Book Club: Read Last Days of the Bus Club

Read the first chapter of our Book Club book of the week, Last Days of the Bus Club by Chris Stewart.

 

Chris Ana Chloe

Chris, Ana and Chloé.

 

Through all the years of my daughter Chloé’s schooling it fell to me to get the family ship under way in the morning. I function better in the early hours; Ana, my wife, lasts longer into the night than I do. And so it was that on a cool September morning, the first day of Chloé’s last year at school, I rose in the dark. At six forty-five it’s still dark where we live, in the mountains of Granada, as, even at summer’s end, the sun takes its time rising above the cliffs behind our home. Leaving my wife and the dogs fast asleep in the bedroom, I padded across the cold stone floor to the bathroom, splashed my eyes with cold water, dressed, and went into the kitchen. I put the kettle on, lit the candles for the breakfast table and at seven o’clock I woke Chloé. In all the fourteen years of the school run I did not have to wake her again more than on one or two occasions. She loved school, and would appear without fail ten minutes later blinking in the candlelight and clutching her heavily stacked backpack.

These I would slit open with a razor-sharp knife, leaving an infinitesimal hinge of crust.

Chloé’s breakfast, a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a bowl of some absurd industrially modified cereal product – Choco Kreks, ideally – was already on the table, while I busied myself with the first task of the day: the preparation of her mid-morning sandwich. In the creation of these little masterpieces I employed all the imagination and artistry I possess. I couldn’t bring myself to inflict upon my daughter the standard Spanish bocadillo – a dry and artless roll, unaccountably afforded the status of cultural icon in spite of its curious quality of emerging from the oven almost completely stale. No, for Chloé’s delectation I would first select a better class of bun – and these are to be had, if you know where to look. (Supermercado Mercadona, top left corner of the bakery section, labelled ‘Mini Ciabattas’.)

These I would slit open with a razor-sharp knife, leaving an infinitesimal hinge of crust. Then I would oil them up a bit with a little extra-double-virgin, cold-pressed, unfiltered, single-variety, single-estate olive oil from our own Picual trees, add a layer of thinly sliced tomatoes (ready salted to enhance the flavour), a dab of sugar to counteract the acidity, a couple of transparently thin slivers of fresh garlic, some Genoese basil, and finally a dollop of mayonnaise to help the whole concoction slip down … oh, and a few chives sticking out of the end like whiskers on a prawn.

This was the vegetarian option. There was a meat one, too, with exquisite embutidos – the preserved meats that the Spanish do rather well – enlivened by a scattering of sliced gherkins, some chilli sauce perhaps, and a handful of herbs. Or the oriental bocadillo with ginger, chutney, a prawn or two and some beansprouts.

I would then slip a couple of these into one of those silver bags that vacuum-packed coffee comes in; they fit perfectly and it made them smell of fresh coffee, which Chloé, especially when little, didn’t like, but I thought would set her up for the future.

In truth these snacks were not always greatly to Chloé’s taste. When young, she disliked being marked out as different from her peers, and would mournfully report that she had shared her bocadillos with her friends, and the friends, who were no doubt busy trying to get their teeth through their own stale dry buns, had not thought much of them. But gradually things changed, and Chloé, charged with the nostalgia teenagers develop for their infancy, increasingly accepted my creations for what they were – simple manifestations of love.

 

Lemon Bus Club

That morning, with an atmosphere of newness that comes with the first day back at school, the bocadillos crammed in amongst the books in Chloé’s backpack, and the backpack on my back, we left the house to walk down the hill and across the valley, with Bumble and Bao, the dogs, sniffing the fresh morning scents behind us.

The first rays of sunshine were already warming the far side of the valley, as we walked past the stable, pausing to catch the cacophony of farting and coughing with which the sheep habitually start the day, and hastened upriver amongst the oleanders and tamarisk to the bridge. Our bridge, being a ramshackle contrivance of worm-eaten eucalyptus beams thrown across the river, has no railings, and tends to sag and creak if you creep gingerly across it. So we don’t; casting caution to the side we leap down the bank and race across as fast as we can go. For late summer there was a good flow of red-tinged, iron-rich water rushing down the river. With only minutes to go now we scrambled into the aged Land Rover – no doors – and accelerated off along the sandy tracks in the riverbed, and up the hill towards the final stop on the school bus route, just above La Cenicera, the farm where our Dutch neighbour Bernardo lives.

