So I was on the N91 the other week, coming back from Trafalgar Square some time round midnight. I am aware that several of my stories start this way. Since I get on right at the first stop, and I’m almost always the only person there, I usually go and sit at the front of the top deck. Like a tourist.
I’d barely had time to settle down and plug in my headphones when some guy came stumbling up the stairs, flopped down in the seat opposite me and gave me a double thumbs-up. He must have been in his forties, but looked older, his clothes scruffy and his thick, NHS/Mugabe-style specs deeply scratched. His face was weathered but strangely childlike, with big bug eyes and a wide, loose mouth, toothless bar one large pre-molar that stuck out diagonally into his cheek.
‘How’re ye doing?’ He demanded boisterously, in a cartoon Irish accent. I took my headphones out and told him, not quite able to make up my mind whether he was going to be good company or a pest. He didn’t smell or look drunk, but I’m almost certain he was.
‘You’re not from round here, are you?’ He went on.
‘No, I’m from up North. Leeds.’
‘Leeds, you say?’ He had a comedic over-enthusiasm that in other people would have come over as sarcastic. ‘I lived in Sheffield once. Well, a few miles from Sheffield. Nineteen… nineteen-eighty-eight. Lovely people up north. Friendly people.’
‘That’s true. You don’t usually talk to strangers in London. Everyone keeps their eyes on the pavement.’
He waggled a finger at me.
‘It’s because they think the streets are paved with gold.’
I wasn’t sure how to reply to this. I felt I should moderate my comments about Londoners. Adopted home and all.
‘Though you’re more likely to get your head kicked in for no good reason up north than you are in London. At least if anyone attacks you here it’s usually because they want something.’
‘Aye, it is. Though I got a terrible beating in London once. Broke my ribs, collapsed my lung. I was in hospital. Took my benefit book. These days they pay the money straight into your bank account, but then you took your benefit book in for them.’
‘And did they go and claim your benefit?’ I realised as I asked this that it was a pretty minor matter compared to a collapsed lung.
‘Aye. Forged my signature.’
‘That’s awful. I’ve never been hurt that badly. Was it in a sketchy area?’
‘Just near Victoria… Islington…’ He paused. ‘…Victoria. Definitely Victoria.’ Victoria, the border country between Belgravia and Westminster. Those well-known ghettos.
‘Have you been attacked in London?’ He asked.
‘Oh yes, a few times. I seem to attract trouble. Never as badly as you though. Last time I just came away with a bit of a concussion.’ I told him how Tom, William and I got a bit of a beating in Bow, back in 2007. Pretty much your classic run-in with one of those large, sad gangs of late teens who think that sort of thing makes them brave, made unusual only by the fact that after finally getting me up against a bus shelter and taking my phone and wallet, they then followed me and returned all the stolen property. Later in the evening they tried it with a couple of undercover coppers and got nicked. I picked one of them out in an identity parade, but all the charges were eventually dropped.
My new friend sat rapt during this mean old story.
‘The law has to look out for everybody, I guess,’ he remarked sagely, ‘including the accused’.
‘Just so. Suppose I could have been lying.’ I’m still not convinced by this argument, but my conscience is loaded enough without having some kid in jail on it, so it was a bit of a relief really.
‘Aye. Terrible thing though.’ He paused. ‘I’m Clive, by the way.’
‘Nice to meet you Clive. I’m Joly.’
‘Joly. Like the green giant, but spelled differently.’ My standard introduction. Clive chuckled softly.
‘I love those adverts. You know, the ones on the television. The ones with the giant.’
I tried to think back to the last time I saw an advert with the Jolly Green Giant. Can anyone help me out? I think it must have been at least five years, but I could be wrong. The way Clive spoke about it, he might have seen one of them just the other day. I wondered when he’d last watched television.
‘How long have you been living in London?’ I asked him. ‘Did you move here straight from Sheffield or have there been other places in-between?’
‘Lots of places.’ He tried to remember a few, but his memory failed him after Rotherham. ‘I’ve been in London ten years though. Been living on the streets. It’s hard. I think maybe I’ll move to Londonderry soon. My parents were from Londonderry. You see, I’m a protestant, so I call it Londonderry. Catholics just call it Derry.’
We had some banal conversation about buses to Kentish Town, where he was going to buy a burger, then he lapsed into silence for a minute or two.
‘That was a terrible thing that happened to you in Bow’, he said, suddenly. ‘And were these white fellers or black fellers?’
‘Ah.’ And he nodded slowly. ‘Just a couple of bad ones in the bunch, I shouldn’t wonder. Kids. Can I ask, are you a racist?’
‘No.’ I had a sinking feeling this was going to be one of those awkward conversations which begin ‘I’m not a racist, but…’ and end ‘…send them all home’. But I was wrong.
‘Apologies. Just wanted to check. I hate racists. Really, really hate racists.’ He stopped, was silent for a few moments, then gurned violently, retched a couple of times and spat in the corner of the bus. He’d forgotten about racists. It was nearly his stop, and he shook my hand with a dry, rough paw, then clambered shakily back down the stairs.