Sunday, January 30, 2005

That was the sometime of 73

Confessions of the village idiot

It is autumn, 1973. I was working in a factory that made potentiometers, though I wouldn’t be today. It was early in the evening and I had to get the bus as rain looked very likely and I had some spare cash anyway. When traveling, for no reason I’d quite regularly think that I was falling in love with some girl seated close to me on the top deck of a bus. Bus trips were almost daily occurrence for me as a teenager unless I was staying in my room or out for a walk. I’d be going to a friend’s house or a pub some where along the coast, a half-hour journey punctuated with cigarettes and that girl or girls in general. School girls, factory girls, young mums maybe. Tarty stupid girls or students, hippy chicks or their dim pals who envied their make up and clothes and weren’t carrying some prog-rock LP or stringy handbag. I wished I could read their minds. They were all very mysterious creatures. I needed non-verbal confirmation and signals. Positive messages and blinding and unambiguous eye contact. I was not an experienced person and everyone else in the world seemed to know much more than me, mostly dark secrets that I should never know, so a protective umbrella of bluff and counter bluff to cover my misconceived ignorance was raised in innumerable boy-to-boy conversations. I found it stressful and exhausting but fun at times.

But on the bus you never knew, what were those girls thinking? And why were they giggling and was I so invisible? So invisible yet laughable, surely not. Despite my crippling invisibility that I was so conscious of any spot, greasy hair or aspect of my face seemed as huge on my person scape as Stonehenge or an Easter Island Statue. As a result few conversations were struck up on my outward journey. Silent and deep in thought, remaining mysterious and aloof was my supreme if unspectacular tactic. And girls came and went, tongues stuck out sometimes or a farewell with a simple derisory glance on alighting the bus.

Your bum slid on the seat as the bus hobbled along, tight turns and up and down hills, and of course there was in those days a bus conductor resident onboard and the sweaty ticket he’d provided in your hand, or stuffed at the top of the seat back in front, between the metal and the vinyl finish. Survival drill. Look at feet regularly; avoid direct eye contact unless she was a honey and then suffer the other problems, usually in the form of an accompanying brute of a boyfriend. The loving bloody couple smugly leaning into each other and maybe going to the same pub as me. Take care, contact later could prove hazardous later in the evening.

At each bus stop I’d scan the queue. Who is coming on? Which village would yield the best potential girlfriend, who would she be and where would she sit? What a bummer if she sat downstairs.

Of course if you can see across or if you were sitting on the opposite side of the bus you could catch sight of other girls, waiting on other buses that all were going in the wrong direction. Maybe to Edinburgh, always very bad, I’m off to some wee village pub and they’re going to the city. To meet who? Going to some cool Concert? That almost smacked of a level of sophistication, some joined up piece of planning and thinking that suggested that their night out (or was it a weekend away?) had actually been planned and mapped out. They were in some high flying social network, perhaps meeting boys with sports cars or flats and rich, generous parents and generally having a whale of the kind of time I didn’t know how to have and couldn’t ever replicate. How could I compete with boys like that for girls like those? Well I thought that was how it was.

Endless torturing questions don’t help. I’m not so bad really it’s just the measuring scale has never been explained to me and I don’t know what girls want (well not altogether), but what are the signs I need to learn to read. Perhaps they are as confused as I am and they going through this lonely turmoil but why are they giggling then?

The bus is pulling up a hill, gears grind, the air is smokey a warm. Backs of heads, dark hair and shoulders, cardigan tops, anorak backs, duffel coat hoods and shirt collars. Old man sits opposite, probably going to some Ex-Serviceman’s club for a night of beer and dominoes, his regular Friday. He ignores everyone and has the “ fear of the young” aura, a quiet contempt for stupid hairstyles and silly fashions that he ended up fighting in a war to defend the rights of.

I’m not sure who is behind eyes boring into the back of my head, or reading the pages of the Sun or Daily Record, Sounds or Diana. All those eyes boring me, seeing me from angles I’ve never seen myself from. I am unrecognizable to me from their point of view. My nose must stick out a long way and my hair must be greasy at the top and full of split ends, dandruff on my collar and some stain I cannot see on my combat jacket. I wish for an out of body moment to float above this bus and lift the lid like a sardine tin and expose the passengers lying there and see each one and observe them and pass judgement on them. I don’t dare turn around, well I would if some one spoke to me or I thought I might know someone or just have some other reason, but there is none.

We slide round more corners, passengers move in sympathy with the bus, some stand for the next stop and swing and grip on the chrome handles. All the clever and curvy twisted metal that makes up a bus. Functional and sweeping, banisters and treadplates, screws and rivets. Built by Scottish engineers and fitters in Falkirk and Bathgate, painted and pressed, once new and now in service relentlessly crossing this small Kingdom for the coppers and silver coins rattling and rubbing in the conductor’s black leather change bag. And those mysterious ticket machines, how they work and print tickets, dirty fingers twist the dial, numbers like a safe combination that mark and track and charge the fare stages and journeys. All this in the head of the conductor and metered out on the ticket. So when the Inspector comes on, each one of us is accountable and permitted to be there, oh yes. We belong to this bus and we can stay as long as we wish or till the money runs out.

