Axel had been a gendarme for thirty years, including a stint during the late ’80s when he’d been seconded as a bodyguard to François Mitterrand. He was a short, golden-skinned Breton in his early sixties, with closely-cropped ash-grey hair. He tweaked the tachograph one morning on the road from Lille to Arromanches – where we had an early, inflexible museum slot – slipping a clean disc into the machine when we stopped around dawn in a deserted car-park on the fast road into Normandy. It was cold, and he stood me one of his stubby, filterless Gitanes, giggling as I crouched behind his double-decker coach and coughed away at it.
Brick – which can hardly have been his real name – was one of those spindly London coach drivers who had smoked away his teeth. He shaved bicycle wheels and revved the coach at every red light like a Harley. Spring and Summer, he always wore a claret tie and white short-sleeved shirt that revealed half a crest on his upper arm. Whenever I picked up the microphone he would quibble with my anecdotal histories of the roads he knew too well.
Caspar had been in Ireland for almost a decade, although his family had been with him for just three years after an unhappy separation period during which he’d only been able to return to Durban for a brief annual visit. He told me that he’d given his handsome eighteen-year-old son far-reaching advice about contraception, a concern which overstepped its mark, I thought, when he found Mike Casement necking with Winnie Lyell in the corridor of a hotel in Ballyheigue and told them to ‘have fun, but be sure to wrap it up’. On the road between Killarney and Tralee, he told a riddle about pairs of socks that didn’t quite make sense.
Diane had a mocked-up number-plate, which read ‘DIANE’, above her window on the driver’s side. She was in her late forties, with a short blonde bob that she had probably worn for twenty years. There was also something dated about her mint-coloured blouse worn beneath a charcoal waistcoat, a slightly haphazard take on power dressing that was touchingly offset by bare, bulky forearms. On her day off that week, she told me, she’d be treating her two little nieces to a matinee performance of Wicked.
Enzo had spiky gelled hair and I sometimes thought he was boss-eyed. Even when driving, he wore a black gilet over a stripy sweatshirt – one of the stripes was always purple – usually with jeans and well-worn trainers with Velcro straps. He came from Frosinone and so did his fiancée, although they didn’t live together. He was surprisingly shy for an Italian driver: he never asked questions, which made for a quiet but not unwelcome conversation as we swilled beers in the lively square near the mosque in Florence. I was surprised to come across him again, attempting to conceal a fifty-seat coach in a gentrified square above the old city in Genoa, when I was in the city five weeks later on very different business.
Franco was my first, all watery blue eyes and default smile. His face was younger than his thirty years but he had wet-shaved his head to compensate for his receding hairline, and this made him look older. We walked together down the sea-front at Jesolo after dinner one night, past ranks of ombrelloni and thatched beach-huts. It was my inexperience, I think, rather than his unruliness, which saw us drinking beyond midnight then swaying back to the hotel with the southwards road looming at dawn. When he dropped me at Nice station five days later, with my suitcase stranded in the lobby of a hotel outside Cannes airport and several days of the tour to fulfil, he pressed a pair of grey socks and a white polyester shirt into my hands. ‘Vai, vai alla grande’, he said.
George came from Budapest, and probably wasn’t called George at all. The company had given his name as Róka, fox. This must have been on account not of his sex appeal, since he was a large, gentle, bearded man in his late fifties, but of his copper-coloured hair, slicked back to the nape of his neck. He had very limited English and I have no German or Hungarian, so although we worked together for five days, I never worked out whether he was living in Hamburg, Frankfurt, or Munich, and in a bedsit, a hotel, or company quarters. He ate a colossal schweinshaxe at eleven one morning, just after we’d parked up at Neuschwanstein; the broth I ordered scorched my tongue.
Hans was a stringy fellow with intelligent eyes who I met in a village on the banks of Lake Lucerne. He managed to look smart in a faded mauve T-shirt with a white sweat stain clouding the centre of his chest. With that fine gold chain around his neck, a deep orange tan, and a full head of back-combed white-grey hair, he looked as a retired German darts player might do – if such a thing exists.
Ian was tall, tubby, cheerful, bald, black and Brummie. He said he could hear a Midlands ‘twinge’ in my voice. He wore a day-glo string vest beneath his white shirt, alternating pink and fluorescent green, and this became, for a few of the mothers on board, the focus for mild flirtation. He fussed over his food: at the George Inn in Lacock, he griped that the cod goujons were rigid and told the waitress to bring roast beef instead, and he complained about meat-balls outside Coventry. He loved jam roly-poly, with custard. His coach firm, which gave him scant notice of rest-days and increasingly asked him to sleep in hostels with shared shower facilities, has recently entered administration.
