Bus Birthday

My birthday, Monday the 22nd, and I’m on a bus from London to Manchester next to Jim from Croydon who works as a Union rep and gets the coach cheaper on an advanced ticket with a pension card. He’s a United fan – of course – and better still, I’ve told him that we’re Arsenal members and I’m still alive and well. Jim has a gentle face, with long eyelashes and watery eyes, so that when he’s telling me about all the football grounds he’s been to (70 of the 92 that are, or have been), it looks as if he is constantly remembering them with joy. He has sparrow tattoos on the soft bits between the thumb and the forefinger but was never in the navy – he says he doesn’t like them much, but he was young when it happened, and he always says he’s going to get them removed. Jim is sixty-seven. He knows a bit about Aussie rules and the rugbies, and he says he’d probably get into footy if they showed more games on the television. (There’s an interesting parallel to be made about the link between the amount that women’s sport is televised and how popular it is.) Jim is going to the same game that we are tonight, obviously– Manchester v Arsenal. Manchester will probably win the league with this game, if they win. So it’s difficult to know who to barrack for. Seeing Manchester win the league would be a once in a lifetime thing for us. (It’s not really difficult to know who to barrack for – what am I even saying? I support Arsenal, for crying out loud. Also, Ben supports United, so it’s really a no-brainer.)

Driving from London to Manchester is pretty much driving across the whole country. Some people, like Jim, do it for a football game. It’s equidistant (thanks Keith for reminding me that that word existed) to the trip from Melbourne to Corryong. We didn’t get to the bus late – fifteen past when the bus left at 10.30 – but we didn’t have our choice of seats, and so we aren’t sitting together. The one thing Andy said was that he wanted to sit next to the birthday girl, and Manchester is the first stop. I guess he didn’t get his birthday wish.

Still, it’s my birthday and I’m on a bus. Next to the toilet. Which the relief driver just used for some ungodly purpose, about which I will not talk further. I now understand the appeal of the train.

Still, pretty pleased I got these tickets for £10 each. And buses go past all the interesting stuff. And, I am in England for my birthday.

The countryside is amazing. Everything looks so English! The paddocks are a kind of yellow-tinged green, with clearly defined fences and grass without patchy, dry bits. Every here and there are scattered Lordly estates, big, brown mansions on top of tight packed farms, as if the giants abandoned a game of high stakes monopoly after one of them threw tantrum and a fistful of hotels on the table, everyone stomping off, and letting the pieces mold over. We’ve stopped in Milton Keyes, which Butters associates with some old television show I’m either too young for, or wasn’t allowed to watch. One young English post-emo has got on and found two available spare seats, and called to tell her friend not to bother. I’m assuming she was referring to getting on the coach, but it could have been a philosophical note that had just occurred, looking at her countenance. Even emos need to share their most pithy thoughts. She’s not wrong, if you’re one for ‘good’ weather, though – the air is grey, and the clouds seem to have developed merely from the air near the ground being too thick, floating up to meander along the hills and find some space to breathe. I myself life for this kind of weather. This is what says England to me. It is also a much more fruitful type of weather in which to be creative – the less sunny the sky, the less open the flow of ideas. The thicker the covering of cloud, the more ideas are trapped here in the atmosphere for me to reach up and pick out of the sky. Ha ha! Mine! Where there is less hope, where there are fewer possibilities; where it is quieter, I can function a whole lot better. I thrive in gloom.

We went to another game of football yesterday – Fulham versus Arsenal at Craven Cottage. We got really good tickets, somehow; Butters saw that the game was rescheduled, and sat up to get tickets at some ungodly hour, I think. Anyway, we were sitting in the front row, right in the middle. We could have reached out and touched the players, had there not been a flouro-vested security guard sitting right in front. He sat there, looking at us, for the entire match, only looking toward the game when Fulham took a late penalty, his eyes reaching so far to the left, his head staying still, that I thought he might burst a jugular. I told him it wasn’t a very good job if you liked football. He laughed and said that he didn’t like football, and then offered to take a picture of us.

I am so, so happy that Andrew got to see an Arsenal match, up that closely, actually. It was such a treat. What I was able to appreciate, from this close up, were the skills. I even picked a favourite player. Number seven for Arsenal, Rosicky (people pronounce his name ‘Rositsky’, and I don’t know why), is incredibly zippy. Looks wise, he’s not really my type – short and small, at least relatively, he’s got straight dark hair and reminds me of Freddy Rodriguez. You know, the guy from Six Feet Under, and Grindhouse. But he uses his feet so nimbly, and he made some really gutsy, whippet quick, strong runs into the forward, and for the rest of the match ran around like a mad March Hare. In a good way.

We just stopped somewhere, and I talked to Mum, Dad, Lindsay and Aunty Chris. Hi!

They sung me happy birthday. I think this is one of the best birthdays I’ve had, actually, even though I’ve spent it on a bus and in a carpark. And a small shopping centre in central England with little window shops full of pokie machines. Like miniature casinos.

