I recently had the pleasure of accompanying the students of the University of Limerick on the night-bus into town.
It was quite the experience.
Emerging from the University Concert Hall at the reasonable hour of 10pm, I assumed my journey home would be as unremarkable as the event I’d just witnessed. Not so.
Instead of approaching the bus-stop and boarding any one of the number of steeds usually present therein, I was informed that the next bus wasn’t due for thirty minutes. This brought me into dangerous territory; drunken student territory.
Ordinarily the thought of being surrounded by dozens of inebriated twenty-somethings wouldn’t faze me in the slightest, provided of course, I was myself inebriated also.
But facing these young pups compos mentis was, at best, daunting, at worst, mildly terrifying.
As I continued to wait, trying to look as inconspicuous as possible, hoping that this would be one of those weeknights when Limerick’s student population chose to stay in and watch some telly, their numbers grew.
Any hopes that Monday was the night they spent hitting the books were dashed as more and more high-spirited revellers joined the ranks. My priorities quickly changed; where once I had been intent on securing a quiet seat and traveling home unmolested, my focus was now on survival.
Spotting the bus arriving in the distance, I took advantage of my young associate’s fuzzy-thinking and positioned myself at the front of the queue. It may have been a double-decker, one with plenty of room to go round, but I wasn’t taking any chances.
Almost as soon as the driver opened the doors, the trouble began.
One happy camper was trying to pay his fare with a crisp ten euro note. ‘Not on my watch’ announced Mr Bus Man, setting his stall out right from the off.
He immediately closed the doors, repelling the drunken hordes, sending those nearest spiralling into the arms of their friends.
The doors promptly reopened, facilitating the kind of mass surge I’d thought I’d left behind in my own drunken twenties.
“Stop,” announced the part-bus driver, part-one man defence force, “no-one gets on without the correct change. I’ll leave ye behind, I don’t give a shit.”
Here was a man who’d been pushed to his limits one time too many, a man on the edge. Silently I willed my traveling companions to be on their best behaviour, for all our sakes.
Having negotiated the bus-fare gauntlet without incident, I set about finding somewhere safe and secure to sit. Not even considering the dark, rumbling environs of the upper-deck, I found a space in the middle of the bus.
Then I waited, and I watched. I watched as this most mundane of scenes descended into chaos. I watched as the 304 from UL to Ballycummin morphed into a mobile madhouse, as its scantily-clad, somewhat boisterous, incumbents gave reason to suggest they had been released from the asylum prematurely.
My decision to forego the upper-deck had proven a wise one, only the most drunken, most unruliest belonged up there. After several lengthy, protracted disputes over incorrect change and other such frivolities, the bus finally jolted into life. We were off.
At the first pre-ordained stop, the driver sought to reassert his authority. Opening his little window, he glared back at the rowdy ringleaders, jabbing his finger menacingly, delivering threats destined never to be carried out.
The intended recipients did their best to look contrite, resuming their tomfoolery as soon as his back was turned.
It brought to mind a group of senior infants intent on ruining teacher’s day, fearful of her rule, but not that fearful.
As if to underline their flagrant disregard for the driver’s authority, they began to sing. It was standard fodder, ‘The Fields of Athenry, ‘Amhrán na bhFiann’, ‘Living on a Prayer’.
But then something magical happened.
A deep tremor began to emanate from deep within our carriage’s bowels, the sound of scores of young feet stomping the ground in unison. With it came a battlecry from up top, a bus conductor of a very different kind.
The lower deck responded to this call from the wild, bellowing back their verse in this strangely impressive, late-night symphony. This lot were in danger of putting to rest several stereotypes all at once, not only were they capable of constructing a decent tune, they were now entertaining rather than terrorising the few sober among them.
The driver still wasn’t impressed though, routinely opening his window for more staring sessions before resuming his duties with a scowl.
In truth the bus’ occupants had given him little reason to bring his threats to the next level. Boisterous, yes. Intoxicated, without question. Annoying, oh absolutely. But, threatening? Violent? In any way mean-spirited? I’m afraid not.
In the end, it was rather like a visit to the zoo, a chance to marvel at some exotic species from behind the safety of the barriers.
Of course I only witnessed the animals in a caged environment. I wasn’t privy to their exploits in the wild, at feeding time, when they roam the streets in packs, leaving nothing but destruction and dismay in their wake.
Maybe that could be my next assignment?
I’ve always wanted to be a war correspondent.