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Dec152011

Washington

In 1998 I was living in London with three school friends.  One long weekend, Bill, one of my roommates, and I decided to leave the familiar territory of Kensington Park Gardens and head for the British countryside.  I believe our intention was to take a day trip to see Melrose Abbey, maybe see Edinburgh, but we left the flat late that day and missed our train.  Bill and I looked around the station and decided we should get on a train nonetheless. 

We were, after all, there to travel.

We hopped on a northbound train that would, had it been hours earlier, gotten us to one of our destinations.  But leaving London late in the afternoon, it got us as far as the seaside town of Scarborough before the line—and the train station—shut down for the night.

I don’t remember what the plan was or even if we had one.  What we did, was spend hours looking for any place to stay the night.  Bed and breakfast, hostel, anything.  I think we walked down every side street, alleyway and thoroughfare in Scarborough.  After a while of wondering why every B&B was booked, it dawned on us that this was Easter weekend, and we were in a popular holiday destination.  What’s more, I, in those days a dedicated smoker, had run out of matches.  Things were looking dim, and slowly the idea we might be in trouble, began to sink in.

Scarborough is a peninsula off of North Yorkshire made famous by the Simon and Garfunkel song “Scarborough Fair.”  Although it was spring, it was still a sharp March night, and the cold of the place was intensified by the fact that the winds blew the chill off the water from both directions.  It was getting bitter cold, and although we had each brought travel bags, we were wearing all the clothes we had.  Bill cursed that he had been fooled by the idea of a spring weekend in the English countryside.  He mentioned, though, that should things get worse, he had a towel. 

Bill had just read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in which, travel rule one is: always bring a towel.  Apparently, among the many uses for a towel on the road, is the ability to wrap it around your head for warmth.  My friend was thrilled he might actually have a utilitarian use for the towel he brought, as the book had instructed. 

I thought wearing a towel was silly.

We had faith that some lodging would yet be found, but after miles and miles of nothing but “No Vacancy” signs and closed doors, we found ourselves on a main road down by the water’s edge.  Shuttered stores, restaurants, bars and tourist shops lined the path facing the water.  As we walked we heard sounds and lights which lifted our spirits, and before long we came across a carnival-style arcade which was the last open storefront.  No food or drinks, but it was heated, and they had all sorts of games to distract us from the fact that we were about to be homeless for the evening.  What’s more, they would be open until 10:00, which gave us about 2 hours of worry free time.

The arcade was almost entirely empty, but the machines created a cacophony of bells and chimes reminiscent of a Las Vegas casino floor, which made our oasis more welcoming.  I found a coin push machine and settled in to play.  I’ve always loved coin pushes, and here in Scarborough, not only was the goal to win more coins than you put in, but there were prizes scattered atop a sea of 5p coins.  After about ten minutes Bill, who somehow had the energy to scout the rest of the arcade, found me. 

“What are you doing?” he asked. 

I thought this was an obvious question.  “I’m playing the coin push.” 

He pressed the issue.  “But why are you playing the lame coin push?” 

I was intrigued... 

“There is a high-roller 10p coin push, with better prizes, over there.” 

And he was right; my eyes gleaned as I turned the corner and saw the loot.  Lighters, along with other assorted bric-a-brac were there for the taking, the best of which was at the very back, taunting me.  The lighter that caught my eye was a toilet, which erupted a flame out of the bowl when you flushed.  Not having had a smoke in hours I was hardly able to contain my excitement, and procured many, many 10p coins.

Two hours later I had cleared out the entire coin push.  Although I had lost a vast amount of money, I was flush in small toys, cheap jewelry, and, at long last, lighters.  I had won two from the machine, having inadvertently scored a lighter shaped like a bottle of champagne in addition to the coveted toilet, not to mention earrings made of “genuine Austrian crystal” and some gold jewelry from the Mr. T fall collection.  But my good fortune was quickly curbed when we were asked to leave shortly after—it was 10:00 already.

