In a long-overdue sequel to that time a bloke tried to run off with my front wheel but I saw him off by brandishing a floral-patterned teacup from Whitby market, I've finally had my bike nicked. The result is that I'm spending rather more time on the buses than usual- to be precise, on this classic cross-town combination; the 197 out of Levenshulme towards the city centre, then the 15 from Oxford Road out towards my workplace somewhere in Manchester's Fashionable Westside. It is while engaged in this circuitous commute that I make my latest acquaintance with The Scholar.
As ever, The Scholar boards the number fifteen bus just as the dilapidated inner-city flatshare terraces of Old Trafford give way to the Terry and June-esque suburban sprawl of Stretford. Oriental, bespectacled, sober, and turned out in smart brown raincoat and sensible shoes, our man might be taken at first sight to be a Physics student of the mature variety. This impression is enhanced when he produces a neatly-folded sheet of A4 paper from the outer raincoat pocket, adopts a faraway expression, and begins to write- with tiny, but precise stokes of an expensive-looking ballpoint pen. However, as the journey unfolds it becomes apparent that the conscientious scribblings which ensue represent something altogether more remarkable than any last-minute exam preparation.
At the bottom of Kings Road we get our first clue that something extraordinary is afoot. The bus comes to a halt and an old lady climbs aboard, trailing a tartan shopping trolley and brandishing a purple-plastic-covered concessionary pass. Simultaneously, The Scholar furrows his brow and makes several precise markings on the folded-up sheet of paper. As the pensioner takes her seat, the scribbling abruptly stops.
The next stop is The Quadrant, where the old lady gets off, to be replaced by a whole host of new passengers: a sharp-suted black woman in her twenties, a pale young man in a white shirt and tie who looks like he could be a trainee bank clerk, and a buggy-wielding young mother. This flurry of activity is accompanied by a frantic outbreak of penmanship from inside the raincoat. As the new arrivals take their seats and the bus pulls away to begin the long ascent towards Edge Lane junction, the pen once again comes to a rest. At the next stop, no-one gets on or off. This lull in proceedings is marked by a solitary pen-stroke- curiously directed towards the top right corner of the folded-up sheet of A4 paper.
As the bus makes its way up Kings Road, the unmistakeable conclusion is that The Scholar is engaged in the precise recording of all passenger-related activity on the Number Fifteen bus. Clearly this task is too multi-layered to be entrusted to any known system of annotation- Western or Oriental- so our man has devised one of his own. As the downstairs deck fills up with rush-hour commuters, the beetle-like handwriting spreads to all corners of the page. By the time we reach Chester Road, the folded-up sheet of A4 paper is a veritable tapestry of tiny but ornate markings.
At the stop before Stretford Arndale, the elegant system of annotation is tested by an unforeseen event. The sharp-suited young black woman, it seems, has taken none too kindly to spending her morning commute as the subject of academic research. She leans over the ticket-strewn aisle:
No reaction from behind the glasses. No reaction at all.
'Hey you! You with the pen! Excuse me!'
But it is no contest. The Scholar calmly rises from his seat, settles in one just out of reach, and resumes his intermittent notation- with, it seems, even more deliberate precision than before. His furious challenger retreats from the scene. 'Bloody nutcase', she is heard to mutter to herself, as she steps down onto the pavement and recedes from view.
The next stop is Stretford Arndale. The Scholar- absolutely untroubled by the momentary malfunctioning of a portion of this morning's data- stands up, slips his A4 sheet of paper into the inside pocket of the raincoat, and climbs off. Out of the side window, I can see him crossing the dual carriageway. For the first time all morning he is in a hurry- dodging between the speeding traffic in a bid to reach the shelter on the other side. As we pull away and cross Barton Road by the Robin Hood pub, I crane my neck and see why: coming in the other direction is a half-empty double-decker. The front is emblazoned with the number 15.
The Scholar clambers aboard the Piccadilly-bound service, delves into the outer pocket of the raincoat, pulls out a fresh sheet of A4 paper, and folds it neatly in half. Another chapter in the never-ending tale of the Number 15 bus has begun. One day, perhaps, this sage figure will condescend to decode the months and years worth of scribblings and lay bare his life's masterwork for us all to marvel at. Until then, we can only wonder what mysteries of intersuburban bus travel are hidden inside his smart brown raincoat.