Bus stop in north London. 3pm. First ever (and possibly only ever) picture post.
Waiting for the 59. 9.30am.
It was a gloriously sunny morning. I was lightly dozing at the bus stop, eyes closed and legs stretched out. Then I heard a gentle singing to my left. I opened my eyes to see a small Somali family – mum, two daughters and tiny son – off on an outing (possibly some sort of children’s Qur’an class, judging from the stationery and textbooks mum was carrying). The mum had opened up her Qur’an and was singing softly, a lovely lilting melody.
The two daughters were dressed in traditional dress and hijabs, but they also wore fat stripey trainers (just visible) and sported enormous, yellow Hello Kitty satchels. The tiny son was in a white thobe, and completed his outfit with matching trainers and an outsize Arsenal jersey.
Having worked out how many minutes there were until the next bus (‘Five!’), the three children gathered just to the right of the bus stop and silently began to make silly shapes with their shadows, the tiny son aping his big sisters.
The sun continued to beam down on all of us.
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!
59. 7pm. Top deck, on the right behind the stairs.
Directly in front of me, blocking my view, was a screen displaying the images from eight (yes eight) different CCTV camera angles on the bus. I found myself watching the images flick over and over, in their fixed order, trying to see how they could add up to a consistent narrative about me and my fellow passengers.
As I watched, the images became a sort of mesmerising, minimalist, silent film. Most of the characters in this film were blank-faced and grey, swaying together (but also somehow not together) in their seats. Every few minutes someone would briefly shine, appearing dramatically in two consecutive shots (looming bobble hat caught by camera 2; lurching, zombie-like, away from camera 3) before melting into the swaying rows. A swinging handrail was the star of camera 7, but it was perpetually out of focus. This began to feel like a metaphor.
Luckily I got off the bus before I disappeared any further down this strange train (bus) of thought. However, in case you are curious and would like to script your own short film, here are all the camera positions/perspectives:
Camera 1: Positioned bottom deck at the back, pointing straight down the middle towards the front
Camera 2: Positioned top deck above the stairs, pointing vertiginously down (good for close-ups)
Camera 3: Positioned halfway down top deck, pointing down the middle towards the back
Camera 4: Positioned top deck at the back, pointing forward towards the left
Camera 5: Positioned top deck at the back, pointing forward towards the right (interesting ‘spot the difference’ possibilities in relation to Camera 4)
Camera 6: Positioned top deck at the front, capturing the whole top deck
Camera 7: Positioned near bottom of the stairs, pointing at the back doors (with symbolic swinging handrail in foreground – avant garde)
Camera 8: Positioned bottom deck at the back, pointing at the wheelchair space
NB: Each shot lasts around 5 seconds.
345. 1am. Bottom deck, just behind the wheelchair space.
A man and a woman sat down behind me. They had a studenty, end-of-the-night look about them. I got the impression they were flatmates.
The man began to complain, in clean, crisp tones and using curiously sober-sounding phrases such as whereby, in fact and rightly so, about a friend of theirs called March. March was one of those people who everyone likes, even though they are frustratingly elusive most of the time and materialise only to invite you to things at very short notice. The man had just turned down one such invitation and clearly felt the need to workshop the decision. ’I'm not cross with him, I’m really not, it’s just how it goes. But the problem is, you see, that home is warm, and once I’m there I don’t like to leave. It’s alright if it’s half an hour, but a three-hour journey is simply too much, don’t you think?’
The woman, now slumped foward so that her long hair draped over the back of my seat, slurred something unintelligible.
The man carried on, undeterred. There were evidently a lot of angles to this whole March situation that he needed to consider. The woman slurred a few more times and then started breathing heavily into my ear.
The man was now talking more or less to himself. He was on a mission to solve the riddle of March, with or without our help. But he was becoming a little repetitive.
I was about to intervene when the woman suddenly sat up and declared, ‘Listen. This will end in one of only two ways: complete disaster or capitulation.’
March had better watch out…
341. 3pm. Bottom deck, a couple of rows behind the back doors, on the left.
‘Nah, Tottenham. As in IKEA.’ Two middle-aged blonde women boarded the bus, talking loudly in powerful East End accents. I thought at first that they were sisters, but soon realised that one was the other’s mum. There definitely were not two whole decades between them.
They talked briefly about this and that (the this was mostly a recent trip to Brighton; the that was how to legally extricate oneself from a family business that had gone into administration – I don’t think they meant theoretically), and then the younger woman asked for her mother’s phone. She scrolled the numbers. ‘What is it, “Stacey Blackberry” or something?’
‘Yeah. You’d better call her, she’ll be going into school tomorrow.’
‘Yeah I’m doing it… Oh hiya babe!’ Her voice suddenly went up an octave. ’Just callin’ to say I’ve just given Nanny your birthday money ‘cos you’re seeing her later aren’t ya? You can spend it on the trainers or…’
‘Or I could hold it for her,’ cut in the older woman.
‘… Or Nanny could hold it for ya she says… How’s it going babe? Awww, you enjoying your day off? … Awww, what you up to? … No, better not…’
‘What’s that, what’s she asking?’
‘… Or I’ll be cruisin’ for a bruisin’.’ The woman had fixed a smile to her face as if she were cold-calling someone about contents insurance. Now she added what I guess you might call a ‘humorous eyeroll’.
I imagined Stacey cringing on the other end of the phone. I wondered how old she was now. I wondered how often she and her mum saw each other. I wondered if she pitied her mum a little.
‘Well alright babe, speak soon, I’ll text you or something… Just call me if you need me. Or text me. If you need me. Bye.’
The woman returned the phone to her mother, who stowed it away in her handbag.