Bill and I stepped back out into the cold, which had intensified in the few hours we had spent indoors.  The hope that anyplace would be open at this point had vanished.  But then there was a flicker of light, and we rushed toward what we soon realized was that of an open door.  Although we didn’t know what the place was, a voice behind the door said “If you are coming in, hurry up.”

I walked in first, and stopped short.  I was on stage with the members of a musical band, playing Irish tunes to the room.  Bill, equally taken aback by the position we were in demanded “now what have you done?”  As our eyes adjusted to the light, we made our way off the stage and down into the pub, which was locked down.

One of the innkeeps explained that pubs had to close at 10:00, but enforcement was light enough that every so often on a good night, they would lock everyone inside.  No one came in or out unless they turned off the music and lights for the rest of the night.  After quickly confirming that indeed, there were no hotels which would be able to accommodate us, we made the most of our good fortune and ordered some beers.

I have no idea how long we stayed in the lockdown, these were the days before cell phones and I had not yet started to wear a watch.  But many beers, ales and whiskeys later, we were asked to clear out yet again.  We left with the band, the last people out of the tavern.

Warmed, at least in spirit, we found a graveyard outside an old castle at the very top of the city and contemplated staying there, but concluded it was too creepy and too windy to sleep exposed atop crypts in a medieval graveyard on a hill in those kind of temperatures.  We pushed on. 

Still out in the cold, Bill and I wandered to the water.  He went down to the shoreline to get a better look at the comet hanging in the sky over the ocean (later we found this had been Hale-Bopp,) while I carved four letter words into the sand with my heel. 

We all experience nature’s majesty in our own way, I suppose.

Eventually we rededicated ourselves to finding a place to bunker down against the cold of night.  We found a stone bus stop, enclosed on three sides, which sheltered us from most of the wind.  Bill donned his towel, wrapping it around his head and I smoked and shivered, wishing I had a towel also.  I think I had closed my eyes for a second when lights pointed in our direction.  Headlights from a police car, specifically.  A hasty, whispered conversation ensued.

“Don’t move! They might see us!”

“What’s the big deal, we’re not doing anything.” I replied.

“No, of course not,” Bill hissed.  “We’re foreigners, vagrants, two single guys sleeping in a bus shelter in a seaside town underdressed on a cold night Easter weekend, we’ve been drinking and you’ve been defacing a public beach. No, nothing sketchy there at all.”

I saw his point.

As soon as the police car rumbled off down the strip and was comfortably past the shelter, we took off at a dead run up the hill, heading for the cover of a stand of trees.  Not 50 yards from the bus stop I yelled to Bill, “Stop!” 

He turned and with panic in his eyes yelled back “What?” 

“We have to go back.” 

“Why?!” 

“I forgot my smokes!” 

“No you didn’t, they are right here!”  he shouted, reaching over my shoulder to seize  the pack of Silk Cut had lodged itself in the strap of my bag.  

Relieved beyond description—I had, after all, spent 2 hours and about £50 on something to light them with—I began to run again.  Eventually we lost the fuzz, if they ever were chasing us at all.  On the other side of the trees, not far from the cemetery we’d considered earlier there were lights, so we headed in that direction.  Once in the middle of the field, however, a loud crack came out of nowhere. 

I asked, “How are we in the middle of a giant, empty field in the night, evading capture, and you find the one branch to step on?” 

“I was just thinking the same thing about you,” said Bill. 

The field was pitch black and we looked around, talking about how this would make a nice opening to an X-Files episode about the Scarborough Monster.  We left the open field expeditiously.

We passed the wee hours of the morning wandering the town’s narrow streets, searching in vain for another place open all night, or perhaps a café that would welcome us as soon as the sun rose.

By 5 the sky lightened, and we hovered outside the doors to the train station we’d left hours earlier.  As soon as the doors were unlocked we heaved coins into the sandwich machine, wolfing down whatever was to be had, and caught the 6:20 south to London, our trip aborted but not exactly unsuccessful.

Although I have been many places and had many adventures since then, I don’t think I’ve ever had such a good time in such uncomfortable circumstances.  I always look back fondly on that night.  Scarborough, traveling to unknown places, making the most of unfortunate  circumstances and spending time with great friends is my Latitude.

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