A Montage of Scenes from a Bus Journey


Once upon a desert there was a two-bus coming along the road. A big grey smoke was billowing out behind it. It made a strange and wonderful sight for the local Arabs. They had never before seen a two-bus but that wasn't surprising because they lived in the Syrian Desert and not in England where the people call such monsters ‘double-deckers’.


I am telling the story as the bus moves across the desert’s shadow-less spaces. The mind cannot find a perspective here, but floats in a collage of other scenes: those that were, and those that might have been, picking events out of the stream of consciousness as blue sky finds the clear spaces among the swirling grain-clouds of the sandstorm. These are the highlights, popping into focus on the desolate sand-screen beyond my stare. And those frames, scuttling across the screen like beetles whose stone is lifted, are the irrepressible moments of anguish.


In the beginning, we were eight friends and a double-decker omnibus in an oily yard in London. The bus was being converted into a two-storey caravan or ‘moving Hilton’ as one of our later acquaintances referred to it, in preparation for a trip to the fabulous East. For eighteen years it had plied along the promenade at Blackpool, carrying tourists. Now, with a permanent complement of eight tourists it took the road out of Calais, still at promenade pace, the engine stuttering with a blocked fuel line.


On the seventh day, we’re still in France, and I'm writing ‘Travels with a Bus in the Cevennes’ as we negotiate the Gorges du Tarn. But here comes the local gendarme on his moped, brandishing a black-gloved fist and expression to match. We must not to try to take zis grand autobus through the tunnels of the Gorges; they are like zis: too low. He demonstrates with a palm hovering just above the road. We turn round and go back, the gendarme leading his captured monster back through his village, a triumphant gleam in his eye.


Gleams and gendarmes: the insignia of other days of gloom. Gleams - the orange lamps in the roof of the Monaco tunnel coming closer: a burst of crackles and red sparks floating to the ground when we knocked one down and the gendarmes came up the tunnel, running, because it was blocked for 400 metres. They charged us only for the broken lamp and escorted us through the city’s mountainous streets to a secluded parking space saying that our previous choice, in the lush grounds of the Casino, was perhaps a little naughty, no?


Gendarmes in Syria, too: the French legacy of efficiency being stultified by the old desert dust. We're resting on the crossing to Iraq. All is bright and tranquil in the open desert, looking from my viewpoint, a sand dune, to the black ribbon whereupon the bus. But here’s a vehicle approaching, a gleam of steel as a soldier shuffles over the road, sub-machine gun at the ready; sub-intelligent man: we’re spies and must be delivered, at gunpoint, to his commanding officer, 70 miles behind us in an old mud fort. Seventy miles to see his superior dismiss us with a wave, his aides sniggering at the naiveté of our captor. We go on our way, the soldier still sitting uncertainly on the top deck gripping his gun. We stop to let him return to his camp; there he goes now, disappearing into the sand, without a wave or backward glance. Does he care that he's cost us 12 gallons of diesel and will we have enough fuel to carry us to the next town, two days away?


Fuel. Gathering winter clouds in Yugoslavia; we're chugging fitfully into the gorges of the Lim with steep, banded walls on our right and left. But, in front, narrows, where a grey, sunlit promontory rears across the gorge and the pinched river rushes through in a big foam. There is a small black pit in the rock, becoming larger as it speeds towards us, engulfs us. Absorbs us. Ejects us into the bright day. That tunnel was all right but the next is rough-hewn - our anxious eyes turn to the roof coming closer in jagged lumps until the ventilator grates on rock and someone shouts STOP through the intercom. A hard time we had of it that Christmas. A long detour over the mountains where the snow lay and the road just a beaten track linking isolated Serbian settlements. The fuel system worse than before so that we had to disconnect it and have a plastic hose feeding fuel directly to the injectors from a jerrican by the front seat.  We sat, hunched and wrapped against the cold and dust in the lower saloon with only big Tim on the top as a lookout, so that the risk of toppling over was reduced. Later, we kept warm by running along beside the bus, it was so slow, weltering among the ruts like a ship on high seas. Then a night spent in Pljev1ja, a sooty town lodged in a fold of snowy hills. The people, I think, mined coal and transported it in an endless, rumbling train of lorries. At evening, they paced the main street’s cobbled gloom, or gossiped together, clumps of black greatcoats with frozen breath clouds curling about them. And when at last we got back to the main road, it was Christmas Eve and Belgrade was covered in fresh snow. Dinner on the Day was on board bus, in fine style, but John sulked in bed because of quarrels, taking no part in the festivities and saying his Mother’s Cake was for when he’d forgiven us.


