1. Friday 21 September, 6 pm, 272 bus – Du Cane Road, West London.
I’ve waited 25 minutes in the rain for this bus. It’s delayed, and it’s packed: I’m not hopeful of getting a seat, but once I’m on I see that the whole of the back row
is unoccupied. I plonk myself down and the bus moves off, lurching to a halt almost immediately. The traffic is solid.
There are three young boys sitting in front of me: two immediately in front, and one across the aisle. They’re not wearing uniform, but I know they’re schoolchildren because they can’t be more than 13 or 14. Of the three of them, one of their voices hasn’t broken yet. They are talking animatedly about the respective size of their penises.
I smile to myself and try to call Kate. She’s out of signal, so I leave a voicemail and root in my bag for my book. The boys have by this point moved on to pussies, but as I open the book their conversation becomes muted and they shift in their seats to look at me. Then one of them says, unmistakeably – four-eyed cunt. The others gasp and laugh, scandalised but excited by this pronouncement. A four-eyed FAT cunt.
The F-word stings. I roll my eyes and lean forward in mock concern.
Are you OK? – What? No, I mean, you seem really distressed. Do you want your mum? Is your mum on the bus? Do you want me to help you find her?
Fat cunt. Shut up. Why is she talking to us?
I just want to make sure you’re OK. Adolescence is a confusing time. If you need an adult to help you, just let me know.
I sit back. I have definitely won, but the bus is not moving.
There are some more muttered ‘cunts’ and ‘bitches’, but they don’t turn to face me for a few minutes. Then the boy across the aisle gets off the bus. As he passes, he jumps up and rains blows on the window next to my face. His friends laugh and cheer. I draw a small heart in the condensation and blow him a kiss.
What are you DOING? Pervert.
I thought your friend liked me.
I just thought you all must fancy me, and that’s why you’re paying me so much attention.
They scoff and laugh uncomfortably. They can’t decide who has won: me or their friend. I know it is me, but engross myself in my book. Then one of their phones bleeps.
It’s him. He says he doesn’t like you, you’re sick.
I turn a page. More bleeping.
He says, you’re dead. He’s gonna meet you at your stop and kill you. I look up.
Why don’t you give your friend my number, so he can send these sexy texts directly to me?
I win, I win, I win. No-one else on the bus acknowledges my win (or indeed, any of the abuse so far), but it still definitely counts.
The swearing and name-calling starts up again. It goes on for about ten minutes and becomes progressively nastier. I say nothing, and none of the other passengers come to my defence, even though everyone can hear what is going on. No-one even turns around. Then, the young boy whose voice hasn’t broken yet says he’s going to rape me. That his dick is huge and he’s going to stick it in me. I lose it.
You saw me getting on at the hospital. Did it occur to you that I might have bigger problems to worry about than dealing with some little shits whose balls haven’t even dropped yet? Just leave me alone! No-one cares! You’re boring! I’m bored! I’m finished with you! Just fuck off! Fuck off! FUCK OFF!
I have to stand up and shout the last bit because they’ve stood up and are shouting at me.
DON’T TELL US YOUR LIFE STORY
HOPE YOUR FAMILY DIES
FOUR-EYED FAT CUNT
GONNA GET RAPED
The young boys get off the bus. They can’t be more than 13 or 14.
I’m crying with stress and rage. A woman leans across the aisle and says, don’t pay any attention to them.
2. Today, 10 pm, King Street, West London.
I am well on the way to beating my personal best time from Ealing to Kensington (and possibly a new land speed record) when I catch sight of an old man crumpling
backwards into the street on the corner ahead. A younger man standing behind him reaches out a little too late to break his fall, and the old man’s head taps sharply against the pavement. I screech to a halt and lay my bike down on the pavement. Together, the younger man and I haul the old man into a standing position.
The old man is uncommunicative but deceptively heavy for someone so frail. A long rope of bloody snot drips from his nose, and he shivers with cold in his pale blue summer suit. Together, the younger man and I haul him onto the pavement. He clutches two blue plastic carrier bags which prevent him from using his stick properly, so I try to persuade him to relinquish them while we attempt to lean him against the wall. Initially he resists, but eventually he is convinced and the bags fall from his freezing fingers to the ground with a tinny clatter.
The old man is confused. Blood dribbles from his nostrils and from a cut on his head, while another, older cut stands out livid on his brow. The younger man, Charlie, seems keen to help. I regard him warily as he is also extremely drunk, somewhat malodorous, and accompanied by a portly pit bull terrier called Sally. He says he’d been out and about when he’d come across the old man and decided to help him get home. He thinks he lives in a hostel a few streets away as he has a lanyard around his neck with a key attached to it.
Charlie explains that he himself doesn’t have a phone but he thinks the local police should be called. I agree and take out my phone, only to feel a sudden stab of apprehension. This is quickly followed by a blushing tide of guilt, but if Charlie notices my prejudice, he is too much of a gentleman to show it. He roughly mops at the old man’s nose with his own sleeve as I dial 101.
There follows a garbled three-way conversation with the operator. What is the old man’s name? Chris. How many times has he fallen? Twice. Does his head hurt? No. Does he have any pains in his chest? No. Has he been drinking? No. Really? One. The blue bags are full of empty cans. Charlie guffaws and says ‘a couple of shandies’. Sally wags her tail happily.
The police and ambulance on their way, it gets very quiet, and very cold. Charlie and I hold one of Chris’s hands each and try to chafe some warmth into them. I ask
Chris more questions – where does he live? Sheltered accommodation. What road? — Court. How long has he lived there? He doesn’t know. Does he have any family? No. Where has he been today? Far. Has he been out for long? Yes. His eyes water in the cold wind.
I realise that not only have I unconsciously adopted the cheerful, indefatigable sing-song tone of voice I used to use when I worked in mental health, but that Charlie has too. Out here pissed in the cold, eh Chris, ya daft old bugger? Cheer up mate, police’ll be here soon and you’ll get in out of the cold, alright?
Where does Charlie live? Staying near here. Has he had a good evening? Yeah, great, until now. Is he OK? Yeah, he’s fine.
How am I? Oh, you know, managing. Ha ha ha.
The police arrive. With a glance, they take in Chris, Charlie, Sally and the blue bags and then address themselves exclusively to me. The ambulance is on its way, they say. Chris perks up noticeably. Hammersmith Hospital! he says. Yes, we say. Du Cane Road! he says. Yes, I say, do you know it? Yes, he says. I want to go there.
Warm there, isn’t it? says Charlie.
Chris doesn’t seem to notice when I pry my hand out of his, but Charlie calls after me ‘thank you’. It only occurs to me once I’ve started cycling away to call back ‘thank YOU’, and I’m not sure he can hear.