Love In The Bus Lane

Chloe thought a stint as a bus conductor would be a bit of fun, not knowing that for her, it would become a way of life…

Chloe saw the newspaper advert while she and her best friend took a tea break in their miniskirts and duffle coats in a rare moment of winter sunshine on the factory’s back step.

“Bus conductors?” Natalie’s chestnut-brown bob gleamed as she turned, a steaming mug halfway to her mouth.

“You said you wanted to travel, didn’t you?” Chloe held up the picture of a double-decker.

“I was thinking more of Tenerife than Tooting!” her pal joked.

“It could be fun, like Cliff Richard in Summer Holiday,” Chloe insisted. “It has to be better than making handbags in this place, anyway.”

“It couldn’t be any worse.”

“Come on, let’s give them a call.” Chloe flicked back her long, straight, corn-coloured hair. “There’s just time to get down to the phonebox on the corner before we have to get back to work.”

A week later, Chloe gripped Natalie’s hand as they watched a gleaming red double-decker race across the Tarmac towards an enormous greasy puddle at London Transport’s Chiswick Training Centre.

A screech of tyres set her teeth on edge as the vehicle swung around through 180 degrees on the skid pan, throwing a huge wave of water into the air.

The bus leaned so far over that Chloe held her breath, certain it would topple.

Instead, it wobbled back upright and sat with its raspy engine running like a panting dog.

“Don’t worry, we don’t drive ’em like that on the road,” chuckled a man with a silver handlebar moustache. In his military-style cap and black uniform adorned with highly polished buttons, he had the stiff-backed bearing of a Second World War veteran.

“Now, if the trainee conductors would like to come with me, and the drivers follow Mr Browne…”

You could park a plane in here!” Natalie marvelled.

After a week of training, the girls were waiting for their first shift in a depot so cavernous that the end of a row of buses was lost in a frigid mist.

“Don’t worry, it’s not always this cold,” grinned Maureen, a 40-year-old redhead. She joked that she’d been a clippy since the buses were horse-drawn.

“I don’t think I’ll ever get these straps right.” Chloe adjusted the leather shoulder harness of the silvery, barrel-shaped ticket machine resting on her hip.

Apart from that, she felt as smart as paint in her uniform of fitted black jacket, white blouse, black tie and above-the-knee skirt. Her jauntily angled cap, reflected in the window of a nearby bus, looked rather chic, she thought.

“Which one of you lovely ladies is Chloe, then?”

She turned at the sound of a Cockney accent and saw a skinny young man with a pencil moustache, casually loosened tie and a driver’s cap pushed back atop a mop of thick black curls. He looked no older than she was.

“Looks like you’ll be going out with me, today.” He looked her up and down with a leer that brought a flush to the back of her neck. “I’m Sam the Man. I always get the new girls.”

“Watch that one,” Maureen warned. “There’s not a girl from here to Wood Green that he hasn’t tried it on with.”

“Except you, eh, Maureen?” Sam retorted with a wink.

“Cheeky so and so.”

Sam swept off his cap and bowed low to Chloe. “Your carriage awaits, m’lady.”

Chloe was glad when winter gave way to spring. Standing on the open platform at the back of her bus could be freezing at times.

As Sam swung into a sunny hospital forecourt, however, it was shaping up to be a beautiful day.

In the queue waiting at the stop was a middle-aged man wearing a maroon dressing gown over blue-and-white striped pyjamas and brown slippers.

“Are you supposed to be coming out, sir?” Chloe murmured discreetly as he stepped aboard.

“Discharged meself, ‘aven’t I?” he grinned, taking a seat.

“Didn’t you bring any clothes with you?” Chloe double-dinged the bell and the bus began to pull away.

“I‘m going home the way they carried me in. I’ve got diabetes, and I forgot me medication again last night. I’m just fine now, though.”

“How far are you going?”

“Parkfield flats. I ‘aven‘t got any change on me, though. I‘ll ‘ave to leave me name and address.”

“The fare’s on me, luv.” Chloe patted his shoulder as she headed down the bus. “You remind me of my dad.”

As she wound out a ticket for another passenger, Chloe remembered a childhood full of life-and-death panics when her dad forgot to take his insulin.

With a twinge of guilt, she knew she’d been running away from the worry when she’d moved to London to share a flat with Natalie. She felt bad about leaving responsibility for her dad to her mum.

But she had to leave home and make a life for herself one day, didn’t she?

Sam declared one lunchtime, “A driver and his clippy are like man and wife.”

“You mean they argue all the time?” Chloe squirted tomato ketchup on her egg and chips.

“I mean they grow close. Look at Cyril and Brenda over there.”

