Amsterdam Bob. By Martin Friel.
It was 1996. I was 18 and living the loose life in Glasgow. Ostensibly, I was studying a history degree at uni but found myself being a typical student, smoking dope all day and drinking at night, very seldom at class. Looking back I was a cliché but at the time I thought I was pretty ace. I had moved from Canada three years previously and had kept in touch with good friends so I was delighted when Mike phoned and told me he was coming over for two weeks. Although we had never been the closest of friends, we had a certain amount of respect for each others outlooks on life. In fact thats a lie. He had put me up for a week when I had gone over to visit so I suppose we were pretty good friends. Anyway, I was desperate for any contact with my previous life in Canada, so I welcomed Mike over with open arms.
We decided about a week before he arrived that we should spend a week in Amsterdam. As I spent most of my free time high, I couldnt think of a better place to get away from things. Also, it meant that Mikes trip wouldnt be a wearying succession of castles and cheap tourist traps. Anyway, he had had been hit by a drunk driver as he stood at a bus stop months previously. We both agreed that the fine weed on offer in Amsterdam would kill the permanent pain and aid in his rehabilitation. It made sense to us anyway.
After he had spent a week in Scotland, we got the bus down to London, stayed with my parents for a night before heading out to Amsterdam, again by bus. Now if you ever find yourself trying to decide whether to take plane, train or automobile to a destination, under no circumstances take the bus if the journey is any longer than 8 hours. Even if it is unbelievably cheap. This is how they trap you. Offering the bus journey for less than the price of a packet of fags. You think that fuck it, I dont care how long it takes, its sooooo cheap. By the time you have reached the dazzling lights of Belgium, you may find yourself clawing at the windows, begging for air, mercy, morphine, anything to stop the pain. I have never experienced cabin fever like it. People and their pointless little bags of food begin to smell rather rapidly in the mid-summer sun. Oh yeah, and if you get a really cheap journey, you might be lucky enough to get a bus with broken air conditioning. A thousand frantic farts trapped in a relatively small capsule, crawling by the featureless and repetitive landscape of Northern Europe, does not an enjoyable journey make. Dont do it. It doesnt make sense. No, not even if it is really cheap.
The journey was made strangely bearable by a random character that had got on at Victoria station with us. He was first spotted by Mike as we sat waiting for the capsule of doom to let passengers board. He was a scruffy wee fellow, all straggly hair, limp, loose clothes and a shambolic air about him. Mike elbowed me discreetly,
That guy looks just like Bob Dylan.
I had a squint at the guy and had to agree, there was a distinct similarity. The guy drew our attention from then on. He seemed to shuffle about furtively, distracted, agitated, opening, searching and closing his bag repeatedly. We were watching him with idle interest when the bus pulled up to its berth to begin letting passengers on. Bob, as hed now been named, ran up to greet the bus, brushing people aside in his fervour to get aboard. He stood in front of the door waiting for it to open. After about ten seconds he started to fidget. Ten more seconds and he had his hands cupped round his eyes, trying to see through the tinted glass. He looked around at the others, searching for an explanation for the delay. Just as turned back round to peer into the bus, the door suddenly opened outward. It slammed poor Bob in the face, quite solidly. He looked dazed for a second, shook his head quickly, and dived aboard. Needless to say, Mike and I were pissing ourselves laughing at this strange little man and his strange little ways. Once our delight in his little accident had subsided, we gathered our bags together and ambled onto the bus.
Bob got himself noticed quite quickly into the journey. We were approaching Dover when he suddenly leapt out of his seat down the front and ran up to the back window. He placed both hands on the glass, looking out at the receding road and started singing a dreadful rendition of London Pride, an old sentimental ditty about how fucking great London is supposed to be. It was quite plaintive sounding really. He stayed that way for a good few minutes before turning to look at us quizzically, then scampered off down to the front of the bus. It was clear to us both at this point that Bob was either wired to the moon or was a care in the community case. Either way, it could turn out to be a very entertaining journey or a vaguely worrying one. I think that I at least was prepared for both.
