Waiting for buses: in my satirical speculative thriller Eternal Life, waiting for a bus has become a fabulously exclusive and expensive past-time. Find out why here in this extract from the novel.
Our lifespan is limited…
I wrote in my blog Red London buses and the meaning of existence (links in bold italics are to other posts on this site) how we all have a limited number of years, months, weeks and days to live.
My post How to live better: some easy lessons pointed out that most of us feel short of time; and are not sure how to spend what time we have.
… but not in Eternal Life
What would happen in a world where some people were able to live for hundreds of years. What leisure activities would they seek? Could it be that waiting for buses – a frustration for most of us – becomes valued? Could waiting for buses even become an exclusive activity, like heli-skiing or ocean yachting?
Excerpt from Eternal Life: Waiting for buses
Note: this excerpt has been edited to avoid spoilers.
KY Sutanto had visited London many times without seeing the district called “South of the River”. The experience had delivered everything the guidebooks promised. Dinghy, uninviting shops lined the Walworth Road. An overcast sky glowered. He leaned on his furled, brand new James Smith umbrella. Ahead of him, a group of people in Burberry trench-coats stood at a bus-stop.
The man at the head of the queue wore a Homburg. He muttered an oath of satisfaction as a light drizzle began. Several people opened umbrellas.
Was the man in the hat a Biotime-rich individual, here to engage in one of the most time-intensive activities available on the planet? Or did the tourist board employ him to show foreign tourists how to behave? Rain beaded the man’s raincoat. A patina of moisture settled on the coarse hairs of his eyebrows.
KY stepped closer to the kerb. He must place the trousers of his pin-stripe suit within the splash radius of the oily puddles promoted by the uneven roadway. He smiled to see the empty street towards Camberwell and the south.
His bracelet signalled an incoming call.
Around him, people behaved in a manner appropriate to the late 20th Century. They had paid handsomely to be here. Mobile communications did not belong. KY did not move a muscle as the caller ID whispered in his ear. But his neck tensed. He must answer. The knowledge angered him. All his life, he had wanted to visit the Walworth Road. He would never do so again. In his new, post-Biotime existence, he should have blocked incoming calls and waited, isolated from the outside world, for the arrival of the famous Number 12 Bus.
KY refused the call. He stood, quite still, as a bead of rain rolled down the umbrella of the woman in front of him.
Two Japanese, one short, one tall, walked up the Walworth Road. When they joined the bus queue behind KY Sutanto, he turned towards the street to keep an eye on them. To look at anyone in the queue breached etiquette. But by avoiding eye contact, he hoped not to cause offence. KY had not lived as long as he had by letting people stand behind him unobserved.
The Japanese wore twin tan trench-coats and stood, faces set in studied indifference as the minutes ticked by. An occasional twitch of the mouth from the taller of the two betrayed the strain occasioned by their efforts to emulate the placid demeanour of those who had arrived before them.
After ten minutes, the shorter of the two Japanese lifted his left hand, shook back the sleeve of his coat, and consulted a bracelet styled in the form of an ancient time-piece. He peered up at the clouds; frowned; looked down the road; rocked to and fro on the rain-drenched pavement; and turned to his companion.
‘No bus yet.’ He spoke in clear but heavily-accented English.
The second Japanese nodded. ‘It seems to be running late.’
Together, they turned to survey the road. A woman on a bicycle approached, her rear wheel throwing up an arc of greasy water.
After a further silence, the first Japanese looked up at the sky. ‘Typical bloody weather,’ he said. ‘One can be sure that the drivers are all playing cards down at the depot.’
The lips of the taller Japanese twitched. But seeing a narrowing of his companion’s eyes, he unfolded a paper news-sheet; turned away; and scanned the pages. No bus appeared.
Movement began in the bus queue. Three places in front of KY a moustachioed man dressed in bowler hat, Crombie overcoat, red silk tie and blue- and white-striped shirt withdrew a pocket-watch from his waistcoat. He consulted the timepiece and, with a frown, lifted it to his ear as though verifying its continued operation. He shook his head.
The man with the moustache looked down the road; considered his watch again; and grunted in a style similar to the ejaculation of the tall Japanese earlier. This display drew a ripple of approbation from the rest of the queue: a nod here, a raised eyebrow, a cleared throat there.
