The posts below are extracts from my blog Bus On Diversion, which describes things I have seen and heard on London’s buses. Perhaps they will become a book one day. For more posts please visit https://busondiversion.wordpress.com.
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.
Waiting for the 59. 6pm.
Just behind the bus stop a man and a woman were standing side by side, stock-still, looking out on to the street.
The woman said, without turning her head, ‘Gloria was saying to me, “I think you’ve lost weight!”, and then when I took off my jacket she was saying, “Ah no, you haven’t actually.”‘
‘Charming.’ The man began scrolling through messages on his phone.
The woman continued to face forward. ‘My parents used to tell me I was fat when I was growing up. When my mother said it I cried. When my father said it I cried like a baby.’
This seemed to me to be quite a profound thing to confess, especially to someone who wasn’t really listening. I guess sometimes we just have to share what’s in our heart.
Does it make any difference to you that the man and woman were both police officers, in full uniform (padded shirt and trousers, hi-vis jackets, reinforced boots, helmets, puffy gloves)? They were standing by the bus stop as part of their evening patrol.
They were so still. They reminded me of a set of IKEA salt and pepper pots – round and sort of earthen.
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.
35. 6pm. Top deck, on the right, about halfway down.
I sat down next to a man in his forties who was watching a nature documentary on his smartphone. The narrative voiceover was in a highly unnatural style that we hear all the time now, with stressed syllables getting three times the emphasis they need. I caught the words ‘Alex has been investigating the behaviour of these birds in their natural habitat…’ before the man noticed I had sat down and began fast-forwarding the video, perhaps out of embarrassment that he had been caught watching a bird documentary on the bus.
He stopped just near the end of the documentary, and I heard the following glorious words which I thought were appropriate for today (apologies to any non-Londoners – this will fill you in):
‘The question is, of course… just how… did that crow… do it?’
Fish out of water
59. 9.30am. In the aisle, overwhelmed by Tube regulars.
Tube strike day. I won’t comment on whether or not it was a ‘total disaster’ or ‘really not a big deal’. Enough opinions have been aired on the internet already. All I will say is that my usual 59 route was severely and comically disrupted by the throngs of Tube travellers venturing aboveground, in some cases apparently for the first time.
Three overheard gems:
1. Two women in glamorous office-wear, wedged in together and speaking nose to nose. One to the other: ‘I really don’t understand. Why are they running it from Victoria to Seven Sisters and not coming to Brixton? I mean, what’s so special about Seven Sisters that they had to miss out Brixton? Did they think we would kick off more down here?’
2. A middle-aged woman who had nabbed a seat, speaking on her mobile phone: ‘I’m just ringing to let you know that I’m on a bus – on account of the strike, which is affecting the Underground – and we’ve just been told it’s terminating early. At Aldwych. I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do when I get to Aldwych’ (waves away her neighbour who helpfully suggests some other bus routes before adding that the woman could just wait for another 59 which would surely follow close behind) ‘I really have no idea what I’m going to do. But I just thought I’d let you know anyway.’
3. A very large and imposing man standing near the driver, glaring balefully at the squashy sea of people who weren’t moving down the bus effectively enough. He didn’t actually ask anyone to move down, but after a few minutes of glaring he leaned over to the driver and whined, as if to a form teacher, ‘Driver, no one is moving down the bus and I can’t get through.’ Mister, on the buses we try to actually talk to each other. Give it a go!
Apparently the river ferries were free today until 10am. Perhaps tomorrow that might work for some of you. Have fun anyway…
In the game
137. 10pm. Top deck, on the left, near the front.
The man next to me was wearing a smart black coat and a slick haircut. His leather laptop bag was wedged between us. He was flicking through news stories on a smartphone with the thumb of his right hand while holding a BlackBerry to his ear with his left hand. He was bantering with what I guessed was a male friend.
‘Right. Look up to the row of balconies…
‘Where are you looking, you fool?
‘Yes you’re there! You’re looking at the end of the street, right?
‘Look up! It’s the third window along – is the light on?
‘No, it’s not my room, it’s Kyle’s…’
He gave me a few moments to try to work out why on earth his friend was searching for Kyle’s room (on some street somewhere else in Clapham) while he deftly switched over on his smartphone from the news stories to a football game app.
‘Yup, so… are you going to order me a drink? I’ll be there in seven minutes.
‘Ha. Can you order me a lager that’s as close to 4% as possible? I think they do an Amstell in there.
‘Shut your mouth!’ His eyes were twinkling. ‘If you do I’ll throw it in your face.’
There’s something peculiarly loving about the way men verbally abuse their friends. The players in the miniature football game were standing around waiting for an instruction.
‘Look, I’ve had more drinks since you’ve been away than… I just have to rein it in if I’m going to get to bed before midnight.
‘Well it doesn’t matter anyway.’
He smiled warmly. ‘I may have had a cigarette. I’ll see you in a minute.’
He let in a goal, switched off the app and got off the bus at Clapham Junction.
I did slightly wonder whether this was an illicit rendezvous that Kyle was not supposed to know about. So I’ve changed his name, I hope that’s OK.
176. 5pm. Top deck, a third of the way down on the left.
In the row in front of mine, two women in their mid-twenties were circling round a difficult topic – something to do with a relationship that was basically over but kept lurching back to life when everyone least expected it to. The woman on the left was keen to workshop this with the woman on the right, who seemed less keen, and the two of them performed the familiar dance of touching on a topic for a few moments, bouncing off to talk about something more lighthearted, returning for another instalment, darting away again, etc.
At one point, the woman on the right took out her smart phone and pulled up a YouTube video.
The woman on the left glanced at the screen. ‘Why are you looking at seals?’
‘They’re otters. Have you seen this one? It’s so cute, they’re bonding with their pups.’
‘Did you see the penguin programme the other day? You should get it on iPlayer, it’s so cute.’
‘Seriously, just watch this.’
The two women leaned close together to watch otters doing their thing online. They were quiet for a while. Then:
It was raining again, and the top deck’s damp coats were making its windows steam up. Someone had got as far as writing ‘MERRY CHR’ on the big window by the stairs before, I guess, moving on.
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!
109. 11am. Top deck, on the left near the front.
Overheard behind me: a family tucking in to various funpacks of crisps – a boy, a girl and a mother.
Boy: [Licks salt off crisp, then eats naked crisp. Repeats for all crisps.]
Girl: Mum, why is he licking all the salt off first?
Mother: Maybe he just likes the salt darling.
Girl: But…? Why can’t he have the salt and the crisp, together?
Perhaps we have here a little person who prefers not to take the rough with the smooth.