It was 1996. I was 18 and living the loose life in
Glasgow. Ostensibly, I was studying a history degree at uni but found myself
being a typical student, smoking dope all day and drinking at night, very
seldom at class. Looking back I was a cliché but at the time I thought I
was pretty ace. I had moved from Canada three years previously and had kept in
touch with good friends so I was delighted when Mike phoned and told me he was
coming over for two weeks. Although we had never been the closest of friends,
we had a certain amount of respect for each others outlooks on life. In
fact thats a lie. He had put me up for a week when I had gone over to
visit so I suppose we were pretty good friends. Anyway, I was desperate for any
contact with my previous life in Canada, so I welcomed Mike over with open
We decided about a week before he arrived that we
should spend a week in Amsterdam. As I spent most of my free time high, I
couldnt think of a better place to get away from things. Also, it meant
that Mikes trip wouldnt be a wearying succession of castles and
cheap tourist traps. Anyway, he had had been hit by a drunk driver as he stood
at a bus stop months previously. We both agreed that the fine weed on offer in
Amsterdam would kill the permanent pain and aid in his rehabilitation. It made
sense to us anyway.
After he had spent a week in Scotland, we got the
bus down to London, stayed with my parents for a night before heading out to
Amsterdam, again by bus. Now if you ever find yourself trying to decide whether
to take plane, train or automobile to a destination, under no circumstances
take the bus if the journey is any longer than 8 hours. Even if it is
unbelievably cheap. This is how they trap you. Offering the bus journey for
less than the price of a packet of fags. You think that fuck it, I dont
care how long it takes, its sooooo cheap. By the time you have reached
the dazzling lights of Belgium, you may find yourself clawing at the windows,
begging for air, mercy, morphine, anything to stop the pain. I have never
experienced cabin fever like it. People and their pointless little bags of food
begin to smell rather rapidly in the mid-summer sun. Oh yeah, and if you get a
really cheap journey, you might be lucky enough to get a bus with broken air
conditioning. A thousand frantic farts trapped in a relatively small capsule,
crawling by the featureless and repetitive landscape of Northern Europe, does
not an enjoyable journey make. Dont do it. It doesnt make sense.
No, not even if it is really cheap.
The journey was made strangely bearable by a random
character that had got on at Victoria station with us. He was first spotted by
Mike as we sat waiting for the capsule of doom to let passengers board. He was
a scruffy wee fellow, all straggly hair, limp, loose clothes and a shambolic
air about him. Mike elbowed me discreetly,
That guy looks just like Bob Dylan.
I had a squint at the guy and had to agree, there
was a distinct similarity. The guy drew our attention from then on. He seemed
to shuffle about furtively, distracted, agitated, opening, searching and
closing his bag repeatedly. We were watching him with idle interest when the
bus pulled up to its berth to begin letting passengers on. Bob, as hed
now been named, ran up to greet the bus, brushing people aside in his fervour
to get aboard. He stood in front of the door waiting for it to open. After
about ten seconds he started to fidget. Ten more seconds and he had his hands
cupped round his eyes, trying to see through the tinted glass. He looked around
at the others, searching for an explanation for the delay. Just as turned back
round to peer into the bus, the door suddenly opened outward. It slammed poor
Bob in the face, quite solidly. He looked dazed for a second, shook his head
quickly, and dived aboard. Needless to say, Mike and I were pissing ourselves
laughing at this strange little man and his strange little ways. Once our
delight in his little accident had subsided, we gathered our bags together and
ambled onto the bus.
Bob got himself noticed quite quickly into the
journey. We were approaching Dover when he suddenly leapt out of his seat down
the front and ran up to the back window. He placed both hands on the glass,
looking out at the receding road and started singing a dreadful rendition of
London Pride, an old sentimental ditty about how fucking great
London is supposed to be. It was quite plaintive sounding really. He stayed
that way for a good few minutes before turning to look at us quizzically, then
scampered off down to the front of the bus. It was clear to us both at this
point that Bob was either wired to the moon or was a care in the community
case. Either way, it could turn out to be a very entertaining journey or a
vaguely worrying one. I think that I at least was prepared for both.
