Threatening frustration tears pivoted into throat-tightening thankful tears in less than five flickering blinks.
It was 10:40 p.m., I’d walked 18 miles through London since 7 a.m., and I was ready to curl up on my top bunk at the hostel. Despite my previously-sprained ankle pouting at the thought, I would have gladly pushed the mile count over 20 and walked back if I knew catching a bus was going to make me clench my fists so tightly my nails broke skin while I tried not to scream.
Leaving King’s Cross station, with the bus stop right outside, I thought, ‘Should make for an easy trip’. I’d loaded directions on my phone before I left the wifi-zone; take Bus 63 for 27 minutes, then walk three minutes down the road. There was a bus arriving in four minutes.
I dug out all the pence and pound coins in my pockets, having no idea how much the fare would be. It was a moot point, apparently; the driver told me the buses accepted only Oyster cards — like a pre-paid gift card used exclusively for public transportation — and bank cards. I presented my bank card. Oh, British bank cards only, apparently. My American one didn’t fit the bill. The driver told me to go buy a ticket and, when I asked where to do so, gave a blasé gesture back towards King’s Cross.
I trudged back inside, but everything was shutting down for the night. Only one person in uniform lingered, so I asked her where to buy a bus ticket. She sent me back outside to the underground station; a man from the underground told me that was wrong, but he didn’t know where to buy one. The man working a newsstand a few feet from the bus stop sent me across the street to a convenience store.
Finally, the employee there told me he could sell me a ticket. I gathered change as a woman nudged in front of me to buy her drink.
“I just need to take the 63 for, I think, 19 stops. How much for that?”
“No, no, you can’t buy an individual ticket. I can sell you an Oyster Card for a five pound deposit and then you have to load 10 pounds on it.”
“But I only need to take one trip. I can’t buy just one ticket?”
The man had already started telling me no and I was chanting “don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry” on loop in my head when a couple to my left, licking at vanilla ice cream cones, heard my distressed, bordering-on-whiny tone and asked where I was trying to go, their accents matching mine. I was worried if I tried to speak too much my throat would force out the frustrated tears; I showed them the map on my phone, merely saying I was trying to take the bus to my hostel.
They both looked for just a second before the man let out a startled, “Oh!” and his wife simultaneously started, “Give her the…” and trailed off, gesturing towards the pocket on his shirt, which he was already unbuttoning.
“Here, this is good until midnight,” he said, “and we’re done for the day. That’ll get you anywhere.”
In my palm he placed a small, rectangular ticket, a semi-translucent red with the London Underground symbol bordering the top. “15 JLY 16, 01DAY TRAVELCARD” was printed near the center. It wasn’t golden, but it was a ticket and it felt priceless. I was still about to cry, but for a whole different reason.
The employee behind me unhelpfully muttered, “Yeah, that’ll work” while I thanked the couple. They insisted it was no problem — they were two blocks from their hotel anyway — and scoffed when I offered to pay them something for it. Maybe 15 “thank you”s poured from my mouth as I walked the three feet to the door, but it didn’t seem like enough.
I crossed back over to the King’s Cross bus stop, and a few minutes later I was praying the bus driver would accept the pass. He waved me forward without pause and I threw myself into the first seat by the window. Forty minutes later I was walking through the gates of my hostel.
Before the Bus Fiasco of 2k16, as I’d started calling it, the day had been amazing; the end of it even more so. This couple owed me nothing, but seeing a vulnerable young woman alone in an unfamiliar country, they just helped. They didn’t know it was my first solo trip or that my ankle was about to give out or that it was another four miles to my bed.
Maybe they felt good about helping me, maybe they’ll never think about me again — London probably gave them some more exciting thoughts on which to linger — but even after my full day, that was what I thought about all night.
I was going home with pamphlets from everywhere I visited, authentic English tea, little tin jars decorated with the Union Jack and Big Ben to store knick-knacks, and a rubber duck from the British Museum for my best friend who collects them, but the best souvenir I brought home was that travel ticket stub.
I’d seen statues from the Parthenon, my favorite Monet paintings, Shakespeare’s Globe, the Changing of the Guard, and the skyline from the London Eye, but the best thing I saw that day was human kindness.