As if there is not enough of a problem caused by British Rail on-again, off-again strike that has resulted in an unexpected crush of people in the Victoria terminus in London, I discover that the overnight coach to Penzance is two and a half hours late –something to do with battery trouble I’ve been told.
Somewhere deep down in my stomach, I can feel anxiety trying to raise its ugly head. What if, when they eventually get the coach going, it breaks down in the middle of nowhere. What if my contact at the other end did not receive my letter? I seek consolation by telling myself I am not the only one in this predicament and that tomorrow is the start of a weekend, so there’s no need to rush. But first I have to go to the ticketing area, an enclosed room to the left where everyone seems to be heading. As I enter and see the enormous huddle of people, I take a few seconds to decide which queue to join. There are about ten lines, most of them stretched out of the building, losing semblance to a straight line somewhere beyond the rope guide that is about ten feet long. At the back of my mind is a notion of something I have read, about people’s propensity to gravitate towards the right whenever they join a queue. With this in mind, I join the one to the extreme left, the one furthest from the entrance to the terminus and I am pleased with myself, since this seems to be shortest one.
It’s a strange thing I have noticed about queues over the years; they can never quite retain the shape intended for them. Try as hard as they will, the people who contrive to keep control, whether by containing people in-between artificial barriers or by posting signs, can never manage to succeed, and before long order breaks down. Chaos can even result sometimes. Perhaps it’s the natural inclination of the people far from the head of the line who lean to the right or left to see ahead, to determine why it is taking them so long to move up, and before long everyone has to lean further and further, breaking the natural rhythm of the line.
I am one of those people leaning to the left now, wondering why the only moving sensation I have experienced in the last five minutes is a shuffling over the same fifteen square inches or so of floor-space that my feet occupy. The guy ahead of me keeps looking at his watch, perhaps anxious that he might not make his coach; the lady behind is trying to calm her child who is fretting. I suspect, from the concerned looks on everyone’s face that they are all wondering, like me, why it is that the other queues are moving and ours is not. I am starting to doubt the wisdom of joining the shortest queue. I realize, too late, that it’s another strange thing about queues: the shortest one inevitably ends up taking the longest time; there’s simply a valid reason why people have been avoiding it in the first place.
There’s a commotion ahead, close to the wicket. A woman is demanding to see the supervisor who finally arrives only after she raises her voice several more octaves. She appears to have missed her coach and is trying to convert her ticket to another one which is now sold out. It means a three-hour wait for her. She is insistent that the supervisor do something about it and she is indignant that no one considers she is handicapped with a broken leg; and why is it that someone told me over the phone that there would be plenty of seats…and is it any wonder why this company is losing business to British Rail…
The supervisor has to be aware of the grumbling coming from our queue. Perhaps afraid of open revolt, he asks the lady to step aside and he leads her into the office to resolve the matter. The queue finally begins to move. I notice that the woman who joined the one to my right three minutes earlier, has already purchased her ticket.
Now that I have secured my ticket my fear of the unknown surfaces again and is about to reach paranoid proportions. Something tells me that I might end up boarding the wrong coach and find myself being let off in the middle of nowhere, or, if I am lucky enough to find the correct coach in all of the dozens departing for destinations all over the country, I might discover that there are not enough seats for all of the tickets sold. I check and recheck my ticket to confirm it’s the right time and correct destination, find my coach and decide to join my queue ahead of time. I discover I’m not alone in my obsession; the line is already twenty deep. Panic, it seems, is infectious.
From my position at the rear I can see what’s going on around me.
The people in my queue are all stationery: a man slumped over on his duffel bag on the ground; a woman’s face buried in an open magazine; a couple bracing each other for support. Not ten feet away from me, braced against the wall, is a Black man looking much older and worn for his number of years. A few minutes earlier, I had seen him rummaging through the garbage can where he had retrieved a foam cup and a cigarette butt. He sipped from the cup, tilting his head far back to drain its contents, and when he was satisfied that it was truly empty, he tossed it aside. He stood there, in white shoes now covered with a layer of grime and grease, his hair hanging in knotted curls right down to his long black coat, his beard disheveled and flecked with fluff. His entire body was suddenly wracked by an awful spasm, as if he had been bracing against a power line and had suddenly come into contact with it. And his eyes, I could not see his eyes –the eyeballs were both rolled back into their sockets, to the point where only the whites of his eyes showed.
