Do Not Stand Forward Of This Notice

Originally published in Upsideclone
Friday the 9th of November 2001

There's a bus shelter with a sofa and curtains, somewhere in Scotland, sealed at the edges and fully carpeted. There's a door that closes to keep the weather out, a low wicker table with tea and biscuits. A kettle flex trailed from a nearby house, or a communally-replenished flask of boiling water, I'm not sure. Maybe it's just fruit juice, or mineral water. There's probably a doily or two. A newspaper, a magazine. The detail isn't really the point.

The point is that this isn't that bus-shelter. This is a bus-shelter somewhere far to the south, carpeted with broken-glass gravel, its windows shattered to let the weather in. Empty lager cans rattle back and forth in a nervous aluminium herd, and a single bottle of raspberry-flavoured vodka-pop has been dashed thoughtlessly against the concrete, a single instant of indifference breaking the glassblower's art into perilous shards of uselessness. It would glitter if the streetlight above had not been smashed.

One window is intact, uncracked - perhaps the shelter was refitted recently, perhaps the refitters or the vandals were disturbed before they could finish their job. Graffiti has been written; one word, one name, again and again. It's in the bulky, jagged style of graffiti everywhere - the sort that the eye of the twenty-first century has learned to filter out as background; the sort of thing a city wall is supposed to be covered with, popping up and spreading out with the quiet, nocturnal invisibility of rust or lichen. I cannot read it. It has been written twenty times, as if the punishment of some backstreet headmaster ("Now write that out a hundred times, Fizlord!"), and I still cannot read it.

One wall of the shelter advertises at me; the enormous blonde face of a woman I don't recognise, wouldn't recognise even if the marker-penned glasses and Groucho moustache were removed. Street graffiti versus billable corporate graffiti, each of them as ugly and invasive as the other. They stare each other down through toughened plastic, growing only in the darkness, lichen versus rust, each of them brimming with false righteousness.

The bus timetable has been trialled by fire, found useless by someone who doesn't catch buses, or who doesn't intend to catch another from this particular stop. A gaping, melted hole in the clear plastic covering is edged with crumpled waves of brown and black; the paper beneath has been shredded away, replaced with a dayglo flyer which I am too old to understand. Assemble a large enough community, and watch the emergence of the blindly, destructively selfish; enough of them to systematically burn that community's bus-stops to the ground. A natural, uncomprehending reaction to the size of the environment, a stand against insignificance, against a world too big to belong to anyone, full of so many people that one or two small-scale ruinations mean nothing. A couple of minor hijacks of cause-and-effect will never filter back to their perpetrator.

This particular cause-and-effect sidesteps me on its route towards someone else's life, for I carry the edge of private knowledge, and know exactly when the buses come, when the buses go, when the next twenty-one is to arrive. It is only its lateness that gives me time to wait at the shelter, only the rain that steers me inside, only the lack of other shelterers that keeps me here.

Traffic lights wink blindly to one another across an empty intersection. Then a flare of headlights from a side-street, and the night's last bus emerges, alone, a distant box of UV-tinged light. The rain blurs its windows, but I can already see the usual cargo of passengers. The screaming children and their screaming mothers, the earnestly exaggerating teenagers, the grey-faced commuters. The pensioners going nowhere, the young and the beautiful going everywhere. The beep of a superfluous text message, the click and hiss of a Walkman tape we're supposed to be in awe of, the rustle of today's soap-opera headlines.

I see the bored driver locked in behind his wheel, the human embodiment of responsibility for his vehicle, held to blame for its lateness and its consequences. Puncher of tickets, guardian of the concertina doors. Riding his last shift of the night, he accelerates the number twenty-one down the empty road towards its terminus, cascades of filthy rainwater spraying wide to either side, headlights fuzzing in the mist.

I step out.