Chloe glanced across the noisy canteen in time to see a driver with salt and pepper hair take a spoon from his tea and pass it to the pretty 50-year-old brunette sitting at his elbow in her clippy uniform.

The conductor’s cheek glowed pinkly as she shared a loving smile with her husband. Chloe couldn’t help being touched by the picture of marital contentment.

“Twenty years on the Number 62 and still as much in love as the day they met.” Sam sighed. “You know, Chloe, sometimes as we’re driving over Waterloo Bridge in the sunset, I look in my mirror, see you on the platform and think, you and me could be like Cyril and Brenda one day.”

Chloe nearly choked on a chip.

“I think you should keep your eyes on the road,” she laughed.

She didn’t mind Sam trying it on all the time. She would have felt left out if he didn’t. There was no way she would ever be one of his conquests, however. He was fun to work with, but she wasn’t attracted to him at all.

“Fancy coming for a drink after work?” Sam persisted.

“Sorry. Me and Natalie are going to the sports pavilion this evening.”

“That’s exactly where I was going to suggest!” Sam snapped his fingers with a big grin. “Maybe I’ll get to dance with you after all.”

Look at Sam.” Natalie giggled as she and Chloe did the twist to the Beatles’ Ticket To Ride. “He never gives up, does he?”

Across the crowded clubhouse, the lanky busman was chatting up a willowy woman in a dress with a pattern of yellow circles on a brown background.

“Sooner her than me!” Chloe laughed.

The 70,000-strong workforce of London’s bus and tube train network was a community in itself, Chloe had found.

There were so many staff sports clubs and leisure centres all over the capital that she bet many of her colleagues never socialised with anyone in a different job.

She and Natalie swam and played tennis most weeks, and there was always a social event going on somewhere.

“Hey, who’s that?” Chloe asked as her eyes fell on a tall, fair-haired man.

“Wow, I don’t know.” Natalie’s eyes widened. “But he’s coming this way!”

Edging between dancing couples in the shadowy light, the man was wearing a sharp grey suit over a pristine white shirt and a narrow maroon tie.

Chloe was glad she was wearing her best crocheted minidress when the newcomer’s face cracked into a pearly grin that made her stomach flip.

“May I have this dance?”

He offered his hand as cologne tickled her nose.

“I’d be delighted,” she squeaked, her whole body heating.

As she followed him, heart thumping, towards an empty patch of dance floor, the music changed to the haunting strains of A Whiter Shade of Pale. As if in a dream, she was swaying in the arms of the most gorgeous man she’d ever met.

“Do you like cricket?” he enquired, when the song was over. “Maybe you could come and watch me play tomorrow.”

“I’d love to.”

“I’m Duke,” he smiled.


“What a beautiful name. Shall we have another dance?”

Who’s this, then?” Maureen, standing on her platform at the back of her bus, looked over the heads of the small knot of drivers and clippies drinking tea before their shift. “New driver?”

Chloe glanced over her shoulder and her heart skipped a beat.

Even in silhouette against the light of the depot’s towering entrance, Duke’s loose athletic walk was unmistakable. As he stepped out of his own shadow in his sharply pressed uniform, she thought she’d melt.

“Morning, Chloe,” he beamed. “I thought it was time I transferred to this depot so we can go out on the same bus.”

“In busman’s lingo,” Maureen nudged Chloe, “I think you just got engaged!”

Chloe worked one of the longest routes in London. It snaked from the bright lights of the West End through suburban high streets and leafy residential areas to almost the countryside.

As the bus turned and halted beside the cemetery gates at its most bosky extremity, Chloe checked her watch: just time to visit the public loo before they were scheduled to set off again.

When she came out, she froze in horror.

The kerbside was empty. Her bus had vanished!

As she frantically stared up the road towards a shrinking dot of red, another bus swung around in a half circle and pulled up to the stop.

“Missed yer bus, luv?” Maureen grinned from the platform.

“He’s gone without me!” Chloe jumped aboard and double-dinged the bell. “Quick, follow that bus!”

Hurrying down the aisle, she slid open the driver’s compartment window and pointed over Sam’s shoulder.

“There he is! Flash your lights to make him stop!”

Duke looked down from his cab, shamefaced, as Chloe ran up, breathlessly.

“Someone rang the bell and I thought it was you,” he apologised.

Chloe glared at the culprits: a gang of giggling school kids, squashing their noses against the window.

“I guess I wasn’t concentrating,” Duke admitted, “because I’ve had this burning a hole in my pocket all morning…”

He offered a small red velvet box through his cab window.

“What’s this?” Chloe asked, her heart pounding.

“Open it and see.”

