The old lady raising her arm at the Co-op bus stop has a jaunty feather in her hat, like William Tell.
‘You don’t need to wave, you know,’ I say as she shuffles aboard. ‘I always stop here.’ The Felixstowe loop: eight times a day, five days a week, more if I want weekend overtime. Which, since Mandy left, I do.
It’s mostly passes and contactless now, but this one’s fumbling in her bag for so long she’s endangering my timetable targets. I’ll lose my bonus if I’m not parked up in bay seven within the four-minute window allowed by a management that doesn’t believe in roadworks. She’s got to be pushing eighty, probably from the wrong side.
‘Do you want to sit down, love? You can show me your pass when you get off.’
Shit, she’s proffering a coin.
Except it isn’t a coin. It’s a button.
In twenty-seven years I’ve been offered plenty of fags, a few swigs of Special Brew, the occasional spliff, and even a blowjob. But never a button.
‘Where to, love?’
I click the cab camera off. There’s an override switch I’m not supposed to know about.
‘Single or return?’
‘Could you decide for me?’
‘Best make it a return.’
I take the big green button and check my mirrors. I wait for her to sit down but she doesn’t move.
‘Excuse me,’ she says, holding out her hand. ‘You haven’t given me my change.’
She waves me down again on Tuesday.
‘Return to Toyland please, young man.’
I laugh. ‘No one’s called me young for a long time. Sure you don’t want Specsavers?’
She giggles like a schoolgirl and pays with two buttons, a flowery blue one and a red one with black spots like a ladybird.
I’m ready this time. I hand her one I snipped off a jacket I’d earmarked for the Age UK shop.
She waves it away. ‘Keep the change.’
On Wednesday she’s carrying a battered chocolate box. The lid has a faded gold bow and a picture of a thatched cottage against an impossibly blue sky.
‘My life savings,’ she says. ‘I’m off on my holidays.’
‘Lovely jubbly. Where’re you going?’
‘Well,’ she says, handing me the box. ‘How far will this take me?’
‘Scotland I should think. Easily.’
‘Oh! I’d love to see Scotland.’
I lift the lid. The box is a coral reef of buttons: cerise hearts and serge-trouser greys, lilac toggles and imitation leathers, wooden-rimmed blues and flower-shaped pinks, filigreed silvers and Celtic knots.
‘Best go and sit down, love.’
There’s a guy in a cheap suit lurking at the stop by the Leisure Centre: a spot-check by Audit Central. I can clock those company clipboards from fifty yards. Some wet-behind-the- wipers graduate smartass desperate to assess my mirror management and count my smiles per mile.
The Button Lady is my only fare. I put my foot down.
‘Scotland love?’ I call. ‘Hold tight.