Today’s mission: go on a massive trek right across Britain, to go meet up with a bunch of people I used to work with four years ago. For One Night Only. Y’all (if there are indeed any y’all out there) may be wondering why someone would be going to such lengths to meet up with ex-colleagues – however, this is a special reunion, because we all used to work together, for free, on a farm in the south of France. Where the plumbing was distant, as was the law, and we had many epic adventures, mostly within the same square mile of property because we didn’t get much chance to get off said property. A year in Provence, this was not. Well, at the time my paid job sucked so royally I was desperate to try something completely different, and um, it all made sense, honest. If you ever try this at home, as it were, get references first. And if they ever tell you to all hide from the census-taker in a barn you only just floated a concrete floor in, pack your bags.
So the Sunday morning after a Saturday night out found me up before seven, out before eight, and due to having calculated my travel times with an extremely jaundiced eye (after the totally unexpected phenomenon of Snow, in Scotland, in winter, every form of public transport is only just back on), sitting around in Central Station for over an hour. Ironically, you are no longer allowed to smoke in Central Station because it is ‘Indoors’; i.e. under a giant glass roof one pane thick, open to the elements to a height of about thirty feet on three sides. I didn’t stop shivering till after my second coffee at the airport.
However, I was cheered up by the happy friendly security guards at Prestwick, who I nominate for the title of happiest friendliest airport security guards in the world, despite having been slapped by one of them on my way to Poland that time. It was meant in jest. And I got to sit on a plane, coasting down towards London, a glass of vastly overpriced vino in my hand, looking at the fluffy clouds drifting up towards me, feeling pretty psyched about modern life and thinking, damn, wine at fifteen thousand feet. To the ancient Greeks, this was godhood. And I am merely a prole!
And also, How much environmental damage are the four of us doing, just to meet for a few drinks?
Oops. Bye, modern life, you were fun. Shame we used everything up, enjoying you.
So let the cheapness commence! Being stunned by the price of a train from the airport to the city (as much as the plane ticket? Something is far wrong here!) I had pre-booked on the cheap bus; again allowing myself a stupidly pessimistic amount of time for delays, but that was okay because they let me get on an earlier one, which arrived just before I did, and off we set.
London was mobbed. Traffic like this, on a Sunday lunchtime? What the hell is rush-hour like? I’m getting supermarket fear, and this supermarket is over twenty miles across!
Well, anything to put off thinking about this reunion. Don’t get me wrong, I love Salt and Wodka and Jumpingbean and Jambon to death (which is pretty impressive considering we were randomly thrown together by fate to haul logs in the middle of nowhere for a few months, with no time off from each other at all), but the tail-end of my stint at what a friend calls ‘Stalag Butlins’ went a bit horribly pear-shaped. That summer wasn’t exactly being destitute in a shanty town, or a warzone, but it wasn’t exactly cocktail hour at the casino, either; and once again, I had no time off from it at all.
So my memories are… mixed, as are my feelings towards seeing folks who will stir them all up again. Still, no time to worry about that, the bus-driver is throwing us all out. I had noticed that my bus seemed to arrive just down the road from my hotel. Don’t be stupid! I thought, London is vast, there is no way that is the same bit of map!
But it was. A wee walk, the hotel was where it was supposed to be, my room was reserved as it was supposed to be, it was actually much cleaner than accounts said it was supposed to be (though it hoached of BO like anything – I am washing everything on sixty when I get home), five minutes to get into a frock and stick on some slap, and I was back out again. Speedy turnaround or what! And the meet-up point, chosen while I was still en route? Less of a walk from the hotel than even the bus-stop was!
So it was a shame I had gotten a tube pass before I twigged this.
My phone started ringing as I was heading for the tube, and started again the instant I was off it. Jumpingbean was demanding to know where I was and what was taking me so long. Oh god, actually, this might be challenging. The pavements were so busy I could barely move, and though I had previously reckoned a ‘five minute walk’ meant two minutes at my pace, I hadn’t accounted for this. And that’s the phone again. ‘Where are you?’ said Jumpingbean. ‘Are you near us? I can see a red bus, what can you see?’ Ah yes. She is now a genuinely qualified Surgeon, and yet her instinct for giving directions is endearingly unchanged.
