My journey to Winnipeg from Toronto by Greyhound bus was to take me over a day to cover almost 1400 miles of the wild Canadian landscape. Sitting near the front of the coach I bagged a window seat. Taking out my Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable’s, I settled down for the long journey.
My heart sank when a man of about six and half feet tall attempted to fold himself into the chair next to me. He looked like a half closed deckchair, but had none of the charming memories of ice cream and sandcastles that would usually go with that picture.
Turning to me he gave a smile that would have sent a snake slithering back under a rock for safety. His clothes smelt of poor standards of hygiene, stale smoke and beer. It was a long journey to be sat next to such an unfriendly character. I opened up my book intending to ignore him as much as I could.
“Going to Winnipeg?” his accent was English and that made me cringe. I too was English and I didn’t want to reveal any common ground with him. But I knew that no reply would be churlish.
“Yes.” I replied, “Are you?”
“Aah, you are English. Where from?”
“Near London.” I vaguely replied.
“Me to. I lived in Chelsea.”
At this point I was convinced he was lying, Chelsea being such an upmarket part of town, but then he added, “Chelsea Barracks, I was in the Cold Stream Guards.”
That made more sense, I reasoned, an army man.
“Oh, OK. I know where that is.” Suddenly a vision of terrified horses galloped across my mind. Their eyes flashing and their nostrils snorting in fear. A news real from the 1981 Chelsea Barracks Bombing.
“Yes most people know where it is. It was a nail bomb. I was there.”
I fell silent under his gaze. How had I revealed my own thoughts? I felt guilty at my ungracious opinions of him. Two people had died and he surely must have known them. Perhaps they were friends of his. But the thought just made me feel more uncomfortable to be in his company.
I retreated back to my book. The hours rolled by and I started to doze. I woke up with a start and stared into the blackness outside.
My companion began to mutter under his breath and cracking his knuckles, most of the other travellers were sleeping and the noise just seemed louder in the darkness. He also spread his large frame nearer to me. I edged closer to the window. I wanted to say “Right! Move to another seat you are making me uncomfortable.” But I knew that was ridiculous, there were no other seats and cracking knuckles although annoying was not a crime.
We stopped at a service station for food and a chance to stretch our legs. I relaxed a little and started chatting to a lady called Michelle who was travelling home after staying with her sick mother. She was the kind of lady whose life history I knew completely within minutes, but she knew nothing about me. But it was refreshing to talk to her after the companion I had in the bus.
I wanted to take another seat on the bus rather then sit back with creepy guy but I knew no one else would enjoy sitting next to him either. Most of the people on the bus were silver haired grandmothers or perhaps great grandmothers, travelling across the massive landscape to visit family scattered the great Canadian landscape. They sat in groups chatting with fellow grandmothers. Why would they want to sit with this man?
Once back on the bus my companion seemed to have livened up and wanted to chat.
“Have you a place to stay in Winnipeg?” he asked.
“Yes” I immediately lied.
“Oh OK, I was going to recommend the hostel I’m staying at. $2.00 a night with breakfast” he said.
It wasn’t difficult to imagine what kind of hostel would be that cheap. And I was relieved that my budget could stretch to somewhere slightly more salubrious then that.
Occasional stops were made for little old ladies to climb out to what appeared as no where. I watched their tiny frames being engulfed into the darkness.
Suddenly after interminable hours the traveller’s behaviour became more bizarre. “The bomb is timed for 6.03 precisely.” He then looked at his watch and then at the bus clock.
I was convinced he must have just woken up from a bad dream and was confused. “Just in time for Thunder Bay.” he added.
I looked around the bus; no one else seemed to have heard him.
A while later he repeated, “The bomb is timed for 6.03 precisely. Yes everything is going to plan.”
I heard an elderly lady say, “What did he say about 6.03? Are we going to be late?”
For the next two hours at regular intervals he gave a count down of the time remaining.
And I just sat there as if I was on a Sunday outing. Doing nothing, just waiting for 6.03. This wasn’t how I had foreseen my death. On a bus in the middle of Canada next to this horrible man.
Panic started to ripple through the bus. “Excuse me” I said ,“I need to speak to the driver about the next stop.”
He didn’t move, instead I had to climb over him and it made me uncomfortable getting that close to him. I literally shivered as I straddled across his huge frame.
“Bus driver you must pull over this man has planted a bomb.” I hissed.
“Lady there is no bomb” the driver replied. His voice was gruff and there was a suggestion that I was just being silly.
“How do you know that?” Someone else said.
“Do you think I would still be driving if there was a bomb? Our next stop will be 6.00. We will sort it out then. Stop worrying we are no where near in danger.”
His words placated a few of the passengers, but not me.
Rather like a little child I went to sit back down. But this time insisted the traveller get up for me. He stared at me with cold blue eyes. But didn’t move.
In a curt voice the driver said ,“Let the lady in.”
My companion got up and I sat back down in my seat. And so for what appeared an interminable time. The traveller continued a count down to 6.03.
At one stage the clock on the wall above the front windscreen said 5.45 but mine said 5.48. That was the difference between life and possible death. Three minutes.
“18 minutes till explosion.” I heard from the seat next to me.
Slowly the landscape became more and more built up, street lighting and pavements, shops and homes, we were nearing Thunder Bay. The clock said 5.54, my watch said 5.57.
An orange glow was spreading across the sky, sunrise, but its beauty was lost on me, it just meant we were nearer to what I convinced was the inevitable.
There was stillness on the bus as time and the coach marched on. We pulled into the coach station. My watch shouted 6.00 at me. Outside there were police cars, fire engines, ambulances and an army truck.
Relief started to wash over me, the driver had radioed ahead. I just had to hope that my watch was fast.
In what now I realise was lightening speed we were ferried off the bus and round the corner to the departure lounge. I clambered down to safety. To a blanket and hot coffee. Knowing that if there was an explosion I was now out of harms way.
There was no bomb I found out later. It was just a sad, traumatised, retired soldier reliving a bad experience on a bus through Canada.
I and my fellow travellers were put up in hotel for the night and then those of us who had to continue by Greyhound, had a replacement bus the next day. I had no choice my budget wouldn’t allow for an alternative form of travel.
Michelle the lady I had spent time chatting to on the coffee break decided against continuing by bus. We exchanged addresses and she said, “Write to me about your travels. I can’t believe you sat next to him for all that time so calmly. He was so scary.”
I didn’t reply, and watched her walk back into the hotel. I knew everything about this lady. Her mother’s cancer, her daughter’s pregnancy, the cat with weight problems, the unfaithful husband, the messy divorce, her own fight with breast cancer. I knew all this in the space of a 15 minute coffee break but the man who had sat next to me on the bus for nearly a day I knew nothing, except that he had been in the Chelsea Barrack bombing back in 1981. Perhaps I should have put the hand of friendship out to him. But I hadn’t, I often wonder if that man had seen into my own eyes and saw the flared nostrils of those horses and their eyes hot with fear. Or perhaps just the journey across the wide Canadian landscape had opened his own barely healed scars. I will never know.
Climbing on to the bus the next morning, the first thing I did was put my watch back by three minutes to fit with the coach clock.