I live in south Devon. Last week I went up to north Devon, to visit a friend who was renting a cottage on the coast for a week. Devon is a big county. I decided to go by train to Barnstaple and then by bus. At Exeter the train caught fire, however, and we were herded off and packed into an old charabanc that could barely get up the steep Exmoor hills.
At Barnstaple, finally, I waited at stand J of the austere bus station. Punctually, a minibus drew up and six of us climbed on: a blond lad with airline tags on his backpack; a man-mountain in a baggy suit carrying a guitar case; a middle-class woman who greeted the driver with genial condescension; a pair of teenage lovers, she showing as much as possible of an exciting pair of thighs; and me. The driver had long hair and looked like an old biker. There was something irredeemably unofficial about him, as though he’d stolen the bus for a laugh after a drinking session. ‘Oh look, a millionaire!’ he exclaimed as I riffled through my wad looking for something smaller than a 20.
The hour-long journey cost three quid. I sat at the back and read a discarded North Devon Gazette. The only reported crime that week was an all-girl brawl on Minehead seafront. One sustained bruising to her head. Soon we were barrelling across a high hogsback road with rich, rolling farmland on either side. A gale blew violently through the bus, buffeting our hair this way and that, and I totally lost control of the North Devon Gazette. The driver threw the bus around in a swashbuckling, exhilarating manner while shouting a conversation against the wind and the engine roar with the middle-class woman. The young sweethearts sitting in front of me were drunk on youth or alcohol or love or all three. They had eyes only for each other. Hers shone with adoration. For them I didn’t even exist. And rightly so. For mile after noisy, lurching mile they fenced furiously with empty plastic Highland Spring bottles. At one point they lowered their weapons and he leaned forward and put his lips softly against her forehead. She accepted his blessing with the peace and reverence of a supplicant at the communion rail.
Stopping outside a village newsagent, the driver came out from behind his wheel and announced that he was going in to buy lottery tickets. A splendid idea. Everybody rose — everybody except the teenage lovers, who already possessed in their youth and in each other riches far exceeding any lottery win — and followed the driver off the bus and into the newsagent’s. I was beginning to like our driver and his swashbuckling ways. He was genuinely and unselfconsciously a man of the people. Any power, authority or glamour that his position as bus driver might have earned him in these far-flung communities was violently repudiated by a piratical demeanour. He roughly hailed and was hailed in return by everyone in the shop. Even the style with which he bought lottery tickets brought to mind a gambling-mad Long John Silver who has had himself rowed secretly ashore for the purpose.
I bought a single lucky dip. It seems to me now that there is more chance of being murdered in your bed in a case of mistaken identity than of coming up with three, let alone six, numbers. I handed over my coins without a shred of hope. We climbed back aboard the bus united and exalted by our unscheduled gambling stop. I asked the young backpacker if he’d come far. Yes, from Tanzania, he said. The driver threw himself back into his driving seat and slammed his little stable door behind him with a detonation that startled even the teenage lovers.
In the next valley the bus was flagged down by a desperado. After a hasty negotiation with the driver, he was allowed to stand on the step and ride shotgun. A little way up the road we came upon a runaway child. The man jumped down and then jumped back up again as the child spotted him and sprinted away. The driver drove slowly after the boy, and was touchingly careful not to run him down. Everyone on the bus except the teenage lovers craned forward as the drama unfolded. Suddenly, in an inspired move, the escapee doubled back, and the man leapt off the moving bus and we watched the continued pursuit through the back window until they were out of sight.
The driver slammed the bus up through the gears and soon we were bowling along with the wind blowing through the bus again as though we were flying. I took up the North Devon Gazette again, folded it in half three times, and settled down to read about a boy who’d got a nail in his foot while playing on a seesaw.