To milk Oscar Wilde’s immortal formula: I can endure anything, except slight inconvenience. I am rather like the long-suffering, stoical wife who puts up with decades of abuse and cruelty before having a nervous breakdown when she drops a bowl of sugar. It’s the little things that can tip me over the edge, and that propensity of mine to go straight from low-level anxiety to thermonuclear panic without pausing at any intervening stages was given a full work out in the heart of Cardiff this week.
Driving an old friend to the bus station to catch the 1pm National Express to London, I was already uptight and stressed out. Ian, my friend, is terminally ill and his stay with me in Cardiff had been a gruelling, heartbreaking, whisky-saturated few days. Moreover I hate driving with a passion, preferring to walk whatever the weather and whatever the distance. But my companion, who has late phase Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, cannot walk a few yards much less the mile from my home to the bus station. So car it had to be. The usual Cardiff gridlock and low-gear crawl was as expected; nothing a torrent of foul-mouthed obscenities couldn’t defuse. But, with the clock ticking, the unexpected appearance of a ‘road closed’ sign at the Callaghan Square slip into St Mary Street triggered my unravelling. I had planned to park in the Great Western Lane multistorey, now that route was blocked. The air turned purple as I executed a dangerous swerve into Penarth Road, causing other vehicles to brake hard and honk horns. Their disgraceful lack of empathy only provoked wilder and more lurid cursing from me as I headed to the Railway Station car park. At least there, I figured, I could stick it in the pay & display and walk Ian through the tunnel to the bus. I found a space and proceeeded to the ticket machine. ENTER YOUR REGISTRATION NUMBER, it began. Now, I’ve been driving this current effort (a Ford, I think, I’m just not interested) for only a month or two and I’m fucked if I know its reg yet. So I had to walk back to the car, make a mental note and return to the machine, while poor Ian stood hyperventilating in a wicked east wind and the clock ticked on to 12.45. I entered the registration number. SELECT YOUR PAYMENT OPTION, popped up on the screen with a sub-menu giving three alternatives and precise instructions on how many times you must press the YELLOW BUTTON to make your selection. I picked an option. INSERT COINS, it snapped back. Of course my pound dropped straight through. As did my only other pound. That’s when it all fell apart for me. As the station clock reached 12.50, on a litter-strewn verge off Penarth Road, looked down on scornfully by the Brains’ brewery tower, I broke down.
Racked with sobs and wimpering pitifully, I drifted back to Ian, resigned to a parking ticket. The prospect of waiting another hour for the next London bus, hanging around Cardiff’s thoroughly shitty “transport hub” with a very ill man, galvanised me to one last heave. We still had 8 minutes! We got to the bus bay with 5 minutes to spare. But new torments awaited us. I had mistakenly assumed you could pay the driver on boarding. But no, no: you must buy your ticket at the ticket office in Central Square – and the queue there stretched out onto the pavement! At this point I became so distressed that I went beyond hysteria and stepped through a subconscious portal to some strangely calm, faraway place where nothing could reach me. Time seemed to go into reverse. Ian inched forward in the queue. Suddenly he had his ticket and it was still only 12.59! As the driver moved to close the doors Ian boarded the bus and it pulled away, leaving me a muttering, dazed puddle of synaptic twitches and prickly hives on the pavement.
Returning to the car park I got an immediate boost: no parking ticket. Ha! NCP you bastards (or whoever it is running the operation) I got away with 15 minutes of free parking! But this miniscule triumph was of little consolation by the time I got home and realised I had not even said goodbye properly to Ian. It is unlikely I will see my old comrade again. Oh dear. Oh no. Happy Trails butty. Happy Trails.