Here’s a true story about how I nearly didn’t go to Austria a few weeks ago.
It was a really close thing.
Stumbling. Coffee. Cannot. Think.
Things, fanned out on the floor in an order than made perfect sense last night – or more correctly, earlier this morning. Most of everything is already packed, but these are the things I’ve made an extra list of, the things I needed overnight: electric toothbrush, washkit, phone, asthma medicine, Kindle, pinstripe pyjamas, bowler hat etc. Amidst these items are the Things I Cannot Forget Under Any Circumstances (e-tickets, passport, non-e-tickets, wallet, pinstripe pyjamas, bowler hat). They’re all arranged in an order that will make me think about them as I pack them, ingraining that memory to help stave off panic that I’ve forgotten something.
Item 1. It’s….what is it? It’s like a – long stick thing, in some baffling material that isn’t wood and isn’t metal…..plastic, yes, that’s it. I pull the end off, exposing a transparent tube half-full of a dark blue substance. Further investigation uncovers the presence of a very small ball-bearing at one end that seems designed to “roll” the dark liquid out, for reasons currently beyond me. I experiment fruitlessly.
Ten minutes pass.
Clearly I’m in no fit state for rational thought – I just need to act. I scoop everything into my bag that’s currently within reach including, as I later discover, a small Thai cookbook, a stapler, a credit card statement, an adjustable spanner and a bag of lemons. The coffee is starting to kick in, but it’s only making me more alert, not smarter. I throw some porridge at my face, brush my teeth, slap myself a few times (no reaction) and lurch out the door.
Well, at least I’m early.
I have plenty of time to spare. You know – in case something goes wrong.
The morning air hits me like a something of something. (I’m too tired for metaphors).
I breathe deeply. In – and OUT. And gradually, miraculously, the fog clears. It starts to dawn on me that life is good. I’m about to leave for Austria, starting with a Megabus service that leaves the city centre at 6.55am. I have just under an hour to get there, it’s a half-hour walk and I’m playing it safe by taking the bus (transit time 10 minutes). Another deep breath. My spirits lift. Ah! Yes! Let’s do this.
With a light heart I lift my rucksack and heave it onto one shoulder.
I’m sweating enough for my glasses to keep sliding down my nose. I’ve just spent 8 minutes frantically stuffing my gear into another backpack, and 2 minutes kicking my ruined rucksack around the garden, shouting at it like Basil Fawlty.
It’s still going to be ok. I still have 40 minutes. I could still walk – and yet there’s a bus.
I walk to the bus stop, ignoring my pounding heart and wobbly legs.
I’m at the bus-stop.
People are looking at me oddly.
Perhaps it’s the madness gleaming in my eyes. Perhaps it’s the way my glasses keep sliding down to the end of my nose. Or perhaps it’s the way I’ve disgorged half of my rucksack into the ground and I’m sifting through my possessions, muttering “no no NO NO NO“, louder and louder, like a kettle of negativity coming to the boil.
My passport is gone.
I’m outside my house again. I’ve just done something akin to the 4-minute mile, proportionally scaled down to my non-Bannisterian level of fitness. I totter up, pluck my passport from the stretch of pavement where my rucksack exploded, and turn around. My luggage is back at the bus-stop – I’d asked my wary companions to keep an eye on my possessions, hoping the bus wouldn’t arrive before I got back.
I’m utterly, utterly exhausted. There’s just no way I can run back.
My Megabus to London leaves in 28 minutes.
I run back.
My rucksack is alone. The bus came, and the bus went. The next one will be around 6.45am. That’ll probably be too late.
What are my chances of making a run for it? Slim. I’ve tried sprinting with a fully-laden rucksack before – I remember it clearly. I remember the way my knees ached for a week, I remember the accompanying asthma attack. And that was when I was 20. I’m truly too old for that shit.
Hitch-hiking is my only hope.
“Oh come ON. COME ON!”
Perhaps hitch-hikers shouldn’t be so aggressive. I’m scowling at the cars whizzing past, jabbing my thumb at them like a Roman Emperor sentencing them to death. None of them are stopping. I curse the British and their inability to make new friends, even ones as scary as I must look right now.
I know it’s probably too late, but while there’s a chance….
It’s a 10-minute drive to the city centre. And traffic is picking up. There’s just no way I’m going to get there in time.
How am I going to write this up, I think to myself? People know I’m going to Austria. Sure, it’s common knowledge that I attract disaster, but usually I find a way to muddle my way through. This is different. Not only am I losing hundreds of pounds in tickets, missing the chance to meet someone I admire immensely and not returning to a place I’ve reminisced about for 20 years – I’m not even leaving home this time. I can’t put a funny spin on this one. It’s not funny. Not at all.
A white van pulls up in front of me and the passenger door swings open.
“Where are you going?”
Bob (this isn’t his real name, I was way too panicked to ask) immediately understands the situation, and hammers his van to its limits. We power through two sets of greened traffic lights. Hope starts to flame within me once more. And then, with a minute’s driving left and a minute before the Megabus departs – we hit a red light. Hope gutters. Have I really come this far to have this happen to me? Is this fair?
Two minutes later, it’s amber and we’re through.
It’s 6.56am – and the bus will have gone.
I’m running again, with a fully laden backpack, a 39-year old man running down the side of the road, dignity in tatters, stumbling, breath whooshing in and out. And then I’m off the path, across a patch of ornamental gardens, my knees like jelly…
The Megabus driver later told me he always gives late arrivals a couple of minutes. When he saw me explode out the side of a white van and come dashing down the road, those minutes had passed. He’d been ready to go.
Another minute and he would have – and the next 5 days of travel, of mountains and cake and elk and castles and Mozartkugeln and un-fun airport lounges and good conversation and amazing roofs…all of those things would have vanished.
But incredibly, and against the odds, they didn’t.
And I still can’t quite believe that.
(Note: all of this is true. Even the lemons).