The Maintainance of Headway (1987) (3 page)

BOOK: The Maintainance of Headway (1987)
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“R
ight,” said Greeves. “I’m going to adjust you and I’ll tell you why.”

Greeves was a completely different kettle of fish to most of the other officials. Apart from his custom of giving detailed explanations to every driver he encountered, he also had a very affable manner, which made him relatively popular. He operated in the area immediately around the cross, but his prime concern seemed to be with what was going on in the furthest reaches of the route. Therefore, it came as no surprise when he proceeded to issue identical directions to those he’d given Jeff the previous week.

“I’ve got too many buses up this end and not enough down that end,” he said. “You’ll be pleased to know you’re part of the remedy.”

As Greeves spoke I glanced down at my dashboard, where somebody had written the words
I’LL TELL YOU WHY
with a felt-tip pen.

This strategy of sending us on excursions was not new, but lately the officials were resorting to it much more often. It meant the bus avoided the bejewelled thoroughfare, which could take up to thirty minutes to traverse, and instead ‘went out-of-service’ via the ring road. Personally I found this a bit of a disappointment, because the bejewelled thoroughfare was my favourite section of the route. There were plenty of drivers who thought the opposite, of course. They found it tedious and frustrating, especially the twenty-three sets of traffic lights which stood all in a row, and which were all out of sequence with one another. These could be a great hindrance, as could the hordes of pedestrians wandering into the road (including the foreign tourists who invariably looked the wrong way before crossing). Nonetheless, there was something about driving down the bejewelled thoroughfare that appealed to me. It was a great canyon of flagship stores stretching side by side for nearly a mile. Most of these stores were floodlit at night and many were bedecked with fluttering pennants. Around Yuletide, masses of fairy lights augmented the already vast array of street lamps, illuminated windows and flashing beacons. Congestion was endemic. There were countless motorbikes, cycle-rickshaws and taxis. All the cab ranks faced east, while the type of people who used them generally lived in the west. Accordingly, there was a continual swirl of taxis performing U-turns. More often than not, they did this without signalling; nor did they signal when executing their other less orthodox manoeuvres. (Such were the inalienable rights of cabbies.) Early on summer mornings the household cavalry led strings of horses down the bejewelled thoroughfare as a test of their sobriety (the horses not the men), before treating them to a well-earned gallop in the park. Twice daily a water tanker sprayed the kerbs and pavements to keep the dust at bay; and well before noon obstructive geezers in vans began delivering the evening newspapers. Through the midst of this tumult moved endless columns of buses, sometimes streaming along, sometimes reduced to a crawl, and often accompanied by the plaintive drone of a lone piper standing immobile amongst the thronging crowd. The bejewelled thoroughfare could be hectic at times, but never was it dull.

Today, though, my instructions were to miss it out altogether. Greeves duly signed my log card and sent me on my way.

I’d been half full of people when he’d stopped me, and when I arrived at the underpass I had to kick them all off again. As usual they didn’t want to go, but after some gentle persuasion they reluctantly complied. I must admit I felt sorry for them sometimes, constantly being shifted from pillar to post like this, but unfortunately there was nothing I could do about it. Orders were orders. After they’d gone I sped merrily along the ring road, arriving at the arch some fifteen minutes later. Then I resumed normal service, picking up people who were completely oblivious to the adjustment Greeves had made on their behalf. There weren’t many of them, to tell the truth, and it wasn’t long before I saw the reason why. Just in front of me, at a distance of less than a quarter of a mile, was another bus!