In the other queues to the right and left of me there’s the usual shuffling of baggage as passengers move slowly to the coaches that are ready for boarding. To my right I notice a soldier with a large canvas bag on his back and he is three-passengers away from the head of the queue. There is something incongruous about him. Not just the fact that he is East Indian, wearing a turban and standing out from the rest of the Anglo crowd; or that he has no ticket in hand like the rest of the people in the queue; or the way he is dressed: in ragged army fatigues, long sleeves shirt; a jacket with zippered pockets along the arms and chest; pants with folds frazzled and torn, heavy boots showing through the strips at the bottom. It is that as the line moves up closer and his turn comes up to board, he drops out and joins another queue a few feet away, as if someone had just whispered in his ear that he’s about to board the wrong coach. His posture is that of a soldier on parade, his shoulders held back, erect and stiff. My curiosity intensifies when I notice that, as he reaches at the head of the next queue he again drops out and joins another.
By the time I finally start to move I have noticed that the Black man is rummaging through another garbage can and the Indian with the turban has repeated his exercise several times. It is my first experience with someone who joins queues for the love of it, and I marvel about how some habits seem to die hard in old military people.
At last I am aboard. I look at my watch and experience the impatience of those who are late, and having caught their train or coach, wonder why it’s taking so long to get going, blissfully ignorant or uncaring of those last minute passengers rushing to board. But it’s still fifteen minutes to go. Although I am entrenched in my seat, my baggage stowed safely on the rack on top, I am conscious that I am still clutching my ticket in my left hand, just in case. My breathing comes in quick gasps; I think that nothing is certain until the coach actually moves off.
There is a queue in the aisle and when it finally dwindles the coach fills up quickly. Couples pass me in my aisle seat, heading to the rear. A man comes in with his wife and small child dressed in a pink coat and they prepare to occupy the seats three rows up front. The child sees me looking at her and moves to snuggle next to her father while he is about to shove the baggage on the top, so he pushes the child aside roughly. She starts to cry. The mother has seen what he has done and calls the girl over to comfort her. The man and woman engage in a low-key conversation, the wife now looking irate, the man impassive, the child distraught. In the row across from me two teenage boys take up occupancy. They are carrying large backpacks. One of them pulls out a canister from his pack, takes off his shoes and proceeds to spray his dirty white socks, but not before the odour has wafted across to me. It is as if he has suddenly released a toxic fume that he’d been carrying around with him for a long time. I tell myself: it looks as if it is going to be that kind of a night.
And then an altercation breaks out up front.
The conductor refuses to allow the coach to depart. He appears to be invoking all the powers invested in him by the authorities, to deny passage to someone who is seated near the window in the fifth row, just where the shadow cast by the overhead light on the luggage rack, has left a pool of impenetrable darkness.
“You must leave the coach madam,” the conductor says firmly to the person.
“But why? I have a ticket, here is my ticket,” a female voice responds.
The conductor towers over the woman where she sits buried in her seat and he is silhouetted against the glare of the overhead light. Because of this she has to lean forward and tilt her head at an angle to look directly at him. This then creates a chain reaction since she wears glasses with an obvious bi-focal prescription, so now a hand and a head emerge from the shadow, the hand moving the glasses up and down. It creates an eerie sensation, of seeing someone without a torso carry on a conversation.
“The coach will not depart until you get off, madam.”
I am amused he still address her in this fashion, but it seems so English: to keep it civil, perhaps right down to the end.
“But I am a passenger. I have my ticket like everyone else. I have a right to ride the coach.”
“I must insist that you leave madam.” This time he pronounces each word slowly, deliberately, with a slight trace of contempt creeping into his tone. “Or I will have to forcefully take you off.”
All the other passengers are looking on, some of them no doubt wondering, like me, whether this might prove yet another stumbling block and for heaven’s sake, what’s the big deal; why doesn’t he give the old lady a break?
The lady grows indignant over his attitude. “You can’t treat me like that. I have rights too. Why, you wouldn’t treat your dog the way you are handling me,” she cries out.
“My dog wouldn’t mess on the seat, madam.”
She ignores the remark. “How am I going to get home without the coach? Surely you can let me ride home, just this once?”
“The police said you cannot ride on National’s coaches madam. Leave or I’ll call the police.” The contempt in his voice has dissipated now; he is almost apologetic, but the damage has already been done. She says nothing, simply stands up, collects her several plastic bags, proceeds towards the exit up front, the ticket still protruding from the fingers of her left hand.
I don’t sit back until the coach pulls out and we’re several blocks away.