As I pushed Vincent’s pram towards the bus stop for the 11C to Harborne, all kinds of horrific scenarios were running through my mind. Pram wheels get trapped between bus and kerb, baby falls out, driver pulls away … I know other parents manage with pushchairs the size of moon buggies, a weekly shop swinging from the handles, and wriggling toddlers who have to be yanked up the steps by their armpits, but they’re not me, with my remarkable capacity for ineptitude. I haven’t been shopping with Vincent yet without crashing his pram into an aisle of dry goods or, more memorably, running over someone’s toe.
Fortunately, now we were about to embark first ever bus journey together, there was a kind-looking man in a baseball cap also waiting at the bus stop.
“The bus is only one minute away!” he said and I smiled. He would help us!
“That’s good,” I said, falling back on that ever-reliable topic of British conversation: “Don’t want to be standing in the rain for too long, do we?”
“This rain portends a very bad event,” he said and I thought, Oh God. Please let him help us onto the bus and then make him go away.
“There was rain like this in the days before nine-eleven,” he said, launching into an anti-semitic tirade about Jewish bankers and how they brought the rain before they brought down the World Trade Center.
Scrap that … just make him go away.
He didn’t help us onto the bus; didn’t even let us go first. I turned the pram around and bumped Vincent up the steps backwards, his eyes squeezed shut (this boy’s got the measure of me already) and tiny arms flailing out with every thud. I paid the fare (I hadn’t even known babies in prams travelled for free) and made for the buggy space.
The bus driver didn’t wait for us to get settled before pulling out onto the Watford Road and Vincent’s pram lurched a full 45 degrees. The woman opposite visibly shuddered: was she shuddering at me, useless mother, or at the bus driver’s lack of patience? I regained control, stamped on the pram brake and positioned myself where Vincent and I could see each other.
Bollocks, the man was back. He’d decided not to sit down but instead stand directly in front of me, twirl his fat fingers around the grab pole and make me his captive audience. He was muttering something about the East being red and the West being blue, and how a very, very big event was going to shake the whole world up at the end of this year. It had been predicted by the Star of David, or the Wingdings font, or … something. I wasn’t listening.
“Oh really?” I said, pointedly turning my head away and watching the rain slipping like tears down the window in Selly Oak, falling on the terraced student houses with their To Let boards. I felt like crying myself. I didn’t know why I was being polite because he was a weird, deluded racist. “I’m not interested, to be honest.”
He continued. The number 11 was significant apparently: the date of the attack (oh, really?), the emergency phone number in the US (no, really?), the flight number being American Airlines Flight 11 …
I took out my phone and pretended to text someone. I wondered whether I could justify sneaking a hand into Vincent’s pram and pinching him ever so gently – just enough to make him squeak – so I would need to tend to him. But he looked so content there, batting at his dangly owl toy.
…The World Trade Center towers collapsed to a height of 11 storeys …
I’ve put up with a lot from strangers on public transport in the past (hello suspected scientologist with the PowerPoint presentation on solute particles and water memory that lasted all the way from Marylebone to Birmingham New Street). But this was intolerable and, besides, I’m a mum now. I have a duty to protect my baby son from weirdos.
“Please leave me alone. I’m not interested.”
“After September 11th there are 111 days left to the end of the year … are you sure? Something very bad will happen to the world soon.”
“I’m quite sure.”
“OK,” he said, looking around for an available seat. Then, in anger: “But you mothers of small babies, you aren’t looking around at what’s happening in the world. This is a big problem!”
He was right, in some ways. My world has become smaller lately. I’m less interested in watching the news than on focusing on the little character unfurling in front of me, on seeing his tiny fingers clasping mine, on the smile that grows bigger and gummier each week. And it was because of my small baby that I’d made myself prey to a complete nutbag like this man; by being scared of getting the pram on the damn bus and looking around for help, I’d made myself open and vulnerable.
When we reached our stop the driver lowered the floor to kerb height so Vincent and I could alight easily. Why the hell can’t they do that every time?