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Monarch of the Road

As I leave my office of an evening to go home, I can clearly see the bus stop towards which I am heading. It is just across the road and up the street.

The buses I catch are green and they stand out from the crowd. They are owned and operated by the Newlands Bus Company (aka Mana Coach Services). Several species of green buses use my stop, but only one of them (number 56 in fact) is of interest to me. Numbers 54, 55 and 57 travel through a maze of twisty little passages on their journey to exotic, far away places with strange sounding names. Churton Park, Grenada Village, Woodridge. None of these destinations will do for me. I require route number 56, Johnsonville Via Newlands, because this bus has the convenient habit of stopping just outside my house.

No matter what time I leave the office, there is always a green bus standing at the stop. It is too far away for me to see the number and therefore I suffer agonies of indecision when I see it. Would it be a good idea to hold on to my hat and run towards the bus, thereby risking life and limb as I dash across the road, zig-zagging between the cars and courier cyclists, or should I merely walk briskly, hoping against hope that the traffic lights will be in my favour?

And what are the odds that the bus I see before me, the handle towards my hand, is actually a number 56? Given that the green buses travel only on four routes, you might assume that the odds are 1 in 4. Were all other things to be equal, you would be right. But since it is well known that million to one chances succeed nine times out of ten, and that God’s surname is Murphy, there is actually a 99.9% probability that the bus I can see is a number 56. There is also an absolute guarantee that it will pull away from the stop and roar around the corner before I get to it.

I have tried varying my departure time from the office, but it makes no difference. Somehow the conspirators at the Bus Company always know when I am about to leave the office and they carefully arrange the traffic flow so as to make sure that their green bus will always be at the stop when I walk out of the door.

Having just missed a number 56 bus, I now have to stand at the bus stop and wait for the next one. Because this is the rush hour, the timetable guarantees that there will be another one along in ten minutes. Unfortunately the rest of the rush hour traffic pays no attention to the bus timetable and therefore the bus will be delayed. Should the weather be clement, warm and sunny, the bus will arrive in about twenty minutes. Should it be cold, wet and miserable I will have to stand there for an hour or more.

But no matter how long I stand and wait for a number 56 bus, I will always have to suffer the inordinate frustration of watching several green buses that are not numbered 56 pull up to the stop and then gleefully drive away again when I don’t get on them. On one never to be forgotten occasion, twelve buses that I couldn’t catch arrived before the one that I could catch deigned to show up. By that time I was soaking wet and suffering from terminal frostbite on all my naughty bits. So I sat next to a pretty lady and dripped on her all the way home. It helped.

A few days after that particularly long interval between buses I stood at the bus stop and counted three number 54s, two number 55s and a 57 as they went past. Again I was cold, wet and very fed up. The next green bus that arrived was numbered 55. I crawled on to it.

"When is the number 56 due?" I asked the driver.

"That’s me," he said, looking somewhat surprised that I had asked the question. "I’m a number 56."

"Then why does your sign say 55?" I asked.

He shrugged his shoulders. "It’s all part of the Bus Company conspiracy to frustrate Alan Robson," he said. "I’ll change the sign when I get round the corner. Look – here’s the TV screen showing the image from the secret monitoring camera, so I always know where he is."

He glanced down at the screen and his face went white. He looked up at me again.

"Oops!" he said.

"You’ve been keeping the number 56 buses a secret from me have you?" I raged. "So how come they do occasionally turn up? Is there a flaw in the system?"

"No," he said miserably. "The telepathic scanning ray that monitors all your thoughts and feelings lets us know exactly when to send a bus along. We carefully time it to arrive just a few seconds before apoplexy blows the wax out of your ears. But the ray must be on the blink again. I thought I’d been getting a lot of static in it lately." He thumped his left ear very hard a couple of times and shook his head.

"Ha!" I told him, "It’s the silver foil inlay in my hat band that’s blocking the beam. I knew something like this must be going on and so I took the appropriate safety precautions. I’ve beaten you at last! I’ll have a ticket to my house, please."

With bad grace, he sold me one.

Every Newlands bus comes equipped with a fearsome electronic device which will, when properly placated with a hi-tech card and the correct magic spells, disgorge a ticket and deduct the cost from secret total recorded in a microchip that is buried in the bowels of the card. If the total reaches (or falls below) zero, the machine becomes sulky and refuses to do business with you. Should this happen, one simply crosses the conductor’s palm with green crinklies. The conductor then enters an incantation into the machine which will cause it to add more money to the total in the microchip.

These procedures are fraught with peril.

In order to purchase a ticket, the wielder of the card must wait until after the conductor has entered the destination into the machine. At that point (and only at that point) waving the magic card over a sensor on the top of the machine will cause it to print a ticket and deduct the cost. Should the card approach the sensor before the conductor has finished entering the destination, the machine beeps fiercely, red lights flash, sirens go off, the bus ticket police appear and the hapless passenger is summarily executed.

In order to add money to the total on the card, exactly the reverse procedure is followed. The card must be placed on the sensor before total is keyed in. Should the card approach the sensor after the conductor has begun to utter the incantation to update the total, the machine beeps fiercely, red lights flash, sirens go off, the bus ticket police appear and the hapless passenger is summarily executed.

Woe betide the passenger who gets out of sync with the machine. The bus ticket police show no mercy.

As well as having a ticket machine, Newlands buses also have a broom sitting just behind the driver’s seat. This serves two purposes. When it is clutched at the bristly end, the driver can use it to poke recalcitrant doors closed without actually getting up out of the seat (many Newlands buses have doors that open; few of them have doors that close). When it is clutched at the non-bristly end it can be used to sweep up the pieces of passengers who have been dealt with by the bus ticket police. There is a certain elegance to the fact that a single low tech device can solve two such tricky problems.

Truly it has been said:

Caesar aderat forte
Brutus aderam
Caesar sic in hominibus
Brutus sic intram

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