On Romford Road, I wait for the the 25 from Ilford to Oxford Street. At the front of my mind as I wait, two grim thoughts compete for attention; I think about what my student has just told me about a boy in Year 11 being stabbed in the head outside their school, and what Haris, our caretaker, just told me about how the mice he had captured in the stock cupboard had bitten off their own feet to escape the glue traps. This is all very visceral for a Saturday.
The bus arrives and I shuffle to the back seat on the bottom deck. I sit on the right hand side. The windows are filthy and force me to see the world through a brown lens, so I put on my – wait for it – prose-tinted glasses.
Nobody is talking around me. I’m listening to ‘Brand New Day’ by Dizzee Rascal on my iPhone. We pull past the University of East London, denigrated for its low calibre status but quietly transforming lives, and past Sarah Bonnell School, which I am a governor. Last night in the pub we talked about whether it is strange that we have a Regulation Headscarf that the girls must wear if they are to wear a headscarf.
Now we are alongside St John’s Church in Stratford. The King Eddie Saloon Bar, which has soaked up the dissatisfaction of this pocket of the East End for over a century, looks proudly over at the church, as if boasting about its own much larger and much more dedicated congregation.
It is busy here. A Somali girl, probably about 10 years old, leans against the window next to me, and she vibrates every time the driver accelerates. Across the Broadway now, the odds are being changed in Coral. Chelsea really ought to beat Brentford, it seems.
We pass the London Academy of Excellence, a Free School backed by the bastions of elite privilege like Eton and Harrow, and which boasts of having got 20 of its pupils into Oxbridge this year. It maintains its high standards and percentages by dumping any pupils who struggle before they can affect the stats though. We don’t like them.
On my left now, we pass the soiled sweaty net curtains of what is secretly the best Thai restaurant in London. The Pie Crust Café is an archetypal greasy spoon by day, filled with men with toolbags and very public arsecracks, and then in the evening, the menu switches from fry ups to Thai food, and the smell of bacon and toil is replaced with saffron, lime and coconut milk, and the clientele start talking about The Archers.
Bow Flyover now. A council estate is being demolished, most likely to be replaced by an unaffordable tower of ‘boutique apartments’. Bow feels older than Stratford. To my right, in the cemetery-yard, I spy two plastic Lucozade bottles leaning punk-like against the gravestones. I fear not even a high glucose content will revive these old bones, who lived and died before plastic had been invented.
The Somalian girl is fully asleep now, using her entwined fingers as a pillow. She wakes with a start as it is announced that
THE BUS WILL STOP HERE AS DRIVERS CHANGE OVER
The young man opposite me feels uncomfortable. He distrusts my rapid pen, considers me to be a crazy man and wants to know what I am up to.
Bow Road station now, and a billboard displays the word ‘FORTITUDE’.
A man with a black and white beanie hat adorned with marijuana leaves exhales his nonchalance skyward, from the steps of the Magistrates Court. We pull away.
A Bangladeshi mother, son and daughter join me at the back of the bus. I predict that they will get off at Whitechapel for the market. I cannot predict the terminus for the guy opposite, but in attempting to do so, I notice that he is sat on some cheese, probably dropped from the sandwich eaten by a previous occupant of his seat. I discretely decide it is Double Gloucester.
As I look about the bus, I make fleeting eye contact with the Bangladeshi boy for about a half-second. I realise it is the first time I have been properly looked at since I sat down. In front of us, near the buggy area, a man has stepped onto the bus, and as he leans back on the glass wall, we all see that he has JU52 FAT written on the back of his tracksuit.
We’re at Mile End now. The Life of Pablo plays on my iPhone. A lady at the front is spluttering into her hand, and it syncopates with the gospel choir in my ears. As I look to my left down a side street, I remember when I accidentally booked my children into a ‘reward visit’ to Mile End Cemetery Park, rather than Mile End Park. Oh the fun we had, orienteering our way through subsidence caused by the mass burial of the peasantry of yore.
At Queen Mary University now. The Bangladeshi boy just had his wrist slapped by his mother for pulling at the skin on his bottom lip. He stares into the middle distance, not responding to her rebuke in any way.
Stepney Green now. A building advertising Free HIV tests has been graffitied by FLOS BOYS. Lots of people get off here, including Mr JU52 FAT, presumably not all for HIV tests.
Plenty of mums with buggies are on the lower deck now. We are saturated. It’s full.
I wonder what will happen if another mother gets on with a pram. I envision a kind of Mamas and Papas Robot Wars. We pass a statue of the Webbs, of Salvation Army fame, and then of William Booth.
My bowels begin to shift. This is the problem with any outing. It is as though my life’s journey is determined by the filling of a bowel and the draining of a battery.
We pass the Blind Beggar, where an unstable Ronnie Kray once burst through the door and shot George Cornell through the face with a pistol.
As predicted, my neighbours alight at the market. I wonder who will join me. I see sari shops and a business named after someone called L.A. Sackwild. I wish that was my surname. Jonny Sackwild.
We are moving towards the City of London. The Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie poke their heads up above Islamic Relief.
We pass a park. I remember being 21, inebriated, new to London and in dire need to go to the toilet. I was adopted whilst wandering in this park, by a group of addicts who were entertained and eventually frustrated by me. One of them said to me “Don’t you fackin’ call me lav, you caaant” and I said, confidently drunk and drunkly confident, “Ok love”. His friends hooted with druggish laughter, but my love was set to rip my face off. Thankfully, I was able to seek refuge in the company of two young Lithuanians playing a midnight game of Candy Crush in the park. Bolstered by my intra-continental friendship, I brought the two increasingly-confused Lithuanian boys with me to a friend’s party, showing them off as my protectors, until they were wrenched from my possessive death grip by my apologetic friends.
Suddenly, back in the real world, everybody is white.
The bus has emptied out. Out of my window, a business called INNER SPACE advertises its corporate yoga classes with photos of flat-stomached white woman stretching louchely, as though they themselves invented Yoga on their lunchbreak from being partners at Deloitte.
A father and son now sit in front of me. I know they are related. They have matching whorls in the back of their heads.
In the City of London now, and the buildings – like the men who own them, are towering, grey and artless.
The destination screen on the lower deck has gone slightly berserk, now telling us that we will shortly be arriving at Redbridge Central Library. It announces that we are going to Ilford. We all hope not.
I look out onto a statue of Wellington on his horse. Something smells of egg.
The traffic moves slowly here and we cannot see where we are going within this labyrinth of blunt wealth.
I catch a glimpse of St Pauls from between two ten story buildings. I note its existence rather than actually ‘seeing it’, if you know what I mean.
I feel really numb here, and only partly because my arse has gone dead.
Two Chinese girls are up with the driver, presenting him with maps, iPhones and questions. They both carry coffee cups and suddenly I feel that I require coffee, immediately. Envy is the best advertising.
We must be close to Oxford Street now, because I feel as though I’ve been on here forever. Ah yes, we are on High Holborn. Someone is eating a Steak Bake; I would know that smell anywhere, and it wraps me in a meaty plume.