Cake in Istanbul a fortnight later when most days were wet days but it’s a good place to get immersed in. We used to wander under the domes of the Bazaar, at first buffeted by the lusty cries of stallholders with special bargains for tourists: ‘You like sheepskin? Very good price’. Later, escaping into the backwaters: gloomy passages where life was sluggish; only the tea boys dashed to and fro, bearing dainty glasses to pantalooned old men sitting cross-legged among their carpets, their rolls of silk or their displays of coarse cloths hanging from the roof. One clear day we climbed to the top of the city’s Fire Tower, finding old men brewing tea on the platform. We looked out and saw below us the roof of the Bazaar, like an epidemic of bubbles; in the distance, where the bubbles swelled big amid a stand of slender minarets, that’s the Blue Mosque. We went to sit on a carpet under its blue mosaic vault, watching old men twiddle their beads and bend their bodies to Mecca. But it was mostly full of tourists and among them sidled oleaginous men with big smiles and coat hanger moustaches, soliciting for girls, very good price.


Another day: wending homewards in a postcard dusk; a violet sky behind the porcupine silhouettes of the Blue Mosque and St. Sophia; the lamps beginning to cast flickering shadows among the hanging garments in the clothes market, bringing them to life; the massed oranges on the fruit stalls seeming larger and more succulent; running the gauntlet of the raucous chanting of the vendors. Chanting. I have a picture of massed devotees in the yard of the Great Mosque of Eyup. It was the Friday ceremony, this one for women only, chanting responses to the metallic utterances of twin loudspeakers, then bending their foreheads to the ground in unison. In the cemetery, close ranks of yellowing turban-stones listened impassively. In the ablutions courtyard an old rogue was selling handfuls of seed: the pigeons did better than the beggars.


Pigeons in Naples, too: our dollars skilfully plucked by the young foxes from the old town’s dens. That was John's fault, but how was it we agreed? Greed?


Passing horrors quickly to another at Regio, where the exit to the ferry terminal was guarded by a low, too low bridge and the bus had to backtrack to a port further north. We who stayed were stranded for fifteen hours in a clouded city. The clouds were of tear gas: grenades bursting in the alleys; the squares occupied by black-shirted riot squads: rank upon baleful rank of glinting shields and helmet visors; shuttered shops and a clatter of running feet; rifles being passed through a ground-floor window from an alley in the working-class quarter. From the hillside rising over the town I looked for Etna, and fancied I saw a cloud like a skullcap squatting ominously over his crater. We climbed that - the bus and us. I can still smell the differential burning on the long grind; or hear George and Hil in the cab when the engine overheated and gave them a steaming; and John on top screaming at George, the driver, when he failed to find first amid much crashing of gears. We rested the bus the next day and slogged the final 1000 metres on foot. Tim and I went together, crossing great pockmarked slopes of ash; scrambled along black dykes of contorted lava; lunched on ciabatta and sardines amid sulphur-rimmed cauldrons of evil steam. I would dash forward to snatch photos of the orange, yellow and green fumes, in between gassings and before black mushroom clouds from the active crater in the dark distance showered hot cinders in our direction. At sunset we gathered to watch Vulcan's fireballs spattering red against the darkening sky. Funny how I can still see a few sparks when others have been absorbed by the night and quenched....


Our shadow before us is lengthening as the desert sun drops behind us and the mirage weakens. The images in my mind grow darker with the approaching reality of night; my eyes are diverted from distant scenes to a concerted scrutiny of the desert for signs of a place to park, and to sleep.