It'll make you smile
All human life is here
From the feeble old dear to the screaming child
From the student who knows that to have one of those
Would be suicide
To the family man
Manhandling the pram with paternal pride
And everybody sings 'ba ba ba da'
We're going where the air is free
On the National Express there's a jolly hostess
Selling crisps and tea
She'll provide you with drinks and theatrical winks
For a sky-high fee
Mini-skirts were in style when she danced down the aisle
Back in '63 (yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah)
But it's hard to get by when her arse is the size
Of a small country
And everybody sings 'ba ba ba da'
We're going where the air is free
Tomorrow belongs to me
When you're sad and feeling blue
With nothing better to do
Don't just sit there feeling stressed
Take a trip on the National Express, the National Express, let's go.
-National Express, The Divine Comedy,
Session 1.1 "National Express"
Late Evening, Sept 3rd 2014. London Victoria Bus Station
Diesel fume stink and the babbling hubbub of six or seven hundred tired, hungry people fill the air of the bus station punctuated only by the rumbling of over-worked bus engines while vehicle after vehicle disgorges it human cargo onto the dirty asphalt of London Victoria Station. A petite goth girl with hulk-green dreads stands at the London to Glasgow stance, dressed in casual looking black joggy bottoms and an Anthrax hoodie. She's got a small overnight bag over one shoulder, a simple canvas number decorated with band patches and a hello-kitty plush keyring. Hello-kitty has had one eye blacked out with a marker pen, to give her a piratical touch.
Standing next to her is a bubbly looking girl, just as pretty but in a “girl next door” sort of way. She's helping the goth looking girl settle a huge, baroque looking clothes trunk onto the asphalt next to the bus stance. Looking at them, most folks wouldn't be surprised to learn that the green dread-locked girl was a Baroque dancer. The same people would no doubt be shocked to learn that the bubbly looking girl in the jeans and blue top was a dancer too.
Tia Ferch Dafydd turns to her black-garbed friend and enfolds her in a war embrace. When she speaks, it's with a beautifully musical Welsh accent.
“Aww. I'm really going to miss you, you know that Becca. It's not often you meet another a dancer whose not, you know, an ego-driven maniacal monster.”
Becca Adams, otherwise known by the stage name “Threnody Noir” embraces the girl fondly, rubbing a hand up and down her back.
“I know, but it wont be for long girl. I know there are plenty of promoters up I Glasgow who'd be really interested in some of your routines” - Becca
“You really think so? I've never been to Glasgow. I'd love to see it.” - Tia
“I'm really going to miss you” - Becca
“Oh, I'll miss you too.” - Tia
“I'll send you a text when I'm on the bus. Thanks for helping me with the trunk.” - Becca
“Probably for the best. I hate long goodbyes. Have a good journey. And good luck tomorrow.” - Tia
The Welsh lass with the vibrant, strawberry hair bounces off. She turns and wagges her fingers as a friendly goodbye, but she's soon lost in the crowd. Alone now, or at least as alone as it's possible to be in the crowded bus station, Becca's thoughts drift to tomorrow. The big day. Referendum day. She already knows how she'll vote.
Her thoughts are interrupted by the arrival of eight or nine powerfully built young men, Rugby players going by their looks and the presence of various jerseys, hoodies and sports' bags marked “Glasgow University Rugby Club”. They're a bit rumbunctious and loud: there's a lot of back-slapping going on there. Becca rolls her eyes theatrically and thinks “Oh great, it's gonna be a long trip.”
Becca raises a eyebrow in surprise as one of the lads suddenly gets out of his seat to offer it to an elderly lady in a thin, blue coat and a tartan hat. The old dear smiles gratefully at the lad, who takes a few pelters and a bit of a ribbing from his mates about his new “girlfriend”. The old lady doesn't seem to mind and even seems to find her benefactors embarrassment somewhat amusing.
