a driver on the last remaining routemaster service, the 159 from marble arch to streatham, reflects on the relative inflexibility of women and buses
This poem was written in November 2005 to mark the last days of the open-platform double-deck Routemaster bus and its replacement on many routes across London by the single-deck articulated bendy bus (such as the 149 mentioned in the fourth verse, and the 436 up Camberwell New Road that Wendy dreams of driving at the end of the second section). The last regular service to be operated by Routemasters was the 159 from Marble Arch to Streatham via Brixton, and the final bus ran on 9th December. (The bendy buses were in turn replaced by a new breed of conductor-manned double-decker when Boris Johnson became mayor, as Mr Johnson apparently doesn’t understand the concept of Oyster cards and thinks transport policy should be dictated solely by misplaced nostalgia, however much money it wastes.)
It’s raining quite hard as the crowds from the Ritzy
Splash over the road towards stop Letter Q,
At which – having honked adios to the glitzy
West End – their bus home through south London is due.
But these midnight jostlers, all itchy for Streatham,
Are quite unaware, as they claim their last ride
(Defying the clippie’s forlorn cry of “Let ’em
Off first please – the rest of you move down inside!”),
That up in the 159’s cab a gaunt figure
Stares down Effra Road with a heart black as coal,
Intoning “Oh Wendy, life seemed so much bigger
When you rode my platform and swung on my pole,
But these days you’re deaf to my wan lamentation
For your destination is no longer mine:
Instead you go snaking by Ponders End station,
Sublime at the helm of your own 149.”
For years he’d believed that his future was Wendy,
Just like he’d believed that a bus needs a crew;
So when she’d declared that her future was bendy
He’d stared, not believing her words could be true.
And now, as he waits for the stragglers to get on,
He’s barely aware of his chattering load;
He’s dreaming instead of when he and she met on
That long ago morning on Holloway Road…
A right jack-the-lad he’d been, shameless and lippy,
The tank-topped Reg Varney of Route 17;
But when introduced to his new blue-eyed clippie,
Fresh out of school, in the Archway canteen,
He’d found himself suddenly tongue-tied and flustered,
Unable to focus on sausage and eggs,
And when she’d sighed “hot stuff” on passing the mustard
He’d promptly spilled most of his tea down his legs.
He couldn’t believe that for him Fate had plucked her
Yet, during the following thirty-year spell,
Not once did he ride with a different conductor
Nor she pull the string of another man’s bell.
But, as the years passed, the routes Routemasters plied grew
Increasingly rare and, as each was withdrawn,
He’d awkwardly take his young clippie aside to
Explain that perhaps it was best they move on
To some other depot; for given a lack of
The one thing that made her the clip to his clop
(i.e. a real bus you could hang from the back of)
He worried she’d ring to request that they stop.
For as she’d said once up by Arnos Grove station
As their 34 left for Walthamstow (Bell):
“The truth is I’m not a one-man operation”;
He’d known it, of course, but he’d still felt unwell
And tried to work out when the life-path he’d planned had
Been put on diversion to follow this course
From Green Man at Putney and Blackheath (Royal Standard)
To Holloway (Nag’s Head) and East Ham (White Horse).
Then one night in Barnet he found himself thinking
How much each day’s timetable was a rebuke:
A schedule of pubs that they’d not had a drink in –
The Arms of some Baker, or Mason or Duke.
At which, that annoying, all-knowing seductress
Called Truth breathed “The only arms you hanker for
Are those of your beautiful blonde-haired conductress,
To catch you each night when you close your cab door.”
But what use was that? Wendy’s heart was steel-plated!
She never would know how this man she “could trust”
Resorted – their shift done, his passion unsated –
To sad cab-bound ways of assuaging his lust;
Or how much she drove him to weary distraction
By cooing, if (due to some unseen delay)
Their 70 stopped short in dreary East Acton,
That maybe next time they could go “all the way”.
And what made it worse was that her reputation
Around all the depots was of one who’d hop
Unbadged into bed at the least provocation –
She’d room, he’d heard, always for one more on top.
The cleaner, the tea-boy, the ticket inspector –
“She only says ‘no’ to the one man who cares!”
