Children these days…

Posted: February 18, 2011 in Short Stories
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A work in progress that I started this morning – as my mind started racing… I need to work through it and correct all the discrepancies between past and present tense:

It wasn’t that Harold hated children, no – hate would be a marginal step too far. It would however be accurate to say that he couldn’t quite see what purpose children now served. It was no longer like the good old days in Harold’s mind – when children could be put to work sweeping chimneys or clearing out the gathering rubbish between the looms – days when a child’s place was to be seen and not heard. Not, however, that Harry had actually lived through Victorian Britain.

No – but Harold felt children nowadays just seemed to be little tearaways that were governed by no rules and had no sense of respect for their elders. Children of modern Britain seemed to have all the rights and get away with all the wrongs that would surely have resulted, in Harold’s youth, of finding a child on the receiving end of a quick clip around the ear or a proper thrashing with a cane.

It was on days like these, when the wind and rain had Harold pulling the collar on his Mack up to his neck and pulling his flat-cap down tightly onto his head, that Harold rued the demise of society.

“Just look at that will you” Harold said, slightly under his breath – but just loud enough for Herbert to hear.

Herbert, or just Bert to those who knew him, leaned forward and peered across at the group of youngsters gathered at the far end of the bus shelter. They were screaming and shouting in glee as they took it in turns to swing on the canopy – kicking the pane of glass at the back.

“Harrumph – schnnz” Herbert grunted – followed by his customary drawing of air between his teeth.

Herbert also bemoaned the way children of today were, in his interminable opinion, ‘renk’. When Herbert was a young child he would not have dreamt of carrying on the way he saw children behaving now. No – when Herbert was a young boy, growing up in his parents’ house in Bridgetown, Barbados – Herbert knew that a backhand from his mother was none too far away if he should ever find himself stepping out of line.

Not too many years ago – when Herbert and Harold were still working on the buses, they would probably have felt a little more confident in putting the group of kids in their place. Now however, they wouldn’t dare approach them for fear of being physically assaulted by the little ruffians.

“Remember how we used to deal with them?” Harold asked Herbert.

“Yes siree – I remember that well” Herbert said. “You would be up front, sat in your lickle cab. Me back there collecting the fares and keeping the people dem entertained. We did run that bus like clockwork” Herbert reminisced.

“Yes we did! Never late. Never needing to be turned around by the inspector. And you never did let any of them scallys get away without paying their fare – haha”. Harold allowed himself a short chuckle as he thought back on how Herbert would patrol the isle of his bus like a Bobby on the beat – ensuring every child paid their fair, no matter how cunning they had been in their attempts to evade the inevitable.

“Remember that lad who fell off..” Harold started.

“Yes man! Yes!” Herbert clapped his hands together, as he picked up on Harold’s train of thought. “The one that did nearly end up underneath the car!?! Lord what a piece a shame that was.”

Both Harold and Herbert remembered the incident well. The route they had worked on together had been the No. 37 that ran between Peckham and Putney, or Hounslow. They had loved that old Routemaster bus – with its iconic design of having the driver separated from the main body of the bus, housed within his isolated cabin that perched to the right of the engine block. Harold had sat up front, king of his own personal castle – whilst Herbert had patrolled the realm like the sheriff of Nottingham – collecting taxes, fares, from the myriad passengers that would stream on and off throughout the day.

The incident that they were musing over happened one particular morning – just after they had stopped to let off a group of school-children at the bus-stop just opposite North Dulwich train station. This particular bus-stop was a new addition to the route and had been placed as a specific response to the antics of the children that would ride the bus to and from school.

You see, the majority of the children that rode the No. 37 during the day went to William Penn Secondary School. The school, which is no longer there, had sat at the top of Dog Kennel Hill – North Dulwich, and was a short 300 to 400 yard walk from the train station. Children on their way to school had a choice of two stops they could disembark the bus from. One stop – just before the bus would turn into Dog Kennel Hill, meant a long walk from the bottom of the hill up past the train station and then on to the school that was a further climb to the top of the hill. The second stop meant getting off the bus after it had climbed halfway up Dog Kennel Hill, passed over the rise of the train bridge the station was built on and had turned left into Half Moon Lane. Once turned onto Half Moon Lane the bus would pick up speed and drive the 500 to 600 yards to the next bus-stop – meaning a long walk back to the school in the opposite direction.

Day after day, week after week and month after month of the school term – children would elect to forego boarding or disembarking the bus at either of the two stops, on either side of the road at either of these locations. Instead – the children would take their lives into their own hands, as they excitedly jumped off the bus on the apex of the corner into Half Moon Lane, on their way to school – or would jump on the bus, as the bus pulled out of Half Moon Lane back on to Dog Kennel Hill, at the end of the day – as they headed home from school.

The sight of this frantic bustling of children trying to shave two minutes off their journey to school or home each day gave both Harold and Herbert the frights of their lives. In fact – every driver and conductor pairing that worked on the route would make countless complaints to the bus company, begging that they did something before there was a horrendous accident or loss of life.

