Category Archives: Encounter

When the sun is shining

Waiting for the 35. 10.30am.

It was a glorious summer morning and I was hanging around the bus stop, sipping a takeaway coffee and watching the lady who runs our local laundromat clean her shop window. She had a small bucket of soapy water, a window brush, a squeegee, an old sock (for resting the squeegee on) and a wooden step-ladder splattered in red paint.

The lady dipped the window brush into the bucket, climbed up onto the ladder, soaped down the left side of the window, climbed back down, put the brush in the bucket, picked up the squeegee from its resting place, got back up onto the ladder, squeegeed over the soapy glass to get a clean finish, got back down, and put the squeegee onto the sock. Then she moved the ladder a little to the right and repeated the procedure for the right side of the window. The window had yellow vinyl lettering stuck onto its interior side, spelling out the name of the laundromat, but some of the letters had come off over the years.

I asked the lady how often she cleaned the window. She looked down from her ladder and said, ‘Whenever it looks dirty. It’s very easy to do with this brush, much better than with a cloth, which leaves marks.’

I love low-tech solutions. Sometimes all you need is a simple brush and a good system. Anyway, having asked my question I decided to let her get on with her task. But just as I was walking away she added, ‘When the sun is shining you can see the dirt more clearly so it’s good to clean then.’

There’s a life lesson in there somewhere.

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Serendipity

Pertaining to the 178. 9pm. Outside my local Chinese takeaway.

I had spent a week in India celebrating the wedding of one of my oldest friends. I had had 6 hours of sleep in two nights, then travelled by every mode other than bus for just over 15 hours. I hauled my dusty suitcase back to my local neighbourhood and staggered into the Chinese takeaway for a duck fried rice. This was now rapidly cooling in my shoulder bag.

A man stopped me at the traffic lights and asked me for a cigarette. He was Ugandan and had lived in the UK since the 1980s. Apparently he was a tribal chief, but hadn’t been home for decades because the Ugandan president had a price on his head (something to do with an assassination attempt – the bullet missed by an inch – no biggie). He now works for the Metropolitan Police, scanning for online child pornography.

We jousted for several minutes about Uganda’s appalling anti-gay laws. Then I noticed that he was wearing an Arriva fleece (non-Londoners, Arriva is the company that runs the city’s bus network). Letting my takeaway get even colder I risked asking, ‘Why are you wearing a bus company fleece?’

‘Oh, my girlfriend is a bus driver!’

Now we were getting somewhere. ‘Which route does she drive?’

‘The 178. In fact, do you know how I met her? I fell asleep on her bus!’ When the driver had discovered him at the end of her route she had asked him where he needed to get to. He lived in Croydon so she took him to his doorstep and so began an accidental but life-affirming relationship. Apparently she is a half-Indian, half-Malawian stunner who stands several inches taller than her man. When I asked him whether the height difference was a challenge he said, puffing out his chest, ‘A challenge? No, I am always the king!’

Who knows what life will throw at us? Next time something doesn’t go according to plan in your life, enjoy the idea that out of the mishap could come something crazy and beautiful.

Night bus

59. 12am. Bottom deck, stuffed into the aisle, very near the front, with the whole of south London.

‘You lot have GOT to calm down!’

‘Oh my DAYS!’

To my right was a group of laughing teenaged girls, heading to their respective homes after an evening out. They were the classic girlfriend-group mix: a supremely confident one, a couple of giddy ones, one who was used to speaking her mind with authority, a very pretty one who didn’t say anything, and a dappy little one who was the butt of all jokes.

This one said, ‘Can I have some bubblegum?’ which caused a torrent of cackles.

‘Did you HEAR what she just said?’ said Authority-girl, to another chorus of ‘Oh my DAYS!’

To my left was a pair of shivering friends, one of whom had sore feet. They were continually craning their necks to see beyond the laughing girls and keep an eye on the Number 3 bus which was ahead of us. They were trying to pull off the trick where you jump off one bus and immediately board the next in your journey, but they needed the two to get closer together before risking it.

The bus was totally rammed. At first I thought this was because we south Londoners know how to party on a weeknight, but it turned out that there had been some sort of control-room disaster and the buses were all out of sync. Our driver spoke to his controller several times on our journey, receiving new instructions to manoeuvre the service back into order. Every time the radio went on, the laughing girls yelled out, ‘Shut up SHUT UP he’s saying something!’ which made me laugh because it was as if we were waiting by an FM radio for the Lotto results.

Right ahead of me (yes, in the luggage tray) was a scraggy Caribbean man who stank of tobacco. He spoke in very slurred Italian to some friends several metres away (I guess they had been separated by the oncoming tides of passengers), and punctuated his exclamations by waving a bottle of wine in the face of the girl with sore feet. He was a sort of magnificent, Byronic hero.

The laughing girls were debating their next move.

‘I could get the Tube you know, I’m telling you it’s not the time to be getting another bus.’ This was Confident-girl.

Authority-girl retorted, ‘Who gets the Northern Line from Victoria?’

‘No-one. We’re at Oval.’ Wow, I would love to be able to give withering looks like that.

Dappy-girl piped up, ‘I could get off here and walk!’ which, again and inexplicably, made everyone else cry with laughter.

One of the giddy girls said, ‘Do what you feel, nigger,’ to cause a bit of scandal.

The controller came back on (‘Shut up SHUT UP!’) to tell the driver to go as far as Brixton, and then wherever else he took his passengers would be on his own time. I passed the message back to the girl with sore feet, who passed it back (ducking the waving bottle) to the person behind her. News trickled back, as if along a desert caravan. Of course, most people seemed to be joyously drunk so I have no idea what the message was by the time it reached the rear window. The point is we listened as a sort of cobbled-together team, swayed together, made way for each other and actually talked to each other, and by the time I was squeezing my way to the back doors to get off I felt full of the joys of spring and humanity.

And then the doors opened and winter slapped me in the face. Ah, December!

Sight-line

Waiting for my bus, near Waterloo. 8.30pm.

A 172 pulled up. I happened to be standing in the perfect spot, right in the heart of the bus shelter, so I found myself pleasingly aligned with the bus driver when the doors opened. The 172 wasn’t my ride so I stood well back as people bundled on with bags and hats and icy air. When the last person was safely on board, the driver closed the doors.

Just then, to my left, a woman came running down the road towards the bus. The driver saw her and gallantly re-opened the doors. He turned in his seat and saw me right across from him in the bus shelter. We watched each other, smiling – as the running woman passed right through our sight-line (arms in the air as though through a finishing line) to the 176 which had pulled up behind.