More grinding and toppling, as if the bus in perpetual disagreement with the road surface. Rubber and asphalt jungleing against one another. Friction and traction and big wheels suffering the intrusive potholes and drains and kerbs as the driver struggles with that huge shiney black steering wheel that pilots us along at a steady twenty five miles an hour. Imagine those gears all spinning somewhere inside that big dark engine, slivers of metal escaping to drown in an oily sea, pistons and con rods and clutches all at work, pieces working loose, oil dripping and flowing through endless pipes and hot metal. Black dust and smoke, diesel fumes and water coolant, filters and parts from Midland’s factories that export to India and Kenya so that their foreign bus services will run too. Bonnets and rust and advertisements for Askit Powders and local services, carpet shops and driving schools on cardboard sheets, businesses with very short phone numbers. Whoever responds to these optimistic ads? And if you think Askit powders work, you’ll use them anyway. None of this is of any consequence, we are only here, trapped on this bus to move ourselves from A to B in a red procession twenty minutes apart and travelling in one of two directions.

Some one has a dog on board, it just puffs and pants and strains in protest. Paws skid on the smooth bus floor upstairs with it’s smoking old owner. Dog saliva on the floor, dog tongue touches bus floor as it struggles to find a comfortable spot on the bus linoleum. The owner, lord and master pulls the dog lead and forces the dog to sit but the rear paws loose grip and the slide continues and has he paid a half fare for the dog, or is that only on the train?

Who on this bus is there that could fall in love with me. Some of those girls are too young and too silly and laugh too much which is always dangerous because that’s the very thing that could be used against me and that would be like the end. So what about girls obviously on their way home from work? Nice neat clothes, make up a little tired, hair not quite right but these are minor infringements. Their jobs are clerical and tedious and stupefying, I imagine they are bored with them. They dream of successful marriages to sales executives and an early pregnancy, of wearing exciting underwear and going on shopping trips, holidays and living quietly in Lego houses anonymous in airbrushed estates. Those happy families you see and hate in advertisements, non-existent and played by actors and models whose real lives are completely the opposite. But if that’s what’s wanted I could do that, I could give them that, I’ve got all the right attributes and skills, potentially, but I simply don’t (think I) have the inclination yet The “yet” is a worry and a distraction.

I will not fall in love with the office girls. Here I am 18 years old, nearer 19 maybe. I don’t want to settle for settling down. I tell myself this without thinking or even knowing what it actually is I want. Sad to say I don’t know my own mind and clear and purposeful thought eludes me time after time. As soon as I start to think of them and what they may be, it all escapes and evaporates and even my memory of it goes with it. So I am constantly surprised when they return and follow a similar cycle again and again. As soon as I step down the stairs of this bus the focus will have shifted back to beer or music or football or girls.

The journey continues at a less than furious pace, constant jolts of stop start progress, junctions and zebra crossings to negotiate and the sporadic delay tactics of well placed and deserted sections of road works. Tree branches scrape the roof; birds cats and dogs dodge the lumbering monster. Through the traffic film encrusted windows, smeared and spattered with yesterday’s rain, I observe all the frantic efforts of avoidance used by those would dare to cross our path. The pedestrians. The old, the frail, the near-sighted, the drunk, the confused, the preoccupied, the couldn’t give a shit, the wreck less, the stupid, the pedestrians. Back in 1973 there were a lot of them on pavements and worryingly, agonizingly, straying increasingly onto the roads.

Older towns were laid out before traffic became king, traffic grew and an imbalance was created, an unhealthy imbalance. Few understood how quickly the car would become king. In 1973 it was Vivas and Cortinas and Morris 1000s and VWs and pizzy, busy little step-thru Honda mopeds. Lorries were great dirty Atkinsons, AECs, Leylands, Scammels and Fodens with the occasional Scania representing the foreign marques. They were slow, huge and beastly and belched diesel fumes everywhere. Traffic lights were rare and strange and buses ranged and wander far and wide on regular, understandable geometric routes. Routes that were forged in the 30’s and 40’s, the decades when the trams had died like dinosaurs in a meteor shower. Towns and buses seemed at odds with one another, particularly Inverkeithing. It hated buses, it made them turn at a turning spot wasting time, squeeze through narrow streets, made then climb and descend awkward hills and hang on great hill start bus stops while OAPS struggled with the steps and inclines. It hated buses. If only it knew how it would be smoothed and tamed by the relentless progress of traffic. One ways, through routes, mini roundabouts, pelican crossings, cut in bus stops and double yellow lines. Days numbered, design unplanned but credited to some huge master council plan organically grown to bury the town in street furniture, heavy handed road markings and confusing signs. Other towns that hated buses were Aberdour and Burntisland, Kincardine, Dunfermline and Kirkcaldy. Rosyth was a bus whore, easy meat; it laid down to every bus that came its way, straight roads, big roundabouts, no significant hills and trees in the street. It’s day of reckoning and divine retribution would come, unseen and unexpected when the Tories came to power and the Navy moved away and timber frame developers, kebab shops and single parents would move in.

