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!