You envisaged a kind of calm, peaceful four and a half hour coach journey back to London after a weekend trip in Leeds. You are prepared for the trip with your green M&S bag containing a sandwich, salad (yes, both) and various choccie treats – along with a big, rustling broadsheet and a sneaky packet of Quavers.
Or at least, for the first thirty miles.
A young innocent male approaches the back of the bus, steps gingerly over my bag of treats and smiles down at me for a moment, before slipping into the toilet. What a nice chap. How pleasant we all are to each other on this coach.
I go back to munching, chumping, reading the food supplement and commenting to my friend beside me. I’m very happy and it’s all lovely jubbly.
Oh, what’s this? A cheesecake recipe. Oh, yummy. Maybe I should try this out later…
I fall asleep for a minute or two – the bus is like a warm lullaby, safely rolling me back to the south, where there are more planes than stars and where the light pollution means we don’t wonder about the wider universe.
I wake up to find yet another man budging my bag of choccies to get the toilet.
“There’s someone in there,” I tell him.
He smiles, shrugs, and sits back down.
“How odd,” I said. “That other man is still in the toilet.”
I look at the clock and realise I’ve been dozing and jerking my head up and down for a good thirty minutes.
He’s been in the toilet thirty minutes?
I suppress a small giggle. Maybe he had a curry. Or a hangover.
The smile fades when I realise I am sitting at the very back of the bus, in close proximity of the toilet door, and any unpleasant smell radiating from it would put me off my choccy-woccies.
My friend is now reading the paper’s educational supplement and I get back to studying the cheesecake recipe.
But, somehow, I can’t concentrate. I keep reading the same lines over and over – two lemons, lemon zest, half-tub of macaroni: wait, what, macaroni?
Focus, stupid. It says mascarpone.
Two lemons, lemon zest, vanilla essence—
Why hasn’t that man come out the toilet?
“Very odd,” I say to my friend next to me. “That that man hasn’t come out the toilet.”
The Indian man in front of me overhears and turns round.
“Is someone in the toilet?” he asks.
“Yes, someone has been in there for thirty minutes now.” I said.
He looks slightly worried.
At this point, a girl with purple hair comes up the aisle. Again, my bag of choc-tactics has to be moved aside.
“There’s someone in there,” I told her. “They’ve been in there well over thirty minutes. I have no idea what’s going on.”
The girl with purple hair approaches the door cautiously, and knocks. Nothing. She knocks twice more. No response.
The Indian man in the row in front looks over his shoulder again.
“Was it a male or a female?” he says.
Something in the air has changed. We all know it.
“A male,” I reply gravely.
The woman with purple hair marches straight down the aisle to tell the driver, and returns holding what looks like a coin.
“The driver told me to “just open it, love!”,” she says.
My friend is giggling nervously behind her education supplement. The man who had tried to get in the toilet is turned in his seat. The Indian man is visibly nervous.
The girl with the purple hair looks helpless with the coin in her hand. I know what she’s thinking. If she’s going down, we’re all going down with her. The A1 motorway will be our final resting place.
She bravely jams the coin in the lock and starts to twist.
The words on my cheesecake recipe are blurred and confused: macaroni, vanilla of lemon zest, rind of gelatine…
My friend is stuffing a fist in her mouth to stifle another nervous giggle. The Indian man has unbuckled his seat belt and is ready to jump out the emergency exit.
My heart is racing. I am actually scared and wishing I’m not opposite the toilet. If he has a gun, I’m a direct target. If we keep the door shut, surely we’re more likely to survive?
It was a male. In the toilet. He’s locked himself in the toilet! He’s a toilet bombe—
The door opens.
“Oh,” she says. “There’s no one in there.”
My heart slows a fraction, and my sweaty hands gripping the cheesecake recipe relax. I ignore the accusing look from the original man who had tried to get in the toilet and the girl with purple hair.
But the Indian’ man’s eyes are still wide.
“Is there a window in there?” he asks.