Jesús, who keeps a flock of goats and sheep high up on Carrasco, the hill farm opposite us, was already there in his little white van, and Bernardo was leaning on its roof, chatting to him through the open window.

In a cloud of dust we hurtled past the little gathering and raced to get the car turned round before the bus came. The dust had hardly settled before the bus nosed cautiously round the corner. There was a rush and tumble of frantic kissing as Bernardo kissed his son Sebastian, Jesús kissed his boys José and Javier, and I kissed Chloé, and they climbed onto the bus, leaving us three fathers waving until it disappeared round the corner.

 

Lemon Bus Club

 

And so began the morning’s meeting of the three fathers of the valley – Bernardo, Jesús and me – or the Bus Club, as I liked to call it. I think we all rather cherished being able once again to have these few minutes together at the start of a weekday; we had missed it over the long summer months. It gave us a chance to discuss what was going on in the valley, exchange what scant news there was from the town, and reminisce a little.

It’s always a pleasure to ask Jesús about his daughters just to see the honest pride it stirs in him.

Inspired perhaps by the presence of a horrible-looking cur of a dog that was sniffing the wheel of Jesús’s van, perhaps with a view to urinating in a small way against it, Bernardo was telling a scurrilous tale that featured dogs. We learned that he had a bitch on heat, and he had locked her in the bathroom in order to protect her from the lascivious attentions of the hordes of male curs who had travelled from the four corners of the province of Granada to press their suits.

‘I locked ’er in de barfroom,’ he said, ‘because it’s de only place wid a lock on de deur, an’ dere wass orl dese doggs howlin’ an’ barkin’ an’ slobberin’ about der place orl nite long an’ I don’t want ’em to get at ’er.’

‘Very sensible,’ Jesús and I concurred.

‘Only when I come out in de mornin’ de whole lot of ’em was down in de barfroom wid der bitch, dey gone an’ dug a ’ole through de roof.’

‘Ah,’ I observed sagely. ‘You can’t lock the door on love, Bernardo.’ Jesús grinned in agreement.

‘Dat’s not lurv,’ exclaimed Bernardo, looking at us in amazement, ‘Dat’s jus’ doggs fockin’.’

Of course we spoke in Spanish, because Jesús was limited to his native tongue, but I have written this little exchange in a sort of cod Dutch-English, in an attempt to give the flavour of Bernardo’s Spanish, which is extremely good, but at least as idiosyncratic as my own.

Turning to Jesús, I asked after Ana and María-José, his two daughters. Not so long ago they too had waited for this same bus, like two baby birds they seemed, with backpacks on. But a couple of years ago they’d left to go to university in Granada. It’s always a pleasure to ask Jesús about his daughters just to see the honest pride it stirs in him. When they were schoolgirls, Jesús would answer with a fond, if slightly mystified, expression, ‘Oh, they’re doing fine.’ He wasn’t even really sure what they were studying; it was so far removed from the experience of this hard-working man who had lived and raised his family by the strength of his arm and the milk of his goats. But the day that Ana and Maria-José took their seats in the lecture halls of Granada University – one to study Business Administration, the other Economics – was a giant step for their family and the valley, and it was felt by all of us. A generation earlier it would have been almost impossible for country girls like these to attend university; they would have been needed to help on the farm, and a farm’s meagre returns would certainly not have stretched to tuition fees and accommodation in the city.

‘Ay, Cristóbal,’ he said. ‘Enjoy this year with Chloé while you can; it’ll be gone in a flash and she’ll be off.’

Bernardo nodded knowingly; his two eldest were also living in Granada, while Rosa his younger daughter, who used to be Chloé’s playmate, was about to leave to work for an NGO in Colombia. It seemed that the children of the valley were disappearing fast. Though Jesús still had the two boys, and Bernardo his Sebastian, my days in the Bus Club were numbered. I changed the subject a little abruptly.

‘I’ve got a lamb for you, Jesús, if you want it,’ I said. ‘Seems an odd time to be lambing.’

‘I know, but we have a few out-of-season lambers, covered by a rogue ram. Anyway, one of them has twins and I don’t think she’s got enough milk for both of them. Have you got goats milking at the moment?’

‘There’s always goats to milk,’ said Jesús with resignation. ‘I’ll be happy to take it.’

‘Then I’ll bring it to Bus Club tomorrow.’

And so saying, we all set off home to our respective breakfasts.

