'Haud That Bus!' by Allan Morrison (Luath Press)
Scotland's free bus travel scheme confers benefits that its counterpart in England does not deliver: it is available to all from age 60, not the higher state retirement age; there are no restrictions of when to use it; and it is accepted on longer distance coach services. The ability to travel where
they fancy and when
they fancy is what attracts the heroines of this novel to take full advantage of it.
Barbara Sharp and Molly McDuff are 69-year-old single women from different ends of the social spectrum. Barbara is a middle-class widow from Bearsden, Molly a working-class resident of a 16th-storey flat in a Glasgow high-rise who has recently given her useless husband his marching orders.
Both realise that they need to get out more often and they literally bump into each other in the city's Buchanan Bus Station, team up for a free trip to Dunoon, discover they have far more in common than their backgrounds would suggest and embark on a series of incident-laden trips over what seems to be little more than a fortnight — to Edinburgh, Oban, Perth, Ayr and Inverness. Turns out both were born on the same day.
They share the wisdom each inherited from her mother. Barbara's told her: 'You should never have an argument with your husband when he's doing the hoovering'. Molly, bemoaning the passage of time and apparent decline in her neighbours' behaviour, recalls that her's said: 'When ye get tae a certain age ye need rubbed oot an' drawn in again'.
They broaden each other's minds, Molly being adept at quick-witted rejoinders for those who probably deserve them, while Barbara explains that her 'bit of shadenfreude coming on' is not a complaint requiring pills but the single German word for the enjoyment of discomfort in others. That little exchange follows an encounter with two of a wider cast of others — pompous women Barbara calls Hinge and Bracket ('Tae me they look mair like Fran and Anna,' quips Molly) — who to their annoyance turn up on several of their days out, frequently adding more than a touch of slapstick to the proceedings.
Things happen with almost incredible regularity, like a jammed coach lavatory door, a roadside breakdown and rescue by police squad car, and a distraught bride who flags their coach down at Gleneagles under the apparently mistaken impression that her beloved has been unfaithful.
The characters may be drawn from imagination, but the places are real. Or at least most are. I know more than is good for me about the world of buses, so tried hard to ignore references to a Seagate Bus Station in Aviemore (there is no such facility there by any name and the one called Seagate is in Dundee) or its Guild Street equivalent in Inverness (that one used to be in Aberdeen).
They could be excused as mattering only to a counter of rivets, but the water lapping against the promenade at Ayr is something else. Molly and Barbara walk on the seafront at Ayr, viewing Goat Fell on Arran while 'further away, on the outer Firth of Forth
, Ailsa Craig stood out mythically'. That would be a myth or more likely a miracle of distant vision. Right rock, wrong firth. Yet just three paragraphs earlier they talk of paddling in the Clyde.
This is a whimsical tale that perhaps raises more smiles than belly laughs. The central characters are more roundly drawn than the caricatures of fellow travellers that they meet on their days out, and the number of coincidences of who crosses their paths and when may stretch credulity as much as the transposition of two of our great firths. But Barbara and Molly are good advertisements for the best of human nature, and the joys of using a free Scottish bus pass.
Alan Millar is editor of Buses magazine