I awoke to a shrill voice echoing through the bus. “Daddy! Look!”
I was exhausted from work but there was no way I could sleep through this screaming. I envied the elderly lady snoring away at the front of the bus with her head pressed against the window.
“What is it, lad?” The father was fortyish and sounded as tired as I felt.
The kid stood on his seat and pointed across the bus at a woman in a hijab. “It’s an ISIS!”
The woman froze, staring dead ahead like the boy’s scream had turned her to stone.
The kid was only five or six, I was sure the father would snatch his son down for a whispered lecture about right and wrong.
Instead, he leaned forward and narrowed his eyes at the woman. “What are you doing in my country?”
The younger woman raised her chin and clenched her jaw, but she refused to acknowledge the question.
“Oi!” The man scrunched up a piece of the newspaper he was reading and tossed it into the woman’s face.
She glared at him with hot tears sparkling in her eyes. “What do you want?”
“I want you to go back to your own country.”
“Go back to your own country!” His son parroted.
“This is my country.”
“Only because you pakis have taken over.”
The woman was the only non-white face on the bus. The only non-white face I’d seen all day. I was close enough to tell the man that, but I didn’t.
“Piss off.” The woman whipped around and stared out her window.
“It’s a bloody disgrace. Britain isn’t even Britain any more,” the man muttered.
“We want our country back!” The son said in a piercing, pre-tantrum scream.
As much as the woman must’ve been used to this, she probably still wished it’d stop. Wished that someone would stand up for her. I wished someone would too, if only to prove we were all as morified as she must’ve been.
That person could’ve been me, but it wasn’t.
Traffic forced the bus to a stop, pinning us between a lorry and a ford escort. The next stop seemed a million miles away.
The man held his newspaper out to his son like he was displaying the contents of a counterfitter’s trenchcoat. The kid smashed some pages between his hands, giggling along with his old man.
The boy’s shot went wide, his lump of newspaper landed on the lap of the snoring elderly lady who gave one last snort and jerked upright, blinking around the bus like she’d forgotten where she was.
“No, do it like this.” The father hurled another page like a cricket ball. The young woman blocked it with her hand and the tears she was holding back dripped down her cheeks.
“Oi!” The elderly woman barked. “That’s out of order that is.”
The father scoffed. “There’s bloody muslims on here!”
“There’s also an arsehole flinging newspaper around like a two year old.” She glared at the man’s son. “What sort of example are you setting for your boy?”
“We just want our country back.” The kid’s voice squeaked.
A ropy vein throbbed on the man’s forehead. “I’m not gonna sit by and let these pakis take over my country.”
“And I’m not happy with racists taking over my city,” said the elderly lady. Someone at the back of the bus laughed.
“Piss off, lad,” a deep voice rumbled from somewhere behind my head.
The father’s eyes darted. This wasn’t in the script. His tattered newspaper shivered under his jiggling knee.
“I–” he began.
“Say one more word and I’ll spark you out,” that deep voice said.
“You what?” The father stood up and eased his son behind him.
The owner of the voice stomped into the aisle. He was wearing a high-vis jacket and work boots and he looked huge enough to take up two seats by himself.
The father grabbed his son by the hand and dashed to the door of the bus, leaving his newspaper to flutter to the floor. He banged on the driver’s window. “Let us off! Let us off!”
The driver, and all of us, were only too happy to see him sprint away, zig-zagging through the the traffic as he disappeared into the darkness.
“Sorry about that, love,” the elderly lady said to the woman in the hijab.
“He was a right arsehole, him,” said the man in the hi-vis jacket. He took the empty seat behind the young woman. “Are you alright, love?”
Their whispered conversation settled the voice bus like a lullaby, but I was too far away to hear what they were saying.
— By Matt Holland 20/01/18
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