Authors: Magnus Mills
“Of course I regret it,” he replied. “I should have run the cunt over while I had the chance.”
Naturally, Jason practised the Theory of Early Running, though I doubt if he ever considered its subtleties. These were numerous and varied. In my experience it was important to apply the theory selectively according to specific circumstances. On certain journeys, at certain times of day, there was nothing to be gained from running early; indeed, on some occasions, it actually paid to be late! Moreover, a driver needed to apply the theory sparingly. Too much early running simply earned the wrath of the officials, a scenario that was best avoided.
Such concerns held no interest for Jason. By contrast, he operated under a shadowy fourth law. This stated that a bus running very early was impossible to catch, and therefore might just as well not run at all. Jason was, in short, a serial early runner. That is to say, he ran early whenever it was physically possible to do so. His complete disregard for the schedules was well known.
“Who’s this?” he enquired, nodding towards the other bus.
“Dean,” I replied.
“Oh, good,” he said. “Someone to follow up the road. Want a tea?”
“No thanks,” I said. “I’ve just had one up the cross.”
“Suit yourself.” I watched Jason as he walked over to the van, and recalled the first time I met him years before. I was a new driver, learning the route as a passenger on a VPB. The bus was being driven quite ferociously and I mentioned the fact to the conductor.
“Don’t you mind being thrown around like this?” I asked.
“Doesn’t bother me,” came the reply. “As long as we get to the other end as fast as possible so I can have a fag.”
I could plainly see the logic of his argument. He told me it was a long-distance route and he only survived the journey by going upstairs and breathing other people’s smoke. I later worked with this conductor myself. His name was Gunter and he was very quick on the bell. Whenever we approached a compulsory bus stop and there was nobody getting on or off he would give me a double ring, which was his way of saying ‘don’t bother to stop’. As a consequence, we usually arrived at our destination early. We got booked by the inspectors from time to time, but this was all part of a new recruit’s initiation. The driver of the VPB that first day was Jason, and clearly he matched Gunter’s requirements. They were both very friendly to me, I should add, and when they went and bought tea I was included as a matter of course. Gunter had left the bus company when the VPB became obsolete, but Jason was still with us. Now he came marching back empty-handed.
“I’ve just told that bloke he ought to learn how to make tea properly.”
“Didn’t you get any then?” I asked.
“Yes, I did,” Jason answered. “But I poured it away in front of him to teach him a lesson.”
“Why don’t you go to that place up the road?” I said. “Tea’s quite nice there.”
“Can’t be arsed.”
Dean’s bus started up and a few moments later he moved off.
“Right, that’s my cue,” said Jason, heading for his own bus. He fired it up, then sat idling for a couple of minutes prior to departure. When he took his leave he revved his engine hard before releasing the handbrake, so that the vehicle screeched away in a dense cloud of exhaust fumes. I looked at my watch. I wasn’t due to go for another quarter of an hour. The official headway was supposed to be eight minutes and I was just beginning to think Jason had left me in a bit of a lurch when yet another bus appeared. The driver was Cedric. He paused briefly to speak to me.
“The engineers have been fixing my bus,” he said. “I’ve been off the circuit for the past hour.”
This probably explained why Greeves had altered my flight path: by sending me directly to the southern outpost he was trying to plug a gap. As the truth dawned, I marvelled at the sheer ingenuity of his scheme. Meanwhile, Cedric was rapidly filling in his log card.
“What was wrong with your bus?” I asked.
“The back doors kept opening and closing of their own accord.”
“Oh yes, that happened to me once,” I said. “Drives you up the wall, doesn’t it?”
“Yeah.” Cedric glanced along the bus stand. “Jason’s left already, has he?”
“Afraid so,” I said.
“Right,” he snapped. “I’d better get after him.”
