I’ve just got home from attempting to do some shopping (getting frustrated by crowds, not finding what I set out for, and spending too much on things I didn’t intend to buy – that’s shopping, right?) and have had quite an exciting experience. I missed my no.15 bus, which in itself isn’t particularly exciting, but it did mean that I was waiting at the stop three minutes later when the next no.15 came (they hunt in packs, the no.15 – two together then nothing for 20 minutes) which turned out to be one of the old Routemaster buses roped into service for the tourist market – lucky my journey home meanders past St Paul’s Cathedral and the Tower of London! They are so much cooler looking than the modern buses. Mostly you see the Routemasters used as special event buses, hired for weddings etc, and there’s even a stationary one that operates as a cafe at Spitalfields Market – with a tiny kitchen on the lower level and tables and chairs upstairs. But today was my chance to ride on one for real, as a resident not a tourist!
I arose from the bus stop seat and automatically headed for the front – then smoothly veered around to the rear platform entry as I registered there wasn’t a front door at all. I got to the platform and looked at the Conductor, he looked back at me. I could tell this was going to be a battle of wills. I cleared my throat. “Is this a real number 15?” – a fairly inoffensive question I thought, obviously erroneously. He stared at me blankly for a few seconds, then slowly, deliberately, silently, he nodded – once. Taking heart, I stepped up onto the platform, into his realm. Clutching my Oyster pre-pay ticket like a talisman, I glanced around, but saw no swipey-machine thing (that’s a technical term) – except for something that looked vaguely promising suspended from the Conductor’s belt. Due to the recently departed previous no.15 I was alone in ascending the bus at that stop, there was no-one else from whom to take a cue. Again I dared to address the silent guardian of the platform. “What do I do with my Oyster…” I trailed off. It was clearly the wrong thing to say. His brow darkened slightly, and still, he deigned to say nothing, but eventually lifted an arm and pointed imperiously towards one of the seats. Feeling suitably chastened, I crept humbly towards it and sat in exactly that seat, although I really wanted to climb the winding stairs to the top floor.
Two stops later, a French couple hailed the bus. Similarly reticent, they tentatively stepped forward, limp five-pound notes waving uselessly in their sweaty hands. Desparately they glanced from Conductor to staircase and back. His beady glare held them transfixed as they floundered in confusion a moment longer until I thought they were about to turn and run, then he relented and gestured eloquently towards the stair. Their relief as they slunk upstairs was palpable. After seeing them safely upstairs he turned his attention to me, approached intently and held out the ticket machine. Flustered, having put my bus pass away five minutes earlier when I sat down, I dug it out again and swiped it, to his satisfaction. Back he went to his platform like a spider with a juicy fly. Another few stops went by. He then obviously judged that enough time had passed for the French couple to have put their money away and start enjoying their ride, so he scuttled up the stairs to reap his toll.
Fortunately my seat was sideways-facing so I could both enjoy the view and observe the Conductor. The driver, separated completely from the bowels of the bus, was irrelevant, little more than a pawn, or a beast of burden. The true Routemaster’s Master controls the entry platform, and from there both levels of the bus, delicately orchestrating a symphony of orderly human traffic. The Janus of the transport system, he is invested not only with the power to permit or deny access, but in such an historic context as this he also represents the threshold between a more civilised era and today. He has seen the future of public transport, and he doesn’t like it.
I think what was supposed to happen, was that I, in my smart 60’s mini dress, matching heels and gloves, and my beehive coiffure, was supposed to leap gracefully onto the bus along with the bustling crowds, breeze past the Conductor and settle elegantly into my chosen seat, integrating seamlessly with those already on board. His challenge of course would be to know exactly who was already on the bus and who was not and therefore needed a ticket, and in a methodical and orderly fashion take a turn about the bus as we trundled to the next stop, ticketing as he went. There is no challenge and therefore no job satisfaction to be derived from these modern all-too-obvious times in which a mindless stream of automata present a pre-purchased card as they board – he may as well be a machine… I quite understand his surly demeanor now, and will in future endeavour to add the thrill of the chase into my bus ticketing procedure. (I shall use this post in my defence to avoid a criminal record.)
Until next time…