There's a saying about having looks that could stop a bus: I don't seem to have them. Not a bus, not a train, not a Tube. Of course they stop, when you want them to carry on, but worse than that, they carry on, when you want them to stop.
An unfunny thing happened to me on the way home last night. Unfunny at the time: funnier now, in both senses of the word, now that I am rested, warm, next to a radiator rather than freezing outside on a long walk home watching myself exhale little clouds of breath. I should have seen it coming: they've been working on my paranoia since Saturday afternoon, when on a similarly cold evening, I was waiting for a bus to central London, to drop me off on Charing Cross Road near the Walkabout (where I was going to watch the rugby league). I waited for an unhealthy length of time, and then, summoned as if by a quantity of curses, three came at once: the first of them anything but full, which, I expected, would cause it, on approaching the stop, lead it to slow down and move towards the kerb. Rather than, as was the case, speed up and move towards the middle of the road. This unexpected movement on the part of the bus was matched by an unexpected movement on the part of the driver, who jerked his thumb over his shoulder, indicating the buses behind him and presumably suggesting that I should take one of them instead.
That in itself was odd enough, given that nine of ten buses that pick up passengers at my stop probaby have rather less room to pack them in than did this particularly half-empty bus. What was odder still, odd to the point of stretching odd so far it spelled outrageous, was that while the leading bus was a 176 - which goes up Charing Cross Road, where I wanted to go - the buses he bid me take instead were both 185s. Which do not go up Charing Cross Road. Which actually go to Victoria, which is somewhere completely different. Which is why I would have preferred to get on a 176, be it packed or empty or anything in between, rather than a 185 in any state. Which is why he had no business directing me to take a 185 instead.
Which is why, upon this becoming apparent, I fired so many expletives at the back of the passing 176 that, had I been firing arrows rather than expletives, they would have proved more than enough to win the battle of Agincourt. My own barrage proved rather less historically significant: the bus passed without damage to anything save the sensibilities of the passing public. The barrage did, however, seem to impress the driver of one of the 185s, who stopped, despite his own bus being full and my not having flagged him down. He opened the doors and said:
I can probably catch him up, you know.I declined his offer and caught, some minutes later, a 176 no emptier than the one before.
That was the weekend: last night was midweek and by the middle of any given week I have had enough distractions, enough everyday annoyances to take my mind off brooding about the wickedness of public transport over the preceding weekend. Until late yesterday night. When, following a chess match near the Barbican and a subsequent drink to celebrate our failure to be thrashed, three of our team, James, Angus and myself, arrived at Farringdon station in good time for the 2310 to Sutton. The 2310 not just to Sutton but to Blackfriars, Elephant and Castle, Loughborough Junction, Herne Hill, Tulse Hill, Streatham, Mitcham Junction, Hackbridge, Carshalton and Sutton, all displayed over two pages of a monitor and reeled off by the station announcer, on the approach of the train, as if listing the titles of a member of the nobility. Calling at Blackfriars, Elephant and Castle, Loughborough Junction....and especially Loughborough Junction, since that is where two of us were getting off. Were planning to get off. Were used to getting off, as it is our normal train home from a chess match at that venue.
There's no problem: it's our routine, as is calling National Rail Enquiries from the pub beforehand just to check what time the train leaves, as is leaving the pub in good time to get to Farringdon, as is getting out Angus' magnetic set, once we're on the train, to review as much of one of the evening's games as we have time for. On went the announcement, off went the train and out came the chess set: and we had reached a crucial point in Angus' game, a mutual error in the middlegame, when the train slowed and the signs for Loughborough Junction appeared outside the windows.
James and I got up and went to the door as the train continued to slow, and slow, and slow to a crawl so slow that it wasn't clear whether the train was moving or not: it seemed to have stopped, and yet seemed to not quite have stopped, as if the driver couldn't make up his mind what he should be doing. On the assumption that the doors were about to open (which, had we been asked, would have appeared to us less an assumption than a stone cold certainty) we - small groups of people at every door along the length of the train - began pushing the Door Open button.
The doors, however, did not open: and rather as if somebody had pushed a Do Not Push This Button button, it actually had the opposite effect to that intended, as the train, if it had stopped at all, began to move. I thought it must have accidentally stopped too early, incorrectly positioned on the platform, perhaps part of the train having come to rest before the platform started: but within a few seconds, without the train particularly picking up speed (London commuter trains do not, if truth be told, "pick up speed") the end of the platform had slipped away. We were not, after all, going to stop at Loughborough Junction. Or if we were - if we had - we were not going to let anybody get off there.
