It was the same week Yasser Arafat died, a cold and steely November stretch of days in Glasgow.
I was a student, I had a Marxist boyfriend who cared – deeply - about all things Palestinian, I was disorganised, I was hungover and I was really, really late. I had made sensible plans to go home for the weekend. I’d booked a glamorous bus and boat combo from Glasgow to Stranraer to Belfast and then, like every other self-respecting student before me, promptly decided to go out on a Thursday night, neglected to pack anything and found myself running bleary-eyed and panicked in the general direction of Buchanan Street Bus Station, oversized backpack thumping as I went.
I hadn’t had breakfast, but the need for something wet, something like tea or water or coke or juice or coffee or water or juice or coke or tea or water, was starting to crush my head like a vice, much quicker than any feelings of hunger were being registered.
It’s fine, I’ll grab a bottle of water out of WH Smith.
Shit is that the time.
I am not making it onto this bus.
Killermont Street. Weird fucking name.
I’m an idiot, I am a mess, why do I always do this.
I’m twenty now. I need to wise up.
I feel awful.
Hurry the fuck up, green man.
Through the doors, taking a sharp right, casting a longing look at the chiller cabinet in the newsagents. Yasser gazes balefully at me from the front cover of several serious broadsheets. Final person getting on the bus, can’t stop, need to get on.
Throw backpack in luggage compartment, climb onto bus, collapse on seat. Driver bangs luggage compartment door closed, gets back in, starts engine, we’re away.
Made it. Great.
Now what? Bag in luggage compartment. Nothing to read. Nothing to drink. Nothing to eat. Pull out distant ancestor of smartphone, send text to friend.
Made it on the bus by skin of teeth lol head bangin!!!
Another one to mum:
On bus now, should be at Stranraer at 12, boat leaves 1:30, home at tea time. See you soon :-)
No Facebook yet. Won’t exist for another two years. Look out window. Scenic view of the M8. Miles of languorous, unshifting greyish sky tinged with brown. Like heavy icy shitty rain is brewing up there.
Not a great omen for anyone travelling.
Brewing. Tea. Dry mouth.
Try to sleep.
Someone has left a copy of the Independent lying folded on the seat across the aisle. We’re not stopping til we get to Ayr, so I grab it.
While I was attending, or maybe not attending, a History of Moral Philosophy tutorial and not packing my bags and drinking triple vodka and orange Fanta out of a plastic pint glass in the Art School union and dancing to The Libertines, world history was apparently being made as he shuffled off this mortal coil.
Not sure I needed to know in this state that he threw up in a staff meeting last week before going into a terminal decline.
Mind you, he’d already had three funerals and two burials since yesterday, so, dead or not, he was certainly racking up a lot more in the way of productivity than I could boast of.
In this pre app, pre wifi era I hadn’t really followed this story or any other story and newspapers still served a purpose and this one put an hour in.
Then I fell asleep.
When I woke up again we were on that scenic but twisting, turning, winding and seemingly endless stretch of coastal road through Girvan, Maybole and finally to Stranraer. I’d slept right through the stop off at the bus station in Ayr. No tin of coke for me.
Plenty of sea to look at though. Choppy, swelling, miles of grey sea.
Water, water, everywhere.
Then a portakabin in Stranraer. Bag through the x ray machine, wait in long line reading and rereading same list of rules on the wall about The Singing of Sectarian Songs all capitalised and something about sniffer dogs. Unceremoniously dump bag in pile of other bags. Continue into portakabin.
VENDING MACHINES OUT OF SERVICE.
Both of them.
No crisps no Snickers no Fruitella and no liquid of any variety.
Dry mouth is spreading. Throat hurts. Bone dry dryness.
No one but myself from yesterday to blame.
Is that self this self? Stupid self.
Sit on uncomfortable chair.
Avert gaze from fluorescent lighting.
Try to watch tiny TV screen but it’s too far away and although it’s usually turned up to loud and tinny levels of nuisance, today the sound is drowned out by real life levels of loud and tinny nuisance.
No Singing of Sectarian Songs, though. Always a bonus.
Must be nearly time to get on the boat now.
I’m going straight to Burger King or whatever is open and I am going to have three pints of pure orange. And a bucket of tea. And a fizzy water. And a red bull. And chips.
No one is moving though. It soon becomes apparent, long before they bother to announce it, the boat is delayed.
And better yet, due to increasingly adverse weather conditions the superfast Seacat cannot be put to use. Instead they are getting some clanky old rust bucket boat which is apparently safer in a storm. Or something.
OMG you want to see the thing we are sailing on. It’s like maritime heritage. I feel awful. Never drinking again!!!!!!
Hi mum boat is delayed by a couple of hours. Maybe phone Stena before you leave to pick me up so you aren’t waiting too long? My phone battery is nearly dead.
Of course it is.
Mainly because I’m a disorganised mess.
Everyone waits. Mostly not quietly. No one can leave. Despite the lax heap of bags just lying in the corridor, once your luggage has been through the x ray machine going outside again is strictly Not Allowed. No one can hear the TV. No one can use the vending machines.
There’s an ice hockey team here, though, and, what appears to be a large Christian youth group made up of equal parts north Antrim, Lanarkshire and – anomalously – American being shepherded around by earnest adult Christians. There’s sullen students. Crying kids. Lots of people.
An hour passes. Nearly another and we are led onto the boat that time forgot. The carpet looks like The Overlook Hotel’s sloppy seconds. The shop is not open. There is no ATM. I have about 75p in coins on me and nothing more.
Students don’t carry cash.
We’re like the Queen.
I think these days they call it ‘paper free’. It’s the same thing. Broke. Living out of one’s overdraft.
The rusty boat snack bar is open for trade, hopefully not selling sausage rolls from the eighties but at this point I don’t care. I check every pocket in my backpack and come up with about £2 more. I have enough for an M&M brownie and a disposable cup of stale tasting tea with a splash of UHT milk.
It tastes amazing.
When the brownie is nothing but crumbs, I take my cup and stand outside on the tiny sliver of deck reserved for outdoor smokers and maniacs.
Somewhere inside, sitting cross-legged on the floor, the youth group sing.
Really. They actually do this. They sing. Probably not a Sectarian Song.
Somewhere in the Mukataa in Ramallah people are weeping their way through the Salat al-Janazah.
It doesn’t stay light for long in November, when it bothers to get light at all. As we make our staggering, belated way into Belfast Lough, the sky overhead is dark.