The Rhythm of Life

“We can’t stop here, this is Cat country!”

It wasn’t the ideal line to hear from a bus driver, especially as he overshot my stop and picked up speed on an increasingly mad dash through Catford. I tightened my grip on the seat in ahead of me, getting a wary look from the man in front as he watched my knuckles turn white. Why he wasn’t panicking I don’t know, especially as a booming ‘YEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHAW!’ rang out over the speakers on the top deck. Usual behaviour for London bus drivers perhaps? It seemed unlikely, they never did that sort of thing back home, not as far as I can remember. But then back home I never got the bus, so perhaps this was the norm in all big cities and my fear just marked me out as a newcomer.

I ducked down as the bus screamed through traffic lights, not much of a defense against the possibility of a t-boning truck, which we narrowly avoided to the maniacal laughter of the driver downstairs. Still nobody seemed bothered, in fact a mother and daughter were even playing a game of ‘I Spy’ behind me. A routine past time made worse by the little girl’s loud and excited guess for ‘s’ – ‘sudden death’ she shrieked as the truck that had narrowly missed us spun out of control and flipped over in a spray of sparks. We’d missed the two stops after mine too.

“Do you have a valid Oyster card? Well, do you?”

The driver’s voice had suddenly grown sad, a good thing I reckoned as it coincided with the bus slowing down to a more sedate rampage down the road towards Lewisham. It was ok, I figured, I could walk home if I had to, plus my Oyster was valid, which had to be a good sign, right?

It was also irrelevant, apparently, as the now crawling bus continued to avoid every stop it passed. My grip had loosened on the seat in front, the wary looking man visibly relaxing as my minor physical invasion at the periphery of his vision went into retreat. I could, I reckoned, jump off the bus now, hit the emergency button downstairs and make a running landing, or at least a stumbling and non-fatal roll along the pavement. That’d be sensible, that’d be sane, given the circumstances, I should escape before the maniac in charge perked up and decided to start racing with death again. I didn’t move though, in fact if anything I relaxed into my seat, on the edge of a panic attack on the inside but somehow anchored by the gentle swaying of the bus. Besides, everyone else still seemed completely calm, they must have known something I didn’t and it would have been rude to start acting all crazy and jumping out of moving vehicles. I didn’t want to be rude, and the bus had to stop eventually, right?

“This is the 185, terminating at termination. Please remember to take your bags with you and, for the love of God, don’t put your feet on the seats…”

Jesus : Our Lord of Public Transport

“You really think he’s Jesus?”

“Of course not, Jesus doesn’t drink Tesco Value Lager on the night bus. Wouldn’t be right, besides, the son of God would be more of a wine man I reckon, although how that fits with the blood of Christ thing I’ve no idea.”

“You’ve got to admit though, that bit where he turned that woman’s sick back into a doner kebab was pretty impressive. Don’t often see that on the night bus.”

Barrington nodded, it was true, you didn’t often see that on the night bus.

“Still though, why would the Messiah be headed to Penge, caned on cheap lager and singing ‘South London is Wonderful’ in between sermons? Shouldn’t there be angels and stuff? Heavenly trumpets? That kid in the back with Drum and Bass on his phone doesn’t really fit does it?”

Jay didn’t have an answer for that so he just sat staring at the other worldly figure swaying precariously at the front of the bus, wiping away a dribble of beer from his chin in preparation for another speech to the unbelievers.

“Now you see God doesn’t want you to worship him. I mean, you should like him and all, he’s a great fella my dad, heart of gold, would give you the shirt off his back. Well, would do if his back wasn’t more of a theological concept than an actual, you know, back. He doesn’t need all the churches and temples and mosques though, I mean what the fuck’s he going to do with them? He’s a being of pure energy, encompassing all life and matter, what, is going to use it as a holiday home then? Nah, better off building yourselves something useful like a pub, or a cinema. He likes The Fast and the Furious though you know, big fan, more of that’d be good. Fuckit, I know he’ll get a kick out of this – Vin Diesel is now, officially, a Saint.”

“You think he can do that?”