She said, ‘Look out for a bridge over a canal and call when you see it – we are in a cafe with green and white bits.’ Sure enough, as I crossed the canal, there was the cutest little willow-pattern-stylee footbridge – and at least three cafes, all with green and white bits. God. After checking most of them and several more calls, I stood on the bridge and called. Turns out, she meant the bridge that the road was on.
But there we were, reunited – well, me and Jumpingbean and Salt were. (Wodka was joining us later, Jambon was missing in transit). My god, neither of the pair of them have aged a day. In some ways, I miss being in my early twenties, though I was never as fearless as either of them back then and truth to tell, I look better now. Which doesn’t mean anyone else has to agree, but I reckon I do, and since that makes me happy and it’s my face, that is what counts. But I tell you this – it was suddenly really, really good to see them, in that way that all your misgivings and fears just melt away. We went round the corner ‘to get warm’ – Jumpingbean’s from Australia and though she’s been over here for a couple of months, I think, she kept declaring how cold it was. Hee, despite the utter lack of frost down here; last night and this morning, the pavements at home were so crazed with it, it was like a million tiny strobelights trying to trigger some sort of seizure. And right now, folks in Canada with several feet of snow are being all, Pfft! at my tales of Winter.
So I sat with a glass of wine in a pub they smuggled their hot chocolates into, and we swapped tales of what we’d been up to. As much as one can cram four years’ news into a few minutes. Jumpingbean’s got a bloke she’s been with since France, awww, and Salt’s got a chick back home who’s also gonna be a Surgeon, and I felt quite the old maid, but hell, that’s part of the Plan, dammit. Get sane, get educated, get richer; then if you still fail to find someone to love, get affordable toyboy. Lord, the fact that I’ve had several offers on my current salary shows the state of the economy.
Then we started in on – cautiously, I think – swapping tales of when we were in France. Seems I’m not the only one with mixed memories. Jumpingbean said it was the most intense experience of her life, and she’s kinda bummed out that the folks who ran the place didn’t seem to have anything like the same… Ah, she couldn’t find the word, and I still can’t either. Salt’s take on it was most amusing. ‘That place would turn anyone into a communist!’ he announced (and I should point out here that he grew up in Communist Germany; he probably knows from harsh). ‘If you can’t get off the property… you are the property.’ Yeah. He also regaled us with tales of the farm he worked on in Norway, after the one in France. ‘The family there let me sit with them at dinner and eat the same food.’ No, stop, dude, that doesn’t happen, you’re having me on. ‘No, they did! One time… we had icecream!’
Maybe the reason we had a fundamentally more intense experience than the owners in France is the same reason plantation owners didn’t really ‘get’ their workers either. Still, it’s important to remember that for us, this was a one-off experience, not a lifetime’s worth, and that is more than most people throughout history can say.
Bet we’re about the only people to hold reunions over it, though.
Jumpingbean said there was apparently something called Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, and we should find it and see if we could meet Wodka there, for he had gone back to his hotel for ‘granddad’s nap’. Bastard, he be younger than me. Hee, and I missed last night’s Proper reunion pissup down here, having previously agreed to the trapeze class that wasn’t and the fightclub pissup; and I still came out ahead, if it was really TEN POUNDS a drink. I’ve paid substantially less than that for a pint in Oslo city centre.
Speaking of which: I’ve been in airports and stations all day and haven’t bought anything to eat because it’s all inflated prices; and now, I’m in the Capital, where everything is, of course, inflated prices – but if I was in a wee village right now, everything would be inflated prices because of the additional costs of getting it somewhere so parochial, so… where, exactly, is the centre of Cheapness to be found?
Dear Christ, the tube was scary. And the kids on the tube, who were a maximum of fourteen and clearly off their faces, were scary. Stuttgart, this ain’t. Mind you, Stuttgart wasn’t the centre of Cheapness either. Maybe it’s in Beirut. I bet Beirut’s so scary the rest of my hair would go white.
Note to self: do not start running up the tube stairs for shits and giggles rather than taking the escalator; you are getting older, you are unfit and you smoke and it’s at least three storeys and you can’t stop and go back down in front of everyone. Tomorrow, that is going to Hurt.
When Jumpingbean said, ‘Winter Wonderland’ I had this vague image of lots of fake snow and people petting reindeer and carol singers and a dozen competing Santas. It was, of course, a rather more prosaic German-style Christmas Market, although it had a big wheel and mirror maze and every second (and third, and fourth) stall sold bratwurst in a bun. At four quid a pop. And gluhwein, also at four quid a pop*. Ooh, now that is a novelty! For some reason, German Christmas Markets in Glasgow never trust us with the stuff. I might have to get some.
