It was Sunday afternoon and, somewhat inexplicably, the bus was heaving. Having squeezed on, I found myself in the last available space; right next to the driver by the front door.
We trundled on to Hammersmith, passing by full bus stops until someone needed to get off and we had to pull over. I was in my own little world and it was only when the driver turned off the engine and started shouting that I realised anything was amiss.
Get off, the driver shouted, I saw what you did. Everyone woke up from their bus haze and started glancing furtively around to see what was going on.
It transpired that someone had snuck in through the back door which, to be fair, wasn’t exactly fair on those waiting outside the closed front door, their faces staring glumly back at mine through the dirty glass. All eyes turned towards the culprit who, for a couple of minutes, kept listening to his headphones, seemingly oblivious to the scene he was causing. I’m talking to you, the driver shouted again.
Others started to get involved. Come on mate, there’s no space. The bus isn’t going to go while you’re here. It was hot and crowded and patience was evaporating. No one wanted a stand off. We just wanted to get going.
I’ve got an Oyster, he said, and started to push his way through to the front of the bus to tap it on the machine by my side and legitimise his presence. He couldn’t reach due to the crowd so handed it to me to do the deed. Prop in hand, I had become an active participant in the drama and looked to the driver for an opinion about what to do.
It’s not about the money, the driver said, if you tap it it helps no one. He jumped the queue and he’s not staying on my bus, Oyster or no Oyster. There’s no space for him. With an awkwardly understanding half-smile, I passed both the Oyster and the message back to my bus’s undesired entrant.
Slightly baffled yet with rising shame and irritation, the young man returned to the back of the bus and resumed his position by his port of entry. Poor kid, someone muttered, I don’t think he speaks much English or gets what’s going on. Just move, sighed someone else under their breath. It’s obvious that other people were waiting at the bus stop; you’re clearly cheating the system. Come on, mate, just leave. We were all getting somewhere til you held us up.
Finally, caving under the combined weight of the sympathetic, irritated, embarrassed and resigned stares of his fellow passengers, he jumped ship. The engine shuddered back on and people looked mightily relieved that the status quo had been restored.
As he rejoined the hostile few at the bus stop who were patiently waiting their turn, he could no longer contain the pent-up confusion, shame and anger of a young man who could probably see that he’d made a bad call by chancing it or taking the initiative or whatever it was that he’d done. Glaring at himself and the ground, he furiously kicked the front door of the bus as it pulled away.
Yeah, that’s it, shouted the driver, waving his fist right next to my face. Typical. He should just go back to his own b*****y country.
Exactly, muttered someone else. Hear! hear! added another in a bonding moment of London Transport solidarity.
Suddenly I overheard myself pointing out that I didn’t think that his being from another country was particularly relevant to him jumping the queue. The cross driver looked up at me with surprise. Hear, hear, piped up a quiet foreign voice next to me.
Discomforted by our close physical proximity and divergent opinions about what was occurring, we all had little choice but to do the London thing of acting like it had never happened. The driver clamped his eyes on the road ahead, others turned back to their phones, and I looked out of the window and wondered if there was any way of telling the driver that I got why the queue jumper had annoyed him. Had the moment passed to empathise with his human experience of stress, even though I disagreed with his reaction to it?
I know it was just a bus journey, but I can’t help feeling that there’s a metaphor in it somewhere…