50 minutes on the number 3

no.3Certain of my friends and family know that I’m something of a coincidence-attractor – smilingly called spookiness. The other day a really extraordinary tale unfolded: the diary reminded me it was the morning of a yearly treat – The Summer Show at the Royal Academy. The number 3 bus stops on the hill outside my block; on I got, debating whether to change onto the tube or ride all the way to town. I went for the latter, envisaging hot underground crowds, and started to read.

At the next stop a large lady plonked down beside me. I gave up reading after a bit and put my things away whereupon the lady got ready to let me out. “No, just re-arranging” I said – which gave her leave to begin. Having told me how she was always a bit quick to ‘read the signals’ she commented on how very happy she is to now be retired and to be able to choose not to travel in the rush hour.

on the bus


Having told her that in fact I still work I asked her from what job she’d retired – medical receptionist at a major hospital ( “In the two clinics that my sister attended” said I, but she didn’t respond) and how she’d hated it – not the job itself but her sneered-upon status. She talked on, her language elaborate, about later voluntary work in an archive – I commented on having one of those myself and she fulsomely offered her services but didn’t enquire after the content.

bartholomew mapThen we started on where had she been brought up – Daddy and her know-it-all (as she put it) Mother having been mentioned frequently by now. The words “A small county town north of London” made me ask “Hertford?” “Yes, and what really annoys me is that when Hertfordshire is mentioned on the radio it’s always about Watford or St Albans, never East Hertfordshire…” Off she went on this hobby horse. “I hadn’t noticed that – I was born in Hertford actually.” She seemed mildly interested in this. I asked what Daddy did – “Works manager at a pharmaceutical company”. “Allen & Hanbury’s?” “Yes” “Oh, my father worked there.” Now that did raise an eyebrow. She didn’t ask who or what he did but continued with Allenbury’s and JCH – the boss – and Daddy and Mother.

allenburys tins

The ‘works’ was a very important player in their lives. From the works picnic we moved on to the company drama society. “Oh I wonder if my mum ever went to their productions – she was an actress”.

SpirellaNo comment, but straight – no, windingly – on to stories of tea-time treats and dozens of eggs coming home with Daddy on his bike, and then her too-soon widowed Mother’s Spirella corsets which enabled an ‘elaborate bosom’ to remain firmly in place, and a plump auntie whose underwear was not so effective!. I described the little animals that the lab glass blower made for us if ever we had to go in to work with dad on a Saturday. 


We then got on to transport and getting up to London, and I recalled the Green LIne bus that went from Hoddesdon, our little town, to Great Portland Street. “The 715 – very convenient as my mum did a lot of work at the BBC at that time.” “Yes” said she “Mother and I got that bus too and sometimes an actress called Patience Collier would get on.” “That was my mum.” Now that did cause a little interest – at least a pause – “Oh, so your father was Dr Collier?” “Yes” “Well, fancy that, your parents used to come and play bridge with mine on a Saturday night. Your mother was a very commanding woman” I concurred with that. She gave me her parents’ name, and the address in Ware Road, and it did sound familiar.


I have to say the idea of my ill-matched and ever-arguing parents going out together on a Saturday evening, let alone playing bridge seems unlikely and makes me smile – but what a remarkable coincidence is that? 


That intriguing conversation took us to central London. We exchanged a few more reminiscences and I remarked what a fluke it was that we’d both ended up in SE 19. She’d asked nothing about my family’s subsequent fortunes, about our lives, about my work, but I gave her my name as I rose in case she thought I was making it all up. She, of course, was going on to the last stop.

The whole amazing encounter offered quite a lot of competition for the Summer Show!

bookLater that day my niece handed me a little red book found amongst Susan’s things. It is the accounts book from Ripley the Butcher – “Families Waited upon Daily” – and records monthly all the transactions between my family and the butcher between 1946 and 1958 when we moved up to London (though I see that their first stamps are even more archaic – 1845!).

I remember the Saturday expedition to the High Street with my father to fetch the weekend shopping – one bag for the vegetables, the other for the Sunday joint – up Lord Street and passing the forge on the way.

