The Mystery Tour
The open-topped double-decker bus had been freshly painted red. Too red, really, for drab London streets and an early morning which threatened drizzle; it seemed slightly unreal, like a drop of fresh blood on a grey kerbstone. It was parked by a battered metal sign announcing the trip, patiently awaiting the arrival of the first tourists.
Mr. and Mrs. Fumiko always turned up with plenty of time to spare. If the travel agency advised them to be at the airport two hours before departure, they would arrive three hours before just in case. They shared the same nightmare of dashing through traffic-jammed streets in a vain attempt to get to the station on time, pushing through dense crowds and running onto the empty platform only to see the train recede into the distance. Without them!
Old-fashioned double-decker buses have no doors, so they climbed aboard and settled themselves down into what they considered to be the best seats, congratulated themselves on being first, checked their watches, and waited.
Half an hour passed before the next group appeared, during which time the impassive but content Fumikos hardly exchanged a word, barely shifted position.
They were three boys and two girls, who the Japanese couple took to be Spanish students, though in fact only Inés was Spanish, the others being Argentinian and Venezuelan. In exceedingly good spirits despite the early start and the overcast sky, they scrambled up as quick as they could to the top deck where they triumphantly claimed the back seats. Mr. and Mrs Fumiko, sitting right at the front, turned round politely and good morninged them.
-What time goes the bus?
inquired Tomás, one of the Venezuelan students. Mr. Fumiko smiled, perhaps he even bowed slightly, and, after consulting his programme, answered that the tour should begin some time around ten o’clock. He supposed it would leave on time given the Britishers’ love of punctuality. They all laughed at that, then separated into two distinct groups again, the Fumikos as silent as statues, the Hispanics calling out to each other as if they were on opposite sides of a busy road.
The traffic warmed up, filling the air with the unmistakable smell of large cities - engine oil and exhaust fumes. The flow of pedestrians had steadily increased too, though nobody seemed to pay much attention to the stationary bus. For a few minutes it looked as though the sun might eventually find a way of breaking through the clouds’ solid defence, but as usual it was an illusion, a false hope. Everybody in Britain knows that the day you decide to go on an excursion, sunshine will not be allowed.
The German family arrived at half past nine, but were reluctant to get on board without first having spoken either to the guide or the driver. Where were they? According to their programme the bus would leave in fifteen minutes’ time. Their two fairy-like children, both girls, wanted to go upstairs, but the father, huge and obviously authoritarian, told them to wait outside. Mother could but agree.
9.45. Not a sign of the crew. The German father scrutinised the passers by, looking them up and down, hoping to make out something which would help him to spot the missing personnel: a tour operator’s badge, a driver’s cap, a clipboard, anything. Every so often the giggling Spanish speakers would look over the side of the bus and wave to the two little girls who stood on either side of their mother, obediently bored. How they longed to go up there, onto the top deck! Mother, smiling up at the students asked,
-When this journey does begin? -Ten. At ten o’clock. On the dot!
laughed Raúl, a tall, thin Argentinian with three outstanding features; ears, nose and eyebrows, as if his face had been squashed like a plastic doll.
The German family discussed the matter and eventually the father consented. Reluctantly, but, alright. Yes, yes, go up if you like. Anke and Brigite virtually flew up the metal stairs to the upper deck and sat down just in front of their student friends.
-Nein, nein. Hier bitte.
Herr Grübe did not think it would be polite to sit so close to his fellow passengers given that the tour bus was virtually empty. His wife said nothing, but apparently agreed with him. Anke and Brigite, not without a certain amount of huffing and pouting and furtive little waves to Inés and company, did as their father bade.
Little by little the lower deck began to fill, too. An elderly couple, some rowdy schoolkids with their long suffering teacher who they called 'miss-miss'. A quiet, well-groomed pair of young lovers holding hands constantly as if handcuffed, who could well have been on their honeymoon. Though, come to think of it, who in their right mind would go to London for a honeymoon?
Ten o’clock came and went. Herr Grübe and Mr. Fumiko began to compare programmes. Were the dates right? Why the time difference? Was there anybody else who had any idea as to when the tour should begin? The Spanish speakers were oblivious to all this, punctuality not featuring among their list of priorities, so Herr Grübe took it upon himself to investigate on the lower deck.
