It was late one Saturday evening and we were in an unfamiliar suburb of Edinburgh. At that time buses are rare. The next was due in around two minutes and had we missed it we would have had to wait for almost an hour. As we neared the main road the bus appeared from round the corner and after a fifty-metre dash we jumped on, puffed and relieved. Then dawned an unpleasant reality. Local arrangements dictate that when buying a ticket on Edinburgh buses only the exact amount is acceptable. In this instance each of us needed to give one pound and twenty pence. Apart from bankcards, all we had was a £20 note.
We were stuck. I offered the driver the note, and my gesture was greeted with disdain. He had his job to do. He reminded us of how we should pay, then waited and stared. After an age he suggested we got off the bus. I explained our predicament. Then, after another stony silence he asked what we intended doing. By now my wife had found a seat way down the bus. I asked that we be allowed to travel free. That was not an option. Either we pay or disembark. However, after much pleading he allowed us to remain, provided that we gave him the exact fare within the next few stops. The bus left and the search began.
Clearly our conversation, which delayed the bus for minutes, had not been a private affair and by the time I began asking passengers if they could change my note they responded as one – No! What’s more, I was, or so it seemed, to be treated as a beggar. There were a dozen or so on the bus and in response to my request most said nothing and stared back. A few looked down at the floor. And without checking their purses the remainder mumbled that they did not have enough change.
I am normally a confident man, but by then I felt very unsure of myself. Being a seemingly unwelcome pariah was unusual. Moreover, a worrying idea entered my head. Might there be a racial component in their response? Why should we offer help to well-to-do Sassenachs who should know better? The whole process was demeaning but we were caught. Part of me wanted to laugh it off but it was too serious a matter. We could have got off and waited for a taxi but such a move seemed risky – few taxis, possible assault.
Luckily things changed as new passengers arrived. After all, they had not got the message; they were not members of the gang! First it was two men, obviously friends, who were soon chatting and laughing together. Between them they found me two £10 notes. At the next stop another passenger came on board. He went straight to the upper deck and I immediately followed. He was be-suited and looked worried and, for whatever reason, became quite ill-at-ease in response to my ‘begging’. Nevertheless, he was able to break the tenner down to two fives. Then, as we were completing our business a smiley man appeared in the seat behind. He quickly realised what was going on and spontaneously offered his help. His purse was almost empty so he started rummaging around a capacious leather bag. There was, he said, bound to be something there. Within seconds he scooped out around three pounds’ worth of coins.
I gave him the fiver, he tipped the coins into my hand, I thanked him profusely and went back downstairs. I may have lost £1.50 on the deal but was delighted to have the wherewithal to settle up. Perhaps predictably the driver showed no emotion when we settled up but true to his word, he allowed us to stay on till our stop.
It was the most interesting of bus journeys. At one level the saga represented an amusing challenge, successfully resolved. At another it revealed how, in no time at all, I could be forced to change my persona and a group of strangers could develop a common position and apparently gang up against the ‘other’. I consider myself a fairly resilient person but this experience suggests how quickly things can change.