Jim would take his hands off the wheel to thump them on its central panel during the chorus of ‘Whiskey in the Jar’ or ‘The Wild Rover’, which seemed careless on the motorway between Blarney and Dublin and worse on the narrow bends of the Ring of Kerry. Perhaps I encouraged him by perching a foam leprechaun hat on his head while he drove. He was a squat, straight-talking Irishman with a big tawny brush of a moustache. His children had long left home and he lived with his wife in a bungalow on the outskirts of Limerick.
Karim drove a tattered white coach with no markings. He was overweight and slumped across the wheel as if it were an empty plate. He wore a baggy, olive-green jersey that he pushed up past his elbows. He sweated a lot and smelt terrible, which the local guide in Paris pointed out to him, a bit tartly I thought, with her hands flapping. He was a miserable man and the smell seemed his way of advertising it. When he drove me to the Gare de Bercy the following year, he told me about his ten-year old son, who he hadn’t been allowed to contact for eighteen months.
László preferred to be called ‘Strawberry’ or ‘Fragolino’. He called me ‘Daddy’ when he was in a good mood and ‘Capo’ when I made him do something he didn’t want to. Due to set out from Amsterdam at eight on our first day together, I went out in a thick downpour to discover that both the driver’s window and the coach door had been smashed overnight, leaving little sugar-crystals of safety glass across the floor and smears of blood on the dashboard and front seats. He scuttled out under an umbrella and gestured at me forcefully: ‘Why isn’t Adolf still here?’, he said. He was a short, scrawny, fair man, with an idiosyncratic way of ruching his top lip when he meant to smile, which made me think of ferrets. He kept a grubby little cylinder next to the wheel that made a mooing noise when he inverted it, which he did every time we passed a cow-field on the Romantic Road across Bavaria. He had a collection of ten thousand photos taken on his mobile phone in the last decade of driving, and he added to it as we sped along autobahn and autostrada, leaning to the windscreen to photograph cloud formations or cars that had cut him up, pressing his phone to the driver’s window to zoom on Alps and edgelands, and on one occasion, stalled in traffic on the road to Verona, making a sham of rummaging in the overhead compartments before turning to steal a shot of an American girl dozing near the front of the coach. When we parted, he invited me to visit him in the hills outside Budapest in August that year.
Marco preferred to be called Gladiatore. A three-inch plastic hoplomachus was glued to his dashboard, where it confidently brandished a stubby sword at the American titans clambering on to the coach. He was a dumpy little man of about fifty, with silver-grey hair brushed forward like a Roman and the jowls of a gluttonous toad. His wife and daughters lived in Puglia but he had transferred to Tuscany for work. He travelled with neither a map nor a satnav device and, after he had diverted us some twenty kilometres towards Treviso at the end of a long journey to a hotel near Padua, chuckled at me as he boasted that I was ‘fortunato di viaggare con qualcuno che consosce cosi bene le strade’. There was a small ‘D’, about two centimetres across, tattooed inexpertly on his lower-arm. I avoided my usual mic commentary on Italian politics with him, since he let slip over a Spritz on our first evening that he’d begun to crusade against French guides, with their relentless ‘battute contro Berlusconi’.
Norm worked with Ian, and the three of us drank two or three pints together next to the aquarium by the river in Bristol. He was a proud cockney though he’d moved to Droitwich for work. He needed repeated reassurance from Ian that I was unlikely to report his indiscreet criticism of their fleet back to management. His anger felt dangerous, because of how he fixed his eyes to the ground while he began any anecdote that would stoke it. He only calmed when conversation took a technical turn, and I listened in silence for perhaps twenty minutes while they appraised water-cooled retarding systems.
Omar had been born in La Corneuve to Tunisian parents. He hadn’t been to Tunis, where his older sister worked as a lawyer, for three years, but he hoped to go back and visit now that Ben Ali had been overthrown. His girlfriend was pregnant and he was setting the extras aside so they could make the trip when the baby was old enough to fly. We shared a bag of Kettle Chips in the coach park at Vimy Ridge.
Parry picked me up in the mizzle at Holyhead and, at regular intervals during that day as we wended gloomily across Snowdonia, insisted he play a recent recording of his male voice choir to our captive audience. He was a garrulous, high-pitched, shiny-headed Welshman in his late-forties, who had married late and lived with his wife and daughter outside Mold (in a house which he pointed out over the driver’s microphone). Like many of his colleagues, he collected fridge magnets, so at Anne Hathaway’s Cottage I bought him a miniature Shakespeare with a magnetic torso and yellow string limbs.
