Wherever possible, I avoid rail replacement buses. Sometimes you can't help it. I've been pushed off a broken down train at Hooton a few times and loaded onto a knackered Cumfy Bus. That's unavoidable.
I'd never experienced planned engineering works before, but the line between Preston and Lancaster was being worked on, so I didn't have much choice. A bus was waiting at the side of Preston station to take me to Carnforth. Or rather, a coach was waiting. This wasn't a decommissioned double decker, pulled out of the depot in a crisis. It was swish - leather seats, lap belts, Radio 2 playing softly in the background. I picked a seat at random and immediately realised my mistake.
In front of me was a group of lads. I'd been so focussed on finding an empty seat I hadn't really paid attention to my fellow passengers, and now I found myself behind a row of boys in their early twenties, coming down from a weekend of revelry in Liverpool. One is wearing a feather boa and a straw hat; the other three are wearing matching green hoodies with obscene caricatures on the back. I dearly hope it wasn't a stag do, because they all look like they only started shaving last week.
The fifth member of the party arrives on the bus, in a hoodie but wearing a baseball cap as well. "Give us a look then!" I turn around. There are two girls sat on the row behind me. They're eating chicken and chips out of boxes; their faces are as orange as the deep fried meat. Each girl has a window seat; they're together, but they each need an aisle seat to accommodate their enormous handbags. Leather studded holdalls you could comfortably use to shoplift watermelons.
I realised I was trapped in the middle of some rampaging hormones. The lads must have flirted with the girls, and the girls had flirted with the boys, and now this paunchy old fart with glasses had come and sat in between them. I'm trapped. If I change seats now, it will be glaringly obvious I'm just trying to get away. They might turn on me. It'll be like being trapped on the worst school trip of all time. I shrink into the seat and pray this journey won't be long.
"Get it off!" shouts one of the girls, and the boy in the baseball cap takes his hat off. He's completely bald, but fake hair has been scribbled all over his skull, a kind of ink Max Wall effect. "We did it when he passed out!" the fat boy in the feather boa crows. Unnecessarily, I feel.
"That's going to be hell to get off," says one of the girls, her mouth agape.
"It's only a Sharpie," he shrugs, but he pulls the baseball cap back on and slides into his seat as the coach pulls away.
We head north out of the city centre. I like Preston. I've been here a few times, including staying here for three days while I did some exams for work. I got a professional qualification and a lot of migraines out of it. It's a decent, middle tier city, even if I don't approve of them pulling down the beautiful bus station.
The boys are swapping war stories about their weekend. "I tell you when I was worst," says boa boy. "In that Beatles bar. Fucking rough as fuck." Liverpool: City of Culture.
The fifth member of the party, the geekiest looking boy with glasses and no neck, has been exiled to my row and sits across the aisle from me. He leans over his mates in front and waves an empty Monster can. "I tell you what: I've had two of these and I reckon I could keep going. What'd you reckon? Hit t'pub when we get back? Proper session?" There are murmurs of agreement.
I put my backpack in the hold. I feel lost without it. I worry about someone else picking it up, and my boxer shorts going astray. I need it close. It's a comfort thing.
The girls have lost interest in the boys. The more they've talked, the louder they've boasted about how rat arsed they were, the more disinterested they've got. Now they've leaned back into their seats and are playing with their Samsungs, trying to tap at touchscreens with enormous fake fingernails. I assume they're texting. Maybe they're making notes for sarcastic blog posts.
Baseball cap suddenly turns to his mate alongside, a man with the douchiest possible beard. It's a couple of thin trails of hair that cling to the underside of his chin like a velcro strip, with a soul patch under his bottom lip. It looks faker than the Sharpie hair cut. "Remember that lass who tried to get us in t'lapdancing bar? 'You want to come in here?' She proper humped you!" They guffaw, gurgling dirty laughs, not realising that they just exposed the limits of their sexual misadventures during the weekend.
They're the only ones talking on the whole bus. Everyone else is either a single traveller like me, or just maintaining a dignified silence. The weekenders' memories are soiling the whole bus. I wondered where they went in Liverpool. Just so I know never to go there, ever.
A new voice is suddenly competing with them, a Cockney. He's talking into a mobile about his work and it seems we all need to know just how important this call is. He's been upselling and there are some with fifteen thousand points and some with only seven thousand and it's all incredibly dull but he's still shouting about it.
Outside the window there's heavy, driving rain, and a miserable stretch of anonymous motorway. Hurry up, I think. Hurry up. I want to get off this coach. It's starting to feel like a hostage situation. The SAS will come smashing through the windows if we don't leave the M6 soon.
"Who wrote 'Your Name' on my wrist?" says the geeky one. They laugh again, and take the piss, and I realise his name is Scott. Of course.
They start planning the rest of the day, who to call and invite to their "session". Not Kevin: he's got a girlfriend and is boring now. "Marisa and Kevin are always in t'corner. Remember when she were sat in t'corner at that party, crying? She's always crying and he has to go over and comfort her." That bastard.
Feather boa agrees. "Then Corrie'll have one drink, she'll start crying, do one song on t'karaoke then go home 'cos she's too pissed. She'll last an hour." Is this what Barrow's going to be like, I wonder? I make a mental note to barricade myself in my hotel room after five pm.
I'm hungry now. The smell of chips still lingers in the enclosed, sealed tube of the coach. I haven't eaten since breakfast, and I won't be able to eat until we reach Barrow.
We pull off the motorway, onto a spur, and the passengers start to stir. We must be getting close to Carnforth. A man stands up so he can pull on his migraine-inducing jumper. The lanes out the window look sodden - not a good portent for my walking holiday.
And now, oh hell now, they've started singing. At first I thought it was some kind of folk song, and then I realised they were singing about "fuckin' Matalan" and "t'old NatWest" and I start to wonder how many of them I could kill before the other lads overwhelmed me. Probably a couple. I could fashion a rudimentary garotte out of the seatbelt. Jam the buckle in an eyeball.
Carnforth! The bus pulls into the car park, and there's a sigh: it's either the hydraulics for the door or the relieved passengers escaping the second verse of the song. I snatch up my bag from the luggage area and almost sprint for the waiting train, trying to avoid looking at the station. I don't have time to explore it, and I'd want to see Brief Encounter again before I did, so I could properly recreate the scenes in my head. I just barrel onto the First TransPennine Express train and plump myself in a seat. Sweet silence.
DEAR GOD WHY DO YOU HATE ME?
The lads are here. They've come into this carriage. They've plonked themselves in the seats in front of me. They've broken out cans of Strongbow and bottles of Becks.
"Here's the game: one drink for every station. One drink for every waterfall. And you have to drink the whole time crossing bridges."
I love all of this, even though I know you didn't. That's a great pay-off at the end, which I wasn't expecting.
Were you taking notes while all of this palaver was going on, or did you write some of it down later, in safety?
When we got the rail replacement coach from Preston to Carnforth the other week, a teenage girl was on the phone to her bank, and managed to inform us all very loudly of her full name, address, and account details.
I made the notes on my phone. I didn't want to take my notepad out in case they mistook me for an intellectual and beat me to death.
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