The Write Stuff: Modern Society

Illustration: Gran Patterson
Illustration: Gran Patterson
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They used to call such occasions Pauper’s Funerals but among those who came to pay their respects to a local hero were government ministers and top clergy. However, the true identity of The Kleeneze Rider would remain a mystery to most of the mourners and so martyrdom made his legend perfect.

I didn’t attend the trial of his killers. I didn’t even go to his funeral. The police would be on the look-out for a lead as to who he was. An unknown man turning up at the crematorium would attract suspicion.

Of course, in one sense they knew who he was. He was Wet Wipe Willie, the famous Kleeneze Rider. But I was determined that no-one would ever know that the Kleeneze Rider was Vernon Boyd, d.o.b. 16-06-1936, retired security guard, 47 Strathdon Court, Knightswood.

It was what used to be called a pauper’s funeral. But not many of the penniless dead, the unknown dead – and this one was going to stay unknown – have funerals attended by government ministers and the Lord Provost, with prayers from an archbishop and a sermon about modern society from the Moderator of the Kirk. He’d have loved it, so I was glad he was in no position to love it. I even wondered whether he’d deliberately allowed the boys to do him in, so that martyrdom would make his legend perfect. I’d have been inconspicuous after all, because the TV news showed the chapel filled with members of the public. An elderly woman wept on camera as she said: “I sat on a seat he had just wiped. He has only the public to mourn him.”

That last bit was definitely true.

I learned from TV that he’d been murdered. When he didn’t come home, I thought he’d just gone on one of his long routes that involved sleeping at a cheap hotel. He’d said he always paid with cash on these occasions and used a false name. That gave me the clue to his strategy for becoming famous. Legends – like Jack the Ripper – thrive if you can ask: who was he, really? So he’d decided he would create the legend anonymously and only then reveal that he, Vernon, was the legend.

Witnesses said the boys looked cocky, side by side with their feet up on a facing seat, legs crossed. He wiped around their feet. The feet didn’t move. He took hold of their trackies, hauled their feet upwards, finished wiping. The feet returned to the exact same places. The boys sat immobile, not even exchanging glances, let alone words, until Vernon went to get off the bus. They sprang to their feet simultaneously. Vernon placed his ticket in the used-ticket bin and said, “Thank you, driver.” They were seen frog-marching him round the corner into a narrow road between buildings. CCTV caught them knifing him, slicing and gouging into his face time and again, as though making it unrecognisable would stop them getting caught.

I was delighted that the identikit picture was totally unlike him. DNA helped convict the killers but was of no use in identifying Vernon. And, as always, the bus passengers disagreed about what he looked like.

I say as always because newspapers and TV had run stories about Wet Wipe Willie, the Kleeneze Rider, the mysterious figure who travelled around on the buses cleaning seats where people had put their feet on them. But the photos were always blurred or caught him turned away. You looked at them like supposed photos of the Loch Ness Monster, not sure whether you could see anything. And people who’d seen him described him differently. Some reported he was tall and well dressed, with a military moustache and bearing, cleaning the seat like a colonel mucking in. Others had seen a frail little fellow with hardly the strength to stand, wiping seats with a doleful countenance as the bus bowled along.

Some even said the Kleeneze Rider was a woman, a cheery Glasgow wifie. But when the media asked, Who Is The Kleeneze Rider? nobody suggested there was more than one. It’s comforting to cherish a lone hero, like thinking that America owes every single apple tree to Johnny Appleseed.

His bus pass! It suddenly hit me: they would have been able to identify him from his senior citizens’ bus pass. He didn’t have credit cards – “Don’t believe in them!” – but he must have had his bus pass with him, for without free bus travel he wouldn’t have been able to afford to spend his days as he did, hopping from one bus to another. I began to think that the authorities knew perfectly well who he was but were suppressing the fact for some mysterious reason and would pounce on me in due course.

Vernon had turned up at our house to announce, totally unworried, that he’d had warnings and visits about not paying his rent and now an eviction notice. Did he have the money? – Yes. Why had he stopped paying? – He grinned. He watched me on the phone to the housing association as though it had nothing to do with him. I told them he was just an old man getting forgetful, but they wouldn’t rescind the eviction.

“Enough of the forgetful,” he said when I came off the phone, and then, with what sounded like triumph, “Well, Graeme, you’re going to have to have your father to live with you.”

“With me and Ben,” I said, in case he thought his moving in meant Ben moving out. Because I was fired up to resist him on that front, I didn’t challenge that “have to”.

I told Ben: “This is just another attempt at separating us – but I’ll never let him.”

We had to get used to Vernon raging nightly at the television. A fat 15-year-old girl confided that her baby was the best thing that had ever happened to her. Vernon shouted, “And was it the best thing that ever happened to the bloody baby?”

Ben used to egg him on – or was it to try please him? – saying things like, “Self, self, self: no-one has any consideration for anyone else. I blame Mrs Thatcher.”

But Vernon wouldn’t so much as acknowledge that Ben had spoken.

What would he have shouted at a report of his own murder by weasel-faced boys of 16 and 17?

