I am trying not to think of London as home; to think of it instead as "London", a place I used to live. A while ago, driving the children to the beach, we came over a hill, the narrow road falling away, cutting through the fields, out to the links. Tucked behind the golf club was a big red London bus. My first thought; "There's a big red London bus." I am nothing if not obvious. My second: "Can I get on it?" Third: "Will it take me home?" Tsk. Tsk. I mean London. Will this magical bus which I have brought into existence through the power of my own sweet and heady will, take me back to London? I glanced quickly at my husband as he pulled the car tight over into the side of the hedged road. I thought: "Can he see it? Can he see the bus? Or is it only me?" I am not sure whether I was disappointed or relieved when he said: "Look kids, a bus." He turned off the engine. "Make sure mummy doesn't get on it." I thought about running for it. I decided against it for fear the bus would pull away in a cloud of fumes and dirt just as I reached for the pole. They often do. I did not want to see the children's grim faces when I turned back to them, having bungled my escape.
Yesterday, I was braver. I hopped on. The Number 19, stopping at Finsbury Park, Highbury Barn, Highbury and Islington Station, Islington (St Mary's Church), Islington (Angel), Theobald's Road, Holborn Station, Tottenham Court Road, Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park Corner, Knightsbridge, Sloane Square, King's Road and Battersea Bridge. At night, it even went on to Clapham Junction Station. This is a good route for me. Ding Ding. All aboard. One of my best friends lives in Islington. I could drop by, drink dry wine and eat sweet cake. Say: "You're looking well". Try not to feel too old beside her blonde and lustrous beauty. Or, I could carry on, stop off at Holborn, close to where I worked once in TV land. I could walk through to Covent Garden, browse a while among the shops. Then again, my hairdresser is in Knightsbridge, I could call by. Say: "Darling. Look at me." I could hold my hair out from my scalp. "Can you fit me in? Can you? Can you?" Sob, when he says: "No". I could console my shaggy, silvering self with French coffee in Sloane Square; then cafe fortified, mooch with intent up the King's Road, spending money I don't have, buying back a life that is no longer mine.
Instead of all this, the big red London bus rumbled down along the A1 towards Newcastle. There is something about a bus journey, even if you are heading for nowhere you want to go. You think: "OK, this time is mine. I am excused a little while. Now, where is it that I'm going? Why? And who is it that I am again?" I sat on the top deck at the front of the bus. You have to if you want to pretend you are driving. You could tell you weren't in London. I think it was the little things: green fields and cows, giveaways both. I have rarely seen winter barley growing up through the cracks of the city's mean streets. Also, no sniffing, mumbling lunatic sat beside me with a leatherette shopper; its handles held tight in knuckly hands.
My conductor, a former management consultant, and the driver, a former miner, bought the Routemaster bus two years ago. It costs £15,000 to buy and do up a bus. It has done 3 million miles since it was first commissioned in 1966 and carried an estimated 3 million passengers. They call the bus "Kenny" after the mayoral man who sacked it from its city job. Now, instead of commuters and shoppers and metropolitan folk, it carries golfers and tourists up and down the a 39-mile stretch of Northumberland's sandy, castled coast. Yesterday, it was gentle and retired folk from Worcestershire admiring the oats, asking interested questions about sheep, heading for a day of puffins and history.
I like Kenny. I put my hand on his proud metal bonnet and felt it throb. I could tell Kenny likes me. I rang his bell. Twice. We have a lot in common the two of us. We're about the same age, we've been around, we've seen things, we're natural Londoners, we're probably both a bit too big, back end wise. Admittedly, no one points at mine like they do when he thunders past but Kenny and I have a bond. If I ever run away to London, I am taking the bus.