I usually had to convince people to get the bus with me, but Jetta was willing. The number 68 bus was the bus I took to work everyday. I hate the tube and the trains from South London can be unreliable. Sitting at the front we had a perfect view of Brockwell park in the sunshine, as we negotiated the early morning school traffic. She didn’t question why I would purposely take a long journey into work, although she was understandable reserved about getting up so early. She just wanted to come with me so we could postpone our good-bye. She lives in Germany having moved there from London, and I barely see her once a year, so every moment is precious.
The bus, we both appreciate, having had a fair amount of experience living on the Piccadilly line, is a pleasurable way to travel. It may be slow, but the views from the top deck are unrivalled. It may get busy, but it is barely noticed from the front seats. We were in our own little bubble, slowly taking in the sights of suburban south London through a sleepy haze, blissfully unaware of the growing crowd behind us.
The 68 bus has been a comfort to me. Getting the tube makes me anxious. I hate the loud noises and the claustrophobia. I feel trapped underground, jumpy at any sudden noise or a rowdy passenger. Jetta had almost cancelled her trip to London, after the horrors of London Bridge flooded the news, which had followed the attack on Westminster, just weeks before. A time when Britain was and very much still is, on high terrorist alert. I had reassured her that it was the safest time to visit London, the worst was over. Of course I didn’t believe it. Not for a second. I wasn’t in London when the attacks of 7/7 happened, but I think about them every time I am on a tube. I remember, I must have been 17, coming home from school, seeing the news. The people running, the thick smoke, the knowledge that the worst wasn’t being shown. 56 people dead, many more with life changing injuries. Every time I get on the tube, I think, I am putting myself at risk.
The bus is calm and you can get off whenever you please. Each morning I sit at the front, a girl about my age gets on the other front seat opposite, a Chihuahua tucked away in her fur-lined coat. On the same bus every day I often see the same people. We have become a little community.
The day Jetta came with me, however, that girl wasn’t on the bus. I had been disappointed, I had wanted to show her the puppy. Instead in that seat was a man I hadn’t seen before. He was middle-aged and dark-skinned, his eyes so dark I couldn’t see his pupils. I first noticed him because he had a bracelet in his hand, he was passing the beads through his fingers. They were pearlescent, a rich brown, similar to a bracelet I had when I was a child. I had wondered if Jetta had one too. He seemed anxious, sat poised on the edge of the aisle seat, as though he wasn’t keen on getting too comfortable. He was muttering underneath his breath, the words I couldn’t understand getting louder as we approached Elephant and Castle, a busy south London junction.
I became hyper-aware of him, the way he sat, the beads passing through his fingers, the foreign words muttered under his breath. Jetta was talking to me but her voice had become an echo, secondary in my attention to the man sat next to us. Her words were disembodied from her, like we were under water. I became frightened. My heart raced. My veins were filled with adrenalin. My body was urging me to run: fight or flight. I fumbled into my bag for my phone and typed a message, which I showed Jetta. We need to get off this bus. She was confused. I hadn’t been responding to her conversation. I could feel blood draining from my face. She nodded and without even looking at the man, she made her way downstairs, pressing the buzzer to get off like there was nothing strange about it.
Off the bus, I assured her we could get on any old bus from here. We wouldn’t be waiting out in the cold for long. My eyes followed the bus through the junction, around the one-way system. It didn’t blow up, there was no flames, or screaming. I felt silly. I felt ashamed. I felt cowardly. We stood awkwardly denying the strangeness of what had just happened. My shame amplified by the complicity of my witness.
I had judged a man by the colour of his skin and his ethnicity. I could blame the media; the constant reports of the state of red alert; the supposed imminence of a terror attack. I could blame the tension created by the culture of fear. But it is ignorance that causes fear and it is my ignorance that is to blame. I hadn’t understood the language he spoke so I immediately feared it. I hadn’t understood why he was talking to himself with beads in his hand, so I feared it. My ignorance fuelled my fear and fear fuelled my actions.
I did see that man again on the number 68. He took an early bus to work just like me. We both sat at the front and enjoyed the views. While I chose to read on the long, slow road to London, he chose to pray.