The rain began to beat on the bus windows. I imagined below the wiper scraping across the driver’s screen, the dodgy insulating tape on the steering wheel, the fog on all the windows downstairs. Being upstairs on the bus said a lot about you. You could smoke, you avoided bus conductress chatter, old ladies, you could climb the stairs and swing on the banister at corners or sudden stops, you had energy, you were virile, you were not with your parents, you could look down on the world, you could commandeer the big broad back seat or sit up front as if in a helicopter flying across the paddy fields of Vietnam. Upstairs was the only place to be.

I lit a cigarette and puffed out the match and tossed it to the floor, I sucked in a lungful of that hot, sweet, addictive smoke and blew it out through my nostrils. There was a smoky pattern that blasted the window glass and drifted away and I thought about Smaug the dragon guarding his lair and treasure in the Hobbit. Then, putting it simply I went into a daydream, just like Lennon and McCartney, it was just another day in my life after all. Whatever did happen took place just as easily as saying some magic word or spinning a spell or clattering a book with a wizard’s wand. The magic was tangible in the smoke. Music played far away, penguins at bus stops gawped at me and passing tigers revealed their huge unfriendly claws and bubbles blew in from the open liquid bus windows, pale blue horses galloped by completely ignoring the bus and a heavy scent filled by head and made my eyelids droop in an easy and safe upstairs sleep. But I didn’t feel asleep. The clerical girls loved me now and called my name, those tarty girls still laughed but liked my hair and ran their fingers through it and asked me questions. Candles were being lit and drinks were being passed around, there was an open bar downstairs one of the girls said. Someone handed me a bottle of beer, McEwen’s Export, and a Mars bar, in the old folded wrapper. Bags of chips in real newspaper were shared; I think it was the Daily Express, a broadsheet, printed in Scotland that they were wrapped in. It all tasted quite good though there was a lot of vinegar on the chips. I could hear Rory Gallagher on the guitar, he was using a lot of harmonics and showing off a bit and Paul Rodgers was singing lead vocal, Jack Bruce on a thumping bass riff and John Bonham hammering on the drums, John Lord was fingering the mighty Hammond keyboard far in the distance with a Roto-Sound Leslie Cabinet whirling away. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda chugged past the bus on their hogs waving at us and Ritchie Havens was singing about freedom over and over whilst Arthur Lee said something, wagged a finger and dropped some acid right in front of me.

When we got to the stop at the Hillend Tavern who else but Melanie Safka and Sonia Christina got on, came upstairs and sat on either side of me and then began to sing quite sweetly whilst searching for some small change in my pockets. I tried not to giggle because their fingers were very tickly. In order to stop them I asked if they had tickets already but they only smiled and insisted that they had to have any change that was in my pockets. I remember touching their hair, both had single braids for some reason and long earrings. Following them upstairs was a disheveled looking Frank Zappa and a bouncy Germaine Greer both offering to sell the latest copies of OZ, for £1. I thought to myself “They’ve sold out, this is the end of the dream, it’ll be tree houses and wooden flutes next and hard backed books about sociology, the revolution is over, there is nothing new left in the universe.” I was almost getting angry but then Raquel Welch kindly offered to rub my brow with a warm soapy sponge that she had unexpectedly produced from her rucksack. The sudden eye contact with her was electric, her sparkling dark pupils drilling into mine as my jaw dropped open. Her hair was long, rich and brown and I stared at it for what I thought was a long time but really was only a few seconds, the sponge water was running down my face, trickling over my cheeks and relaxing me. “What a technique you have with your sponge!” I said rather lamely. “The magical world of movies and Hollywood have taught me everything I need to know,” she said and then she let out a slow, low growl as she touched the tip of my nose with her fingernail. She then threw her head back in a rather melodramatic fashion and uncrossed her legs, “I just might take you there one day and show you around, but only if you can be a good boy for me!”

I began to think that the bus was going very slowly now, possibly actually going in reverse. The trees and bushes in the outside world seemed disconnected from my journey, and my journey seemed disconnected from me. I wondered where on earth we could be, what fare stage were we at. I looked again and saw that we were at the industrial estate at Donibristle. The familiar factories and grey sheds and hangers stared back through the bus window and made their usual insulting, sneering faces at me. Raquel was rubbing my temple with her finger in an easy and gentle circular motion and my mouth was drying up inside. It was about then I think I first lost consciousness but looking back I don’t really regret anything.

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