Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Tempers rise on the number 43

Every now and again there is a little touch of drama on the bus journey - usually to do with some drunken yob making trouble, or packs of seriously scary teenage girls throwing things at you, or maybe just a man of "middle-eastern origin" pulling on a full-face balaclava for no apparent reason (I have experienced all of these, BTW).

Last night, I experienced two extremes of behaviour. A well-dressed black man sat directly in front of me, reading the paper, and I looked up as an elderly white guy sat down next to him. He leaned over a little too close as he took his seat, gave him the loveliest, most winning smile, and asked how his night was going. The black guy was a little on the defensive, being a Londoner, but responded and soon they were engaged in a little conversation. The black guy ended up giving him his paper as he got up to leave. A tiny act of kindness, nothing at all really, but still it warmed my heart to see.

Later on, two extremely drunken, well-weathered 40-ish white guys got on the bus and sat down a few rows behind and on the aisle opposite me. The combined stench of stale cigarette smoke and gin made me wince from metres away. They were talking loudly, in voices which were a mixture of drunken slurring and hoarse raspiness. Everyone on the bus studiously ignored them. One of the men took an interest in a young Yugoslavian girl sitting opposite him, and carried on a rambling, one-sided conversation which everyone on the top deck could hear. At some point, the girl dropped her umbrella (probably out of nervousness). This provoked the turning point for the guy, whose conversation, in the manner of nasty drunks everywhere, took a turn for the worse.

I have been in a similar sitation a few times, and each time it makes me sick to the stomach. I sat there, my heart thumping, while he became more and more abusive towards this poor girl, accusing her of stealing his benefits, his council house, then making threats on her life and safety, all in a vicious, slurring growl. There is no situation more horrible than when your heart is telling you you must do something to stand up to these thugs, and your head is saying "don't get involved". You hear of too many incidents in London which turn nasty for the "nice guy" who intervenes, and invariably ends up getting beaten, mugged, stabbed, shot or worse. I was too scared that these guys would follow me off the bus if I said anything to them.

At one point the girl finally got up and went downstairs to leave, head down and hunched over, his evil words hissing behind her all the way down the aisle. I could feel every insult as if it were a sting. With his target gone, the man resumed slurring to his equally noxious mate as if nothing had happened.

As I went downstairs a few stops later, I saw the girl sitting in a new spot on the bottom deck. I stood waiting for the bus to reach my stop, wishing I knew what to say to her, to offer her some comfort or support. She was doing some work, her face set in frozen studiousness. Eventually the bus creaked to a stop and I got off, too torn over the whole incident to speak to her.

My heart didn't stop pounding the whole walk home.


Laura Linger said...

Naive American here:

Do you ever ride the Tube?

I love the Tube. We rode it all over London when we visited in summer 2002. Our stop was Gloucester Road.

I cannot wait to go back.

melbourne dreaming said...

Yeah, I used to take the tube - but I got on at Archway, on the Northern Line. And, as all North Londoners know, Archway is the worst possible stop on the worst possible line. My journey everyday was horribly overcrowded, regularly delayed, sometimes not running at all, and usually boiling hot.

I decided to start taking the bus soon after 7/7 (see much earlier blogs!) because I started to hate taking the tube. It can be great for getting around town, but not commuting from Archway to London Bridge and back every day! I like being able to see where I am going.

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