(*Or, just ‘mulled wine’, or on one stall, ‘hot German wine’. I laughed hot German wine out of my nose, reading it, ow. I am such an elitist.)
If only to stop my fingers freezing off, I added mentally, cursing myself for having left my gloves in my hotel room in this ‘balmy, non-frosty’ environment which was rapidly cooling down now that night had fallen. And I left the window open, to allow the previous occupant’s aromas to escape. Tonight is gonna be Baltic.
The Christmas market was also packed, which I was finding unnerving, but Jumpingbean was loving every minute, so that made up for it. Salt and I meandered through the packed darkness, shouting Zap Brannigan quotes at each other while being constantly cajoled by Jumpingbean into posing for photos in front of typically German, or typically English, or typically Wintery things; including a balloon salesman. And we managed to find Wodka no trouble at all, despite Jumpingbean’s directions again consisting of, ‘can you see a red bus?’ – this time, to be fair, it was a postman-pat-style fairground ride. Wodka is looking disturbingly like Stone Cold Steve Austin these days. Actually, Salt is starting to look like Bill Murray. Three glasses of red over the course of eight hours is not beer goggles, therefore I need an eye test, stat.
Instead, we had Gluhwein all round. God, actually, this is uncannily like the time we actually had an adventure Off the property – went to Tolouse for Wodka’s birthday, and my first act as team leader was to get my new underlings horribly lost and Wodka had to come find us. Except this time, we weren’t lost and it was all good and we retired to Soho for a pint. Before anyone lost an extremity from the cold.
At which point, Jumpingbean had to leave, since she was staying with relatives. Wow. Seeing her again suddenly was like slipping into what turns out to be a decently-heated swimmingpool, surprisingly painless and magically refreshing, but the instant she left, I missed her like being hit around the head. With a train. Woe. Then Salt had to leave, and it happened again. Woe. (The one good point was, Salt’s budget was obviously suffering too, so I could at least give him my tube pass, being a walking distance from my hotel).
So Wodka and I, the two old farts, went clubbing, since that was the only way to continue drinking. In Soho. At half past ten at night. On a Sunday, true, but Jeebus, people, we can stay up later in sodding Glasgow! Where did this Puritanism come from? Wodka was (genially) off on one about the 24-hour-licensing laws that I did vaguely remember them bringing in at one point so everywhere wouldn’t kick out at once and cause fights for taxis. At least, they said they did, but nothing seemed to actually happen. Wodka, being on shoreleave whenever he’s in Glasgow and thus able to get up whenever he wants, probably feels the brunt of this more than I do, because I have to be up before seven almost every day. So we found a dire, dire club with a small entry charge and sat at the bar drinking Coronas and shooting the shit, because of course, they don’t Do draught beer in clubs. Well, not this sort of club.
At least I was spared missing Wodka as hard; not because we share a city for some months of the year, because as soon as we parted ways, this guy came out of nowhere and just started following me up the road (well, I say, ‘following’; he clamped himself to my side and kept trying to grab my hand or my arse) saying that he was going to have sex with me tonight. Fortunately, I was a bit tipsy by this point – as well as full of memories of happier days when we just assumed we were invulnerable and any chainsaw accident couldn’t result in serious injury, or they would have given us protective clothing or something – so I found it highly amusing rather than the terrifying experience I would otherwise have done, being alone in a Forrin city after midnight and everything.
In fact, for some reason I was under the impression he was a gigolo for hire, possibly because it was a Sunday in Soho, so I just laughed and said, ‘Don’t be daft, I haven’t any money’, until he eventually went away. Sheesh. I wasn’t even in a nice frock, it was a plain green wool one that went down below the knee and up to the neck and I had accessorised it with slip-proof hiking boots. Rock on, not. The main thing is, he left. So far so good, though I had a plan of sorts if he hadn’t, which was to march right up to reception and tell them the guy was harassing me and to phone the police now.
In conclusion: seeing everyone was wonderful, and I am right glad that I came all this way for one night, despite the ruinous expense to my wallet and everyone’s environment. And tomorrow morning I will be right glad to get the hell out of this city which seems mainly – and very densely – composed of people more batshit than I. Which shouldn’t be allowed!