3 The account book gives an amazingly ordered picture – an insight into a bygone era, a passport to another hierarchy. Our family life in fact was emotionally chaotic and dangerously unruly – held together, it felt to me, by the force of my mother’s ferocious and unyielding lists! Unlike the family above we did not feel the paternalistic grace of The Company; ours was coloured by the bitter struggle of the inventor, the constant and egocentric anxiety of the performer, the hazardous excitement of new ideas and ventures.


Thinking about the weaving together of accidental finds I was taken with this inspiring sight – a  colossal funnel tunnel in Houston made from woven-together waste wood.


I’ve been lucky enough to have a lot of flowers around these last few days, both allotment-picked and lovely bunches brought by friends – thank you. The plot has yielded a glorious glut of blackberries too, and when I get back from a few days in Brittany I hope the tomatoes will be ripe, the little dears….

summer flowers

Thanks to Alan, Molly and my marvellous companion on the number three bus.


32 thoughts on “50 minutes on the number 3

  1. Pingback: on the buses | Sarah Campbell Designs

  2. Pingback: signs and signals | Sarah Campbell Designs

  3. This is no spooky coincidence – but ‘Sarah-ndipity’ (what i used to think of as Susan-dipity, with your similarly gifted sister): gifted at making the connections that are there to be made, that is. Enjoy Brittany, where I’m sure you will gather more stories like the delightful bouquets illustrating this one.

    Much love from Charles and Faye (in Collioure at the moment – someone has to do it…)

  4. Sarah, a marvellous story and a gripping read. I was most touched by your account and by your illustrations – particularly you and her on the No 3 bus. Love Andrew

  5. I’ve managed to use the free local government internet here in Santander to read your post and gosh it was worth it! A great read, enjoy Brittany! Much love, B.

  6. What an extraordinary and mesmerising tale Sarah. Somebody, somewhere maintains we are never more than six steps of connection away from anyone we
    meet. . perhaps it’s true.. or more mysterious than that.
    Refreshing blog as ever. Do you know J.R.Ackerley’s , “My dog Tulip”? Intuitively,
    there’s some parallels with your illustrated blogs; maybe the gentle but perceptive observational style.
    Keep ’em coming!

  7. What a great tale! It made great reading on my last day in France while having to drink McDonalds coffee in order to use their free wifi. Hope to see you very soon David R

  8. It’s just what I needed at the moment Sarah. Chance and No 3 bus. I can see an interesting novel, embellished with illustrations, written with aplomb emerging in your “spare” time! We shall all be riveted. It made me laugh and wonder at the definition of chance. You encountered it, lived it, shared it. But what an odd companion, who seemed unaware of the significance of the moment. More stories please. David

  9. When a semi-retired woman came and sat next to me on the bus recently, we were able to share the peculiarities of our work – as it turned out we did the same, fairly niche, job. Not half as interesting as your wonderfully written and illustrated (of course) story. This American Life is coming to Radio 4 Extra – and in preparation I listened to this this week – which, by coincidence, is all about coincidence: http://bit.ly/Z0tFa2.

  10. What a completely mesmerizing story, Sarah – a tidy little piece of your amazing life come to fruition on the No. 3, and seemingly out of the blue! But we know better, don’t we? You are not “spooky;” you are psychic. A lovely, tender witch who attracts these experiences and that energy all the time. You cannot help it, and nor can I. This kind of thing happens to me, too, all the time! It is a great mystery, but a most welcome one, and it’s so good to know we share the spark of intuition and subsequent demonstration! I absolutely love this post – thank you so much.
    With love from

  11. This is absolutely astonishing Sarah. and gives weight to my thought that if only we could all loosen up and chat a bit more we would find a million similarities and connections. I ALWAYS do, once I’ve got going. You write so beautifully, thank you for sending a slice of your life, I love it and am always excited to see the next missive.
    And here, from my book:

    Makes 2 1/4-cups
    18 ounces fresh blackberries (three 6-ounce boxes) or some of your glut
    6 tablespoons sugar (or more if the blackberries are very tart)
    Zest of 1 lemon
    1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
    Put the blackberries, sugar and lemon zest in a small, heavy saucepan over low heat. Cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally as the juices start to run. Remove from the heat, stir in the vanilla, and set aside to cool. Like any compote, this is better the next day when the berries have soaked up some of their juice. But if refrigerated overnight, bring to room temperature before using in the pancakes.
    (I roll pancakes with the compote inside!)

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