the 67 (part IV)

‘That was lucky, got here just in time.’

Middle-aged man, looking up, says, Yes, and then pauses, and then says, ‘Yes. They broke into that place over night.’

‘Where?’

‘There,’ pointing over the road.

‘Oh? Is she sweeping up broken glass then?’

‘Oh? Yes. Maybe. They did it in Norwood, where I used to live. It’s a bit like here but it’s north of Rosebank mall. They had flats, like here, over the shops, and every morning, early, I used to wake up to smashing glass, and then I’d see them walking out with huge plasma screens.’

‘It’s the norm here isn’t it.’

‘Yes, oh yes. Nothing’s really safe.’

‘But what I find a bit depressing is that the response here seems to be so individualistic. More walls, more electric fencing, another dog. People don’t get together.’

‘Well that’s true. Especially among the Whites. The Africans, the Blacks, when something happens in their community, everyone gets together. They play music, dance, move about in big crowds. But the Whites just stay in their homes, their gardens, getting more frightened.’

‘That’s certainly how it seems. But I don’t really know the place, I suppose. But why is that d’you think?’

‘Agh, I don’t know. I guess we’ve never really stuck together. We’ve always been private. We’ve never done anything as a community. Not under the last government either. Even when we have security meetings on my street, hardly anyone attends. Maybe two or three people come. Sometimes five or six. From the whole street.’

‘That’s crazy. Of all places, you need to stick together, here in Johannesburg.’

‘I s’pose so, yes. But we just don’t do that. I guess it’s the way we live, or the way we have lived, these big plots with big gardens and fences. Doesn’t really lend itself to neighbourliness. But we ought to have it so that you know, the kids at number ten know they can go see Janet at number fourteen if they’re scared. We should look out for each other like that. I don’t know.’

The bus draws up. We climb on, him ahead of me, and we separate down the corridor. He sits somewhere behind me. I don’t turn to look, or nod, or say goodbye, or to carry on talking. I choose a space next to a grey-bearded man in his late forties reading a Bible, and as I turn back to face the front of the bus to sit, a middle-aged woman, perhaps early fifties, wearing light-responsive spectacles, raises a hand and smiles at me. She’s sitting at the front on the only row of seats facing into the corridor. Opposite, a young girl in a short grey school skirt is staring at her. The older woman turns away from smiling at me and smiles at the girl, and then starts rummaging in the handbag on her lap. She pulls out a long line of curled plastic with pink shapes on it. She holds them up to the young girl, who smiles eagerly. The older woman opens into a broader smile, showing the whole bus a large gap between two of her back teeth where a molar is no longer, and then begins to scratch at the pinky plastic. The girl watches her, and the girl’s mother watches her. She keeps scratching at the plastic, turning in her hands, slowly and carefully pulling a pink sticker away from the gluey backing. When she finally frees it, she holds it on one finger and leans forward pushing her finger to the young girl, who stretches out and lifts the pink sticker from the lady’s finger with one of her own fingers, and then carefully presses it onto the large rectangular pink plastic lunch-box on her lap. The younger girl holds it up to the older woman sitting next to her, and smiles, but the older woman at her side lifts her eyes in disapproval, and pushes a finger up against her chin. The older woman with the stickers looks back at me and smiles. I see another gap on the other side of her jaw, another missing molar. I look away, embarrassed, and turn my glance down the length of the bus. It’s full of people. I count at least six whose heads are bowed over a book, quietly glued to reading material. No one is speaking, apart from the older lady at the front with the stickers, who is chattering in Afrikaans to the younger woman next to her. I think of the London tube. The newspaper readers, the novel readers, the quiet couples and whispering tourists. I think of the 38 bus that took me from Hackney to Bush House for several years, and the young people who started playing their mobile phone music on the back of the bus when mobile phones like that came in. And then I notice for the first time a teenage boy at the back of the 67 playing his mobile phone music. No one is looking at him, but several people around him are looking away from him. The music is distorted, grating, gyrating techno, and he’s leaning back self-consciously gazing out the window.

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