Sic transit . . .


All holidays fall foul of a few snags. Some aren’t worth the price of a souvenir. Not many are an unmitigated disaster from start to finish. Ours was.

The supreme irony, of course, was that we never intended to go to Spain. In fact, we hadn’t planned on going anywhere. Our 3 weeks stay on the Coast Blanca was thrust upon us by force of circumstances.

Somewhere around April last year, my fiancée, Sandie, wrote to me with the news that everyone doing Spanish as part of their degree was expected to spend 8 weeks in Spain that coming summer. Naturally, I was pretty upset at the prospect of spending the entire summer alone. And the fact that my ever-loving fiancée had forgotten that our marriage was supposed to take place in June didn’t help matters.

As I drove down to London that Friday in April, I fumed and raged at her lack of consideration and I was determined that the forthcoming row would be talked of in Dulwich for years.

She was too clever for me, though. Every time I tried to pick a fight, she just smiled sweetly and refused to argue. Short of hacking her to pieces with the carving knife, there was little I could do but throw in the towel and listen to her side of the story.

She insisted it was essential for her to go since, if she didn’t go, she wouldn’t be able to commune with the others on their return. Naturally, she denied that acquiring a tan or Spanish male friends had anything to do with it. Naturally, I was terrified of losing her to some greasy Latin. Naturally, I gave in.

We agreed that she would leave at the beginning of July and that I would join her in Alicante for the last three weeks of her course. Five weeks separation, I had to concede, wasn’t as bad as eight. And wouldn’t those three weeks be absolutely gorgeous? Wouldn’t they just.

Having graduated the year before, I naturally turned to the National Union of Students for assisted passage to Spain. Inevitably, they answered that – starting from that year – graduates would no longer be allowed to travel on student charter flights. But I was still eligible, they added, for student travel by train or boat.

From the brochure they sent me, I could see that boats were out – unless I planned to reach Alicante via Athens or Leningrad. So the train it was. I would travel out on the student train to Barcelona and then make my own way to Alicante.

Sandie departed the first week of July and I duly posted off my application form and cheque ten days before the train was due to leave on Friday, 7th August. I heard nothing at all. Finally, on Tuesday 4th, I rang up the NUS and asked what the hell they were doing with my tickets. When they found the relevant documents, they informed me I’d sent them a pound too much. I asked them to post it that night along with the tickets but they said it’d be safer if I came and collected everything. We finally agreed that I’d call in and pick them up on Friday afternoon. That, I reckoned, would give me ample time to get to Victoria station for the 8.30 rendezvous. The train was actually due to depart at 9.48 and arrive in Barcelona at 1pm on Saturday, leaving me plenty of time to catch the 4.50 from there, arriving at Alicante at 5.30 on Sunday morning.

At 2 on Friday afternoon, therefore, I walked in the Manchester University offices of the NUS, presented my credentials and asked for my tickets. Everything was produced and laid out on the counter for me to inspect. Pointing to one leaflet in particular, the man behind the counter explained how, when and where the train would leave from London for Barcelona, and vice versa. “Be sure”, he added, “to be at Victoria at 8.20am on the day of departure. Otherwise the train will leave without you.”

“But”, I replied, “I’m leaving today and the it’s 2pm in the afternoon.”

“Oh, dear.” he said. 

“Oh something else” I replied

“This has never happened before”, he smiled, by way of consolation.

“Well, I’m really pleased for you”, I said. “But what exactly am I going to do now?”

The man behind the counter went into a huddle with a young lady and she took over the running of the show.

“Oh, I remember”, she said. “You rang on Tuesday about your tickets.

“Yes”, I replied. “And you must be the lady who suggested I come and collect them on Friday.”

We smiled at each other, though I don’t suppose she felt any less sick than I did.

I had, of course, quickly realised what had happened. Stupidly, I’d misread the 24 hour clock in the NUS brochure and acted on the basis that 9.48 meant 9.48 in the evening. What a great start to the holiday.

Sensing that the young lady wasn’t too happy about having asked me to come in on Friday afternoon, I quickly took the opportunity to apportion blame 50:50. I was pretty good about it in the circumstances and she, relieved, produced a stack of information about impending train and plane departures to Spain. We finally decided that, unless I wanted to hang around until the following Tuesday for the next student train, I would have to fly ordinary BEA economy flight on Saturday morning from London airport. I wasn’t too pleased to hear the cost of that would be in the region of 27 pounds. I’d decided that this holiday would cost me a maximum of 75 pounds, comprising 30 pounds for travel and 35 pounds for lodgings, food and entertainment in some cheap quarter of Alicante. I was less than delighted, therefore, that the flight to Barcelona alone would cost me almost the total sum allocated for my return fare. I felt even less happy when the young lady told me that my failure to be at Victoria station that morning meant that I’d have to forfeit 50% of the outgoing train fare.

Feelings were running high on my side of the counter by now and I wasn’t prepared to go into a long debate on this point. I put forward my argument cogently and forcibly and she said she would ring someone and find out what the ruling was on this novel situation would be. Someone on the other end of the phone, when acquainted with the facts, found in my favour and I bid a not-too-fond adieu to the lady and the gentleman behind the counter and headed for the BEA offices in Deansgate.

The man behind that particular counter made it abundantly clear that they weren’t used to having tramps travel on their planes. Nevertheless, I managed to squeeze a ticket out of him and I set off for London feeling decided lighter – moneywise.

I’d been told there was a cheap student train ticket to Euston costing only 2.50 pounds but I knew that the coach only cost 1.40 and I was in no mood to throw money away on luxuries. 

When I got to the coach station, they charged me 2.10 and glibly added it was more expensive on Friday nights. I couldn’t win.

By this time it was about 3.30pm and the coach didn’t leave until midnight. I hoisted my rucksack on my shoulder and walked slowly to Piccadilly Plaza. I had over 8 hours to kill and it wouldn’t do to rush anywhere. 

The first hour wasn’t so bad. I broke open my sandwiches as slowly as I could and finished off 2 of corned beef and 1 of flat salmon. But then it started to rain and I had to find somewhere else to spend the next 7 hours. I contemplated going to see a film but reasoned that, since I’d have to put my rucksack in the left-luggage at one of the stations, the total cost would be more than I could bear just at the moment. So, pulling the Guardian out of my pocket, I made for a dry spot in Piccadilly station.

Round about 5pm, I was sick to death of the crossword and pretty bored with everything else. I decamped from the station and walked back to Piccadilly station. From there I walked to the coach station. Over the next 4 hours, I made the round trip 5 times.

Shortly after 9pm, I returned to the coach station for the final time and tried to bury myself in a novel. I’d read a page or 2 over the last few hours and now I was determined to sit and read for the next 3 hours. But the challenge of forcing myself to read for 3 hours solely because there was nothing else to do proved too much for me. After 20 or 30 pages, I gave up and lay down on a bench. But that wasn’t much good either. I was too afraid of falling asleep and missing the bus.

At last – almost unbelievably – it was 11.45. I made my way to the London coach and climbed aboard.

Needless to say, the journey down was cold, uncomfortable and totally devoid of sleep.

Unannounced, I arrived at Sandie’s parents’ house at 6.30am and promptly roused her mother from bed. Inside an hour and a half, I was on my way to the air terminal in Cromwell Road.

At 10.45, I was in the airport lounge at Heathrow airport, rejoicing in the news that a work-to-rule in France would mean an hour’s delay in the departure of all flights. Since the Barcelona flight was due to leave at 11.20, this meant another 90 minutes standing around cooling my heels. 

And then my first stroke of luck . . . At 11.15 it was announced that passengers for the Barcelona flight should join the captain and crew and gate number 19.

We boarded the plane at 11.20 and it stood on the tarmac for an hour and a half.

We landed at Barcelona just before 2pm. The thermometer read 85 degrees Fahrenheit, 5 degrees lower than it had been for the hour and a half wait on the Heathrow runway. I extricated my rucksack from the rather more conventional stuff on the conveyor belts, passed straight through Customs and boarded the first Iberia bus to the city centre.

At the Iberia terminal, I was unable to find anyone who spoke English, and the phrase book I’d studied for the past few days proved somewhat inadequate. Nevertheless, I managed to acquaint one taxi driver with my desire to get to the train station. I climbed in and, after a few minutes, he began to jabber away in the vernacular. I was eventually able to work out that he was interested in knowing why I wanted to go to the station. With the aid of the phrase book and a few explanatory gestures, I was able to convey that I wanted to catch a train to Alicante. I knew there was something wrong the second he broke into an uncontrollable fit of laughter and disappeared under the front seat. He appeared to think little of my chances of leaving Barcelona by train in the foreseeable future. On further enquiry from me, he revealed there were no coaches and insisted the only way of reaching Alicante before Christmas was by taxi. Feeling that he had something of a vested interest, I declined his offer to take me. At least he was honest enough to admit it wasn’t exactly the cheapest way of doing it.

The scene at the train station convinced me he hadn’t been exaggerating. Absolute chaos. There must have been several thousand Spaniards milling around the huge concourse area. At least half of them had formed themselves into 2 queues, one opposite gate no. 9 and the other opposite gate no. 11. 

I walked round outside for a while, wondering what on earth I was going to do. Finally, I decided to join the queue at the Information desk.

When I finally reached it, the fat woman on the other side proved considerably less than helpful. Was there any chance of a train to Alicante that afternoon, I asked. She thrust a timetable into my hand and muttered Gate no. 9. Yes, but is there a train this afternoon. Gate no. 9. Yes, but will I get a ticket if I join the queue. Gate no. 9. Oh, stuff your Gate no 9.

I joined the queue at the infamous Gate no. 9 and precisely nothing happened. After 2 hours, notable only for the lack of movement in the queue, I resolved to ask someone official. It was getting perilously close to 10 to 5 and, if I didn’t catch that train, I wouldn’t be in Alicante by Sunday morning. So, I walked over to Gate no. 5 and asked in fractured Spanish whether I could get a train to Alicante that afternoon. Gate no. 9 was all I could get out of him.

The situation called for some positive action. Looking around for inspiration, I noticed a sign at the head of the queue. Using my knowledge of French, Latin and phrase-book Spanish, I translated it to read that al the trains listed in the timetable were full. That left me with no choice. I’d have to fly to Alicante.

So I bid farewell to the station and hailed a taxi.

Back at the Iberia terminal in the city centre, they told me that there was, indeed, a plane to Alicante that night but I’d have to go to the airport to get a ticket.

Now that I’d taken the decision to fly, I felt better than I had done for the past 2 hours and headed for the bus stop feeling I might actually make it for Sunday morning. There was another Englishman on the bus and we got to talking about one thing and another. In view of my expenditure so far and the prospect of of forking out another 10 pounds on the ticket to Alicante I was tremendously pleased to hear that he’d just spent 3 glorious weeks travelling around northern Spain and that it had cost him peanuts. So far I’d paid out quite a lot of pesetas and all I’d had was a round trip from the airport to the station plus a 2 hour wait at the latter.

At the airport building, we both joined a throng around the Iberia desk. He was told his flight to the UK would leave at 8.30 and I was informed that I’d be lucky if I got a seat on a plane to Alicante by the following Tuesday or Wednesday. The only think I could do, they said, was put my name on a waiting list and hope for the best.

At the relevant desk, it took me 10 minutes to fight my way to the counter, where they smilingly added my name to a very long list of other hopefuls. Come back at 10.15, they added. It was 4.30.

At least I had someone to talk to, though. We made our way to the bar, where we politely bought each other drinks and gazed down on the crowds packing the sweaty airport lounge.

We played cards for half an hour or so and chatted about nothing in particular. I felt extremely glad I wouldn’t have to wait the full five and three quarter hours on my own. I was a little fed up of hanging around. At 5.15 he went to check on some detail of his ticket and returned, running, 5 minutes later with the news that his plane had been brought forward and was due to leave in 3 minutes. Quickly gathering his things together, he was downstairs and through the departure lounge before I could say Goodbye.

I was despondent. Another 5 hours to go and I wasn’t sure I could make it without going mad. I walked downstairs and sat in one of the chairs in the lounge. I felt hot, tired, hungry and – above all – dirty. I couldn’t sleep for fear of missing the plane. And I didn’t feel like squashed sandwiches. But I could get a wash. I dragged my rucksack to the toilets and washed my hands and face. It made me feel a lot better but the whole operation had taken only 4 minutes. There was another 4 hours and 56 minutes to go.

I walked to the bookstall and lashed out 25 pesetas on the Times. Friday’s bloody Times! I was so depressed I couldn’t even start on the crossword. I debated whether to go back to London that night. It didn’t look like I was going to reach Alicante for 5 or 6 days and I wouldn’t have much cash left if I did. But I decided to postpone my decision until I knew whether there’d be a seat on the night flight.

The minutes dragged slowly by, followed occasionally by an hour. By 9.30, I was pacing up and down a 10 yard stretch opposite the waiting list desk. It was pandemonium over there. Hordes of distraught Frogs were hurling each other out of the way so that they could get some information out of the clerk. At 10.00, I couldn’t stand it any longer and threw myself into the fray. I never actually got to the desk but I did learn that some of the people there had been waiting for a seat for 3 days. That cheered me up no end.

Towards 10.15 hysteria set in at the desk. Feeling that, if I didn’t make a move, I’d be stranded for several days, I dropped my rucksack behind a pillar and plunged towards it once more. The clerk, much to my amazement, proved reasonably helpful. Most of the crowd, he said, wanted to go to Las Palmas and there just weren’t enough seats. He wasn’t sure about the Alicante situation but could say I stood a better chance than the poor sods trying to get to Las Palmas. Some consolation that was.

Then there was a flurry of excitement and the crowd suddenly shrank to 6 or 7. Those who hadn’t got seats had slunk miserably away from the desk. The clerk looked at the rump, smiled and said quietly: “Enough seats for everyone on the Alicante plane”.

I covered the 10 yards to the booking desk without touching the ground. I was so happy I didn’t stop to consider that the price of the ticket was 1,200 peseta and the bill for the outward journey had now reached almost 38 pounds.

Fifteen minutes later, we were airborne and my luck had reverted to normal. I couldn’t get the paper off the sweets they handed round.

We landed at Alicante just under and hour later and I joined the other passengers in the short walk across the tarmac to the airport building.

I walked out of the building into the warm night air. The Iberia bus was nowhere to be seen. As I walked down past the taxi ranks in search of someone who looked like they might speak English, I got the impression the taxi drivers had never seen a rucksack before. Not being carried out of an airport lounge anyway. Gesticulating wildly, they were reduced to helpless balls of mirth as I walked past. I couldn’t understand a word of their insults but I caught the gist of what they were shouting. By the same token, they presumably translated for themselves the Anglo-Saxon niceties I directed towards them.

I managed to elicit some information from the girl behind the Iberia desk and made my way to the bus she’d pointed out to me. Since this meant retracing my steps 2-300 yards, the taxi drivers and I were able to give a repeat performance, for the benefit of the gathered crowd, before I boarded the bus for the city centre.

At 12.15am, I was smack in the middle of Alicante wondering what the hell I was going to do for the next 5 hours. I did have more immediate problems, of course. For one thing, I didn’t have the faintest idea where the train station was. Still, I did have 5 hours to find it.

I walked along the quiet backstreet in which the bus had deposited us and found myself in what I presumed was the main street. I reasoned that the train from Barcelona would come in along the coast, so I turned down towards the sea front. The promenade was packed with Spaniards taking a midnight constitutional. I headed northwards, since the only map I had indicated that the trains approached that side of town. There was nothing to be seen that remotely resembled a railway station. I did manage to find some trucks but the 4 inches of grass growing between the sleepers suggested this particular line had fallen into disuse or that the trains to Alicante were few and far between.

I walked onto the beach and lay down among some chairs. Inside 3 minutes I was fast asleep. I woke at 2.15 to find the promenade almost deserted. Shouldering my rucksack, I turned southwards in pursuit of the elusive station. After an hour’s fruitless wandering, I concluded I’d just have to ask someone where the hell it was. Adopting a look of crass stupidity, I approached the attendant at an all-night petrol station. “Estación termino. Donde es?”, I murmured. For some reason, the attendant concluded it would be useless to try to explain verbally, so he pulled out a piece of scrap paper and wrote on it what my phrase-book translated as ‘7th street on the left’. Grabbing my arm, he pointed uphill towards the town centre.

Needless to say, I didn’t find the station in the 7th street on the left. I made several exploratory searches around the street in question and came up with precisely nothing. It was only when I took to aimlessly wandering round the back alleys that I stumbled on the station.

It was 3am and there was nothing I could do but sit on the platform and wait for Sandie. Naturally, all the benches were occupied. One of the incumbents looked vaguely familiar, however, and I approached for a closer look. It was my fiancée. Waking her with a gentle nudge in the ribs, I sat back and waited for the passionate embrace. “Hello”, she said. “You’re not supposed to arrive until 5.15.”

Sandie had been given a room in the flat of the caretaker of the college she was attending and had been lucky enough to get a room for me in the same place. I’d walked past it 4 times already that night.

The first 3 days were magnificent. In the mornings, after Sandie’s lectures. We’d stroll down to the beach, buy some lunch at a nearby supermarket and retire to the sand for 6 or 7 hours of complete inactivity. In the evenings, we’d sit in a pavement café and remind ourselves of how lucky we were.

It was about Wednesday that things started to go wrong. That night at the café, I couldn’t stop thinking of how much the meal was costing us, and it showed. Back at the flat, Sandie called a meeting of the Finance Committee and it came to light that, if I was going to stick to the 75 pound ceiling which I’d imposed on myself – and I was – then I had 1 pound a day to spend on accommodation, food and entertainment. Since the room cost me about 9 shillings a night and the evening meal usually came to about 7 shillings, that left me with the grand sum of 4 shillings a day to dissipate on breakfast, lunch and entertainment.

On Thursday morning, we started to bicker about what we’d have for lunch. With meat being so expensive, the field was somewhat limited. I’d eaten sardine or tuna sandwiches – on dry bread, of course – for the past 4 days and I wasn’t in the mood for any more fish. That day in particular we lashed out on frankfurters and that temporarily solved the problem. But, over the next 2 weeks, our mid-morning row in the supermarket became something of an embarrassment to the management. But, if we didn’t quarrel in the morning, we made up for it by fighting twice before – or even during – dinner.

The holiday had turned well and truly sour after only 3 days and it wasn’t hard to figure out why. Being short of money, there was absolutely nothing we could do for entertainment in an expensive resort like Alicante. Nothing that we couldn’t get arrested for anyway. There was only the beach, and even that didn’t come free. The sun was so strong it was essential to hire a parasol for some degree of protection and that came to 60 pesetas a day. And it wasn’t as if we had the beach to ourselves. The parasols were so arranged that, when they were all raised, they touched to form an almost solid canopy over the beach. Since 6 to 8 gargantuan Spaniards would congregate under each one, it meant you couldn’t dilate your nostrils without knocking 3 of them over. 

Swimming was a real joy. If you did manage to get past the teeming hordes at the water’s edge, your only reward was decapitation by some psycho on a paddle raft.

All this might have been tolerable if we’d been in decent company. There were actually 7 of us keeping the parasol attendants in clover. This total included Sandie, myself and a French girl who disclaimed any knowledge of English. This left 2 women and 2 men. The latter were pleasant enough but had as much joie-de-vivre as powdered Mexican jumping beans. Being ardent fans of Simon and Garfunkel, their idea of a good time was to sit motionless for hours on end harmonising about Mrs Robinson and Joe di Maggio. It was like aversion therapy. Now, every time I hear Homeward Bound, I vomit. 

But it was the 2 women who drove me to distraction. One was extremely thin and unbelievably neurotic and the other was somewhat larger than average, with a deep-rooted aversion to movement. The thin one was a real pleasure to be with, crying if the traffic lights went against her, or screaming if we didn’t happen to walk down the street she’d chosen.

At night, Sandie and I tried to avoid the others. This wasn’t too difficult, as the men didn’t have much money either, and couldn’t even afford the toilet paper in the places where we went to eat. On 4 or 5 occasions, however, we all arranged to meet after dinner so that we could walk up to the castle that overlooked Alicante. It became almost a routine. We’d all gather at about 9 o’clock and head towards the castle in something resembling a good-humoured crowd. After half an hour so so, one of us would give a predetermined signal and then we’d all start moaning about the heat or the distance, or both. And we never got to see the castle.

In an effort to overcome the soul-destroying boredom, we decided to invest in a football and – on the understanding there’d be reimbursement – I went ahead and laid out 120 pesetas on the best plastic football I could find. Needless to say, the subject of cost never cropped up again. And, to add insult to injury, the police threatened to arrest us if we so much as kicked the ball on the beach.

But we did have one good night. I was due to leave on Thursday, the 27th and on the evening before, we all went out to celebrate. I was drinking to my imminent departure but I’m not sure what the others were celebrating. They still had 5 days to go. We met in a small bar not far from the flat shared by the 2 men and, for the first hour, we fed coins into a juke box almost as regularly as we polished off glasses of Anis. Then one of the men discovered he and the barman shared a liking for opera and the next 2 hours were spent in musical reminiscences lost on me.

When closing time came, we decided to continue drinking elsewhere and purchased a full bottle of Anis. Sandie, I and Simon and Garfunkel adjourned to their nearby flat, whereupon their landlady suggested it might be safer for all concerned if we finished our drinking on the roof. So we sat up there and passed the bottle back and forth between the 4 of us. Sandie fell asleep soon after the session began, while the rest of us just sank deeper and deeper into complete inebriation.

Three-quarters of a bottle later, we’d had enough. There was a brief period of tranquility, during which only the occasional hiccup fractured the silence, and then – one by one – we all walked over to the railings and regurgitated on sleeping Alicante 20 floors below.

During my 3 weeks in the city, we only managed to get out of it twice. On each occasion it was on a coach trip organised by the college at which Sandie was taking her course. The first one was to Murcia, somewhere up in the mountains. Sandie set the scene nicely by vomiting on me on the coach. Actually, she did most of it into a plastic bag I was holding, but neither of us had noticed the hole in the bottom of it.

The highlight of this trip was supposed to be a colourful procession down the main street in memory of the ancient feud the Moors and the Christians. We spent so long just sitting and waiting for us to begin that I developed severe stomach cramp and, since the only way I could get rid of it was by doubling up and putting my head between my legs, I didn’t exactly see a lot of the proceedings.

The other outing was to Elche to see the ‘world famous’ passion play and to take part in the fiesta that followed.

The cathedral was so packed it took Sandie and me three quarters of an hour to fight our way to the front of the balcony in order to get a sight of the stage. I never regretted so much in all my life. It was excruciatingly bad. It took us another hour to fight our way out again.

The fiesta was a bundle of fun. After the play had finished, the coach took us to the local park and the Principal of the college led us to a table laid out with cakes and soft drinks. While I sought chairs for Sandie and me, a group of French students scoffed the lot. The Principal then told us the night was ours to do what we liked but, at midnight, we would all meet at the park gates, to decide whether we wanted to return home or stay for another hour or two. The fireworks, he said, would begin at 11 o’clock. He was never so right.

At 11 precisely, the night sky was shattered by rocket after cascading rocket. This was the signal for the local mafia to begin terrorist attacks on the assembled coach party. Suddenly there were firecrackers going on all around us. In our faces . . . under our feet . . . everywhere. Most of the girls were screaming or crying and all I could do was drag Sandie off to some side street, followed closely by the other five. We spend the next hour scurrying from back alley to back alley, avoiding the marauding gangs.

Just before midnight, we cautiously made our way back to the rendezvous point, only to find that the girls already assembled were under attack from all sides. The Principal appeared on the scene and tried to persuade the assailants to desist but with scant success. And then, unbelievably, he told us we’d be staying until 2am. He could see we were all enjoying ourselves.

