Systems Of Transit
~5 minute read
Imagine: You’re 35. You don’t have a driver’s license.
When you were 18 you moved to the city, and you’ve lived in the same 10 mile radius ever since. Any time you wanted to go anywhere, do anything, have an experience outside the same rain-slick streets you call home, that meant public transport.
It meant trains. During the years when you were devastatingly, teeth-falling-out-of-your-head poor, it meant long coach journeys booked months in advance, paying a couple of quid to travel hundreds of miles and getting exactly what you paid for.
Have you ever seen a coach station at 4:30am? Have you ever slept in one, because whatever thing you were going to finished after the last coach had left but you couldn’t also afford a night in a hostel?
They’re hostile places. Harsh strip lights, anti-homeless seats that you can’t stretch out on or get comfortable on for more than a few minutes at a time. Blaring announcements, distorted tannoy voices telling you to remain vigilant, report anything strange. See it. Say it. Sorted. Designed for waiting but not lingering. Liminal spaces that hate you and want you gone.
So many journeys have started and ended at coach stations. So many stories. So many adventures.
When I was 20 I read Dracula for the first time and I became obsessed. I can’t tell you what it was about the book that gripped me but something did. Fifteen years later it’s still one of my favourite novels, to the extent that I collect different editions of it for no reason other than that I started doing it at some point and never stopped.
But that’s not the story.
When I was 20 I read Dracula for the first time and I became obsessed. And I decided, on a whim, that I wanted to go to Whitby. The ruined abbey towered in my mind, beckoning me to come and visit. There was a Dracula museum, the kind of thing that’s probably shit but might not be.
I don’t drive, and I couldn’t afford a train (if you can even get a train from Manchester to Whitby. I honestly don’t know) so I booked a coach. Not the National Express – no way I could afford that. MegaBus, the world’s most inappropriately named travel company.
The first leg of the journey was fine. I got on a coach early in the morning – I don’t remember what time exactly – and settled in for the trip to Leeds, where I had to change. I have stories about Leeds coach station – one of the most depressing places in the country – but they’re for another time.
In Leeds I waited for an hour. I bought greasy bacon on a floury white barm from a man in a van in the carpark and dripped fat and brown sauce down my t-shirt. I read a couple of chapters of Dracula. And then the next coach turned up.
The next coach wasn’t a coach at all. It was a double-decker Stagecoach bus, the kind that shuttles you around city centres, and it was going to drive me up the moors to Whitby.
The cosastliner takes two hours. This bus, somehow, was going to take four.
I’ve never had a bus journey so simultaneously terrifying and boring. There’s no way to be comfortable on the hard plastic seats of twenty-year-old Stagecoach bus at the best of time, but especially not when it’s careering around the tiny, windy country roads of the North Yorkshire moors. Every time we rounded a switchback going down the side of a hill the bus tipped in a way that made me think I was going to revisit my breakfast. At one point we stopped for twenty minutes to wait for a flock of sheep to cross the road.
Eventually we reached Whitby and I stretched my legs, somehow numb and cramping at the same time. There was a ship moored in the harbour and the abbey was silhouetted against a sky so bright and blue I thought it would blind me if I looked up for too long. The day was gorgeous and I felt that the journey had been worth it.
The Dracula museum was closed, because it doesn’t open on Mondays and I had somehow missed that when planning the trip, but it was hard to be too disappointed. I made the long hike up to the abbey and spent an hour wandering around the ruins. I visited charity shops. I ate fish and chips in a pub with a view of the sea. I walked the gangplank onto the ship – I can’t remember now whether it was used in Pirates of the Carribean or Master and Commander or both – and explored the decks and talked to the guys who worked on it, sailing this mobile tourist attraction around the world. I watched people empty mountains of lobster pots.
A few hours later I walked up the road and got back on a coach and returned to Manchester via Leeds and I remember nothing of the journey. I still haven’t been to the Dracula museum.
Other stories, but briefer: A six hour coach to London to see Hot Water Music, the bus packed full of kids who called themselves Army going to see BTS, my first exposure to K-Pop, their excitement and passion contagious and thrilling; crossing the Severn bridge, watching in bleary-eyed surprise as on one side a tiny Peugeot 206 depseratly tried to fight against a crosswind threatening to blow it across the carriageway while on the other side a mile-long queue of tanks rolled slowly into Wales; the lurch in my stomach, sitting on a bus in Salford trying to get to work, as a lad in a mask ran out into the road and my instincts knew that a brick was about to go through the window of the bus before my eyes had even registered that he was holding it; sitting down on a coach to go to Glasgow and realising that the guy asleep next to me was someone I’d lived with for two years at uni, whose name I’d never learned. He didn’t wake during the journey, we didn’t speak, and I’m not even sure he knew I was there or that he would have recognised me if he’d opened his eyes.
I could tell stories that take place on buses and trains coaches, in taxis or tour vans or lying in the boot of a friend’s car at 3 in the morning hoping we wouldn’t get pulled over because there wasn’t room for all of us but we were definitely going to a rave, all day long. The percentage of my life that I’ve spent in transit is vast.
Public transport runs on timetables. I’ve been hours early for buses, forced to wait around in blustery shelters for what feels like days. I’ve been almost late, sprinting down train station platforms to jump through a door being held open by a kindly conductor as the train begins to pull away. I’ve missed buses, the door closing in my face as I reached it, or watching the damn thing pull away as I desperately try to cross the road, being forced to ask myself now what. One time I booked tickets for a bus that did not exist. MegaBus, again. Thanks.
One thing I can’t tell you? The times of any of those journeys. The day of the week. The service number.
Many of my stories begin and end with journeys. Many of them are the journey. But the systems that made those journeys possible don’t factor in to the stories at all. They don’t matter.
Similarly, I could tell you stories about the game I’ve played over the years. I could tell you about the whisky-slinging munitions expert who set off a grenade deep underground and buried himself and his friends. I could tell you about the super chill demon guarding a stash of ancient magical artifacts, who shot the shit with a group of adventurers and calmly warned them that he was very sorry but if they opened the door to his room he’d have to murder them all. Nothing personal, just my job. The dwarven cleric wrestling with his gender; the orc bard with the history of his people tattooed on his skin; the barbarian who stuffed an enemy into a bag of holding and dropped him off a roof; the reluctant magician in Victorian england who fell in love with a man he’d only ever seen through a scrying mirror.
So many stories about so many games, and not one of them cares about the way I rolled dice or the numbers I wrote down on a sheet.
Systems facilitate story. They get you where you need to be so that you can do the thing you’re going to do. They aren’t the story itself. As I write this I’m on a train heading to Nottingham, to spend the weekend playing games in person with people I’ve been playing with online for the past 18 months.
The stories this weekend will bring don’t care that my train left Manchester at 11:27 this morning.
Stop obsessing over systems. Start telling stories.
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