Not long after we had re-boarded the bus upon arrival at Calais, Bob started to pace up and down the corridor of the bus. Initially, he did not reach us at the back and we wondered what he was saying to people. He was getting right in their faces. In response, his victims, to a man, looked thoroughly repulsed and drew back sharply at his approach. Eventually, he reached us. We were prepared but I was unsure what exactly we were prepared for. All I knew was that it was going to be something repugnant. The faces of the other passengers had made this clear.
As he scuffled closer to us, we simultaneously became aware of a foul odour. It could only be coming from our friend Bob. Sure enough, as he got closer, the intensity of the smell increased until it became almost unbearable. He leaned in close to Mike. I wondered what he was going to do. Feelings of amusement and foreboding mingled.
Got a sandwich mate? Bob breathed.
I could see poor Mikes eyes watering.
No, sorry. I dont have anything to eat, Mike responded whilst attempting not to breathe. It made him sound like he throat cancer or something.
You sure? What about you? Bob asked as he turned to me.
He wasnt aggressive or anything but you just know that someone who smells of bins and goes round a bus asking for sandwiches from strangers is not to be taken lightly.
Nah, sorry. Neither of us have anything to eat.
The smell emanating from this wee man was almost overpowering.
What about something to drink then? he enquired.
No, nothing. Now piss off, Mike squeaked, still trying his hardest not to breathe.
Bob looked affronted. He stared straight at Mike, pointed a bony finger at him and started to walk backwards, holding Mikes stare. I think he was trying to hex him or something. Finally, he twirled around with a flourish and was off pestering new victims in search of his holy grail of sandwich and drink.
Despite the cabin fever, the rest of the journey passed without much more disruption. Bob seemed to amuse himself with his seat and talking at the poor souls around him. The odd Shut the fuck up would pierce the quietness of the bus occasionally but apart from that, all was quiet. I started to hate the people who sat around me. I hadnt uttered a word to them but I hated their faces, their flabbiness. Their clothes annoyed me, the noises that came from their loose mouths irritated me. I knew I was in the grip of cabin fever. Hating a complete stranger and wanting to claw at heir face just because they looked ugly as they slept and drooled was not normal, not even for me. I had to get off the bus soon. I couldnt even be fucked with Mike. His long hair annoyed me. Why was it so long? It looked stupid. Need to get off the bus. I heaved a sigh of relief as I spotted a sign saying Amsterdam-60miles. Doesnt sound too close but it was a hop skip and a jump to salvation as far as I was concerned. Mikes hair stopped annoying me.
As we got off the bus in the centre of Amsterdam, I spotted Bob scampering off into the night. It was around midnight and it was obvious that Bob had places to go, people to see. Where and who, I had no idea but he seemed to be on a mission.
Intelligently, Mike and I had decided that it was unnecessary to book a hostel bed before we had left London. Where this little gem of wisdom had come from I have no idea, but as we trawled the city looking for two empty beds, it dawned on us that we had not really planned this thing out. As it approached one thirty in the morning, we finally found a place that had one bed left and was willing to put a mattress on the floor of the T.V. room for the other. At last free of worry, we headed out into the cool Amsterdam night.
As we walked down the streets that night, I realised what a strange place Amsterdam really was. Loons were running down the streets doing cartwheels, whooping up a storm, fat business men were strolling arm in arm with achingly beautiful Oriental women, a dog was trying to gnaw its way through the piece of string that attached it to its comatose owner. All at once I loved it and feared it. I felt exposed but at the same time really quite free. We settled for a coffee shop named after Baloo from the Jungle Book. I think it soothed us to sit somewhere that evoked warm memories of childhood. Baloo had always protected Mowgli. We smoked copious amounts of industrial strength weed, got the fear, and stumbled out to try and locate our hostel.
