As her train approached Harrogate Station, international crime writer Celia Fairweather gathered her scattered belongings and stuffed them into her oversized Mulberry handbag.
It had been a bloody journey.
Upon leaving King’s Cross, someone introducing himself as ‘your Customer Service Assistant on-board for your journey’ had informed ‘customers’ that ‘unfortunately there will be no boiler on the train today’.
Celia had no idea what the hell that meant, but it seemed that the result was a complete lack of heating and a wasted first class ticket due to the unavailability of complimentary hot drinks and the Full English breakfast she had been saving herself up for. Instead, she’d had to make do with keeping all her outerwear on and a breakfast of possibly the worst microwaved bacon sandwich that had ever existed washed down with a can of lukewarm Diet Coke.
‘This is like some sort of Third World country,’ she had complained to her apologetic Customer Service Assistant on-board as he handed her this travesty of a meal.
All this certainly failed to put her in a good mood for the start of her week-long stint as the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival Writer in Residence on the Number 36 bus.
She could barely believe that she had agreed to
do it in the first place. Writer in residence on a bus? And in the off-season depths of winter, instead of the summer, when the festival actually took place?
Even as the guest of such a prestigious event – and God knew she had to keep them sweet after the late-night bar debacle the previous July which nearly saw her barred – the whole bus thing didn’t quite enhance her carefully cultivated image as the glamorous first lady of Female-Centred Detective Noir.
And what on earth did being writer-in-residence on a bus mean? As she forced down the barely edible food, she gloomily took a first look at her schedule for the week, emailed to her a month ago by Laura, her contact at the festival office. It appeared that she was looking at five days of non-stop engagements meeting notables, worthies and managers of tourist attractions on the Number 36 bus route between Harrogate and Ripon (‘and one sneaky one on the southern route towards Leeds,’ Laura said in her accompanying email.)
It had been Celia’s publicist Samantha who had got her into it:
‘Transdev, who run the bus service, are sponsors of the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival. So, as well as putting yourself back into favour after the debacle, it’s also all about helping the environment, Ceels,’ she had cooed in an attempt to pacify her. Celia normally hated her name being abbreviated, but somehow Samantha got away with it. ‘And they’re paying enough for you to hire a car if you really don’t want to take the bus. Then all you’ll have to do is have your photograph taken standing smiling at the driver.’
‘I’m not posing with a bloody notebook,’ Celia said.
‘Of course not, darling,’ Samantha purred. ‘The very idea. But don’t forget to tweet.’
Celia looked to the heavens. These young publicists and their addiction to social media. But on the train, on the way up, she had – rather uncharacteristically – done as she was told (again, only Samantha seemed to be able to elicit this sort of behaviour from her).
She dragged her enormous suitcase – well, it was November in Yorkshire and, having no idea what sort of weather to expect, she had packed ten outfits of equal elegance but varying degrees of thermal efficiency – along Station Parade towards the Rent-a-Car offices. Laura had offered to meet her, but Celia had turned her down. She was there to do a job: fulfil her duties, go home, write a short crime story based on her experiences then submit her invoice. Celia Fairweather didn’t need any nannying. Besides which, Laura would expect her to be getting a bus to her first appointment, which was with the mayor of Ripon.
‘You’ve got the paper part?’ the tiny man behind the Rent-a-Car desk said. He reminded Celia of a mole.
‘The paper part of your licence.’
‘I don’t have one.’
‘You do. Everyone has one.’
‘Well I don’t. Can you please get a step on, I’m late for my meeting with the mayor of Ripon.’
‘I’m afraid I can’t rent you a car without the paper part.’
Celia drew herself up to her full height, which in her four-inch Louboutins was rather impressive. ‘I’ve never had this problem before,’ she said, angling her
face down towards the car hire man. ‘I hired a car only last month in Los Angeles without any of this sort of bother.’
This wasn’t strictly true – but it could have been, had she actually been in Los Angeles the month before.
The man stood his ground, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was towering over him by at least eight inches. ‘Like as maybe, but you can’t hire a car in the UK without your paper part.’
Celia looked at him sternly. ‘Well what do you suggest I do, then?’
He raised his eyebrows. ‘I can phone the DVLA, I suppose.’
‘Well, go ahead and phone them,’ Celia said, lifting her own eyebrows higher.
The man slipped inside a glass booth and closed the door. She watched him as he dialled, listened and, his face impassive, took a few notes.
While she was waiting, Celia checked her Twitter account on her phone. Her request for bus stories had summoned two replies. Neither looked hopeful:
@ThatCeliaF Someone once opened the windows. They didn’t live to tell the tale. #36Bus
@ThatCeliaF I met my friend named Andy and another friend named Andrew on the #36Bus. Like me, they both think it’s fab.