 

Lemon Bus Club

 

It was not many weeks after the beginning of the term that I got a call from Chloé’s school. It was from the assistant head, no less, and she wondered if, as a local author accustomed to regaling the public on the subject of my books, I might like to give a talk to the Instituto classes?

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘What do you want me to talk about?’

‘Oh, whatever takes your fancy, really. We’ll leave the subject up to you.’

Well, addressing the school would be pan comido, I thought (the Spanish say ‘bread eaten’ rather than ‘a piece of cake’). You don’t have to prepare a thing like this; you just turn up and do it.

Or perhaps not. For, when I told Chloé, she expressed some concern.

‘You’ve got to prepare this speech, Dad,’ she insisted. ‘The Instituto class is only a year below me. They’re my friends, or at any rate the younger brothers and sisters of my friends.’

You laugh all your days – and it’s one of the very best things in life – but you don’t often laugh the way you laughed when you were at school

This gave me pause for thought, for apart from not wishing to shame my daughter I was a great admirer of Órgiva’s school and its staff. It had done what Ana and I considered an excellent job, despite the fact that when we enrolled Chloé, Spain had one of the worst education records in Western Europe, and Andalucía the worst in Spain. But due to some fortunate glitch round about the turn of the new century – a good headmaster and some inspirational teachers – San José de Calasanz was different.

Chloé was emerging from school with an easy sociability, a confidence in her own judgement and a laudable streak of anti-materialism bordering on contempt for fashion brands and accessories. These qualities might have had something to do with our own attitudes, but the ideas were consolidated by her pandilla at school. And the pandilla, the gang of girls and boys with whom she hung out, taught her to deal easily and naturally with her fellow beings, and to be comfortable in her own skin in a peculiarly Mediterranean way. This counts for a lot, and I was proud of Chloé and deeply grateful to all those who had helped to bring her up.

Of course it had a lot to do with growing up as a Spaniard. A century or so ago, George Borrow, in his book The Bible in Spain, made the rather pertinent observation of the Spanish: ‘that in their social intercourse no people in the world exhibit a juster feeling of what is due to the dignity of human nature, or better understand the behaviour which it behoves a man to adopt towards his fellow human beings. It is one of the few countries in Europe where poverty is not treated with contempt, and, I may add, where the wealthy are not blindly idolised.’

Well, that’s what our daughter got from the village school. And she had a point about the speech: this was an important gig and I had to get it right. So I thought about it for a bit and hit on the theme of laughter and school.

You laugh all your days – and it’s one of the very best things in life – but you don’t often laugh the way you laughed when you were at school, that gut-busting, aching, due to some fortunate glitch round about the turn of the new century – a good headmaster and some inspirational teachers – San José de Calasanz was different.

Chloé was emerging from school with an easy sociability, a confidence in her own judgement and a laudable streak of anti-materialism bordering on contempt for fashion brands and accessories. These qualities might have had something to do with our own attitudes, but the ideas were consolidated by her pandilla at school. And the pandilla, the gang of girls and boys with whom she hung out, taught her to deal easily and naturally with her fellow beings, and to be comfortable in her own skin in a peculiarly Mediterranean way. This counts for a lot, and I was proud of Chloé and deeply grateful to all those who had helped to bring her up.

Of course it had a lot to do with growing up as a Spaniard. A century or so ago, George Borrow, in his book The Bible in Spain, made the rather pertinent observation of the Spanish: ‘that in their social intercourse no people in the world exhibit a juster feeling of what is due to the dignity of human nature, or better understand the behaviour which it behoves a man to adopt towards his fellow human beings. It is one of the few countries in Europe where poverty is not treated with contempt, and, I may add, where the wealthy are not blindly idolised.’

Well, that’s what our daughter got from the village school. And she had a point about the speech: this was an important gig and I had to get it right. So I thought about it for a bit and hit on the theme of laughter and school.

You laugh all your days – and it’s one of the very best things in life – but you don’t often laugh the way you laughed when you were at school, that gut-busting, aching, an eleventh-hour inspiration. I had been mulling over the way in which Chloé and her friends, both boys and girls, seemed to treat one another as if they belonged to the same species. Having been to a single-sex boarding school in England, I had for many years harboured a certain envy for boys who went to school with girls, and consequently knew how to deal with them on a more or less equal footing. I decided there and then to address the school on the great benefits of co-education.

