I drove my first RML bus yesterday – the classic red London bus from the 50s – and thought about my lovely mum. She knows I’m somehow connected with buses but can’t recall the whole picture. I’m still elated from the drive and a bit sad at the same time as I can’t really share it with her and remind her that it’s all down to her and that can-do spirit she’s always had. A spirit that has often got her into trouble, but more often than not into incredible places and life-changing experiences. Driving down a busy high street with nearly every modern bus driver giving you a “respect” salute is something I’m going to have to get used to. As the old red bus drives up, people smile, children wave and one old man today took his hat off and gave me a little bow, followed by a huge, toothless smile. “Good on you, girl!” he shouted as I drove past.
Writing all this down, I’m reminded of a couple of bus stories from many years ago. Mum has always been a very flirtatious woman, and once she and my dad divorced there was always some hopeful chap hanging on to her coat tails. One such chap was Keith – a bus driver on the 102 bus route that ran outside our house in London. If Keith were driving, he’d always give my mum a toot and a wave, often stopping to have a brief chat and a wink with her. Mum could tap on the glass if she was on the bus and he’d pull up wherever she wanted to get off. It was illegal, of course, and he shouldn’t have done it, but he did because Mum was so insistent and had that promise-I’ll-make-it-worth-your-while smile when she hopped off the bus. And did I ever tell you the story about the fat lady on the bus? I might have done, but it’s worth retelling now as it’s appropriate to the theme. I was always worried about the damage that really big people did to their mummies when they were born. I had no concept of growth or ageing, so I’m guessing I was about four years old when I asked my mum about how big people were born. She told me that they were little when they were born because they had to go through a small tube. It terrified me – huge people being made tiny to go through a tube? How did THAT happen? Then I started wondering about how they got big in the first place. Mum’s answer was that they were either expecting a baby or they ate lots of chips. It made sense at the time and grown-ups are supposed to tell you things that are right, aren’t they? We were on a bus to the Swiss Cottage swimming pool when a huge woman got on and stood next to our seat. She smiled down at me, so I thought I’d ask her – “Excuse me, are you expecting a baby?” She was furious. “NO I’M NOT!” “Well, you must eat lots of chips then!” I thought that was just the truth, so it was confusing as to why my mum jumped out of her seat and started berating the fat lady for being rude to a child. The fat lady started yelling and everyone around us was tutting and huffing before we were politely asked to leave the bus. Now THAT wasn’t fair, I thought, so I trod on the fat lady’s foot when I got off. I remember my mum telling me to wave when the bus drove off. I did as I was told and Mum was laughing at the fat lady who was shaking her fists at us and wobbling her big arms. I was just embarrassed at the waving bit, but mum was always ordering me to wave at people – brides, policemen, anyone in uniform and butchers. She had a thing for butchers, don’t ask me why, and I can remember once rendering a Sunday school teacher speechless when she asked us to draw what we thought God looked like and I drew a fat butcher with a striped apron, holding a string of sausages like they had in Punch and Judy shows. What was wrong with THAT? Grown-ups! Silly people.
So buses are really in my blood. I’ve always loved them and they’ve been a punctuation point to various episodes with Mum. My granddad was a GPO driver and had an encyclopaedic knowledge of London landmarks, so whenever we went to his house I begged him to go out in his car and see all the London sights. He allowed me to change gears sometimes and once he let me sit on a cushion and steer the car in a car park. One day, I thought – one day I might get to drive a bus! A lifelong ambition to drive a red Routemaster bus has finally come true. To be honest, I was thinking that I’d have a go at it on a bus driving experience day somewhere, but the more I thought about it the more I fancied the idea of doing it for real. Just imagine being paid to drive an iconic London bus around this wonderful city I’m proud to call home. And for me to have the power to throw people off if I need to. What would my lovely psychiatrist friend make of that one?
My darling husband is getting used to the idea that many weekends could be taken up ferrying bridal parties to receptions, business people to London landmarks or tourists on sight-seeing tours where there will be many more smiles and one ecstatic blonde woman grinning from ear to ear behind the wheel and thanking her mum for instilling bravery into her world. She once dreamed about Sweden, so she bought herself a plane ticket and relied upon strangers to put her up, show her the sights and take her to museums. She had another dream about cycling the length of Britain and so decided to clock off work for a month and try it herself. She got as far as Sheffield – with the help of a benevolent train guard, various truckers and a lot of padding. Her bike has only recently been donated to a charity shop – heavy, three gears, cumbersome and very old-fashioned. Hardly the vehicle to cope with various terrains and an amateur cyclist without so much as a repair kit. My heart broke when I came home from work on one of her adventure days and played back my messages. Mum, in tears, begging me to go to a train station and pay her excess fare for the bike so that she could get off the train and continue her journey. In the background I could hear a man saying something like, “We’ll have to confiscate your bike and call the police”. Of course, Mum, being Mum, hadn’t left a message about which station she was at or who needed to be contacted, so I had to wait three agonising days until she called me. I’d been panicking and checking with every rail and local police station I could think of in the Sheffield area, to no avail. Bearing in mind this is going back to the early 80s when we didn’t all have mobile phones, waiting for the phone to ring was a real “thing”. She did call me three days later, happy as ever, telling me how she was staying with a lovely family who kept rabbits. They had rescued her from the station, paid her excess fare (£3) and taken her in. I warned her about taking care of herself, not to be a burden on them, to keep her room tidy and do the washing-up – yes, we were officially in the parent–child–parent loop.
Mum’s favourite weekly trip is out on the minibus when the volunteer driver (another Keith), with whom she’s in love, takes the residents of the care home to see the West Sussex sights. She adores her fish and chips and has often been caught hiding them and then feeding them to the donkeys. She’s not supposed to, of course, but she just doesn’t care. When they need extra drivers, I’ll now be able to take them all out and see that twinkle in her eye when she realises that I really CAN drive a bus and I’m not making it all up.
She’ll probably call me Keith, because in Mum’s world that’s what all bus drivers are called. Sadly, she’ll never be able to ride on the Routemasters because she can’t get up to London these days, but I’ll show her a picture of the cockpit I will be driving in to see if it evokes any memories. I’m sure it will; good times, Keith, not the fat lady, but who knows?
Ding, ding – any more fares, please?