2008 Contest Shortlist

The Special Bus from London to Athens

Cheap and distinctly uncheerful. Character-building stuff.

There used to be a ‘Special Bus’ that journeyed from London to Athens. The Magic Bus was said to be rough; for many years the Special Bus defied description, but here goes.

April was cold and wet and I’d had enough, so I forked out the 20 quid and bought a special ticket for the Special bus. Everything to do with Greece at that time was advertised as ‘special.’

It was special alright.

We clunked away from a lane on a dark, damp London evening, crashing through gears and gasping up slight inclines. We had two Greek drivers and they told us it would take three days to Athens, driving night and day. We knew it would take longer.

There were five people already standing up because there weren’t enough seats and we were due to pick up more passengers in Calais. The spare driver leaned against the emergency door and smoked. By the outskirts of London we had agreed to a roster system, taking it in turns to stand, even though sitting was never going to be comfortable. In the late seventies service buses in England had the hard vinyl seats with metal rails across the back of them. A notice nailed on the back of them said, ‘Lower your head while rising from seat.’

This bus was an ancient version of this bus, with the inverted drivers section and a step for the conductor.

It was after midnight when we arrived in Dover and the passengers, who I hadn’t had a chance to have a good look at yet, trundled off and made their way to the onboard bar. A group of Northern lads about my age zeroed in on the Duty Free and bought themselves five litres of Polish vodka and polished them off on the trip over.

By the time we arrived in France in the extreme early hours of the morning we were a sick looking bunch, hobbling out of the port, looking for the bus due to meet us. We passed a broken down vehicle with cracked windows, branches and leaves strewn across it and flat looking tyres. We had one of those ‘That’s be our bus’ laughs as you do when you see something impossible, and the Greek drivers herded us towards it and yelled at us to get aboard because ‘we’re late.’.

This one was an old Greek service bus and it made the one we left in Dover look like a super coaster.

It was filthy. With rotting food lying around, cigarette butts, curved wooden seats and floors partly ripped away by time and near fatal collisions.

We all thought it was a joke. It wasn’t. None of us thought it would start. After an hour swearing and bashing the engine with a steel wrench, it did.

We left Calais as early morning storm clouds dropped a small ocean on us.

I sat on the backseat, feet into the aisle, deciding I would at least have legroom. On my left a young girl who later told me she was escaping her pimp sat with her legs wide open with a skirt and no knickers, attracting the attention of several of the Polish vodka laden lads a few seats down.

On my right was the biggest woman I had ever seen. She was Greek, and as soon as we moved she hauled an enormous canvas bag onto her lap and began to eat. Olives, fetta, stuffed vine leaves in oil, pickled onions by the handful and whole cloves of raw garlic. She mashed these together in enormous mouthfuls, chewing and smiling with her mouth wide open so the noise and smell sent waves of panic through me. Not this, not for three days and nights.

Next to the window, squashed between her and the cracked window, sat Bill, my small Irish friend whom I had talked into coming with me.

“Go on Bill, it’ll be an adventure, you’ll love it, imagine the people you’ll meet on the bus, it’ll be a laugh.” All that, and more.

Sometimes I caught sight of him murdering me with his eyes, squished down in the corner being suffocated by rolls of garlic, sweat coated flab that bounced and battered him with every jolt of the bus.

The emergency stairwell ran down to my right and ahead of this sat a pretty Scottish girl who I watched set her things together with great care. She had sandwiches, a flask of hot drink, a new sleeping bag and a pillow with Winnie the Pooh on it. She even managed to find room on her seat to neatly fold a pile of fresh clothing for the journey and still not interfere with the lady sitting next to her.

One of the lads filled with Polish vodka stood up from where he’d thrown himself down into the aisle of the bus, staggered towards us, unzipped his jeans and spectacularly emptied his bladder over the Scottish girl and her belongings before anyone even realised what he was doing. The fight that followed was both savage and bloody, although it’s doubtful whether he ever knew what it was about or remembered anything at all afterwards.

She screamed and splashed her way across her near neighbour, and stood on her lap to get within butting distance of her assailant and nutted him on the nose. He went down squealing and clutching his face while lashing out with his fists and feet. Within seconds there were ten people scrapping and tearing at each other at the back of the bus, with the co-driver adding to the occasion by kicking anyone who fell to the floor.

It took until Brussels to settle down. We stopped in a small side street for three hours while the drivers relieved themselves in a brothel, and we re-grouped and became accustomed to the rank smell that would follow us and get worse all the way to Athens.

Bill was still wedged in and couldn’t have moved anyway, but everyone else had some kind of injury, or had been soaked in the incident, and we talked about the only way to survive this was to stay and work together.

The Scottish girl passed between crying into her sodden sleeping bag and screaming fury, and we took it in turns to calm her down. The young hooker next to me decided everyone would be much calmer if they weren’t so pent up and she began a brisk trade going from male lap to male lap with a light blanket for covering, and plying her trade.

We trundled this way across France, with both drivers taking turns in steering while downing bottles of red wine and beer.

The Swiss don’t take kindly to this kind of behaviour, and while they seemed oblivious that neither driver could stand, they took exception to the bus itself and made it clear it would NEVER be allowed into Switzerland, that it wasn’t road worthy and probably hadn’t been so for at least 20 years.

So, we went around Switzerland, up into Germany and got into Yugoslavia via a small Austrian border crossing where the guards didn’t care less who came through as long as they weren’t woken up.

By the time we arrived at the Yugoslav border more than a day had been added to the trip. One driver had fallen into a drunken coma while the other stayed awake by using a cocktails of beer and pills, and drove the whole way through Yugoslavia, being poked and punched awake by a team of passengers at the front who kept themselves awake by watching how often and how close we all came to dying.

By the time we arrived at the Greek border the smell at the back of the bus had reached sewer proportions but we were strangely elated at being at least in the right country … nearly.

The Yugoslav border guard waved us through and good riddance but the Greeks, they had other ideas.

They stripped that bus, and we were kept in a lay-by, between countries, for a day and half a night while a platoon of border officials appeared and emptied everything.

Inside everyone’s luggage they found dozens of silk scarves, apparently smuggled aboard by our drivers during one of our infrequent toilet stops.

‘Go and walk’ they said, at midnight, on a motorway, and locked the bus.

Even though the evidence against us all seemed damning, even the Greek customs smelled a rat. They arrested the rat they suspected, the smelly one passed out in the middle of the bus, put him in a tin hut and bolted the door.

They told the rest of us to leave and directed our driver, who hadn’t slept since Belgium, to go immediately.

Several hours later we arrived in Athens, five days and six nights after leaving London. The police bashed our driver over the head when we arrived and told us to ‘GET OUT.’

Six months later – I flew home.

Rob Daniel