A little boy, he must be eight or nine, is explaining to his mother, enthusiastically, how a storm gathers and how it is he can tell that it’s about to rain very hard. He’s leaning forward looking from the top front-window of the 254 bus (moving south to Bethnal Green). She’s leaning back, earplugs in, listening to her iPod, hearing not a word. Or pretending not to hear a word. He continues. ‘You see! I’m right, I’m right! Here comes the rain!’ Delighted, he turns to her again. She’s gazing upwards, swaying to the music. It starts to rain hard.
We all trip down the steps to Bethnal Green tube. An old man, with long white and grey hair pulled into a pony tail, overtakes me. He’s clinging to a white plastic bag, which swings enthusiastically next to his dirty white jeans. A young adult male voice echoes out from the tannoy: ‘Will all Oyster customers touch in and touch out please. Touch in and touch out.’
‘Oh, go on a holiday mate. Take the weekend off,’ Mr Ponytail responds, ‘We all know we’ve got touch in and touch out. Touch in and touch out.’ He starts to sing, ‘Touch in and touch out, just touch in and touch out.’ He rushes away. We don’t acknowledge him at all.
On the tube. Three large men, perspiring beer, in bright blue T-shirts, stand at the door. I duck and my head scrapes beneath a wet clump of pubic armpit hair.
‘Alright gals?’ shouts one. His mates start laughing, cackling at what was arguably not a joke. ‘Alright lady?’ he says again, swooping down to me as I sit, his wet glistening face looms up to my nose. ‘Alright lady?’ They all laugh again.
‘Alright boys?’ I say, less assertively than I’d hoped.
‘Oop, she speaks!’ They all laugh again.
‘Amazing,’ again, I’m too weak. ‘Amazing,’ I say again, still stumbling.
‘That’s a nice ring ya wearing,’ his nose dripping sweat onto my hand.
‘What do you think it is?’ I’m gaining courage.
‘Ahh, ha ha ha!’ He laughs, turning to his mates. ‘Its a ring, girl, a ring.’
‘No. My ex’s eye, actually.’ I want to be proud but it has come out wrong, unconvincing.
‘Oops! She’s a wicked one! Got too fresh diddee?’
I’m losing energy. The whole carriage is gazing. I can’t keep this up. ‘Something like that, yes.’
A man on the other side smiles. ‘That’s right,’ he says, ‘give ’em as good as you can.’
They all laugh. A lady opposite catches my eye and laughs encouragingly. The tube stops and the men get off, leaving trails of advice behind them. ‘Don’t get back with the ex then, girl.’ ‘We’ll be watching out for you then girl.’ ‘Make sure you get a man from Chelsea – we’re always the best.’
I’m burning. Burning.
On the way home, back on the tube. Three more men in shiny blue shirts have found a new friend. A young man, whose accent suggests he’s from Nigeria. He’s nervous, jumpy, very self-concious. ‘He’s burning,’ I think. The men are shouting at him.
‘You see! Can’t say we’re not friendly can you? We’re friendly aren’t we? Bet you’ve been told that we’re not friendly! But we are! Can’t say we’re not can you? We’ve given you our Chelsea programme. Couldn’t ask for more than that could you.’
The young man is burying his face in the brochure, nodding vigorously, his eyes trying to smile. They keep shouting again and again, about how friendly they are. I move down the train, to offer my support to the man. Earlier was so awful. He looks up at me. I shrug, as if to say, Aren’t they fucking awful. He smiles. And then in a second, the three men appear to be in some kind of rugby scrum on the seats. Red faces, flabby white arses, slabs of pale flesh squeezing out underneath. I think of my local kebab shop: the doner in the window, layers of white meat turning on a skewer. And then the pile collapses and they’re lying on the floor laughing. ‘My head, my head,’ says the one emerging from the very bottom.
At Monument, they exit.
Reading: Mercury by Anna Kavan, and still on Appiah’s In my father’s house. I’m slow, you see.
Thinking: when is Little Madeleine going to cease to be the only child that matters in England? What about Jessie James in Manchester? What about Michael Dosunmu in Peckham, South London? He was murdered by gunmen who broke into his family home, and shot while he lay in bed. And James Smartt-Ford? And Billy Cox? And Kodjo Yenga? The list is long… In 2006 alone, 15 people were killed in Lambeth, five in Lewisham, and five in Southwark. Kids as young as 14 years old are now carrying guns in London, and other cities in the UK. No doubt the McCanns are going through hell, but their hell should be viewed in proportion with the many families who haven’t lost their kids on a holiday in sunny Portugal but have to live, day in day out, in areas where their kids are pushed into joining gangs and where gun crime is common. Why don’t we have these kids pictured in our post offices, on our buses, and talked about across all forms of media on a daily basis? And what about all the kids we’re killing in Iraq? Why don’t we have their pictures put on screens at the dentists and the doctors and mentioned by name each day on the Today programme? It’s sick.