I woke up the next day to find a tall Scandinavian-looking man sniffing my shoes. I had left them on the windowsill the previous night to try and air them out. Obviously it hadnt worked. When I asked him what he was doing, he turned and mumbled what I took to be an apology in an undecipherable language and put my shoes back before scampering out the room. As I came to and fully grasped what I had just seen, I came to the only sane conclusion; this was going to be an interesting wee trip.
We spent our days smoking weed and drinking fine Dutch lager. We really didnt do anything else. We didnt want to. One night we decided to go take a look at the infamous Red Light District, just to look you know. We walked passed some of the most disgusting women I have ever seen, encased in glass and trying to tempt punters in with their dubious wares. One even sat picking her nose. There was only one good-looking one as far as I could see. Maybe the hot ones had the night off. I have a habit of picking the wrong night for things. As we passed an alleyway, bemoaning the lack of quality in the whores, something in the alleyway caught my eye. I stopped dead in my tracks, paralysed. I had to call Mike back. He was still muttering about filthy whores.
Youre not going to believe this Mike.
What? Another filthy whore? Oh do shock me.
Remember Bob? I asked him. Bob from the bus.
Remember him? I can still taste his foul odour. I dont think Ill ever lose that memory.
Well look, hes right there, I said as I pointed at a crumpled shape lying against the wall of the alleyway.
Mike looked at me incredulously, but a close look at the heap of clothes confirmed what I had told him. Bobs social skills had not improved much. He had his face pushed into a plastic bag that rested between his legs. He appeared to be eating out of it, like a horse out of a feedbag. We stood and watched for a bit, transfixed. At one point he looked up at us, squinted briefly and proceeded to thrust his head back into the bag, munching furiously. We came to the conclusion that Bob was homeless and hungry. I started to feel bad that we had dismissed him so readily on the bus. But then again, if he was homeless, how could he afford to travel to Amsterdam? I know I said it was cheap, but not that cheap. I started to toy with the idea that he was an eccentric millionaire and that we would do well to make friends with him. One last look at him gorging himself on what I now took to be garbage quickly shook that stupid thought from my head.
Small town, if not small world, I said.
Yeah. Never thought wed see him again, said Mike. Strange little fucker.
By the time the week had finished, we were both ready to go home. Mike and I hardly had a word to say to each other anymore. Two weeks living in each others pockets had taken its toll. For the last couple of days, we had sat in cafes in silence, only talking to each other when necessary. This made me sad but I suppose it is inevitable. We smoked the last of the weed in the early morning light down by one of the canals before heading to the bus station to make our way home, in silence.
On the bus Mike sat listening to his personal stereo. I nudged him in the ribs. He gave me a wearied look and sighed what?
Guess who? I said gesturing to the guy scampering on to the bus.
Mike looked up and his jaw dropped when he recognised our friend Bob. He was carrying the same plastic bag we had seen him with in the alleyway. To our joint horror, he took a seat directly in front of us. A wall of pungent odours hit us immediately, soaking into our every pore, assaulting every sense.
Oh fuck. Youre kidding me on, I muttered.
As the bus finally pulled out, Bob started to fidget intensely. He was pulling and tugging at everything within his reach, even reaching over to where other passengers were sitting. They were Bob virgins but were quickly learning that he was going to be a trial for the entirety of the long, tedious journey. At one point he reached right under his seat and started smacking my feet away:
My space, my space, he screeched.
I wasnt about to argue with him. Although I had never seen him be aggressive, He still made me wary to confront him. It wasnt long before our hero was doing his sandwich rounds again, tugging at peoples clothes, trying to get heir attention, seemingly completely unaware of his overpowering aroma. I really have never smelt anything like, before or since. It defied description. There was definitely an element of rotten food to it mingled with a complete disregard for basic hygiene. During the course of his rounds, Bob came to us. There was a very vague look of recognition on his face when he saw us. He appeared to shake that off and proceeded to ask us for sandwiches etc. Now it happened that this time I did have a sandwich and gave half of it to him. He looked absolutely delighted with himself and I felt good, like a boy scout who has done his good deed for the day. This feeling vanished when I witnessed him going to his seat in front of us and stuffing the sandwich into the awful midden he had stored in his plastic bag. I couldnt understand it and by the look on Mikes face I could see that he was equally perplexed. Maybe Bob just had a fetish about sandwiches. Perhaps he just liked to collect them rather than eat them. That would certainly explain the rotten food smell. He sat in his seat for a couple of hours after that, relatively well behaved. The smell was a constant affront; God, I just got a whiff of it from memory, fucking awful.
