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Thursday, June 16, 2005

A Fully Qualified Pedestrian: FTMT Short Story No 12




A fully qualified pedestrian.

It’s my first job as a journalist after a few false starts and my itchy-scratchy student days are over, my moment has arrived, and my laptop is eager and hungry for material. I feel alive with a puzzled anxiety and overblown confidence and I feel dead with pressure and anticipation. A Scottish rain is falling, parody rain, grey wet special rain that I am determined to ignore. I am stubborn and I go out in it, I want to remain clear and purposeful. I want to hear the voice of the people, the great, the good, the dim, the downtrodden, the lazy and undeserving, these random faces, suits and shell suits with their jeans and geriatric behaviour. Artificial values that whilst I may hold in contempt are my palette to use to paint the story of their views on travel and transport, my sweat and toil will produce column inches of their quotes to amplify that broken, dull and whining voice of the common man. I am exploring my new accommodation.

My copy editor is Mr C**t in every respect. He sees me only as some cheap and disposable resource. A flat-pack tank top of a man in the 70s, a balding, drunken skin shedding snake in the 80s, and ginger-spiced up lizard in the 90s. He sits on an imaginary bilge plumbed throne at the shaky top of his chosen profession in this redtop jungle of journalistic mayhem. His office is a departure lounge only for his missiles of profanity, blasphemy, costly lies, greed and his force-fed stuck-on ego extensions. He spits at the walls and passers by with his tirades and tortures his staff with his gaudy tied presence, he whinges in his daily column and attacks everything in the innocent celebrity of transient media stars shining down from a vacuous universal sky set. Somehow I think I may like it here.

I walk towards the coffee machine abandoning my desk. It is no desk at all; it is the remains of the unlit funeral pyre of my predecessor. Strewn with his papers and debris, pens and used tissues, Griegs bags, rival newspapers, crumbs, tapes and the remains of a banana. I presume he was a he, or a very messy and clearly upset she. Nobody mentions what happened so I remain at a safe distance holding a cup of some steaming brown liquid that is a distant relative of the coffee that is served elsewhere but at ten times the price and, I imagine containing real milk and coffee. This liquid contains the equivalent of a hologram of a cup of coffee, but supping it, staring across the office and supporting the wall with my sweaty back is better than sitting at the desk from “just inside the front door of hell on the way to the reception.”

It’s the next day; I leave the office to meet the people.

“Interviews. I’m having to interview members of the public about issues they may have over public or personal transport nowadays. Jams, buses, congestion charges, fuel prices, trains, queues, ticket prices. It’s the first time I’ve had to do this kind of thing cold but my editor… well he thinks I’m not really capable, he thinks I’ll make it all up or something or but I just want to get some views down and take it from there. The public are unpredictable, I think. They will tend to misunderstand the question, particularly old or young people as neither ever listens to what you say anyway and I’ll write (I could record…) what they say anyway. My editor is a complete gobshite anyway and I don’t know why I’m doing any of this but I am capable. I’ll try a mall and then maybe a superstore or a pub. Pubs are good. I may start in a pub, might be some girls or the barmaid or somebody. Starbucks or Costa? Well then I could focus on taxi or bus drivers or the other thing would be to just stand there and talk to a random selection of pedestrians.”

“I don’t know where I’m going, speed bumps, chicanes, priority systems, cones and lines, twenty is plenty, they start us up and then they slow us down.”

“I can’t get over that road, nothing but heavy lorries and coaches lumbering past all day long, I can’t imagine where on earth they are going.”

“It’s those bastards in their white vans, they sit on your bumper at 85, drive right up your arse.”

“A radio show about traffic would be great, guests, interviews, phone ins, musical breaks, live and electric. All the hot topics and the chance to play Devil’s advocate and put people on the spot.”

“Well the traffic seems to have gotten a lot worse since they built that ferry dock, I think that there must be many more trucks coming over from the continent now.”

“Bloody cyclists, what are they on? And those stupid helmets. They don’t pay tax or anything and they hog the road or creep up on you queues, bikers are as bad.”

“I’ve always paid my road tax and my community charge but look at the pot-holes, where is my money being spent? I don’t see things getting any better.”

