The Day I Finally Cracked It

I’m still feeling rather fed up lately. It’s great to have no work to do but it’s important to fill that time and to keep busy, neither of which I’m currently doing.

Because I’m a little bored my writing has been affected too, I’m not doing much so I have little to write about. I don’t have the 42 mile trip to work so I’m not in my car as much and when I’m in my car that’s when a lot of my ideas come.

Years ago when I drove for the bus company I decided to pack the job in and try my hand at driving coaches. It was a bad mistake, I was only 21, I was too immature to take on a responsible job like coaching. I hadn’t travelled about much and so I didn’t know my way around the UK. On every trip I had to spend ages planning my route and where to stop and frankly, I just wasn’t up to the job. The result was that I ended up back at the bus company again. There were no vacancies at my old garage where they were gearing up to be all one man operated buses so I agreed to move to Stockport. At Stockport they still had a lot of old fashioned buses that were driver and conductor operated but to be honest, operating a bus with two people was much more fun.

Two staff members retired which I remember well. They were both characters. The first one was a long serving conductor whose name I can never remember. I’ll call him Tony. Tony was looking forward to retirement. He had worked for North Western before buses were nationalised and he always looked down on those who had worked for the ‘corporation’, the municipal bus companies. North Western had run a lot of long distance routes but the corporation had only local routes. When buses were nationalised the long distance routes went to National Express and Tony was forced to work for GM Buses which took over local routes.

Tony had planned well for his retirement. He had gone on a few retirement courses, he had invested well and had also topped up his pension with a private one. He wouldn’t miss the bus company for a minute. On his last day he walked over to Sainsbury’s for something and dropped dead in the frozen food aisle. He never got to enjoy his retirement at all.

Another long-time employee was Bert, known to all as ‘Cracked it’ Bert. Bert was a crusty old guy who always wore the full uniform including the cap. He worked on the 900 rota on which all the old timers worked. They didn’t do weekends and they worked easy split shifts covering the morning rush hour and then returning later for the evening one.  Bert always used to say to me that it was hard work because the staff were ‘always in the thick of the action’. Don’t believe a word of it. Split shifts were busy, very busy but not the ones on the 900 rota.

The 900 rota was unofficially known as the ‘Sick, Lame, and Lazy Rota’, and it was all easy work; the odd works’ service and a couple of the easier school runs.

Thrown in to their duties was also a gratuitous share of standby time. Standby was when you have spare drivers or conductors, ready to fill in to replace another crew when a bus had broken down or staff had called in sick. The thing was, with the 900 rota, their standby time was only a couple of hours so they were ninety nine percent certain they would never be called to go out. The drivers were fairly amenable old chaps but the conductors, all mostly clippies, female conductresses apart from Tony and Bert, were all quite the opposite. Go out on their stand by time, when they could be supping tea and knitting? Not likely! As you can imagine the 900 staff were universally unpopular.

When I was a one-man driver, in the latter days of conductor operations, we used to do a trip from Bramhall in the morning rush hour. When we got closer to Stockport the bus was always packed to the seams and the extra rush hour bus, covered by the 900 staff, always used to hang back and let the one-man driver do all the work. Well, we can’t expect our senior 900 staff to cover that busy run can we? And knitting won’t do itself, will it?

I remember pulling into Mersey Square in Stockport with a bus bursting at the seams and the 900 bus pulling in behind me with about five people on board. I went back to that bus and told them in no uncertain terms they were out of order. The driver was about to say something when his clippie, Doris, the laziest conductress you ever met, pushed him aside and gave me a right mouthful about how I hadn’t been doing the job five minutes and how she and her driver had been at it since before I was born and well, I think you get the picture.

Now I have always believed in the interconnectedness of the universe, how one good deed will come back to you twofold and how those evil doers, as they used to call them in my old comic days, will eventually be punished. Anyway, one fine day it came to pass that I was asked to work my day off. I came in for my stand by duty and sat down with a cuppa and a slice of toast hoping for a nice relaxing read. After a while the tannoy called my name and I went over to the desk to see what was in store for me.

Doris, the laziest conductress in the world was there waiting for me. ‘Are you driver Higgins?’ she bellowed.

‘What’s it to you?’ I replied in the same happy tone.

Well, it turned out that Karma, that magical mystery force of the universe had poked its nose into our life that day and her driver had called in sick and, guess what? I was her driver for the day. Well, when we came to do the Bramhall rush hour bus, instead of hanging back, I passed the packed one-man bus and we did most of the work coming into Stockport. That’s the way it should have been done with the workload, and the passengers split evenly between the two buses.

When we got to Stockport our passengers piled off leaving our flustered conductress in a state of disarray and her cash bag full of coins. Her ticket machine had issued more tickets in an hour than it normally did in a week. She was looking a little peaky, if I remember correctly.

Perhaps that’s why she went sick for the rest of the shift!

Anyway, getting back to Bert. His place in the canteen was the very first table just by the entrance. He let on to everyone who entered with his usual phrase ‘Have you cracked it yet?’

If you had just come on shift you could only reply ‘Not yet Bert’. If you had nearly finished work the obvious answer was ‘nearly done Bert’.

Bert took his retirement and that first table by the entrance was empty for many a week. Then one day I came in for my break and who was there but Bert, dressed in his civvies of course.

‘How are you, Bert?’ I asked.

We had a bit of chit chat and then I went on to order my breakfast. After that I saw Bert pretty regularly as he took his usual place in the canteen most days. Buses and that canteen had been his life for so long he couldn’t stay away. He must have been 65 back then and that was over 30 years ago, I doubt if he would still be alive today. Even so, I can just imagine bumping into him and him asking me ‘have you cracked it yet Steve?’

I’d smile back and answer ‘I’ve finally cracked it, Bert’.


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