-Any idea where we’re off to, love?
Margaret Hammond, pensioner, avid day-tripper and long time lover of mystery tours had not noticed that the corpulent gentleman who had just descended the mini spiral staircase was not English, despite certain heavy hints in the form of dress and accessories. Her 'manfriend', Mr. Jenkins, Harold, was convinced they were headed for Canterbury, but she wasn’t so sure.
-Miss-miss, it’s a mistree, ain‘t it? -Just sit down and be quiet or we shan’t be going anywhere.
Herr Grübe’s English was not as fluent as those on the lower deck believed.
-What time, the journey? Er, the trip? Now is ten and fifteen. What time, please, we are going? -Half past, dearie. No need to worry, they’ll he here in a bit.
The young lovers looked at each other nervously and pulled out a leaflet. Exactly. 10.45 according to their brochure. Oh well, for fifteen minutes. They preferred not to join in if possible. Mr. Fumiko accepted Herr Grübe’s explanations. All the world knew that the British, like the Germans and the Japanese, are always on time. What a mix up! Some sloppy typist or distracted receptionist was probably to blame.
-I hope it not to rain
commented Mr. Fumiko, and resumed his position next to his wife. Patience was definitely one of their main virtues.
The young teacher was fraught and tended to snap back at the children’s questions. When asked if it would be long before the trip got under way, she retorted that it would set off in good time. Or just as soon as everything was ready. Or, for heaven’s sake, soon enough. Anything other than answer that she hadn’t the foggiest idea. She had never done this before, and the original idea was that there would be two teachers to take care of the class. But as only nine pupils had put their name’s down, the Head had decided that she could manage on her own. Well, perhaps she could, but she‘d rather not. Eventually, by means of short, sharp warnings, she seated them in relative silence.
Ten thirty loomed close and an expectant silence fell over the passengers. Not long to go now. They arranged their bags, cameras and packed lunches, readjusted cardigans and jackets, and inspected their surroundings.
Every seat came equipped with a set of plastic headphones through which the driver, by means of pre-recorded tapes, would inform his passengers of the sights to be seen to the left, to the right, simultaneously in eight languages. Two pounds the connection. Great. All they needed now was the driver.
The desire to do something overcame Herr Grübe, but Mr. Fumiko sat seemingly undisturbed, and Frau Grübe urged him to be patient (after all, we are on holiday), so he decided to wait a little longer. The Hispanics, although nobody else understood, were beginning to jibe the English for their sense of timing. Personally they couldn’t care less what time the trip started, but for the British to proudly boast perfect time- keeping was, well, typical. Look, nearly eleven o’clock and not a soul. However, it was not a topic which interested them much and they soon slipped back to the general giggly gossip of before.
At last, just after eleven o’clock, two men in jackets and pressed trousers came running along the street and leapt on board.
-Here we go, love
said Mrs. Hammond, patting Mr. Jenkins on the knee. The schoolkids broke into spontaneous cheers. Herr Grübe leant over the stairwell, spotted the two men, and nodded to his wife.
-It is the time!
he called to whoever chose to listen.
But the two men, gasping for breath and obviously amused by their mad rush, simply sat down near the exit and smiled.
- Phew! Thought we’d missed it. It’s due to leave at eleven, isn‘t it?
-Between eleven and eleven thirty I think you’ll find,
corrected Miss Sally. She wasn’t at all sure, but it was a way of calming her wards. The nine disappointed kids groaned communally.
-Why don’t you let them go upstairs, Miss? I’m sure they’d feel, you know, a drop of fresh air and that. There‘s two more that must be bored to tears,
suggested Mr. Jenkins to Miss Sally. He had tried to speak in a whisper, but nothing escapes the keen ears of schoolchildren.
-Please, Miss-miss, please. Oh, go on, Miss, please,
began the chorus which could only end in either an especially sharp reprimand or concession.
-Unless there is complete silence we shan’t be going anywhere.
The raucous bunch quickly transformed itself into a company of angels, thereby melting the hearts of everyone.
