Thursday, 30 July 2009

A journey of a thousand miles 31/07/09

A journey of a thousand miles begins with the first stumble

How many of us can claim to have followed a childhood ambition to its realisation?

As children we looked upon the future with wide eyes, and each of us tried to imagine what that future would hold. Each of us had some idea of what we wanted to be, and for the most part that dream changed as we got older, as we became interested in different things.

I was lucky. I remember one of my ambitions, lowly as it was, was to be a truck-driver, just like my Uncle Roy. How well I remember standing gazing in awe at the Volvo F88 that he parked outside our house on the very few occasions he visited us. To me that Goliath was the epitome of cool, and he, as its driver, was the very King of the Road. That ambition never left me. However, I was not to realise my dream until over twenty years later, by which time I had been a laboratory assistant for the construction industry, a land drainage engineer, a video library owner, an electronics installation engineer, an ambulance paramedic and a coach driver. All of the jobs provided a certain level of satisfaction, but none of them, apart from the paramedic, gave me the buzz of a job well done…

I woke up in hospital. I knew, without conscious thought that it was a hospital. I’d experienced more waking up in hospital than I really wanted, and could recognise the clues. Soft pillows. The distant beep of a monitor. Quiet coughing. The too bright, sterile looking light. The smell of disinfectant that almost but not quite masked the odour of boiled cabbage.

Okay, I was in hospital, check. Next, where did I hurt? On cue my arm and neck started to throb and grate. I attracted the attention of a nurse by sitting up and yelping, she came over and spoke, in French. Right, either the NHS was having serious staffing problems, or I was in France. Pain relief was organised, and I sat back in a comfortable fug, waiting for things to start to make sense. Explanations would, I knew, happen in their own time, and in any case the morphia made straight-line thinking impossible. The little birds and fairies were far too distracting.

As I was driving for a coach and holiday company at the time I was well looked after. During the afternoon one of the company tour guides, Bruce, turned up to see me. I should point out that all tour guides look the same. They may have long hair, or short. They could have massive moustaches or other facial topiary. Piercings were not uncommon, nor were scars, nor broken noses. With or without glasses, in their company uniform of blazers and light grey slacks, they were still somehow identical. The same was true of the men. I used to call then all Bruce, to save time.

Bruce told me what had happened. Apparently I’d been ‘off shift’ and asleep in the driver’s rest compartment of the coach. Situated under the seats on the left hand side of the vehicle, this is a small compartment big enough for the spare driver to sleep in, and if he is flexible enough, to get changed in. We all referred to it as ‘The Coffin,’ although up until that moment I hadn’t realised how apt the soubriquet was. As we’d rounded a corner a Spanish registered truck laden with sheet steel had come the other way, and a corner of the steel had struck the side of the coach, opening up the side like a tin opener. In doing so it had cut through ‘The Coffin,’ removed my pillow from under my head, and managed to compact the entire compartment into a space about half its width. I’d been trapped in there for about two hours, most of the time unconscious, so I had no memory of the events, before I’d been cut free. It seems I’d been incredibly lucky to get away with the injuries I’d sustained, as had the steel been a couple of inches higher it would have left the pillow where it was, and instead removed my head from my shoulders. As it was, my head had been rattled around like a pea in a can and I suffered a broken nose, badly damaged neck and a smashed wrist watch. I have no idea how…

I was in the hospital in France for five weeks before being transported home, and off work for another two months before starting back to work. I’d expressed an interest in not shipping out abroad for a while, as I was still a little shaken up, and so the company had given me an ‘easy’ job to start back on. I had to transport a coach-load of scouts and cubs to Devon, in the oldest coach in the fleet, an ancient Duple-bodied Bedford. This, at least, should have been a piece of cake.

The first indication that this was not going to involve cake of any sort occurred at a rest break outside Glastonbury. We’d stopped at a grassy picnic area, and the cubs were having sandwiches and drinks, and running around being children. One of them then decided that what he really wanted to do was to slide down the grassy bank, which would have been fun were it not for the broken beer bottle hidden in the grass. The resultant wound required hospital treatment, so we all piled in to the coach and I drove around Glastonbury until we found the hospital. The unfortunate child was decanted, along with one of the supervisors, whilst I waited with the coach on the road outside.

The duo returned about an hour later, with the cub looking somewhat green. Apparently the cut to his buttock had required cleaning and stitching, and a number of injections of local anaesthetic had been applied round the area before this could take place. On top of this he’d been given antibiotics and oral painkiller. All of this, combined with fizzy drink and sweets, was not sitting well with him, and so he was given a seat at the front, behind the driver, with the supervisor.

Off we set, en-route to Devon. The road out of Glastonbury was long, straight and narrow, with reed beds either side. Before long I’d accumulated quite a queue of traffic behind me, as the Bedford was not the fastest coach in the fleet, and the road did not provide many safe overtaking opportunities, and there were no places where I could pull over to let the traffic pass. And then I heard The Noise.