I can now clearly see the “terrorist” reading the Guardian near the front of the bus. The red “locked” sign on the door was faulty and just needed jiggling.
As the coach grumbles and lurches into Victoria station that evening, I can’t help but reflect how we’d not only undergone a journey from Leeds to London, but a metaphorical journey of discovery – discovering how melodrama can reach unprecedented levels.
There are doubtless countless times in a person’s life when said person will realise their degree is useless.
For me, the latest question of self-worth posed itself at London zoo, when trying to pronounce the word “penguin”.
FYI: it’s “pingouin” in French. It’s all muffled vowels, and accents, and requires the human mouth to take on an odd and unnatural shape. Besides, I went to Durham University and we learnt things about Molière and… erm, other famous French writers, and they never mentioned penguins.
At the zoo, I was in the company of a person who spoke fluent French, and who could pronounce “pingouin” just fine.
As we approached the ticket booth, we were hustled in the queue by a smiley zoo employee teenager, armed with a camera.
“Take a picture time!” she said. We huddled together and grimaced against the cold, but cheered up on the thought that this could be included in the ticket price.
“Now pretend you’re tigers,” the teenager cried, throwing up her hands like claws. “Grrr!”
I was mortified.
“No,” I said.
“Rrrr.” The person beside me who spoke French had at least tried to feign enthusiasm. Maybe “rrr” is like “grrr” in French. Maybe he would rather speak in French?
We went straight for the most exciting part – the tiger cage.
“Les tigres,” I said to him, just to clarify. We walked around the entire enclosure, peering into every corner. But there were no tigers. “Pas de tigres,” I explained.
The person who spoke French nodded, comprehending.
I felt happy. This has to continue, I thought. We are bonding over random animal vocab.
London zoo is a funny world, in the middle of Regent’s Park. There are tigers (sometimes) and lions and very miserable-looking gorillas, but the free-flying pigeons and tree-climbing squirrels caused almost the same level of delight.
(Note: always say “again”, as it implies you already know it but just need a reminder).
Ah, not such an easy one.
“Aykeeroy…,” I tried. Unperturbed by his doubtful expression, I skipped over to Penguin Beach.
“Les penguins,” I said, on a mission to impress.
“Pingouin,” he corrected.
“Pangoo,” I nodded happily.
Penguin Beach was a frosty harbour – a few tiny, tufty birds waddled over to the fence and pressed their stomachs up against it. I had seen some YouTube videos of “ticklish penguins” the previous day. I decided these birds were more like prisoners asking to be rescued rather than asking to be tickled.
“I’ve learnt so much this afternoon,” I told the person who spoke French. “Aykeeroy, pingoo—“
“Actually,” he said, shuffling awkwardly. “It’s not really “pingouin”. In France people don’t really use that word.”
“Oh,” I said.
My degree is useless. I am qualified in nothing. Unless, of course, you want to talk about Molière or, erm, other famous French writers.
What could I do? Maybe a French accent.
“Oh, zat is… unfortunate,” I tried. “So what ze French call pengoo?”
Penguin Beach had fallen eerily silent. A few birds belly flopped into the pool; others waddled around, for no purpose. An irritated zoo guard shouted at the only other visitor present to stop “winding up” a penguin. Maybe she was tickling it. Or wanted to take it home.
The other penguins stared at us and we back at them; I thought maybe we should have visited Vauxhall City Farm instead.
We moved on. As we saw there were sadly no giraffes –or “giraffes” in French – (maybe they had shot them and fed them to Les Big Cats?), we headed for the exit.
“That was… très amusant,” I said. One last ditch attempt.
“Tu veux prendre un café?” he asked me. There, he had obliged me. There was my reward, my validation. I got a 2:1, you know.
I nodded and off we went au café to have un café.
Calls will cost 50 p per minute / I’m going to kill your daughter. It’s all the same, if you don’t speak Arabic. A parent hearing this whilst trying to get through to their offspring on holiday in Marrakesh can result in said parent having a near emotional breakdown.