‘I’m afraid I can’t let you have a car, Madam,’ the mole-man said as he returned. ‘Due to your DR10.’
‘Drink driving offence.’
‘But that was eight years ago!’
Celia knew this, in fact. It was when she had found out about her second husband’s lying and philandering and she’d driven away from their house having consumed half a bottle of vodka, leaving his suits and ties in tatters. ‘And I only got a three-year ban.’
‘We can’t rent cars to anyone with a conviction like this unless it’s ten years old.’
‘You’ll find every car-hire firm is the same.’
Celia threw the scarf part of her dashing tartan cape over her shoulder and squared herself up to the little man. ‘Do you know who I am?’
‘I don’t care if you’re the Queen of Sheba, love,’ the little man said. ‘I’m not renting you a car, nor, you’ll find, will anyone else in this town.’
‘But I’ve got to get to Ripon,’ Celia said, a whine sneaking into her voice. It was all going horribly wrong already, this trip. ‘I’ve got to meet the mayor of Ripon at Ripon bus station at half past two.’
‘You could take the number 36 bus,’ the man suggested, a smirk on his face. ‘It’s very good, I hear. One every fifteen minutes. Goes straight to Ripon bus station, in fact.’
Outside, fuming, Celia looked at her phone, as if it could tell her what to do next. And in a way, it did in the form of another tweeted reply to her earlier request:
@ThatCeliaF #36Bus? I’d get the taxi if I could afford it.
It was going to be costly, but Celia was in a hurry after the abortive car-hire delay. She may have been remiss in many parts of her life, but tardiness was not one of them. She hated being late almost as much as she hated being kept waiting.
Before leaving Harrogate, she made her taxi driver stop at her hotel so that she could drop off her bags. The festival had booked her in to The Old Swan, not only the scene of the late-night bar debacle, but also the spot where dear Agatha Christie turned up after she went missing back in 1926.
Celia wished to God that she could go missing.
But it was out of the question. She was a professional.
A professional who needed the money after a rather expensive libel case with an ex-husband she had failed to sufficiently disguise in her last-but-one book. So she clambered back into the taxi and headed off to Ripon.
As the cab crawled along in a slow line of traffic on the A61 – following, as it happened, a black and red double-decker number 36 bus – Celia called Samantha and told her to let the festival know what had happened and that she was going to be a few minutes late. A short while later, Samantha called back.
‘The festival office were rather disappointed to hear about your car hire plan, Ceels. I didn’t realise they didn’t know. The whole point, they say, is that you’ll be travelling on the number 36 bus for the week.’
‘But I’ve got this punishing schedule of places to visit!’ Celia said. ‘Three places a day! Castles, schools, abbeys. How am I going to manage it?’
‘They’re all on the bus route, Ceels,’ Samantha said. ‘That’s the point.’
‘For God’s sake.’
‘I know, Ceels, but if anyone can, you can do it.’
‘I might just go back to London,’ Celia said, thinking of her cosy flat in Pimlico, with her books and china and cats.
‘Remember the late-night debacle though, Celia,’ Samantha said. ‘And you’d like to be on a panel at the Theakstons Old Peculier Crime Writing Festival next year, wouldn’t you?’
‘Of course I bloody would,’ Celia said.
As she watched Samantha’s picture fade from her phone screen, Celia received a new Tweet.
@ThatCeliaF I could tell you a thing or two would make your hair curl. Worse than what you put in your books. #36Bus
Now, that was more like it! And, from the look of him in his photo – from what she could see without her specs – he was a bit of all right, too. Celia composed her reply, the flirtatious look she reserved for gentlemen chanced upon in the better bars of West London playing on her face.
@RiponOff44 come on then, spill the beans. #36Bus #haircurlingtales
‘We’re there, love,’ the taxi driver said. ‘That’ll be twenty quid.’
‘TWENTY?’ Celia exclaimed.
‘Aye. It’s the traffic,’ the taxi driver said, still holding out his hand.
‘Give me a receipt. You can leave it blank.’
Pocketing the receipt, Celia stepped from the cab into the less than awe-inspiring surroundings of Ripon bus station.
At the other end of the concrete expanse, sheltering from the biting North Yorkshire wind in the doorway of a bus, a gaggle of people seemed to be waiting for her: a large man with a camera around his neck and what looked like slippers on his feet, a sprightly looking gentleman with a large golden chain around his neck, a tall, thin man with the bearing of a bodyguard, and a slip of a girl.