It was bizarre. At first, I thought that I must have been pushing a duff button to try and operate a duff door, as sometimes happens - the door refuses to open and you scuttle across to use another one. Scuttling, however, even if I had had the time to scuttle, would have done no good. I looked across and there were a group of people next to the carriage's other door, all looking angry with the door, or with the train, or with the entire world and everybody in it. A duff carriage, then. I needed to get across into the next carriage if I wanted to get out at Herne Hill instead. But when I did, similar groups of people, wearing similar angry expressions, were at the carriage doors.
I have heard of trains deliberately missing out small stations in order to keep to the timetable, dropping off the passengers at stations beyond their preferred destinations and expecting them to get the next train back (which, were it not ludicrous enough in the first place, conjures up an imaginary sequence involving passengers taking the return train and being taken past their destination then as well: and travelling from one wrong station to another in an infinite sequence without ever being allowed to get off at the right place). But this was the last train and there was no train back. And it was cold, bastard cold outside. And if I had to go out into the cold, which I surely did, I would rather I went out at the place of my choosing.
All I could assume was that the driver didn't realise that the passenger doors wouldn't open - as they had worked perfectly all right at Farringdon, Blackfriars and Elephant and Castle. Which meant, I assumed, that he wouldn't realise that they didn't open all the way along the line. Not at Herne Hill, nor at Tulse Hill, nor at Streatham: he would pass through Mitcham Junction, Hackbridge and Carshalton with passengers pressing desperately at the buttons at each succesive station, pressing their faces to the windows and thinking of homes and loved ones left behind, until we would finally arrived at Sutton, the driver would pack up and leave the train and the passengers would be stranded in the carriages overnight. Chipped out, perhaps, by firemen in the morning.
As it turned out, we were spared. The train arrived at Herne Hill - arrived, too, properly, slowing down and stopping in the conventional fashion and allowing the doors to open without difficulty. At which point the passengers, released from their confinement, piled onto the platform and - some of them - hurried over to bang on the window of the driver's cab and ask what he thought he was playing at.
He opened up and told us that the train wasn't supposed to stop at Loughborough Junction. Immediately he received a number of passionate testimonials to the contrary, illustrating a wealth of experience gleaned from many journeys on the 2310 from Farringdon on evenings such as this. They made reference also to the monitors at the stations we had called at and the announcements made on the arrival, at these stations, of Loughborough Junction as among the stations at which the train was due to call and at which, therefore, we might have expected to be invited to alight.
These submissions failed to shake his confidence, which, it appeared, was based on textual evidence: for he produced a schedule, that, he claimed, exempted Loughborough Junction from the list of stations at which he was required to stop. It listed, in the manner of any railway timetable, a number of stations and the times of arrival next to them. And oddly, next to Loughborough Junction the time was listed with an o in the middle, like this:
Loughborough Junction 23O23.According to him, that O was his escape clause (though not ours: rather the reverse). Never mind the announcements. Never mind what it said on the monitors. He was not to stop and not to let us off. But I had my own schedule too, a timetable, valid for, according to the cover, 12 June to 10 December 2005, which latter date was still half a month away. I pulled it from my bag and flicked through it as quickly as I could, to see if I could find evidence to contradict the driver. On page 20, listing trains Monday to Friday, it showed the following:
Kings Cross Thameslink 2306What was that s? He bolstered his case with an o: what could I do with my accompanying s? I hurried to the bottom of the page and there it was:
London Blackfriars 2316
Elephant & Castle 2319
Loughborough Junction 2323s
Herne Hill 2327a
s - Stops to set down only.Stops to set down only. That's stops to set down passengers. That's stops. To set down passengers. With the doors open, unless they are expected to lever themselves through the windows. Eureka! I had the smoking gun, the missing link, the killer piece of evidence, the clinching argument. Like the photograph that Winston saw of Jones, Aaronson and Rutherford, but in my hand, incontrovertible, indestructible, there.
But futile, futile as a photograph consigned to a memory hole, as futile as the pushing of the Door Open button at the station I had wanted. Because the window was closed, the driver was back at the controls and as I stood there, on the platform stupidly waving my proof at him, he moved gradually away, looking at me just like Fernando Rey looked at Gene Hackman in The French Connection.
I told him, loudly, what I thought he was. Loudly, but pointlessly. It was no more effective than my barrage at the 176. The train was gone. The air was cold. My breath was visible. The bus would never come. The walk home was a long way, and seemed, as I walked, to be even longer than it really was.