The man finds himself at the Victoria coach station after a maddening drive from north London. Despite it being a Sunday, central London is in gridlock because of the triathlon event taking place on the streets (and water-body). The man’s friend flings him out at the coach station from an ageing Merc A-class that’s badly overheating due to the constant shifting between first and second gear. “Text me if you miss the bus!” The friend says wickedly. “But I don’t know if I can take you back in this crate!” The man nods and begins to drag his load, two densely heavy suitcases, plus the backpack in which he now wishes he hadn’t packed so much food. Inside the coach station is a jumble of different nationalities, all waiting for the cheapest way out of England. Even though it’s a chilly September day, the man finds himself sweating and shaking with the sudden exertion by the time he’s checked in and parked in the queue behind an extended African family. The man remembers when he last took a coach across the Channel in the late 1980s. The man also remembers his younger knees coping much better with a similar load he was carrying at the time. Looking around, the man sees that the passengers are an odd mix, students, budget backpackers, Eastern Europeans with antique-looking bags, and a lot of Africans who look much better off than the scruffy Caucasians.
As people start to hand their luggage to the driver it becomes clear that many people are taking the bus for the same reason as the man — they have huge loads to transport, way more than any affordable excess-baggage charge on an airline. The man hands over his precious cargo to the truculent driver who clearly struggles not only with English but also the German he’s presumably supposed to speak. The guy is probably from eastern Europe and not in a very good mood today.
Long bus journeys never fail to produce interesting characters, and international ones even more so. Today the action starts just as people are finding their seats on the bus. A woman in a red coat climbs on with several open shopping bags and captures the two seats of the first row, just near the front door. The driver wags his finger at the woman. “You move, please. Cannot sit here.” The woman stares back. “I don’t move. I sit here.” People at the front of the coach turn and look at the woman. She’s somewhere between 65 and 75. Her hair is frizzy and patchily coloured where the red dye has worn off from the white, and there is a bald patch at the back of her scalp. She has on thick, badly applied make-up, and her eyes have a stare that strongly suggests she is not to be trifled with. The driver, however is not without courage and conviction. He tries for a while to get her to shift to the second row. “You go!” “No!” “You don’t go? No, no, you move!” “I sit here! I don’t move!” After a while the driver gives up, turning around and snarling a loud f-epithet at the windscreen — not something you see steady, reliable coach drivers normally do.
Finally, the bus noses into the mess of traffic and it takes a good hour before they reach the open highway. Nasty, cold autumn rain drenches the countryside around the highway, quite businesslike about ushering in an early winter but just short of a downpour. At the first rest-stop, the man finds himself shivering, smoking next to the Red-coat woman, who informs him apropos of nothing that she speaks four languages: English, French, German and Farsi. Farsi? “Yes, my mother was Iranian, my father German, but I live in London.”
The bus heads to the sea and gets into the traffic awaiting transfer across the channel. After a wait, the coach goes into a sci-fi zone straight out of a Tarkovsky film. The driver carefully manouevres the large vehicle into a high train carriage. The dirty glass and steel doors clang shut behind the bus. Another coach bumps up and takes up position in the carriage behind. More clangs as the huge carriages are secured from one another. Various warnings in European languages — keep hand-brakes on, no smoking, follow instructions in case of emergency — and then the huge monster slides forward. The little square windows on the side lose daylight and there is a brief silence as people realize they are going under the seabed. The man gets out and looks through the glass doors in front, at what is the first carriage of the train. He can see a vast, empty metal space stretching away, two big leaks of water dripping from the ceiling. For a moment he wonders if the English Channel is coming through from above.