Despite his best intentions, Greeves had seriously miscalculated, and I was now faced with a number of choices. Officially, if one bus caught up with another the second bus was supposed to hold back and give the leading bus a chance to get clear ahead. Another option was for the follower quickly to catch up and overtake the leader, and then play a game of leapfrog in which both buses travelled in tandem working alternate stops. This required the cooperation of the other driver, of course, and was usually reserved for when both buses were late and trying to make up lost time. A third approach was for one bus simply to follow the other at close quarters, nose to tail, and make absolutely no effort to separate. Understandably, the Board of Transport took a very dim view of this last practice; and the leapfrogging was hardly less frowned upon. In the opinion of the Board, two buses running together only counted as one bus. The infringement was considered even worse when there were three or more buses in the equation. Few of us were innocent. I once participated in a convoy of nine vehicles, all bound for the same destination. Such a sight could turn the officials quite apoplectic because it ran counter to their guiding principle. The maintenance of headway was sacrosanct. Any violation threatened to undermine an entire ideology. Hence, they feared if all the buses came at once, the walls of their citadel would tumble.

For these reasons I decided not to get involved with the bus in front, and instead kept my distance. I could just make out its upper deck disappearing gradually over the horizon, and it struck me, not for the first time, that the distinctive red paintwork had been selected especially for this purpose. The subject had been under debate for years. Some experts claimed buses were painted red in order to make them look bigger than they actually were. Others said it was to prevent them from clashing with the telephone boxes. Yet again, there was a widely held opinion that the man who ordered the original batch of paint was a communist trying to make a particular point. Whatever the explanation, the fact that the bus ahead of me was a conspicuous red made it very easy to keep track of.

Carefully I followed it southward, over the bridge, stopping and picking up the few stragglers who had somehow managed to miss it. By the time I reached the common I had half a dozen people on board, most of them fairly content because they’d only had to wait about a minute before I came along. Drawing near the underground station I saw Breslin standing at the side of the road. Unusually, he didn’t glance at his watch as I approached, but merely gazed in my direction. He gave me a satisfactory nod when I passed by, and I concluded Greeves must have been in touch with him. All was as it should be, apparently, so I continued my journey. When I neared the garage some fifteen minutes later, however, I was in for a surprise. There on the pavement stood Mick Wilson, and he was wearing the smart black uniform of a fully-fledged inspector of buses. The moment he saw me he looked at his watch, then instantly began flagging me down. At first I pretended not to notice him, and rolled on for another thirty yards before finally coming to a halt. When he got to me his feathers were all ruffled. Obviously he had not seen the funny side of my ‘jape’.

“Alright, Mick,” I said. “How’s it going?”

“You’re twelve minutes early,” he said, by way of answer. “Why’s that?”

Twelve minutes? I looked at my time card and sure enough, I was twelve minutes early.

“Ah yes,” I replied. “I’m working under special instructions.”

Mick peered at me from beneath the brim of his black peaked cap. “A likely story,” he said. “Whose ‘special instructions’ exactly?”

“Greeves’s.”

At the mention of this name Mick winced a little. Then he moved away from my vehicle and began jabbering into his walkie-talkie. Meanwhile, I watched in disbelief. Could this really be our friend Mick, who until only a few weeks ago had shared our table in the canteen? Who had joked with Edward, Davy and me about running early and jumping bus stops? It seemed impossible he could have undergone such a change in outlook in so short a time. Yet here he was, marching up and down as if he’d been a member of officialdom for years. He was now deep in conversation with someone at the other end of the line. As he spoke he looked alternately at his wristwatch, his schedules book, and me. Eventually he came stalking back.

“Alright,” he said. “Carry on as you are.” And that was it. Without so much as a second glance he dismissed me and walked off to deal with other matters. Clearly, Mick knew nothing about the exercise Greeves had set in motion. There had been no forward notification, which suggested he was still regarded as a novice by the other officials. Nevertheless, I realised I was going to have to keep an eye open for him in future. As I pressed on towards the southern outpost I felt somewhat saddened by this turn of events. I’d always thought of Mick and myself as being like-minded, but evidendy it was no longer true.

