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Coaching Days. By John Atkins.



I recently gave up driving and have developed a special relationship with coaches. I only have to put one foot in a coach and something unusual Happens, with a capital H. (This is how the old Jazz singers used to advertise their love for Katie - for Katie had class with a capital K.)

Before recounting my coach history I think I should mention my earliest memory of a horse-drawn coach known locally as a charabong. It was in Norfolk and you have to have been very old to have seen it. It was a beautiful long vehicle with separate doors for every seat on both sides. There's magnificence for you! Somehow this incident sparked off what I feel must be some kind of magnetism existing between me and coaches.

The first was in Poland. The coach stopped in a country lane, apparently miles from anywhere. The door opened and a young man dashed in and attacked the driver. The young man was quite slender but very wiry, a sort of featherweight. The driver was rotund and bulky, a sort of light heavy. The couple engaged and rolled through the doorway into a ditch. We, the passengers, stood up in alarm but also anxious to see the outcome. I will never forget the look of bewilderment on one passenger's face - he was an Army officer who thought he ought to intervene, but King's Regs, or the Polish equivalent, were silent on the subject. Superior weight pinned the attacker down, and the driver resumed his seat. But the young man was not to be beaten that easily. Up he came and the tussle was resumed inside the coach. This time the driver managed to push him out, close the door and drive off. Looking back, I saw the young man actually pursuing the coach, game to the last. I couldn't help feeling a woman was involved. Perhaps a sister.

There's nowhere like Eastern Europe for coach fracas. The next was in Albania. The country was one renowned for its vendettas. It's the sort of situation my coach was not likely to ignore. We came to a village where the greater part of the population was gathered on top of a large grassy mound.
Each one held an agricultural instrument. At first the whole scene might have been interpreted as part of a fertility rite, which would explain the presence of spades and mattocks, knives and hammers. But we soon learnt otherwise. We were barely through the village when we encountered the enemy, also armed (but more dangerously - one man even had a gun) and blocking the road. We stopped. Then followed a long period of negotiation between the enemy and our guide. Later we were told that they first demanded the use of our coach - as a tank, I suppose - but in the end they gave way and let us through. I imagine they were told, pretty forcibly, what might happen to them if they insisted on damaging the tourist trade.

For the next coach drama we move to Northern Ireland. We had left Belfast and were on the way to Clones in the Republic, when the driver suddenly spurted into a 70mph acceleration. The road lay straight ahead, and I realised the driver wanted to get out of it as soon as possible. And then I got it. This was Armagh. And we were in Murder Mile. Ahead of us, travelling in the same direction, was a tractor, which our driver decided he would overtake. But then, coming towards us in the distance, was a truck which we decided temporarily to avoid. Then our driver changed his mind - I imagine he felt it better not to go slow on Murder Mile - so he decided to squeeze through - but it was not a very successful squeeze. At first it looked like a head-on, but in the end all three vehicles came to a halt in a kind of embrace, three in a row, a cheek-to- cheek sort of situation. The three drivers got together and seemed to settle the situation quite amicably. Meanwhile the interior of our coach had been thrown into confusion as shopping, fruit and vegetables and schoolgirls rolled off the seats and over the floor. An apple and banana bounced off my head. These I recovered and gave to the lady behind me.

My final coach adventure was of a different kind but could not have occurred without my co-operation. To put it briefly, I wanted to go to Colchester but the coach took me to Dover. I won't go into the details of this misadventure, beyond saying that I had the right ticket and my luggage was properly labelled. I claimed compensation and, after a determined struggle, won. I don't travel much these days and rarely see a-coach. If necessary, however, it will use a computer and our fuel will be solar. I will not be able to guarantee an event-free journey. We might get a puncture.


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