-Very well, then, in single file. John, you lead the way. And NO NOISE!
They trooped out in an instant.
-Well done, Harold.
Mrs. Hammond didn’t much care for rowdy kids.
During the next twenty minutes or so there was a gentle trickle of passengers who little by little began to fill the bus. They were welcome arrivals, each new expectant traveller confident of a rapid departure, so helping to put the others at ease. Mr. Fumiko and Herr Grübe were now firm friends, and they joked about how they had been fooled into turning up so early when it was now obvious that the journey would begin sometime around noon.
Raul, Inés and friends had taken it upon themselves to entertain the children, and were busy teaching them tricks and songs and how to count up to ten in Spanish, much to Miss Sally’s relief. She could now occupy herself with toilet monitoring and noise reduction techniques.
Downstairs it was a slightly different story. Here the vast majority of passengers, mostly couples of some sort, kept themselves to themselves. Mrs. Hammond and Mr. Jenkins rambled on about whatever it is that interests devoted day trippers, while the young lovers loved each other youthfully. The two men who were definitely not guide and driver said very little and moved even less, staring out of the window and exchanging hardly audible monosyllables, which kept the others guessing. An African couple, Milton and his wife Sunday, relative newcomers, exotically dressed in bright greens and oranges, were talking in a language which was at times unintelligible, at times like a version of colonial English. And, of course, there was an American couple, though this time they were not Texans 'doing' Europe, but a rather discreet neat pair with hardly detectable accents. They were extremely fidgety, though, and kept changing seats, or getting on and off the bus, going for drinks or dashing out for a newspaper. It was on their return from one of these expeditions that the problem began.
Unable to believe their eyes they froze halfway down the aisle. The Africans had taken their seat! They must have decided that they preferred to be nearer the driver or something, had casually placed June’s pale yellow cardigan on another vacant seat, and had, Jeez, just stolen their place! Caught before an unknown public, as if on T.V., they went from consternation thru good-natured bewilderment, then quickly on to indignation, and finally to the moral conviction that it was their duty to right wrongs. Jeff was about to launch into action when he was upstaged by a strident June.
-Er, those are our seats. We were here before. And that is my cardigan.
She picked it up and smoothed it like a mistreated cat.
-Seats is for all. Here, there, everywhere. Not your seat, man.
Neither Milton nor Sunday smiled. They didn’t look angry, either. Or smug. Or anything, really. June was not sure what to do, so she turned to Jeff with a wild-haired gesture that seemed to say ‘they’re nuts, completely nuts’.
- O.K., O.K. So the seats don’t belong to anyone. Then they don‘t belong to you, either. Right?
Said Jeff. He felt oddly proud of himself for that.
-And that is her cardigan. You just, just, tossed it onto the next seat.
It hadn‘t escaped Milton’s notice that Jeff and June had been seat hopping before they had settled down once and for all, apparently marking their territory with this pale garment. He thought they were being childish and was not in the mood to play.
-What’s the problem? Cardigan or the seat?
Jeff nearly rose to the bait, but his civilised manner and his healthy instinct for self-preservation prevented him from calling the huge black man a 'shit'.
June tried dialogue.
-It’s a matter of, of courtesy, I guess, common courtesy.
Words they clearly didn’t understand. Cultural gap or something. In that case...
-Jeff! Make them get up out our seats, please!
He looked around him. All the lower deck was watching him intently, keen to know the outcome but reluctant to get directly involved. Some of the children had found out about the incident and were huddled onto the stairs to get a better view.
-They’re right, love. They were there first. Not that it really matters, does it? I mean, one seat’s as good as another. Why don’t you sit down next to us?
Mrs. Hammond had tried to raise her eyebrows enough for June and Jeff to see that she was on their side, that as far as she was concerned the behaviour of this, this, African couple was intolerable, but, well, what‘s the point in making a fuss? Jeff just thought she was an old lady butting in.
Encouraged by a now very impatient June, he pulled himself up and said, too loud,
Get up! We’re sitting here.
Milton shook his head.
-Don’t touch me, man,
was all he said. Now what? Give in or punch his face?
-Now let’s not get all excited,
suggested Mr. Jenkins.
