A to B: Vikings of the N22

Night Buses are where you really find out what life means, writes Eleanor Margolis.

I clamber up the stairs on the N22 bus and, suddenly, I’m looking over a carpet of blonde heads. It’s around 4am and, having done a good few tequila shots, I easily convince myself that I’ve never seen this many blondes in one place. It’s like a Nuremberg Rally in colour. I collapse into the only seat not taken by a blonde. Then I notice it – the lilting, song-like sound emanating from the blondes. They’re Swedish. Every one of them is tall, liberal (probably) and merry. Where they came from, I’ll never know, but like me this boisterous crew of Vikings is heading towards Fulwell.

Fifteen minutes later, I’m certain that I’m starting to pick up Swedish. They’re saying something that sounds a bit like “jårg” quite a lot, so that must be Svensk for, uhh, bus? The jårg stops on the Kings Road and about fifteen more blondes come frolicking up the stairs. To my astonishment, the new blondes know my blondes. They’re Swedish too. Loud greetings are exchanged and I begin to wonder if I’m in the midst of an invasion. It makes sense. Sort of. While we’ve been busy pumping billions into wars in the Middle East, unassuming Sweden has been quietly building fleet of longboats set for British shores.

As I’m trying to work out how to get in touch with the MoD, the Swedes are getting rowdy. And weird. They break into an impassioned chorus of When You Say Nothing At All, by Ronan Keating. It may have something to do with the tequila, but I’m overcome with this warm, doughy feeling startlingly close to optimism. Right here, surrounded by beautiful Nordics singing a fourteen-year-old hit, I’m overwhelmed by how strange and wonderful this moment is. I’m present. Sweet Buddha, I’m present. Eat your mindful heart out, Eckhart Tolle.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a moment of spiritual clarity on the N22 to Fulwell. There was the time a ginger man on acid (retro, I know) tried to convince me that there is a God. We called each other “man” a lot and he decided I was the rightful queen of Belgium. There was also the time I fell in love (for at least twenty minutes) with a girl dressed as Andy Warhol.  For most people, night bus journeys conjure up images of pure, Boschean nightmare; grotesque, misshapen figures vomiting strange liquids out of even stranger orifices. It’s no mystery to me why a busload of puking, singing, belligerent sots isn’t everybody’s cup of gin. But, for me, there’s something more to the post-booze up voyage home. Something bordering on transcendental.

The bus journey home is the anti-climax of a heavy night out. It’s where you begin to sober up and realise that you shouldn’t have put fourteen kisses at the end of that text to a girl you convinced yourself you were over. I even have a specific “wallowing in self-pity” night bus playlist on my phone. It contains more than one Leonard Cohen track. The night bus journey combines intense self-reflection with some of the most fascinating people watching you’ll ever do. It’s the playground of the tired and emotional; the arguing couple, the loner with a sandwich, the tragic figure that is the guy who’s finally realised his animal onesie makes him look stupid. For me, this period of concentrated internal and external evaluation usually culminates in an inner exclamation of something like, “HOLY HELL, I’M SO HUMAN.”

There’s something softly menacing about driving through London in the small hours of the morning. When I lived in South East London, my night bus back from the centre would take me past an empty, litter-strewn Trafalgar Square, under an electric blue sky. Everything seems more beautiful when you’re drunk, and deserted, vomit-slicked streets are no exception. But possibly the most sublime thing about the night bus journey is the promise of Home at the end of it. 

This piece is part of A to B, the New Statesman's week of posts on travel and transport.

A night bus. Photograph: Alastair Rae on Flickr, CC-BY-SA

Eleanor Margolis is a freelance journalist, whose "Lez Miserable" column appears weekly on the New Statesman website.

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear