The widow who threw her bra into George Clooney’s garden: How BEN AITKEN, 32, discovered a world of glorious eccentrics on budget coach trips (including the man who kept his wife’s ashes in the boot)
On our tour around Lake Como, our coach had stopped outside George Clooney’s holiday house and Jill, the retired civil servant sitting next to me, was visibly and audibly excited.
She even had a puff of her inhaler. She was not alone.
The sight of Clooney’s Italian retreat had the entire coach spellbound; even the blokes were using their cameras to zoom in.
I watched her inch closer to George’s perimeter, remove her bra from under her blouse and fling it over the wall into the garden. I asked her why. She shrugged her shoulders and said: ‘Well, I’ve plenty of others’
Someone said the kitchen window was open.
Someone saw a massive pepper grinder. Someone thought they saw him through frosted glass — which meant he was probably getting out of the shower.
The very thought did something to Jill. I watched her inch closer to George’s perimeter, remove her bra from under her blouse and fling it over the wall into the garden.
I asked her why. She shrugged her shoulders and said: ‘Well, I’ve plenty of others.’
A mile or so down the road, I asked if she had a bit of a thing for George. She said not really. If she had a thing for anyone it was David Dimbleby.
She even went to the filming of Question Time when it was near her home in Telford and again when it was in Shrewsbury.
She’d been tempted to ask David a question. I asked what it would have been.
‘I don’t know,’ said Jill, a keen golfer. ‘Maybe if he fancied nine holes sometime.’
The sight of Clooney’s Italian retreat had the entire coach spellbound; even the blokes were using their cameras to zoom in
Had David taken Jill up on her offer, he might have wanted to buy a pair of earplugs as I had discovered when I sat next to her on the 27-hour journey from Manchester to Italy.
They call this service the Night-Rider. That makes it sound sexy, risqué and desirable, but Night-Survivor would be more like it.
Jill was wearing a Union Jack travel pillow. She explained that it had belonged to her husband and now helped her sleep like a log. A very noisy log, she might have added.
Six hours later, with my right cheek pressed to the cold glass of the window and Jill’s snoring in my left ear, I could feel her pillow against my cheek, which meant that her face was about six inches from my own.
I decided that I’d dearly love to be somewhere else and horizontal. I didn’t mind where — a trench, an ironing board, the Korean Demilitarized Zone — just so long as I could stretch out.
A mile or so down the road, I asked if she had a bit of a thing for George. She said not really. George is pictured above with Amal
Later, Jill complained that her travel pillow had a puncture.
‘I think it might have been your beard,’ she said. ‘I reckon you might have been getting too close.’
Although Jill was more than twice my age, we had something in common. People thought us a bit odd, Jill for going on holiday alone, and me for being a 32-year-old who had booked himself on a series of Shearings holidays, usually popular with those of grandparental vintage.
‘Are you one of the drivers?’ I was asked on the first, a trip to Scarborough I signed up for after a conversation with a friend.
He told me how his great-aunt had been on a Shearings holiday to Exmouth, whereupon she enjoyed four nights full-board in a period hotel and return coach travel. There was also entertainment each evening, various excursions, a fair bit of wine, and the uninterrupted company of people of pensionable age, all for a hundred quid.
That was less than my sister paid to get into a disco in Ibiza. But good value aside, what I was really after was the company of my elders.
Every time I went near a grandparent, or someone of that age, I came away from the encounter with some kind of snack and a new perspective.
It’s hard not to get more interesting as you get older, if only by dint of having more grist in the mill. That’s what I had come to realise and my going away wasn’t about bridging gaps or getting a handle on geriatric issues. Simply put, I did it because I thought it might be nice.
I joined that trip to Scarborough in my home town of Portsmouth and our first stop was Havant, six miles away. There, half a dozen people got on, a chirpy bunch saying hello and good morning to the coach and all its fittings.
I don’t think I’ve ever been as cheerful, certainly not before 7.30am. An early indication that whoever said that we’re happiest as children and elders, with the bit in between made relatively miserable by responsibility and work, might have been onto something.
‘We’re a small group today,’ announced our driver Roger. ‘Average height, five-foot four.’
It wasn’t a complicated joke but it did a job on me and on we went to Scarborough, or ‘Scarbados’ as Roger called it, arriving around tea-time.
Our hotel there was the Norbreck, a bit of which fell into the North Sea a few years ago, suddenly providing one guest with an unexpected en-suite.
