Thirty Thousand Streets

Friday, August 3, 2007


I was studying at St Killian’s College. You know all about St Killian’s, I bet; how its founder, the Victorian philanthropist Idris Randle, had wanted to create an institution that would challenge its students at every level, encourage them to think laterally.

Partly for this reason, partly because he had access to almost unlimited funds, and partly because he thought it would be fucking cool, he commissioned the engineer Robert Stephenson to build a “wandering” university - a vehicular campus, with four powerful piston-driven steel legs, that stalked around the outskirts of the city like a vastly outsized tortoise, emitting great flatulent clouds of steam and occasionally shedding the tiny, shrieking figure of a lecturer or student who’d tumble into safety netting slung beneath the chassis. We had to call the admin office every day to find out where the campus was, or check the university website, where a map showed its route across London as a dotted line of "thumbs up" signs. St Killian’s would most often be found on the edge of one of the city’s great open spaces - Clapham Common, Regent’s Park, Hampstead Heath. Occasionally it would make quick forays into the city centre using the Thames itself as a sort of corridor, splashing its way unsteadily amongst the barges and leaving happy gaggles of Japanese tourists on every bridge.

UCL and King’s College students sneered at St Killian’s, which they called the Waddling Polytechnic. But something about the idea of entrusting my further education to an institution founded by an opium addict appealed to me.

It isn’t St Killian’s I want to tell you about right now, but something that happened to me during the spring term of my first year there, insignificant in one sense - hermetically sealed in its own bubble as an experience, because until now I was the only one who knew it had happened - but also unforgettable. From February to March '98 the college stayed put while the engine was overhauled, crouching in the middle of Hyde Park in the driving rain like a squat iron god. I got to know the 398 bus pretty well; straight up Grey’s Inn Road to King’s Cross, along the Euston Road, Tottenham Court Road to Oxford Street.

The drivers on that route had this fetish going for nostalgic confectionary - cola cubes, pear drops, those old-style blocks of liquorice, so inky and insoluable that attempting to eat one was like smearing on blackface. A fistful of cinder toffee would get you as far as Marble Arch without a ticket. A quarter of chocolate-covered ants and you could smoke cigarettes on the top deck, or flash the other passengers with impunity.

Alas, the 398 was also haunted, or so the story went. Traumatised passengers would stagger up to the driver’s cabin with shocks of blanched hair, bloodshot eyes. One guy - happy, well-balanced, said his friends - fell asleep on the top deck, woke up, rang the bell, stepped off at Hanway Street and threw himself with calm deliberation under a scaffolding truck.

Another, a middle-aged businessman, was found curled foetal and unresponsive under the upstairs back seat when the driver got the bus to the depot. A paramedic brought him out of his trance, but he hasn't spoken since. Just sits in the living room of his house in Kensal Green writing out an apparently arbitrary sequence of numbers on endless reems of paper, and subsisting entirely on orange zest, root ginger and bowls of luke warm miso soup.

After lobbying from the transport unions that particular bus was taken out of service, which didn't actually help any; the problem wasn’t a haunted bus, but a haunted bus route. The MTA wouldn’t go as far as diverting it; taking a bus out of service as a sop to bad feeling was one thing, but authorising a change in routes was a whole new proposition. How would they explain it to the Council? You can't legislate for the supernatural.

Of course, I didn’t believe any of the stories for a minute. I’d ride the 398 at night without a second thought.

There was this one time, though.

I was sitting upstairs at the front with a bag full of lecture notes on my knee, on my way back east. It was late. I’d slipped the driver half a dozen sherbert flying saucers, and I was sucking hard on a Marlboro Yellow, watching this fat man sitting across the aisle from me in the reflection in the window. Seriously fat - I mean orca-fat, clinically obese. Fat men fill me with a kind of secret sadness. I imagine them alone in their beds, holding themselves, wishing there wasn't so much. I know it's patronising.

This guy was different, though, snaffling a bag of Ruffles, fingers shiny with grease. He looked as though he liked being fat. Every now and then he’d stop eating the crisps and put the bag on the seat and he’d run his hands up and down his upholstered chest and stomach, revelling in his bulk. I was transfixed, and I could watch as long as I liked, because, like I said, I wasn’t looking directly at him, I was looking at his reflection in the window.

Which was fine, until I got up at my stop, and clocked that the top deck of the bus was empty. And when I looked back at the half-misted glass, the fat man was still there, eyes locked to mine, smiling with livid wet lips as he gradually dissolved in the neon on Essex Road. The lips stayed there a good couple of seconds after the rest of him had gone; like the Cheshire Cat's grin in Alice.

So I got off and walked back to my place above Your Food City, smoking a fresh cigarette. Next morning I discovered that the university had upped sticks, and was waddling north towards Primrose Hill like a junkyard armadillo.

I haven't caught the 398 since. And I never told anyone that story until just now.

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