He gets on around the bit of the Finchley Road that connects to Hendon Way, our Bus Nutter. And it isn’t really Frognal and it isn’t really Cricklewood and it isn’t really West Hampstead, it’s the fuzzy weird bit in the middle where people get petrol and where they realise they are in the wrong lane for the A41. He looks entirely ordinary (AHA! Most of them do) and he gets on the bus very casually and normally. He is of average height and build and just sits on the upper deck. Then there is the catalyst.
The catalyst can be anything, really. It could, for example, be Wednesday. And then he will go downstairs and in his very very normal voice demand the driver to explain why it is Wednesday. He sounds ordinary, mundane and has an authoritative voice that lurks somewhere between Phil Mitchell and that bald bloke who does Masterchef. Once, on a wet morning a few weeks ago, our bus driver announced that he had received a warning light on his dashboard, so off we all got off, to spend five minutes trudging along Finchley Road in morning mist whilst waiting for another bus. For ten minutes our Bus Nutter parlayed his grievances to our driver. He does this in an insinuating voice that implies that the driver thinks what he thinks, which is lunacy. Mad people do this sometimes, however. “The service doesn’t equate to common sense – I mean, you know what I mean, eh? Yes, don’t you?” Yesterday morning, though, Bus Nutter’s rants became downright surreal. Buses these days talk at you, to let you know where they are going, when they are about to arrive at bus stops and then, finally, when they have arrived at bus stops to tell you that – yes, you have arrived at the bus stop. This is abhorrent. You cannot concentrate on your book, and the robotic voice delivery system seems to have been designed to purposely be louder than the world’s loudest, largest i-Pod that has been racked up to top volume. Bus Nutter, whose frontal lobe has clearly yet to engage with his feet, failed to respond to the delivery system telling him we had arrived at Baker Street. As the bus left the bus stop, he suddenly hopped up tutting and fretting and bounded down the stairs to rant at the driver that there were “too many stops” and “why not have some common sense and change the next stop”. This was because “no one wanted to stop at York Street anyway….I mean, mate, mate, why have SO many stops?” At this point the robotic lady voice says “Number 82 to…..Vic-tor-i-a. Not for you, random loony boy. You’re getting off at Blandford Street if I have to kick you off, you mad cowbag. Please move down inSIDE the bus….” All right, she didn’t. But crazy lad did get off at the next stop, where he continued his conversation with the driver as the doors were closing.
Everyone has had these experiences in London and the Bluebird’s first reaction is to giggle silently in her seat and turn Frank on the iPod up louder. In seventeen years of London Island living, I’m lucky not to have been the victim of some lunatic encounter or other, and lucky that nothing wild, violent or downright terrifying has even occurred to l’il old me. That’s not because I brandish my light sabre at them, blind them while chortling “Aha! I am the Bluebird. Kneel and show your mercy, bus boy!” at them, but rather that I spent my first 10 years in London travelling everywhere by taxi. Nuff said. You don’t so much pay for the geographic journey when you travel by taxi, but pay for the guarantee that random bus nutter will not try to engage your driver in a dialogue about bus stops for the best part of 20 minutes whilst leering at your legs and dribbling.
Black cabs are the golden elixir of the gods on late nights out. Everyone has had that feeling – yes, you at the back, don’t deny it – when it’s 1am, you are so drunk you are ready to insist that you are sober, you knew that fifth mojito was a mistake, you have danced with a man called Bruce and are not quite sure who he is but he said he went to school with your brother, you are tired, slightly sweaty and really, really want to be at home, on the sofa, safe and tea-and-toasted up. But you are a lady. A female lady of the woman gender, and have been warned by other female ladies, by your mother, your father, your brothers and Bruce (who played rugby at school with them and who had earlier, in a bar on the Charing Cross Road, showed you the scar that never quite healed after your brother “accidentally” broke a bit of his jaw off) that you Must. Not. Go. Home. On. Public. Transport. Late. At Night. Ever. This has been drilled into you so successfully throughout your adolescent years that you are convinced that by going into a tube station after the pubs shut you are guaranteed to be the subject of some ghastly sexual attack or that you will be randomly clubbed on the head for your wallet. If I so much as move towards the Piccadilly Line at Green Park after closing I can hear the Crimewatch theme tune.
Get a cab. Your Dad said it as he handed you two folded-up ten pound notes when you were 19.
Get a cab. Your brother tells you when you are 16 and then tells you (again) that all men are potential rapists – never mind, have a nice evening, love – and get a cab.
So I always got cabs. When I could find the bastards. Have you tried? Stand in Piccadilly Circus at midnight on a Friday and look for one of those magical orange lights. Nowt. Your shoes ache and it’s raining on the hair you blow-dried for an hour at 6.40pm. Rubbish. The best thing to do, I was told, is to go and stand outside a five star hotel. There are always cabs there, I was told.
What numpty told me that? – because it was actually the worst thing to do. Regularly I used to walk down Piccadilly after a night out in Soho, away from the flotsam and jetsam of Soho muckeries, where I immediately felt safer as soon as I passed the classic porticos of the Royal Academy, and felt I was instantly transported into a smarter London. I always used to stand outside the Meridien Hotel , and ironically put myself in exactly the wrong sort of situation because it would be guaranteed that within the next half hour I would be approached by a gentleman from Kuwait who asked “how much?” whilst I shuffled from one foot to the other and threw eye semaphore towards the doorman in the hope he might rescue me. Tsk. None of those random prostitute-seekers from the East ever offered me their taxis, incidentally. I don’t mind being mistaken for a prostitute if they were a bit chivalric about it.
So well-honed was my need to find a taxi that I once walked all the way up Oxford Street and Regent Street to Portland Place in five inch heeled sandals until my feet bled to try to find one. When I did see one I screamed and waved my hands around in desperation “STOPPP!” “Oh my goodness,” he thought. “It’s a random blood-splattered Bus Nutter. Not picking her up.” When one taxi driver did finally pull up I could have kissed him (but didn’t) and luxuriated in the thing I always do in the back of taxis after a splendid night out: kick my shoes off and stretch my legs out in the generous confines of the passenger seat. The moment you are successfully installed in that warmth, in that comforting leather seating, with BBC London or LBC humming away in the speakers, you are truly in urban bliss. Or at least you are until you realise another random, verbose mad-as-a-box-of-frogs chap is driving you home. It’s a sinking of the heart that accompanies his rants, the oily eye that engages with your own via the smeary rear view mirror and the voice that inevitably says “Bus stops! Don’t get me started – how about a bit of common sense about bus stops? Well, there’s just too many of them, aren’t there?!”
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