Had I made the right decision?
It was such an easy one to make nine months ago as the four of us flew home from Ibiza after a magical two weeks holiday. We vowed to return for the next summer season.
Now here I was, alone, as the bus headed out of Victoria Coach Station into the gloom of a rainy mid-April morning in London. As I peered through the window, I could just make out the outline of Sarah as she walked back towards the train station.
* * *
In July 1976 I had spent two weeks in Es Cana, Ibiza, with three mates. Our holiday ended too fast, and we aimed to return for the start of the 1977 season. Circumstances changed and one by one, Mutts, Sam and Siv postponed their departure until later in the summer. I remained determined.
I had started work at Williams & Glyn’s bank in the City of London after leaving Reigate Grammar School. It was my intention to work there for a year, before going to university. Money altered that, and I had stayed with the bank instead.
My choice to go abroad for six months shocked my parents. They worried it would impact my future career. Siblings Christine (16) and Alastair (19) thought I was mad. Both had questions about what their 21-year-old brother intended to do.
This decision to leave became more complicated as I grew close to Sarah. We had met in the autumn and soon got very involved. Our social life together was great as we enjoyed ourselves at parties, pubs and discos. Favourite memories were of the Monday mornings I took time off work and sneaked round to Sarah’s house after her mum left. Sarah opened the front door in her dressing gown, and we went straight up to bed where we kissed and cuddled the morning away. One Monday, we were making love in the front room when a key clicked in the door. We scrambled for our clothes, but it was obvious to Sarah’s mum, as she walked in, what we had been doing. After a while she forgave us.
It was difficult to save money. I netted £120 a month at the bank but also worked behind the bar at the Station Hotel to earn extra cash. The Station was the only pub in the village of South Nutfield where we lived.
When I left there was enough in my money-belt to keep me solvent for the first few weeks in Ibiza. I had £400 in travellers’ cheques (the equivalent of £2400 or $3000 today) plus 40 French Francs (£5) and 5400 Spanish Pesetas (£45).
* * *
On the morning of April 12th, 1977, Sarah accompanied me for the hour-long train journey to London. Few words passed our lips. We held each other close. Bouts of sadness swept over us. There was a sudden realisation of how much our lives would change.
We walked to the coach station, and the pain became intense. After an emotional farewell embrace, Sarah waved me off. The coach made its way through the traffic of central London. I tried to make myself comfortable, but the turmoil in my stomach and unease in my head got worse. My eyes gazed at the grey city scenes outside as we travelled around the outskirts of London.
The enormity of my actions enveloped me for a long time. The bus picked up speed. As we neared the port of Dover, my mood changed. A huge weight lifted from my shoulders. I was on my way.
* * *
The ferry edged away. In the early evening light, the clouds cleared, and the sun appeared on the horizon for a moment. Through the descending gloom, I glimpsed the famous white cliffs of Dover as we left the shores of England.
The seas were choppy, and the wind icy as we sailed across the channel. I put on a jumper and buttoned up my denim jacket. Determined to stay on deck, I enjoyed the chill that blew against my face and through my hair. A surge of elation swept over me as I realised my dream was coming true.
Deep in my own thoughts, I did not hear her approach. It took a few seconds to realise someone had spoken.
‘Hi, where are you heading?’ she repeated.
Taller than me and several years older, long blonde hair wrapped around her shoulders, and pale blue eyes glistened.
I averted my gaze for a moment, before replying, ‘Hi, sorry I didn’t notice you there. I’m travelling to Barcelona by coach, and then getting a ferry across to Ibiza.’
‘What are you planning to do there?’
I beamed a smile at her. ‘I’m hoping to work for the season in a place called Es Cana.’
Her eyes looked deep into mine. ‘Is this the first time you’ve worked abroad?’
‘Yes, I’ve just finished at a bank in London. Where are you heading to? Sorry, what’s your name?’
‘Everyone calls me Micky, but my real name is Michelle. I’m off to Barcelona and we’re on the same coach. I saw you earlier, and thought, as you are on your own, you’d appreciate the company. I’m an English teacher returning to the school where I work, after an Easter break at home in Bristol.’
Micky edged closer as if to get protection against the biting wind. ‘And what’s your name?’
‘Most people call me Fred.’
‘Is that a nickname then?’
‘Yes, I got it at school, and it’s stuck ever since. My friends know me as Fred although my real name is Robert.’
Her eyes widened. ‘You seem more like a Fred than a Robert.’
I gave her a wide grin. ‘How long have you worked in Barcelona?’
‘Just under a year. I finished Teacher Training College not long after Franco died in November 1975. Spain always interested me. When I saw an advert in the paper for a teaching position there, I jumped at the chance.’
‘Are you enjoying it?’
‘On the whole, yes. Spain is changing fast after forty years of dictatorship, but people’s attitudes will take longer to change. Life for a woman is still difficult. I’m lucky they look after me while at the school, but things can be awkward outside sometimes.’
‘Do you ever regret doing it?’
‘No, not at all. Travel gives you a new outlook on life. You’ll discover that for yourself this summer. Provided you don’t weaken, and I doubt you will, Fred.’
‘Thanks, Micky. That’s nice of you.’
The loud sound of the ship’s siren broke the atmosphere. The ferry had arrived at the port of Calais.
Micky gave me a peck on the cheek and winked. ‘I’ll see you back on the bus, take care.’
‘Yes, great to meet you.’
What a lovely surprise, I thought, as I smoked a quick roll-up, before returning to the coach.
* * *
We were among the first to drive off the ship.
Two officers boarded and gave our passports a cursory glance. Things had become easier since the UK entered the Common Market (later the European Union) in 1973.
After a brief stop on the outskirts of Calais, to pick up another six passengers, we sped off into the night. As there were still free seats, Micky joined me at the back of the coach.
It felt good to have company. We chatted away for ages as the bus headed south through rural France. Then the coach entered the first toll booth and the motorway network. Midnight passed, and we snuggled together to keep warm.
The night flew by as we snoozed and held each other tight. There were several stops at service stations, one where we changed drivers. Other passengers took refreshment breaks. We were so relaxed and comfortable we stayed on the bus.
As the sun rose, we stopped at a little French village. This time we joined the others and sat outside a small restaurant in the early morning sunshine. There was a refreshing breeze. Micky and I enjoyed our breakfast of black coffee and croissants.
It was mid-morning when we arrived at the French/Spanish border post of La Junquera.
Spain was not a member of the Common Market, and the controls were strict. We had to disembark to walk through customs and have our passports checked.