Barrington thought on that for a moment, trawling through half forgotten memories of slow Sunday mornings spent being shouted at by a priest who thought everything done by everyone everywhere was probably a sin of some sort. Given the current company that made him an authority, Jay had spent his Sundays on the Playstation.

“I suppose so, not that he’s Jesus or anything, but if he was then why not? Saint Vin Diesel, don’t see what the Pope could do to stop it.”

“And another thing” the drunken Christ went on “my dad is not a big bearded white bloke. I mean, I say ‘dad’ but even that’s a stretch, he’s everything, all life, all matter, all space, the lot. You might be confusing him with Santa Claus and take my word for it, that guy’s a prick.”

As the bus turned a corner the Messiah staggered to the right and fell into the lap of a dozing nurse who’d sat up front, which left the rest of the top deck gasping as a flock of doves randomly appeared in the air and started flapping about in mad panic.

“That’s a lot more like it” Jay said, hands up to wave off a particularly terrified bird “doves are in the Bible right? That’s proper miracle stuff there.”

Barrington was too busy picking feathers out of his hair to reply.

“SIT DOWN ON THE TOP DECK! I have to tell you one more time and I’m stoppin’ the bus.”

It took a minute for things to settle down but still the drunken miracle worker got back to his feet, ignoring the drivers order to sit down.

“Anyway, I’m back now. Been a long time eh? I’ve kept an eye on you lot but to be honest it’s all a repeat down here. You fight each other, you feel bad about it, you fight each other again. And the sinning, all the sinning, I tell you, I’m very disappointed in you all, terrible stuff, you should be ashamed.”

Both Barrington and Jay found tears in their eyes now, each wiping them away with as much dignity as they could maintain as the intoxicated preacher’s words slipped under their skin, carrying far more weight than they should.

“I forgive you though. I do, really. When the big man created you he wasn’t at his best, not that that’s an excuse, but it is a reason. You wouldn’t think it really, that your omnipotent, omnipresent cosmic deity could have a bit of an off day but there you go. Tricky stuff creating life, no matter who, or what, you are. Anyway, you’re all forgiven and now I think we’re in Penge. Have a good one.”

“Last stop, this is Penge, your last stop.”

It took a few minutes to everyone to file off of the bus, to the driver’s dismay, his shift was over and the weepy, stunned looking people staggering down from the top deck were holding him up. Something to do with that fucking drunk, no doubt, but then there was always one. Last week it had been a bloke claiming to be the Hidden Imam, that hadn’t been his problem though as he’d just dropped him off at Tottenham Court Road where he’d gone off with a dozen dazed followers to ‘bring peace and justice to the world’. Good luck with that in Leicester Square on a Saturday night.

Standing on the pavement in the drizzling rain Jay looked at Barrington and Barrington looked at Jay.

“That was something, wasn’t it? That forgiveness thing, I feel a lot better for that you know.”

“Yeah” Barrington scratched his head “was definitely something…”

“Not sure I like being called a sinner though, not perfect or anything, but still.”

“Yeah, was a bit out of order wasn’t it? And did you see that beard? Fucking Hipster.”

“Right, fuck him. Offy and home then?”

“Sounds good. Night bus innit, always one on there.”

Fading in the distance the voice of Jesus rang out in the cold night air.

Oh South London,
Is wonderful,
Oh South London is WONDERFUL!

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Conflict Resolution in Croydon

It wasn’t so much a gang war as a communal scuffle. Although as fifty-three people wound up dead you could say that was just arguing semantics. They really didn’t mean for things to escalate so fast though, no one did, things just kind of worked their way up from a civil discussion to gun play in the streets without anyone thinking to step back in the intermediate steps.

Really, no one could have predicted it, not on that fresh, crunchy Autumn evening. It was nice, the air was chilled but cutting, not yet settled into that grey London freeze that puts a concrete lid on the passions of the human experience and as they settled down for a quiet evening the notion of violence couldn’t have been further from their minds. Which just goes to show, even the most innocuous of situations can carry the nucleus of conflict where humans are involved.