One night he looked across Ben and said to me: “Doesn’t your lodger want his own place instead of sleeping on the couch?”

“You know perfectly well Ben sleeps with me,” I replied, but he’d turned up the TV to drown me. Some boy whose face was clunky with metal was being interviewed about not having a job and said he wanted to be famous. Vernon cried: “Too busy planning where his next rivets will go to concentrate on a bloody job. And foot up on the couch as they film him. I’ll show him famous!” Next day he returned from the supermarket shouldering a black rucksack filled with cleaning materials.

At the start he wouldn’t begin to work until the miscreants got off the bus. If the seat was leatherette-covered, he’d wipe it with a wet cloth and then a dry one. If it was cloth-covered, he sprayed on dry foam that brushed out without leaving the seat wet. Always he paid no attention to the murmurs and mutual nudging of passengers. If they spoke to him they got no response. It was like he was lost in a spiritual exercise.

Once Ben put his feet on the seat to see if that would shake him into acknowledging him, but no luck.

Later he’d get to work even while the miscreant was still on the bus.

When I saw a pouty-mouthed girl sitting with her back to the window and her feet up, I sensed the mind-set Vernon would be attributing to her: I am a little princess, and the self-esteem I have been filled with means I don’t care whether the dinky stylish boots at the end of my long black-trousered legs could transmit dogshit from the street to the seat where people have to sit. When a crowd of people started to get on, she did shift her boots to the floor, but before anyone could sit there, Vernon darted up to brush the cleansing foam in and out, then hurried back to his seat, passing me without a glance.

Later still he’d sometimes start the wiping while the miscreant still had their feet on the seat. He’d work carefully around the footwear. Then a period of tension ensued, a silent battle in which it was uncertain whether he would have to abandon the cleaning or whether the miscreant would be shamed into shifting their feet. Throughout, Vernon never said a word.

They found £80 in cash on the corpse. Since the boys hadn’t stolen that, they’d hardly have taken his bus pass, in its worn wee leather holder from Watt Brothers.

I told Ben: “I need to go to the crime scene after all.”

The fatal road off the main street was separated from a big supermarket car park by a cordon of cotoneaster bushes, “landscaping”, unkempt, litter-strewn. Was he still carrying his bus pass when the boys struck and it fell among the bushes? – Did he even throw it into them, to preserve anonymity until his legend was complete and the moment ripe for his name to be famous? It beggared belief that the police hadn’t searched the cotoneasters, but if I could find it I’d be that bit surer that his name would never be known.

The CCTV cameras, wherever they were, that caught the killers would also catch me. That might bring the police to my door.

I devised a mime to demonstrate my innocence to the cameras. They’d see someone hurrying by, staring at his mobile like ordinary morons. He’d stumble, the mobile would go flying into the bushes. While retrieving the mobile he’d have a good rummage for the bus pass; then the cameras would see him holding up the mobile in evident relief.

As I reached for my mobile I saw a policeman standing in the lee of a pinnacled wee church.

The lurch my insides gave made me take out the wrong thing; the stumble I’d already programmed myself to give caused my wallet to fly into the cotoneasters. As I stooped and peered and groped among the stiff scratchy interlocking almost-impenetrable branches, a new thought struggled up, though, alas, unprovable: if alarm at the policeman had confused me, could alarm at the boys have confused Vernon into putting the wrong thing into the used-ticket bin on the bus? – The bus pass carried across town, destroyed by flames among used tickets, safe from unmasking the Kleeneze Rider...

“What are you doing?” A twig jabbed my eye as I poked and groped.

I was still heaving with guilt at having been apprehended by police, even though I’d noticed the wry and unpolice-like exasperation on that “What” and had already realised it was Ben who’d spoken; Ben in black trousers and black bomber jacket, whom, absurdly, I’d mistaken for a policeman.

“I Dropped my wallet.” I waved it at him.

“You came looking for that bloody bus pass.”

“Because of what he tried to do to us!”

I added: “Though following me about like I’m a loony needing supervision makes me wonder about us.”

“If you let it, he wins.”

Ben sighed, then parodied my voice. “Legends thrive because you can ask who the person really was. You’re right. The Phantom of the Opera: romantic, glamorous figure. But at the end of the novel he turns out to be an architect called Erik. Romantic glamour goes phut! Yes?”

He repeated: “Yes?”

I didn’t challenge it. “Okay.”

He put his arm around my shoulders. “So puncture his legend and you win. Tell the world the Kleeneze Rider is a security guard called Vernon.”

I leaned into his shoulder and allowed him to steer me towards home.

Later I suddenly said: “Oh, but I can’t come forward and identify him after all this time. It’ll look too suspicious.” I said it as if this made me really sorry.


Paul Brownsey was a newspaper reporter. As a mature student he went to Keele University, Oxford University and Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, before lecturing in philosophy at Glasgow University for 37 years. He lives in Bearsden, near Glasgow, with civil partner Jim McKenzie. He has published 60 short stories, one in the Freight Books anthology of Scottish LGBT writing, Out There. Lethe Press will publish a volume of his stories.