cycling a good deal: long distance cycling, races and cycling weekends with his mates. This led to the Tour de France. He advised me to go and see it live if I got the chance, to follow the Tour circus from town to town because, he told me, after the day’s stage is finished there is always a concert of some kind in whichever town they have reached that day, some of the finest acts available.
He went on to tell me about seeing the Tour start in San Sebastián in northern Spain and before you knew it we were swapping notes about places we had visited in that fair country. And then he asked me if I had ever got to a place called Vigo (he pronounced it with the “i” as in “bike” but it was still recognisable as the city where we spent two years), somewhere that he had visited when he had been on cruises in the past.
All of this goes to show what a small world it really is. If you are prepared to chat to people you find out all sorts of interesting things and sometimes discover that you have things in common. I challenge you to do that when travelling by car!