They may have been carting frugal travellers around since 1972, but I have only recently cottoned on to just how much cheapness there is to be enjoyed with National Express coaches.
Sinking back into a leathery black seat, as concrete high-rise and urban bustle gave way sweeping Home Counties’ green, I spent the two hours from Victoria to Brighton smug in the knowledge that my £5 return ticket cost considerably less than the box of diabetic Thorntons chocolates I demolished at lunch. (I’m not diabetic – just figured they must be healthier.) With surprisingly clear roads, and my fellow Friday-evening passengers few and sleepy, this seemed like an all-in-all bargainous way to travel.
Brighton was on particularly good form as we pulled up near the pier. The air was fresh, the sea blue and lively, and the streets bubbled with the mellow movements of quirky-chic Brighton folk pleasantly submerged in arty musings and organic thoughts. (This is, after all, the only place in the world where Falafel is a respected baby name.)*
Still possessed by London Mode as I stepped off the coach, a smile from a passing stranger sent me stumbling in confusion. After several minutes bulldozing my path through the sauntering swarms, the hardened commuter’s scowl subsided, and I softened to a pace far better suited to the maze of bright cafes and quietly subversive clothes shops that characterise the Lanes.
Brighton is often referred to as ‘London-on-sea’. This is a ridiculous claim. Nowhere in London gives up its goods this easily. London is like a brilliant but willful child that disappoints 50% of the time for not living up to its full potential. Brighton is reliably convenient and reliably easy. The people are reliably pretty, reliably intelligent and, more often than not, fans of lentils. It is a small bubble of clean air, floaty dresses and nice food. It soothes my brain, relaxes my shoulders and every time I visit, I want to stay forever.
Following this pattern, and shrouded in hangover from a wonderful weekend of family and friend frolicking, my return Sunday journey began with boarding the coach deep in ponderings on whether to become a happy Brighton person, and so completely blind to the substantial deterioration in vehicle standards from my previous National Express encounter.
Beginning to register the coarsely covered and decidedly hard seat, my knees jammed right up against the seatback in front of me, I suddenly became aware that a) the back of a very hairy man’s head is less than three inches from my face, and b) I’m engulfed in the stench of fried food.
Clearly, National Express coaches are not all made from the same mould. And, under the direction of the karma god of bargain transport, I was now paying for Friday’s First Class service. As if being close enough to lick a stranger’s head whilst crammed in to bruising point was not enough, surrounding me now, filling nearly every other seat, were gabbling Spanish students eating with much gusto from greasy orange boxes of chicken.
After two looong hours of shrieking teenagers, and having to move my head to the side every time hairy-man felt the need to service his head with a thorough scratching (which was about every other minute), the madness of Victoria station was welcome relief.
Needing to pee as a matter of urgency, I hopped to the loos only to find I didn’t have the required 30 pence. After a 15-minute-long discovery that trying to get a £10 note changed up in Victoria station at 8pm on a Sunday is actually impossible, I stomped down the escalator to be greeted by a big sign declaring that the London Underground is awfully sorry folks, but the Victoria line has taken Sunday July 19th off. Service will resume tomorrow.
After the most convoluted route back to Old Street known to man, I got home to find the sink piled so high with dirty dishes that you can’t even fit a glass under the tap to get some dubiously metalic East London water. Giving up on the day, I go to bed.
“It’s fuckin’ ovaaa. It’s so fuuckiin’ ovaaaaaaaaa” ricochets off the concrete blocks of Bianca House.
Door slams, followed by swift, slightly irregular heel clicking, and the odd high-pitched hiccup.
Door opens. “Caarrlaaaaaaaaaaaa!!” booms a male voice.
“Fuuuuck. Youuuuuu” replies Carla, clearly a little perturbed.
And Carla and her spurned Casanova proceeded to bellow at each other, outside my window, for the next hour and a half.
At 11pm, close to tears and/or violence, I threw on jeans and trainers and stormed through the two adjacent streets – passing one fight, three jovial tramps and a heck of a lot of drunk people (half of which were wearing sun glasses – gotta love Shoreditch).
Kingsland Road is home to what must be 90% of London’s Vietnamese restaurants. Arguably the best Vietnamese food in the city is found at Song Que – the nearest restaurant to my flat. But, because they balance culinary excellence with breathtaking rudeness, I bypassed it and instead opted for the little green one a few doors down.
Rubbery food and scatty service ensure that this little place will definitely not be topping a Time Out Best Eats list any time soon, but the earnest staff are so overwhelmingly appreciative of your decision to enter their establishment, that a chorus of frantic bowing is directed at whoever may be arriving, leaving, or just nipping to the loo. I felt, the recent hours considered, that I was a deserving recipient of a little bowing.
The moment my toe protruded over the threshold, five beaming and bobbing waiters ushered me to a seat and I quickly vanished amid a pile of menus, napkins and prawn crackers.
Munching on spring rolls (which I didn’t actually order, but as they were placed in front of me with such an excited flourish I didn’t have the heart to point this out) I realised I may have found the one place in London that actually gives a shit about me. And, while I can see the lovely ease of seaside life twinkling on the horizon, I guess that’s enough for now.
* I made that up.