Sunday, 19 April 2009
I woke up with a start, the cold light of dawn searing into my retinas. I stretched my legs, rubbed my eyes and uttered the first of several primeval yawns.
It was hardly surprising: the bus clock read 5.40am.
Cursing the hour I looked out the bus window.
Pubs. A post office. Pigeons.
Hmmm that’s odd – looks vaguely familiar…doesn’t look like Belgium….hadn’t I been here before? Where was I?
This was soon answered – shop signs seeming to suggest we were in some kind of place by the name of Camberwell. Camberwell…hmmm…it was starting to come back to me.
Six hours earlier, in an Antwerp backstreet we’d boarded this bus, heading for London. It seemed a remarkably short period of time to cross three countries, travelling across Flanders before dropping down into France, catching a ferry from Calais across the Straits of Dover, back to England.
We’d piled into the bus, searching out seats amongst the passengers already on board. They’d started back in Amsterdam and many were sprawled about like lifeless corpses.
A couple of students with thick Northern accents occupied the entire back seat, an large Somali family took up the middle and furtive-looking chaps in leather jackets stared miserably at us from the front.
I picked a seat at the back, next to a monosyllabic, pale-faced young Londoner. He grunted at me and went back to sleep, his bowed head edging towards my shoulder.
He looked spaced out and distant: had he indulged a little too much back in Amsterdam?
Just in case we were entertaining the notion of sleeping the dozy Dutch driver had chosen to share his choice of Belgium radio with his passengers.
‘Fame, I’m going to liiiive forever…’
Lara chose to try and overcome this by nullifying all her senses - a well-practiced and often-successful technique which involved blocking her ears and eyes with earplugs and eyemask before topping it off with a good thick hood.
She sat there, trying to block out the world around her. It only needed an orange boiler suit and she might have found herself heading out to Guantanamo Bay.
Somehow we dozed and two hours later found ourselves waking up in France. Never have I been gladder to enter the port of Calais.
We whisked through French immigration before entering a little office entitled UK Border Agency – the first of many new changes back home? – and being greeted by possibly the cheeriest bunch of immigration officials all trip.
Perhaps the chubby English blokes standing about were bored at this ungodly hour but we found them polite, friendly and genuinely interested in our trip. All hail the new border bobbies.
We joined the queue at the terminal and found ourselves amongst hundreds of our fellow countrymen. Yellow British car number plates with their bold, simple lettering, a variety of strong British regional accents, orderly queuing.
It was all vaguely familiar and each little reminder, each little rediscovery came so quickly after each other that it was almost overwhelming. We were going home. It was sinking in now.
We boarded the P&O Pride of Calais and more déjà vu hit us – this was one of the cross channel ferries we saw from the deck of the Singapore a couple of days ago as we headed up to Antwerp.
We wandered sleepily past shops, row upon row of familiar British brands on the shelves, the smooth southern tones of the Captain washing over us in the background.
‘Abroad’ was disappearing; we were leaving the foreign, the different behind. Finally, after ten months of being bumbling foreigners in distant lands we would be back amongst our own.
Tired and confused, my head spinning with it all, I lay back against a seat and fell straight asleep.
An hour later we awoke, just in time to see the white cliffs of Dover. Or at least the base of them in the dark, the clock reading 4am.
England. We were back.
Within half an hour we were rolling through the Kent countryside, green road signs and red phone boxes flashing past in the bus’s headlights.
Sleep called once more and stuck with me right through until Camberwell.
Pubs. A post office. Pigeons. We were back in London.
There it was out there in all its glory – Oval tube station, the cricket ground and the Alec Stewart Gate, Vauxhall and the railway arches, the Thames and the Houses of Parliament.
The city looked smart, moneyed, grand. I felt emotional, until that was I found myself shivering on the cold, empty streets of Victoria.
London, where it all started all those months ago, and now where it all finishes.
The circle is complete.