Travels with a Bus Pass

As a serial bus passenger, I do find it is often better to travel than to arrive. Bus stations rarely proclaim a sense of arrival. Most are constructed of corroding concrete in a neo-Stalinist architectural style. They occupy backwaters which lost out after planners’ budgets had been blown on railway forecourts and shopping malls. Judging by their cafés and toilets, they also lurk beyond the radar of environmental health officers. When re-branded as Transport Interchanges, their new amenities typically comprise a deserted taxi rank and a sign to the railway station.
If I wish to continue my onward journey, information is minimal. Occasionally I might find a network map, but it is so topologically unrelated to the real world that it offers scant help in selecting a route. Stances display service numbers that are incomprehensible to anyone but the most loyal commuter. Timetables, and even digital display monitors, contend for the Booker fiction prize.
When a plausible looking bus finally arrives, my enquiry to the driver elicits a reply in an accent as unfathomable as a doctor’s handwriting. I scan my bus pass, guiltily aware that I can better afford to pay the fare than most of my fellow travellers.
Ah, but then the adventure begins! The frisson starts with the knowledge that I am possibly on completely the wrong bus and will end up stranded in an anonymous suburb bereft of shops, food and cash machines.
The bus pulls clear of the station and immediately I am forbidden territory, where car drivers are no longer permitted to venture. I sweep through unfamiliar streets with hidden architectural gems. I veer away from the gallerias and tinted-glass office blocks and head through unfashionable, but low-rent, districts where small businesses nurture their green shoots.
The bus picks up speed, largely unconcerned by the possibility that passengers might wish to board or alight. It penetrates inner suburbs where halal butchers vie with discount shops and nail salons. I race straight ahead through traffic lights where other vehicles are forced to turn right; eye level with windows, I peer directly into the goings-on of shops, offices and sitting rooms.
Then once more I emerge onto the open road before turning into a peripheral housing estate. Slowing for speed kerbs and veering round chicanes, the bus describes tortuous semi-circles through interminable avenues of cookie-cutter housing. Then, just at the point of maximum disorientation, when I finally accept that I am definitely on the wrong bus, I emerge unexpectedly onto a main road and accelerate confidently into the countryside.
I finally see my destination named on a reassuring roadsign. My composure restored, I can now enjoy the view from my elevated seat – down side roads, across hedges, into gardens – and survey secrets that lie hid from the motorist’s gaze.

Brian (A short story written to the theme of ‘A Stranger’s Secret’)

If you had met Brian, you wouldn’t have thought him a stranger in a strange land. He had a knack of fitting effortlessly into his host culture. He was the easiest of guys to get on with. Relaxed, friendly, helpful – what the French call sympa.
He was a great colleague to have. He arrived in the office of Demitech one hot, sunny morning in May 2005 along with a handful of other new recruits. He was an optimistic guy, arriving just as the company was going through a purple patch, and he instantly settled in. No fanfares, no bravura, unassumingly self-confident, always willing to look for work rather than waiting to be asked.
The men liked him. He was knowledgeable about the art and science of football without being partisan, techie without being nerdy, and fit without being fanatical. Nor did he take advantage of his attractiveness to the opposite sex, and was always chivalrous in defence of women’s talents without being patronising.
For his part, Brian couldn’t understand why social skills were such a big deal. He puzzled as to why some people found them so difficult or why trainers placed so much emphasis on them. They seemed easy enough to master if you indulged in a little people-watching or read the right novels.
He had arrived from Eastham plc with glowing references. Eastham had got into a mess and had had to lay off several dozen staff – on a last in first out basis, to keep the unions happy. Brian’s testimonial was fulsome in his ability as a versatile problem-solver, always willing to go beyond the requirements of the job. Under a different industrial relations policy, he was the last employee that they would have shed. Eastham’s loss was Demitech’s gain, and Brian’s line manager soon learned to turn to him if there were tricky logistical or contractual issues to solve, or if IT systems were snagging.