§

The southern outpost was a remote and desolate place. In the previous century an enormous glasshouse had stood here, high on a hill, boldly reflecting the achievements of empire. Thousands of citizens had flocked to gaze upon it, but eventually it had collapsed under its own weight. The glass all shattered and it could never be rebuilt. Nowadays the site was used as somewhere for buses to turn around. I dropped my remaining people, then pulled onto the stand and switched the engine off. In the ensuing silence I pondered the ironies of life. Normally I would arrive here for a so-called ‘recovery period’ of about ten minutes. This was just enough time to allow me to sprint up to the tea shop and back before I had to depart again. Actually, there was a van selling tea situated immediately next to the bus stand. I’d discovered in the past, however, that the vendor knew less about making proper tea than the trained chimpanzees they used in the television adverts. Consequently, I preferred to go to the shop up the road, even though it was further away. Today, of course, I had plenty of time on my hands: twenty-two minutes, to be precise. But because I’d come here via a short cut it was barely an hour since my last cup of tea. I had no desire to drink any more!

That was typical of this job. When you needed more time there wasn’t enough; and when you didn’t need it, there was ample to spare.

A second bus was parked at the front of the stand. I gave my own vehicle a cursory inspection, then wandered along to see who the other driver was. Sitting behind the wheel was Dean. His doors were open.

“Morning, Dean,” I said. “Want a cup of tea? I’m just going to buy some.” (Actually I wasn’t, but for the sake of the conversation this was a reliable opening gambit.)

“No, thanks,” he replied. (I knew he’d say no. He always did. I’d offered to buy him tea on countless occasions.)

I tried a different line of attack. “Nice view from up here, isn’t it?” (The southern outpost afforded a marvellous vista across the garden suburbs south of the city, extending on clear days to the wooded shires beyond. To see it properly, though, you had to get out of your bus.)

“Can’t say I’ve noticed,” said Dean.

I had never known Dean to emerge from behind his steering wheel during a spell of duty. He just stayed sitting there, looking at the road through his windscreen. It was a habit he shared with many of his colleagues. These were the drivers whom Edward referred to as worker ants. The title, however, was misleading. He’d given them this name not because they worked hard, but because they made hard work out of an easy job.

“They’re too tired to get out of their seats,” he once told me. “They’d feel better if they stretched their legs, but they won’t.”

The worker ants had several other identifying traits. They were often seen, for instance, with more than the average number of people travelling in their buses. Which in turn meant they had to stop more frequently to drop them all off again. This situation arose because they did not understand the Theory of Early Running. The theory comprised a few basic laws which any bus driver should have known. The first law stated that the closer a bus was to the preceding bus, the fewer the people it was likely to pick up. The second law stated that the earlier a bus was running, the more easily it could avoid being late. The third law functioned in the negative. It stated that if a bus was running late, the number of people waiting for it would increase exponentially. The Theory of Early Running was self-evident: it could be proved by mathematical induction; yet the worker ants never put it to the test. Instead they endeavoured to run exactly on schedule, and as a result carried more than their fair share of passengers. Then, at the end of the day when they finished work late, they failed to claim the overtime. The reason they gave was that they didn’t want to be any trouble to the bus company. I tried to explain that the company preferred them to claim the overtime because it showed they hadn’t been running early, but they wouldn’t listen to me. They just continued making life difficult for themselves.

I was still trying to think of a way to coax Dean out of his vehicle when a car horn blared angrily nearby. There followed the sound of a vocal altercation, further horns were blown, and then a bus came ploughing onto the stand. It juddered to a halt and a moment later out stepped Jason.

“Fucking cunt,” he said.

“Who?” I asked.

“That car.”

“What did he do?”

“Got in my way,” said Jason. “Cunt.”

Jason definitely wasn’t a worker ant. True, he came to work, spent the day driving a bus up and down the road, and then went home again; but there the similarity ended. For a start, his buses were usually empty, or close to empty, and were often seen going past crowded bus stops at high speeds. He also had what might be called an ‘offensive’ approach to other road users. He would use his bus to bully smaller vehicles into submission, and he had no patience whatsoever with bicycles. He once abandoned a bus to give chase to a cyclist who’d jumped a red light and caused him to brake hard. The cyclist could count himself very lucky he wasn’t caught: he only escaped because Jason was on foot. Shortly after the incident I asked Jason if he regretted his action.

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