Thursday, March 11, 2010

Souvenirs, souvenirs...

Photo courtesy of reddman

Reading Colin Randall’s post about package tours over on Salut! reminded me of the time my mum and I went on a day trip to Boulogne.

Mum had spotted an advert for the trip in the local paper. The coach would be picking people up from various towns around North Shropshire, including ours. In an effort to rouse me from the depths of despair (it’s a long story), Mum offered to treat me.

So the following Sunday night, Dad dropped us off at the bus station. It was bitterly cold and the sound of our stamping feet echoed eerily around the deserted car park.

“Do you think we’re the only ones going?” asked Mum, peering into the window of the dark, empty and locked office building. “Perhaps they’ve forgotten us…”

“Don’t be daft,” I said. The manager was my ex-boyfriend and he definitely wouldn’t have forgotten…

We shuffled round the bus station for about half an hour until Mum decided to ring the said ex-boyfriend to see what had happened. It was getting late.

“Oh,” said Steve sleepily, when he finally answered. “Sorry. We must have forgotten you. Don’t worry – I’ll send someone to pick you up.”

This time at least, he was true to his word. Twenty minutes later, a coach rumbled into view and the driver – a mournful, short-sighted chap – climbed down a tad unsteadily and squinted at us.

“Forgot yer, did they? Lucky I was in when Steve called – I’d only just got back from the pub. C’mon then – off we go.”

Recklessly, we followed him on to the bus. It might have seemed rude to sit at the back of an empty coach, so we sat near the driver, to keep him company.

“Now then…” He fumbled with various knobs and levers, “um…yeah…that’s it…um…” and the coach lurched violently backwards towards the exit.

“Could yer just guide me out?” he shouted, above the grinding, squealing noise. “’aven’t driven one of these fer a while.”

“Oh…why’s that?” I shouted back, perhaps unwisely. “Have you…Left! Left! No, TURN LEFT!”

Now, I can’t swear to it, but that concrete gatepost might possibly have been breathing in as we reversed into the street. I could be wrong, of course, but the sensation was tangible…

When he had located first gear, the driver turned round to answer my question:

“Well, I used to be a driver, like, but I got the sack, see. Wrote one of their buses off… doing this as a favour, like.” He turned his eyes back to the road. “Is this the right way?”

Mum and I ought to have been desperately worried at this stage and there was still time to leap out and run for our lives. Instead, we had to duck behind the headrests of the seats in front so the poor man couldn’t see how hard we were laughing.

Once out of town, the coach gathered speed – the driver had got the hang of it now, and the Shropshire countryside was flashing past the window in a blur.

“’ave to put me foot down a bit,” he said, “if we wanna get to Hilton Park Services on time.”

Nodding, we clung to our arm rests. Getting there uninjured would be OK by us. Really it would.

A roundabout loomed. Hmm. Tricky one.

“M6, M6…can yer see the sign? ’ere?…no, that’s not it…er…ooh…yeah, why not?”

The coach veered off on to a dimly-lit country road and continued for about five minutes before screeching to a halt next to a mysterious row of lights on the verge.

“Eee – that was a bit close,” muttered the driver who had made us get out to have a look. The coach was teetering on the brink of a four-foot deep trench. As we giggled nervously, he frowned and scratched his head:

“This canna be the way to the M6. Dunno ’ow I’m gonna turn round, though.”

I can’t remember how we did turn around but somehow we made it to Hilton Park Services in time to catch the proper coach. Saying our goodbyes with tight, bright smiles, we watched with an indescribable sense of relief as the driver finally found his way out of the car park and disappeared into the night.

Boulogne was far less exciting. It was midday and it was raining. We sat in a café for quite a long time pretending to be French then tried to find something to eat that wasn’t Fish and Chips or Welsh Rarebit.

As the afternoon drizzled on, it dawned on us that the shops weren’t going to open at all because it was Monday and half-day closing. We had to be back on the coach by four so we made a mad dash around Monoprix, the only shop that was open, then another mad dash down to the port where the ferry was waiting to take us home.

As our fellow travellers congratulated themselves on having bought three zillion bottles of beer or whatever, we contemplated our own hasty purchases: two cans of Elnett hairspray and a giant jar of Dijon mustard.

And I do sometimes wonder, even now, if that poor bloke ever found his way home…