If there hadn’t have been a fight and I got off at the next stop, I’d never have noticed it.
I’d passed it daily for three and a half years. Night after night never registering the dark shopfront and nameless wooden door. Why would I? No colours, no signage. No nothing.
Like me, it was unremarkably invisible – unnoticed by people as they went about doing whatever it is they do. There in plain sight but not really seen.
But tonight I see it. So enticing on a freezing night like this. So inviting to someone like me with no home for the night, no soft bed, save a seat on a London night bus.
Never go upstairs. Up the back on the lower level, over the engines, is the best spot. Lovely and warm you can get a few hours shut eye there. Up the back you’re also far less likely to get noticed by the proper punters getting on.
As they take their seats, glancing your way, I look like I’m taking a nap on my way home after working late in an exhausting job, or perhaps at the end of a boozy night out, getting a little kip to stop reality spinning.
I never worry about getting attacked. The bus is too busy at this time of night, and the drivers keep watch with their professional duty of care. Besides, when I finally get off at the end-of-the-line they are my unknowing bodyguards. The trick is to avoid the same drivers, or they remember you.
Its lucky then I have a good eye for clocking faces. And I vary my routes – although of course I have my favourites. We all do. The night bus to Heathrow is one of the longest, at 80 minutes. I know all the timings too – number 24 to Hampstead Heath is great because by the time you do the return journey into central London the night buses have started and I can snooze; even dream.
The irony isn’t lost on me. This very same encyclopaedic memory is finally employed for my benefit; no longer letting rip rampant inside betting shops losing me my former life and all those I love. Losing me my home.
So this is where my wasted talent brings me, standing here in the iced darkness. The street is empty. Shop faces bowed shut for the night. No car lights. No footsteps between the street lights. No driver to protect me. But the door on the shopfront is open.
What’s that smell? The richness of roast beef perhaps? Roast beef on a big plate with crisp roast potatoes, buttery sprouts and garlic, topped off with creamy gravy and generous sauce. No wonder my mouth is watering.
That music; so faint I can’t quite place it. Voices also; laughter, and clinking tinkling glass.
For a shopfront it’s an epic marketing fail: no clue to its wares, just a slightly overweight bay window dressing-up with black satins curtains not pulled quite tight. The only colour is that dribble of warm light seeping cheekily round edges, suggesting movement inside.
A bus passes by. There’s no point trying to stop it. I’m too far from bus stop; so much closer by each passing step to the gorgeous smells and sounds. Besides it’s probably already taken. We’re near the end of the route and getting on at his stage is against the rules. They’ll be someone like me onboard, so that seat is taken.
Hundreds of us check in nightly into this red hotel cavalcade. There aren’t enough shelters out there, and winter nights on the streets ‘paved with gold’ glisten with misery.
But don’t look for statistics or talk to charities about us, because they don’t even know the half of it. If they did the powers that be, or aspire to, would evict us. And where would we go then?
Even among us rough sleepers we rarely talk about the buses. Half muttered conversations in day shelters, like the one I go to once a week to wash my clothes and cook to earn the money for my fares.
People do move on from the buses. People disappear; hopefully sorting out their lives. There are rumours too about where they go, but I don’t listen to that nonsense. I stay positive, and it means vacancies come up. But you need certain skills to pull this off. There are only a finite number of seats, and we must stay hidden.
Like tonight, and the fight. Get off before the police get on. Get off and instantly merge into the busy city, get sucked into its frantic landscape of people, buildings and traffic. Except here is anything but frantic. The…
Wait. The music is louder now. Clap, clap, clap of happy hands and I know that tune – one of my favourites. I haven’t heard that in ages. And that’s definitely roast beef. What a soft succulent smell.
I am tired. I am cold. I am hungry.
Let’s go in.