Sunday, 24 March 2013

A tale of two cities: not reading on the bus in London


I find myself very favourably disposed toward the 205 service from King's Cross station to Whitechapel Road, if only because a little girl shares her shiny KitKat wrapper with me (temporarily suspending my boycott of NestlĂ© products, in place since 1975 and making no significant impact on the company) while her harassed mother deals with a screaming baby and her little brother sleeps the sleep of the just, slumped in complete abandon in his seat as if someone has taken his stuffing out, his lumberjack hat askew on his curly head.  

If Edinburgh is a Jekyll and Hyde city, the east end of London is positively schizophrenic: the hip and the haggard dancing cheek to cheek in what must have begun as mutual incomprehension and evolved into an uncomfortably symbiotic relationship.  There is an anthropological thesis waiting to be written on the shiny new Sainsburys supermarket, hard up against the new Crossrail construction site. Supermarkets and transport--the arteries pumping the life-blood of the middle classes deep into the Hackney (or do I mean Hockney?) hipster heartlands.  Profitable for the pioneers, infuriating for tardy trend-spotters coming to the party a little too late, a disaster for the generations whose children must join a new diaspora to ever further flung suburbs  in order to afford a corner of their own.  

As a foreigner in these parts I have no sense of boundaries and, early to meet  a friend and disinclined to kill time in the sacred aisles of Sainsburys, I peer through the steamed- up windows of a hole in the wall establishment where I can see a young couple leaning toward each other across a formica table in a booth apparently made from bus seats--not as a postmodern statement or a design concept as that sort of thing would be one stop of the new Overground line further away, but more a case of necessity being the honorary uncle of invention.

The couple beat a hasty retreat and there is a feeling of low-level consternation, which makes me wonder if they were about to close for the day, so I ask if it is possible to have a cup of tea. I am graciously invited to take a seat at the only other table, which appears to have been co-opted from someone’s kitchen along with three chairs all too literally on their last legs.  

The man in charge spends the next five minutes giving a lesson in how to make a cup of tea to a dark-haired teenager in a standard uniform of perilously low-slung jeans, dark hoodie and black hightops with tongues lolling as if the shoes are dying of thirst.  Never has tea been made with such exacting attention to detail--right down to the way the teabag is placed in the cup before the water is poured on...from exactly the right height.  The young man follows instructions impatiently but respectfully--a thunderous scowl of concentration adding to the general ‘I mug orphans and widows for a living’ look, which completely vanishes when he smiles, shyly, as he hands over the thick white cup and saucer.  

It is an exemplary cup of tea.  When I compliment them both, the teenager blushes like a girl who has tucked the back of her skirt into her knickers and the older gentleman comes round the counter for a chat.  He is originally from Bangladesh he says,  but has been in London for forty years.  When I say that I am from Edinburgh he tells me that is not possible, as he went to Edinburgh for the Festival once and I sound nothing like Billy Connelly.  

When I remark that he must have seen a great deal of change in the area over the past few years he tells me that it is true, it is no longer the place he once knew, but that ‘change is life’ and he has been lucky.  ‘Where else could I have come with nothing and slowly, slowly built my own business, with hard work alone?‘  But now he does not know how long he will be able to stay, with rent and rates going up every day.  It will soon be retirement and banishment to  Essex.  When I leave I see that his shopfront is squeezed between two ubiquitous, shiny, chain-brand establishments of the kind that will crush his hard-won, hand-made kingdom into oblivion.  

It is with great difficulty that I persuade him to accept the 90 pence the hand-lettered menu board says he charges for a cup of tea.

A few days later I am on my way back to King’s Cross.  It is 8:30 on a Monday morning--rush hour in full flight and the bus is packed.  At a stop in Islington a man pushes his way through the people exiting the middle doors of the bus, so avoiding paying the fare.  He is greying at the temples, wearing trendy spectacles that are too young for him, a dark overcoat that whispers cashmere and carrying a briefcase with a discrete Dunhill logo. He wriggles and slides into a just-vacated seat as if he has been greased, smiling to no one in particular, the faint flush of pleasure on his face the same shade of pink as his copy of the Financial Times.  Clearly the small triumph of dodging the fare has made his day.  I can only assume his wife will not let him buy a sports car. 

Sunday, 3 March 2013

The last Etruscan


For many weeks, before Christmas, there was a young woman who got on the bus a few stops along from me who, despite her softly rounded features, neat plaits and pink hair clips, always seemed regally self-possessed.  Perhaps it was something in the straight-shouldered way she carried herself, or her complete lack of interest in the other passengers.  

Her interest was always outside the bus, at least for the first few yards, when she would be looking intently out the window for the skinny young man with the sparse moustache who would be waiting at the B&B just along the road from the bus stop.  On dry days he would be on the steps; if the weather was very wet, he would be standing inside, looking out the bay window with its small sign hanging from a chain that always said: ‘vacancies’.  

Every morning she was on the bus, always sitting on the left-hand side, he would be waiting to wave as the bus passed. she would always make some small signal--not as much as a wave--but raise her hand as if to wave, then casually tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.

They both looked absurdly young and I wondered if they were guests at the B&B, or if it belonged to family or they had perhaps taken it over (I had noted that the display of dusty plastic flowers in the window had recently disappeared).  

There was something touching about the way he always waited; about her studied nonchalance.  I always assumed from the eager way he waved, set against her evident embarrassment and the small smile of satisfaction--an expression that I have seen on the faces of ancient Etruscan sculptures--that she was the more loved, he the more loving.


But one morning he was not waiting.  She looked intently out the window,  turning in her seat as we passed, but there was no sign of him.  She lowered her head and stared at her phone, fiddling with it,  still studying it as she got off at her stop as if she were willing it to send her a sign.  The next day, and the next and the day after that he was not there, though every morning her head turned.


I was away for two weeks or so and after I returned I did not see either of them, though like the girl I found myself looking in the bay window of the B&B hoping to catch a glimpse of one  or other of them...or perhaps to see them sitting down to breakfast together at one of the white-clothed tables with their bud vases and matching cruet sets.  

After a while I stopped looking, stopped wondering, until a week or two ago when the girl reappeared at her old stop.  She got on the bus and took her usual seat on the left-hand side, though she stared straight ahead for the whole journey.  Each weekday morning she has been on the bus, though there has been no sign of the young man.  She no longer looks as the bus passes the B&B.  She does not wear her hair in plaits with pink hair clips, nor do her lips curve in the secret smile of a woman who knows she is loved.