(Published in Holyrood Magazine July 2nd 2018)
I used to rail against universal benefits: old rich people getting the Winter Fuel Allowance and young rich people getting Child Benefit – one mother told me years ago that her family went on an annual skiing holiday which they called the ‘Child Benefit holiday’ while I smiled grimly and thought about my net salary.
However, when I turned sixty, that didn’t stop me applying for my ‘Entitlement Card’, taking to Portobello Library a form and a photo, provided by a machine in Asda on a day when I was grumpy, which clearly required the caption ‘Soviet serial killer apprehended after three years living in hole’. Some few days after my birthday my Saltire card arrived and I haven’t looked back.
I have never really liked driving and given it costs about ten quid to park in central Edinburgh for say, a light lunch, and given that the very act of driving disallows drinking and given that most of Edinburgh’s roads are perpetually dug up, the move to the buses came very easily. I had travelled by bus on the old road between Edinburgh and Kirkliston maybe 10,000 times as a child and read any number of books while so doing or else engaged old ladies with my charming banter till they slowly glazed over, or passed away.
Edinburgh, of course, has a very good bus service and the blessed 26 runs from the top of my road into town and, during the rush hour, the X26 whizzes back from town stopping only occasionally but, miraculously, one of these rare stops is 40 yards from my front door. So, the bus and I lumber into the city, with me on the top deck as on a howdah. I take the front seat if I can get it, and cast a critical eye on the state of Craigentinny’s gardens or else read the middle bits of the Guardian and leave them on the seat for some other passenger to disregard. I get off and I thank the driver – tell me, does this happen in other cities, that everyone thanks the bus driver – this curious Edinburgh kindness.
So these are the reasons why I am travelling by bus, but the main one, of course, is the huge joy of getting something for nothing. The satisfying little ‘beep’ when the machine accepts my card telling me I have saved £1.70, and I’d never have had the change anyway. Like many aspects of retirement, it is liberating, and all of Scotland lies before me – though I’ve been no further than Musselburgh on the bus yet.
Then there are the other people on the bus, whose dispositions vary according to the time of day, from 8.00 am’s sleepy, harassed, hunted individuals, to 10.00 am’s elderly folk, sometimes in pairs but often alone, to the quiet doldrums around midday and the packed buses of 5pm when everyone is staring at their phones as if there was an answer in them. Most people are quiet but of course there are conversations and, more peculiarly, there are phone calls made, made as if the caller was in a phone box or lying on their own bed, rather than rolling jerkily towards Portobello with thirty other people listening.
Here are some of the things I have heard people talking about.
Right behind me, his breath on my neck, a man talking in great detail about his cat’s cancer, and how and where it had metastised, all in a resolute, mournful tone. There was, I think, just him and the cat.
Across the way, sitting with a man, a woman talking to her mother, but sometimes covering the phone to comment on the conversation to her companion, thus creating an odd and comic effect – ‘No, I don’t think you need to see the doctor’/ ‘ She thinks she’s dying, again’/ ‘Yes if you’re going to go, I could take you’./ ‘Christ’.
I was one of three passengers upstairs on the last 26 one wet night. Right at the bottom of the steps a very loud female voice, intoned very slowly and clearly – ‘If you do that I will fucking kill you’. ‘No I will kill you’. ‘And I will fucking kill her too’. The three of us looked from one to the other, imagining what it would be like to be downstairs. Scary, but at least you could see her. Then the pleasing programmed voice said, ‘Next stop…Morton Street’ – the man opposite me said ‘Good Luck’ very softly as I clumped down the shuddering bus – there she was, heavy, eighty or so, long steely hair, continuing to enunciate death threats into her phone. I thanked the driver and fled.
Most remarkably, at 8.15 am on a brisk winter morning, two young women on the way to work having a full and frank and funny conversation about their boyfriends’ bodies, well, bits of their boyfriends’ bodies.
Every bus journey is what Larkin called ‘a frail travelling coincidence’; some would bemoan the isolation of the phone culture but I think the phones mean that the passengers are not alone – they can make their arrangements, get the tea or the heating put on, threaten to kill their daughters-in-law and all with a little non-paying audience.
One of my friends has a son who works in Vietnam and she visited him. They got on a bus and she said something cheery – let’s say, ‘What a lovely day’. He said ‘Sssh’ and she looked around at the disapproving faces. Apparently, one is not allowed to talk on the bus in Vietnam – not a law, but a custom; you certainly cannot use your phone. But I think I like it better our way – trainee priests could do worse that sit on the top deck of the 26 and imagine how they would reply if they were, instead, in the dark confessional.