As my plane landed at Gatwick on Friday evening, I checked my phone and saw four new voicemails from Dad. Four messages! Typical, I thought, if he can’t get hold of me straight away—
The first voicemail was cheerful enough: “It’s 2 o’clock on Wednesday 4th December,” he chirped. “Can you call me back?”
The second, with a more pressing tone: “Call me back, please? It’s 3.15 on Thursday 5th December.”
The third, quivering: “It’s now 4 o’clock on Friday the 6th – of December. Where are you? Call me now please.”
The fourth and final message as I walked down the plane steps, every word emphasized and menacing: “Rachael-I-am-dead-sick-worried-about-YOU. Call me as soon as you get this. It’s six o’clock on Friday the 6th of December!”
A text from mum followed: “Are you ok? Dad thinks you’ve been kidnapped by Arabs, but I told him you were on holiday.”
It turns out my dad had phoned me to ask, again, what I wanted for Christmas, and was shocked to hear a female Arab voice speaking unintelligible and, most likely, unthinkable things. He panicked.
Calls to this number may cost more than your usual tariff.
“She has my daughter hostage in the Moroccan desert!”
Please check rates with your normal phone provider.
“I have three days to pay up otherwise they will send her into the white slave trade!”
If you wish to leave a message, please wait for the beep.
“Please God, NO!”
I phoned dad as soon as I was in the taxi.
“Dad, it’s me,” I said. “It’s seven thirty, Friday the 7th of December. What on earth is going on?”
“Rachael, thank God!” he said.
I should probably point out that my dad does not have prejudices, although sometimes against the Scots (me and my sister) and occasionally, against customer services at Clydesdale Bank. What he does like with a great enthusiasm is Jon Snow, Cathy Newman, Krishnan Guru-Murthy – the whole Channel 4 News team – and Vince Cable. But, with surprising accuracy after a childhood spent in the Middle East, he can pinpoint a North African accent.
“Honestly, my heart skipped a beat when I heard that voice,” he said. “I’ve aged ten years! I had to phone your mother during her book group.”
“You phoned mum in the middle of her book group to tell her, without asking her where I was, that I had been kidnapped by Arabs,” I said. “Isn’t that a tad melodramatic?”
“Best to get straight to the point,” he said.
“I was on holiday,” I reasoned. “I’m sure I told you I was in Morocco with friends!”
“Rachael, for the sake of me – for the sake of your mother, please, just tell us where you are,” he begged. “You don’t need to tell me who you’re with or what you’re up to: frankly I’m not interested.”
“So you’re not interested in my life, you just want to be assured at all times that I’ve not been kidnapped by Arabs.”
“Correct. So how was your holiday?”
Parents sometimes have a strange way of expressing their concern.
I called dad last night, just for a chat.
“Rachael!” he cried. “How odd! I was just thinking about you!”
“You always say that,” I said. “But you never call me.”
“That isn’t true! So,” he bulldozed past a potentially emotional moment. “How are you? And what do you want for your birthday?”
“It’s two months away. I don’t know. How about cash in an envelope, like last year?”
“You think this is funny, but don’t you go writing about it on your blog,” dad warned me. “People will read it, think you have some rich dad, take you hostage and ask for ransom. And they’d probably kill you, whether or not I paid up.”
“Whether or not?!”
“Rachael, this happens all the time. In Venezuela, they’ll kidnap you for 500 dollars.”
“We’re not in Venezuela.”
“Well, just don’t go writing about me on your blog.”
“Do you really think I have nothing better to do than write about you all the time? Do you think that I call you deliberately to get material? Anyway, I never write your name, they wouldn’t know it was you.”
“There are very few Revesz’s in the UK. All they have to do is Google your name to find my name, thinking you have some rich dad stuffing cash into envelopes—“
“So what do you want for your birthday?”
“I’m not sure, It’s two months away. Let me think about it.”
“What do you want for your Christmas?”
“And that is three months away. What do you want for your Christmas?”
