Bus Ticket Revisited…


Parts and versions of this story have been published in

  • Tales I Tell My Mother
  • The Mechanics’ Institute Review
  • Nouvelles pour la Classe Anglais
  • Verhalen van vijf dochters
  • and How Do You Pronounce Nulliparous?

The train hurtled along the dark tunnels of the Northern Line. My destination was Belsize Park, meeting place of my women’s writing group. I had agreed to bring a new story along. But it had been a busy week, and I hadn’t written it. What would the others say if I turned up empty-handed? They would know that I wasn’t serious in my commitment to the group. They would blame me for wasting their time.

One evening in 1974, I was sitting on a train on the London Underground, trying to write a short story. I don’t normally write on trains or in any public places for that matter, I’m more of a lock-all-the-doors-and-pull-up-the-drawbridge kind of writer, but this was an emergency.

The train stopped and I glanced up at the map to see how much longer I had to finish my story. Finish it? I hadn’t even started.
Tottenham Court Road. “Once upon a time…”
I chewed my pen.
Goodge Street. “It is a truth universally acknowledged…”
Warren Street. “An Englishman, a Scotsman and an Irishman went into a bar…”
Nothing worked. Finally in desperation I scribbled this:


This is a very short story about being in the women’s movement every day of your life.

I travel by bus a lot, so I have a season ticket. You have to sign your name on the front, and delete whichever does not apply to you out of “Mr,” “Mrs” or “Miss”. None of them applies to me, so I deleted them all and put “Ms”.

“Ms” is accepted – well, tolerated – by such prestigious and indispensable bodies as The Guardian,the Passport Office, the Co-op Bank and Hackney Public Library. I also have high hopes of the Electricity Board, now that I have taken to cutting “Miss” off my meter reading card with scissors. It is one of those cards that you aren’t supposed to mutilate as it upsets the computer.

All this notwithstanding, “Ms” was not acceptable to the conductor of the bus I was travelling on that Monday. He snatched my ticket, demanded to know whether I was Miss or Mrs. When I refused to answer, he glanced at my left hand, noted the absence of a ring, took out a pencil, put a line through “Ms”, and wrote “Miss”.

I’m not what you’d call the retiring type, and I rarely shrink from a fight when I’m sure of my own righteousness, but there is one thing I cannot cope with, and that is unprovoked aggression. I am prepared to accept that someone who knows me may dislike me, but when someone who cannot dislike me because they don’t know me, attacks me, I collapse inside, I lose eloquence, I get frightened, sometimes I cry. So I said nothing to this conductor, just wrote down his staff number.

When it was time for me to get off the bus, he gave me what I thought was a friendly smile, and said, “It’s all right, dear, I agree with you.” I smiled back, mollified. He said, “I don’t know what you are. I don’t know if you’re a boy or a girl.” He winked at my fellow passengers, as if inviting them to join him in speculating on the subject.

I left the bus, found an inspector and reported the incident. He promised to look into my complaint, and ceremoniously restored by defaced season ticket with an eraser. He suggested that I confirm my complaint in writing.

I spent the rest of the day between anger and guilt. So what if I report the conductor? So he gets disciplined or yelled at or fired. He’s an oppressed worker doing a stressful job. Perhaps he heard today that he’s going to be evicted, his mother is sick, his kid has been thrown out of school. Hasn’t he got enough to worry about, without being clobbered over the head by the injured pride of a woman fortunate enough to have the time to worry about the title on her season ticket?

Wouldn’t the right thing be to write to London Transport withdrawing the complaint, and send a friendly letter to the conductor himself, explaining the meaning of “Ms” and asking his tolerance for opinions different from his own?

Such thoughts would soothe me for a while. But then the reality of what had happened would come shooting through my consciousness like a speedboat churning up a calm sea: how dare he decree that I must use a title that was like a badge indicating, for men’s convenience, whether I was available or already had an owner?

How dare he speculate on the subject, and then write his conclusions on a document that I must carry around with me and display for a month?

How dare he whip up strangers to hostility just because I didn’t wear clothes clearly indicating my sex? What was it to them whether I was a woman or a man?

Then I was showered with the realisation that I had spent half a working day thinking these thoughts, during which time, if I had put a foot wrong, I would have immediately proved, to some people’s satisfaction, the innate unsuitability of woman for this type of work.

That clinched it. I wrote the letter and confirmed the complaint. Wouldn’t you?

There is now a space for “Ms” on a London Underground season ticket.