It's at this point that Alyss arrives, dressed in a 1950's style ¾ length dress and plenty of fake fur. She's pushing a luggage trolly in front of her that's just about creaking under the weight. Clearly, she's had to pay extra for all that luggage. She takes up station close to the plan metal seats at the stance, all of them occupied, and taps her foot noisely. She's clearly wanting one of the rugby lads to get up and give her their seat.
At about the same time a family of four fight their way through the crowd, approaching the stance from the other direction. The two tired looking parents are hefting a good few suitcases with them. The older child, a girl, is dressed up as a strange hybrid of fairy godmother and Disney princess. The youngest, a tired looking little boy of about three, is dragging his TMNT knapsack along the ground behind him. His other hand is grasping an 8 inch tall Leonardo by one leg. If the doll every came with a katana, it's long gone by now.
Almost immediately, two more of the rugby lads (ironically, the two that were ribbing their mate the loudest)get to their feet and offer them to the small family. Gratefully, the two parents plant their weary backsides on the cold steel on the chairs, and settle the kids on their laps. Dad uses the girl's fairy wand to scratch mums back.
Alyss glares and taps her feet.
Sebastian arrives a few moments later, taking note of how much Scottish accents he's hearing in the crowd around him. He arrives in a cluster of other travellers, some of whom look like workers from the City, dressed in power suits. He looks very out of his place in his worn jeans, leather jacket and plain t-shirt.
Sebastian has barely had time to find himself a spot on the wall to lean against when a very tall, handsome older woman swings past him abruptly, speaking very loudly into her phone with a distinctive French accent. She sounds very put out and distinctly unhappy. The look on her face when she lays eyes on her travelling companions speaks volume. Sebastion recognises the power suit she's wearing as being worth more than his high-powered lap-top and tablet combined.
Alyss and Becca notice her arrival as well. Alyss notices that her blonde hair appears to be an expensive dye job and that her fine, chiselled features are far too symmetrical to be entirely natural. Clearly, mother nature has had a bit of a helping hand from the old chisel with this one. The French woman notices the younger, prettier Alyss watching her and glares rudely.
Becca see's the French woman's glower and chuckles at the thought of the poor lady having to experience the joys of the National Express.
Other passengers continue to arrive and within a few minutes there is almost no standing space at all. By now, all of the rugby lads have given up their seats and are now sitting in a circle, using each other as back-rests, their legs stretched out in front of them and their luggage on their laps. One of two of them are sipping from soft drinks bottles that have clearly been refilled with something a little more “interesting” for the journey home.
Becca looks at her watch. They're already running ten minutes late, despite all the extra-services that have been put on tonight to get people home for the referendum. A number of unintelligible announcements have made, apologising for the delay to this service or that service nada nada nada. It's all going over people's heads and the crowd are getting restless. The French lady seems especially irate, glancing at her rollex every few moments and practically growling at any station employee foolish enough to enter her eyeline.
Eventually a very harried looking bus driver arrives, wearing his high visibility vest and carrying a bucket sized thermal flask full of whatever caffeinated hot drink he's chosen to help see him through the night. Not long after that, an off-white, dirty looking bus pulls up to the stance with the other driver already aboard. Spare driver immediately opens up the under-seat storage lockers and the rugby lads, already bored by the delay, start hefting the heavier luggage items into the bays, with the gratitude of their fellow passengers.
The spare drier announces that the bus is fully booked. Ticketed passengers only, and for the sake of everyone's sanity he will requiring all passengers to stick to their allocated seats. The result is a chorus of groans, but the passengers are already so agitated by the delay that they just want to get on the bus and find a seat. Boarding proceeds quickly.
The French lady tries to jump cue, but is immediately send packing to the rear of with some choice words from the driver. He's speaking in French himself, but his tone isn't lost on anyone, even if the words are. The family of four find their seats at the front of the bus. With all the jostling and seat switching going on, it takes about fifteen minutes of “excuse mes”, “nae bother pals” and “you're in my seats” before the last of the passengers are able to settle down. By which point the bus is already half an hour late and tempers are beginning to fray.
