To get to my school in Bridgetown from the parish of St John, I had to travel across the island by bus. Even in the Seventies, the bus was a museum piece. Known as a Toast Rack, it had an open side, with benches across the whole width. There were no windows, just wooden frames with a rolled-up oilcloth attached to each one, to be let down in case of sudden, heavy sweet-smelling rain. To let the driver know you needed to get off, there was a string the length of each side, attached to a bell next to his head, which you would pull. ONCE.
The double-pull was the fiercely-guarded prerogative of Mistress King. Like 19th Century housekeepers, this titular courtesy was paid to respectable umarried ladies in positions of authority. And conductress on the St John bus was a hell of a responsibility. Part disciplinarian, part moral arbiter, Mistress King was a huge figure in my life, in all respects of the word. Woe betide any schoolchild who misbehaved or lacked manners. She would bellow down the bus 'CHILE! Wunna mother would be SO shame! Show we respec or dem will be some BIG licks.' When the passenger had got on or off the bus safely, she would pull the bell twice, ding-ding and shout 'Go 'HEAD'.
The bus stopped in a seemingly arbitrary manner, sometimes but often not, observing the red and white signposts denoting bus stops. There were special stops (bang outside their houses and sod any rare traffic that would be disrupted by this) for the elderly, for bank clerks (who had god-like status for Mistress King) and for the vendor ladies who went each day to the Careenage in Bridgetown with their wooden trays to scratch a living. Their trays were a bloody nightmare to get on the bus though. Precarious piles of breadfruit, mangoes and avocadoes would roll frighteningly from side to side and if anything rolled off, Mistress King would make a child duck under the benches to catch it.
The old bus toiled up the steep bay, clutch objecting noisily and smokily, meandered through waving cane fields and rattled along dirt roads for about an hour, hooting its way crossly through early-morning Bridgetown traffic and disgorging a great flurry of poassengers to start their days.
Coming home was chaos. The bus station was an empty lot near the canal. There were a couple of burned-out cars for sitting on and a dusty pair of palms afforded scant shade from the afternoon sun. Snow-cone vendors zoomed suicidally about, bells ringing on their bikes with ice-boxes stuck on the front. For 25 cents and by banging on the side of the bus for their attention, you could get a plastic cup of ice with fruit syrup squirted down the middle which melted deliciously if you gently and rythmically squeezed the bottom of the cup. Too greedily and the contents burst out onto your clothes. Given that we were not supposed to eat in public in uniform and also that there were no washing machines in the entire parish, it was an undertaking of some daring to order one.
Being British, queuing is in my DNA. The bus would creak into view and the shout would be heard 'De bus, de bus!' Scores of people would scrummage their way on, elbows akimbo, watched disdainfully by Mistress King who seemed to accept this carnage. For the first few days, when the dust cleared, the bus would be packed and one little blonde girl would be standing politely by, satchel in hand while Mistress King bellowed did I want to get on de damn bus or not? I learned pretty quickly.
Once, my lovely gentle grandad was staying with us. He met me at the bus stop to come home with me after a day in Bridgetown. I have a blurry photo of us standing beside the burned-out car, me in uniform, clutching a snow cone, him grinning delightedly. He adored the rackety bumpy ride home, chatting happily with all the passengers I'd never even spoken to. He was enchanted by Mistress King and she by him. At every shout of 'Go 'HEAD,' he became more helpless with laughter until eventually, she motioned for him to sit by her. As the bus began its long descent into Martins Bay, each creaking stop was punctuated by a ding-ding and a very English shout 'Go ahead. Please.'