“I would use public transport but then I’d have to walk to the bus stop in the rain and I don’t like the neds that hang around there either.”

“The big stereo, Alpine, noise, fill the car with noise, everybody knows your coming, best chance a pedestrian’s got, hear you long before they see you. Little kids love that noise.”

“Have you seen the kind of people that use buses? They don’t look quite right, they all look funny, and it’s as if they’re all going to some special day centre somewhere.”

“I’ve paid for that bridge a hundred times over with my toll money.”

“Really I detest the public, moaning whinging, changing nothing, going on about their petty little woes, their needs, their greed, their perpetual, insatiable appetites. These are the people I must interview, entertain, God knows inform, they read my words but cannot hear my voice. They can’t see past shops and their ridiculous hunger. I struggle, I struggle to stay a socialist and hold some shred of belief in this. I don’t know what I want anymore or who I should respect, follow or guide myself.”

“What we need are proper cut ins at all the bus stops, that stops queues forming, then bring back the old style conductors and let the drivers drive.”

“Bus lanes? What are they about? Bus lanes? I’ll give you bus lanes!”

“Well you can book your train on-line but the time tables never seem to quite agree, I get confused and you know it’s never as quick and simple to book on line as they make out.”

“Well I think that the judges should hang those drunk drivers and football hooligans in the Burberry caps and handbags.”

“Those pot holes have done in my alloys!”

“Every time you think you’ve hit a clear bit of road up pops another pelican crossing, they’d rather stop two lanes of traffic and back it up for a hundred yards than have somebody wait five minutes, I mean my time is precious and it’s waste of fuel.”

“Just when you get round a roundabout they plonk down a pedestrian crossing, right after it.”

“It’s not about traffic man, or economics, it’s the healing power of the blood of Jesus that you need in your miserable life, and not just you.”

“People still spit in buses you know, you catch cold and germs on buses, and who knows what’s on the seats. Muck. At least I know who has been sitting on my car seats.”

“See that double yellow line? That’s pish, twenty years ago you could drive around this city no problem, until the started painting those things on every street, and bus lanes, tell me son, what are they for? Buses?”

“I think that it is so sad that Concorde isn’t flying, so very sad.”

“Dunno, I came on the bus with my pals.”

“I don’t like using the drive throughs and I know you always get your food quicker but I don’t like talking into that thing at KFC.”

“That Terminal 1 in Birmingham is a complete shithole.”

“People can’t sleep at night, they’re still thinking about their gas central heating boilers popping off and on, pilot lights blowing out or bursting into a magnificent blue flame with a yellow cardinal’s centre, heating the water. Newspaper stories about explosions, terrible gas leaks undiscovered and filling and sneaking in under your house, in some dirty void a careless builder left and you know nothing of. Of all the corners to cut, the risk to take that seamed so small and remote at the time, to the fully qualified tradesman who bungled yours and only your installation. Fumes and leaks, gas or carbon monoxide, both can kill, suffocate, explode, burn – all while you sleep or even while you spread your tired body across a sweaty bed, repel your partner, hear the rain batter the window. All the time that volatile gas, held captive in the pipe waiting on the vital spark that consumes it and possibly you and your dreaming family.”

“I’ve never seen anybody give an old lady or a pregnant lady a seat on the bus.”

“I’d bloody tax those cyclists, look at him, and it’s not as if there are no cycle paths but they always go on the pavement and they don’t stop at red lights. They want the best of both worlds and they’ve all got chips on their shoulders about cars and spaces on trains and the railway lines are closed and that’s where they cycle, but they don’t.”

“Have you seen the chewing gum on the pavement at the bus stop over there?”

“They know how to park cars in Disneyland.”

“I think you should always reverse into a parking space, that way you drive out, much safer. My firm has taught that since I was in the Aberdeen office, it’s a basic risk assessment.”

“I still get annoyed with people phoning on the bus, on the train – I’m on the train, I’m getting off the train, you can imagine their partner at the other end thinking, jump under the bloody train you arse, let me get on with my life and claim the insurance money.”

“You get to Tesco and there’s nothing but stupid neds in Renault Clios all parked the disabled spots while their girl friends get the fags and Bud.”