The rugby lads are among the last to take their seats. The very last is the French lady, who finds herself sitting beside Alyss. Sebastian is on the other side of the bus and slightly further back. Becca is just a few seats behind Alyss. None of them have really taken any notice of each other yet, but that's hardly surprising considering that none of them have ever met.
Ten or fifteen minutes after leaving the station, a few of the rugby lads are already a little bit the worse for ware. They immediately begin to lead the bus in a surprisingly fine rendition of “National Express” by the divine comedy. There are a few muttered grumbles and complaints, but the jaunty tune soon has much of the bus clapping and tapping their feet, and the atmosphere much improves. Not for Sebastian and Alyss though, both of whom hate the song and find themselves gritting their teeth, wishing it was over.
Becca, on the other hand, doesn't mind in the least and smiles to herself in amusement, even turning her Ipod down a little to listen. It seems like their about to go for an encore until the little girl down at the front starts singing out “Let it Be” in a reedy little girls voice. The rugby lads soon shut up and listen with tolerant respect, while a few of the other kids on the bus join in. At the end, there's a few polite, desultory claps.
Becca, meanwhile, his pulled her hood up, dug herself deep into her chair, and turned the volume back up. All the way back up. It's at this point she's beginning to realise that the stink of stale lager she's smelling isn't coming from the rugby lads but from the rough looking old codger sat next to her. Fortunately, years of pulling pints in the Hard Rock have dulled her senses to such assaults and she manages to avoid gagging.
The parents hastily shush their daughter before she begins her second rendition, and the driver gratefully turns up the volume on the radio for a bit, “so everyone can hear the road and weather news”.
Alyss is calmly listening to her audiobook. It's a 1940's romance novel. She's doing her best not to crease her very expensive dress ad trying even harder to avoid having her very expensive dress come into contact with any of the seat covers. Sebastian, meanwhile, has been working on his laptop, coding a new app and determinedly ignoring the guy sitting next to him who keeps trying to look over his shoulder. Eventually, Sebastian lets the guy see what he's up to. Bored, his neighbour grunts, asking if Sebastian has any films on that thing.
“It's the work's lap-op” - Sebastian
The guy grunts again, rolls over, and tries to get some sleep.
The French lady sat next to Alyss, meanwhile, is making a point of demarcating her territory by placing her purse on the seat between herself and Alyss. She's only just finished when she pulls her phone out of her bag again and resumes her loud, angry conversation. She's either oblivious too or dismissive of all the glares she's receiving from people who are either trying to sleep or reading quietly under the bus night lights.
The very entitled Alyss tries her damnedest to stay calm and keep her mouth shut but it's more than she can take. The privileged librarian flips down the seat-back tray opposite the French woman, places the French woman's bag and purse on it and then snatches the phone out of her hand, smiles her sweetest smile, and then drops the phone into the Frenchwoman's handbag. All to a round of applause from some nearby passengers.
“The battle of the bitches” Becca exclaims happily, “this is amazing”.
The French woman gasps in astonishment, glares angrily at Alyss, and reaches back into her hand-bag. With seconds, she's dialling up again, giving Alyss a look that's just daring her to try that again.
Alyss demurely takes the phone again -and receives a slap for her trouble.
“Excuse me, we don't behave like this in England!” Alyss insists prissily.
“In France, we do not steal other peoples phones” - Frenchwoman, in a fairly reasonable tone of voice.
“I'm not stealing it if I'm placing it in your bag” -Alyss
“Nor do we interrupt one another's conversations.” - Frenchwoman.
“Well, you're interrupting everyone else on the bus. So shut-up.” -Alyss.
“I don't recall being told this was a silent bus”. -Frenchwoman, prissily and complete oblivious to the little red, “no phone calls” signs plastered on every window of the bus.” - Frenchwoman.