Given my drinks vouchers for the week and told not to photocopy them, I checked into a room so small that if you’d had a guest, they’d have had to sit on your lap.
It would certainly have met the approval of Dennis and Clementine, a couple from Northamptonshire who were on the same trip. When they heard that it was my first coach holiday, they gave me lots of tips, including never to bother paying for a sea view. They did that once and felt like they couldn’t leave the room.
They might also have warned me against winning the bingo on my first night at the hotel. My fellow holidaymakers didn’t mean to be rude, I’m sure, but when I went up to collect the cash prize, someone tried to trip me up with their cane.
On these holidays, the hotels expect you to sit at the same table for the duration of your stay and I shared mine with Alan, a retired foundry worker from the Midlands whose wife was too claustrophobic to come away. After dinner, we’d go outside for a smoke.
Alan had survived two heart attacks. After the second, the doctor told him his heart was so weak that one cigarette a day would kill him. Which is why he always had two.
Although Jill was more than twice my age, we had something in common. People thought us a bit odd, Jill for going on holiday alone, and me for being a 32-year-old who had booked himself on a series of Shearings holidays, usually popular with those of grandparental vintage
In the bar one night, I joined a table of four women, Lorraine and Donna, and their mums, Jacquie and Daisy. The daughters were in their 50s and used to being the youngest ones on a Shearings holiday. Apparently I was stealing their thunder.
According to Donna, Jacquie had been convinced that I was French — ‘she said you looked like someone who’d go on strike a lot’ — and they’d also speculated that I was going through a divorce and had been kicked out by my wife.
In fact, I’d never even been married, but I do have a partner called Megan who joined me on my next trip, to St Ives in Cornwall.
Megan’s taste is roughly in line with that of someone born between the wars — and I’m not talking about the Gulf Wars. So I wasn’t surprised to see her assimilating quickly when we reached the London Gateway Services at the foot of the M1, the interchange where passengers switch to coaches heading to their respective destinations.
Shearings has its own lounge there. It’s like heaven’s waiting room and Megan was soon in conversation with a woman regarding the three times she and her husband had circumnavigated the world — one for each of their sons.
‘What, you mean on each occasion you went with a different son?’ asked Megan.
‘Oh no,’ came the reply. ‘We do it for them, not with them.’
There was much to like in St Ives, not least the picture postcard streets, but I was most taken by the fact that the Duchy of Cornwall owns many of the holiday cottages there, and manages them directly.
I liked the idea of Prince Charles manning the phones. ‘Now then, let’s get to the bottom of this, you’re saying your egg came with insufficient soldiers?’
Despite such diversions, we discovered that the problem with being a youngish couple on a coach holiday is that people think you are self-sufficient and therefore not keen for chit-chat.
At our hotel, we weren’t left out of the banter deliberately. People just stick to what they know, and what they know is their generation.
There was no danger of that happening on my next trip, four days in Llandudno, North Wales, with my Nan. A former nurse, she is now 81 and busies herself digging up dead relatives. For the family tree, that is.
After I’d unpacked at our hotel on the seafront, I went to check on Nan who was in the room next door and a tad worried about the bath. She reckoned the last time she’d had one, she couldn’t get out.
‘I had to yell for Grandad,’ she said. ‘But he was watching the golf with the volume up. I was in there for two hours.’
I asked what happened two hours later.
‘Tiger Woods won,’ she said.
Downstairs in the packed dining room, Nan worried that everyone seemed to be looking at us.
‘Oh dear,’ she said. ‘They must think you’re my toyboy. Just eat your bread roll and don’t touch me.’
She eventually got over that and we struck up a friendship with a former Bletchley Park code-breaker called Patrick who couldn’t manage the hotel stairs and so had to be carried down to the bingo one evening.
‘I felt like a Roman Emperor,’ he said. ‘That, or a sofa.’
Our holiday included a visit to the small coastal town of Porthmadog. There, Nan and Patrick linked arms for a stretch while I walked behind. It was a nice prospect, the pair of them ambling along, enjoying a bit of back and forth about the fine weather or how good it is to be alive.
That’s how I imagined their chat but when I overtook them on the lovely stone bridge that crosses Porthmadog harbour, I heard Patrick say: ‘So in conclusion, Janet, I won’t be buying those crisps again.’
During a walk around Llandudno the next day, Nan and I sat on a bench and waited for the coffees we’d bought to cool down. It’s been said — and I’m inclined to go along with this — that it’s rare to be uncomplicatedly happy for longer than ten minutes.