Not long after we had re-boarded the bus upon
arrival at Calais, Bob started to pace up and down the corridor of the bus.
Initially, he did not reach us at the back and we wondered what he was saying
to people. He was getting right in their faces. In response, his victims, to a
man, looked thoroughly repulsed and drew back sharply at his approach.
Eventually, he reached us. We were prepared but I was unsure what exactly we
were prepared for. All I knew was that it was going to be something repugnant.
The faces of the other passengers had made this clear.
As he scuffled closer to us, we simultaneously
became aware of a foul odour. It could only be coming from our friend Bob. Sure
enough, as he got closer, the intensity of the smell increased until it became
almost unbearable. He leaned in close to Mike. I wondered what he was going to
do. Feelings of amusement and foreboding mingled.
Got a sandwich mate? Bob breathed.
I could see poor Mikes eyes watering.
No, sorry. I dont have anything to
eat, Mike responded whilst attempting not to breathe. It made him sound
like he throat cancer or something.
You sure? What about you? Bob asked as
he turned to me.
He wasnt aggressive or anything but you just
know that someone who smells of bins and goes round a bus asking for sandwiches
from strangers is not to be taken lightly.
Nah, sorry. Neither of us have anything to
The smell emanating from this wee man was almost
What about something to drink then? he
No, nothing. Now piss off, Mike
squeaked, still trying his hardest not to breathe.
Bob looked affronted. He stared straight at Mike,
pointed a bony finger at him and started to walk backwards, holding Mikes
stare. I think he was trying to hex him or something. Finally, he twirled
around with a flourish and was off pestering new victims in search of his holy
grail of sandwich and drink.
Despite the cabin fever, the rest of the journey
passed without much more disruption. Bob seemed to amuse himself with his seat
and talking at the poor souls around him. The odd Shut the fuck up
would pierce the quietness of the bus occasionally but apart from that, all was
quiet. I started to hate the people who sat around me. I hadnt uttered a
word to them but I hated their faces, their flabbiness. Their clothes annoyed
me, the noises that came from their loose mouths irritated me. I knew I was in
the grip of cabin fever. Hating a complete stranger and wanting to claw at heir
face just because they looked ugly as they slept and drooled was not normal,
not even for me. I had to get off the bus soon. I couldnt even be fucked
with Mike. His long hair annoyed me. Why was it so long? It looked stupid. Need
to get off the bus. I heaved a sigh of relief as I spotted a sign saying
Amsterdam-60miles. Doesnt sound too close but it was a hop skip and a
jump to salvation as far as I was concerned. Mikes hair stopped annoying
As we got off the bus in the centre of Amsterdam, I
spotted Bob scampering off into the night. It was around midnight and it was
obvious that Bob had places to go, people to see. Where and who, I had no idea
but he seemed to be on a mission.
Intelligently, Mike and I had decided that it was
unnecessary to book a hostel bed before we had left London. Where this little
gem of wisdom had come from I have no idea, but as we trawled the city looking
for two empty beds, it dawned on us that we had not really planned this thing
out. As it approached one thirty in the morning, we finally found a place that
had one bed left and was willing to put a mattress on the floor of the T.V.
room for the other. At last free of worry, we headed out into the cool
As we walked down the streets that night, I
realised what a strange place Amsterdam really was. Loons were running down the
streets doing cartwheels, whooping up a storm, fat business men were strolling
arm in arm with achingly beautiful Oriental women, a dog was trying to gnaw its
way through the piece of string that attached it to its comatose owner. All at
once I loved it and feared it. I felt exposed but at the same time really quite
free. We settled for a coffee shop named after Baloo from the Jungle Book. I
think it soothed us to sit somewhere that evoked warm memories of childhood.
Baloo had always protected Mowgli. We smoked copious amounts of industrial
strength weed, got the fear, and stumbled out to try and locate our hostel.
I woke up the next day to find a tall
Scandinavian-looking man sniffing my shoes. I had left them on the windowsill
the previous night to try and air them out. Obviously it hadnt worked.
