They burst on to the bus shoving and yelling; all energy and an edge of menace. Emma felt her stomach cramp, and along with that came a wash of resentment at the likelihood of disruption, the prospect that the rest of her journey home would be ruined by the chavs. Three of them. A girl: pretty, flawless milky skin and dark eye make-up, her white hooded jacket trimmed with fake fur; and two lads, a runty-looking one with thin lips and a tattoo like barbed wire on the side of his neck, and a bigger lad, red hair visible as he swiped his hood back, shaking the snow off. He had freckles and round baby-blue eyes.
The trio swung past the stairs and swayed along the central aisle, led by the big one telling some story at the top of his voice, swearing. The foul language, a sally of ammunition, fell through the air, hitting the passengers, who shrank and tensed. The girl was giggling and echoing half-phrases in a high-pitched squeal.
The teenagers scoured the passengers, waiting for anyone fool enough to make eye contact. Emma prayed none of them would sit next to her. The bus was almost half full, maybe ten people on the lower deck; the back seats just behind her were free. Would they sit there?
They didn’t even pay, she thought. And none of them showed a travel card. What was the driver playing at? Why let them on? Couldn’t he see they were trouble? He could have just closed the doors and driven on.
Emma tried to think about something else, shifted the bags of Christmas shopping at her feet. Nearly all done; got the ones to take home for Mum and Dad and the rest of the family in Birmingham, just need a couple for the girls at work.
‘Shit!’ The redhead broke off his tale and crowed at the top of his voice. ‘Look who’s here – Pukey Luke!’
He homed in on a mixed-race boy sitting a couple of rows in front of Emma on the other side. Short curly dark hair, skin the colour of toffee. There was a muttered curse by way of reply, then the clap and rustle of scuffling as the boy tried to get up.
‘Going nowhere, pal,’ the big guy said, and shoved him back down then knelt on the seat beside him. The girl and the weedy one flanked him. Now the cornered lad was looking away from the chavs out of the steamed-up window.
The bus clattered to a halt; an old couple got off and a woman with a baby in a buggy got on, wheeling the pram to the space opposite the bottom of the stairway.
‘You ignoring me, wog boy?’
The word hung in the air, resounded around the space. Emma bit her tongue, felt her face heat up. The bus seemed to hesitate, to wait shivering, its panels rattling by the roadside, and Emma wondered if the driver was going to chuck the troublemakers off. But then with a defeated sigh the doors closed and the bus shuddered into motion.
It probably looks worse than it is, she thought. They obviously knew the boy – Luke, presumably. Could just be mucking about; they do that, don’t they, play-fighting and next minute they’re all friends. She didn’t really know what was going on.
‘Talking to you, dickhead.’
‘Tell him, Gazza,’ the girl giggled, egging her friend on. ‘Black bastard.’
Ahead of her, Emma could see the latest arrival bending her head to focus on her sleeping child, an expression of dismay and the tug of anxiety in the way she bit her lip.
Emma’s stomach hurt and she felt thirsty, a bit dizzy. Maybe she should say something. But no one else was doing anything. If it really was serious, someone else would say something, wouldn’t they? What about the really big bloke sitting near the front, looking like a rugby player? He’d not done anything and he’d got size on his side. Or the group of studenty types, four of them, with long hair and funky clothes. They were just huddled together ignoring it.
What could she say, though?
And what about the driver? He’d done nothing. This was his bus, his job; if anyone had a responsibility to do something, it was him.
She could ring the police, report the abuse. But if she did it now, everyone would hear. Besides, they’d probably snatch her phone as soon as they noticed. If the lad kept on ignoring his tormentors, maybe they’d lose interest. No one else was saying anything. Perhaps they knew it wasn’t worth it, or that it was just chavs messing about, bored, maybe on drugs too.
‘He’s shitting himself,’ the runty one cackled.
There were two women in front of Emma: middleaged, dressed up well against the weather. Now she saw them exchange a glance, share a tiny shake of the head, caught the muscle in one woman’s jaw tighten with disapproval. Shocking, dreadful, but what can you do?
There was a sharp crack and a tremor through the floor as the one called Gazza kicked the seat next to his quarry. Emma startled.
‘Hah,’ yelled Gazza. Another thump. ‘You want a kicking? That’ll sort you out,’ he shouted at the boy at the window. ‘You dirty nigger.’
The woman in the aisle seat in front of Emma pressed the bell, and she and her friend got to their feet, made their way to the front, standing near the driver as they waited for the lights to change. The large windscreen wiper was pushing slushy snowflakes in an arc across the glass. One of the women peered at the driver, but the man, grey hair, grey complexion, stared steadfastly ahead. She coughed; the driver glanced into his offside wing mirror and drove the bus across the junction, drawing in to the kerb with a whoosh of brakes. The doors folded back, letting in the cold air and a swirl of snow as the women got off. The bus moved on.
‘I’ll do you,’ the bully said, his tone intense with pent-up rage. ‘I’ll have you. I’ve got a knife. Tell him.’
‘He has,’ barked the runty one. ‘He’ll shank you.’
‘He’ll cut you,’ threatened the girl.
The air hummed with tension, the prospect of danger. Emma felt her neck burning, a band of pain around her head. They’re just boasting, she thought, winding each other up. It’ll all fizzle out in a minute. Just playing macho, aren’t they? The passengers were mute, the atmosphere thick with shame and fear. They all sat cocooned, eyes cast down or out of the window.
The girl giggled. ‘He’s shaking, Gazza. Look at him.’
The bell dinged and the red bus-stopping sign illuminated. A lad stomped down from the upper deck, hair down to his shoulders, zipping up his olive-green parka, one of those bright woolly hats on with ear flaps.
‘Knobhead.’ Gazza slapped Luke; the boy’s head banged into the glass.
The lad in the hat saw it; he flushed, moved down the bus. ‘Leave him alone.’
Gazza turned. ‘Or else? Fuck off.’
But the young man wasn’t cowed; his face darkened with outrage, ‘Just leave it.’
With a malicious snort, Gazza swivelled out of the seat and lunged at him, pushing him back and on to the lap of an old Asian man with bags of shopping.
Luke seized the distraction to leap into the aisle and run to the doors as the bus drew in to the stop.
‘Get him!’ Gazza roared, and the three of them scrambled after Luke. Pandemonium. Shouts of outrage and curses as they spilled off the bus.
The lad in the hat righted himself and followed at speed.
Emma felt sick. The doors closed, and she saw the woman with the baby shake her head at an old man on the disabled seats at the other side. But still no one spoke.
Emma looked out of the window as the bus drove away, tyres hissing on the wet tarmac, and saw Luke trip and recover and dart into a garden. The kids were close on his heels and the one in the hat behind them. It was the first house with lights on and there was a car parked at the side. Luke would be able to knock on the door, get help.
Should she ring the police now? And say what? There were some youths on the bus shouting abuse and making threats and now they’re chasing this lad? It would be hard to make the call on the bus with all the noise and people earwigging, and by the time she got home there wouldn’t really be any point. And they’d probably tell her they’d look into it but it wasn’t like anything definite had really happened. Well – one slap and the insults. It wasn’t up to her, really; perhaps the driver would report it when he reached the terminus. Maybe he’d not done anything because he knew it wasn’t actually worth reporting.
The bus trundled on and she sat, just like the rest of them, isolated and dumb, wanting to be anywhere but there.
‘Brilliant!’ Louise clapped as her daughter’s voice faded along with the backing track. ‘Dead good!’
Ruby was flushed, her brown eyes glit ...