With trembling fingers, Chloe opened the lid and gasped at the sight of a sparkling diamond ring nestled on a silk cushion.

“It may not be the most romantic place to pop the question,” Duke grinned. “But perhaps it will make up for leaving you behind.”

The temporary bus stop outside the big grey suburban church had a red satin bow tied to it. A crowd of transport workers lined the pavement outside the churchyard’s ancient iron railings.

They cheered as a white double-decker festooned with ribbons pulled up to the kerb amid the falling autumn leaves.

Clutching her bridal bouquet in her lap, Chloe looked out of a downstairs window and felt her eyes prickling with tears at the sight of so many people who had turned out for her happiest day.

She smiled at her mum, who sat across the aisle of the bus, in her enormous flower-covered hat, beside her dad, who was fidgeting with the collar of his hired morning suit.

It warmed her heart to see him looking so well.

Natalie, in her Maid of Honour dress, picked up the train of Chloe’s snowy gown and followed her to the open platform where a photographer was waiting to snap her as she alighted.

“Hang on, don’t forget your ‘something old’,” Maureen called.

Chloe laughed as she strapped her ticket machine over her wedding dress to pose for pictures.

Then she linked her arm through her father’s and headed up a path strewn with golden leaves to the church, where Duke and her new life awaited.

“Morning, Chloe.” A young woman grinned as the bus pulled up at a sunny suburban stop.

“Hello, Janet. And who’s this smart little lady?” Chloe beamed at the honey-haired five-year-old that Janet lifted aboard in school uniform.

“This is my little girl, Karen. It’s her first day at school today.”

“Oh my! I think that deserves a treat.” Chloe pulled a green Cellophane-wrapped lollipop from her satchel and presented it to the smiling, gap-toothed cherub.

She double-dinged the bell and braced her feet while she wound off a fare and a half for her passengers as the bus pulled back into the traffic.

“You’re making me feel old, Janet,” Chloe admitted. “I remember when your mum brought you on the bus at that age.”

It was funny, she reflected, as she watched the familiar mock-Tudor semis and neat privet hedges passing by. When she’d answered that ad all those years ago, she’d thought being on the buses would be something to do for a couple of years until she found a husband and settled down to a family life.

That’s what had happened to Natalie. She’d fallen in love with a shop manager on his morning bus ride to work and was now a housewife living in Bromley.

By contrast, as soon as Chloe’s twins had started school, she’d gone straight back to the depot.

She’d missed working with Duke and she’d missed the camaraderie of the canteen. Most of all, she’d missed her passengers. She knew most of them by name, and the rest she recognised.

People like Karen felt like family.

One evening, as they drove through the West End, Chloe walked up the aisle of her quiet, half-empty bus. She sat behind the driver’s compartment and opened the dividing window, to gaze over her husband’s shoulder at the brightly glowing neon advertisements of Piccadilly Circus.

“Beautiful isn’t it?” she marvelled as Duke steered the bus around the statue of Eros, the winged archer that Chloe always thought of as Cupid.

“Almost as beautiful as you, my love,” Duke shot back.

His chirpiness always made her smile, but tonight it was a wistful smile.

“Be a shame to leave all this behind,” she said softly.

“Driver-only buses, you mean?” Duke guessed.

“They’re on half the routes in London now,” said Chloe. “How long before they introduce them to this route, too?”

“Maybe you should retrain as a driver,” Duke suggested.

“I’m too old for that,” Chloe chuckled.

“You, too old? Never!” Duke said stoutly.

“I wouldn’t fancy working a bus on my own anyway,” Chloe reflected.

“I wouldn’t enjoy it much without you, either,” Duke agreed. “Cheer up, though. I reckon they’ll keep these old Routemasters on the road until they drop. That should see you and me through to retirement.”

“Maybe you’re right,” said Chloe. “The tourists love them, after all.”

“Then we’ll retire to a little bungalow by the sea, while we’re still young enough to enjoy it.”

“Sounds like bliss,” said Chloe.

She knew, though, that the day she hung up her ticket machine would be a tearful one.

With the sun gleaming on bobbed hair now more white than blonde, Chloe stepped onto the platform of the Routemaster with only a little less suppleness than she had in her youth.

She double-dinged the bell and gazed down the packed bus to the open window of the driver’s compartment.

Duke turned his greying head and blew a kiss over his shoulder.

Then he released the brake of the bus they’d bought for a song on the day they had retired from a lifetime of service on London’s streets.

Holding the pole that she’d clutched for four decades, Chloe filled her lungs with briny air and gazed out at the sparkling sea as they set out on the first trip of their new venture… driving tourists around the sunny sights of Bournemouth.

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