By Kenneth Roy
If it’s urban bleak without riots you’re after, go to Kilmarnock bus station on a Sunday afternoon. There you will see the faces and shapes of the new poor, too defeated or obese to participate in a social disturbance of the kind that is contributing to our ‘slow-motion moral collapse’ (Cameron).
For a while, in order to quell the anticipated trouble, they played classical music over loudspeakers at the bus station. There is a psychological theory that, so repellent is this form of music to the new poor, its aural impact will either hasten departure or induce a catatonic indifference. Yet, recently, the music was dropped. Either the experiment failed, or they just ran out of Mozart.
Now we are left in silence, punctuated by the odd wail, to await the arrival of the stagecoach. As often as not, it is in the hands of a burly chap with the sort of countenance commonly associated with the receipt of extremely bad news.
When the stagecoach arrives, the old load is evicted but the new load continues to queue. The driver grimly locks the bus before marching off without a glance at his passengers (‘customers’ as they are known). A few minutes later he re-appears with a cigarette drooping from his mouth. He leans casually over a railing, inhaling deeply. The punters are still meekly in line. The world of Sir Brian, friend of the powerful, has its own weird hierarchy and rituals.
I am reminded of the late Tom Gallacher, playwright, who, when I said I was about to write a weekly column in a new newspaper with the title Scotland on Sunday, responded: ‘Who would want to be reminded of Scotland on a Sunday?’. There was no answer to that.
Last Sunday, there were four others on the bus to the coast. One approached me and said he had complained to the Ayrshire Post; things were so bad he had gone to the papers. I knew he was referring to the bus service; we do little else but complain about it. Sir Brian seems to be widely mistrusted by his own passengers – sorry, customers. It may be time to de-regulate the buses, except there is a joke that they have been de-regulated already and that Sir Brian’s operation is the result.
Two of the others were a man in his mid-20s who sat in front of a woman of similar age who sat by herself in the back seat, the man angling himself in order to facilitate conversation. Why could they not have sat together? Perhaps they were warily acknowledging acquaintance rather than friendship, drawing a physical boundary between these ambiguous states.
The man, a little overweight, with a pencil moustache, but quite presentable, fairly intelligent, talked incessantly of his weekend drinking. On a typical Saturday, he said, he consumed two bottles of wine, 12 units of vodka, and an intake of beer which he left unquantified. He added that he had noticed an odd thing about himself: the hangover was not now kicking in until the following Wednesday. The woman in the back seat – attractive, well-dressed, articulate – agreed that the Wednesday hangover after the Saturday binge was a phenomenon in her life too. Neither seemed in the least concerned about it. But nor were they boasting.
We shall all miss the ghost on the second floor, who is occasionally heard, often on the sunniest days, dropping a heavy object on the unseen landing above and who once hurled pennies at the deputy editor as she climbed the stairs.
Down the bus, a girl of about 14 talked constantly on her mobile phone, an uninterrupted monologue about her attendance at weekend parties, her covert drinking, and her techniques for dealing with the unwelcome attentions of her parents, all this delivered at top speed. In her case there was a comic touch: a large hoodie tight over her head, its soft, teddy-bear ears contributing an incongruous childlike innocence to the vignette.
As she was walking down the passage before her stop, her friend on the line finally got a word in. So complete was the protection afforded by the hoodie that her face was invisible. But she sounded shocked. ‘Your dad’s left? You mean – they’re gettin’ divorced?’.
Who, indeed, would want to be reminded of Scotland on a Sunday? Yet I shall miss the chatter on the country buses. You can learn a lot about the human race by travelling on them.
Then, too, I shall miss Crosshouse Hospital in the early morning. A few months ago Sir Brian cut off the direct connection between village and town, so I get one bus to the hospital and wait 10 minutes for the next. I watch nurses coming bleary-eyed off night shift, and survey the flowerbed choked by cigarette butts, thousands of them, and wonder if there might be a way of hoovering them up – I would do it myself if someone would give me the equipment. I observe patients in their pyjamas, furtively smoking in the grounds, and look up at the rows of windows; and shudder.
I shall miss the Goldberry Arms, the companionable pub, where Willie McIlvanney drinks when he returns to his native town and where the Kilmarnock branch of the Scottish Socialist Party used to gather during election campaigns when Tommy Sheridan was a power in the land.
We shall all miss the ghost on the second floor, who is occasionally heard, often on the sunniest days, dropping a heavy object on the unseen landing above and who once hurled pennies at the deputy editor as she climbed the stairs. The ghost has been seen only once: by the visiting butcher from John Finnie Street.
When we came here nine years ago, the building was full of small businesses. One by one they left, though not for supernatural reasons. We are alone now with the ghost and within a few minutes of despatching today’s Scottish Review we too will be gone, leaving the building abandoned. Our timing is fortuitous; in one of our offices, a hole in the ceiling was exposed after a thunderstorm last Friday.
The removal men have just left. Two chairs and a computer remain for our immediate purposes. We will remember to replace the pennies on the stairs – they are not ours – and when we leave the building we will turn out the lights. We were happy here.
Courtesy of Kenneth Roy – read Kenneth Roy in the Scottish Review