“I don’t want anything.”
“Ok, how about we exchange wads of cash? I can meet you down the docks at midnight before I hop on my return flight to South America.”
“Now, you listen to me, don’t you go writing about me on your blog.”
“I won’t. I write about plenty of other things, you know.”
“Now, what’s your address?” I could hear him chewing a pen.
“I’m writing it down on this envelope.”
“Good idea. I can send my hug over by return receipt.”
“I don’t want anything, I told you,” he huffed.
“What, even a letter from Margaret, head of customer services at Lidl, congratulating you for being their most loyal customer three years in a row?”
“No!” he cried. “Not again! I know it’s you. You think I’m stupid? There wasn’t even a Lidl logo on the letterhead.”
There was a silence, while we paused and reflected. He chewed his pen a bit more.
Finally he said: “Don’t go writing about me on your blog.”
“Ok, I promise.”
“I mean it Rachael!” he shouted. “Stop making me into a caricature!”
There was a pause.
“And don’t go to Venezuela,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”
It had all the trademarks of a speed dating event. Strangers with name badges, an atmosphere of hopeful optimism and the odd, suspicious whiff of halitosis.
But instead of ‘Hi, I’m Bill’, it was ‘Bill, £650, Tower Hamlets’.
After two weeks of house hunting, an advert promised me I could make a quick, painless job of it at a speed mating flat dating event, a convention for house owners and house seekers.
Reluctantly, I paid £3 entry on the evening and related my name, budget and desired location to the girl at the reception stand. She nodded, wrote down some details and handed me a pink sticker. I slapped it on my jumper and set forth.
I was early. A few people were squinting at each other’s badges in the darkness and smiling politely as a disco ball swirled above their heads.
Marc, £900, Elephant and Castle, had a fine sheen of sweat on his brow, and was slurping loudly on a diet coke. I took a step sideways,
Now it was imperative to mingle and show vigour. I approached Peter, £460, Walthamstow.
‘E17, to be precise,’ he said, trying to show me his laminated map, but I could barely see through the fog. ‘It’s a real bargain.’
‘Looks promising,’ I said. ‘So what do you do?’
‘I teach science and maths.’
‘Maybe you could teach me, too,’ I said.
I saw a glint in Peter’s eye, and realised with horror I had just flirted with him by accident.
Encouraged, Peter got out his iPad and flicked through some photos of his house – the big bedroom, the middle bedroom and the small bedroom.
‘Daddy bear, mummy bear and little bear.’ He grinned at me, creepily.
Oh no, there was Marc, £900, Elephant and Castle, and he was shaking slightly. I hurried past, pretending to be dazzled and disorientated by the disco ball.
I shuffled around a muscly boor in Clapham – “your place or mine?” – after making eyes at a stud from Dalston with a hefty deposit – “is there any wiggle room on that?” – to Claudia, £450, Stratford, a dental therapist who provided me with a list of surgical procedures (crowns, fillings, extractions) – “So I’d be living with… just you?”
Nothing was right, nothing.
The swarm of pink stickers, the people desperate for a roof over their heads, far outnumbered the white stickers, those smug cats. I had seen almost all there was to see by 6.30pm.
Who was left? A nervous looking girl from Kensal Rise, a man holding a poster of a converted shed in Barnes, and most likely a drag queen from Islington.
Tom, £575, Shoreditch, was looking at my badge funnily, and for a disconcerting amount of time.
Man, I thought, he just won’t give up.
The badge-lecher took a hesitant step towards me.
Play hard to get, I told myself. Don’t be swayed by the salesman. You have standards, god dammit.
“Excuse me,” he said. “Rachael, is it? I think you should check your badge, think you’ve, erm–“
What a cowboy. I peeled the sticker off my chest and screwed up my eyes to read.
“Rachael, negotiable, anywhere”.
p.s. has anyone got a spare room?
‘How do you like your men?’ the waiter asked me. ‘Then we find out how you like your wine.’
