I am sitting on a slippery leather seat which is angled inappropriately for my personal posterior; it requires more weight and breadth for stability; it has been moulded by myriad larger arses than mine – smokers probably, sitting near the door, not for ease of escape in case of calamity (like me — one eye on the unrolling ribbon of tarmac ahead and one on the little red hammer to smash the escape windows when called upon by cruel fate to do so). No, the usual passenger in this warn National Express coach seat, though placed (like me) for ease of escape, nips out at each stop for a quick drag – a cigarette, one at Shrewsbury, one at Telford, one at Birmingham and a real gasper outside the Coach Station at Victoria.
I have now had a satisfactory and free, unisex wee, or perhaps it was a pee, with a bewildered old lady up from the country and a number of large foreign gentlemen, and now I wait in this sunny travel hubbub to be collected by my daughter, who worries about me getting lost in the metropolis. Secretly I know she thinks that, if left alone to wander the streets, I will provoke personal attack or arrest because of my uncontrollable urge to engage strangers in conversation and to make unwanted eye-contact.
She hugs me then takes me firmly by the arm and steers me into a newsagent’s to top up my oyster card – which I have remembered this time!
I wonder where the poor have gone – the street vendors, the alcoholics, the dog shit, the End-of-the-world-placard-man? London is eerily clean these days (what has Boris done with them all?) I sniff the strangely pleasant air and we decide to walk by the river, through Battersea Park and to sit on pristine, plumped-up cushions on the steps of a modern pub. Frances goes in to get the drinks and a man in a well ironed shirt (and trousers) comes out to have a look at the front elevation of my pretty daughter’s obscured and un-categorised associate — me. He realizes instantly that I must be her Mum, he says “Lovely weather,” and goes back in, and we sip local micro-brewery summer ale and watch the gulls, the cormorant, the geese and the helicopter flying up and down the Thames. A lanky, middle aged man with a shaved head and yellow roller- boots wobbles past and a beautiful girl on a bicycle feeds treats to a little dog in her bicycle-basket.
That evening we, my two daughters and I, sit at a pavement table outside a restaurant in Clapham replete with Eritrean food and chat to the staff and I remember… I remember travelling this same road, let me see…
Forty years ago, I was in the back of a maroon Jaguar (the sort John Thaw drove in Morse), tired by two weeks on-duty and nauseated by the smell of leather and spent lighter fuel (everyone smoked everywhere then). It was a dismal grey dusk with the traffic lights too bright and splintering into the dingy, sooty, half-light. Young black men were standing in groups on the pavement next to the junction when suddenly my, soon to be, father-in-law wound down his window and shouted racial abuse at what he believed to be the indolent unemployed. I cringe as I write this – as I did then; the lights changed and we sped off towards leafy Surrey. As I look back I catch the sad eye of a boy accustomed but still surprised by such unprovoked and vitriolic hatred.
Times have changed.