More than one of Brian’s female colleagues had tried to seduce him, but he deftly and empathetically resisted feminine wiles. He had occasionally referred to a certain Wendy, but at first it wasn’t clear whether she was a relative, flatmate or partner. He had been spotted in town with her and had once introduced her to a colleague in the street, though it was only by name and without any reference to a relationship. Word had gradually filtered round that Wendy was actually a girlfriend, possibly even wife, hence Brian’s immunity to flirtation.
Wendy, for her part, worked for a public relations company. She had joined following Brian’s move to Demitech and had similarly established herself as an invaluable member of staff. Her natural aptitude for the job and the seemingly effortless way in which she excelled across the board initially caused a degree of resentment, but this was quickly dispelled by her sunny and outgoing disposition. She wasn’t averse to exploiting weaknesses in men’s defences but, equally, wasn’t flagrantly manipulative. Women trusted her; they admired her facility with men, yet without feeling competitive or envious.
Brian and Wendy were not averse to asking favours of colleagues. But they always made it clear that a favour would be returned when most needed, and their social capital was generally considered to be in good credit.
For example, one day when Demitech were working flat out to deliver on a major contract, the IT systems – sensing their masters’ urgency – slowed to a crawl. Where the IT boffins had spent several fruitless hours, Brian tracked down a flaw in a subprogram and had returned the servers to full speed. The contract was delivered in the nick of time.
On another occasion, Brian spotted a misinterpretation of a clause in a client’s brief that was unwittingly resulting in hours of irrelevant work and would doubtless have led to disputes and delayed payments. The project leader was unable to explain how he had mis-read the original.
Down the road, Wendy’s computer had somehow been infected by an email worm that was sending out random messages via her address book, potentially compromising company confidentiality. She couldn’t explain it – she hadn’t visited any unusual websites and her antivirus software was up-to-date. Her antennae recommended that she played the helpless female card. She pleaded with IT manager Josh to sort the problem, even though he was at the end of his tether with an inexplicable line fault. Succumbing to her charms, and against his better judgement, Josh spent most of the afternoon tracing and removing the offending malware. Wendy showered him with compliments and promised a timely return of the favour.
Unfortunately, any company that loses time – especially to the gremlins and trolls of IT systems, let alone the capricious gods of contract management – will suffer in the merciless world of high pressure business. It was not long before Brian and Wendy found themselves, despite their charisma and competence, at risk of lay-off. Precious hours had been lost in small but incremental ways. Whilst no deadlines had actually been missed, incoming tenders had been neglected and new contracts had not been won. Staff were tired from the relentless demands of unpaid overtime. Bosses at both companies had warned of impending cutbacks.
Once in a while – just enough to maintain their social networks but not so frequently as to raise suspicions – Brian and Wendy would resort to Hartley’s Bar. It was after they had both been summoned to an urgent staff meeting to report on company difficulties that they decided a relaxing post-work drink was in order. Sipping cocktails, they were soon joined by other strangers.
Carrie and Frank – to give them their adoptive names – came across and winked at them, knowingly. You wouldn’t have been so instantly enamoured with Carrie and Frank as you were with Wendy and Brian. Despite abundant talent, they hadn’t made any real attempt to master the social mores of Homo sapiens, and both could appear aloof and supercilious. Of course, they were annoyingly smart, and they paid the kind of meticulous detail to their outward appearance that you would expect from a species with such highly evolved powers of mimicry.
There were other strangers that frequented Hartley’s. It was a trendy and cosmopolitan little enclave where they could mingle inconspicuously and it lay close to the financial hub of London. This little time-obsessed corner of the planet suited their mischief well, and strangers regularly gravitated towards it.
“How’s tricks?”, asked Frank as he sank into a chair, betraying a subtle mastery of local linguistic nuance, conscious of his double meaning.
“Terrific”, replied Brian, “Demitech is a fun place to be. A few smarties but mostly dupes. Amazingly clunky IT systems and software. The machine codes are child’s play. I can be in and out in nanoseconds. How is it for you?”
“Brilliant,” boasted Frank as he sipped a well chilled Muscadet. “Had the whole company running round like headless chickens after a product recall”.
Whilst Brian specialised in tinkering with IT systems and email attachments, Frank was more of a hardware person. He could subtly slip in a defect, and then wait for the ensuing mayhem a few weeks down the line. Mostly he just messed with small things like toys and kitchen appliances, though once he’d managed to ground an entire aircraft fleet.