Well, I managed 20 minutes, just sat next to Nan, listening to her talk and watching the seagulls terrorise a couple of kids with chips, but the holiday wasn’t all jollity.
One night, when Nan had gone to bed, I headed to the bar for a pint. It was just me and Gary, a retired lorry driver from Leeds who told me that his wife died of cancer in 2012.
‘Said she’d had enough of the chemotherapy. So I said all right, and we stopped it. I held her hand at the end.’
I looked at him apologetically.
‘I’ve still got her though. She’s in t’boot.’
‘She’s in t’boot.’
Turned out Gary kept his wife’s ashes in the boot of his car, and whenever he found a place he thought she’d like, he scattered some of her there.
I raised my glass to the man and he raised his.
‘T’boot,’ he said.
As I boarded the coach in Manchester for my next trip, a tour of the Ring of Kerry in SouthWest Ireland, I heard the lady behind me fretting that she had forgotten to pack the electric toothbrush. The man with her said it was all right because he did it.
‘Jack,’ she said, slightly affronted. ‘You’re meant to be senile.’
Whether they’d remembered their toothbrushes or not, I would put many people I’d met on my holidays on my proposed Supremely Sage Council of Elders — a body which would have a say on policy and national well-being and what-not.
You could say the House of Lords plays a similar role — that of an enlightened guardian, a check and a balance — but then you could say Plato played for Coventry.
I suppose you’d have to pass some kind of wisdom exam to sit on it, and Chris and Carole, two widows from a Derbyshire village, would definitely qualify.
I joined that trip to Scarborough (above) in my home town of Portsmouth and our first stop was Havant, six miles away. There, half a dozen people got on, a chirpy bunch saying hello and good morning to the coach and all its fittings. I don’t think I’ve ever been as cheerful, certainly not before 7.30am
Their husbands both died four years ago and on that Irish trip they talked softly, sweetly, and sensibly about many things, including Christmas shopping.
Turned out Carole liked to buy for two Christmases every other autumn, even though she knew it carried certain risks. She once got her niece a gluten-free cookbook, but 15 months later the niece was tolerant again.
Sometimes such chats meant that I hardly got a chance to glance out of the coach window, but I didn’t mind. A landscape will still be there tomorrow (and tomorrow and tomorrow) but conversations don’t stick around, so I learned to make the most of them.
After Ireland came that week in Lake Como, and then I was off to the Scottish Highlands. At the interchange in Normanton, West Yorkshire, I got talking to a couple on their way to Eastbourne.
He was a former driving instructor, a lovely job in the 1980s when she would sit in the car during his lessons, smoking out the window. When he’d done all his learners, they’d stop somewhere and find a field to sunbathe in, or drive to the airport to watch the planes.
Now in retirement, and busy with their garden, they just appreciated still being around. His brother wasn’t any more. He collapsed on a bus with a ruptured aneurysm.
‘And what’s more,’ she said, ‘it was the wrong bloody bus.’
Soon it was time to catch my own bus for what would be my final trip. We stopped for lunch across the border and I sat with Flicker and Mary, two friends from Derby who told me how busy the church they attended was — with community events like speed dating and book clubs almost every day.
‘Oh aye, people pop in on their lunch breaks.’
‘And I suppose if one thing led to another they could, you know…’
‘Not in God’s home they couldn’t. We wouldn’t allow it. Would we, Flicker?’
‘I think Ben actually meant get married, Mary.’
Walking back to the coach, they asked if I’d enjoyed my holidays. I told them that I had, that they’d done me some good.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not prescribing pensioners, or saying that age is, at all times, a virtue. But before I went to Scarborough I was grumpy and complacent and scared of getting old, whereas now I was still those things, only a little bit less.
I thought about this as I strolled through the Perthshire town of Pitlochry on the last night of my Scottish holiday.
It was just after 11pm and as I crossed an unsteady bridge over the River Tummel, I reflected that if this had been the closing scene of a film, I’d have heard distant music and seen a montage of faces from my recent travels.
Instead, real life wrote its own ending. One in which I leaned on the bridge on that midsummer’s evening, looked up at the moon in the still, blue sky and was struck by how much light there can be so late in the day.
Adapted from The Gran Tour by Ben Aitken, published by Icon at £14.99. © Ben Aitken 2020.
To order a copy for £11.99, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.
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