It's easy to remember your finest sensory experiences. You love the smell of bacon. You like the sound of rain on the window. You can remember the taste of Thai green curry for weeks after you last ate it. You long for the feel of leather on your skin.
But can you remember your worst sensory experience? The times at which your mouth, nose, eyes, ears and skin were assaulted by the world around us in an unspeakably horrific manner? Because I can. I can. And they all happened to me on a National Express coach.
For a period of a year, I commuted between Nottingham and Leeds on the NX329 or NX310 service on Sunday mornings for work. The Purgatory Express left Nottingham coach station at 7.30AM or 8.30AM and arrived in Leeds two-and-a-half hours later. And no, before you ask: no trains run that route early on a Sunday morning. It was just me, an itchy seat and 150 minutes of no legroom.
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The timing of the whole thing didn't help. To be awake at 6.30AM on a Sunday in one of England's city centres is a surreal experience. Wide-eyed revellers struggle down streets like lone animals separated from the herd, burped out onto the streets after being swallowed whole by another Saturday night.
A girl once shouted "What the fuck are you looking at?" too near my face as I tried to do the thing you do when you're on coaches, which is try to silently forget that you're on one. She was a human car crash – I mean, we're talking "still photographs of her 6AM Sunday morning face should have been used as anti-drugs literature in schools" – and me the rubber-necking driver on the other side of the motorway. She followed up that question with the saddest words I've ever heard: "Sorry, I just want to get home and into bed." Same, Extremely Messy Drugs Girl. Same.
As soon as you get on public transport comes The Scan. Engage your Terminator 2 clothes-and-boots-and-motorcycle vision: which of your passengers are most likely to strike up unwanted conversation? Who looks like they haven't washed? Is there anyone who might already have shat themselves at the tumescent anticipation of 150 minutes of England's A roads? Because there always is. For some reason, someone always shits themselves on a coach at 7.30AM on a Sunday.
The first group you want to swerve is the lads. Because lads are idiots: the reason they are even on the bus in the first place is because they have come straight from a night out, one of life's most terrible mistakes. You can hear whispers of the plan made weeks ago between the soft rustles of their early morning egg sandwiches: "It'll be fine, lads, just get the bus straight back to Sheff and save on the hotel fees. Remember: sleeping is cheating, and the only thing you're allowed to drink ever in your life is either a can of Foster's or some Monster, nothing else." Their mood will waver anywhere between bleary-eyed and chatty, depending on their blood alcohol content, but the general smell of Umbro-branded deodorant and the sound of someone cackling at a tinnily replayed YouTube video should warn you away.
I usually sat on the third row back. Getting as far away from the group of lads was key, but I couldn't sit on the front seat without looking like I was trying to be mates with the driver. The second row from the front was shunned – that looks like I was deliberately avoiding the front but desperately wanting to sit there. If there's one thing worse than a wannabe driver's mate, it's a cowardly wannabe driver's mate.
As soon as the engine started, the heat hits me. It's a very English trait that, whatever the season, an early morning start must be accompanied by blasts of over-zealous heating, as if trying to thaw out your bitterness. If it's difficult to comprehend that the stench of vomit on a bus seat could get any worse, whack up the heat to 24C for evidence to the contrary. Like a microwaved bowl of soup someone dropped an ashtray into.
As the bus started to move, a safety video would play – every week – at a startling decibel level. The first time I saw that video I wondered who exactly needed advice on how to sit on a bus seat without maiming themselves, but then one time someone stood up as we exited Nottingham, slipped on the floor and almost knocked himself out on an armrest, and suddenly everything clicked into place. We're dealing with the lowest common denominator, here.
The other reason to be vaguely near the front of the bus was the chemical toilet, forcing passengers away from the back three rows like a shit-smelling animal repellent. The worst stench I can remember came as someone lurched out from that two-metre-squared hellhole, letting the door swing open behind him. He was half-apologetic and half-boastful as he informed the rest of the bus to "give it five, lads": as best I could tell, his diet was exclusively Jägerbombs, Big Macs and his own shit, and – sidebar – he was also dying from diarrhoea contracted from a large animal. As a result of even being on the same bus as this, I regularly walked into the office paranoid that I smelt of another person's shit. Could there be a more melancholy fear?
