Waiting for buses: in my thriller Corona Crime, 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 life (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 blog Read this now – before you waste more of your precious life pointed out that most of us feel short of time; and are not sure how to spend what time we have.
… but not in Corona Crime
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 Corona Crime Chapter 15: Waiting for buses
Note: this excerpt has been edited to avoid spoilers.
KY Sutanto had visited London many times. But this was his first venture to the district called “South of the River”.
So far, the experience was everything the guidebooks had promised. The shops along the Walworth Road were dingy and uninviting. The sky was grey. Should he unfurl his brand new James Smith umbrella? Etiquette was everything. He smiled as he saw ahead of him a group of people in trench-coats standing at a bus-stop.
The man at the head of the queue wore a Homburg. KY heard him mutter an oath of satisfaction as it began to rain. Several people opened umbrellas.
KY studied the man in the black hat. Was he a Coronatime-rich individual, here to engage in one of the most time-intensive activities available on the planet? Or was he paid by the tourist board to show the mostly foreign tourists how to behave? It was impossible to know. The man’s hat and raincoat were wet through. A patina of moisture had settled on every one of the coarse hairs of his eyebrows. He must have been here for hours.
KY took a step closer to the kerb. It was important that the trousers of his pin-stripe suit were within the splash radius of the oily puddles which the uneven surface of the roadway were designed to promote. He looked down the empty street towards Camberwell and the south. Nothing. That was good.
His bracelet signalled an incoming call. That was bad.
All around him, people were behaving in a manner appropriate to the late 20th Century. They had paid handsomely to be here. Mobile communications did not belong. All his life KY had wanted to visit the Walworth Road. This was almost certainly his last chance to do so. In his new, post-Coronatime existence, he should have blocked incoming calls and waited for the arrival of the Number 12 Bus, isolated from the outside world.
KY refused the call. He stood in the rain, quite still, and watched a bead of rain roll down the umbrella of the woman in front of him.
Nearby, KY saw two Japanese, one short, one tall, walking up the Road towards him. When they joined the bus queue , he turned towards the street to keep an eye on them. Strictly speaking, it was a breach of etiquette to look at anyone in the queue. 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 silently, faces set in studied indifference as the minutes ticked by. Only 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 had elapsed without mishap, 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, then.’ 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 was approaching, her rear wheel throwing up an arc of greasy water. The two men watched her pass.
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 taller Japanese seemed about to smile; but seeing a narrowing of his companion’s eyes, ignored the comment. With a non-committal snort, he unfolded a paper news-sheet; turned away; and began to scan the pages. There was no sign of any bus.
It was several hours later that movement began to take place in the bus queue. Three places in front of KY a moustachioed man dressed formally in bowler hat, Crombie overcoat, red silk tie and blue- and white-striped shirt was showing signs of impatience. From his waistcoat he withdrew a pocket-watch. He consulted the timepiece then, with a frown, lifted it to his ear as though verifying its continued operation. He shook his head. KY noted that the hands of the timepiece were in the same position they had been when last consulted, an hour earlier.
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 really is intolerable. D’you know, I’ve been standing here now for forty-five minutes. I shall be writing to London – ‘ he clenched his teeth, then spat the word out ‘ – Transport, to make my feelings plain.’
Everyone ignored him. The man continued to mutter under his breath. ‘Monstrous… outrageous… appalling.’ Then he raised his umbrella and shouted at the passing cab. ‘Taxi!’
The vehicle thus hailed was a modern construction, adapted with rusting black panelwork and a diesel noise generator to resemble an ancient London Hackney carriage. It slowed for a moment, 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 at speed of its near-side front wheel into the gutter threw up a wall of scum-ridden filth which left no trouser-leg unsoiled. The tall Japanese burst into applause, only 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 there emanated a stream of heavily-amplified popular music.
‘I say,’ he shouted. ‘Could you take me to Euston Station?’
The cab-driver finished lighting a cigarette, then directed a stream of smoke towards the window. The music throbbed. ‘What, mate?’ he said.
‘I said – ‘ the man was shouting ‘ – could you take me to Euston Station?’
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 as he did so what was left of the water in the gutter.
The man with the moustache watched as the taxi disappeared, his mouth working. Then he spoke.
‘Clearly, I shall have to walk.’
He set off briskly, towards the north. Only KY, cautious as ever, turned to watch him go. He saw the man settle on a bench a short way down the street; remove his bowler hat; and peel off the white moustache. Then he pulled back the cuff of his blue- and white-striped shirt to reveal a bracelet.
‘Honey,’ he said. His accent was American. ‘I’m through.’ The man put his hand to his ear – listening, KY guessed – before continuing. ‘Sweet. Worth every cent. How was the fishing? No? Well, I didn’t catch a bus, either.’ He laughed. ‘You recorded the whole twelve hours? Awesome. We can watch it again tomorrow.’
A modern cab pulled up at the bench. KY watched the man climb 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 he saw headlights appear in the distance. Maybe he’d stay for this. The queue began to stir: 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 was coming.
The preparations in the queue slowed as the vehicle waited interminably 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, indicating to the driver that the vehicle should halt.
There was a shudder as the driver changed down a gear. The queue shuffled forward. Then, with a roar, the bus began to accelerate. Seeing that it might not stop, several people in the queue began waving their arms, including the tall Japanese who, demonstrating his inexperience, raised a thumb like a hitch-hiker.
The driver of the bus was a woman. She looked down at the group and raised both hands in a gesture of helpless solidarity – what was she to do? – before pointing above her head to an indicator board which read: “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. KY saw that many of those in the queue, including the two Japanese, were standing 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. Then, one by one, everyone turned back to face the oncoming traffic.
The short Japanese looked down and discreetly 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 Corona Crime about waiting for buses in London. If you would like to have a look at my other writing, my most recent books are: my blackly comic Seven Hotel Stories, hard-hitting Berlin thriller Blood Summit and Corona Crime – the thriller for a world in the grip of coronavirus.