When I asked him what he was doing, he turned and mumbled what I took to be an
apology in an undecipherable language and put my shoes back before scampering
out the room. As I came to and fully grasped what I had just seen, I came to
the only sane conclusion; this was going to be an interesting wee trip.
We spent our days smoking weed and drinking fine
Dutch lager. We really didnt do anything else. We didnt want to.
One night we decided to go take a look at the infamous Red Light District, just
to look you know. We walked passed some of the most disgusting women I have
ever seen, encased in glass and trying to tempt punters in with their dubious
wares. One even sat picking her nose. There was only one good-looking one as
far as I could see. Maybe the hot ones had the night off. I have a habit of
picking the wrong night for things. As we passed an alleyway, bemoaning the
lack of quality in the whores, something in the alleyway caught my eye. I
stopped dead in my tracks, paralysed. I had to call Mike back. He was still
muttering about filthy whores.
Youre not going to believe this
What? Another filthy whore? Oh do shock
Remember Bob? I asked him. Bob
from the bus.
Remember him? I can still taste his foul
odour. I dont think Ill ever lose that memory.
Well look, hes right there, I
said as I pointed at a crumpled shape lying against the wall of the alleyway.
Mike looked at me incredulously, but a close look
at the heap of clothes confirmed what I had told him. Bobs social skills
had not improved much. He had his face pushed into a plastic bag that rested
between his legs. He appeared to be eating out of it, like a horse out of a
feedbag. We stood and watched for a bit, transfixed. At one point he looked up
at us, squinted briefly and proceeded to thrust his head back into the bag,
munching furiously. We came to the conclusion that Bob was homeless and hungry.
I started to feel bad that we had dismissed him so readily on the bus. But then
again, if he was homeless, how could he afford to travel to Amsterdam? I know I
said it was cheap, but not that cheap. I started to toy with the idea that he
was an eccentric millionaire and that we would do well to make friends with
him. One last look at him gorging himself on what I now took to be garbage
quickly shook that stupid thought from my head.
Small town, if not small world, I said.
Yeah. Never thought wed see him
again, said Mike. Strange little fucker.
By the time the week had finished, we were both
ready to go home. Mike and I hardly had a word to say to each other anymore.
Two weeks living in each others pockets had taken its toll. For the last
couple of days, we had sat in cafes in silence, only talking to each other when
necessary. This made me sad but I suppose it is inevitable. We smoked the last
of the weed in the early morning light down by one of the canals before heading
to the bus station to make our way home, in silence.
On the bus Mike sat listening to his personal
stereo. I nudged him in the ribs. He gave me a wearied look and sighed
Guess who? I said gesturing to the guy
scampering on to the bus.
Mike looked up and his jaw dropped when he
recognised our friend Bob. He was carrying the same plastic bag we had seen him
with in the alleyway. To our joint horror, he took a seat directly in front of
us. A wall of pungent odours hit us immediately, soaking into our every pore,
assaulting every sense.
Oh fuck. Youre kidding me on, I
As the bus finally pulled out, Bob started to
fidget intensely. He was pulling and tugging at everything within his reach,
even reaching over to where other passengers were sitting. They were Bob
virgins but were quickly learning that he was going to be a trial for the
entirety of the long, tedious journey. At one point he reached right under his
seat and started smacking my feet away:
My space, my space, he screeched.
I wasnt about to argue with him. Although I
had never seen him be aggressive, He still made me wary to confront him. It
wasnt long before our hero was doing his sandwich rounds again, tugging
at peoples clothes, trying to get heir attention, seemingly completely
unaware of his overpowering aroma. I really have never smelt anything like,
before or since. It defied description. There was definitely an element of
rotten food to it mingled with a complete disregard for basic hygiene. During
the course of his rounds, Bob came to us. There was a very vague look of
recognition on his face when he saw us. He appeared to shake that off and
proceeded to ask us for sandwiches etc. Now it happened that this time I did
have a sandwich and gave half of it to him. He looked absolutely delighted with
himself and I felt good, like a boy scout who has done his good deed for the
day. This feeling vanished when I witnessed him going to his seat in front of
us and stuffing the sandwich into the awful midden he had stored in his plastic
bag. I couldnt understand it and by the look on Mikes face I could
see that he was equally perplexed. Maybe Bob just had a fetish about
sandwiches. Perhaps he just liked to collect them rather than eat them. That
would certainly explain the rotten food smell. He sat in his seat for a couple
of hours after that, relatively well behaved. The smell was a constant affront;
God, I just got a whiff of it from memory, fucking awful.
