Josna Rege

67. Fiasco on the 715

In 1960s, Britain, Stories on August 9, 2010 at 11:03 pm

I was fifteen and longing to be given some responsibility. My mother, sister, and I were living in Hoddesdon with my uncle Ted and our two cousins, waiting for our US immigration visas to come through. It had been nearly a year, and still no word. I chafed at being treated “just like one of the kids,” even though I was the eldest of the four girls.

It was the Summer of 1969, and for some time I had been grumbling that I ought to be allowed to go into London by myself. It is easy to go stir-crazy out in the suburbs, so near to all the excitement of London, and yet so far. The Rolling Stones had just performed a free concert in Hyde Park, but what did I know of such things? I might as well have been living on another planet. I was becoming increasingly sulky, and had taken to tuning out the static at home, so that Uncle Ted actually sent me for a hearing test to try to determine whether my behavior stemmed from chronic deafness or just plain insolence. Things got even worse when I was duly tested and deemed to have excellent hearing.

photo by John Parkin

At last my mother and uncle conferred with each other and decided that I should be allowed to make a day trip into London, with a few conditions. I was to travel with my 13-year-old cousin Jacky,  and we were not to go to the West End, but to take the Green Line coach to the shopping center near my Auntie Bette’s on Seven Sisters Road and Holloway Road, where I could buy a swimsuit at the big department store on the corner. I was to be entrusted with a fixed sum of money to cover the fare and the swimsuit and, depending on how much I saved on the suit, Jacky and I might even have a little left over for a treat before we caught the bus back.

I didn’t argue. This was a test as well as a privilege, and I knew it. I clutched the purse containing the carefully counted half-crowns and florins, two ten-shilling notes, and a one-pound note, and shifted impatiently from foot to foot while Mum went over the instructions for the umpteenth time. (Was I listening? I certainly thought I was.) “Ask the driver to put you down at Seven Sisters Road. You know that there are a few shops clustered together there, so if you don’t find anything in Jones Brothers you can look in those.”

The wait for that bus was usually interminable. The 715, the only Green Line Coach that went through Hoddesdon, came every 45 minutes to an hour at the best of times, and that was on weekdays. On the weekends one could stand for hours in the steady, soaking rain—and we had, often. Unlike the (then-)efficient red buses of London, it seemed that the Green suburban lines were always operating with a vehicle shortage, or with such ridiculously long delays that two would come at once, an hour and a half late. If you missed those, you were doomed. I have seen my mother—a Londoner through and through—her best outfit getting more and more bedraggled by the minute, nearly in tears with frustration at wasting half of a precious day off and the prospect of the same ordeal on the way home.

On this particular day the wait was reasonable, and Jacky and I danced onto the bus in high spirits, giddy with freedom, paid the correct  fare, accepted our tickets to ride, and sat on the long bench seats close to the entrance, so as not to risk missing our stop.

For to tell the truth, I was terrified of missing our stop. In the past, when I had taken the bus into London with my mother and sister, I had never paid any attention to where we were going. I simply didn’t notice much in the outside world, preoccupied most of the time with the dreams inside my own head, and practical matters limited to whether  I would be able to make my half-eaten roll of of Rowntree’s fruit pastilles last until we got to Auntie Bette’s (when more sweets would certainly be forthcoming). On this day, though, I sat on the edge of my seat, straining to see all the street signs, and asking the driver every few minutes whether we were getting anywhere near Seven Sisters Road. Finally, the call came: “Seven Sisters Road, girls!” I scrambled to my feet and down the steps, clutching Jacky’s hand, and as the bus pulled away we looked around to get our bearings.

Nothing looked even remotely familiar. Instead of the bustling shopping intersection, there were only featureless houses: no shops, not even a newsagent’s or a pub. I felt a rising panic, then a horrible sinking feeling. Here we were, just beginning our adventure and I was already lost. Jacky was unflustered and seemed to have complete confidence in me. “Why don’t we just walk further down this road,” she suggested sensibly. “It’s bound to lead somewhere; perhaps we got off the bus a little early.”

We walked and walked, but still no sign of the Seven Sisters Road we knew. Finally it hit me: “We should have asked to be put down at Seven Sisters and Holloway Road in Islington. We’re on Seven Sisters Road all right, but at the very beginning of it. (In fact, as we learned later, Seven Sisters Road is fully seven miles long.) All we have to do is to take another bus in the same direction and ask for Holloway Road.”

This sounded like an excellent plan; that is, until I went to count our remaining change and couldn’t find the purse.  Where was it?

“Jacky, I must have left it on the bus,” I whispered, too ashamed for words.

I was defeated. We couldn’t pay for a bus home, and we didn’t even have a coin for a phone box, even supposing that we could have found one. After traipsing along miserably for a while, we came upon a sleepy neighborhood police station. Our desperation trumping our embarrassment, we explained our situation to a kindly officer behind a desk, who consulted with a colleague on an intercom and, with a “Follow me,” led us back down the steps to the curb, where a sleek police vehicle was just pulling up. The officers drove us to the nearest Northbound 715 bus stop, waited with us until the bus arrived, and saw us safely onto it, explaining our predicament to the driver. It was the first and only time in my life that I have ridden in a Black Maria.

Forty minutes later we were shuffling sheepishly up to our front door in the gathering dusk, with nothing at all to show for our big day in London. Our respective parents took it extremely well, and were hardly angry at all. Perhaps they were relieved that we were home safely, or perhaps they realized that we had suffered enough; but Uncle Ted inadvertently heaped shame upon humiliation when he came into the house all covered with muck, accompanied by two strangers, a mate of his and the mate’s teenage son. Apparently they had been in the back garden all day clearing the sewage pipes; they had become blocked, and Uncle Ted, looking at me meaningfully, made it clear that he had no doubt who was responsible. The men exchanged knowing glances and the teenage boy smirked too, clearly thinking himself one of them. I wanted to sink through the floor, but raced up the stairs to bed, Jacky following me loyally.

Uncle Ted must have felt a little sorry for me, because a couple of hours later he knocked at our bedroom door with some good news. The driver-conductor of the 715 had rung him from the terminus at the end of the day, to say that he had found a purse on the bus with two pounds in notes and a lot of change in it; was it ours, by any chance? How had he known who we were and whom to ring? Uncle Ted had driven all the way to the terminus in Hertford in his trusty Mini and retrieved the purse from the honest driver. “So you see, no harm done, girls,” he said heartily. “All’s well that ends well.”

That shows how much he knew.

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  1. Love the detail about the hearing test. And how astonishing that the purse was returned in the end.

    • Yes, isn’t it? I can’t remember now how the driver knew whom to call, unless we had our name/address somewhere in/on the purse or he knew my uncle.
      And I can’t understand how this little story grew so interminably long in the telling. I need to cut it in half. x J

  2. I just love these stories so much Jo….can’t wait for the next one.

  3. Your story-telling powers just seem to get better all the time! I was on the edge of my seat with this one, feeling your embarrassment and panic!
    Great story! I wonder what your Uncle Ted thinks of this one? Does he remember the incident?

    I am your fan for life!

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