A three-hour National Express coach journey is, for most people, less attractive than a French kiss from someone who brushes their teeth with scrambled egg. Many see the cramped legroom, malfunctioning air vents and borderline insane drivers as a bad thing - but not me. To my mind, every coach journey throws up a series of exciting challenges and, if you choose to travel on Megabus, there is the distinct possibility that you may never arrive at your destination... what could be more exciting?
Challenge 1: Keep the seat next to you vacant throughout the entire journey.
Some naive fools seem to think that, by merely placing a bag or sandwich wrapper on the seat next to them, they can deter fellow passengers from filling it with their often over-sized buttocks. And, unlike on any other form of public transport, a National Express neighbour is a Friend for Life. Or at least until you arrive in London. They mutter to themselves with the concealed agenda of luring you into their dialogue and, once you bite, they never let go. As soon as you engage them in conversation, you lose all rights to privacy and anonymity for the remainder of the journey, which will suddenly double in length. They will start peering over your shoulder at the magazine you're reading; they may offer you one of your crisps before, as soon as you have your hand in the packet, regaling you with their longest and most tedious crisp-related story; they may even make inquiries into where you are going and what you intend to do once your arrive there.
I have become a master in the dark art of National Express Neighbour Avoidance (NENA). I am the Hermione Granger of social avoidance, the Derren Brown of the deterrent discipline. When I step onto a coach, seatbelts recoil in fear at my mere presence. And here's how I do it:
Firstly, whenever the coach stops to allow more people onto it, make sure you are listening to your iPod; this will make people feel rude at having to disturb you to ask you to remove your varied and widespread possessions from the seat next to you. Secondly, regardless of what you are in fact listening to, wear an expression on your face that suggests it might be the sound of someone taking a blunt saw to a pig's shin. If someone considers disturbing you, your facial demeanor should inform them that you're one minor irritation away from flushing them down the chemical toilet. This works perfectly for me, despite the fact that in reality I am a harmless middle-class ponce whose only ever fight was with the lid of a chutney jar.
If none of the above works, and you are still asked if the seat next to you is free, just turn to the offending person and say, "I'd love you to sit next to me; I always like company before I kill again..."
Challenge 2: Avoid the insane.
With every coach journey, there is one crushing inevitability. Sure as eggs are eggs, sure as the sun rises, sure as the depressing certainty that there will be another series of Gavin & Stacey. There will always be one insane passenger on the coach. And I'm not talking NENA-insane; I'm talking genuine insane.
Last week, I spotted her as soon as she stepped onto the coach. A large lady, early 30s, floral print dress which did her no favours. She heaved herself down the aisle, all the while making loud, easily-audible sighing and puffing noises. She flopped down onto a vacant pair of seats and immediately lay down, so that her head stuck out halfway into the aisle. She then loudly demanded that the heating be turned up to maximum because it was freezing. The driver gave us all a worried look, mostly because it was a bright, sunny day and everybody else on the coach was visibly boiling. Somehow he had to come up with an answer that placated the insane lady, but also meant that we didn't spend the next 3 hours in a Hotpoint-on-wheels. What he came up with was by far and away the most inspired piece of quick thinking and blagging I have ever witnessed. "I'm sorry," he said, "but the heating is all controlled by a main computer at the National Express depot. I've no control over it whatsoever." And she actually bought it. The imagination of the man! To come up an alternative reality where, at National Express HQ, minions with long croupier sticks push small models of coaches around a map of the British Isles before someone bursts in crying, "The passengers on the 403 from London to Bath are overheating! Someone decrease the humidity in that coach now!"
But the insane lady seemed perfectly happy with the driver's explanation and, as compensation lay back down and bleated, "Can everybody please close all the curtains - I have asthma." Needless to say, after a moment's pause to consider the links between asthma and direct sunlight, nobody bothered to draw their curtain. A beat later she piped up again: "Okay, at least one?" I watched on with pride as not one of my brave companions, these wonderful people who I'd worked so hard to ensure didn't sit next to me, took the slightest bit of notice of the insane lady, and settled back into their chairs to enjoy a pleasurable three hours in the sunshine.