I hated having to travel by coach, but it was either this or thumb. A student nurse's wage doesn't go far, all you have to do is look in my purse to confirm that. I could have taken the train from York to London, but it would have cost me an extra forty quid. Five hours on a bus was worth the pain, as long as I got to see my family. I missed home so much.
As the journey neared its end, I gazed at the outskirts of my city while it passed outside the glass. Tower blocks and trees, all bathed in the orange glow of sodium lights. I watched London course over the head of the little old lady who slept peacefully in the window seat, while Dizzee Rascal played in my earphones. Four hours forty-three minutes, not long to go now. The little old lady stirred and yawned herself awake. She winced as she tried to straighten her neck and kneaded it with a knotty hand.
“These journeys are getting harder and harder on my old bones,” she said, turning toward me and smiling broadly. With her cherub cheeks and sparkling blue eyes, she was the picture of jolly decrepitude.
“A crick is a curse,” I said, then offered her my scarf to make into a neck pillow.
“Have we far to go?” she asked when she had found a comfortable way to sit.
“Twenty minutes I think, but the traffic is heavy. It might be a bit more,” I offered, noting the sluggish way the bus was weaving its way into the heart of the city. Although I had grown up here, there were so many parts of London I'd never seen, and judging by this part, I wasn’t missing much. A squad car screamed passed the traffic; half on, half off the footpath, and vanished into the distance. I watched the old lady's eyes follow it, but like any seasoned Londoner, she kept her opinions to herself.
A couple of minutes later, the bus braked hard; stalled in the middle of a one-way traffic flow. Nothing was moving and soon horns started to bay the drivers’ frustrations. I raised myself up and tried to see what the hold up was. Up ahead, people were spilling out onto the road, and they weren’t walking, they were running. Hundreds of people were running in all directions, panic written large in every movement they made, and we were stuck right in the middle of whatever was coming. A murmur of concern started in the front of the bus where the passengers had the best view.
“What is it, my dear?” asked the lady, resting a fragile hand on my arm.
“I’m not sure but something is going on up ahead,” I said, not wanting to worry her. That was when I saw the policemen appear, all of them rushing forward in riot gear. There were even coppers on horseback.
“The police are coming,” I said to the old lady, and I could see her relax a little. I felt better for seeing them as well, that was until I realised, they were running away from something, not toward it. A wall of hoodie-wearing bodies crashed into the street, hot on the tail of the police. I knew we were in serous trouble. They were throwing anything they could lay their hands on, and smashing what they couldn’t lift. Worst of all, they were coming right at us.
The bus driver mustn’t have liked the look of it either as he slammed the bus into reverse and began backing up. He got a few feet when a blaring horn and a crash of metal stopped him. We were boxed in and the mob was nearly on us. A brick hit the windscreen and shattered it into a million pieces.
I grabbed the old lady and pulled her away from the window, saying, “Mind your face.” All along the outside of the bus, fists and boots beat against the metal, while more windows imploded. I moved the old lady into my seat and covered her face with my arms in case our window was next. I looked down the coach to see the bus driver abandon his seat and rush toward me. He hurdled my legs in his haste to get to the back of the bus, and then I saw why. Three guys were climbing through the broken windscreen. They looked young, lean and mean and were dressed like LA rappers, despite being as pasty as vampires. They began demanding money from the people, speaking in that weird kind of ghetto talk I'd heard in the hospital emergency room. If the passengers weren’t fast enough handing over their stuff, the yobs speeded up the operation with a threat, or a blow. As they moved closer, I felt real terror for the first time. Then he was standing over me as I cowered in the aisle, trying to shelter the old lady behind me.
“Purse!” he yelled, shaking the piece of timber he was holding for emphasis.
As I scrabbled for my coat pocket, I heard myself say, “Just don’t hurt me.” I could feel the old lady’s hands on me, as if she were trying to pull me away from the man. It wasn’t until one of her veiny legs dropped in front of me that I realised she was actually climbing over me.
She stood right in front of him, looking even tinier than she had earlier, and glared up at him. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” she said, her voice controlled and unwavering.
“Fuck off, Grandma, before you get a hurt,” snarled the thug, and tried to shove her aside, but she braced herself against the seats and held her ground. I saw the guy cock his arm and I knew he was going to bash her with the stick. He could kill her. I jumped up and threw my arms out past her head and screamed, “Noooo!”
His arm was still cocked, but the blow didn’t come. Outside the bus, the riot continued full steam, but inside a hush fell over everyone. The other two marauders were standing there, watching, waiting for something to happen, and it did.
“You should be ashamed of yourselves! All of you!” barked the old lady, but this time she was not looking at the spotty-foreheaded man, holding a rod above her head. She was lambasting the other passengers on the bus. “I’m eighty-one years old! Should it be me standing up to this animal?” she demanded.
The yob clearly didn’t like the word and began to draw his hand back afresh. Instead of cringing from the blow, she thrust her face forward. The unexpectedness of the move stopped the guy a second time.
“Go on so, hit me! You won’t be the first to try,” she said, as I tried to pull the old lady to safety. She struggled out of my grip and advanced on the thug, her fists balled at her sides, her back ram-rod straight. The man was forced to take a step back when a voice came from behind.
“That bitch be crazy,” said one of the hoodlums, as he plucked a handbag from a woman’s arms. But the woman snatched the bag back and held it to her chest. Then, she too rose and faced down her attacker. When a man a few seats away got to his feet, a wave of rebellion found life in defiance. One by one, all the passengers stood, silently confronting the enemy, like a terracotta army. I saw confusion flicker across the eyes of the man in front of me, then I too let my hands fall to my sides, standing behind the old lady who was brave enough to tell these crooks…no.
I would not cower, I would not yield, and if this kid laid one finger on the lady in front of me, I would scratch his god-damn eyes out.The thief nearest the front of the bus turned and ran. Now there were only two. The weight of our glares grew heavy on them, and the second buckled. He lept through the windscreen, calling for his mate to follow. But right there on a intercity coach, good and evil were locked in battle. The little old lady acted first. She used one finger to push her glasses higher on her nose, then asked, “Well?”
“Bitch be crazy,” said the man quietly, lowering his baton, then he vanished the way of his friends.
A few seconds passed as everyone came to grips with what had just happened. The old lady turned to face me. Her hands were rock steady, but the colour in her cheeks had risen far beyond rosy.
“Oh my God!” I squealed, as I held my face in my hands and danced with exhilaration.
The old lady smiled at the fool I was making of myself, then said, “He was right you know?”
“Right?” I asked, confused.
“This bitch be crazy,” she said with a conspiratorial wink, then simply retook her seat.