After half an hour the coach emerges into even grimmer winterish weather. Rain slashes into the grey-green fields, almost churning up mud. It would require trenches, barbed wire, mustard gas and desperate soldiery to return the fields of Flanders to another time, but the basic set seems to be in place. This illusion is destroyed by a platoon of massive wind-turbines poking into the sky, their headless propellers turning slowly, light grey spinning into a deeper grey. By Lille, darkness has descended. Passengers exchange themselves in and out of the bus. Everybody settles except the Red-coat woman who has disappeared. “She has gone to find alcohol!” snaps a testy African aunty. Red-coat reappears and the driver tries again. “You go?” “No!” As it moves, the bus bangs into something small on the road. The driver doesn’t stop to look.
At Brussels a couple of hours later, what is now an established smoking group cowers under the small bus shelter to avoid the whipping rain. The man strikes up a conversation with a kind-looking woman in her fifties. Red-coat decides to join them. “Where are you from?” She asks the younger woman. “Hannover.” “But you’re not German, ja?” “Polish,” replies the woman, looking away and taking another drag. “So… do you feel more Polish or more German?” The fifty-something loses her nice expression completely and just stares at Red-coat. The man looks at Frau Hannover with sympathy. The bus headlights into the stormy night, shaking unhappily every now and then. The man is grateful to his London self for the sandwiches, cold pasta and bits of fruit he has packed. There is no alcohol to be had at any of the anonymous food-stops and, after years, the man finds himself drinking a Coke. The seat next to him is now vacated and, as sleep knocks, the man is also grateful for this.
Stopped somewhere in northern Germany. The digital clock at the front says 0330. There is a sharp, blue police light cutting in through the windows and a blond man is speaking to the driver in loud, clear, German. The words ‘police’ and ‘my address’ are repeated a couple of times. Why can’t this new guy speak softly in a coach full of sleeping people? What is the emergency? After a long while the bus starts again and the man re-arranges the jigsaw of his body parts into the ill-fitting slots of the seat and headrests, hoping to recapture sleep.
At 6.30 am, a clear German voice wakes everyone up, informing them that the next stop will be for 35 minutes exactly. The man realizes the loud, blond fellow from the middle of the night is now driving the bus and that the surly first driver has disappeared. Standing near the drenched ‘garden’ of the McDonalds, the bus driver explains to the man that last night, as he waited at Duisburg to take over the driving, he witnessed the smash and grab robbery of a jewellery store. A loud smash, a man scooping up loot. The driver called the police and now they had him as witness, sorry for the delay. As he drinks his watery, McDonaldized, coffee-like beverage the Red-coat woman appears alongside and gives the man a slice of her life-situation. She is going to Berlin to see if she has any money left in a bank. If there’s some money she will stay for a few days, if not, she will take the coach back to London. Then, through her pencil thin cigarette she asks, “Do you want to finish your coffee?” “No, you can have it, but it’s not very good.” The woman shrugs and wraps her hands around the still warm paper cup. After a while, they go back to the coach that is now far emptier: various people have gotten off along the way, caught connections to Hamburg and Cologne, the Africans with their heavy loads of food and clothes, the Maths PhD student from Oxford with his books, the Polish woman, with a goodbye smile, at Hannover.
At 10 am the bus approaches Berlin, driving on the stretch of autobahn that used to be part of Berlin’s motor-racing course in the 1930s. An old dilapidated Nazi-era spectator stand passes on the left. At the coach station, the man is very happy to see a friend waiting for him and his heavy suitcases. The friend is one of Germany’s great non-fiction film-makers. As the two greet each other, Red-Coat lady approaches, loaded down by her bags, and asks the friend if he knows where such and such bank is located. The man’s friend has seen a lot of life and he is polite in saying ‘no’ but deftly avoids any further involvement. “Let’s go!” he says, grabbing one of the suitcases. As they trundle the suitcases across the Berlin pavements the man apologizes for the heavy suitcases. “Ja, but what can we do? Only those of us who made films will know how heavy these cans of negatives can be! I did this a lot, once upon a time!” In the car, the man recounts his journey from London. “Hah,” grins the older film-maker, “this could perhaps be a film in itself! But maybe a short one!”