The story is true. Every word. Well, not quite every word. You see, the conductor wasn’t a he but a she. Which somehow makes it different, and somehow doesn’t. And I still don’t know if what I did was right, and I still resent every minute I spend wondering.

I would like to be able to tell you that Bus Ticket – scribbled in haste and in extremis – has made my fortune. It hasn’t.

But, as befits a story that was conceived on a bus and written on a tube, it has become one of my best-travelled pieces of work. It was the first piece of my writing to be translated into a foreign language (Dutch, in 1980), and the first to be published in the USA. It has appeared in English language teaching materials from Scandinavia to France to Japan, and I have met total strangers in Zimbabwe, in Germany, in Australia, who, on hearing my name, have said, “Didn’t you write that story about the bus ticket?”

All of which adds up to another argument for using public transport: not only is it better for the environment, but buses and trains are packed with stories.

Here’s another one.

It was a Sunday evening in the autumn of 2002. I had been working the weekend shift. I was worn out, and looking forward to being at home.

I arrived at Victoria at around 7:30, in good time for the 7:38 to the south London suburb where I live. I paused to buy a newspaper and a takeaway coffee, then got on the train. Ahead of me was another woman – middle-aged, white, no distinguishing characteristics. Stepping into the carriage, she turned right, then seemed to change her mind, in the way you might do if you spotted something unsavoury close to where you had been planning to sit – excessive litter, perhaps, or a pool of sick. She turned left and went to sit at the far end, as far away as possible from whatever had bothered her.

I couldn’t see anything untoward, and there were plenty of seats at the right-hand end, so I chose one and sat down. Also in the carriage were a man in workmen’s overalls who looked as if he was trying to sleep, and four twenty-something woman in Islamic-style headscarves. The women looked to be of Arabic origin, but when one of them spoke she sounded more like a native south Londoner. A very angry native south Londoner.

Her words exploded out of her: “Did you hear what that woman said?”

Through the haze of my tiredness, I thought for a moment that she meant me. But I hadn’t said anything. She was talking about the woman who had got on before me, and who had gone to sit at the other end of the carriage. The woman at my end said, “She said, ‘I’m not sitting with a bunch of asylum seekers.”

“She said what?” said her friend, who also sounded British-born.

“Asylum seekers. She called us asylum seekers.”

“Us?” Two of them were joining in now, indignant and incredulous. The fourth looked blank, her face politely questioning, as if she had not followed what was happening. One of the others explained the situation to her in what sounded like Arabic, and she nodded uncertainly.

“Who said that?”

“That old bag up there.” One of the women pointed at the culprit, who was affecting an air of indifference while sitting at what she clearly hoped was a safe distance. “She did, she came in here, she nearly sat down, then she saw our headscarves and said, ‘I’m not sitting with a bunch of asylum seekers.’”

Great, I thought. So much for my hopes of a nice quiet journey home with my Observer and my cappuccino with chocolate sprinkles. Two minutes before departure time, and here I am trapped between four angry Muslim women at one end of the carriage, and a bigot at the other. I considered changing seats – better still, changing carriages – but realised that, if I did, it would make me look as if I too was refusing to sit among the alleged asylum seekers. Before I could make up my mind, the man in the overalls who had been trying to sleep, opened his eyes: “Keep it down, girls. You’re giving me a ‘eadache.”

Quick as a flash, the one who had spoken first, said, “If you’ve got a headache, it’s because you’re drunk.”

As this was almost certainly true, the man cowered. The doors slid closed, and the train moved off.

Now that we were on the move, I was hoping things would quieten down, but if anything they got worse. Perhaps the sight of a twilit Pimlico slipping past the window made the women feel they had a bigger potential audience for their grievance, if only they could shout loudly enough to reach it. “I was born in this country. I’ve lived here all my life, and she has the cheek to call me -” the woman stopped as if she refused to allow the phrase to soil her lips.

Another one took over. “My little girl is six, she wears a headscarf, and do you know what she got called in her school playground? A terrorist.”

“Because she wears a headscarf?”

“Because she wears a headscarf.” They were egging each other on. The one who did not speak English was being kept informed in brief snatches of Arabic. Her expression was politely indignant, showing solidarity with her friends, but not wanting to get involved. They were like a chorus, telling the story over and over again, reminding each other, keeping it going. No-one was disputing anything they said, but none of them wanted to be the first to fall silent. “She comes in here…”

“..born in this country…”


“My little girl…”

“..asylum seekers…”


Another voice intervened, one I had not heard before. It came from the other end of the carriage: “I didn’t say that.”

It was the culprit. The alleged culprit, I suppose I should say. Necks craned to look at her. The man next to her, who seemed to have taken her under his protection, said, “This lady says she didn’t say what you ladies say she said. You must have misheard.”