“Horses are the natural form of transport for man, if we went back horse transport, imagine, no cars. Horses are what God intended for us to use, and camels, beasts of burden, look at the Amish or the Arabs, they all know about horses.”

“See in Malta, cars don’t rust, you go there, see for yourself, cars don’t rust in Malta.”

“Well when you see a blonde in sunglasses at the wheel of a big, clean and shiny four wheel drive, what does that tell you?”

“I don’t object to paying to park but these disabled spaces and badges just get abused.”

“It is a visit to Hell. The shops, the coffee places with exotically named tasteless food and ridiculous sandwich combinations and the vacancies, the vacant stares, the sportswear and the anoraks, the buggies big as SUVs, so big they no longer fit in ordinary cars. Girls with boots, socks, tights and a master plan of no significance other than to simply spend time and plastic money. Shoes that are big, boots that are wide. Jeans, skirty things on top. Layer upon layer of shop soiled skin soiled clothes, all from head to toe except for that one-inch gap between her top and her trousers and ¼ inch of panty elastic peeking up from their bums. What careful planning and purchasing resulted in such precise and tasteless geometric perfection. Mirrored blankly and darkly in a hundred shop glass fronts that proclaim the empty Gospel of where we are today. As believable and credible as a prime-minister’s grin, a home-secretaries yawn or a news-reader’s rehearsed and hollow horror at today’s graphic headlines.”

“It makes my blood boil when I see a car with disabled badge on the windscreen and the driver’s sitting smoking and his wife’s beside him and three of her pals are in the back and they’re going through a pedestrianised area.”

“I don’t like to see obese people in little cars.”

“They just cross the road without even lookin’, expect you to stop.”

“These kids that do wheelies on their bikes in traffic, dodging in and out, ridiculous. Where are their parents?”

“Trains are never on time, but I haven’t used the railway for years.”

“I don’t like it when a fat person sits down next to me.”

“I don’t like it when somebody is reading a newspaper next to me.”

“Nobody ever talks.”

“Why do dogs stick their stupid heads out of car windows, that’s asking for trouble. Is the dog wearing a seatbelt? The driver should be fined, especially if the dog’s a boxer.”

“People should not shag in cars, it is not the proper place for that kind of thing and it’s done a lot of damage and caused a lot of heartache around the Crammond area.”

“I never have the right change for the bus, I have to buy a pack of mints or something to split a tenner.”

“Well in the supermarket car parks it’s always tight, never have enough room and people just dump their trolleys in spaces, just abandon them.”

“Sometimes just walking down the street or crossing the road this eerie feeling comes over me, my feet seem to be floating over the pavement, or the pavement is suddenly spongy and I’m sinking in a little with each step, as if on quicksand that is about to give and at that moment I think of my family and the people I love and I realise that none of them know what it is I’m going through and my life feels as small and fragile and insignificant as an egg. I try not to think like that too much, I try to keep things even but sometimes asking for something or buying something in a shop takes such an effort. The scream inside me never quietens. These are powerful emotions but to understand them is very liberating”

“Subarus and Mitsubishi Evos, you see those boys all in MacDonald’s for breakfast, on their way to some track thing, always silly number plates and dumb girlfriends with goofy handbags and cowboy boots.”

“For sale signs in car windows, I ask you, you see them drivin’, is that any way to buy a car?”

“Old people cannot cross the road, they get confused, they can’t judge your speed, they should build tunnels or bridges, stop them stopping all the traffic.”

“I don’t drive but my boyfriend says that he’s getting a Saxo when he gets a job.”

“It’s always been busy here but the shops are out of town now so that helps but it’s always been busy, I don’t know where they all come from, school holidays?”

“When I’m old a crippled I will look at my fellow man and women, old a crippled also, dim of sight and hard of hearing. I will reflect on the virility I felt in my Lexus at 95 miles per hour, at the air-con and electronic seats. I will think of passing people standing at bus stops, cyclists and Big Issue sellers, beggars with their dogs holding caps of coins in their mouths. I will think of factories closing, skills moving away or being lost and slot machines flashing and grinning in corners in plastic fake pubs where food is served all day and TVs blare. I will think of young men with thick wallets and pockets full of money and not knowing how they came by it.”

