Friday, 9 July 2010

Re: Bus

Every day I get in the queue (Too much, the Magic Bus)
To get on the bus that takes me to you (Too much, the Magic Bus)
I'm so nervous, I just sit and smile (Too much, the Magic Bus)
Your house is only another mile (Too much, the Magic Bus)
The Who (The Magic Bus)

TWO YEARS AGO, perhaps three, the Arriva bus company replaced most of the older buses on the Newcastle-Alnwick run. The new buses are roomier, the entrance can be lowered (pneumatically, I think) to allow people easier access, and there’s space for a wheelchair-bound passenger. For a few weeks the new buses looked terrific; and then the usual scratches and dirt spoiled all that.

Even in our current weather, mostly rainless to the point of drought conditions, the windows on the buses are usually covered in no less than a thin, opaque layer of mud. This spoils the spectacular views. We are having a warm and somewhat muggy summer in 2010 and the narrow part of the bus window on a hinge does nothing to relieve the heat when it is pushed open the permitted inch or two. I’m finding I feel a bit motion sick just now, the stuffy air.

In the rainy and snowy winter the windows of the buses tend to be so muddied that one has to guess where one is, and when to ring the bell for one’s stop. And the heating is inadequate, or difficult. One’s feet might be boiling, one’s ears frozen.

For all that, I enjoy riding on the buses. I like to watch the other passengers and to listen in on conversations. When Cailean travels with me, he makes friends quickly with everybody he can. Not many people can resist a cute "sausage dog" on a bus.

I don’t go all the way to Newcastle on the bus very often; I tend to only commute between Alnwick and Amble. This is the 518 route. There is another bus service, the 472 route that takes one between Alnwick and Amble (through Shilbottle) and no further, and it roams the country lanes. Usually a small single-decker bus suffices. These single-decker buses are old and liable to break down, and they are uncomfortable in every way. From the 518 bus one can see the North Sea (in theory, but depending on the thickness of the dirt caking the windows) and from the 472 bus one tends to just see over the hedgerows into farms and off into the distant foothills of the Cheviots. The other day I saw a hare in a recently-mown field. I’ve never seen one live before; I knew what it was immediately as it stood up and was clearly not a bunny. Made my day seeing that.

The bus station in Alnwick is rather unpleasant, being open to the weather with metal seats. In the winter the snow can blow through it and the metal seats are deadly. Actually, the Alnwick bus station can best be described as ugly. The noisy yobs that hang about in it don’t help. Most yobs are ugly (I think that’s why they become yobs). Some hanging baskets with flowers would help the bus station, but I think they’d be stolen or damaged unless some sort of security was laid on. Bus users signing petitions say there is a need for public toilets at the bus station. Actually, there are toilets only 50 yards away near the Market Square, but I gather they are closed in late afternoon and people do use the buses in the night, and bladders and whatnot don’t shut down at 5.00.

On the 518 bus I tend to be a giant, despite being fairly short. Many of the passengers are elderly, women rather than men, and bent over sticks and sometimes Zimmer frames. I’ve never seen a wheelchair user on board one of these specially modified buses. As the queue forms in Alnwick, the rudest, pushiest people tend to be the oldest ladies. I can only think they believe their time is short and that barging in front of others is permitted. Was it the White Rabbit that hurried past Alice, worrying over his timepiece? The little old ladies at the Alnwick bus station are so many White Rabbits. (Some of these ladies will also grab food that one is examining at the market, and push through to the head of the queue there, while complaining about the younger generation. And I’ve never heard one of them say “Excuse me...” My mother may have been a nutter, but she insisted that we be civil and have good manners.)

We do get a few odd folks on the bus routes I travel. Over the years I’ve come to recognise people. I’ve watched some younger travellers grow up; and some faces have disappeared, and those people may well have popped their clogs. Last Saturday a fellow boarded the 518 bus in Alnwick after the rest of the passengers had been seated; he leapt on and made awfully strange noises. This man may have been about 30, and he looked and acted like a throwback from a story by Tom Sharpe. Dressed in dark-blue overalls, this last passenger sat nearest the door and began making louder and louder sounds that may have been words. “Not in English ...” was my first thought. Then I wondered if he might simply have Tourette’s syndrome. As his words were not recognizable, though having some form as he hissed and growled them, I decided he must be a foreigner with Tourette’s and that he was cursing in another tongue. As the bus made its stops, the muttering man seemed to be drooling and leering and commenting in some horrible way at each and every passengers getting on or off. And then it got really weird. The man kissed the window next to him. Not a quick peck, he put some force and some tongue into it, and some time. When he detached himself his window was covered in slime. He kissed it again.

I was two seats back, and wondering where this creature was getting off. Just as I reached out to press the bell for my stop, the man pressed one by his seat. We got off at my stop. He went towards Amble’s Town Centre and I walked away from it. Might he be an Amble resident?

Yesterday I was walking Cailean and we were passing Amble’s humble bus shelter and there was the mumbling, ticking man, again in blue overalls. He was making all his noises and seemed to be with another chap of the same age, though not in a uniform. And they were kind of wrestling on the bench they shared. The noises were, as muttering noises go, friendly, pleasurable. They then jumped up and moved out into the street, the middle of the street, laughing (I think) with the one man’s arm around the neck of the other. No thought to traffic. They were soon down on their knees. Cailean and I walked on.

In 1980 I spent a few months on the Outer Banks of North Carolina. This is, basically, a long sandbank off the East Coast of the USA, with a highway down the middle and houses on stilts on either side. It is all only a few feet above a calm high tide. I was staying in Rodanthe. In that village there was a young woman, Gladys Something, who was daft as a brush. Gladys would go out onto the highway and turn somersaults down the centre of it. We called her “Mad Gladys” (as, of course, one must) and wondered how long this might go on. I was reminded of Mad Gladys as I left the Amble lads mock-wrestling on Church Street behind.

Before I reached the flat, the 472 bus passed me from behind. I could see the window-kissing fellow in the seat nearest the door. Headed back to Alnwick.

In Bible stories we’d have had Jesus curing such a madman, casting out a devil perhaps. Easy peasy. Two hundred years ago the man might be a Village Idiot. In 2010, a Fellow Traveller.

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