Sensitive themes - racial discrimination, verbal abuse.
For centuries, stagecoach drivers used to be responsible for the safety of their passengers through the danger of unknown territory, dealing with not only impassable roads, but the constant threat of robbery, or worse.
Bus drivers today, although have paved roads and traffic lights to ease one problem, must still keep guard of their passengers, regardless of the threats each day brings.
I greet the old-aged pensioners with a smile.
“Morning Delilah”, they say, “bit cold this morning.” And I smile and agree, wait for them to find a seat, then we're on our way.
I wait a little longer at 9:56 knowing Mrs. Begum will round the corner a minute after I'm supposed to leave, I can make up the time down the Kent St. before the next stop. “It's my clock,” she'll say, “loses one minute every day.” Then we share a familiar, knowing smile and on we go again.
Throughout the day the prams and pushchairs alight and depart like the world taking a calm breath. The sound of children brings me so much joy, to see the wonder on their faces as they see the shops go whizzing by out the window. I've been doing this job for ten years, and children never change.
At 3:20 though, it gets a little rowdy with the school kids. The girls in their groups playing at being grown-ups, and the boys all bravado and trying to be the big man. But they don't worry me. Normally the gentle old folk are gone by the time the school kids come out, avoiding that journey time with its noise and teenage odour. I let them have their fun, but if they disrespect the other passengers, I'm not scared to let them know about it. This is my bus.
But then there's the bad ones. The ones that don't want to pay. The ones that need a scapegoat for their own shortcomings.
“My friend's waitin' at the next stop,” they protest, “he'll pay when we get there.”
They must think I was born yesterday.
“I'm only 15 Miss, I only need a child ticket.”
And then they can't remember their birth year, because this morning they were 18 so they could buy cigarettes from the corner shop.
I look in my rear-view mirror at the good paying people already on the bus, and see them looking at me to keep the peace. So I do.
You ride on my bus, you pay and you show respect, and you shall be respected in return. I'm not giving anyone the chance to question my commitment and ability to do my job. And here's one now, waiting at the Middleton St. stop. It's 3:45 on a Tuesday and I can see before I stop that he's drunk.
The fella looks up as the bus approaches, his phone to his ear, and a drunken smile crosses his face. He thinks I'm his chariot home. I can see in my rear-view that a few of the passengers have spotted him already, and they're nervously glancing from him to me. I catch their eyes and I know what they’re thinking.
Don't let him on Delilah, he's going be trouble.
And I know what they're thinking, and to tell you the truth, I agree with them. Don't get me wrong, I've got my job to do and a paying customer is a paying customer. But everyone already riding the bus has already paid, they've made their contract and I've got a duty to keep them safe.
And I know they trust me. I know what I'm doing, but there's always someone to judge me when something like this occurs. Seeing what I'm made of.
I pull up to the stop. The doors open with a hiss. I can see him already trying to stand up as he fumbles with his phone, dropping it on the ground. Good luck explaining that to the insurance company.
Who gets drunk at this time of day anyway? It's not right. This man clearly is not sound in the mind. I don't want him on my bus.
But I know the rules, it's not my place to deny anyone passage on my bus unless I have good cause to consider them a risk to myself or the remaining passengers. I learnt my policy.
He picks up his phone and I see more nervous glances in my rear-view. I return a confident smile, but all they can see is my eyes and I know some aren't convinced.
The fella lifts a foot to the step, but he misses. His weight carries him forwards and he stumbles onto his hands and knees on the bus floor, his phone bouncing out his hand again.
“I'm sorry Sir,” I say, “you gonna need to be able to stand up if want to come on my bus.”
He looks up at me with glazed eyes, his inner, sober-self pleading with my compassionate side, to let his drunk alter ego off the hook.
I'm having none of it. Not since that first time I let someone on my bus and regretted it.
I'd only been working a week and it was my first late-shift, 'the piss-party', that's what the other drivers called it. But I was still young and naïve. How difficult could it be to bring home a few party-goers? I thought, let them have their good time, as long as they pay.
The 11:10 was the last bus from the station, and it was empty that night as I left. I thought the other drivers were just trying to wind me up.
At the first stop, two young women got on that didn't look they'd come from a bar. They seemed more like factory-workers, maybe just finished a late-shift. We gave each other a knowing smile at being the only fools working this late on a Friday, then they sat in the seat closest to my driver's booth, chatting to each other as they did.
The next stop was right outside the West End Pub, at the corner of Braunstone Gate and Narborough Rd. And that's where's I made my mistake.
A group of four young people, propping themselves up at the bus stop, barely able to stand. At the time I thought there's no harm in that. Going out on a Friday night is what young people do. This was why it got its name. Three men got on and a girl dashed straight up to the top deck. One of the young men - well, boys as I could now see - fell over immediately dropping his open wallet and coins spilling everywhere. The others fell about laughing, and I can't deny, I also grinned a little.
“It's all down there love, just take what you need.” His friends all laughed, but my smile dropped. Was he serious? I glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw the two innocent looking factory-women, now glaring at me.
The boy who spoke to me high-fived his friends, then looked at me through the clear divider and neither of us said anything. His smile suddenly dropped.
“Fuck’s sake love, I'm only messin' with ya. Got your period or something?”