He’d sigh, in his cab, trying hard to respect her,
While she led some burly mechanic upstairs.
For, yes, in the very same bus he commanded,
His colleagues would sometimes take turns to induce
The wild sexual peaks that this hussy demanded
While his manual clutch became stiff with disuse.
The torment compounded, as each day spent with her,
In thrall to those eyes and that moist red-lipped smile,
Produced, in his lethally skewed rear-view mirror,
Fresh views of her rear as she skipped down the aisle,
And all those unauthorised skirt-lengths she wore could –
When manning the X68 – stop his pulse,
As he watched her wiggle non-stop to West Norwood
Up green Hill of Herne and down grey Hill of Tulse.
Till one day while toying with self-immolation
He had an epiphany, saw what to do,
And – with their 5 parked up at Canning Town station –
Embarked on this stratagem (to wit, to woo):
He climbed from his cab as in Bay B they idled
(With Wendy sprawled out reading some magazine),
Walked twice round the bus, gulped, and up to her sidled –
And yelped as he sat on her ticket machine.
“Oh Wendy!” he cried, once the pain had subsided,
“My chest aches so much from the pounding beneath!
Please say you’ll be mine now my love I’ve confided,
And then we’ll get going to Becontree Heath.”
“Oh dear,” she replied as she reached out to dry the
Small silvery tear that had sprung to his eye,
“I’m young and dead pretty, while you’re frankly neither;
You’ve not got a hope – though full marks for the try.”
The sting of her words was far worse than a viper’s,
And down Barking Road he endeavoured to dam
A tide of saltwater no Routemaster’s wipers
Could ever sweep back, till they got to East Ham,
Where, by the Town Hall, he regained his composure
On spotting a bright yellow board up ahead
Announcing that – due to a major road closure –
They must go the long way through Ilford instead.
A sign from On High! And the message? Don’t Panic! –
For girls, too, will detour before they’ll conclude
That sex on a bench with some well-oiled mechanic
(Whose way with a dipstick, though pleasant, is crude)
Just never produces the same palpitation
As watching, for instance, the dawn break above
West Hampstead, while sitting at Kensal Rise station,
Upstairs, in a 6, with the one that you love.
But, as time went on, so the prospect of marriage
To Wendy seemed, just like his hair, to recede,
Till one day on late-shift at Lewisham Garage
He realised the truth: that he’d never succeed
In ever invading the cold stoney henge that
She’d built round her heart, and he started to sob –
Right there, on a 75 via Penge! – that
His love for her was now affecting his job.
So, cornering her by a plan of West Croydon
Bus Station, he said, “Wendy, listen to me.
Although many say you’re a man-obsessed hoyden,
To me you’re an angel, and always will be.
But Time’s wingèd chariot’s just put its lights on,
The dot-matrix sign says the last bus is due,
The timetable’s blurry, I’m worried my sight’s gone;
The only thing keeping me going is you.
And, Wendy, I can’t see the point of more waiting.
Our future’s our past now and, like wilted flowers,
The routes of our youth do no more terminate in
The places we once thought would always be ours:
The 66 no longer from the Green Man goes
To Romford, for pubs are rare staging posts now;
It’s all Beckton ASDA or Lea Valley Tesco’s –
And East Dulwich Sainsbury’s, not Dulwich Plough.”
But when he had spoken she sighed at him sadly
And said that perhaps it was better they part;
For though she would miss him, and sometimes quite badly,
She wasn’t too old yet to have a clean start,
And lately she’d hankered to join the cavorting
Of colleagues who swore there was nothing so great
As lording it over a bus that’s contorting
Up Camberwell New Road towards New Cross Gate.
Now, parked-up at Streatham, he broods: “If I’d waited –
Ensured my emotions, like this 159,
Had not been the slightest bit articulated –
Would she have agreed, in the end, to be mine?
Or is the cold truth that, though she was my queen as
She clung to my pole and tugged twice on my string
(In days before buses became concertinas),
Her sort don’t consort with my sort as their king,
Not while there are hearts they can still try to splinter,
Not while there are hearts to be broken for fun.”
He sighs: this will be his first Wendy-less winter;
Then slams the cab door for his journey is done.