59. 9.30am. Top deck, about halfway down on the left.

‘Over there, look. The way the roots are coming up through the pavement. And there, in that garden, that’s a banana tree. Did you know bananas grow on trees?’

A tanned and broad-shouldered man was talking to his tiny son in the row in front of me. The son looked around five, and was so small I could barely see him over the seat. He had tousled brown hair, and he was curling his body towards the window, glancing listlessly at the things his father was pointing out in the world outside the bus.

‘The bananas are like the flowers of the trees.’

The boy piped up: ‘Bananas are lellow.’

‘Yes,’ the father confirmed, ‘bananas are yellow.’

The boy squirmed a little. ‘Like lellow signs.’

‘What? Uh, yes, that’s right.’

After a short pause: ‘Daddy I want to build things.’

‘Hmm, that’s interesting. Like houses?’

Curling up even smaller: ‘I want to build walls.’

This kid was deep.

The father bent his face down to gaze lovingly at his son. ‘So you don’t want to be a fireman any more then?’

‘A fire fighter.’

This got me in my gut. I love that children are now learning gender-neutral profession titles as a matter of course. Anyway, it soon became apparent why the boy was being so floppy and unenthusiastic.

‘I think I want to go home.’

‘Hmm? But what about your friends at the nursery? Who are your friends, tell me.’

‘Daniel…’ and then in a whisper, ‘but he doesn’t want to play with me.’

The father, to my great admiration, didn’t miss a beat. With absolutely no hint of talking down to his son, he said, ‘Hmm. Well, he probably just wants his space. You know, everyone does once in a while. Don’t worry about it. Sometimes that happens to me too – people ask me to play and I’m busy because I might be seeing you, or someone else, and sometimes I ask people to play with me and they’re tired or have other things on. It’ll be OK, he’ll come and play when he’s ready to.’

The boy uncurled a little, but still looked anxious about going to nursery. When the bus arrived at their stop, father and son held hands and made their way to the stairs. As they descended, I heard the father say, still in a level, man-to-man voice, ‘It’ll be OK. But if you want me to stay a little while at the start I can, I have time.’


Seal the deal

59. 10am. Top deck, halfway down on the left.

‘I’ll tell you something: my tolerance levels of eating have gone right down. Honestly speaking… Yes, water, I’ve been drinking a lot of water… I’ve eliminated fizzy drinks. Just juice – I love juice, you know me… but I know I’ve been drinking more because my toilet water is as clear as snow…’

Across from me a man was speaking loudly on his phone. His half of the conversation led me to believe he worked in something to do with the Premier League – selling tickets, or perhaps merchandise. At any rate something that required him to work most weekends. He wasn’t complaining, though: he was making hella overtime and counting every pound. He seemed to be one of life’s born statesmen, peppering his speech with oratorial flourishes such as ‘let me tell/ask you something’, ‘honestly speaking’ and ‘you know me’. He also didn’t seem to mind sharing his private life with everyone on the bus. Here is what he is up to in May:

‘Is that QPR? That’s time-and-a-half! I’ll be taking that, thanks very much! Thanks for reminding me. Anyway I’ve booked Amsterdam… Yeah, big guns, but on the Monday so by then she’ll be down about nothing happening so it’ll be like kaPOW. I saw a ring on Rings of London. £250 down to £60! You know me, I love a bargain. I don’t want to do a dinner or anything, it’s always the same. I want to take her to, you know the Shard? WHAT? You know, that new building by London Bridge, that big one, really new, glass, the NEW ONE man, where we used to work, seriously my friend, the SHARD, pointy, big, the SHARD [etc etc for about two minutes] … Yeah, anyway, it’s £25 per ticket. I want to take her for the latest view, for all the lights and what-not, and do it then. You know how she loves taking photos. I’ll take her to the theatre on the Saturday, and probably there won’t be time so Shard on Sunday. She’ll be quite down by then so, whoop there it is, big surprise… Then the flight at 6.20am on the Monday. You know me, I like those early flights… £37! To go all the way there! I was thinking of taking the coach but it takes twelve hours… No, no, you only live once, that’s what I say. So Monday is sightseeing, then Tuesday for any last bits and bobs. Just what will fit in hand luggage – I bought one hand luggage, one check-in, it didn’t seem worth it… change of clothes, toiletries, that’s it. You know me.’

I feel like I do now, friend! I hope she says yes.


68. 10pm. Top deck, on the left halfway down.

It was a miserable, lonesome night. Rain pelted the windows, which had steamed up only slightly with the collective warmth of me and the other five passengers on the top deck. We shivered, collectively.

It took me twenty minutes to notice that someone had written two words onto the condensation on the front window: love yourself

Well, if anything’s worth saying then that surely is!


172. 8.30pm. Bottom deck, back row.

The following is one half of a mobile phone conversation that I (and everyone else in the back row) couldn’t help but overhear. The man was around forty and had slightly thinning but well-combed hair. He was wearing a dark blue suit, and had gold rings on each of the fingers of his right hand, which was the hand brandishing his mobile phone.

‘It’s old. But the functionality is there. You don’t want to get rid of it, it represents value. However you do want…

‘I’ll send you the link-up so you can download it. There’s a discount code.

‘I can’t answer that, I’m afraid. You need to consult the budget holder.

‘I would have thought there would be 30% leeway in it.

‘It’s a question of filing. You’ll need to justify the expense somewhere along the line.

‘The thing is, remember – sorry to interrupt you – but you’ll get either the laptop or the iPad, not both. You have to be a Divisional Director to get both.’


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.


345. 3pm. Bottom deck, standing by the back doors.

Three old ladies, roughly the same shape and size, filed slowly past me and descended from the bus, plop, plop, plop like three perfectly round rosary beads through unhurried fingers.

Sign of the times

149 towards London Bridge.

My favourite bus stop name in London – it makes me smile every time. So apt for the whole of this city really. Imagine it spoken aloud by the pre-recorded lady-voice.

‘Commercial Street / Worship Street’

What’s yours?

Old boys

12. 10pm. Top deck, near the front on the right.

A group of men came up onto the top deck and made their way, swaying and singing, to the back. They must have been in their fifties or sixties, all in navy suits with little gold pins stuck to their lapels. An old boys’ reunion, I surmised. They were on their way home from a fancy dinner, and recalled the evening’s events to one another very loudly for the duration of their journey. The rest of us couldn’t help but hear their conversation; we were engulfed in it. There was much belly-laughing. Every once in a while one of the men teetered towards the front of the deck to check they hadn’t missed their stop, and then teetered, chortling, back again.

They really were very loud. The thing is, I didn’t find it annoying. And it made me wonder that I didn’t. If they had been white, with cut-glass accents, all the old-boy stereotypes would have slotted in easily, and I probably would have been irritated by this bunch of moneyed toffs/Tories/wanker-bankers/[insert insult here]. But they were black, with accents from West Africa, so the convenient negative associations just weren’t available. But West Africa must have its share of moneyed old-boy networks, just like everywhere else. And anyway, a group of inebriated white men wearing matching suits doesn’t have to be a symbol of privilege and exclusivity; it might just be a group of friends who go back a long way and like dressing up. Perhaps we Londoners have bought into class stereotypes to a degree that is no longer helpful or relevant?

Hmm, hmm. This encounter was like a Rubix cube of class, race, gender and common sense. My eventual thought, as the group poured out of the bus at Camberwell Green, was that it was definitely possible to overthink these things. Moral of the story: noisy men on buses are a little annoying, whatever the cut of their jib.