The journey was first punctuated by a stop in Chesterfield. The town's own website tells me that over 15 million people live within a two-hour drive and Chesterfield welcomes 20,000 inward commuters each day. Nobody ever got on. I suspect the driver overplayed the importance of stopping to his bosses in order to add an extra fag break into the journey. You can't fucking blame him.
Sheffield is where most of my fellow passengers disembarked. They were students, generally, tempted by a night out in Nottingham under the false premise that a student bar or club in one city is any different to a student bar or club in another city when you've been drinking since 1PM and you're bollocksed and there's a weird odour and then you realise it's you and you feel sick and you've been sick and you just want to be home in your shitty student flat in Sheffield. Lots of sobbing girls in university jumpers and lads in Burton shirts and thousand-yard stares.
The worst thing about Sheffield is that it brought a delay of 20 minutes. I never quite worked that out. How a coach – a coach, remember, doing fuck all, bringing nothing to the table that a coach should bring – had to sit stationary for a third of an hour. You'd have thought that someone at National Express might just say, "Weird that the bus just stays there for a bit. Why don't we change the timetable so it doesn't?" But then you'd also think someone at HQ might think to hire a single driver who didn't have Fred West's sideburns, but they never did. If it ain't broke, I suppose.
By 9AM the night people would have vacated at Sheffield bus station, replaced by a new special army. I don't know if South Yorkshire has yet hosted the world roll-up smoking convention, but Sheffield bus station would make an excellent host. The array of coughs and splutters was an orchestra like nothing else on earth; an Ode to Phlegm.
It should be difficult to pick out the worst moment of those weekly slogs, but there is a clear winner. On one occasion the driver managed to head south from Sheffield on the M1, rather than north to Leeds. Y'know: the diametrically opposite way. You'd have thought that the lack of "Leeds" on the road signs might have been a clue, but he was probably too busy thinking which serial murderer's style he could cop next – Sutcliffesque goatee? Hindley blow out? – to notice.
Even now, I still find myself thinking about this. You can jump red lights, tailgate or shout "cunt" at every car in your path and I will offer only forgiveness, but point the bus in the opposite fucking direction to prolong this agony and I will lose my shit. "I think you might be going the wrong way, mate," was the best I could muster after 15 miles of waiting for him to work it out. I called him "mate". Mate! It's still one of the biggest regrets of my life. Mate.
After Meadowhall, there came a 50-minute gap to Leeds, which finally gave the opportunity for sleep on quieter days. Early on, some clever wanker pulled out a blow-up neck pillow at this point as if this was the non-stop flight from Heathrow to Kuala Lumpur. I spent ten minutes laughing at her nerdiness, followed by 40 minutes of intense jealousy, folding myself up into another contortionist's shape and trying in vain to drop off. First thing I did when I got into the office was got on Amazon and ordered one for myself.
Some alarm calls are worse than others, but waking up to the sound of vomit hitting material is high up in the charts. It sounds like cow shit hitting a dewy meadow from three foot above the ground. Mercifully it only happened once during my journeys, but the sight (if not sound or smell) of someone being sick while his mates rushed forward to find different seats actually made me feel better. The laughing had stopped, the revelry had ended. My day would be better than theirs.
Leeds is not a particularly beautiful city, but to see the pink and cream flats of Crescent Grange Sheltered Housing always caused a surge of positivity to rush through my being. I felt like crying, wanting to be held and wanting to be alone at the same time. My body ached, forced into a game of physical origami by the lack of legroom and need for sleep. I had cramp in my right leg and a burn on my left from the unimaginably hot radiators. I still had a day of work to come.
As I left the bus, I'd thank the driver courteously. It wasn't his fault my body was a shell. He suffers just like me. I'd limp to work, my own walk of shame; I'd been bent over and penetrated by England's roads, and most weren't even out of church yet.
This is the thing with commuting, though: eventually, if you travel the same roads for weeks on end – or the same rail lines, or the same cycle path – you become attached to them, possessive. These lads, vomiting Monster into a Tesco carrier bag, they're just fair-weather coach travellers, unfamiliar with the flushing mechanism of the chemical loo. They don't know the coach like I do. Familiarity breeds contempt. You suffer mediocrity long enough to forget that you are in hell.
"See you next weekend," the driver once said to me, trying to be nice. I felt like I wanted to cry and die, the grim realisation of my predictable destiny. That evening, on the train home, I wrote a letter to National Rail Enquiries asking them about the lack of Sunday morning services. It was my plea for help. They didn't answer it.
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