He boards, hands the driver money, takes his ticket. He turns towards us, head turning from side to side, avoiding any eye contact. He spots a seat on the aisle, halfway down, diagonally in front of me. He moves along, sits, places his backpack on his lap.
I study him. His kufi is colour-coded to match his kameez. Traditional clothing offset by everyday collared shirt and jeans. His beard is full but neat. Crappy trainers – probably from Sports Direct.
I watch him. His lips are moving. He’s praying, I think. He takes out his mobile. I think combinations of numbers. 9/11, 7/7. I start sweating. My pulse races. My breath comes in short sharp bursts. My bowels threaten to explode.
I think to press the button, sound the alarm, but I’m frozen, stuck to my seat. So this is what it comes to, blown up on a bus because I’m too scared to do anything about it.
His phone rings; I press myself against the back of my seat, cross my arms in font of my chest, braced. He says, hi mum, yeah I’ve got all the stuff, not forgotten the biscuits, and no mum, I won’t be late, I’m nearly there, only one stop away.
The same stop as me. He turns left out of the bus, I turn right.
Three of them step out of a doorway a few yards in front. They spot me, one of them points at me; they grin at each other.
I study them. The usual uniform – shaven heads, union jack t-shirts, a Tate gallery worth of tattoos. Seriously heavy boots. Steel toe caps? You just know they are.
They move towards me. I survey the immediate topography, checking for chicken-run alleyways and friendly open doors. My pulse races. My breath comes in short sharp bursts. My bowels threaten to explode.
I think to scream, to shout for help, but I’m mute. The gap between us closes fast and I can already taste the blood in my mouth. So this is what it comes to, head kicked in and busted ribs because I’m paralysed by fear.
The one in the middle cracks his knuckles – love on the left hand, hate on the other. You look local, he says. Know where the cinema is?
Unhurt I get home. I shower and quickly wash away the fear.
Addressing the shame will take a lot longer.
Written for Macclesfield Speakeasy open mic session