All four continued to share notes on their respective activities. Their companies hadn’t actually defaulted on any critical contract deadlines, but order books were starting to look pretty bleak. “What fun!”, they all agreed, as they arranged to re-convene in a week’s time.
The urgent meeting held by the management of Demitech proved not to have been a false alarm. Staff had been warned that, due to unforeseen delays and lost business, the company was facing cash flow problems and there would need to be layoffs. Inevitably, they would be on a last in first out basis.
When they next met at Hartley’s, Brian was flourishing a redundancy notice but, of course, had been promised stellar references.
Carrie was in garrulous mood, full of tales about how it had taken her firm’s IT officers best part of a week to clean a Trojan horse which had inexplicably found its way past the very latest release of antivirus software. But it was clear that Brian was fidgety, his hyperactive and exceedingly powerful brain concentrating on something else altogether.
When Carrie eventually paused for breath, he said, “Hey, guys. You know, we’ve come to this place to have a bit of a lark, but we’re being pretty small scale. A provincial factory here, a solicitor’s office there. It’s entertaining seeing these primitives getting stressed out, and it sure beats having to do a real job back home. But it’s getting a bit predictable.”
“So what do you have in mind”, inquired Frank, sounding impressed at the evident entrepreneurship of his seemingly languid companion.
“Well, we’ve been making these folk lose the odd hour here and there, sometimes a day, occasionally a week. But what if we were to think really big? What if we were to set the whole country, the whole continent, the whole world back a year? Even a decade?”
The strangers’ eyes almost came out on organo-silicate stalks, and they struggled to maintain their façade. “Pray tell”, said Frank.
“Look”, continued Brian. “These western countries aren’t actually producing much. They’re running on what they call ‘services’. Mostly finance. Even the finance sector’s run out of really solid products. They’re turning to things that don’t actually square with reality. Things that only exist as long as people believe in them – options, futures, derivatives, even Ponzi schemes. Like the Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Frank had heard the fable of the emperor’s clothes, but he still couldn’t get the drift of Brian’s argument. “Okay”, he said “but these financial services are still functioning pretty well. Are you suggesting we muck up the global information network? It sounds like hard work. Earth’s got plenty of its own tricksters working on that at present, without much success.”
“No, look,” said Brian. “These finance schemes seem simple enough to us, but they’re too complicated for the human brain. The guys who can understand the math don’t understand the markets. And the guys who run the markets can’t do the math. It’s difficult stuff for humans. People have got the Nobel Prize in Economics for it.”
The others were still puzzled. Brian was usually the laid-back one, the one who enjoyed tinkering at the small-scale, just for the fun of getting humans get stressed. It was other strangers, Frank and Carrie in particular, who were more seriously megalomaniac and malicious. “Okay, so we mess up the IT and HR systems of an investment company”, said Frank. “Big deal. And hard work.”
“No, don’t you see”, continued Brian, excitedly. “If we can rumble these markets, we can undermine faith in the whole monetary system. The human economy is based on confidence. Puncture the balloon and all the growth of the past decade will vanish. They’ll lose time by shedloads. It’ll take them another ten years of frantic tail-chasing even to get back to where they are now, if they ever do.”
A massive smile started to suffuse across Frank’s face. Wendy and Carrie stared in open-eyed admiration. “A whole decade? The whole world?”, gasped Carrie. “When do we start?”
That evening, Brian began to write his most ambitious job application yet. He understood that leading employers preferred a handwritten letter to the impersonal output of a laser printer, and so quickly learned to mimic favoured graphological styles. His application would be supported by spectacular references and a perfectly faked Master’s in Mathematical Economics from a leading university. He was in skittish mood as he began his application letter. The opening statements were:
            Name:                                  Brain
Home Address:                    The planet you call Kepler-62f
Occupation:                        Time Thief
He showed it to Wendy. She smirked, but reminded him that Americans didn’t share the same sense of humour as Brits. A Brit would probably treat it as a double bluff and find it witty and enterprising. Yanks would probably take it literally.
So he crumpled it up, threw it in the bin, and began a more conventional letter of application:
                “Dear Mr Madoff…”