While the bus industry counts many entertaining characters among its staff, the same is equally true of the customers. While the vast majority are polite, unassuming and go about their business with nothing more than a "good morning", "please" or "thank you", there are those who become part of folklore.
One of our less well known activities is to operate the network of free buses into Sainsbury's at Ferndown on behalf of Xelabus, a commitment that allows us to think of ourselves as a Dorset operator at least on two days of the week! As you can see from the timetable this is a fairly complex network of five interworking local routes into the store.
Les is in charge of route SA4, not that anyone ever calls it that.
It's not clear by what process Les came to be in charge of SA4, although his military credentials suggest that he probably just lined up the other customers outside the store while waiting for the bus one day, and after a bit of square bashing claimed the title by default. But no-one messes with Les.
Les knows where everyone gets on. He stands near the front of the bus and keeps a note of who is travelling and who isn't. Most of the clientele is of a certain age and - despite falling into the same bracket himself - Les helps them on and off with their trolleys. Two trolleys in particular he keeps with him at the front of the bus, as he does not feel it is safe for them to be parked with their owners.
Les keeps the drivers in order, making it his business to show new ones the route and explain the stopping arrangements. Once the passengers and their shopping are loaded ready for the return journey, he decides when it is time to leave.
I met Les for the first time around a month ago, when I deputised for the regular part-timer we were using on the route one Wednesday. Les was both helpful and engaging, making sure that everyone got the service they expected while chatting away to me about his life and times. I think I scored points for recognising that his accent was from the East Midlands, and this led to a series of anecdotes about his upbringing around Melton Mowbray and subsequent army career.
Today we introduced a new driver to the Ferndown clan, as Martin is going to split his time between wooing his regular bunch of senior devotees on the S2, and wooing a whole new bunch of senior devotees in East Dorset.
Mostly it fell to me to show Martin the way, but when we arrived at Prunus Close on the SA4 all that changed. "Can I leave you to show him the ropes?" I enquired, and was met with a stern look and an assertive "well that's what I normally do" in response. I snuck to the back of the bus with my laptop and got more work done in a 25 minute tour of the back streets of Ferndown than I sometimes achieve in a whole day in the office!
I did interrupt my work long enough to take what passes for an action shot on the Sainsbury's bus...
Here we see Les in his rightful position at the helm, while in the background the door of yet another sheltered housing block is thrown open to yield our next intake of passengers. Inside the bus, the ladies model the latest in Ferndown hair fashion, but none are as smartly presented as Les's "bag for life", immaculately folded on the luggage rack.
All was not well today however. On arrival at the store Les revealed that it had been my job to count the number of passengers getting on, but as he had not briefed me on my responsibilities and I had failed to keep a tally, he was faced with the impossible task of deciding whether everyone was present for the return journey without knowing how many he had to count back on!
Moreover, there is a faint whiff of scandal in the air. It emerges that one of the passengers doesn't talk to Les, as he once offered to help her on with her trolley and she admonished him that she was quite capable of taking care of herself. A rift was thus created which simmers on in the background.
But there is no real doubt that Les is the hero of the SA4, and the route would be much duller without him!