I stepped out of the way as Cedric put his foot down. Then he too was gone. Cedric had departed four minutes before his proper time, leaving me no choice but to begin making my own preparations to move. I decided to follow suit and likewise ‘steal’ four minutes. Even so there were still a further eight minutes to wait, which required all the patience I could muster. I had a vivid mental picture of Cedric chasing Jason, who in turn was chasing Dean into the distance, leaving behind them a great long road totally bereft of buses. And a road without buses could be a lonely place. I paced back and forth, glancing repeatedly at my watch, until the chosen time eventually arrived. Then I got in my bus, started up and set off.
“Stop!” cried an anxious voice behind me.
In my mirror I saw Baker running as fast as his legs would carry him. In fact he was making such an effort that he had to hold onto his black peaked cap to keep it on his head. I stopped and waited while he caught me up. He stood there panting, and for a few seconds I thought he was going to have a funny turn.
“What’s got into you lot?” he said, when he’d finally recovered. “All rushing off one after the other?”
Baker was one of the more reasonable inspectors, yet I knew I had to be circumspect with my reply.
“Just trying to maintain headway,” I ventured. “Cedric went eight minutes ago.”
“But you’re still four minutes early,” Baker retorted. “There’s no excuse for being early.”
I said nothing. There was no point. Baker was quite correct. There was no excuse for being early. He gave a long sigh, as if all the burdens of the world were fallen upon him.
“This isn’t a bus service,” he declared. “It’s a pursuit race.”
eff and I were sitting in the canteen when Davy joined us.
“You know what never ceases to amaze me?” he asked.
“No,” I replied. “Do tell us.”
“What never ceases to amaze me is how people can stand at a bus stop watching you come along the road, and then not put their hands out.”
“Oh, yes,” I said. “You have mentioned it before. On three hundred and twenty previous occasions, actually.”
“Unbelievable,” said Davy. “Some of these people depend on buses as their only means of transport, yet they persistently refuse to give the appropriate signal.”
“Which stop are we talking about?” enquired Jeff.
“You know the one just after you leave the ring road? By the national archive.”
“Yeah,” said Jeff. “Request stop.”
“Precisely,” said Davy. “It’s a request stop and about thirty of them stood there gawping at me as I drove up. Not one person moved a muscle.”
“So you didn’t stop then?”
“Course I didn’t stop!” Davy exclaimed. “Nobody requested me!”
“What if they complain?” asked Jeff.
“How do you know?”
“Look,” said Davy. “If people are too lazy to stick their hand out, they’re hardly going to bother writing a letter of complaint, are they?”
“They might phone up.”
“Verbal complaints aren’t accepted,” Davy rejoined. “Besides which, there’s no case to answer.”
“You took the proper course of action,” I said. “If you’d stopped you would have set a very awkward precedent.”
“They’d start taking it for granted.”
“It’s perfectly clear,” Davy announced. “A request stop means exactly what it says.”
He stood up and demonstrated.
“To catch a bus at a request stop, people are supposed to stand adjacent to the kerb and put their arm out at right-angles,” he said. “Like this.” He held his arm out straight.
“Not this.” He poked out one finger.
“Nor this.” He stuck out a leg.
“Nor this.” He fluttered his hand like a butterfly.
“Not even this.” He turned his back and waved his arm.
“Only this.” He faced us again and held his arm out straight.
“An arm extended in full view of the bus is the only acceptable signal,” he concluded, before finally sitting down.
During Davy’s brief lecture Edward had come into the canteen.
“What about compulsory stops?” he said. “Do you always serve them?”
“Of course,” Davy answered. “I stop even when they don’t put their hands out.”
“What if the stop is empty?”
“In that case I don’t bother.”
“Well, strictly speaking you’re supposed to halt and apply the handbrake.”
“But that’s preposterous!” said Jeff.
“Preposterous or not,” Edward replied. “The rule book says compulsory stops should be honoured at all times, even when empty.”
“I presume we can thank the Board of Transport for that,” I said. “Sounds like one of their pronouncements.”
“But I thought the Board consisted entirely of ex-busmen,” said Davy. “Why do they make such unreasonable demands?”
“A very good question,” said Edward. “They do tend to be rather high-handed with their legislation.”
“In this particular instance, however, the Board was far from unanimous. As a matter of fact, the question of compulsory stops was almost the cause of a great schism.”
