Although the Big Red Bus that showed up for my son, A’s preschool outing yesterday was neither big nor red, it caused a frenzy of excitement among the preschoolers who clambered aboard wide-eyed and, in the case of my baby S who was strapped to my front in a sling, panting like a puppy. She’s earned the nickname Rocket-Dog from me lately because she chases balls, licks up floor-crumbs, chews everything and pants when excited.
The kids didn’t care about the fact that the bus wasn’t a British double-decker, but the parents were disappointed. The kids also didn’t care for the pre-recorded narration that was telling them about opium dens in China Town, whore houses down by the water and gallows in Market Square, instead they pressed their little noses against the windows, waved to strangers, squabbled with each other, and in A’s case, not quite tall enough to see out of the window properly he sung Old MacDonald over and over for the entire 45minutes. Five minutes into the ride there was an unpleasant eruption from S’s bum- which I remind you was strapped to my chest- so I sat in the stench listening to ‘ee-eye, ee-eye oh’ and thought about double-decker buses to escape.
When I was a teenager, we caught the bus to school every day. It was a double-decker, but not red like in London- blue and cream and in order to have any street cred at all, you had to sit in the dirty smoke-filled upstairs. Even upstairs, segregation was in full swing- the further back you sat, the cooler you were and if you actually got the back seat, you were pretty much in charge. I wasn’t in charge.
The buses drove fast on the narrow Birmingham roads and you learned how to hold on to avoid death round corners, how to lean in a certain way when the bus came to an abrupt halt and how to manage your heavy school-bag without knocking fellow passenger senseless.
I loved those buses.
A few years later when we started going out at night we’d sip our cans of larger on the way to Town, smoking cigarettes- one of the safe places where our parents would never catch us. At 2am, soggy half-eaten-bag of chips clutched drunkenly in one hand, the last bus home would be filled with similarly drunken club-goers and things were never dull- chip wars, people snogging, fist-fights, undercover police, people getting stoned…..I even got pepper-sprayed once, caught in the middle of two sloppily drunken lads fighting over some bog-boobed-girl. It’s been years now. Long ago we graduated from the bus to taxis, then stopped clubbing, traded that in for nappy-changes and night-feeds and the vomit-comet seems a lifetime ago.
Sitting there yesterday on the Big Red Bus (that wasn’t big or red), I smiled, thinking of a particular friend who I caught a lot of buses with when I was thirteen. It’s odd, but I think some of my best memories of her were up there on the top deck. Up there it was just the two of us and we didn’t have to be anything but ourselves. It didn't matter if we were popular or skinny or if we kissed boys yet; it didn't matter if we wore the right clothes or got good marks or got asked to the 'it' parties. We were just two best friends riding to school. Slowly, slowly over the months we moved towards the Holy Grail of the back seat. Slowly, slowly we earned the respect of the upstairs crowd and then suddenly we were there. Back seat all ours: we’d made it.
As it turned out, the back seat wasn’t that interesting. Like a lot of things you think you want when you’re that age, the mystery was broken the second we got there and realized that the shitty vinyl upholstery was slashed and the back window rattled and it was the bumpiest place in the whole bus. But just for a while it was ours, and before we moved on to the greener pastures of trying-to-get-the-seat-next-to-the-cute-boy-of-the-week, we appreciated the moment. And then we discarded it, like a lot of things you think you want when you’re that age.