Bus driving can be quite a stressful job…especially when you are running late. People have left the job because of it. Down here in the west of Cornwall drivers have to navigate some challenging terrain and traffic conditions.
My poem imagines a bus driver who finally pays the price and picks up Death at an undesignated request stop. It is fired by the two things bus drivers hate to see at bus stops…that of someone looking at their watch or holding out the stick that is supposed to be supporting them.
It is also inspired by a viewing of Ingmar Bergman’s iconic film The Seventh Seal and an idea I had for my gravestone.
THE LAST BUS (And Death shall have no Dominoes)
Underground now in a wooden box;
Instead of above in one of metal and glass.
The absence of a door of any kind
At least allows me to rest in peace.
That mantra of the bus driving fraternity
“An empty bus is a happy one”,
May be wide of the mark in this case,
As I find myself incarcerated
In this receptacle for used tickets only.
Ignoring the small brass turning handle
That hangs above me like that Greek fellow’s sword;
I seek the periscope to look upstairs but
Its absence confirms what I already know –
My last vehicle is a single-decker.
Just me, my timetable and duty board;
The latter, in truth a laminated sheet of A4
That marks out my journey…
My final journey…
It is blank.
What was it brought me here?
One of those days…I’m late, I’m late
For everyone else’s important date.
At the next stop a man in black,
One arm gauntleted in an aluminium crutch,
Looks somewhat theatrically at his watch.
He takes no notice of the time
As his dumb show is for my benefit;
Me the one who is in the thrall of
The large digital clock on my ticket machine.
He wants me to know that he knows I am late.
The great metal crutch scythes out into the road,
Arcing like a crusader’s longsword
Into the fray…ready for conflict
(Clearly it requires substantially more
Than just an arm in this instance).
There with blade and timepiece, he clutches
In the white crab’s-legged fingers of his hand,
His concessionary pass like a small shield…a buckler.
I hate you longsword. I hate you buckler.
Drawbridge down, he mounts the bus
And draws up terms for my surrender.
“You… (not even a ‘Sir’ here) are late!”
As if I didn’t know…the clock on the machine, remember?
I tell him that I’m far from happy about it myself.
I’m late for me. My journey home
To wife and family will be (what’s the word?)…later.
He then wastes time (that oh so valuable commodity)
By asking me why I’m late.
If I told him…I doubt his anger would allow him to listen?
And so it continues…
Late coming into the station,
The standing load all eager to alight
But slow to accomplish the deed.
For my next trip…my last journey
More angry faces line up in wait.
Ready to complain…ready to question
About return times…or just why
I’m late…leaving the station.
The knock on effect actualises
The Law of Cumulative Lateness…
“Once a bus is late, it can only become later still”
Those twenty minutes will not be made up
They will breed, incubated by fate
On a route that challenges the driver.
The single track roads…press once
As headway is no longer maintained
As much as dismembered…press once.
The on-coming tractor and trailer
And the hundred yard reverse…press once.
The driver out of his campervan comfort zone
The timid tourist puts a back wheel…press once
Halfway up a Cornish hedge and nods
In meek obeisance as I process by…press once.
I feel the vein in my temple throb
Protruding like a bell strip…press once.
It keeps ringing but no one gets off
The snickering kids upstairs…
Pressing more than the prescribed once.
Ask not for whom the bell tolls;
Isn’t it obvious as I fight the early evening traffic
Departing the beach at Porthcurno
Or the afternoon performance at the Minack Theatre?
I push like some kind of matinee idol
Against a pouring tide of humanity;
Each car a canned concentrate
Of a laughing theatre audience
As I press on.
At the hairpin bend overlooking Treen village
He waits once more, this time in a black cloak
A hood cowling his imagined features.
Now the timepiece is made of glass and sand.
His scythe gleams with certainty
As it arcs out like a great metal crutch.
My time has come…Death waits for me
I am compelled to bring the bus to a halt;
Even though it is not an official request stop.
Opening the doors for the last time
I take comfort from the good book.
The Bus Driver’s Manual on greeting a passenger
I turn to face him and make eye contact to show I am genuinely interested in what he is saying.
“It is time” says Death.
I make sure I listen carefully to what he is saying and do my best to give a clear and concise answer.
“Fuck…” I say.
I keep my facial expression friendly, open and clear. Remembering to keep my hands away from my face when listening and responding using a steady and moderate tone of voice.
“Any chance of a game of chess?”
“Do you even play?” says Death.
“How about a game of dominoes?”
He shakes his head.
“Those things only happen in films.”
His final words…so much better than mine.
I am willing to smile readily if it is appropriate to do so.
Remembering Bob Monkhouse’s gag;
His wish to die like his father peacefully in his sleep
Not screaming and terrified like his passengers.
The passengers who, as I fly over the hairpin’s edge
Will be meeting their own version of Death?
The passengers who will never reach The Minack.
Not the monk’s house, this mynach
But a stony place…a hard place
I look around for the rock.
Underground now in a wooden box
Reaching my destination blind
To what lies ahead…if anything.
I present my final waybill.
I’m the late bus driver
Having arrived at the terminus.
“Mortem omnibus nobi venit”
Which means “Death comes for us all”
By bus…I think.
I take hold of the brass handle overhead
And the letters on the stone six feet above
Turn through the various destinations
Until they stop at…
Sorry I’m Not In Service.
Hear Gray read the poem at…