Michael had always felt as if he did not fit. All his forty-five years he’d been aware of being a bad fit in his working life. It itched and irritated like a bad suit. Contentment was almost there but it wouldn’t settle on him fully. He would scold himself for not being happy, thinking: I’ve got the woman I always wanted, the big love and the sexual satisfaction. A comfortable home and all the toys a boy could want so why am I still so grouchy and angry. I simmer close to breaking all the time. It’s the work. This god awful humiliating work and all the ass holes I have to deal with. So many utter shits that ruin my days and make me despair. Why are there so many nasty, stupid, hateful people here?
In West Bromwich, on the outskirts of Birmingham, Michael clocked-in at the depot of West Midlands Travel, the biggest bus company in the area. He sat in the back seat of a car with four other drivers as they traveled to the bus station to begin work. They spoke to each other in their own Indian language, excluding Michael. Michael began the slow seethe that would grow throughout his working day.
He’d always tried to fit in to the multi-cultural mix. One of the guys sitting beside him had gone through the compulsory company training days with him. Sanjit was the only Asian and Michael had befriended him. He’d fended off racial abuse from others in the class. Now Sanjit was with others of his background; he was snubbing Michael. More absolutely racist and tribal than the idiots in the class had ever been. Michael felt despairing and sad rather than angry. Yet again he was seeing the power of the tribe in action. The destruction of reason and human warmth by fear and weakness. Fear of being excluded and, too, weak to resist the tribal imperatives; Sanjit would never be seen speaking to Michael in a friendly way now he was working in a depot where Asians were a large majority.
Michael withdrew into himself and day dreamed. Just get through the day and try not to lose it. He picked up his bus in the station and set about the day’s work. The double-deck MCW buses had large screens separating and enclosing the drivers. They had two-way radios and video recording equipment. Fares are paid in a slot machine. No contact between driver and passenger. Dehumanised and hostile. Michael had struggled with this environment. He had driven buses in Belfast during the troubles and had never felt as vulnerable and endangered as this. Every day he was abused, cursed at, and often spat upon. That had happened three times now. Always black guys. West Indians from Handsworth filled with contempt and anger, attitude, and strutting defiance. They did not pay fares and would glare at the driver daring him to challenge them. Michael had so far avoided confrontations and yesterday, when confronted like this, he had dared smile at the angry young man the other side of the screen. There were holes in the clear plastic screen and he’d brought his face close and spat through the hole triumphant and vile. Michael had raged inside and wanted to get out of the cab but he knew he must not. Maybe twenty young men on the bus would attack if they got a chance. It would have been suicidal to step out of the cage, the prison.
Michael prayed he would not be abused today because he felt on edge, close to breaking. The morning passed without incident except at lunch. He had felt defiant and gone and sat beside Sanjit and talked to him. Forcing him to acknowledge him in the midst of his tribe. Michael asked about Sanjit’s family by name, revealing detail he’d gotten before the tribal doors had slammed shut. Michael knew he was being hard and cruel and embarrassing Sanjit but he was hurt and angry and wanted to confront at least this one injustice. He watched the eyes upon him so filled with contempt. He was an unclean intruding out of his cast unwanted and unacceptable. When he rose to leave the table he said. “Goodbye Sanjit it was nice to meet you. I shall not intrude again don’t worry. I know I’m the wrong cast and the wrong colour.”
Sanjit’s eyes dropped in shame and anger.
Later in the city centre, Michael had to swerve to avoid a driver forcing his way across his path into a buses-only area. The driver of the large black BMW was aggressive to a lunatic degree. Michael had sounded his horn in warning. Not angry but: “look out I’m here with a bus load of standing passengers who will go down like nine-pins if I have to break hard to avoid you.” He watched the driver lean out his window and yell abuse, cursing, spitting, angry, and completely wrong. Michael was impassive. Passengers who had seen the thing muttered in the isle in sympathy. At least the few whites and kind black Mamas did. The young black men and women didn’t. No, that would be to betray their roots and tribe.
Michael pulled into the terminus stops and the passengers began to file off. Across the road he saw the BMW roar into a bus stop and the driver jump out. Michael knew he was itching to release his hate and anger and trouble was going to be unavoidable. He could sit in his cage and wait to be abused and spat upon and he might be safe, unless the guy had a gun, and that would not be unknown. With out really considering it further, Michael leaped out of the cab, forced his way passed people getting out and stood facing the running driver. Michael stood with hands by his side, breathing slow and deep.
He saw the look of surprise and appraisal. Not fear yet, but shock. This was not what the guy expected. Not a tall strong unafraid man. He had expected a caged subservient victim. He slowed his charge, faltering a little. He began to scream abuse. Michael spread his legs and crouched ever so slightly. He turned sideways, one-foot back, poised. In his mind he was rehearsing the likely moves. The run had been halted and six feet away the yelling, cursing, man stopped. Michael saw the confusion and the doubt. The guy was maybe mid twenties, powerfully built, slick dress, Handsworth gangster cool. Michael examined him closely searching for signs of a weapon. Any sign of a hand going to a pocket or under the clothes and he would strike instantly. Must get closer, he’s too far away, he thought and closed the gap till he was face to face, inches close. The guy smelled of strong aftershave and Michael noticed a few cuts on his cheek where the razor had bitten shaving. His dark eyes grew large and his mouth was spitting. Michael felt the rain as the cursing and yelling continued. Then the lips closed and he knew the guy was gathering flob for a spit in his face. The usual thing. Michael spoke softly. “If you spit on me I will break your wind pipe. Be warned.”
The guy swallowed and coughed but did not spit. He turned and walked away screaming abuse.
Michael let out a slow controlled breath. When he returned to the bus it was half-full of opportunist unpaid passengers. He got back in his cage and noticed his bag was missing from the floor. It had nothing of great value except ticket rolls for the machines. That would cost him. He closed the doors and walked slowly up the bus. Then went up stairs. Right at the back five young men sat across the back seat. Maybe fourteen years old. Hoods-up and attitude on full. As he walked closer they glared, defiant and trying to make him nervous. He saw one shuffle something at his feet. He stood before them and said, “Give me the bag please.”
A torrent of cursing and racial abuse followed. Michael said, “It’s simple. You’re going nowhere until I get that bag back. The bus is going nowhere with you on it so hand it over.” More screaming abuse.
Michael looked at the young couple sitting beside him in the seat in front of the lad with the bag. He said, “Sorry to be a nuisance folks but could you move. There will be trouble here in a moment.”
They shuffled past and went up to the front. Michael kneeled before the lad with the bag at his feet. He leaned close. “Hand it up fella.”
Then there was the sound and Michael felt the wet gobs running down his cheek. His mind reeled. This kid has just spat in my face and expects to get away with it. Fifteen and filled with hate and attitude and the expectation that he can do what he likes. Do I hit him? Will one of them pull a knife? Fuck it! They will not win today.
Michael leaned across the seat bringing his face close to the spitter. He placed his cheek against him as he reeled away from the wet contact and banged his head against the window. Michael stood then with the bag in his hand, wiped his face with his hanky, and then threw the hanky in the face of the lad cursing loudest. “This bus is going nowhere with you lads on it. Get off now.”
Michael went back to the cage and radioed in. He told them the bus was not moving and why. The inspector told him to forget it and drive on. Michael got out of the cage again and told the passengers the bus would not be moving. He stopped the engine, opened the doors and stepped out. He took a few deep breaths and then walked to the nearest stop and got on a bus for West Bromwich depot. Finished, finished with this city and this job. It’s not worth it. I’ll kill someone if I stay here.