The bus made one of its customary pit stops along the motorway. We were all told not to go far because we were stopping for only ten minutes. Everyone obeyed and stayed pretty close to the bus, all except for the ever-intrepid Bob. I saw him running, and I mean running across a bridge over the motorway. Perhaps he had detected a sandwich in the distance. Regardless, I was delighted to see him running away because the driver had told us that if anyone was late, too bad, he was leaving anyway. Please Bob, please get lost and be late. Please, for the sake of your fellow passengers. All I could do was hope and pray.
Mike and I had started talking again, at first tentatively but gradually back into full conversations. They mainly concerned Bob and his intrinsic weirdness but I was just glad that we were talking again. The silence between us had become oppressive. Eventually, all the passengers returned to the bus, all except Bob. I felt my stomach tighten in anticipation. Could it really be that we would be at last free of this fetid little man? Mike looked at me with a very serious face:
Keeps you fingers crossed. Pray to whatever God you follow. Do whatever it takes to stop that thing coming back on the bus.
Bob had obviously scarred Mike more than I had realised. He had an almost pleading look in his eyes. The bus engine kicked over, the anticipation and relief throughout the bus was palpable, we were going to make it. Just as the bus started to pull out, a small but determined shriek could be heard. Coming over the bridge was the bedraggled site of Bob hurtling towards us with what I took to be evil intent.
Drive. Just fucking drive will you! screamed a young guy at the back, fully aware of what Bobs presence on the bus would mean for all of us. Unfortunately, the bus driver appeared to be consumed by fear and slowed enough for Bob to catch up. A collective groan swept across the bus as Bob finally hauled himself aboard, fetid bag clutched in his hand. He looked thoroughly pleased with himself, like hed beaten the odds. He settled back into his seat as his now-familiar aroma swept through the bus.
Bob was strangely quiet for the rest of the journey across mainland Europe but something happened inside him when we reached Dover. He seemed to become revitalised and started to get that fidgety way again. He was pestering people about really obscure things like did they speak Spanish, or had they ever been to a farm? One young guy from the back finally snapped. He came storming up to where Bob sat and thought about grabbing his collar, but wisely reconsidered. He squared right up to Bob and swore that if he went anywhere near any of the other passengers again, he would personally smash his face into the window and throw him off the bus. His rage had obviously been building for some time; perhaps he too had been on the outbound journey. His outpourings of sheer anger, frustration and hatred had the desired effect. Bob looked really wounded, perplexed. As his aggressor sat back down, Bob again began to sing London Pride quietly and sadly. Apart from that, he heeded the warning and kept himself to himself.
As the bus pulled into Victoria station, Bob rushed up to the door like an excited school child. He was first off and bounded off into the distance, just as he had done upon arrival in Amsterdam. He again looked as though he had things to do, people to see. His daft little song was stuck in my head for the remainder of the journey up to Glasgow, just as his smell stuck in my nostrils. I never saw Bob again but from time to time, when I pass a bin baking in the sun, the aroma takes me rushing back to travelling to and from Amsterdam and that strange little man Bob. This memory is usually followed by a shudder but as the years have passed, Ive actually found myself looking back at Bob in near-fondness. He stank and he was annoying, but I have never met anyone quite like him since. Why he travelled to Amsterdam for a week remains a mystery but I have come to the conclusion that homeless people go on holidays too; same alleyways, different country. And why not? It takes all sorts.
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