The bus made one of its customary pit stops along
the motorway. We were all told not to go far because we were stopping for only
ten minutes. Everyone obeyed and stayed pretty close to the bus, all except for
the ever-intrepid Bob. I saw him running, and I mean running across a bridge
over the motorway. Perhaps he had detected a sandwich in the distance.
Regardless, I was delighted to see him running away because the driver had told
us that if anyone was late, too bad, he was leaving anyway. Please Bob, please
get lost and be late. Please, for the sake of your fellow passengers. All I
could do was hope and pray.
Mike and I had started talking again, at first tentatively but
gradually back into full conversations. They mainly concerned Bob and his
intrinsic weirdness but I was just glad that we were talking again. The silence
between us had become oppressive. Eventually, all the passengers returned to
the bus, all except Bob. I felt my stomach tighten in anticipation. Could it
really be that we would be at last free of this fetid little man? Mike looked
at me with a very serious face:
Keeps you fingers crossed. Pray to whatever
God you follow. Do whatever it takes to stop that thing coming back on the
Bob had obviously scarred Mike more than I had
realised. He had an almost pleading look in his eyes. The bus engine kicked
over, the anticipation and relief throughout the bus was palpable, we were
going to make it. Just as the bus started to pull out, a small but determined
shriek could be heard. Coming over the bridge was the bedraggled site of Bob
hurtling towards us with what I took to be evil intent.
Drive. Just fucking drive will you!
screamed a young guy at the back, fully aware of what Bobs presence on
the bus would mean for all of us. Unfortunately, the bus driver appeared to be
consumed by fear and slowed enough for Bob to catch up. A collective groan
swept across the bus as Bob finally hauled himself aboard, fetid bag clutched
in his hand. He looked thoroughly pleased with himself, like hed beaten
the odds. He settled back into his seat as his now-familiar aroma swept through
Bob was strangely quiet for the rest of the journey across
mainland Europe but something happened inside him when we reached Dover. He
seemed to become revitalised and started to get that fidgety way again. He was
pestering people about really obscure things like did they speak Spanish, or
had they ever been to a farm? One young guy from the back finally snapped. He
came storming up to where Bob sat and thought about grabbing his collar, but
wisely reconsidered. He squared right up to Bob and swore that if he went
anywhere near any of the other passengers again, he would personally smash his
face into the window and throw him off the bus. His rage had obviously been
building for some time; perhaps he too had been on the outbound journey. His
outpourings of sheer anger, frustration and hatred had the desired effect. Bob
looked really wounded, perplexed. As his aggressor sat back down, Bob again
began to sing London Pride quietly and sadly. Apart from that, he
heeded the warning and kept himself to himself.
As the bus pulled into Victoria station, Bob rushed
up to the door like an excited school child. He was first off and bounded off
into the distance, just as he had done upon arrival in Amsterdam. He again
looked as though he had things to do, people to see. His daft little song was
stuck in my head for the remainder of the journey up to Glasgow, just as his
smell stuck in my nostrils. I never saw Bob again but from time to time, when I
pass a bin baking in the sun, the aroma takes me rushing back to travelling to
and from Amsterdam and that strange little man Bob. This memory is usually
followed by a shudder but as the years have passed, Ive actually found
myself looking back at Bob in near-fondness. He stank and he was annoying, but
I have never met anyone quite like him since. Why he travelled to Amsterdam for
a week remains a mystery but I have come to the conclusion that homeless people
go on holidays too; same alleyways, different country. And why not? It takes