“Really?” I said. “When was this?”
“Oh, years ago,” said Edward. “When policy was still being formulated. You’re quite right, Davy, they were all ex-busmen: drivers, conductors and engineers who’d risen up through the ranks. Many of them could remember the old days when buses operated on a purely commercial basis. Buses stopped wherever there were people waiting. Obvious really. Then the decision was taken to flood the metropolis with more and more buses, and the network was expanded. Bus stops appeared all over the place and it followed that some were busier than others. A few were hardly used at all. The de facto practice was that if a stop was completely empty of people, the bus needn’t come to a halt.”
“Common sense,” remarked Davy.
“At this point the engineers intervened,” continued Edward. “They’d always found that the frequent bus stops provided a useful way of checking the brakes were in good order. If they squealed it meant they were almost worn out and needed replacing immediately. Simple as that. One or two nasty accidents had occurred in the past, when the squeals had been ignored, and the engineers didn’t want any repeats. Consequently the new stopping arrangements made them very uneasy. The system was far too casual for their liking. This was before they’d developed the rolling road, don’t forget.”
“The rolling road?” said Jeff. “I thought that was a famous poem.”
“‘The rolling country drunkard built the rolling country road’.”
Edward gave Jeff a penetrating look.
“Near enough,” he said. “It’s also the name of a machine for testing the brakes on buses. Shall I go on?”
“You might as well,” I said. “Now you’ve started.”
“Very soon the engineers began to insist on compulsory stopping. Naturally, the ex-drivers and conductors were opposed to this: they wanted the buses to flow as freely as possible. For a while the Board was in turmoil. Resignations were offered and rejected. The arguments went on and on for weeks until eventually they reached a compromise. They agreed compulsory stops would be placed at random along every route; the remainder would be request stops. In addition, they would be differentiated by colour: white for compulsory, red for request. It’s been like that ever since.”
“But now they’ve installed a rolling road at every garage,” said Davy. “They could get rid of the white stops.”
“They could,” Edward acknowledged. “But they never will.”
Jeff glanced at his watch, stood up and walked away from the table.
“That reminds me,” I said. “You know you mentioned the entire Board was composed of ex-busmen?”
“Yes,” Edward replied.
“Does that apply to the lower echelons as well?”
“Everybody,” said Edward. “Garage managers, assistant garage managers, schedules managers, pay clerks, recruitment officers, driving instructors, examiners, route controllers, revenue protection officials. All of them are ex-busmen. And ex-buswomen, of course. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that there’s this bloke who often comes nosing round the buses when we’re parked up at the cross. Acts very familiar. I know he’s staff because I’ve seen him going in and out the back entrance, but I just can’t imagine him being involved in the daily grind like the rest of them. He lacks their sardonic demeanour. I wondered who he was, that’s all. He stops and speaks to the drivers sometimes. Asks all sorts of peculiar questions.”
“Oh, I know who you mean,” said Davy. “Posh cunt.”
“Yeah, that’s him,” I said. “He makes all these enquiries like ‘how are we running today?’ and ‘do you think we can go the extra mile?’ There’s no polite answer to questions like that.”
“I take it you’re referring to Woodhouse,” said Edward. “Yes, well, he is the exception to the rule.”
“Who is he then?”
“Woodhouse is the last survivor of the graduate intake that took place about a decade ago. At that time the buses had a dreadful problem with their public image, so the Board’s solution was to recruit a few university graduates. To try and get a new angle, as it were. Up until then they’d always used this stock character in their campaigns. A sort of ‘model passenger’. You probably remember him: ‘the man on the civic omnibus’.”
“That’s right,” I said. “They had him on all the posters, didn’t they?”
“He was ubiquitous,” said Edward. “The Board was awash with funds in those days and they employed an in-house cartoonist just to draw him. He appeared in no end of bus-type situations. You know the kind of thing: he had the correct fare ready before boarding; he stowed his suitcase properly in the luggage compartment; and, of course, he always held tight when the conductor rang the bell.”
“Did he show people how to put their arm out properly at request stops?” Davy asked.