He smiled encouragingly: a simple question, he must have thought. A harmless joke.
But I was in the company of a man at this point. The waiter had caught me off guard – I hadn’t been expecting to give my opinion on wine, on men, or on anything. I had rather hoped I could order a glass of house wine and be done with it. Now this man and I were standing side by side, stiff-backed like colonels, awaiting instruction.
How did I like my men?
Both men waited. I found myself longing for the old ‘What is your type?’ quizzes in Cosmo - tall, dark and handsome, or short, fat and ugly? It was so much more simple back then; long before the days that wives, pension funds or personalities had anything to do with it.
The two men’s smiles were fading. I had wasted too much time. The joke had fizzed, and was starting to ferment. Say something.
But wait – it had to sound like I was speaking about wine, too – it had to sound clever. I wanted to come across as witty and self-deprecating, but also self-assured and confident in life.
How did I like my wine?
‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled. ‘I try it, and if I don’t like it I spit it out.’
The man next to me coughed.
Oh Lord. Try again. Quickly, now. Full bodied? Mature?
‘White,’ I blurted out. ‘White wine.’
Now I sounded like a racist. It wasn’t fair. If the waiter had asked me about humous, I would have said ‘middle eastern’ or ‘Arab’. It was just the context.
Both men looked perplexed.
‘Cave-aged,’ I added. Or was that just for cheese?
If only he had asked me about cheese! I could have given him a much more accurate description of my tastes – blue and smelly. Creamy. Or burgers – lean, rough yet tender, with a hint of pepper…
I was aware my face was red, like the red wine that I would apparently not drink. Maybe say something else – give it your best shot.
The man beside me gave me a quick glance, perhaps considering his own feminine qualities. This had all gone horribly wrong. While the waiter turned and made a show of looking for a white, fruity, cave-aged wine, the taste of vinegar was strong on my palate.
I had imagined things to go differently. I knew nothing of wine or men. If I had learned anything from this evening, it was that my journey of personal discovery was far from over.
‘I’ll take a glass of the sancerre,’ said the fruity silver fox next to me. ‘And the bill, please.’
I phoned gran over the weekend for a catch up.
‘I have a new positive attitude to life,’ I told her.
She didn’t hear me at first. I repeated it, with less gusto.
‘Oh really!’ she said. ‘Since when?’
‘Since the clocks went back – I mean, forward,’ I paused, and could hear the TV in the background. ‘Gran, what are you watching?’
‘”16 kids and counting”,’ she said.
‘Ooh, I think it’s repulsive. Bodies weren’t designed to give birth so many times.’
‘I had near relatives with 16 children,’ gran said. ‘And they emigrated to Australia. They were fine!’
‘Yeah, they were perfectly healthy until they died at 55,’ I replied.
‘Women didn’t work in those days.’
‘So they should just be sausage machines instead? Women have brains - they should have stopped and thought: “let’s opt for some protection”.’
‘They didn’t have any back then,’ she said.
‘Or they could abstain.’
There was a pause, while we both listened to “16 kids and counting”.
‘That can be hard, sometimes,’ she said thoughtfully.
‘Or only on special occasions?’ I suggested.
I could hear her fiddling around with the remote. I imagined her jabbing it at the screen, frustrated.
‘You really do live in cloud cuckoo land!’ she said.
She pressed mute. She hated advert breaks.
‘Have you not seen the program “40 year old virgins”?’ I persisted. ‘There was 45-year-old Clive, and 29-year-old Rosie, and–’
‘We’re all animals, you know,’ she interrupted. ‘Did you enjoy your party last night?’
I didn’t tell her about the Justin Bieber lookalike who made me shots of tequila and hot sauce. He was an animal. In print, at least. An animal print onesie.
‘It was lovely, thank you,’ I replied.
Gran yawned, said she was going to catch up on the documentary and go to bed.
‘I am glad you’re not going to become a breeding machine,’ she told me.
‘Only in my spare time,’ I replied. ‘I’m a working woman.’