“In the old days you could play football in the street, under the street lamps, that was when we had a team, still won nothing mind you. Great players from the old mining villages not like today’s softies.”

“Personalised plates? More like check out my crap birthday present I can’t ditch or my personal dyslexia nightmare, they never look right, in fact they often say dumber things, I mean M14GER or D4DYM or X6DIC or B16BOB and Bob’s a wee baldy guy or something. It’s like one bad miss of an expensive joke.”

“The Spanish language and the driving standards there all reflect a higher culture my boy.”

“My tyres are perfect until I go into the bay and they always tell you that you need three and I’ve never been stopped but you should see the kind of tyres they drive on in Kenya where there are no MOTs or anything like that just loads of Peugeot 504s and pick up trucks but there are a lot of accidents that you never hear of ‘cos life’s cheap out there.”

“Speed cameras never flash on me, never, all you do is follow somebody doing eighty.”

“I went with Easy Jet one time and this girl next to me bought a Minestrone soup and salt and vinegar crisps from the stewardess and it was half past six in the morning.”

“I keep secrets from myself. I pretend I enjoy air travel. I pretend I like coffee or wines or toffee or bananas but I don’t. I’m not sure what I think about views and landscapes either. I so want to appreciate things but even creation seems banal at times, almost reducing itself to some amateur oil painting of artificial splendour designed to impress a tourist or buyer to a group of consumers, it curries favour and seduces. The moment the visit is over and you get back on the bus or land on the runway or turn away the experience just ripples and fades.”

“I get myself to the edge of the zebra crossing but they just ignore you.”

“If an old woman with a bag of potatoes comes on this bus I’d help her I would, but not these stupid girls with their prams and shopping, they don’t deserve nothing on my bus.”

“If you trip on a slab, on its edge, how can you prove that? I’ve written hundreds of letters.”

“Well it’s the manufacturers and the Jeremy Clarksons, I mean what do you need a four litre engine and 150 mile an hour performance for in this traffic in this country?”

“It cost me £9.50 a day to park here and I have to get back for the childminder and I’ve to pick up some tea so what good is bus to me? What if it rains?”

“It’s those BMW drivers, I’d never let them out, never, they’re scum.”

“I detest public toilets, cafes, street corners and shopping malls, I scream inside as they approach me, I scream inside as they pass me by. I try to avoid their grubby contact but they always draw me back and in as if to digest me with their acids. Everywhere there is contaminated Public space with its germs, dirty noise and language, distractions, bacteria on handles and cup edges, smudged glass rims and finger printed banisters. I’d rather endure open heart surgery in a Parisian sewer carried out by a team of acne faced teenagers trained by McDonalds than walk into those places.”

“At Christmas you can hardly walk down this street, but at midnight it’s full of screaming drunk girls with no clothes on, I wouldn’t go out then.”

“The Monkees had a fabulous red car, now that was transport.”

“Well I press the button for the green man but what’s the point of waiting if the road is clear or you can make it, that’s for old people or mums with buggies and I like it when the cars have to wait and I’m already across.”

“I’d be scared to beep the horn ‘cos everybody would look at me so I’d just ignore a situation when it happens and get away as quickly as I could.”

“They stand at the crossing and you don’t know if they’re going to cross or not and then they make faces.”

“I came here from the East to avoid people like you, you bastard scum of a liar. I read your paper but I do not read it, I see your voices, oh yes and those cars are on the road to purgatory.”

“Rover cars never did belong to that demographic stereotype the media described, I mean that was ridiculous, people buy cars for all sorts of reasons and seldom perceive themselves in the terms expressed by bored and jaded journalists who like to model the world to fit their pet theories.”

“I used to get taxis when I was younger but I don’t like it when you get a talkative cabbie, or a slow one, or one who’s English is not so good, not that I’m racist but I feel uncomfortable, I mean what if he misunderstood me and mixed up the destination and I’m a woman on her own, with shopping. I don’t like bald men who wear flat caps either.”

“When I first passed my test driving was a pleasure, we’d go out on a Sunday and enjoy the car, the experience, the freedom. Runs up to Loch Earn or Glencoe, the Devil’s Elbow or St Andrews. Now the roads are more like battlefields, people cutting you up, the pace, the hurry, bad tempers, of course the cars now are a lot more reliable and safer but they have to be with all the other traffic.”