There is something unmistakeable about The Noise of someone about to be sick, and it is a noise that elicits a similar response in me. I was for some time with the ambulance service, and the sight, sound and smell of someone throwing up would usually cause me to honk in sympathy. The same is true of a lot of people, and indeed there is a theory that this is a primal response, from when we used to live in large social groups, in caves, and eat the same food. If one person was sick it was likely to be due to food poisoning and as everyone would have eaten from the communal ‘pot’ then the group vomit was a survival technique.

Knowing this, however, did not make it any better.

The Noise became louder and louder, and was combined with the supervisor’s desperate attempts to get him facing somewhere other than her lap. I am here to say that she succeeded and a veritable fountain of pop, chocolate, crisps, medication and lord knows what hit me, hard, in the back of the neck. I was…unhappy with this. It took a lot of effort to keep the coach on the road. It took considerable effort not to throw up. But it took most of my effort not to be most impolite to the supervisor for being so bloody stupid. And I knew that there was nowhere for me to stop for miles. I am fairly sure that driving the coach, in a miasma of second-hand picnic products, whilst the acidic stomach contents first cooled and then chilled, over my white cotton shirt, and hair, and the back of my ears, was the most miserable hour of my life.

I eventually found a lay-by, which by some miracle had a natural stream running out of the rock, and I was able to wash the worst of the explosion out of my hair and ears. Whilst I was doing this, one of the scout leaders provided me with a tee-shirt, whilst my company shirt went in the nearest bin. At least, I decided, things could not get any worse… We were only an hour from Porlock, and maybe two hours from our destination. I could then decant the little, um, dears, and get back home to a proper bath.

Once I was fairly comfortable, and the scouts had cleaned and disinfected the coach, and the smell had been reduced, we all piled back and set off. I am pleased to report that there were no further incidents, until, that is, we reached Porlock Hill.

Porlock Hill is part of the A39, and runs downhill approximately 400 metres in two miles, in a series of bends. It is not a road to be taken lightly, and has been the site of numerous accidents in the past, a lot of which involved coaches which had lost their brakes and hit the stone walls at the bottom of the descent. The gradient in some places was steeper than one in four, and on the outside, from our point of view, was a 400 metre cliff face, then the Atlantic.

The passengers were looking out of the windows, admiring the stunning views, as we started the descent. The nose of the Bedford dipped and I selected second gear. The engine revs slowly increased as the little diesel engine acted as a brake to slow our passage down the hill. I needed to use as much engine braking as possible, as the old bus had fairly basic brakes, and I didn’t want to ‘cook’ them before we reached the bottom. Eventually, however,the engine braking wasn’t enough, and I touched the brake pedal to provide additional arrest to our descent. Except instead of the slight HISS of air brakes there was a distinct THUD, and the pedal failed to move. I pressed again, harder, and again THUD, and no movement of the pedal. Oh heck, this was not a good thing! For a few panicked moments I trod harder and harder on the pedal, each time resulting in the same THUD and lack of braking action, and all
the time the old bus picked up speed, the engine roaring, and the first bend approaching. The younger passengers, for the most part, thought this was wonderful and all part of the adventure. I, on the other hand, was fairly sure I wasn’t having any fun at all. I managed, more through blind luck than on any skill on my part, to get the coach round the first bend, and by that time my head had cleared a bit, and I did what I should have done in the first place. I pulled on the handbrake and killed the engine. We slowed, and stopped.

One of the first instructions the passengers had been given was, “You will not eat, nor will you drink, whilst on the coach.” Nevertheless, once I had got my breathing back under control, I looked at the foot pedals, and there, directly under the brake pedal, was a glass cola bottle. This had obviously rolled there as we started down the hill and was just the right size to obstruct the brake pedal. I explained what had happened to the supervisor, who was bemused as to why we had stopped, and had not realised there was any problem until I explained to her how close we had come to becoming part of the scenery. She reminded the passengers of their promise not to eat or drink, and after some more time to catch my breath, we started, and this time completed, our descent.

The rest of the journey was pretty much without incident and I returned to base with an empty coach. However, the two incidents, so close together, had coloured my opinion of coach driving, and by the time I’d arrived at the yard I’d pretty much decided that it was no longer what I wanted. I loved driving, but I wanted something that didn’t involve passengers.

I was no longer comfortable with having so many lives in my hands, nor indeed happy with the not infrequent occasions when a passenger would become violent or abusive. What I wanted, in fact, was a similar job, involving driving long distances, but with passengers who didn’t answer back. A nice, easy, safe job. A job where I would never again get hurt.

What could that job be?


  1. Hello! Just wanted to let you know that I've enjoyed reading this instalment of your journal. I'm looking forward to the next one.

  2. Many thanks :) I hope you continue to read and enjoy it.

    And buy the book :)