It needs to be unanswerable and so unsettling that the person addressed will spend the rest of their life worrying about it, and will never be rude to anyone again. They may start saying 'excuse me', 'thank you', 'pardon me,' 'would you like this seat?' or 'no, you go first' in a non-sarcastic way. I have some distant hope that the mothers among them might even refrain from beating or berating their male offspring in public for long enough to prevent those boys from developing a life-long loathing of women that translates itself into misogeny and domestic violence in later life. But let's not try to reach Mars before we have landed on the Moon.
The perfect bus rebuke must not include any reference to the offender's appearance or demeanour and should not attempt to teach her a lesson in manners. Rather, it should make her question her existence and fear for her future. It should be a curse of some kind. I'll let you know when it has been developed fully and I will probably give up writing altogether and set up a business selling bus rebukes.
Yesterday I travelled on two buses (the 137 and the 355) and on three Tube lines (Northern Line, Victoria Line and Central Line). I won't bother you with the reasons for my journeys. After three stops on the 137, two drunks boarded the bus and refused to pay. There was a ticket inspector on the bus so even if the driver had been prepared to let them have a free ride, the inspector couldn't.
Normally I find drunks amusing but these two were hardened street drinkers disinclined to exhibit the spirit of the Algonquin. They were white and they racially abused the driver and inspector who were both black: 'what's a darkie doing working for London Transport?' and 'you're not the king of the buses, n...' There was a lot of shouting from the drunks and it was clear that the bus wasn't going anywhere, so most of us got off and got on to the bus behind.
Some stayed, of course - regular commuters take pride in determining the correct moment to abandon a bus or Tube and never being tricked into doing it too soon. I, for one, would never get off a Tube train and seek an alternative route to my destination when instructed to do so by a platform announcer. If we have been waiting there for 5 minutes or less, it's usually the cue for the driver to switch the engine back on and proceed to the destination advertised on the front of the train in a timely manner.
Anyway, as we trooped aboard the second bus, it was clear that the driver was very put out about this. He got on to some sort of central control on his radio. 'He's transferred them all on to my bus,' he said petulantly. Meanwhile the drunks were furious that their audience was depleting and sought to bar passengers from departing the first bus. When that didn't work, they got off and headed our way.
A frightened teenage girl with an Eastern European accent implored the driver of the second bus to close the doors. 'Don't let them on! Don't let them on!' We watched as one of the drunks - the elder - wrestled with a woman passenger in the street. She was a sturdy woman of about my age with blonde hair and bare arms. It was a poor match and she was unquestionably the winner - but I expect she'll have some bruises come up today.
As the younger drunk headed our way, slowly, determinedly and racistly, I wondered why British zombie films are so crap - neither frightening nor funny - when a director has only to study the street drinkers in London as they attempt to board the buses that pass by the hostels where they live. As for milking a scene for dramatic effect - well, why not study the bus drivers?
We watched the elder drunk fighting with the woman. We listened to his mate questioning why on earth London Transport was allowing 'darkies' to work for them. The driver of the second bus - who was black himself - showed no inclination to protect his passengers or show solidarity with the driver in front. 'He's transferred them all to my bus,' he said again to the control room on his radio. He just couldn't get over it. Maybe he thought we deserved to be punched by drunks for swapping buses mid-journey.
'Shut the door!' shouted the frightened teenager. 'Shut the door!' shouted another passenger, a big, black man, maybe mid-thirties. He held his hands up. 'No,' he said to the drunks, 'you're not getting on. Not this one. No way.' Still, the drunks approached. Still, the driver refused to act. A nurse in uniform looked at her watch for the umpeenth time since this drama started to unfold (approx 4 mins had elapsed - but that's quite a long time in London when you're trying to get somewhere). Passengers started to twist round in their seats to see if there was another bus behind. We were all of us weighing up whether we should abandon this one and go back to the bus in front. I didn't think I could do it. The abandonment of the same method of public transport twice in one day represents a serious loss of face, especially if there's no snow and no prospect of building a snowman later on at home and uploading the photos to the BBC website.
'Shut the door!' said the male passenger again. Though he commanded like a king, neither drunk nor doors nor driver obeyed.
It wasn't until the fingertips of the younger drunk were doggy-paddling the air no more than an inch and a half (3.8 cm) from the bus that the driver closed the doors and we lurched off, just behind the first bus which was now drunk-free and therefore continuing its journey as planned.
Two stops later we reached Clapham Common tube, where most of us got off. The driver of the second bus made an announcement: 'We'll have to wait here for THREE MINUTES to regulate the service. The way he emphasised the delay showed his disdain for the lot of us. 'There's a bus in front,' he continued. 'You might want to board that.'
Yay! Payback. But as bus rebukes go, I consider it pretty tame. He can use that one whenever he likes because I shan't be wanting to appropriate it.
On the 355 on the way home, a woman was rude to me, reminding me that there was no time to be lost in honing my brilliant bus rebuke. I also need to invent a device which will compel able-bodied people to give up their seats for the elderly and the infirm, and pregnant women. I'm thinking that an invisible death ray would not be too extreme. I would also use it on people who drop litter. I wouldn't use it on people who are rude to me on buses - I want those people to live remorsefully and fearfully for the rest of their days.
When I open my knitting shop and detective agency (after I have finished writing my masterpiece for the theatre, Smith's Bleakly), I will also sell death rays and bus rebukes - and perhaps old-fashioned sweets by the quarter pound. It will be called something like Smith's Emporium of Knitting, Curses, Mystery-Solving, Rebukes, Death Rays and Licorice Cuttings. I expect it will become a meeting-place for vigilantes. I don't mind about that, so long as they wear colourful costumes and don't go after suspected terrorists, only litter-droppers and parents whose child-rearing techniques don't exactly match my own.
I'm researching premises on the banks of The Thames. I wonder if I can set up shop in the Poetry Library in the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank. That way it could be called Smith's Royal Emporium, etc. The building's a bit modern, though - not a great place for me to hang a hand-painted sign to advertise my services. Perhaps I should apply for offices in or near The Globe Theatre at Bankside. I have read
Please get in touch if you know of suitable premises for the Emporium, if you want to book tickets for Smith's Bleakly or if you want to join the vigilante group. I'm thinking that this will be a leaderless collection of costumed anarchists prepared to show their allegiance to each other by dismantling Stonehenge, removing it from its current location on the A303 where its presence has been an irritant for the last 3,500 years. ('Radiate your love to those in need the world over...' it says on the homepage of the website. I don't think so.)
There will be other intiation tasks which might, for example, include helping to dig a pit and bury Jessie when the time comes and organising a moving remembrance service; all the dog shit haiku I have ever written will be transcribed onto tiny scraps of paper and put into boats made out of Jessie's old blankets lit with candles and dropped from Albert Bridge to float down the Thames. After which, of course, I'll have to be zapped with a death ray of my own invention because of the littering element. I would want the TV networks to be hacked so that the service could be streamed live on all channels, the way it is in Dark Angel, which is one of my favourite TV programmes. If the death ray hasn't been invented yet and I live on after Jessie dies, perhaps we could call our group the Dog Angels, as a tribute to both.
Membership of the group and hierarchy within it will be determined by such factors as the flamboyance of the costumes and a willingness to mind the shop for me while I'm out solving mysteries, as well as an enthusiasm to read and discuss poetry about dog shit.