I did not change my expression. Partly from not-knowing what to say, partly being amazed that someone should say such a thing. And maybe, not wanting to show how scared I was. How could anyone be so brazen? And to me too? I was just doing my job.
By now his friend was picking the money off the floor and he'd produced a note from his wallet.
“Four,” he barked, and leered through the divider.
Still stunned I didn't think this was a time to mention manners, so I took the note and gave him his change.
He grinned menacingly as I did.
“No love, you've got that wrong, I need 50 pence for the johnny machine.”
And as he laughed, his friends joined in as they stumbled up the stairs to the top deck where the girl had gone.
I told him I didn't have 50 pence, and would 10 pence’s be ok?
“Nah love,” he said and swiped the coins, “just messin' with you again, think you need a good shag eh?”
And he turned laughing and followed his friends up the stairs, but not before looking at the two factory women.
“What about you love? Fancy a nibble on some white sausage?”
And he grabbed his crotch with his hand, laughing again as he climbed to the top deck.
I didn't know what to do. Or to say. My body shook with, I don't know what, fear or anger? Or both. I couldn't tell.
I looked in the rear view and saw the two women looking back at me horrified, and scared.
I pulled away with the bus, and two stops later the group departed the bus. They said something again to the two women before they went, I didn't hear over the shouting and laughing.
At the next stop the women got off, passing by the driver booth in a hurry. I saw their eyes as they did and tried to convey a silent apology, but they just looked judgemental - like I was the one who offended them. But how could they? What could I do? I felt so ashamed that I should have done more. These innocent women, doing a hard day's work only to be abused on their way home. Under my care. What kind of a bus driver lets that happen?
And as they alighted and I closed the door, that's when I smelt it. Urine. Warm and acrid. Dripping down through the ceiling of the driver's cab.
I went up to the top deck to investigate, and there it was, in a pool at one end. Right above where I sat in the driver's seat on the lower deck, dripping through the cracks.
The girl! Oh my, that's what she was in a hurry for. She'd got upstairs on the bus so she could urinate. Without thought for other passengers, or people, or...
I learnt a lot that night, and each night after I learnt a little more about protecting my bus and my passengers. I would not be shamed like that again. I was careless. I was naïve. But not anymore, I knew what signs to look for, even before the passengers did. By the time any situation occurred, I was two steps ahead and had the company policy memorised for any comeback.
So now, as this afternoon drunk threatened my honour, I felt twenty pairs of eyes staring at me in the mirror. He will not cause me trouble today. I will be sure of it.
I can see the passengers giving me the same look I saw on those two factory-women's faces those years ago.
This man tries to speak but it's unintelligible. Not surprising really, he's clearly had a lot. What time did he start to be in this state now?
I need to act aloof; I know what he's trying to say, but he needs to say it to prove I can let him on my bus.
Then he holds his phone up. I can see he's in the middle of a call; Tracey, it says on the screen.
“What's that Sir?” I ask, knowing I won't get a response.
He looks up at me from the floor, holding the phone as if he wants me to speak to it.
“I'm sorry Sir, but you can't come on my bus if you can't stand up,” I say, and notice relieved expressions on the faces in the rear-view mirror."
“Come on mate we've got homes to go to!” someone shouts from down the bus.
A compatriot, someone on my side.
“That's correct Sir, you're making the customers late. Please get off my bus, or I'll need to remove you. Besides, I think the fresh air will do you good.”
He looks at me again and seeing defeat, half crawls, half rolls back onto the pavement. I close the door and pull away, hearing a sigh of relief from behind me, and a buzz of voices clearly talking about my encounter.
The next stop is only 100 metres or so. It's East St, where most of the passengers will depart, back to their homes, back to their cups of tea and fondant fancy cakes. There's no one waiting but a woman runs past with her phone to her ear, back up the way we've come from. As the doors open I enjoy the ebb and flow of the journey as they smile and step off.
“Thanks again Delilah,” they say, “mind how you go.”
“See you tomorrow,” I say and reach for the lever to close the doors.
Another blissful day looking after the passengers on my bus.
Neil stabbed at Tracey's number on his phone. She picked up after the second ring.
As the bus pulled in, he felt nauseas. Whenever he caught the bus he had a similar reaction. He was reminded of a night out from when he and Tracey were younger. They'd needed to get off a bus two stops early because Tracey thought it had been funny to use the top deck as a toilet. Since then, he'd grown-up a lot, and found respect for people - especially bus drivers. Every time he rode the bus, he remembered the look of the driver that night, the hurt they'd caused her. And he felt the shame that came with the memory.
The irony, that he was now reliant on public transport because of the severity of his diabetes.
And right at this moment, he was experiencing a hypo, heightening his anxiety levels. Coupled with a wave of resurfacing emotions, it caused him to drop his phone.
He picked it up again, hearing Tracey on the other end of the call. “Neil,” she sounded scared, “let me talk to the bus driver, hold the phone up to them, I'll explain everything.”
"Ok," he said, slurring so heavily it was unintelligible.
The doors of the bus opened, Neil missed the step and stumbled inside. He looked up from the floor, the unsympathetic face of the driver stared back. He just needed some food, something to bring his blood-sugar levels up. She said something but he couldn't make the words out, something about standing up. What, did she think he was drunk or something? He just needed food. Why didn't she just take the phone? He waved it again, but feeling the last of his energy seeping away, he rolled off the bus and lay on the pavement as he blacked out.