We had a bit of a scramble last night. Well – I had an interesting day all round. I went for a run – a 10k, or should I say 6 mile – around Islington and Emirates. It wasn’t difficult, but my time wasn’t the best (two minutes over what I should do), and my knees were feeling it. My quads were fine, or even better than usual, because I have been wearing Butters’s skins. (I’ve just forgotten how to do an apostrophe. Uh oh. Bain’s going.) Not only have my quads not hurt, but they haven’t even been on the radar. The skins are good. For those of you who don’t know, Skins is actually a brand of compression pants, like bike pants but a little firmer, to keep the muscles nice and tight.

I got home and realised I’d left my key inside. Butters had gone to Manchester City versus Tottenham Hotspur. He hadn’t been able to get two tickets, but there was a spare seat beside him the whole time, which makes him think perhaps he did buy an extra ticket. Wasn’t a spare seat in the ground. He was right behind the goals, and saw Tottenham kick City 3-1, coming from behind. The three goal streak was within 7 minutes. The fans went beserk. Anyway, I had no keys, no food, the battery in my phone had died so I had no contact and no downloaded book, no one else was coming home for hours, and I had £1. Luckily, everything’s cheaper in London, so I bought a bottle of water and a Milky Way, and waited. I had a stroll around the streets around Finsbury Park, where we are/were living, which I love. Every second shop here is an off license, which means it sells alcohol. They all sell groceries and fruit and vegetables as well. There are cafes of the kind in which old men with brilliant accents discuss the football and the news. The walls are wood paneled, the tables are wood carved and the walls are covered with fluorescent squares of cardboard, like the ones we used in primary school and cut out into shapes with safety scissors, announcing what you can get for £2.50. And there is a lot of stuff on that list. Chips are big, fat and greasy with the skins on, or thin and dry and best with vinegar. The vinegar itself is different than what we have on the table – it’s malt vinegar and it’s bitey. It’s great. Burgers are everywhere, because I think it’s just simply the best way to get the greasy beef patty into your mouth and soak up the drifts of tomato sauce. Which they call ketchup, I think. We’re unsure on that one, as we are unsure whether people walk on the right side of the footpath, as they seem wont to do. I don’t get quite why. Anyway, the cafes are great because coffee is decent and costs a pound, and the chocolate dust is optional (they always ask) and generous. I go to a place called – actually, I don’t know what it’s called and I don’t think it matters, eveything’s ‘The Arsenal Something’ here, even the small French bakery – where, Maria, when I ask if it’s okay for me to sit here and write, looks at me oddly and says, ‘Yeah-uh, it’s a café, innit?’

There are other cafes, the more updated kind, but I don’t like them as much.

The other odd thing that happened today. Or yesterday. I picked up my phone to check airbnb, to call Adi, the guy we were supposed to be staying with in Manchester today. I told him that I would call the day before, just to check. I had a funny feeling that he wasn’t that reliable. He wasn’t exactly wordy in his response to the booking.

Sure enough, I see that two hours beforehand, the evening before we were due at his place, he’d written, ‘Sorry, my in-laws have arrived at the house without warning and I cannot accommodate you. I am so sorry.’ Or something to that effect. He didn’t answer his phone (and didn’t appear to understand how phones worked, as his voicemail message was about thirty seconds long and consisted of a long silence, punctuated with him saying his name, and breathing), and didn’t respond to an email I sent. He didn’t cancel the reservation, either, which was the only way we could make an emergency substitute reservation with a $50 make up fee for having been blindsided. Still, I was annoyed, but not panicked. We looked around for some other places – backpackers’ will be obsolete, soon, if aribnb takes off, because it’s so much cheaper, and the service is much better than at a backpackers’. (Jasmine, if you’re reading this and you’re not staying at the Ritz (highly likely) when you come over here, take note. This is your perfect situation. It comes with pre-made friends.)

Anyway, we are now staying at a nice place, with what seems a nice host with great feedback, in a posh place in town. Still cheaper than the backpackers, and not far from Old Trafford. Adi’s place was right next door to Old Trafford, practically, but you can’t win it all.

Except perhaps if you work as one of those behind-the-face-of-the-company lawyers, for Shell, or something. Like Michael Clayton. Even though that wasn’t the point of the movie. But before his clients tried to blow him up in a car bomb.

The road is flanked on either side by trees which seem to be long, tall bundles of thin sticks, through which the grey horizon is visible, and brown country wooden slat gates running everywhere, a parody of themselves if you weren’t born in England. ‘This is the English countryside,’ say the trees, and houses, and fences, and the grass, and the abandoned cars – even the ones which look like the English speaking version of Wallander which is just pretending to be British – they sing books at me, and Series Three, Episode One of Something Good and English. They say, ‘it really is how it looks on TV. Yes, this is how we do things: with wood! See? I just put a large brick building right there, because I could. Why? Because I Am England.’

Yes, England. You are. You really, really are.

Benedict Cumberbund.

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