One little syllable, but stuffed full of intonation. It said: You know I’m a pacifist, that I’d never ask you to go against what we both believe in. But this is different. They’re in the wrong, and they manhandled my favourite yellow cardigan, which you paid for. Don‘t let me down, I’m counting on you, please. But do it right, make the right decision. It‘s all up to you now. I know I can trust you. Thanks.
Which didn’t help Jeff climb out of his quandary. Not in the slightest.
There was great expectancy on the whole bus now. Would it come to blows? It would be an interesting match. Milton was enormous, although perhaps a little overweight, whereas Jeff was tall and lithe. Would the others take sides? Would the women get involved? June was certainly ready to fly, though Sunday was as calm as her name implied.
Jeff and Milton stared at each other. June wanted to catch Sunday’s eye, but she remained impassive, as if she were listening to her personal stereo and had no idea of what was going on.
screamed a young girl, and the whole of the upper deck began to file downstairs. They slowly filled the aisle and remaining empty seats, giggling and shaking off drops of rain as they jostled for positions.
Jeff and Milton exchanged relieved glances, while June heaved a sigh, happy that the threat of violence had disappeared. Still she grasped her cardigan to her bosom, her favourite yellow grievance. Sunday continued listening to her private concert. The dispute was forgotten.
Well past twelve o’clock, a persistent drizzle, a crowded bus and nine bored schoolkids, not to mention Anke and Brigite. Solution: lunchtime. Out came the neatly folded food packages to the accompanying fissss of drinks cans being opened. There wasn’t much room so they had to hold each other’s plastic bags, or perch thermos precariously on one another’s thighs. They all offered their goodies for barter, but with such international cuisine and such a variety of tastes it was difficult to please, so mostly they declined politely.
-What time leaves the bus?
asked Herr Grübe, with a showman’s grin on his face. Groan.
-I know, why don’t we try and guess where we’re going on this mystery tour, maybe put a quid on it and the winner takes all?
It was one of the schoolgirls, a bright-faced little thing squashed between a number of her mates on a bench-like seat near the entrance.
-Or when leaves the bus!
insisted Herr Grübe, but this time only Mr. Fumiko got the joke
exclaimed Mr. Jenkins.
-Oxford. -Southend! -Milton Keynes!
Milton turned round as he heard his name, and for a second there was an awkward silence. Miss Sally to the rescue.
-It‘s a nice idea, though I’m not so sure about the betting part. Surely winning is enough. We should all put our names and destination on a piece of paper, and when we arrive we’ll look through them all and those that have...
She nearly said ‘acertained the truth’ but pulled back in time.
-...got it right, well, are the winners. -An ice-cream for the winner!
called a child‘s voice.
Miss Sally resumed her role.
-All those who think it’s a good idea, put up their hands.
The response was timid. Milton and Sunday didn’t feel like taking part in case those ridiculous Americans decided to, and for the very same reason June nudged Jeff before he could raise his arm. The young couple were far too shy to make a public declaration of anything other than their new-found love, and the two suited men who had at first been mistaken for the driver and his mate seemed to be oblivious to everything. Miss Sally tried to encourage them to join in by nodding her head at them, but they just looked the other way.
-Anybody else? ........ No? ........ Oh well, let’s forget it then.
She felt slightly embarrassed having offered herself and been rejected, but the kids were on her side and still keen to play, so she set about organising a mini competition.
Inés and her friends were the first to quit. Everybody was sorry to see them go, especially Anke and Brigite who would now have to seek refuge in their Mum again. It was the beginning of the end, they all knew that. It would just be a matter of time now before they all started to find excuses for giving it up as a bad job. The young lovers slipped off next without a word to anyone, quickly followed by Milton and Sunday, much to June’s relief. She wouldn’t be long in following suit.
The bus was virtually empty now. The Grübes and the Fumikos had taken their leave of Mrs. Hammond and Mr. Jenkins, Anke and Brigite had said goodbye to the kids, leaving Miss Sally busy folding little pieces of paper. The rain had stopped.
-Have we got to go too, Miss?
She was about to say that she was afraid so, when an old man’s voice whispered
- Mr. Jenkins. Canterbury. Chocolate and vanilla.