Published in 'Smoke - A London Peculiar' Issue Number 16, July 2012
Performed at Storytails, June 2010
I’m crossing the road near Liverpool Street. Even so, I nearly miss it. Or to put it another way, it nearly hits me. So attuned am I to the shape and habits of my usual bus, that when the open top 11 comes, I blank it out. I’ll repeat - an open top 11. Nothing. I blank it. I edit it out.
My mouth can only hang open by way of salute, but the left hemisphere of my brain is quick enough to judge. A tourist bus? In the City? At 8:30? Left brain does a double take. It notes that the big red shape is somewhat larger in my retina than a second ago. Surmises that it might be getting nearer and, it would be wise for me to step out of the way. Left brain wants to get me off the road and onto the pavement. Right brain is just confused. It wonders if this is some kind of omen. I am in two minds.
But it keeps coming, and I’m still in the middle of the road. Something has to give.
So my legs do my thinking instead - maybe my lungs can do the second thoughts, fifty fast yards later. I skip across to the pavement and the open top bus roars past, almost clipping my heels. I sprint after it. I catch it. I haul myself on to it. I congratulate myself.
This is completely the wrong direction, of course. All the same, I bound up the stairs to the top deck for the rare opportunity to properly survey my city. I sit as near to the front as I can, behind a woman with dark, almost iridescent long hair, only just settling down herself. She looks very nearly as flustered as me. We have no need for anxiety though. It’s a gorgeous day, ever so slightly warm, it seems; or maybe it’s just because I’ve been running. Without a roof above, I feel wonderfully shorn. I am a lamb liberated from its winter fleece. Brilliant light reflects from the handrail, like the sun from a bald man's head. The bus shudders into motion. I phone Jon.
'I'm on the number 11,' I say.
'Aren't you meant to be at work?'
'But I don't think you heard me. It's an open top 11.'
There's no reaction from Jon. I struggle to hide my annoyance.
'Normally,’ I say, ‘– and I don't know if you've ever noticed this - regular bus services tend not to have an open top. It’s a magic number eleven bus, Jon! There’s never been an open top number 11 before!'
'It’s not a magic bus. It’s not on a magical mystery tour, either. It’s just the wrong bloody bus. Now shouldn't you be getting to work?' he says. ‘Like I am?’
It’s a little unsporting bringing up the work thing, at a time like this. Does he know of nothing else? What of the beautiful day? What of the joy of exploration? He understands nothing. Admittedly, the magic number 11 takes me a little out of my way... in fact, the opposite direction... and really, I wanted to get to Barbican, or I thought I did... But what of it?
At Bank, the beast makes a heavy feint towards Cheapside, then seems to decide otherwise, turning its great flank against it in opposition as it heaves itself instead down Queen Victoria Street. It's heading for Trafalgar Square. I just know it. The open top 11 obviously has tourism in its blood.
'Yes,' I say to Jon. 'I should be working. You're right.'
He huffs in contentment, justified once more.
Peace restored, we bid each other adieu. I continue my journey unabated. To be perfectly objective, the view, left and right, is not among the most princely. A former tourist bus might hope for more. But it's round about now that I start to notice my fellow passengers. They don't notice me back. I assume they must be tourists, as their heads are turning to and fro, whipping left, right, left, right, as if the bus were on a suicide mission through centre court at Wimbledon . I can't help notice - well, because it's obvious - they're dressed for a day in the office, like me. They’re like no tourists I’ve ever seen.
The shiny-haired woman seems to have a book in her lap, but she's not reading it. She's stealing shy glances around her. I understand - she's pretending to be on her way to work, faking the blinkers over her eyes. She's afraid someone will find out that she's meant to be on the 25 to Employmentville. Nuts, but I know how it feels.
It's strange being on a tourist bus without a guide. Or for that matter, a commuter bus with a penchant for the scenic. It forces me to see through its eyes the city anew. It has a good long stare at Trafalgar square – half circles it, like a great cat - then decides not to linger. It grumbles its way through Sloaney territory for a while instead. I wonder what it is thinking.
Eventually, after another pleasant half hour or so, we seem to have stopped for good. We wait, wondering what the hold up is. Slowly it dawns on one or two of the brighter individuals among us that this is the last stop. We are meant to get off - the 11 terminates at Fulham Broadway. Why, what's at Fulham? It's neither an end, nor a beginning. I have half a mind to ask the woman in front what's the big attraction here. I wonder if she's having the same thought?
Each of us gathers our possessions and rises as slowly as possible, with faked weariness, as if our hair turns slowly blonde on the same old open top magic 11 bus every day. I try to catch someone's eye - for some mutual acknowledgement that we are not true 11ers. No-one returns my glance. They are putting on glassy-eyed stares. Londoners.
As I squeeze down the stairs, there's a tap on my shoulder. The shiny shy woman. I open my mouth to apologise for pushing in front of her. It’s amazing how soon I've turned back into a pushy commuter.
'That was good, wasn't it?' she says. She smiles. 'Er, where are we, exactly?'
Everything Will Not Be Better Tomorrow -
2 days ago