Five more minutes passed. Down the road a taxi chugged into view, heading south. Drawing himself up to his full height, the man with the moustache spoke out loud.
‘This is intolerable. Do you know, I have been standing here for forty-five minutes? I shall be writing to London – ’ he clenched his teeth and spat the word out ‘ – Transport, to make my feelings plain.’
Everyone ignored him. The man continued to mutter under his breath. ‘Monstrous… outrageous… appalling.’ He raised his umbrella and shouted at the passing cab. ‘Taxi!’
The vehicle thus hailed was a modern construction, adapted with rusting black panel-work and a diesel noise generator to resemble an ancient London Hackney carriage. It slowed, made as if to drive on, then executed an elegant half-circle in the road. As the taxi drew up alongside the bus queue, the entry of its near-side front wheel into the gutter threw up a wall of scum-ridden filth leaving no trouser-leg unsoiled. The tall Japanese burst into applause, to be silenced by a nudge in the ribs from his more seasoned companion.
The man with the moustache peered into the cab, from whose open window a stream of amplified music emanated.
‘I say. Could you take me to Euston Station?’
The cab-driver finished lighting a cigarette and directed a plume of smoke towards the window. The music throbbed. ‘What, mate?’ he said.
‘I said – ’ the man shouted ‘ – Euston Station? Please?’
The cabbie shook his head. ‘Sorry, mate. Only going as far as Oxford Circus.’ In a single gesture, he wound up his window and pulled away down the road, redistributing the remainder of the water in the gutter.
The man with the moustache drew himself up, mouth working. ‘I shall have to walk.’
He set off towards the north. KY, cautious as ever, turned to watch him go. The man settled on a bench a short way down the street; removed his bowler hat; and peeled off the white moustache. He pulled back the cuff of his blue- and white-striped shirt to reveal a bracelet.
‘Honey.’ He spoke in an American accent. ‘I’m through.’ The man listened before continuing. ‘Sweet. Worth every cent. How did you enjoy the fishing? No? Well, I didn’t catch a bus, either.’ He laughed. ‘You recorded the whole twelve hours? Awesome. We can view it again tomorrow.’
A modern cab pulled up at the bench. The man climbed aboard, still talking. As the taxi bore him away, the rank of men at the bus stop shuffled forward.
Above their heads, a yellow streetlight blinked into life.
KY was preparing to leave the Walworth Road when headlights appeared in the distance. He must stay for this. The queue stirred: people consulted timepieces, picked up briefcases and re-folded sodden newspapers. The man at the front of the queue shook the rain off his Homburg and set it straight on his head.
A bus approached.
Preparations in the queue slowed as the vehicle waited at a traffic light further down the road, then resumed as it continued its approach. When the red colossus was less than ten metres away, the man in the Homburg took a step forward and made a gesture with his hand, instructing the driver to halt.
The vehicle shuddered as the driver changed gear. The queue shuffled forward. With a roar, the bus accelerated. Seeing it might not stop, several people in the queue waved their arms, including the tall Japanese who, demonstrating his inexperience, raised a thumb like a hitch-hiker.
The driver of the bus looked down at the group. She raised both hands in a gesture of helpless solidarity – what could she do? – before pointing above her head to an indicator board reading: “LONDON TRANSPORT REGRETS THAT THIS VEHICLE IS OUT OF SERVICE”. As the bus passed, one of its wheels sprayed onto the queue such rainwater as had gathered in the gutter since the departure of the Oxford Circus-bound taxi.
The queue turned as one to watch the bus recede into the night. Many of those waiting, including the two Japanese, had adopted a position with their hands on their hips and their heads craned forward in the “full teapot” posture favoured by bus queue purists to indicate extreme disbelief. One by one, each turned back to face the oncoming traffic.
The short Japanese looked down and consulted his bracelet before clearing his throat and addressing his taller colleague in English.
‘Well,’ he said. ‘It looks as though we shall probably have to wait for a night bus.’
I hope you have enjoyed reading this excerpt from Eternal Life about waiting for buses in London. If you would like to read the book, a link to Amazon is in the picture below.