Now, my method with talks, whatever the language, is to sketch in some basic themes and leave the actual wording of the thing to fend for itself. That way, I imagine, I can achieve an element of spontaneity, and may even, seeing as I don’t actually know what I’m about to say next, share a bit of interest in the matter with the audience.

 

Lemon Bus Club

 

So, as I drove along the narrow road to town, I cast my mind back to the momentous day when, after years at that boys’ boarding school, I entered Crawley New Town’s finest co-educational sixth-form college, and a giddy infatuated trance that was to last the best of two years. These were pleasing thoughts to mull upon, but before I knew it I was being led up the steps of the assembly hall and confronted with a great rabble of youth milling about in the passages and aisles. Chloé was in the senior building, safely (as far as she was concerned) out of the way, but I could pick out a few friendly faces from the younger siblings of her friends and the families we knew in town.

There was a not altogether fruitful call to silence as the last few miscreants scrambled noisily to their seats. The teacher – it was Dori – introduced me and I was left alone. I looked out for a moment across the heaving sea of girls and boys, waiting for the muse. And then I was away like a clockwork monkey, relishing the Spanish idioms that sprang to my aid and using my foreignness to advantage. I managed to raise the odd snigger and giggle, but if the truth be told it was like getting blood out of a stone (to be fair, not much of what a fifty-something-year-old has to say is funny to a teenager). I talked about the advantages of small town life; I told a little moral tale; I recommended the road less travelled, and extolled, briefly – and cautiously – some of the virtues of the wild side; and then I launched into my great paean to co-educationalism.

I’m not sure that even I had much of a sense of what this blather was adding up to, and the slightly bemused expression of my audience did little to reassure me.

I wasn’t far into it when a minor linguistic problem presented itself: I was suddenly seized by a doubt that such a word actually existed in Spanish. Why should it? Just about all education was co-educational, so why should there be a special word for it? This thought brought me almost to a standstill. But I soldiered on.

My preferred strategy for this sort of situation is to slide neatly into the circumlocution. Forget the grammar and the vocabulary, and, if things are getting really out of hand, even the meaning; I just launch myself confidently onto a tangential track. The muse carried me along as I talked in ever more discursive mode about the pleasures of the sexes mingling, the masculine conjoining with the feminine, both coming together to create a well-rounded person.

I’m not sure that even I had much of a sense of what this blather was adding up to, and the slightly bemused expression of my audience did little to reassure me. But I plunged heedlessly on with my peroration, ending with my certainty that it was going to school with both girls and boys that had rescued me at the last minute from the warped confines of my earlier single-sex schooling and that I was sure it would be the making of all of them, too.
‘And that’, I said, by way of winding up, ‘is it.’

There was that dread pause while my local reputation as a speaker hung in the balance, and then, to my relief, a spattering of polite applause laced with a puzzling undertone of sniggering from the older kids, and Dori came up on stage, gave me a kiss and bundled me off.

‘Phew,’ I said, ‘tough gig.’ Or rather, I thought I said ‘tough gig’. Dori was looking at me uncertainly. ‘Un bolo duro’ is what I said, and that, as I subsequently discovered, does not mean ‘tough gig’ at all, but rather ‘a hard skittle’.

However, a hard skittle turned out to be about right, when on the following day reports of my speech reached my daughter. She climbed off the bus with an uncharacteristically sour, if not hurt, expression on her face.

‘Dad, don’t you think there are some things that you and Mum might want to discuss with me first before going off and announcing them to the whole of my school?’

‘Er … to what might you be referring?’ I hedged.

‘To the fact that you’re bisexual?’

This was news to me. ‘Bisexual?! I’m not bisexual … I mean, I’ve got nothing against bisexuals, but I’m not one, or at least not that I’m consciously aware of,’ I spluttered. ‘Whatever gave them that idea?’

‘You did. Apparently that’s what you told everyone in your speech yesterday before urging them to celebrate their own bisexuality. Or at least that’s what they reckoned you were saying. Apparently you waffled a lot.’

‘Aah …’ I said as the penny began to drop, ‘I think these poor benighted young people might have got hold of the wrong end of the stick.’

To add to my mortification, she enlightened me as to the correct word for co-education. It was coeducación… Who would have thought it?

Taken from Last Days of the Bus Club by Christ Stewart

 

The Last Days of the Bus Club

You can Click & Collect Last Days of the Bus Club from your local Waterstones bookshop, buy it online at Waterstones.com or download it in ePub format

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