I admit it. My least favourite saying in England is ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’. I dislike the bumper stickers and embossed cups, the t-shirts and tweets which glorify the passive maxim. I know that marks me apart as non-English in character (though actually I was born in London) but every time I hear that phrase I think “OMG it’s not the Blitz, can’t you think of something more dynamic to inspire your life?” I was brought up in the new world – aka Australia, the former colony with post-penal (is that a word?) rebelliousness - so I’m more of a “shake it up”... “only dead fish swim with the stream” kind of girl. I would suffocate without outbursts of passion.
Ok, keep calm - now that’s off my chest I’m getting to the good bit.
Yesterday I encountered a living example of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ which is to be greatly admired. Indeed it was astonishing. And as “there’s always a story” with me, I arrived at the pub in bright sunshine in Clapham Junction and blurted it out to my Irish friend, Siabhra, and most of the bar staff. (Yes, I also talk to strangers – another non-London trait – with a naive presumption they will be interested in my life... and sometimes they are!). Anyway another friend, Chun, said “well there’s something to take you back to the blog you’ve been ignoring”. So BOOM, I’m back.
I’m on a packed 337 bus from Putney and a very young couple try to get on the bus with a toddler and stroller. The stroller is packed high with renovation materials – tins of paint, primer, brushes and trays. The curly-haired, chubby kid is wriggling madly and the tiny mum is having trouble, so it seems. When the dad pushes the stroller into the middle of the aisle it jams. It won’t go forward or back and, oddly, he doesn’t much mind. He takes his hands off it in defeat and kind of slumps. The toddler is kicking off. The driver calls something out and the skinny dad goes back to talk to him. I presume he needs to swipe or pay. So I jump up and try to move the pram, as there’s no room to pass and clearly someone needs to help this young mum who’s barely coping. Yet the stroller won’t budge – too much stuff hanging over the side and banging into poles. So I unpack it a bit. I lift a few cans of paint which are strapped around the handles and detach them, resting them on my aisle seat. I manoeuvre a few more bits and manage to push the pram through the gap and into the wheelchair area. The conversation at the front of the bus is getting louder but I’m not registering what they’re saying, only that it’s taking a while. Then I collect the tins of paint from my seat and bring them over to the mum who is now sitting all but one seat away from the stroller; a gentleman having given up his place for her. In retrospect, when I clearly articulate “these tins need to be secured, I’ve only rested them on the top” the young girl seems vague. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. I figure she’ll get him to fix them when he returns. I sit back down.
The dad walks past me as the bus starts up again, and proceeds to cuss and grumble to his partner about something the driver has said to him. I don’t make out details as I’m in my own world enjoying the beautiful sun, until she raises her voice in high dudgeon:“ that’s the stupidest f**in thing I’ve ever heard”...“who the f**k does he think he is” etc, by which time I am vaguely gathering that the driver had a problem with the paint being brought onto the bus, they are unhappy about being singled out as unsuitable passengers, while also delighting in the fact they have something to complain about (you know what I mean, it’s in the ‘oh poor me’ tone).
It’s only background noise so I don’t consciously piece this together, but one presumes their occupation of seat and wheelchair space made it impossible for the driver not to have moved off - well, not without a scene he must have decided to avoid. So I'm blissfully unaware I have conspired to help them frustrate the driver’s wishes. Nor am I cognisant of the risk. After a few short minutes we round the corner past Wandsworth Council toward East Hill.
Disaster. Bus hits a bump. Stupid parents have not secured the paint. BANG. Tin bounces out of the pram and crashes to the floor, miraculously missing the silly girl and drenching an upper-middle-aged lady sitting next to the wall with multiple coats of paint right down her left leg, ankle and foot. It is as thick and layered as an applied plaster cast. Her bag takes a dose too, and the rest flows plentifully across the floor of the bus where masses of people throw up their legs like a Parisian Can Can or scamper out of the way and up the stairs. Chaos. Stunned silence. Chaos again.
The girl screams at her beloved in words starting with ‘f’ and ‘c’, and he defends himself as best he can. He clearly isn’t very bright. A fact she keeps cruelly reminding him about. And the toddler kicks and screams, such that if he doesn’t stop wriggling she is surely going to drop his fat little bottom right into the paint. (I have to admit that would have been funny.) But with the weight of him the mum falls back into her chair, putting aside for the moment her desire to choke the stupid ‘f’ and ‘c’; and probably him vice versa. That gives me an opening.
