I didn’t notice something was up until we’d cruised past a couple of stops. It wasn’t rush hour, so perhaps no one wanted to get on or off. When we passed Staples Corner, I saw someone trying to wave the bus down. His look of open-armed, open-mouthed ‘what the hell?’ made me pay attention. It’s the same look you see on a striker’s face when the ref disallows his winning goal for being offside.
The bus not stopping was strange, but what was even stranger was that we weren’t supposed to be anywhere near Staples Corner. I’ve taken the 390 enough times to know that. I was even more sure that it wasn’t supposed to be tearing down the sliproad on to the M1, and the engine wasn’t supposed to be screaming like the Arsenal crowd had all caught a cold at the moment they wanted to cheer a winning goal.
Then again, Gooners always sound like that.
The woman across the aisle was looking at me with wide eyes, and I found myself looking back at her. When you catch someone’s eye on London Transport and they don’t look away, you know things are bad.
The she spoke to me. It was a direct violation of the unwritten, unspoken code of buses and tube trains: don’t ever acknowledge the existence of another living person. It’s how you preserve your sanity when one stranger’s bum is jammed in your crotch and your face is pressed into another’s armpit.
“Do you think this is a short cut?” she asked.
Her accent was pure West London. No chance she was a foreigner who didn’t know how many lines she’d just crossed. This was indeed an emergency.
“No,” I said. “I don’t think buses take short cuts.”
We both looked forward to where the partition hid the driver.
“Perhaps we should ask him.” She didn’t sound like she was volunteering. Speaking to one stranger on a bus must have been her quota for the day.
I tried to remember what the driver looked like, but I couldn’t remember. I’d just swiped my oyster card and shuffled into the bus, thinking I could murder a Stella when I get to the pub. If Chelsea in the final isn’t an excuse for afternoon boozing, what is?
“It’s just…I don’t want to be late for my Zumba class,” said the woman.
Hard to argue with that. I got up and worked my way forward, from one handgrip to another. The bus was swaying in a manner that suggested double-deckers were never designed for the speed we were doing, though plenty of cars were overtaking without half the effort the bus’s engine was screaming about. After a lifetime of trundling from traffic light to bus stop, the freedom of the motorway had come as a shock to the engine.
The driver looked normal enough. A middle-aged white guy who looked so well fitted to the driver’s seat that he might have been part of the bus.
“Hi there,” I said. “Where are we going?”
He rotated his head toward me. “Passengers must not speak to the driver while the vehicle is in motion.”
“OK…” The road ahead was straight, which was fortunate as he was now looking directly at me instead of where we were going. “I’ll go back, but could you please tell me -”
“Passengers must not…oh, you heard the first time. Naff off.”
He was looking straight at me now, with a pair of eyes so black that it was like looking down the muzzles of a pair of cannon. It was a clear, sunny day. There was no reason for his pupils to be that dilated. At least, there was none that made me feel any happier about our blind northward charge.
I tried a different tack. “Does that apply on the motorway?”
“Eh?” His face wrinkled in thought. “D’you know, I dunno. Buses don’t go on motorways, so there aren’t no rules about it. Bit of a poser, that.”
He turned his head back to the road. I hoped that was progress of some sort. “So, where are we going?”
“Going? I dunno. Land’s End. John O’Groats. Does it matter? Narnia. Yeah, let’s go to Narnia!”
“Well, there’s a lady who’s worried about missing her Zumba class. I don’t think they know about Zumba in Narnia.”
“Oh, she’ll be fine. Hey, look at that.”
He was looking in the wing mirror. I looked behind to see blue flashing lights. As I watched, a second police car powered down a slip road to join the car and two motorbikes behind us.
“They’re coming to Narnia too,” said the driver.
I was still trying to think of an answer to that when a bang and a lurch threw me off my feet. I bounced off the windscreen and ended up sitting on the floor, facing backward. The engine noise was drowned out by a howl of tortured metal, sounding like ten thousand souls in torment at once. It was more Man United than Arsenal now.
“What are you doing down there?” The driver shouted over the racket. “Stand straight! Look forward! Think positive or we’ll all be a goner!”
The bus was rattling around in a way that put standing out of the question. I smelled burning, and realised we’d gone over one of those contraptions the police use to blow the tyres out.
“We’re going to Narnia! Think positive!” shouted the driver.
“How can we make it to Narnia?” I shouted back. “You forgot to bring the wardrobe!”
The driver looked stricken. The noise faded, suggesting he’d taken his foot off the accelerator.
“I knew there was something,” he said as the 390 shuddered to a halt.
I spent the afternoon in the police station, giving statements and failing to persuade them I wanted something a lot stronger than the cups of tea they plied me with. It wasn’t the day I’d been looking forward to.
And Chelsea lost on penalties.