“What did she say, then?”

The woman had no answer, and neither had her defender. Until that moment, I had had an open mind on what she had or had not said, but her truculence and obvious contempt convinced me that she was indeed guilty as charged. But she had at least disowned her words, which was as near as she seemed likely to get to an apology, so perhaps the women in the headscarves would leave it at that?

“She’s a fucking liar,” shrieked the one who had spoken first.

“We heard what she said,” said another. “Let’s see her come down here and say it again.”

“Yeah, and leave your fancy man behind.”

By now I had made up my mind to leave the train at the next station. But before we could get there, the train stopped in the middle of a bridge. The brakes sighed in the way they have of letting you know that you are going to be here for some time. Far below, the river looked dark and peaceful, with lights gleaming up at us from a passing barge. I was thinking how pleasant it would be to be down there, when a heard the clunk.

It came from under my seat – the sound of a bottle falling over, one of those big beer bottles made of heavy glass with a metal fastening. I hadn’t even realised it was there, but the slight jolt as the train stopped had caused it to topple. No-one else seemed aware of it, but we all know, don’t we, what happens to a bottle on its side on the floor of a train, when the train starts moving? The bottle rolls about. In this carriage full of angry people, someone might spot the bottle and pick it up. Someone might find a use for it.

The train shifted. Through the soles of my feet came a warning vibration: the bottle was on the move. I could feel it tapping at the back of my heel. I wondered how long I could keep it out of sight.

Casually I rearranged my feet. As far as I could tell, no-one had noticed the bottle – certainly not the women in the headscarves, who were too busy shouting. “You come down here and say that again, you racist cow. Never mind your pimp looking after you.”

I said quietly, “Not everyone thinks the same, you know.”

The woman who had spoken first turned on me: “What?” It was less a request to know what I had said, than a sneer.

“Not everyone thinks the same.” I kept my voice quiet, remembering something a social worker friend had told me about conflict management: never try to shout an angry person down. They’ll just shout louder. Speak quietly and they might lower their own volume. I held out my hands with the palms upwards, which is apparently recognised the world over as a gesture of conciliation. As well as whatever subliminal significance it has, it shows that you are not holding a weapon, that your fists are not clenched.

“I didn’t hear what that woman said to you,” I said. “From what you say, it was rude and ignorant. But that’s her problem, you don’t have to make it yours.”

“Or ours,” said the man in the overalls, daring to open his mouth for the first time since being accused of being drunk. “No-one up this end said anything, so why take it out on us?”

“Exactly,” said someone from the enemy end of the train. “We just want to get home.”

“Look,” said the woman in the headscarf, “I’m British. I’m as British as anyone here, I was born here -”

“Yes. You said.”

“So why is it that if I want to go out in a headscarf, I get called names?”

“But we didn’t call you anything,” I pointed out.

“No, well, you’re a decent person, you have respect for Islam, but why can’t everybody? I’m a Muslim but it doesn’t stop me having respect for people with…” her eyes searched the carriage for an analogy “..crosses round their necks.”

No-one in the carriage that I could see had a cross round their neck. But her friends had fallen silent. One by one they sat down, leaving the one I was talking to as the only one on her feet. She sat too. The carriage relaxed a little. The train jolted forward and the bottle rolled out. I held my head rigid, forcing myself not to look at the bottle, which, ignored by everyone, rolled to the end of the carriage.

“Live and let live, that’s my attitude,” said the man in the overalls. “I think you girls look very attractive in your headscarves, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

I sipped my cappuccino.

By now we were pulling in at Battersea Park. The woman who was supposed to have made the remark slunk off the train. I wondered if Battersea Park had always been her intended destination, or whether she was filled with remorse and had sentenced herself to a 30-minute wait on the dark platform.

The women in the headscarves left the train at Clapham Junction, so I never got the chance to confirm that I do indeed respect Islam, in the same way as I respect Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Zoroastrianism, as well as Druids, Hare Krishnas, Moonies, pre-school children with imaginary friends, and people who think that bloke on the TV programme is bringing them messages from their dead relatives.

I saw one of the women again on a train the other day, minus her friends but still wearing her headscarf. I tried to say hello to her, but she was reading the Koran, and didn’t notice me.

The story is true. Every word. Well, not quite every word. It’s not true that I “didn’t get the chance” to explain to the women about my attitude to Islam and to religion in general. I had every chance. Battersea Park to Clapham Junction is a good five-minute journey. I could have told them. But I didn’t dare.