It was unfair when the police called it a warzone though, even more so when the tabloids referred to Croydon as the ‘Most Dangerous Place on Earth’ and it was bang out of order when questions were asked in Parliament about whether or not to deport the entire population of the borough to a deserted island in the mid-Atlantic as a warning to others. Locals took offence at all of that, they’re proud people out there after all, what with the Croydon tram and the big Ikea – who wouldn’t feel a certain swell of pride when surrounded by such urban bounty? And if they, apparently, had a slight tendency towards the psychotic then who was anyone to judge? Especially those high faluting snobs from the center of the city. What did they know about assembled a fifteen piece Scandinavian storage unit? Nothing, that’s what and who can really say they’ve lived if they haven’t ridden the rails of the tram line down to the Whitgift shopping center, to which the tube is, by comparison, about as worthwhile as a hat on a man with no head.

The truth was, one witness attested, that there’d been a small disagreement about the borrowing of pens at the Bingo hall. These things happen, tempers flaired, a bit of pushing, shoving and shouting ensued. Others corroborated the story, that was the trigger they agreed, no doubt about it and it had all been over in a flash, a minor side note to an otherwise alright evening. That they fell strangely silent about what came after that was a matter for some discussion by the investigating officers. Serious police who’d dealt with drug dealers, gangs, Yakuza hitmen, Mafioso Capos, ‘Ndrangheta assassins and Cartel drug smugglers, they all agreed that when it came to sticking to a story and not grassing anybody up there were none more reliable than the members of Croydon’s Bingo going fraternity.

Not one person admitted to bringing along the baseball bats, Stanley knives and boards with nails through them that evidence suggested were the first tools of escalation after the seemingly innocuous disagreement about pens. And nobody even hinted at who’d handed out the AK47s and Glock 9mms, although there was no doubting that someone must have seen something as the crates were cracked open. Even the CCTV turned out to have been wiped when tired inspectors sat down to look for clues as to where the Chieftain Tank and the surface to air missile launchers had come from. Every question was met with a blank look, whether the witness was a hefty barmen or a little old lady.

The final report, released long after the funeral processions, memorials and recriminations had died down, was vague. As with all government investigations those in charge had agreed that, in the public’s best interest, it should be as long as possible, as incomprehensible as possible and as late as possible just in case anyone looked at it with strange ideas about truth being seen and justice being done. What did emerge from it though was the curious fact that, of all those killed on that fateful night, only one person was actually from Croydon. They were also the only casualty listed to have died from apparently accidental causes as they managed to fire an RPG the wrong way round and blow themselves away while setting up a fortified position at a bus stop. Everyone else though was from beyond the borough. No one could have known that at the time though of course. From what the crime scene investigators could figure the two battling sides, each claiming that the pen had been theirs in the first place and that they’d have won £250 and a bottle of whisky but for those bastards, were completely random in their composition. It really wasn’t Croydon versus the world, they said, although admittedly it did look suspiciously like it.

In the end no charges were brought, no one was exiled and Croydon wasn’t subjected to high altitude bombing, as some residents of neighbouring Bromley had loudly demanded. It wouldn’t ‘serve the public interest to pursue prosecution’ the government said, while the locals who’d been facing charges just nodded serenely and lent meaningfully on unmarked packing cases that seemed to have been delivered to just outside the court. The police agreed too, as they stood warily behind armoured vehicles the officers had paid for out of their own pockets. It was after all, they told rubbernecking journos, just a bit of a slagging match and nothing to be concerned about really. Plus, they whispered later, off the record and after a few pints, it was Croydon and for everyone’s good what happens in Croydon, stays in Croydon.

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London – A Study : Catford

The Catford Cat - A Pagan Abomination

I looked into the darkness, my courage fuelled by the gin handed to me by the last friendly face I’d seen. She’d been an ancient, a stooped and broken woman, lurking at the roadside not as a guardian or a guide, but as a farewell. A last moment of truly human contact for those who’d chosen to walk towards their fate. Those who’d chosen to walk to Catford. A journey from which none return, at least not with the souls they’d carried when departing.Continue reading “London – A Study : Catford”