A young smartly dressed woman gets on, concentrating on her phone call. The bus pulls out before she has time to mount the stairs, and the motion throws her to the side, her bag swinging and bashing the passenger behind her. Fifty. Nine. To. Streatham Hill. She climbs slowly, letting everybody know about the important things she has done today. Then drops into the nearest seat as the bus brakes at the first set of lights. “Did you remember to tape Eastenders?” Puts a laptop on one knee, opens Microsoft Excel, a page full of graphs. Continues call, continues describing her brilliant sucess with the Weight Watchers account. More passengers board, one indicates to the empty window seat beside her. She turns to let him through. Drops the computer. “Fucksake”. People chuckle.
A young woman stumbles up the stairs at Shaftesbury Avenue. She’s not dressed for the weather. Only a dress, earings, socks and a shock of hair. She carries only the mobile phone that she is jabbing at clumsily. She’s crying, sniffing loudly. The bus is full, but everybody is silent. She sits on the top step and puts the phone to her ear. Nineteen. To. Battersea Bridge Road. “Daddy! — Daddy come and get me.” People stare out of the windows at the traffic. “I’m on a bus, but come and get me daddy. — I’ve lost my shoes. — I don’t know. — I’m on a bus I tried to get a taxi but I’ve lost my bag I’m so sorry daddy.” She gets up and gets off at the next stop. A woman looks up from her knitting, turns to her partner and sighs. “Oh dear.”
An old lady in a headscarf and heavy coat gets on at Trafalgar Square. Number. Twelve. To. Dulwich Library. She likes the bendy buses. Likes the big doors. On the double-deckers, she’s always holding people up, her trolley bag always in somebody’s way. On the number twelve, she’s amongst recognisable faces from her neighbourhood. She sits down across from a young Iranian woman in a headscarf and heavy coat. The young woman’s boy is playing on the bend in the bus, one foot on and one foot off the rotating section, surfing the corners. As the bus turns into Whitehall, a taxi cuts in front for a fare and the bus jerks to a stop. The boy tumbles, knocking the old woman’s trolley bag over. A cauliflower rolls through the dirt under the seats.
An elderly couple get on at the top end of Whitehall. In their eighties at least. She has thick NHS glasses and short dyed brown hair. He has thin grey hair and a thin grey face, but bright eyes still within it. He, a head taller than his wife. Walking stick in his left hand, with the other he briefly lets go of his wife’s hand so that he can flash passes for the two of them. He surveys the bottom deck. Nobody is giving up their seats. But he seems happy to help his wife up the stairs to take the front seats — she by the window, he by the aisle. The driver waits for them. Number. Three. To. Crystal Palace.
“Number. Three,” she repeats. “To. Crystal Palace. Crystal. Crystal Palace. Three.”
He pulls her tighter under his arm, his bright eyes dampening. Her bottom lip slumps and is still. He looks down on the wreaths of poppies outside, looks down on his Rosie, and remembers for her.
There is gridlock at the bottom end of Whitehall. The driver opens the doors to release those who would prefer to walk. Eighty. Eight. To. Clapham Common Old Town. The buses inch forwards on the single open southbound lane. On the northbound side, a pair of unmarked police cars have successfully blocked the progress of a black Range Rover. Behind them, a third and marked police car sits on top of the crumpled railings of the pedestrian crossing refuge, its remaining functioning lights still flashing. Bent over his car, a stoned man is having various items of clothing removed. A solitary protester from the peace camp dances alone in the empty street outside the foreign office. The traffic lights lying in the road turn green. The passengers have had their entertainment.
The river is the great border, the last of the bright lights. The red rippled reflections of the palace, parliament, and the red white and blue of the Eye, made to shimmer even more by the movement of the bus and the flow of a fast falling tide. The last of the crowds and movement, from the tourists stepping backwards into the bus lane to the bobbing boats below and the trucks and trains on the neighbouring bridges. And then, on the other side, dark empty streets under the railway arches and out into the suburbs.