Sunday 13 October 2019

82 to North Finchley

by Judy Upton

latte to go

If you’ve ever been to, or lived in London then you know Sam. “11 To Fulham Broadway.” That’s Sam. “Horse-guards Parade” - that’s her. “185 To Lewisham”. That’s Sam again. “Dulwich Plough.” All over London, on every bus, you’re travelling with Sam.

Sam, you see, is the voice that announces the bus stops. Sam with her perfect, posh and perky pronunciation makes even the most depressing sounding destinations seem delightful. “Broke Walk” and “Beggars Hill” seem like places you might actually wish to visit. Travelling on any London bus is a bit like receiving a long, warm, loving hug. At least that’s how it seems to me. Never mind how long you’ve waited or that the weather is awful and the traffic congestion will make you late again. Just sit back, relax and listen to Sam.

“Archway”. Whenever I think of a place now, if it has a bus stop, I hear Sam’s voice announce it in my head. Sam, or Samantha Willard if we’re being formal, is an actress. You won’t have seen her in anything though, not yet. There’ve been a couple of plays on the fringe, but nobody apart from the family and friends of the cast saw them. That was a shame - the rest of you missed a treat.

The buses have provided Sam with her biggest job to date. It took four months to record all those destinations. I remember the day when the pay cheque came in. Sam went straight out and bought a car. She was feeling self-conscious about being the voice of the bus. So the choice was either get a set of wheels or start taking the tube.

I still go to work by bus. I can’t afford a car of my own, but that’s alright. In a funny way, catching the bus alone means we spend more of the day together. I work as a stage manager. That’s how we met. On one of the plays nobody came to. You honestly missed a treat though there. Sam was brilliant. She never mislaid any of the props either, which is important if you’re trying to impress the stage manager. Impressed I certainly was, and madly in love.  

Sam can really inhabit a part. She can play tough, she can play fragile, and in real life, neither word describes her. She holds something back when she’s offstage. Even after three years together, there is still that hint of mystery. Until recently I’ve loved that about her. It’s only now in her absence that I’m starting to fret about that.

You see the thing is that yesterday, when I came home, the flat was empty. There was no note and her car was still parked outside. I tried calling, but her phone was switched off. This wasn’t like Sam, not at all. I still made dinner as I’d bought the ingredients, but it just sat there and went cold, the bottle of wine unopened. I became more worried still. Worried, but also a little suspicious. We’d been bickering more in the last couple of weeks, about little things mainly.  “Pratt Street”

“29 To Trafalgar Square. Pratt Street.” Sam had also seemed slightly preoccupied lately. Distant, dreamy, elsewhere. “Harrods.” No, it was more than just wanting to visit a shop, though Sam certainly did like shopping. “492 To Bluewater.” No, I don’t think it was a credit card splurge she was craving.
I awoke in the night with my mind going crazy, imagining all kinds of things. Sam with some stranger from “Loveday Road.” I couldn’t help myself. I kept picturing them together in “Beddington Park, Cock Lane, Balls Pond Road, Harden Street, Mount Close, Paradise Passage, Yes… Yes…. Yester Road.”

I sat bolt upright in bed. I needed to pull myself together. I needed to trust her. I’d no real reason to suspect she would leave me for anyone else. My friend Toni came over to offer moral support. She assured me that Sam would turn up. From all the years I’ve known Toni I could see she was holding something back however.

“You saw Sam on Monday, at that drinks thing, didn’t you? Did anything strike you as odd about her there?” Toni sipped her tea, pensive.
“Not then. No.”
“Not then? But you’re saying that there’s been another time when you’ve seen my Sammy behaving strangely?”
“Maybe.” Toni looked away. “…Look, it’s not what I’ve seen, Dani… it’s what I’ve heard…”
“You’ve heard something about Sam? A rumour? Some gossip?” Toni shook her head emphatically.

“No.  It’s just something I’ve heard Sam saying. Or rather how it was said.” She paused and took a deep breath. “Remember when I did that lighting gig at the Hampstead Theatre last month, I got the bus up there? The 82 to North Finchley. Have you ever caught that bus, Dani?” I hadn’t as I recalled. Toni refused to elaborate further, saying that the best way to understand what she meant was to catch that bus, and then to listen hard.

Sam and I live in Pimlico and according to Toni the first stop on the “82 To North Finchley” was “Victoria Station”. In my head I tried to recall Sam announcing the bus that we needed to get there. “24 To Hampstead Heath”. It would take us to Victoria Station where we could board the “82 To North Finchley”.

After a seven-minute wait at the stop near the entrance to the Victoria Line, a number 82 swished in. Toni and I boarded, swiping our oyster cards and sat down. That’s when I heard it. “82 To North Finchley”. I went cold. I looked at Toni and Toni looked at me.

