The following story relates to a person I knew for just six short hours, three of which involved us both sleeping (though not together) but is an oft repeated tale when a discussion turns to the subject of strangers.
Back in 1996 I was on a three week summer break between finishing a five month secondment position and returning to my old job. This allowed me to just tour where I liked around the UK as long as I made two pre-arranged appointments in the English Peak and Lake District National Parks.
The rest of this trip took in North Wales, Dublin in Ireland, Scottish Lochs and western isles, Shakespeare’s Stratford-upon-Avon and East Anglia. In total I travelled around 2000 miles in 19 days crossing the Irish Sea, climbing one of England’s highest peaks in Helvellyn and experiencing the joys of the famous Edinburgh Festival. It was in this final location that I met my stranger.
Being on such a long break and rarely flushed with cash I had to watch the pennies very closely. It was for this reason that I’d bought a special ticket from the National Express coach company which meant that I could travel on any route up to a maximum number of trips in particular time-frame.
Finding myself in Edinburgh at the time of the festival always means that accommodation will always be pricey but I had a full-proof plan. [Taps nose knowingly].
To save money it made sense to put myself on a long coach journey, wherever it headed, and use that as my accommodation for the night. A quick look at the timetable showed a nine hour trip to Stratford-upon-Avon, a place I’d never visited before, that left Edinburgh at 10:30pm. It sounded perfect.
During my day in the Scottish capital I’d managed to discard my bags at a local branch of the company I worked for at the time. This made the day immeasurably easier until I picked up my stuff when the office closed at 6.00pm.
By this time I was ready to take it easy. Apart from the numerous Fringe events, I’d seen British comedian Phil Jupitus do an amusing take on Star Wars and Greg Proops of ‘Whose Line is it Anyway?’ fame with the soon to be famous – in the UK at least – Harry Hill in the chair immediately behind me in the audience.
I spent my evening in one wonderful Scottish pub chatting with the locals and tourists and at a restaurant with one eye on the clock to make sure I didn’t miss my coach.
Come 10:00pm I made my way to the city bus station where I saw multitudes of people and it soon dawned on me that I may have made a catastrophic mistake. While I had a valid ticket I had to book ahead to reserve a seat. On some journeys this wasn’t necessary and in my naivety I expected an overnighter to be pretty quiet. How wrong I was.
After a fruitless spell pleading with the driver I admitted defeat and without even considering hotel options I headed to Edinburgh Waverly train station. Again, as I planned to do with the coach journey, I was going try with the train to get myself on a long trip, wherever it was going.
There was just one train remaining at this time – a 30 mile trip to Glasgow at 11:15pm – which was hardly adequate in the circumstances so I prepared to bed myself down for the night.
So enter the stranger…
British and European readers will know of a French international soccer player called Eric Cantona, who at that time had just completed an eight month ban for inflicting a Karate kick on a fan while playing for Manchester United. I didn’t expect to meet him in Edinburgh and so it proved but I did meet a strikingly accurate lookalike.
He was a Glaswegian with an accent so broad it was as thick as porridge. What’s more he was roaring drunk. He was in a very good mood but he didn’t expect it to last as his wife had wanted him home six hours previously.
Asking me of my plans I told him of the cock-up I’d made with coach and immediately he was full of concern. “Ya canna sleep here pal! Comes back w’me to Glasgee!” and before I knew it I was on a train trundling across central Scotland.
Eric – I’ll call him that as I never did discover his name – was by now really flagging after a long day in the ale houses of Edinburgh. He drifted in and out of consciousness and I began to wonder exactly what I’d let myself in for. I woke him up when we arrived in Glasgow and we made our way to the station taxi rank and piled into the back. This is where it got really silly.
The driver asked where we were headed and Eric just couldn’t answer – he just laughed and shrugged as if he’d never before been to the city. Me and the driver exchanged glances. I couldn’t help obviously and we were within five seconds of being kicked out before Eric regained some sanity and remembered where he lived and we were on our way.
I had absolutely no clue as to where I was other than in Scotland’s largest and most patriotic city with a drunk who would probably soon decide that spending time with Englishman was a bad idea and subsequently knee me in the groin.
Eventually we came to an apartment block in a nice part of town. Looking back I was lucky here because I could’ve ended up in any old doss house for the night.
We made our way up the stairs to his front door where he turned to me, put a finger to his lips to indicate that I should be quiet. He held his hands up and acted a gentle push towards me as to say that he wanted me to stand around he corner of the stairwell and out of sight. I didn’t know whether to laugh or be scared – there was little doubt who was the boss in this household!
He knocked on his own front door – he couldn’t find his keys – and shortly after it was opened by his wife in a dressing gown. She was all set to rip into her man with venom but then spotted me which only made matters worse – I was ‘a guest’ so she could say nothing so she just turned and went into the bedroom where you could definitely hear the sound of the door being locked.
Eric dismissively waved at the bedroom door before leading me into the lounge which was very nice. I remember a beautiful framed portrait of the whole family, with two gorgeous children, clearly all in happier times than this particular evening.
My inebriated friend just slumped on one sofa and just gestured me over to the other and he was asleep in seconds. As I lay there I wondered how this had all happened. I smiled to myself as I realised that he was probably taking as bigger chance inviting me into his home as I was of accepting his offer. I could’ve been anybody.
When the sky first started to show signs of daylight I was out the door without a word. Eric was dead to the world and I didn’t think his wife would appreciate a wake-up call at 5:00am on a Tuesday morning.
To this day I don’t know which part of the city I was in other than being a relatively short distance from the Celtic Park football stadium which I could make out on the skyline. I just wanted to get back to a place where I felt I had some control on my destiny so when I saw a bus saying Glasgow bus station on the front, I just took it.
I have little doubt that Eric had a terrible hangover when he eventually woke no doubt made worse by an angry wife. I can’t say for sure but he may have been upset that I slipped out without saying thank you or goodbye but I’d stayed long enough – why make his life any more difficult than it surely already was.
He was risking his families safety and that of his property because he didn’t want me to be sleeping on a bench at Edinburgh station. Even in his drink-fuelled state he made a gesture of a place to stay and I will always be grateful to him for that. He was a top man and it’s hard to accept that I will never see him again.
This is for you Eric: “Cheers!”