I went to Barnstaple to have a tuna sandwich. I don’t like tuna sandwiches and I don’t particularly like Barnstaple. (I once suggested that cancer was better than tuna, and that the only good thing about Barnstaple is that it’s hard to get to.) But Bill Bryson had a tuna sandwich in Barnstaple so I would as well.
As the train rattled north from Exeter, my anxiety regarding the sandwich was compounded by a sense of utter pointlessness about the whole excursion. You see, Bryson went to Barnstaple with a view to finding a connecting bus to Minehead, which proved impossible (and still is), and so was left with little option but to return, just an hour later, to Exeter, and start all over again.
So I really was taking a three-hour round-trip just to have a tuna sandwich. And yet my mood on the train, in spite of the futile and potentially disgusting hours that lay before me, was jolly. (There’s pleasure to be had, perhaps, in doing daft inexplicable things, like kicking autumn leaves, or visiting grandparents, or watching anything with Kiera Knightley in it.)
My jolly mood didn’t last, and as I walked from the station into town, past a fleet of commiserating retail units (Lidl, Tesco, Halfords, Pizza Hut, a Petworld drive-through), my bad knee started playing up, my backpack seemed to gain a few kilos, and I all of a sudden needed a shit. ( I should mention briefly here that my digestive system is such that, on average, only three or four minutes can pass before the first signs of needing to go are fully realised, which often led, during adolescence, to awkward moments slow-dancing at discos, or during French oral-exams.)
Thus it was that I found myself moving around the narrow streets of central Barnstaple, searching for a public toilet, in a sort of hunched and panicky waddle, stopping periodically to sit on a bench or at a bus stop, lest things got a little ahead of themselves. At one point I sat down next to an old couple eating chips, only for a third to come along, looking to rest her legs. Ordinarily I would have conceded my seat (there was only room for three), but that just wasn’t on the cards, and so I had to suffer the poor woman’s pleading stare, and her heavy sigh as she trudged off, and then the whispered disapproval of the couple next to me.
I found a public toilet in the covered market but it wanted a twenty pence piece and I didn’t have one. I thought about hurdling the turnstile but worried that such a move might hasten my bowel movement, and so I went to the theatre opposite and asked an elderly volunteer called Joe whether, if it were at all possible, and wouldn’t be considered rude etc., I could bring things to a head in the toilet.
Joe sighed in a way that suggested he’d been expecting this all along, before explaining (at some length) that he’d have to take me through as there was a performance of Sleeping Beauty in progress and he didn’t want me sneaking in. I assured him that I had no intention of sneaking in and that he really needn’t come through with me but he insisted, alluding to section seven of some little known piece of theatre policy, which states that no person shall be allowed to shit independently during a Disney adaptation.
Joe led me to the cubicle and then, as I made preparations, chose, inexplicably, to linger outside the door, where he began whistling the Great Escape theme-tune. I suggested to Joe, in no uncertain terms, that it really wasn’t necessary – at fucking all – for him to remain within earshot, but again he refused to budge, again on account of section seven, which he no doubt had a hand in writing. I did what I needed to do as quietly as I could and have never felt more embarrassed. And yet – and how very British this is – as we parted company, I to have a tuna sandwich, he to return to his sentry post, we thanked each other.
I found the hotel where Bill had his sandwich, which was full of more people like Joe, discussing fuel allowances and how little they would bequeath to their children. I ordered a tuna sandwich with so little enthusiasm that the waitress actually asked me if I was sure. When it came, the sandwich was cut into triangles, no doubt in an effort to make it seem less hostile. I managed two or three bites before attempting to hide the remainder beneath a charmless side-salad, lest some overbearing pal of Joe’s tell me to eat it all up.
I paid the £6.75 (mumbling under my breath what a load of bollocks this all was), tipped the waitress a quid, sent my best to her family, commended the chef, and then made my way back to the station, feeling really quite depressed. As I crossed the fine wide bridge that connects (regrettably, perhaps) Barnstaple with its station, I considered throwing myself off it, certain that the cold brown quickly-flowing water would be preferable to the solid world of streets and toilets and sandwiches. Then I remembered that I had a room booked for that night in a two-star hotel in Weston-Super-Mare, which cheered me up no end.