I am able, thank God, to creep between pram, paint and feuding couple to help the paint-covered lady to stand up and try to delicately move from the position in which she’s most uncomfortably trapped; the excited child and parents still presenting something of a provocative possibility. Taking one arm and her bag we somehow get her up, the left sandal threatening to slip away at any moment. We hop, duck and weave to an accompaniment of four letter words until we have her over the massive white puddle near to the exit door. The soon to be accused don’t even notice. Can I smell alcohol on him? Anyway his speech is not clear, and hers all too clear. Oh dear, I don’t like that kid’s chances.
Back to the lady: She, I, indeed most passengers, stare at her leg and foot unable to comprehend what has just happened. A few mutter “ooh, sorry” but noone knows what to do next. She has not uttered a word. Her face is calm. My God it is unbelievably calm. Perhaps she’s just numb? That would make sense. I try to speak: “I’m soooo sorry”. “Are you ok? This is so awful, what can we do... we need to get it washed off”. As the bus comes to an abrupt stop she replies, “I’ll be fine”. Seriously? Fine? The couple are still arguing, but her face is placid, resigned. There’s no fight in her, no defeat either. She is simply calm, stoic. She knows you can’t get spilt paint back in the tin so what’s the point of making a fuss. And she didn’t even have to go through a mini-hissy fit to get to that point... she didn’t even let off steam. Wow. It is a revelation.
There really ARE people who Keep Calm and Carry On – even in the midst of an unexpected onslaught. She should have been a pilot! (Hmm, maybe she is?)
As we slither down onto the curb I adopt her optimism: “Yes, hopefully it’s water based paint, so we just need a tap...”. She pats my hand, in a way which is both comforting and dismissive, “Oh, I’ll just go home, I’ve not far to go now...”. The paint is dripping everywhere. One foot is stepping, the other sloshing sideways like a dead-leg. “Where do you need to go?” I ask, wondering how in hell she can go anywhere with a leg and foot like that! I mean, would another bus driver even let her on?! Then the bus driver appears.
He tells the selfish couple how stupid they are and why he tried to avert this risk. He doesn’t swear. Everything he says is reasonable, albeit impassioned. When instructing everyone to get off the bus he adds “you all thought I was mean to ask them to get off the bus... but see what’s happened, now you know why”. He looks at me accusingly. (Or that may be my guilty conscience.) “I didn’t think you were mean” I attempt, “I didn’t hear”... but he’s on to other things.
When everyone is on the pavement a few passengers get stuck in. I join the fray: “hey you, don’t just walk away, you owe the driver and this poor lady an apology”. Lady is still quiet, calm. The only evidence of her distress is the occasional confused look down at her leg as if she doesn’t own it. If she is greatly discombobulated it is private. She simply looks to the driver for advice, waiting patiently until the other actors in this scene all calm down.
“I already said sorry”, he replies pathetically. “Well, why don’t you say it again so she can hear?” I add, perhaps trying to make up for the lack of passion on her side. But when he does apologise I figure it’s time for me to shut-up. And the totally un-contrite mum is still telling him off, so poor lad he really has bitten off more than he can chew with all these responsibilities – when all he wanted to do was make their little flat look better. Oh dear, bit sad really.
Nowhere in sight is there a tap. No front garden with a hose. I feel culturally discombobulated and useless. So I apologise to the driver. I wish the lady well as she seems content to be left to the driver to get sorted, or abandoned on the pavement I’m not sure which. And I change buses. Everyone on the next bus is talking about the incident. One lady saying: “They should have caught a taxi. Probably only cost £5”.
Ah, hindsight is a beautiful thing. But now whenever I see that sign “Keep Calm and Carry On” I’ll be visualizing that quiet lady standing drip, drip, drip on the pavement in Wandsworth. What a woman. I do hope she got quickly cleaned up and outside again to enjoy the wonderful sunshine yesterday!
And I promise myself I’ll write to TFL to tell them it really wasn’t the driver’s fault, as no doubt the bus had to be taken out of service. That’s my next bit of writing.
Get coffee and carry on.