“Education in this country is non-existent, it has become a battlefield and a sham and the health service are having to pick up the pieces of a broken society full of stressed and confused young people who have no idea where they are going or even where they’ve been”.

“People talk about the Flying Scotsman, It was a bloody old train, a steam train, a dirty train full of sailors, squaddies and drunks pissin’ everywhere, there was nothing fantastic about it, primitive, rough travel was all it was. Days of steam?”

“Speed cameras are a joke.”

“When you are walking in an underpass it’s a bit like your in a thriller film, your footsteps are loud and echoy and your shadow is long, you’re a bit on edge and then you get up the stairs or ramp and you’re on the other side but in the wrong place because you took the wrong fork.”

“I don’t think for a moment it’s all doom and gloom. The earth will refresh itself in due course, I mean, what are we really, our sense of ourselves is skewed. Man has no idea where he is going and never has. Exploration, exploitation, these things come around. We talk about pollution and toxins. That’s all there the earth is, full of them, the universe is full of them, it’s a hostile universe, we have a postage stamp corner which just about supports us and if we did succeed in poisoning it and ourselves who on the other planets would blink? Some loving far away God or alien? Some benevolent planet farmer somewhere? No, it’s not all doom, it’s a process and we’re part of it. We’re recycling matter, we’re alive right now and that’s good but it’s all so very insignificant also. It’s like England thinking they ought to win the World Cup every time. Nobody owns anything, they just think they do or should.”

“If you try and get around the shops with a double buggy you never get anywhere, just getting through the doors knackers you, and the shopping bags swing and nobody ever helps you out.”

“There are people out there who would actually kill you, do you physical harm for a parking space.”

“On a public holiday there’s no bloody public transport! What’s that all about?”

“The rain, I hate it here, in my country it only ever rains in the evening and never on a bus queue or a motor cyclist, never, you call this civilised? Civilised is my voodoo magic, I get what I want with my voodoo, you get nothing.”

“You don’t want to see these people but you do, everyday, the undead, the ordinary, waiting for death, waiting and waiting but they don’t know it, they are waiting and killing time as if they were on a fox hunt. They are not waiting for buses or post office queues, for scratch cards to yield, TV programmes to make sense and the flashing red man change to the flashing green man, this is it, this is the dead queue.”

I’m back in the office: It’s been a day that seems to have lasted forever and I’m tired. I’ve seen and heard opinions and ill formed thoughts verbalised in the most limited and funny forms. I’ve smiled weakly and nodded and agreed. I have realised I can know what people are about to say before they say it. I’ve listen both intently and not at all. I’ve written some very accurate notes and made some recordings. I’ve typed and edited and added my own parts. After lunch I just made-up things for forty minutes at a pub table. I spent fifteen minutes at home in the bathroom trimming my nasal hair. I ate a bag of prawns I had bought from Marks & Spencer’s at teatime. My career is spinning and laying itself out before me like the rainbow road from Mario Kart. I am an expert in the ordinary and mundane and I rejoice in my task of cataloguing it for no good reason and then regurgitating it and publishing it for the masses to buy with their god-given pocket money and read its bold sound bites. If they choose to that is, they may simply look at the pictures. My destiny is to place copy between the cartoon people, breasts and bras, football stars and weirdoes that inhabit the world of the extensive and expensive news today. The tragedies and freaks that coexist in this inky, unfathomable universe of print and retouched photographs.

Today confirms for me the truth, the greatest truth in the universe – for one more and I hope final time. We walk through it alone, trapped in this thin ribbon of atmosphere and fragile environment on this heaving, angry ball of a world, bombarded with cosmic rays, heat, cold and invisible signals. Alone we walk, exchanging only bodily fluids, the briefest explanations and smiles with those we love and crashing physical and emotional blows and cold shoulders with those we do not. We have risen up from primeval swamps, towed ourselves to the shore on a raft of twigs and now we crack nuts on fenced beaches and applaud the roadway engineers who have built the graffiti ruined bridges that allow us to cross their jammed and yawning motorways. I am a fully qualified pedestrian. Join me.

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