The night watch

The other week I spent a very long time getting back to London. Not of my own volition. I was playing my violin in a concert in Leicester, where the laughably early last train leaves at 10, and the last bus for the Big Smoke some time round 7. Basically I think once you get to the Midlands they don’t want you to leave.

But I did, and it was an interesting journey. I scraped my way through Gluck’s Orpheus, drank a glass of wine with an old friend in the Masonic Lodge, of all places, then got a bus for Heathrow some time round midnight. A really slow bus. Just me, some old folks with absurdly large suitcases and a pair of young couples in tracksuits with holiday sports bags knocking around the dribbling kebabs and aftershave slipstreams of a bus station at the end of a Thursday night. Took me about four and a half hours before I slipped through the door at Cardozo Road.

I like long lonely nights a long way from home. That dreamy feeling when you’re tired but you can’t sleep and you’ve got time to think and watch. You’re very lucid and it feels like an adventure. Back in April I went to meet my mum and my uncle and aunt and little cousins at our cottage near Whitby, taking an evening train to Leeds then a bus to our deserted home on the outskirts to pick up a car.

It’s about two hours out to Lythe from Leeds, but on quiet roads you can do it in a lot less. I had the stereo turned right up, and there was one point where the road was so long and straight and empty that I just kept getting faster and faster, sailing through the midnight dark with everything a blur on either side and the engine screaming. Then of course you snap out of it and realise your mother would be most distressed if her eldest wiped out somewhere off the York bypass, so you slow down again.

There are tribes who inhabit the early hours, particularly on a weeknight. Back to the Midlands mission, I spent a while waiting at an almost deserted Heathrow for the 2.45 night bus to Aldwych, among men in reflective waistcoats and oily jeans and a couple of Indian businessmen in crumpled suits with cagoules over the top. Loitering in the early morning cold with my jacket collar turned up and reading Of Love and Hunger in the light from the bus stop. I know Thursday is the new Friday and all that, but even so, get past two o’ clock and even London’s pretty quiet.

There were all sorts on the bus. An Aussie in double denim drinking a tin of Carlsberg, a girl somewhere round Houndslow waving out of the window at a dejected-looking feller leaning his head against the bus stop. Outside Secrets table dancing in Chiswick a bunch of blokes in leather jackets and girls with improbable tans and sharp hair laughed and smoked on the pavement, and one of the guys got on the bus and started reading the day before’s London Lite.

Hammersmith the Aussie opened a second can and hopped off, while the driver stocked the luggage rack with fresh morning copies of the Metro. Getting on for half 3 and starting to get light. Groups of the last drunks of the night stumbling on and off as we crept through pretend posh West London. Floppy, doll-like girls dressed like destitute members of Bananarama and boys in hilarious badly embroidered jackets that sell for the price of a family car and look like they were assembled by a panda with a staplegun. In each hotel we passed you’d see a lone receptionist sitting in a sparkling empty lobby.

And then Trafalgar Square, light by now, and fresh suits mingling with the lost piss-artists – the people of the night and day crossing over and totally ignoring each other. An N91 and nearly home. Five hammered blokes on the top deck quoting loudly from Peep Show, a couple of them clutching half-smoked, stubbed-out fags. Everyone knows the bus always comes the moment you light a cigarette.

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