“Oh my God! It’s the way she says it!” Toni grimaced. My love had just announced North Finchley as if the place itself held an exciting, intoxicating promise. She had purred that number and those words as if describing a luxury hotel in a desert oasis or an exclusive beach resort for lovers. Sam had nuanced ‘North Finchley’ as if it was a secret destination that would somehow fulfil your every delight and desire.

“Have you ever been to North Finchley?” I asked Toni anxiously. “Is it a world of exotic, intoxicating delights? Does it make you feel renewed, enriched, invigorated? Is North Finchley paradise? Because if my Sam isn’t in love with the place itself then it must be with someone who lives there.” I was in no doubt about that from what I’d just heard. It was the voice of a woman in the full throes of passion, a woman burning with a deliciously strong but illicit desire.

The rest of the bus journey was agony. The nearer we got to our final destination the happier Sam’s voice announcing the stops sounded. Toni had by now put on her headphones and was listening to Kiss FM as was her habit.  “St. Johns Wood Station.” Sam annunciated each syllable with a crisp, smug satisfaction. “Swiss Cottage” she practically gloated. At “Finchley Road Station” her supple vocal chords lingered suggestively long over the ‘f’. Sam was exultant, ecstatic almost. It was unbearable. I needed to escape.

I got off the bus at the shopping centre near the tube and went into the bookshop to calm my nerves. For a moment I lingered near the transport section, as if I might find my answer there, in a bus spotter’s guide, but I knew in my heart that I was just putting off the inevitable.

Ten minutes later there I was standing at the northbound bus stop again, waiting for the next “82 To North Finchley” to arrive. I waited there for at least ten minutes, before I even remembered Toni. I must have left our original bus without her even noticing I’d left her behind. I got as far as taking out my phone to call her, but then I saw the bus approaching. With a deep breath I prepared myself mentally to travel on to my destiny.

“North Finchley”. Sam announced that the bus terminated here. I stepped into the street, hearing the doors hiss shut behind me. I didn’t turn to watch it depart. I just stood there motionless, not even daring to look around me. When I finally made myself view my surroundings, a knot of dread formed in my stomach. For North Finchley was indeed not paradise. It was completely unremarkable. If it wasn’t the place itself that had infused Sam with an aura of loved-up bliss, then clearly it must be someone who lived here.

I walked the streets for a bit, but it was pointless. I had no clue to the identity of my love rival. She or he could live in any of those houses and shops, own one of those cars, and buy lunch or coffee in one of those shops. It was starting to rain. There was nothing more I could do. I crossed the road to the opposite stop to catch the “82 To Victoria Station”. As I boarded the bus I immediately heard the difference. Sam did not sound excited about the return journey. The tone in which she made the announcement was flat. She did not feel as warm and tender about a bus that could return her to me.

It was eerily quiet. When we reached the next stop there was no announcement from Sam telling us the name of its landmark or adjoining street. I approached the driver’s cab. With a quick irritated glance, he snapped that the automatic bus tracker wasn’t working. I sat back down dejectedly. Now not only had Sam left me in person, even my her voice was gone. I was alone, completely forsaken, as the bus headed down the Finchley Road.

My phone shrilled in my pocket. I took it out, expecting it to be Toni, demanding an explanation over being deserted on a bus. Instead I saw Sam’s name on the screen. “Sam! Hello? Sam? Where are you?”

“Royal Free Hospital.” The signal cut out, living the sentence in isolation, like a stop announcement. The bus I was on didn’t pass the Royal Free. I left it at the next stop, which was Swiss Cottage, and after checking the timetables displayed there flagged down a C11. Sam’s voice welcomed me aboard.

“Royal Free Hospital”. At reception they gave me directions to Sam’s ward. There she was, in hospital issue pyjamas, sitting by a bed, with bruises on her face and a piece of plaster forming a diagonal across her forehead. Gradually I pieced together what happened, both from Sam, and from the nurse who arrived to check her blood pressure.

Sam had been admitted to the ward after being brought in by a concerned passer-by. She had been discovered wandering in the street, looking dazed. “Where were you found?” Sam looked at me, her plastered brow knotting in the effort to remember.
“Finchley, I think it was” the nurse butted in. From what I could gather, Sam been standing up on a bus, when it had braked sharply and she had toppled forwards, head hitting one of those metal poles near the door. The concussion had caused temporary memory loss.

That was a fortnight ago. Now Sam is completely recovered and if anything, we’re even closer than we were before. One thing still bothers me though. “Sam? Where were you heading when you boarded that bus? You know, the 82 To North Finchley?” She swears she can’t remember.

To me though there’s still that nagging sense of unease. It centres on that bus announcement. You’ll probably think I’m obsessed, but every day since Sam has returned, I’ve made that journey alone. I catch that bus and travel the whole route on the ’82 To North Finchley’. I close my eyes and concentrate on the tone of delivery of every syllable. Still I hear it. The anticipation, the arousal, the lust, and the delight as she luxuriates in the knowledge that she knows something that the rest of us do not. ’82 To North Finchley’.

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