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.
Pbpbpbpbpbpbp (this is the sound of a pony exhaling). That was harrowing to read, despite being very well-written. When I used to post online regularly, I would find comfort in bad incidents as I’d often think, ‘This will make a brilliant blog entry.’ I guess you’re finding the same solace, and I suppose that’s a good thing. But I also know it takes more than writing a brilliant blog entry to console you after Incident One, which made me think infertility is an attractive option. You have all my sympathy and admiration for handling it so brilliantly. I hope the silent bus passengers went home via Tesco’s, bought a Value cat o’ nine tails and went home to self-flaggelate, literally, for several days.
About 18 months ago I stopped to check the prone figure on a pavement in Canterbury which turned out to be a young man. He reeked of Alcohol and appeared to have thrown up at least once. It was a very clod night. I called the police but when they heard he was probably drunk they lost interest. We, (my son and I) tried to revive him with mixed success. There was an ambulance station about a block away and I ran there and persuaded, (without much difficulty), a paramedic to come. He did and managed to get the boy conscious and we got an address from him. At that point I volunteered to drive him home.
Turned out his girlfriend had been killed about two weeks earlier in an accident this was the result. When we got to his house I got him out of the car to make sure he got through the door, he, thinking I was a cab driver, kept trying to pay me.
Two things struck me, the compassion of the paramedic and the indifference of the police. I know they have a lot to do but they seem addicted to the “macho” side of policing. By contrast the bravest thing I’ve seen an officer do was to check out the condition (no one had any real doubts but it had to be done), of a man that had thrown himself in front of a train in Sittingbourne. The cop was young and I doubt he will ever forget what he saw, but that was REAL policing.
I think you were bloody magnificent in both episodes. I hate people who don’t help. I always do but I know somehow people are afraid. One person coming to your support would have sparked others. I think you’re a total heroine.
This is really nice of you but I am definitely not a heroine.
The first incident you wrote of made me feel sick. Both because I felt for you having to endure such abuse (and threats to kill and rape which are serious offences) and the second reason being because it didn’t surprise me that the other passengers failed to react. Many years ago I was on a bus when a girl was mugged. She was pinned down by a large man and was screaming. the top deck of the bus was full. Mainly with school children, but it included some adults and a couple of large rugy playing sixth formers. Most never turned around let alone responded. My friend and I who were both scrawny 14 year old school girls stood up, we shouted ‘leave her alone’ and followed her as she fled downstairs and we explained to the bus driver what happened. I was shocked that we were the only people to help.
A few days ago a man at a bus stop (about 20 years old) asked me ‘what’s wrong you fat bitch?’. There wasn’t anything wrong until he called me a fat bitch. I was annoyed with how much it upset me, but upset me it did. I cried buckets when I got home….
It’s so easy to make a horrible comment. The response you get is totally disproportionate to the effort you expend. That’s probably why people who are horrible to other people are usually quite stupid, or have emotional problems, or both.
I appreciate this is small consolation at any point in the process. After all, why should you rejoice at someone else’s unhappiness? YOU’RE not the horrible person here. But I guess it’s just important to bear in mind that most personal comments from strangers probably aren’t that personal when it comes down to it. And then go home and beat the crap out your sofa.
You were way braver than I usually am. Both times. Can I ask how they changed your perspective?
In ALL of the ways. I’m having a bit of a tough time at the moment, so perhaps its unsurprising that the first episode made me feel hugely cynical about the essential goodness of pretty much everyone. These children were SO horrible (and the other 40 people on the bus SO unhelpful) that I just felt really shit about everything for days.
When I came across this old man being helped by a homeless guy, I just assumed that the homeless guy was somehow responsible for the old man being drunk and hurt and that he was going to try to harm or rob me. I made that call from 15 metres away, without even speaking to him, and I couldn’t have BEEN more wrong. Yes, he was drunk and he was smelly, and he didn’t have great care skills, but he was genuinely trying to help a stranger as best he could. I felt so humbled after meeting him, and so much better about life in general. It was really inspiring.
Secondly – it’s easy to feel low when you can’t see the bigger picture. I see other parts of the picture now and it makes me remember how ludicrously fortunate I am.
I read this early this morning, and it keeps coming back to me. I’m so sorry that shitty bus incident happened to you. On a packed overground train last January, surrounded by adult men and women, some 13/14ish year old boys sitting across from me began throwing sweets at me. I didn’t want to have to get up and move, and ignore that this was happening. So I sat it out for the twenty minute journey hoping they’d get bored. I spoke back to them, responded to the ridicule and crude, aggressive comments they were sending my way, asking them to stop, asking what they hoped to achieve, and all the while deflecting haribo (WHY WOULD YOU WASTE HARIBO?!!).
But the thing that really got me, and that left me feeling so upset and alone, was the reaction of the fellow passengers on the train. They just sat there and let it happen. They offered no support. No condemnation. I have not felt so helpless, frustrated, angry and vulnerable in a long time. I hate the fact that as a 28 year old woman, I couldn’t get two kids to stop throwing sweets at me, when I was surrounded by other grown ups! At my stop I got off the train, and, finally, a woman asked if I was ok as we got to the platform. Unfortunately, my stop was the boys stop too, but off the train, without the other passengers silently condemning me, I let rip with some quite colourful language at them (consequently losing the sympathy of that concerned woman), and they ran off.
I still think about that journey, and I still don’t know what I could’ve done to stop it.
Good work on getting involved and helping out the man.
Some people can be so disappointing. Others restore your faith.
“Some people can be so disappointing. Others restore your faith.”
I’m a long time lurker, but I had to comment on this post, because it was deeply moving to read. I admire your actions in the first incident SO MUCH. I very very much hope that in that situation I would have stood up to help you – I’m not sure, if it came down to it, if I would have. I know that if I hadn’t, I would have as the first commenter said, gone home to self-flagellate with a very sick feeling in my tummy. In your shoes, I probably would have stood up and found another place to sit or stand.
I would be much more comfortable intervening in the second situation, and had to think about why that was. Just because of my own Asian cultural context I think – I’m used to being protected and defended in situations like the first (if they were even to come up, which so far they haven’t except when I’m outside of the region), and am therefore deeply uncomfortable with (scared of?) open conflict. I have no experience dealing with it.
Now that I’ve read this, though, I resolve that if something like the first incident ever happens around me, I WILL step in and intervene. I’m so sorry you had that experience.
Also, you’re an amazing writer.
Please, please, please be careful. This story did not have a happy ending. It was a horrible situation with a horrible outcome.
My mum just sent me the following email:
“Please choose your battles with more care and fight them only when there is a real likelihood of worthwhile victory. Or become a police or probation officer (thought), with a mandate and the protection of law… I mean it… This is your mother speaking.”
Unlike my mother, I’m not going to recommend you retrain as a probation officer (WTF mum?!) but please don’t involve yourself in unsafe situations. I am not brave, I am stupid.
Rest assured, I will intervene in the manner of taking out my cellphone and calling the police/asking the bus driver to do something 🙂 – but I don’t think the first situation WAS physically unsafe (as boys were teenagers and it was a full bus). But very nasty and someone SHOULD have stepped in. As per the guidelines on any mode of public transport in the UK re: harassment.
Your mother is very wise and also very funny.
This is a useful resource on what to do if you notice someone being harassed. It does stress that you should keep your own safety in mind while you do.
I feel ridiculously lucky that I have never had anything like this happen to me – although, as with all women i fear, there have been incidents, nothing like this scale. I am impressed with the way you handled yourself and want to intervene on your behalf. Rest assured it is stories like these that make me sure that I would intervene if I saw something like this happening