With the voices singing in our ears, saying…this was all folly


(I hate people who indulge in this modern trend of starting off with a ‘So…’, as if you were fully cognisant of all that they had been thinking before, or as if they had just been waiting for you to finish asking so that they could launch forth into whatever they’d already decided to say before you ever asked it.)


We (the bus) had got as far as the prison and a prisoner was waiting to get on. They get day passes because it’s an open prison and in theory they’re not murderers or anything. Mostly they look like you and I and behave in a perfectly civilised fashion, but this one did look a bit unsavoury. Unshaven. Beetling-browed. Grubby. Didn’t much like the look of him.


It was particularly important that the bus not linger longer than scheduled at the prison because I had to catch a connecting bus and the connecting bus was only two minutes behind this one!

The prisoner and the bus driver decided to have a row. The prisoner demanded to know what time the bus driver was ‘due in’. He had been standing there, waiting, for several hours, he said. His social skills were poor. There were other ways of putting it. Better still, the option of not putting it at all.

The bus was on time, or had been before the prisoner and the bus driver decided to unleash their joint supply of testosterone upon the world.

The bus driver said he could (*******) get off the bus and what way was that to talk to anybody?

The prisoner said he wasn’t going to (********) get off the bus and did the bus driver get out of bed the wrong side this morning or summink?

This went on for some time, with the language getting riper and riper. Being British we all stared out of the window pretended not to be aware of any argument at all. Including the wriggly little girl with the dummy and various other infants.

To get to visit Mum for an hour I was going to have to be on buses and trains all day. This was only my first bus. The connecting bus, scheduled for minutes behind this one, would surely be gone by now. Another half hour or forty minutes wasted at a damp and chilly bus stop.

The argument went on and on, but eventually the prisoner stumbled to the back of the bus, still swearing, and the bus driver set off. Heavy on the accelerator. Vicious on the brakes all the way to the next village. It felt like some sort of fairground ride. More than usual like some sort of fairground ride.

Everyone was unhappy.

I couldn’t quite forget about it. How had that argument even happened? And then it occurred to me that the prisoner had not read, or maybe was not able read, the timetable attached to the bus stop. He had not noticed the long gap between the workmen’s bus – somewhere around seven a.m. – and the start of regular buses – somewhere around nine a.m. So he might have been standing there for hours.

‘You’re talking b*******’ shouted the bus driver from the front of the bus.

‘No, you’re talking b*******’ shouted the prisoner from the back of the bus.

Is this perhaps how world wars start? Could Armageddon be loosed upon the world through nothing more than two grumpy men and a simple misunderstanding?

Pass me that tin hat, would you?

I am become a nervous boat!

I am become a nervous boat!

This is just to illustrate the perils of attempting to compose a letter in English, with the aid of never so weighty and prestigious an English dictionary, when English is not your first language. The same would apply to any other language, of course.

It’s a line from an anguished letter sent by a postgraduate Agronomy (or was it Food Science?) student in America. I remember it now, the ultra-thin prison notepaper, the raggedy scrawl…

I was working at an agricultural college at the time, and the department I worked in specialised in postgraduate distance learning courses – similar to the Open University but for agricultural subjects only. This particular student was a long-term prisoner in an American jail – I seem to remember Elk Creek or Moose Gulley or Buffalo Gulch. He was studying because he was allowed to, and perhaps also to maintain his sanity during a long incarceration.

It struck me as odd at the time that anyone who already had an agricultural degree of some sort, as he must have done to gain entry to a postgraduate course, should have ended up in that hell hole in Moose Gulley, Buffalo Gulch or whatever in the first place. I don’t know what crime he committed. He was never asked. At the time I hoped against hope that he wasn’t on Death Row. Nobody enquired about that, either.

Poor chap, his most recent batch of study materials had failed to reach him. Someone inside the jail had stolen them, he was convinced. And he was desperate. Exams were coming up. Kind ladies, I know not what to do, he wrote. I am become a nervous boat!


I treated myself to a book today – an actual new book, from an actual bookshop. Also egg and chips and a pot of tea in an altogether more cheerful café than the Greasy one Mum and I seem to have to go to of a Sunday. I had a rubbish day yesterday and am set to have another rubbish day tomorrow, back at the eye hospital, so felt I deserved both.

The book – an ideal choice for waiting room perusal, I thought – is a translation of Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre. I dipped into it over the egg and chips and got as far as page x of the Introduction (which in itself is xx pages long) and stumbled over the following sentence:

Roquentin is a solipsist, trapped in a terrible echo-chamber of the self, haunted by the sonics of his inflamed personality.

As I poured myself a second, slightly chilly cup of tea (never waste what’s left in the pot) I wondered if there had ever been a time in my life when I would have understood that sentence, perhaps in my youth when my brain was firing on all cylinders? But I suspect not. It will give me something absorbing to focus on whilst waiting. Presumably there will be waiting, since hospitals seem to involve more waiting than anything else. I am looking forward to it – the Sartre, that is.

Tomorrow my transport is a volunteer gentleman called Roger, whereas yesterday I was driven to and from by a lady taxi-driver whose name I have now forgotten. It’s amazing what you can learn from a taxi driver. I myself rarely leave the inside lane. I would drive for fifty miles at thirty miles per hour sandwiched between two large lorries rather than attempt an overtake. Only in emergencies such as bicycles, sheep or wandering drunks would I briefly enter the central lane and I don’t think I have ever driven in the fast lane. My taxi driver drove more or less the whole 22 miles each way in the fast lane, and our conversation scarcely flagged.

This morning, from memory, I made a list of just a few of the topics we covered in our 44 miles together:

  • Why some prisoners in open prisons ‘escape’ intentionally, so as to get themselves sent back to the secure prisons they prefer (fewer men per toilet being one reason);
  • Whether you would spot the difference between someone who had a prosthetic leg and someone who was just limping a bit;
  • Why we could only see a quarter of a rainbow – something neither of us had seen before – and whether this might mean we were closer to or further from the legendary pot of gold at the end;
  • What it is like to lose a sister, and bring up a child alone;
  • What it is like to have an elderly mother – she having lost her own mother at a young age;
  • Whether and at what point you could swim across the river;
  • The pleasures of a night out at the Bingo when you had had to forego a social life for ten years;
  • Whether they ought to build another bridge;
  • The difficulty of getting signed off onto benefits with depression;
  • Where exactly the rain was, to have caused the rainbow.

And all this at 70 mph.

Seriously, I live a quiet life and often, it seems to me, get no chance a sensible conversation with a human being from one fortnight to the next; yet this week I have had two long chats with a taxi driver, a long chat over coffee with my two friends, a chat over the telephone with the volunteer driver who will be collecting me tomorrow, a chat over the telephone with my Canadian sister and a rather too long chat with a neighbour over a spare-room bed that was delivered in my absence and was now lurking in his living room, getting smoked all over. Like they say about London buses – you wait for ages and then several come along at once.