After that, we passed up the opportunity to go on any more coach trips.

Day after interminable day passed and the calendar slowly wound its way round to August 27th. I didn’t exactly prostrate myself with grief when it finally reached it. My train was due to leave at 8 minutes past midnight on Thursday night and I’d taken the precaution of buying a ticket 2 weeks earlier. I reckoned that, to be sure of getting a seat, I’d need to be at the station at least 2 hours before the train departed. So, at 10 o’clock, we were sitting on the same bench on which I’d found Sandie 3 unforgettable weeks before.

At 11.30, there was still no sign of the train and Sandie had been unable to discover at which platform it was due to arrive at. At 11.35, however, there was an announcement that the carriage for Barcelona was standing at the end of platform 3. Snatching up my rucksack and the plastic bag containing the football and what was left of the Anis, I raced along platform 3, with Sandie and half a million Spaniards in hot pursuit.

I was one of the first to reach the carriage and, by the time I got there, someone had succeeded in opening one of the doors. Since they were clearly having trouble getting any of the other doors open, I joined the queue of 3 at that one. Two of the three climbed quickly up into the carriage but the third, having mounted the steps, turned round and started to take luggage from someone in the crowd that was piling up behind me. I was getting worried. Somebody had succeeded in opening one of the other doors and people were flooding into the carriage from the other end.

I screamed at the guy to get his bags out of the way and, having done so, he turned to haul up his wife. Since the latter weighed at least 15 stone, she had a little difficulty negotiating the steps. I was at the end of my tether. I dragged the woman from behind and hauled myself up into the carriage. But it was too late. There wasn’t a square inch left. Furious, I pushed my way down the compartment in the hope I’d find a corner someone had overlooked. No such luck. They were even swinging from the light fittings.

I did manage to find some space for my rucksack but I soon discovered why no one else had laid claim to it; it was 3 inches away from the toilet. Nevertheless, it was all I had and so I left my luggage there and we fought my way back through the carriage to say goodbye to Sandie.

Since the train from Granada was due to pick up this coachful of sardines at 8 minutes past midnight, Sandie left at 12, leaving me to smash my way back to my bags.

At 2.30, we were still in the station.

I was worried stiff. The train was scheduled to take 12 hours to do the 300 odd miles to Barcelona and my train from there was due to leave at 3.10pm. 

At last, at 2.45, the Granada train pulled in and we were hitched up. We set off just before 3. As time passed and the speed of the train varied from 3 to 80 miles an hour, I nervously ticked off the stations on my timetable. I was certain we weren’t going to make Barcelona in time for me to catch my connection. And, every time we stopped, more people squeezed onto the train. As far as I was concerned, this meant a decrease in space and an increase in lavatorial traffic.

I was engaged in conversation by a German who expressed a professional interest in English jokes and then proceeded to greet every one I told him with a blank stare of incomprehension. He gave me an example of the kind of joke he had in mind. It appeared that the essential ingredients were homosexuality and at least 2 undergraduates from Oxford and Cambridge. When I explained that none of my jokes fell into this category, he murmured something in German and returned to his book.

Time passed slowly and the timetable turned to pulp in my sweaty hands. At 2.30pm, we were still a fair distance from Barcelona and plane tickets kept flashing before my eyes. If there’d been enough room, I’d have got down on my knees and prayed.

We arrived at Barcelona a 3pm exactly and I dashed frantically through the barrier, in search of the NUS representative with my tickets for London.

Two minutes later, I was hurtling back again, looking for the relevant train. 

I made it with minutes to spare and the train pulled out at exactly 3.10.

The journey back was long but uneventful. We arrived at Victoria at 6 on Saturday evening and I made my way to Sandie’s parents’ house for a wash and brush up.

I’d brought back only one souvenir – the football I’d bought during my second week in Alicante. It had been awkward but I’d managed to carry it safely back to England under my arm. I needn’t have bothered. When I opened the front door to Sandie’s house, her dog jumped up and sank his teeth right through it.