I was waiting for a 36 bus in Victoria . I'd been waiting 25 minutes.
I should have got a 16 and then changed to a 6 at Edgware Road .
But the 36 went direct, although it took longer. If you could get one.
There were quite a few people waiting by now.
Every so often they would look at her and then look away. I did too.
Lots of passers by stopped briefly. Some looked concerned. The tourists.
The more affluent looking older women from small towns, grinned or gasped.
Before hurrying on. So pleased it wasn't them.
Maybe they thought, like me, that they recognised something in her swaying naked desolation.
She must have been quite tall, but it was hard to tell exactly.
She was wearing some dated looking boots, laced up the front to the knee .
Scuffed black suede, the kind of boots that used to be called kinky twenty or thirty years ago. I think I probably had some. Probably they're still popular somewhere.
Wherever she comes from. She was young, to judge from her skin, the area of thigh above the boots and below the rucked up skirt, and the expanse of back which was showing. Her skin was slightly olive.
And the way she was standing., bent completely double.
Backwards and forwards in the doorway.
The dingy green sweat shirt had a hood, which had fallen forward over her head,
so we couldn't see what she looked like.
From underneath the sweat shirt her hands and forearms were just visible, almost touching the ground..
She continued to totter, slightly to one side, now back the other way, still in that excruciating position.
Her arms and hands looked swollen and discoloured,
They were turned inwards, kind of scooping, cradling the air. Rocking. Grieving a lost and ghostly infant.
A bus came.
Everyone already on the bus turned to stare out at the woman in the kinky boots.
It was a No. 36
I elbowed my way expertly to the only empty seat to sit next to a stout blonde young female with a straw bucket shaped shopping bag and a nurse's uniform. She had been looking at the woman too. I glance at the woman with the straw shopping bag, trying to catch her eye, perhaps to confirm what we had both seen, both been party to- and to shrug in acknowledgement that, really, we cared more about a seat on the bus. Maybe, being a nurse, she would say it was always best not to interfere But she just looked straight ahead in that unflinching way we have all developed - and then she got off the bus - at St. Mary's in Praed Street .
I was on my way to pick up the keys to my new flat - my new, post-divorce, sticky end of the financial lollipop, fresh start third floor one bedroom flat. I was supposed to meet the estate agent outside. His name was Emlyn. Unusual that. Emlyn always smelled of fresh toothpaste. Emlyn wasn't there.
While I waited outside, two people went in. One was a yuppyish thirty-something sort and the other a young Hispanic looking woman, Neither showed any interest in the bedraggled female sheltering in the doorway. It was quite cold. After 20 minutes it started to rain. I rang Emlyn on my new mobile, recently acquired at the insistence of my sons. Weren't we supposed to meet at one o'clock I asked Emlyn. Oh my God! He'd completely forgotten. He was sooo sorry. He'd be there in five minutes. He gave me the keys. I let myself in. The previous owner had left behind a chipboard bookcase and a double bed. I lay down on the bed. I closed my eyes. All I could see was that bloody woman
“This area is really improving.” Emlyn had told me encouragingly, in one of his many
attempts to cheer me up “they've just opened an Internet café across the road.”
“Nah”, said my son, “they're for losers - people who haven't got a computer…or a phone.” Or a washing machine.
The woman in the laundrette stopped eating, Stopped reading. She didn't want to miss anything. She rested her kebab on her lap on top of the newspaper and watched me closely.
I read the instructions three or four times. I tried again. It was no good, in the end I had to ask her.
Immediately, before my eyes had even begun to flicker in her direction, she was there. Not been to one of these places before then?
Not recently, I said.
Actually, this is where I had first bedsitter, round here.
She showed me how to put two pound coins and the 20p into the coin slot on the washing machine.
But I knew that smell …. soap powder and bleach and poor peoples' clothing,
Just moved to this area? she started to say. Then stopped for a moment, like they all do round here, in that bred in the bone kind of way,
Till the blues and twos went past.
They all did it, break off what they were saying to listen even while the siren was still a way away
They'd wait for some sign that the incident was nearby.
Commotion, Swearing, The sound of running feet, breaking glass.
If it didn't sound significant, just kids maybe or a crazy person, conversation could continue. But then an elderly woman looked through the window. Somebody's been shot, she said….just there….on the corner….by the chemists
She held the door open for us.
There's an air ambulance on the playground. she said as she hurried off in the direction of the chemists..
She thought we'd like to know that too, but we were too slow for her
She hurried on ahead .
Somebody had been shot
No barking dogs.
No banging bin lids.
Though not a bad crowd already and more arriving by the minute.
Motorists abandoning their cars to get a better look.
Kids on bikes.
The sun was hot.
The smell of the fat in the chip shop swirled heavy in the air - like the smell of the bagwash., powerful, comforting and familiar.
A man got shot on a bus.
A man got on a bus and told the driver he'd been shot.
A woman shot him.
Somebody tried to shoot the woman but got the man instead..
Women gathered around in that universal stance Arms folded, head to one side, Each listening to her neighbour, waiting their turn to interpret the situation.
There was a crazy person dancing in the chemist's doorway , waving her script. Where's the blood? Where's the body? I want to see blood!
Groups of youths joked casually with young policemen.
There was a kind of community here – but mostly, like a desert life form, it lay inert - in wait. Mostly it lacked one or more of the component s necessary to dissolve its habitual apathy. Add that ingredient – drama, spectacle, fear, common purpose – distraction - and it would surface, however briefly. Turn the machine off, choke off the supply, get the
mixture wrong and it would retreat, melt instantly back into itself.
Come on, there's nothing to see here said the woman from the laundrette. Lets go back. To where she could resume her line of questioning.
So, you're an American?
No, I'm not.
You sound American.
Do I? I'm not.
Well. I'm usually very good on accents. You sound American to me.
Sorry. I'm not American.
So where ARE you from?
Ireland ? she said irritably, You're not Irish.
Well yeah - I am.
You don't sound Irish.
Sorry about that.
She seemed unsure how to react….but then….. You don't sound Belfast .
Liverpool maybe, but not Belfast . My Mum was Irish – West Cork
Skibereen – ever been there?”
No. Went to Dublin once.
The woman wasn't listening. She used to send us to Skibereen every summer, she went on – bloody hell – bloody cowshit, outside bogs, couldn't understand a bloody word – de-ja-de-ja-de-ja. When we were old enough we just refused to go.
We used to be sent to Castlewellan.
Yeah? Where's that?
Near Belfast .
What was it like?
Bloody cowshit, outside bogs – couldn't understand a bloody word they said – de-dur-de-dur-de-dur…..…… we were just like you - townies - when we got old enough we stopped going too.
She smiled grudgingly.
I‘d made it.
At last, one of the number. Welcome to my world. - the diaspora of the dismissed and discarded - those who had had more cause to leave than most, but who could not now return - the inglorious hordes who died in Kilburn not Malibu - their children disowned as Huns by the brothers back home.