It was therefore to everyone’s relief that the bus company heard their pleas and chose to erect the bus-stop opposite the train station – thus giving the children the opportunity to get off the bus that 200 hundred yards closer to school.

So on the day of the incident the children, who had no idea a new bus-stop had been erected during the half-term, again chose not to get off the bus at the bottom of the hill. Instead, they waited for the rush of bodies that would signal that it was time to stand on the landing at the back of the bus, and jostle for position.

Anticipating this surge, Herbert had rung the bell once, as the bus climbed the hill, signalling to Harold that there were passengers who wished to get off the bus at the newly placed stop halfway up.

“Dog Kennel Hill!” Herbert had called out, as the bus came to a stop. The bemused children gathered at the back of the bus had looked shocked and confused in equal measure. “Me said, come off the bus.” Herbert had punctuated – ruefully smiling and content that the children had not known of the surprise that had been in store for them.

The group of kids had slowly ambled off the bus, not quite sure what had happened to their customary morning escapade. That is – all but a select few of the children. A small group, who had planned on carrying on until the next stop, were still sat at the front of the bus.

As Herbert rang the bell twice, signalling for Harold to pull off, this second group of kids had seen their chance to experience the morning ritual of stepping off the bus. This was an opportunity that had not been afforded to them before, as they had not been quite cool enough, not quite big enough to ever have pushed their way to the front of the landing. So as the bus approached the corner they had quickly stood up from their seats and rushed towards the back.

As the bus swung around the corner Herbert had looked on in unrestrained horror as one of the kids got his coordination completely wrong. You see – there had been a knack, learnt over time, that the other kids had perfected for this ‘stepping off’ ritual. It had involved planting their left foot on the pavement, as the bus accelerated from the apex, whilst lifting their right foot off the platform mere moments later. It was, Herbert had once admitted to Harold, poetry in motion – a perfect exercise in timing. But on that day the poor child, who had been attempting it for the first time, got the timing dangerously wrong.

As the bus started to speed up as it left the corner, the child had placed his left foot on the pavement but had kept his right foot firmly planted on the platform of the bus. As Harold had driven away from the corner he had been blissfully unaware of the chaos taking place behind him. Herbert however, had a ringside view as the child held onto the pole on the platform for dear life – as the forward momentum of the bus, where his right foot had taken root, and the stationary pavement, which was in contact with his left, proceeded to pull the young boys stance apart in some freakish version of the splits.

“LORD JESUS CHRIST!” Herbert had exclaimed – as he had frantically rung the bell, over and over again, in the agreed signal to the driver to commence an emergency stop. His heart had raced as he watched the young boy ultimately slip off the platform and fall into the road. The boy had kept hold of the pole the entire time and was subsequently dragged behind the No. 37 like a collection of cans dragged behind a bride.

Herbert recalled that, as the bus came to a halt, he had looked on in horror as the child’s legs had momentarily dragged just in front of the car that had been following the bus around the corner.

“Lord have mercy, lord have mercy – you is trying to kill yourself child!?!” Herbert had screamed at the young boy, as he bent down to pick him up out of the road. The look of mortification on the child’s face had been enough to quell Herbert’s fear though and make him focus on the perilous situation the boy had so fortunately escaped.

By this time Harold had appeared at the back of the bus, flushed and with a puzzled look on his face. “What the hell’s the ruckus all about Bert?” He had asked. “You rang that bell like Elvis himself wanted to get on.”

“It’s this dyam fool picne here so”, Herbert had gestured to the shell-shocked child. “Him nearly done kill himself.”

Herbert had then gone on to explain the entire episode to Harold – as they had stood and watched the quivering child dust himself off and wander off to school – a gaggle of taunting kids following behind him.

The passengers on the bus that day had all agreed with Herbert’s condemnation – offering the occasional ‘children these days’ as he walked up and down the bus – collecting fares. It was an experience he had known he would never forget.

As Herbert pulled himself back from his reverie, he noticed the bus he and Harold were waiting for approach.

“Children these days. Harrumpf – schnnz”, he exclaimed – gazing back over at the children swinging on the bus shelter.

“Yep. Children these days indeed.” Harold agreed.

As their bus approached the shelter, and Harold and Herbert rose from their seats, one of the swinging kids lost his grip – barely avoiding falling into the road and thus into the path of the slowing bus.

“LORD JESUS!!!” Herbert exclaimed to Harold – as a sickening sense of déjà vu came over him. “Them no learn a dyam thing – not a dyam thing me tell you. The picne still looking for new ways to kill themselves.”

They looked on as the child picked himself up, swore in the direction of his friends, and then bundled his way past Harold and Herbert as he boarded the bus.

As they climbed aboard the bus themselves, fishing out their passes – they overheard the driver mutter to himself, “children these days.”

  1. Rachycakes says:

    Bloody wonderful, Mark. I could hear Harold and Bert talking and laughing as I read this piece. Truly wonderful.

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