To miss a bus is a terrible thing, and the consequences can be far-reaching. Ever since buses were invented, people have been missing them. I should know. Many times I arrive at a stop and see the grim faces of those who missed the previous one. Judging by their expressions, you would think it was my fault. Most likely they missed it because they believed what they read on the timetable, whereas the bus-driver probably only used it as a 'rough guide'. Or perhaps it was simply that they could not run fast enough.
I'm sure that if I had a bus to catch everyday I'd get myself a pair of sensible flat shoes with rubber soles. Most passengers don't seem to wear suitable footwear, though. Instead they wear shoes without laces, or with platform soles. Or worse, stiletto heels. Now stilettos are all very well for making someone sound efficient as they click through the office, but they are hopeless for running after buses. They'd be better off removing their shoes and running barefoot, but they don't. They miss the bus instead.
As a result, Londoners have developed an innate fear of missing buses. The other evening, about six o'clock, there was a tremendous traffic jam in Oxford Street. Maybe 40 buses were queuing along its entire length. Some had not moved at all for about 15 minutes. Yet people were still running in desperate attempts to catch them. Which, on this occasion, they did with ease. They leapt on to stationary buses and seized a seat. Ten minutes later the bus still had not moved. I can't see what all the hurry was about, anyway. Most of them only watch television when they get home. They live in one of the greatest cities in the world, but all they want to do at night is stay in and watch Blind Neighbours, or whatever it is they are rushing home for.
When someone misses a bus they are told not to worry, because there will be another one along in a minute or two. This is all very well during the day. But when evening comes, they become less frequent. There used to be a time in London when, if you so wished, you could sit in certain West End pubs of an evening and watch the buses go past the windows like great red fish in an aquarium. It was quite a nice way to drink a pint of Guinness. Nowadays such sightings are rare.
Someone somewhere has decided that Londoners don't need so many buses at night. Not friendly ones with conductors on board anyway. So they slowly disappear as the evening passes until there are just a few late at night. And if you miss the last one, well, there's no lonelier sight in the world than the last bus when you've just missed it.
The other week Stanley and I were doing the last bus from Baker Street station. The bus left at midnight and every night this bloke wearing a white apron jumped on at the first corner as we left the terminus. He just emerged from the shadows as we came past and jumped. This was a dangerous thing to do so when we got back to the garage one night I said to Stanley: 'Tell that bloke in the white apron to get on at the bus stop. He's likely to break his neck.'
So Stanley had a word with him the next night. It turned out he was a waiter and did not finish work until midnight. He didn't have time to get to the bus stop and so was forced to make his jump each night. 'Don't worry about that,' said Stanley, 'tomorrow night we'll wait for you at the bus stop.' When Stanley told me about this I didn't like the sound of it. But Stanley is of the old school and keeps his promises, even though it would probably make us late. So the following night we stopped at the first bus stop and waited for the bloke in the white apron. We waited 10 minutes but he never turned up.
Eventually we had to go because we knew there were other people waiting further along the road. We got back to the garage late and had to claim overtime from London Transport (paid at this time of night at the generous rate of time and two-thirds). It turned out that the bloke in the white apron had gone home a different way that evening. Which I thought was bloody inconsiderate. Needless to say, the next time he tried to jump on the bus at the corner, he didn't quite make it.
Nevertheless, I quite like driving the bus late at night. There's less traffic on the road and there are few distractions. Buses pass each other like ships on the ocean. But there's more to it than that. This is London in the late evening: the River Thames rolling into the darkness, Piccadilly Circus all lit up, the theatres emptying. I was driving down Haymarket the other night just as The Phantom of the Opera was coming out. Frightened the life out of me.