I have been on the road for seven years now, and have yet to encounter a coach driver whose name begins with Q.
Ravi wanted out. He had studied business at Brunel University and now combined coaching with the management of his private security firm, which provided the muscle for Hindi weddings in and around Harrow. He lived near the garage with his mother, who was ill, and was saving to launch a driving school in North-West London. He was carefully spoken, with a soft lispy voice that made him sound deliberately camp. After a weekend at a coach show in Manchester, he was finicky about the cleanliness and good order of the coach interior: at Wembley Stadium, he accused an eleven-year old boy of tearing a piece of plastic off the drinks-holder in front of his seat, and, as we took the Chertsey turn-off for Thorpe Park, he took the microphone to stipulate that nobody was to go near any water-ride for at least two hours before our scheduled departure.
Simone reminded me of Jaws from the Bond films, only he was gentler. I found it difficult to understand him, since he had a strong Tuscan accent and a speech defect that caused him to slur his words like a distorted cassette recording. He carried his cigarettes in a dainty leather satchel and would always offer me the packet before delving into it himself.
Tim met me well before dawn at a hotel in Newbury Park to transfer a group to Heathrow. As he opened the hold of the coach and the first suitcases rolled towards us, he said ‘you’re on your own’ and slapped his left leg, which made the dull noise of some kind of strong metal. He paid weekly rent on a small single room in Sidcup.
Umberto would only talk to me when I found him extra money. He had brown teeth and I gathered that his wife of thirty-five years had begun making arrangements to leave him. He couldn’t understand why the group refused to visit the inlaid-wood shop in Sorrento, and the following day we shared three long silent hours on the road back to Rome. But his handshake was warm enough when I saw him on the Viale G. Washington two years later.
Vinnie’s eldest son supported Aston Villa, and, since he was leaving Edinburgh before seven, he hoped to be back in Birmingham for the late afternoon kick-off at Villa Park. He had a plump face and a slightly red nose, which on his small frame made him look a little like a cartoon dwarf. He was shy and uncomplaining, and seemed bewildered when a drunk woman, celebrating her fifty-second birthday in a short yellow dress – and with her teenage son in tow – approached us in a pub near Calton Hill and invited us to dance.
Wojciech accelerated down hills and tailgated nervous estate cars through the Highlands, although he’d driven the road to Inverness only once before. A baby-faced twenty-five year old from Kraków, he had a little paunch that might have been mistaken for puppy-fat but was more likely a recent development. At Culloden he stood next to a PE teacher from Muncie, Indiana, grinning generously in the light mist as I bluffed a short speech about ‘Butcher’ Cumberland. At a hotel folk evening in Ballater that night, he seemed to skip onto the wooden floor when, short of numbers, I asked him to step up and join in as the band struck up ‘The Gay Gordons’.
Xavier had been drafted in only hours previously since, with French public-sector workers striking, the night train from Paris to Florence had been cancelled on the afternoon of its departure. He was a startlingly handsome, healthy-looking man of about forty-five, with an unmistakable resemblance to the actor George Clooney. He shared the overnight drive to Nice with another man whose name I’ve now forgotten. At sunset, we pulled into an Autogrill outside Auxerre and tucked into pungent andouillettes with immense plates of French fries while we discussed how to slacken the journey so as not to reach Nice before dawn. As we crossed the Saône, he asked me whether I knew an English family who might host his thirteen-year old son for the summer.
Yolanda wore plaits. We banged our heads together with some force as we packed suitcases into the hold at Schiphol.
Zoltan lived in a one-bedroom flat in Livingston with his fiancée, who had a PhD in business management, although he had recently abandoned local school-bus runs to work the busy summer season for a fleet based in the Rhine Valley. He excused himself after dinner every evening at about eight o’clock to meet her online. She was twelve years younger than him, but he seemed significantly less than forty and I was surprised when he told me he had a twenty-one year old daughter who lived with her mother in Pécs. He wore a black suit every day, often coupled with a sort of wide-brimmed bushman’s hat, which he now donned out of necessity having developed an allergy to strong sunlight the previous year. He made many apologies for his English – he thought it had deteriorated, if anything, in the four years he had lived in Scotland – but we always tried, especially on those long-haul drives where the road stretches ahead of you like perhaps an open lifetime, not to talk shop.
Some names have been changed.
Illustrations by Julian Mills