“Well I think you'll find that the manners of modern decorum insist that you much be polite and nice to people, especially on an overnight journey”. -Alyss
“Well you could perhaps be polite and nice to me by allowing me to complete my important phone call.” - Frenchwoman.
“Well you could perhaps be polite and nice by going back to your own country and not behaving like this in England. Now I insist you leave me alone. My mama and papa are very important people and they will sue if you continue to behave in this way.” -Alyss, proving that, not only is she every so slightly a bitch, but she's actually just a little bit of a bigot as well.
The Frenchwoman is indignant. Shocked, but indignant. “Did you just tell me to go back to my own country. I believe there are laws against that sort of thing in this country. Perhaps I should be the one suing you?”
“There might well be, but I think you'll find they don't apply to me.” - Alyss.
By this point, just about everyone on the bus who's still awake is paying attention.
“Daddy, what's a bigot?” - Little boy with the TMNT rucksack.
“Sssssh.” - Daddy.
“Well, I think you'll find that if you ludicrously attempt to sue me, I shall in turn sue you for racism.” - Frenchwoman.
“That would sort of imply you're a different race. You're a nationality darling.” -Alyss.
“I think you'll find that the law doesn't make such distinctions.” -Frenchwoman.
“Papa told me that I can say what I want.” -Alyss.
“I think you'll find that “papa” should have disciplined you better with the aid of a little slap every now and then.” - Frenchwoman.
“Your parents should have told you that it's rude to be loud and obnoxious on buses! There are small children trying to sleep. You really should be more considerate.” -Alyss
“I will have you know that the reason I am speaking loudly is because my mother is hard of hearing.” -Frenchwoman.
“Well, that's not my problem. Maybe you should send her a text message.” -Alyss.
The Frenchwoman can't think of an answer to that. After a few moments of bluster, she simply reaches into her handbag, withdraws her phone again and resumes her conversation, albiat a little bit quieter. She's also holding her phone to the other side of her away. Away from Alyss.
Alyss responds by going into her back and withdrawing a large textbook on library filing systems. She opens it out on her seat-back tray, but the pages stretch out well onto the French ladies own tray. The other woman makes an exasperated noise but completely ignores Alyss, and proceeds to tell her mother (in French) all about the exasperating brat she's found herself sat beside on this good awful bus.
A few seats behind, Becca remarks to her neighbour that this is going to feel like a very long eight hours.
After another couple of hours, the bus has passed the Watford Gap. By this point the bus has gone quiet. Even the rugby lads are barely stirring, whispering quietly amongst themselves. Becca's travelling campanion is becoming increasingly obnoxious however. He's quietly drooling in his sleep at the moment however. Sebastion's seating companion is likewise out like a light. Meanwhile, the two privileged ladies from either end of the English channel are glaring at one another.
Eventually, the French lady stands up, rudely squeezes past Alyss and crosses the aisle to have a whispered conversation with a well dressed man on the other side of the aisle. He get out of his seat, takes his briefcase down from the overhead compartment, and crosses over to the other side of the bus, sitting in the French ladies vacated seat. He gives Alyss a disapproving look but says nothing, simply continuing to read his book. Alyss notices it's entitled “The Golden Dawn”, but thinks nothing of it.
She doesn't have any ranks in Occult.
Alyss pointedly puts her book away, with a satisfied smug.
About four and a half hours into the journey, the bus pulls into a service station and a few of the passengers get out to stretch their legs. Sebastion, most of the Rugby guys, the guy from the “Let it Be” family and Becca among them. The dad sighs dramatically as he lights up a blue Superkings. Becca meanwhile smokes a roll-up she prepared earlier. It's just tobacco. Nothing exotic. After a few moments, the French Lady makes her way down the stairs and produces a silver cigarette case from her inside pocket. She taps a beautifully rolled, silver-filtered cigarette again the lid once, twice, then lights up. She's definitely a heavy smoker. Three deep inhalations and the cigarette is gone. Then she's back on the bus before the drivers have even changed over.
