May 14, 2013 @ 12:23 PM

Becoming a character from my own story...

Many years ago I wrote a short story based on an Incident I witnessed on the evening bus going home from work.

An old, rather frayed and strange-looking woman, loaded with plastic shopping bags ('Mad Sally'), was not allowed to get on board by the somewhat  authoritarian bus driver.

'Why not please?' 'You know very well, Sal.'

And when she persisted, the driver went off in search of an Inspector who physically forced her from the seat and escorted her off the vehicle ... even though she'd placed a coin in the tray.

'You know you can't travel out of hours on your pension card.'

It was another example of the small tyrannies and obsessions with which bureaucracy has so infested our daily lives.

And the point was that all of it was watched by we fellow passengers, shrunk into tired, embarrassed silence after a day in the office, and saying not a word in support of the victim. 'But I haf paid my fare...'


Probably the incident required someone like Franz Kafka to do it full justice; but I wrote it down and included it in a book of short stories 'Growing Up and other stories' which came out as a Children's Book Council of Australia  'Notable Book' of 1999.

And I must say that the symptoms of guilt are felt to this day, as I discovered re-reading the text quite recently.

I've published it again in a forthcoming eBook Discovery & Other Stories, trying to learn my way into the digital world of formatting, design, marketing...

...all those things that we authors once left for other professionals to do, and now have to discover for ourselves on the World Wide Web.

If it was uncomfortable enough to read Incident again, you can imagine how disconcerting it felt when, getting on the bus the other day as an old bloke of pensionable age myself, I suddenly found myself transformed into a character from my own story.

As I tapped my seniors card on the little screen (they don't seem to have coin trays any more) I discovered I'd been fined 74 cents for not 'tapping off' when I left the bus last time.   

A Ticket Which Is Not A Ticket... 


Indeed, as I got my ticket (which is Not A Ticket For Travel even though This Ticket Must Be Presented For Inspection On Demand) I found a number of earlier small fines for similar offences on my occasional bus trips.

They’d drained most of the remaining money from my card (God knows what would have happened had I been sent into arrears – Jail?)

And since there wasn't enough left for the next stage of the journey, I had a 15 minute walk in 30 degree heat to the shops and back to 'top up' the card, because the information booth at the bus station doesn't have those facilities.

Of course it doesn’t. Naturally.

'Sorry mate,' said the driver, 'but there's nothing I can do about it. You'll have to ring them up.' At least he was apologetic, unlike the bus driver from my story. And unlike the passengers from that incident, my fellow travellers were full of sympathy.

National Capital of bureaucrats!

'This could only happen in Canberra, national capital of bureaucrats,' I expostulated, trying to laugh off the irritation.

'No, no,' said two women on the next seat, with little smiles of comradely solidarity. 'In Brisbane they fine you five dollars for not tapping off.'

Really? Is that true? How has it happened that public transport seems no longer to exist for our convenience, but we for it? Or that public servants have metamorphosed into our public masters? And why do we so rarely speak up and protest?

Little oppressions

One could always save one's vote for Election Day, but these petty incursions into our pockets and our lives rarely come from politicians (though the big ones usually do).

The little oppressions mostly seep up anonymously in the form of ‘regulations’ from the Departments, and their authors are not answerable to any ballot box or to any market.

So, should I take the bus driver's advice and ring up somebody? Tell them what I think?

Why bother? I'd only get myself upset, and find myself speaking to a solitary soul (should I have the patience to wait that long on the telephone) who’d probably also say it wasn’t their fault.

No. With all the resources of the digital age at my tapping fingertips, I can share my contempt with the entire World Wide Web.

Now, that's democracy!




Footnote: The story On the bus has now been republished as an eBook in Discovery & Other Stories, my collection of the second set of seven stories from Growing Up.


Photo credits:

Growing Up cover: courtesy Ginninderra Press, 1999.

Discovery & Other Stories cover, designed by David Schembri