Wednesday morning on the 253 to Euston. 7:20am. The bus is only half full, as it always is at this time. Any later, and it’s standing room only on the way into Camden. People sit in ones, avoiding human contact wherever possible. Heads down, Wifi on.
A few minutes in, and behind me, someone makes a noise that makes everyone look up. It’s the sort noise you make before coughing up something bad. A few people look around, and furrow their brows in distaste. This makes me feel very awkward, and instead I try to look in the reflection of the window. Who is that?
But the noises continue and get louder. There’s now groaning and squealing and banging on the window, and suddenly I feel very guilty because the noise is so obviously involuntary that there must be a legitimate explanation. But the disturbance is making everyone feel uncomfortable and they’re craning their necks to locate the only source of noise on this bus. I think it’s part curiosity, part concern, because it becomes very clear very quickly that there is a man who needs some help. People watch for a second or two, and then turn around with wide, uneasy eyes. Some people catch each other’s gaze and casually shrug their shoulders. What can you do?
But after a few more minutes, a man’s voice interrupts the mutual disquiet. He’s talking, very calmly, and with humbling discretion, to the emergency services. He describes how he saw a man board near Holloway Road and that he’s been very distressed ever since. He describes his clothes, his ethnicity, his age and his height. He tells them that he’s alone and uncommunicative, and a potential danger to himself.
“The driver hasn’t noticed,” he says. “But he needs help.”
I am at once in love with this man's simple act of humanity. That is what you can do.
We happen to be approaching the London Transport Police office, and he presses for someone to come and intervene. I can tell that he’s struggling to convey the sense of urgency.
“I am sitting six feet away from him, having this conversation. He has no idea I’m talking about him,” he continues. “He’s wearing green socks… okay, he’s just removed his shoes and socks….and he’s hitting his head on the handrail.”
With that, he takes off down the stairs to get the bus registration number from the driver. The driver pulls over and there’s a muffled conversation between them. Upstairs, the young man continues his distress. One by one, the other passengers get up to leave, and soon I am the only other person there. I don’t know what to do. I can’t leave as well. Then he really is alone.
Suddenly, the young man himself gets up and bolts for the back stairs, leaving his shoes and socks behind him. He makes his way to the bottom, where the back doors are open. I make my way down the front steps to inform the driver, who is now describing our location to the police. I let him know that he’s just got off the bus and is now walking back along Bayham Street from where we have just come. But the police are now walking in the opposite direction and they’ll inevitably meet him in about 30 seconds. I don't know what will happen next, but at least he's safe. He's no longer on his own.
The man who made the call looks around to the remaining passengers in earnest.
“You can’t not do anything,” he says with absolute sincerity. “The guy needed help. You can’t ignore shit like that or you’ll end up reading about it in the paper.”
And – Oh God – don't we all know that? Don’t we all read those stories and think: “Why didn’t anybody do anything?”
But sometimes, they do. People like him, who watch and notice, and who aren’t afraid. People who do ‘something’.
It's a big wide world out there. We’ve got to look out for each other.