Her cigarette complete, she pulls out her phone again and resumes her loud conversation.
Dad meanwhile is drinking a can of Monster, bleary eyed and desperately in need of a few hours sleep.
A few moments later, everyone is back on the bus. Mr Old firm is lying across Becca's seat, but she politely nudges him awake and he rolls back over to his side of the seat.
He mutters, “Sorry Doll. Had a wee it too much ah the ol vino del collapso”. He's soon fast asleep. Meanwhile, Sebastion's companion is awake again. “ Ahright!” he announces in a thick Geordie accent, “Got any decent toons [as in “tunes”] on that thing?”
Sebastion shakes his head, and the man returns to his sleep, profoundly disappointed.
Alyss has nodded off by this point, and awakes to find her companion looking through a number of documents. It's all graphs and pie charts and she assumes it's something to do with economics. Blearily, she sits up and returns to her audio book.
An hour south of Glasgow, the bus slumbers. The "Let it Go" family at the front of the bus have fallen silent, bleary-eyed parents whispering quietly over the somnolent forms of their sleeping children. The rugby-sevens team from Glasgow University, triumphant after their away victory at King's College, London, are snoring loudly. The contents of their re-filled "soft-drinks" bottles long since imbibed by throats parched in the dry heat of the darkened cabin. The bus is lit intermittently by the passing motorway lights, illuminating the cabin every few moments in a rhythm uncannily in tune with the human heart beat. Overhead, a few reading lights remain lit.
Muted, ceiling-mounted televisions display BBC News 24. Tomorrow's referendum on Independence looms large in the hourly newscasts, the sombre faces of the anchors looking ever so slightly troubled at the prospect that tomorrow might witness the death of the United Kingdom. The latest poll figures flash ominously across the bottom of the screen. "Should Scotland be an Independent Country?" 51% Yes, 49% No.
The bus is packed with expatriates returning home, many of them City professionals who work in London through the week, returning to their families mostly at weekends; taking a rare weekday break to cast their ballot. Forced to "slum" it in the bus with the riff-raff by the huge numbers of Scot's clogging the United Kingdoms airways and railways. All desperate to have a say in their country's future. A future in which only the Scots - and a few hundred thousands other EU nationals living in Scotland- will have a right to vote in a matter that affect the future of every man, woman and child in three countries and one province.
Someone coughs a little further down the aisle. It's the off-shift driver, stirring in his sleep. His leg stretched far out into the centre isle. The stilted "patter" of the late night Radio Clyde DJ, is just about audible over the snores, his voice meandering lazily down the aisle. The French woman makes another disgusted tutting noise as -for the third time in as many hours- she's forced to nudge the head of a sleeping drunk away from her shoulder.
From nowhere, an intense flash of orange light fills the crowded interior. There's no time to blink away the after-image before the blast hits-followed shortly thereafter by a wall of sound and humans screams. Floor becomes the ceiling and two dozen passengers fall from their seats onto the roof and luggage racks. A terrible shriek of grinding metal rips through the screams, announcing that the bus is sliding across the motorway embankment on it's roof. With another sudden lurch, the bus rolls. One of the "Let it Go" Children flies down the aisle, her horrified baby-scream lost in the noise and tumult. An acidic smell of bile fills the air, a window smashes, and a man is crushed as the bus rolls again, his upper torso still in the bus while the lower is pulped into paste by the still-rolling vehicle.
After a few moments more, the bus comes to an -almost- rest. It's not moving any more, but it's rocking up and down like a see-saw, as though poised at the edge of something. There are sounds reminiscent of gunfire coming from nearby. Outside, lightning flashes in a clear sky, The bright, white light of rapidly approaching head-lights fill the cabin. There's a screech of brakes then... nothing.