Ian McMillan: A smoky bus trip that proved a rite of passage

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One of the great rites of passage for me as a young boy was the moment when I was first allowed to go to Wombwell on my own on the bus; it made me feel almost grown up, nearly ready to join the heady and indeed flat-cap-heady world of adulthood. It was only two miles from Darfield and I could have walked but I insisted that I was old enough to go on my own and, to my surprise, my mam agreed. Well, I was 27. Sorry, that’s a cheap joke. I would have been nine.

I felt slightly less adult as my mam insisted on standing with me at the bus stop until the double-decker turned up and the coppers in my hand got warmer and sweatier, and I felt distinctly un-adult as I leaned away when she tried to kiss me as it slowed down to the stop. Then I was suddenly on the bus and sitting down next to big woman who was clutching a monumental handbag and smoking a Park Drive. The bus was heavy with blue smoke and, indeed, I was the only one on the bus without a cigarette. I was scared to death that the passenger I was sharing the seat with would offer me one.

I must have looked like the kind of kid who frequented libraries, which wasn’t quite the International Ian of Mystery image I was trying to project with the Man From UNCLE badge I was wearing.

She spoke in a voice roughened by years of shouting above the machines at the sewing factory. “You off up Wombwell?” she asked. I nodded. She looked at my neatly parted hair and my little man’s leather purse. “You going to’t library?” I must have looked like the kind of kid who frequented libraries, which wasn’t quite the International Ian of Mystery image I was trying to project with the Man From UNCLE badge I was wearing. I decided to speak and my voice went up and down the sonic ladder. “I’m going to buy some stamps,” I said, breathily. She exhaled a great plume of smoke that would have caused some people to send for the fire brigade. “Is Darfield Post Office shut?” she asked. I glanced out of the window; the bus was chugging along more slowly than the passage of time. We were only just going through Low Valley! I saw my mate Chris Allatt riding to Wombwell on his bike, racing the bus. I almost wished I’d walked. I cleared my throat, which was feeling rough. “I’m buying some triangular ones from Monaco,” I eventually managed to say.

She puffed her Park Drive thoughtfully, as though she was examining the sentence I’d just uttered from all possible angles to see if it made any sense at all. She did that thing that I’ve found myself doing as a mature man: she repeated some of the words I’d said, just to see if that illuminated them in any way. “Triangular ones from Monaco,” she said, conspiratorially, and perhaps because of my Man from UNCLE badge it felt for a moment that we were both in a spy film and she was giving me a secret message. She looked baffled. The bus was starting the ascent up the hill into Wombwell.

“I collect ’em, stamps, like,” I said. “I’m going to buy a packet at Turvey’s.” The bus began to slow down and there was a huge shuffling as people prepared to get off. She still looked dubious. “Oh well, it’s good to have a hobby. It’s better than chucking bricks!” she said, and we got off into the Wombwell sun.

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