Displacement activity

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:

‘So cute.’

‘So cute.’

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.

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!


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.


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.’