The Maintainance of Headway (1987) (12 page)

BOOK: The Maintainance of Headway (1987)
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Edward gave Davy a penetrating look. For a moment I thought he was about to correct his diction, but then for some reason he changed his mind.

“That must have made you late,” he said.

“Course it made me late,” Davy replied. “You know how I hate being late.”

We all sympathised: we all hated being late.

“It seems our predictions about Mick have turned out to be true,” said Edward. “He’s only been an inspector for a few weeks and already it’s gone to his head.”

“I wonder why he wanted the bus so urgently?” said Jeff.

“Oh,” I said. “I think I heard Greeves mention there were too many buses up the cross and not enough down the outpost. Mick must have overreacted to the situation.”

“So what’s the future going to hold if he carries on like that?” said Davy. “It’ll be untenable.”

“You needn’t worry about the future,” said Edward. “Roadside officials are being phased out.”

“How come?”

“There’s going to be a satellite launched in the next few months. Henceforth, the progress of buses will be monitored from outer space.”

“You’re joking,” said Davy. “The Board of Transport couldn’t launch a frying pan into space, let alone a satellite.”

“It’s not the Board launching it,” Edward explained. “It’s an international project, connecting every bus service in every country. The Board of Transport is just one of a number of subscribers.”

“Funny, isn’t it?” said Jeff. “I can’t imagine them having buses in other countries. Only this one.”

“Well, I can assure you there are buses on all five continents,” said Edward. “I should know. I’ve studied them.”

“When?”

“During my holidays.”

“You probably know more about buses than the officials,” I remarked.

“Probably,” said Edward. “Though I do try to share my findings.”

“Do they have double-deckers in these other countries?” Davy enquired.

“In one or two places, yes,” answered Edward. “Their bus of preference, however, is the single-decker.”

“Didn’t they invent the articulated bus?”

“Yes they did: they’re pioneers in innovation; but to tell the truth, the general picture is entirely different.”

“How do you mean?”

“There’s no ‘presumption of lateness’ in other countries,” said Edward. “Over here the people presume we’re late when, in fact, we’re much more likely to be early. Our foreign counterparts, on the other hand, are always presumed to be on time.”

“Blimey!” exclaimed Davy.

“I heard recently they have a 97 per cent efficiency rating, compared to 42 per cent in this country.”

“Well, how are we going to compete with them?” I asked.

“Fortunately, we don’t have to compete with anybody,” Edward replied. “They run their buses over there and we run ours over here. There’s no direct competition.”

“That’s alright then.”

“Buses will never change in this country,” he continued. “They’ll never get better and they’ll never get worse: they’ll simply remain the same forever. Oh, certain attempts have been made in the past to bring about improvements. The maintenance of headway was one such crusade, and there have been many others. Yet whatever measures are put in place, in this country they ultimately fail. True, you can calculate the movements of buses just as you can the motions of the stars and planets. What you cannot calculate, however, is the behaviour of people. Shall I go on?”

“You might as well,” I said. “Now you’ve started.”

“I’m talking about people who hail buses they don’t want,” said Edward. “People who haven’t got the correct fare. People who get on buses just because they happen to be loitering near a bus stop. People who clamour to get on buses that are already full. People who expect buses to wait for them. People who attempt to ‘hold’ the bus by blocking the doorway. People who ring the bell for no good reason. People who try to change buses mid-stream. Argumentative people. People who cross the road when they shouldn’t. Cyclists. Cabbies. People who park their vans in bus lanes. People who repair water mains inadequately. People whose occupation is emptying dustbins. The people in charge of traffic lights. And finally, of course, people who drive buses for a living.”

I glanced at my watch, stood up and walked away from the table. It was time for me to go. Edward was still delivering his exposition as I descended the stairs and went in search of my next bus.

He was quite correct. It was people of one kind or another who ultimately disrupted the bus service. Sometimes I even wondered whether they wanted buses in the first place: I was once driving up the rise towards the common with about forty people on board when suddenly my bus ran out of diesel and stopped. Without exception, the entire load of passengers got out of the bus and walked away, all in different directions. As I watched them disperse I was unable to answer the question: what are we here for?

Nevertheless, Edward’s extensive theories dealt only with one side of the coin. The other side concerned the matters raised by Breslin. He, too, was correct in his own way. The entire bus network was an enormous apparatus designed to run like clockwork. Despite everyone’s best efforts, occasionally the mechanism became clogged up and needed a prod. This, he argued, was the purpose of the officials. It was reassuring to know that he thought of himself not as a tyrant but as a lubricating agent. However, I could foresee little change in that department either.

§

My bus arrived at the takeover point precisely on time. Now all I had to do was drive it down to the outpost, up to the cross, then back here, and my duties for the day would be complete. With this in mind I sallied forth, paying little regard to the exact details of the schedule. As long as I didn’t get too close to the bus in front, I reasoned, then headway would be maintained (more or less).

I was mildly surprised, therefore, when I reached the southern outpost and a figure appeared on the pavement, urgently flagging me down.

It was Jason. He was wearing the smart black uniform of a fully-fledged inspector of buses.

“You’re early,” he said. “Why’s that?”

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