The Journey


The bus speeds past more and more houses. Just a few fields and we are in the outskirts of the next town. Then we pass the all too familiar mining villages. The pit heaps of red shale blend into the scenery, looking almost like the canyons and valleys we see in cowboy films. The likeness ends there. The smoke-blackened terrace houses crowd upon each other, almost as if they had been fighting to see which could be built closest to the pit head. Each little house fronts onto the street, but the backyard contains the most precious possession of all—the pigeon hut. No one seems to know why, but miners seem to have a love for these remarkable birds, cherishing and loving them almost as if they were human.

The skies grow darker as we move farther south. I close my eyes, trying to forget the hectic day of preparation. Finish work early, overnight case to pack, and picnic case to fill. Then the agonizing wait for the bus. Had it crashed? Perhaps it hadn’t turned up at all, or could they have forgotten about me and decided to take a different route onto the motorway?

Daylight is now well and truly gone and the lights of the oncoming traffic glare off the wet road surface. Little people in their little cars going—who knows where? My heart fills with warmth as I anticipate tomorrow and its events.

The northern conurbations have been left behind now. There is more countryside, but, sadly, all we see of its beauty is the occasional light twinkling from some ancient farmhouse kitchen, a small candle in a saucer of darkness. The endless drone of the engine goes on and on, though it is almost drowned by the constant, excited chatter of our fellow passengers. The passengers, between the ages of 12 and 90, take the opportunity of having a chat. Six hours later everyone knows someone just a little bit better, and all are grateful for the time spent together. The first time, I brought a book to read, but then I realized there were better things to do.

It is now 10:00 P.M. and we are getting very tired. Still the endless drone of the engine arid the swish, swish as cars pass by in the other direction. Heads start nodding onto tired shoulders. One woman sits with her head resting on the seat and a warm traveling rug over her legs. It is easy to tell that she has made this visit before. My eyes begin to close as I, too, lapse into that uncomfortable halfway stare that is neither sleep or consciousness, and the endless motorway sounds are ever present.

The frequency of the villages and townships tell me that we will soon be near to the city. By the city, I mean the city. The city of millions of people, the city of ancient buildings and modern tower blocks. The city of beauty and splendor, and the city of poverty and filth. The old capital of the Commonwealth, and the modern capital of inflation. The city of Queen Victoria, Dickens, and Florence Nightingale.

We leave the motorway and enter the endless semidetached suburbia of North London. The streets, shops, and houses soon become as monotonous as the darkened countryside. We pass the place where the bus broke down on the last visit and its occupants had to spend the night in the uncomfortable seats. People reminisce and laugh at their past troubles. And so we continue onward through the city. People unfamiliar with the city excitedly look as others point out landmarks. We pass Hyde Park corner, Buckingham Palace, Lords cricket ground, Westminster Abbey, and finally the “Old Man” himself, that most famous and historic of all rivers—the Thames. The icy blackness reflects the embankment lights and winds away into the distant darkness. Then we are through. Through the glamour of the old floodlit buildings and famous streets, the expensive hotels and statues. Now we are south of the river, into the slums. There are old buildings here also, but these are old buildings of a different kind—with boards over windows, crumbling plaster on walls, and in many places, absolutely crowded with unwilling occupants. Fortunately we soon make our way through the most depressing parts and again return to semidetached anonymity. The shops and their wares begin to look all the same, and we long for a return to the countryside, for then we know that the journey will be almost ended. The gardens become larger, and we know that soon we will be there. After almost two hours of endless buildings, the trees spring upon us with an alarming suddenness. The narrow leafy lanes of Surrey seem welcoming and quiet. We have come a long way from the pit villages and Yorkshire, and yet this seems like home too. Driving is difficult when the road is only wide enough for two cars. The last village passes by, and everyone sighs with relief. It is after midnight, and we are tired. Only four or five hours sleep and we shall have to arise and finish the last little part of the journey. Heavy heads touch pillows. The long ride has acted as a perfect sleeping pill, and eyes soon close.

Who on earth is that knocking on the door when I have just gone to sleep? 5:00 A.M! Never! I am sure it is only five minutes since I closed my eyes. We all have a light breakfast and go out to the coach. It is still dark and very very cold. The last sleepy-head is hurried out into the coach, and we yawn our way back into the narrow lane, now completely empty of any traffic. We go a little way and pass the elegant homes of the well-to-do, probably businessmen, executives, some even in the millionaire class, and all of them asleep, not able to share in our excitement. We round a bend in the lane and there it is—the London Temple! Less than a mile away, all floodlit with its white walls reflecting the light over all the countryside. We catch our breath at its beauty and secretly urge the driver to go faster so that we can be sooner inside those sacred walls. The people queue at the door, their recommends clutched in freezing fingers. I hold my recommend with that other precious piece of paper. We are here at last, my grandmother and I. Perhaps it is only her name on the paper, but she has come here this day just as surely as I.

[illustration] Illustrated by Keith Christensen