Bus Spotting (London)
By Ed Crane
I’ve been a copper all my working life, I’m retired now. I decided to be a copper when I was sixteen, just after Dad disappeared. One day he didn’t come home from work – never saw him again. It never made any sense to me. Mum and Dad were happily married. Even as a young kid I could see that. Subconscious body signals tell us a lot. Dad was a quiet bloke; kept his head down, did his job working nine-to-five at the head-office of a big bank in town. The police couldn’t dig anything up; no body; no sign of suicide or a struggle: nothing. Someone from his office reckoned they saw him catch his regular train at Cannon Street, but that was all. They just seemed to go through the motions to me. After all, missing husbands weren’t exactly a rarity. I suppose I thought I could find out what happened to him if I was in the police
When I joined the force, I told them I wanted to be a detective. They smiled like they’ve heard it a million times before, they said there was a lot more to it than that – which of course there is, but after training and a few false starts, I did manage to get into the CID. Eventually I made it to DI.
Although as a teenager my idea was to find out what happened to Dad, like many things in life the job wasn’t how I’d imagined it. The work was about the moment, there was too much going on to spend time going over old cases, besides I couldn’t investigate cases I was personally involved in. As the years went by, pressure of work, family responsibilities and ambition got in the way. I forgot about looking into Dad’s disappearance.
I suppose I’ve been pretty lucky. Policing’s given me a good income and a damn good pension. I’ve a good wife who’s stuck by me for forty years – bloody is unusual in this job. I think the reason we worked was because I shared stuff with her; told her about the cases I was working on. It kept her interested, she said it made her feel involved, but I didn’t tell everything – there’s always things you never tell your family about. Most of us in the force will tell you the same thing, ‘I’ve met some real scum and seen things decent people would find hard to imagine.’ Some say you get used to it, but you don’t. You just can’t let it get to you. That, I think, is the most difficult part of the job.
At fifty-five I was up for retirement, but they asked me to stay on. They said my experience would be useful in advising and coaching the younger guys. I agreed, I liked the job and the extra money came in handy for putting the youngest through Uni. When I got to sixty they took me off active duty and gave me a desk job looking into old unsolved cases. I weren’t too happy about it, but it turned out to be interesting work – lot of positive came out of it.
Couple of years ago – after some major cock-ups in social services – they asked me to concentrate on child abuse cases. It was all pretty mundane stuff, but then some bright young profiler dug out an ancient file referring a series of attempted rapes of boys and two murders from the archives. I was asked to look into it. The offences took place all over London and the Home Counties and stopped after the murders. Several attempts at linking the offences were made, but the case was abandoned in the late sixties due to lack of evidence.
It was clear to me very little forensic work was done, even by the standards of the day. It would be almost impossible to establish anything after nearly sixty-years without spending a bloody fortune on leg-work. That’s what I told my boss. He agreed and said, ‘Put a bit of time into it, see if you can find anything, just to keep ‘em happy, then do a prelim-report. It’ll probably get forgotten after that.’
One of the few things I found of interest was the reaction of the murdered boys’ fathers. One, a bus driver, made a lot of threats about what he was going to do to, that murdering fucking bastard when I get hold of him. When they asked if he knew the killer, he backtracked, saying he was very upset and it was dropped. The other boy’s father was a car dealer with known criminal connections. He appeared to be totally broken. Six months later he sold up and went to live in Malaga.
I spent one morning reading the statements, then listed the locations and nature of the attacks on a notepad in an attempt to make sense of some pretty harrowing reading. There was nine in all, each carried out soon after dark. It read something like this:
Tottenham, Feb. 1953: Barry Brown, aged 6, picked up in Birkbeck Rd. Dick fiddle – Black Morris 8?
Poplar, May 1954: Paul Leatham, aged 6, picked up near Bow Rd. Dick fiddle – Ford no model: black.
Sidcup, October 1954: John Sudbury, 8, picked up near Waring Park – Dick fiddle while masturbating – Black car: no make.
Hammersmith, September 1955: Peter Jeffery, 7, picked up near Ravenscourt Park. Exposed erection, asked boy to hold it. Boy refused and ran off. Blue car: no make.
Plumstead, October 1956: Michael Knox, 10, offered the boy a lift, dragged him into car when he refused. Drove to bombsite and tried to pull off the boy’s trousers. Boy escaped. Big blue car: maybe a Standard
Hounslow, February 1957: Paul McDonnell, 11, jumped in alley, near Hounslow East Tube Station. Attempted rape. Boy escaped.
Abbey Wood, April 1959: Gordon Matlock, 11, jumped while bike riding on Bostal Heath. Raped and badly beaten.
Kingston, May 1960: Geoffrey Hall, 12, attacked while passing a building site. Raped and beaten to death apparently with a house brick. Brick never found.
Edgware, September 1961: Henry Mates, 13, attacked off Station Road. Raped and strangled probably with a trouser belt. Belt never found.
The place names seemed very familiar to me. I couldn’t put my finger on it, then the penny dropped. These were places I’d been to. Dad had taken me to all of them. They were names of London Transport bus garages. I spent rest of the day reminiscing about my childhood.
Being an only child, I had Dad’s undivided attention. I thought he was a great bloke, often more of a mate than a father. I don’t think he ever forgot how to be a kid, his hobby at school had been studying London buses, and he carried on with it when he grew up. When I went to school, bus and train spotting was the in hobby. Dad was delighted when I started taking an interest. He taught me all about the classes of buses that were around at the time and on weekends or holidays he took me to bus garages to see all the different types. When I was about twelve the first of the Routemasters, RM1 came into service and we went to Cricklewood garage in North London to see it. He was as proud as Punch when the driver let me sit in the driving seat and showed me all the controls.
Dad also collected books about buses; I think he had every “Ian Allen” publication since they started. It was from the photos in those books I chose my favourite bus type: the LT class. Boxy six-wheelers that were first introduced in 1929. The last ones were scrapped when I was about five, but I vaguely remember seeing them rolling over the tram tracks in Beresford Square when Mum and Dad took me to Woolwich Market. He told me about all the buses that were around when he was a kid and about the changes to London Transport during the early thirties and how they coped with the bombing during the war.
Also, he took photos of buses and kept detailed notes about the ones he’d seen; dates; where he was; what routes they ran on; where they were garaged; chassis and body changes during maintenance and a lot more. He exchanged information with other bus enthusiasts. I met a few of them. I thought they were a funny lot. These days we’d call them Anoraks or Nerds I suppose. Sometimes he would go away for a few days with them on extended bus spotting trips, he never took me, said I was too young.
At around fourteen, I gave up bus spotting. Girls and bikes and Rock music were more interesting. Dad didn’t mind, he seemed relieved really. After he disappeared, Mum let me keep all his books and papers.
I thought if I went through Dad’s stuff it might help with getting a feel of the areas where the boys lived so when I got home I told Janie I need to do some case work. After forty years, she knew that meant once she’d fed me, I’d be locked in my study for the rest of the evening, maybe half the night.
After retrieving my treasured box marked, “DAD,” I took it to my room. I poured myself a large whisky and sat in his old G-Plan wing chair which Mum gave me before she died. Dad always used to sit in it after he came home from work, smoking his pipe and reading the Evening News - the old fabric always seemed to smell of Special Nosegay. I sifted through the black and white photos, books and yellowing note paper files like I’d done so often over the years, but this time they told me a different story. I have to admit . . . I wept.