“They come over here and take our jobs and they act like they own the place. It's disgusting. My boy's eldest, young Wayne, he's been on the dole ever since last summer when he finished his school, and the poor lad has to report at the Job Centre every fortnight and there's never anything to suit him but these Polacks can just turn up here and walk straight into jobs without a by-your-leave. It's not right, really it isn't. My Ernest says it's Europe and our government can't do anything about it but I can't see that. What was the point of winning the war if the Germans can tell us what we can do in our own country? I ask you....”
This diatribe might have continued for the whole bus journey; it probably did, but I chose to sit further back on the upper deck of the number 42, where I could read my book undisturbed by the two buxom middle-aged women on the bench seat nearest to the spiral stairwell.
I couldn't settle to my book. The woman, who with her companion were only other occupants of the upper deck, had directed her invective towards the bus driver, or possibly the conductor, and I couldn't help pondering how people get stigmatized because of some grouping, because they're black, or they're Jewish, or lesbian, or in this case Polish. And this stigma is heaped on them by strangers, not friends or acquaintances. If the women on the bus had known the Pole personally, known him since his childhood, changed his nappies, they would be pleased for him that he'd got himself a good job in a prosperous country where he had a chance of bettering himself.
The conductor appeared at the top of the stairwell and I watched as the women showed their tickets, a routine action requiring a minimum of human interaction – and getting it. He had to walk to the back of the bus to reach me, and I tried to make up for it. I smiled, asked for a ticket to my destination, and picked out the right coins so he wouldn't have to fish around in his leather bag of change. He handed me my ticket when his little machine had printed it, accompanied by a smile that put mine in the shade, and turned to go back downstairs.
I know a little about bus company staff. For instance, I know his job is in jeopardy. As the old Routemaster buses are being phased out and replaced with the newer solo-operated designs, there is no longer a need for a bus conductor and they're being made redundant. Some are re-training as drivers but they can't switch until they pass their PSV (public service vehicle) test and that's a test to a very high standard and takes time and money. The bus companies generally seem to be prepared to pay the training costs for their staff, so there's a hope that not many redundancies will be needed.
I also know that the bus companies have a recruitment problem – they can't get enough drivers. It's not a well-paid job and you could argue that they'd have more success if they paid more but that's complicated because the government caps what they're allowed to charge in fares, so their hands are tied. I don't know if they could pay more but they say they can't, and there just aren't enough British applicants for the jobs they advertise, at the rates of pay they offer. So the bus companies have been advertising in Poland and other East European countries, for bus drivers to relocate to the UK. The rates of pay offered in Britain look much more attractive to workers used to Polish pay scales, and hence there are a lot of Polish bus drivers ferrying such people as my two bigoted fellow passengers around the cities of Britain.
My stop approached and I stood in the aisle and struggled back into my backpack, which was heavy enough to need the hip belt fixed, and the sternum strap that makes the shoulder load much easier to bear, so by the time I was togged up the bus was slowing to a stop. I worked my way forward and down the stairs, not too easy with a bulky backpack, but I got to the lower deck without mishap. From there it was just a couple of steps, out of the open concertina doors and onto the pavement and home territory.
My part of London is typical of many of the inner suburbs – clogged with traffic. The buses get priority with bus lanes so in rush hour you have a good chance of getting to work and back on time by bus, but no chance by car. My stop on my homeward journey puts me on the pavement in front of a rank of little shops, a hairdresser, a post office, a café and a late-opening general store which is literally a corner shop since it forms the corner with the cross-roads. I was pleasantly surprised to note that among the other passengers who had alighted here was the bus conductor, presumably having ended his shift. I glanced into the bus before it drove off and caught sight of another uniformed conductor inside, this one wearing a turban.
On impulse I spoke to the young man heading my way.
“Finished your shift?”
He was taken aback momentarily but recovered quickly. I noticed it, though.
“Yes. Nine till four today.”
“And you live near here?”
I bit my tongue – too inquisitive – and I could see he thought so too. Nevertheless he answered.
“Quite near. This is the nearest stop on the route.” He pronounced it 'rout' like the Americans do.
I made a snap decision.
“Would you like a coffee? The café just there?”
His face lit up. “Yes, please. That would be nice.” A very nice face, now I came to look at it, round, with high cheekbones, piercing blue eyes, brown hair in a slightly ragged fringe over his forehead, rosy cheeks. He would have looked the picture of manly vigour if he hadn't been rather too thin. I hoped he was getting enough to eat.
We made our way across to the Copper Kettle with its ridiculous pretence of rural quaintness, despite its position in the middle of a red brick rank of suburban London shops and the inevitable graffiti that is so difficult to remove from brickwork.
We sat at a table in the window and were served tea and scones by a schoolgirl who couldn't add up. The tea seemed safer than coffee which would probably have been instant. At least the tea was English Breakfast, and arrived in a pot.
We introduced ourselves, his name is Oskar and he's been in this country for six months. He has no family here, but sends money home each month to his widowed mother. He has several Polish friends who work on the buses, and they get together sometimes at a local pub. He misses Polish food and although there's a shop that sells Polish and Russian delicacies he says the prices are too high.
His English is good. In Poland everyone learns English in school for at least five years, but his accent is thick and impenetrable. Until I got used to his way of speaking I had to get him to repeat everything. It must be a problem sometimes when he's trying to deal with a passenger with an equally thick and impenetrable London drawl. Nevertheless I was impressed with his English, I learned both French and German at school but I can't hold much of a conversation in either. He's a qualified Geography teacher in Poland.
We talked for an hour, refilled our tea cups, he ate all the scones. He lives in a house he shares with eleven other migrant workers, he and another lad share a bedroom, and the kitchen facilities are a bit basic from what I can tell.
I'm nosy, I admit it, but it's not such a bad thing, is it? He wants to improve his English and he asked if we could meet up again. That made me happy, because I'm lonely and a bit of company occasionally is always welcome. So we arranged that when I finish work I'll be at the café at four thirty whenever I can, and when his shifts coincide he'll meet me there.
So I'm helping him improve his English, and in return he's teaching me a bit of Polish. And I couldn't be more delighted that my friend Oskar has found work in Britain and improved his lot in life. I'm thinking of inviting him for a meal out at a restaurant. One step at a time. Jed kroczą jednocześnie.
© Bruin Fisher August 2009