A forlorn group of teenagers huddle under the grey October sky. It is 4pm in London and the light is just beginning to fade. The group are well dressed - Nike, Adidas, Sean Paul - and they mutter to each other in a language barely intelligible to any adult. Occasionally they all bellow with laughter and furiously flick their fingers as if trying to remove molten plastic. This is an acknowledgement of one member landing an especially ingenious insult on another, usually involving their mum, "hos" or homosexuality.
They constantly check their phones, all BlackBerries (BlackBerry Messenger keeps them in touch free of charge), and type furiously on them. One of them smokes a cigarette. It is the most visible spark here. I question my own sanity. Is any story worth feeling this cold, old or perplexed? I gather around me the black hoodie I have been generously lent by Kieran* so I feel less "conscripted". (I think he means conspicuous but his expression feels no less appropriate.)
By 11pm the group has swelled considerably, about the only thing to change in the hours we spent doing precisely nothing. Some alcohol and some weed have been added to the mix, which makes for a less stable ambience, but nothing - apart from the insults, the phone tapping, the posturing - has happened at all.
Bed, shelter, home, refuge
"What do you think they are all waiting for?" I ask Kieran, and he shrugs with little emotion. "Life, to start, man. Do you know what I mean? I mean this wasn't the fucking way it was supposed to be. This wasn't on anyone's wish list."
Kieran is both right and wrong. This group are waiting for something: a bus. But for these boys a bus is not really a means of transportation. Tonight it's a bed, a shelter, a home, a refuge. "Bussing" is becoming a phenomenon in Britain, a grim choice for kids who, while not exactly homeless, are mostly not allowed or are too scared to go home very often. Unknown quantities of teenagers are spending their nights on buses, which are cheap (less than pound;5 on an Oyster card will get you around all night), instead of in a warm bed.
Official statistics on bussing don't seem to exist, despite a lot of research. However, I did speak to two children's charities that were very aware of the extreme measures exiled teenagers were taking to stay off the street, particularly at night. "There are so many teenagers in peril," said one charity worker, "that the ones who have an Oyster card, a jacket, even a place to go for a few hours in the day to change or sleep won't be seen as a priority by the government, social workers or indeed charities."
Another agreed that using the transport system as a means of staying off the street in big cities is likely to grow as transport links widen and services run later - 24 hours a day in the case of night buses.
Some of my research indicated that in US cities, particularly New York, "riding the sub" has been a pastime for youths, particularly those in gangs, for decades, as there are cheap all-night services.
That this trend appears to be growing in Britain is certain to be a source of concern for Transport for London and indeed the London Mayor: both confirmed an "awareness of the problem". Neither would discuss it further or answer the questions I emailed to them.
I had heard about bussing from several kids I encounter in my teaching and many more I spoke to in my initial research, and had become interested in learning more. But it's a difficult world for an adult woman to penetrate. The young people who do it don't trust adults, and to just jump on board and try to chat would be foolhardy.
I met Kieran through a professional acquaintance. Kieran is a tightly wound, intimidating young man who moves like a feral cat and has a look that could melt lead. However, once he warms to you, which takes a while, he reveals a very different side: bright, funny, articulate - charming, even. When I get to know him better, I rub his head and tell him he could be a model. For a second he looks bashful and then says, "Nah, man, that's for faggots." And then cracks up.
I asked Kieran to be my bussing guide for two reasons. First, he is very much representative of the teenagers the media portrays so negatively: no GCSEs, few job prospects, somewhat alienated from society and arguably in danger of turning to crime. He is one of the many young people for whom education is no longer even a potential route out of the grinding poverty of our inner cities. As he sees it, education is just not an option.
Second, Kieran is scary. He is easily the most streetwise of this relatively young (they are all under 18) group. He is the most likely person to give me access to the bussing world while keeping me safe. When I ask him what happens when they encounter older groups, the ones who have by all accounts succumbed to much harder crimes, drugs and lives, he gives me "that look" and says: "We mostly don't. We know the routes really well." The others all nod, their faces a combination of fear and aggression.
I have promised to keep their route secret, a condition I don't quite understand at first, but it's a complex and busy path that is often aborted or changed at the drop of a hat - the hat being variously police, zealous transport workers or, most dangerous of all, other lost, roaming teenagers deemed to be foe rather than friend.
We board in northwest London on a regular bus, with the intention of heading into the heart of the capital, where there is a much greater choice of night buses when it gets later and colder. By now the group seem to have fully accepted my presence and are keen to tell me about their lives. The most pressing question I have is: why? Why would you eschew safety and warmth and comfort for this? It turns out that while a couple of kids might be along for the ride, for most this is their only option.
A boy with huge brown eyes, who is so small he barely looks older than 12, tells me: "I'm allowed home in early mornings to have some food and change my clothes, but I have to be gone by the time my mum wakes up." When I ask him why, he shrugs, as if the answer is forgotten or irrelevant.
Another tells me that if he stays at home he "gets into more trouble". I ask him how so and he seems reluctant to answer. Kieran looks up from his phone and says, not without compassion, "His brother is really bad news. Because Rob* has such a baby face, his brother is always trying to get him to hold stuff or pick up stuff for him, because he's less likely to get lifted." Rob nods in the affirmative, looking embarrassed.
"What about your parents or guardians?" I ask. My question is instantly met with a cacophony of teeth kissing and cursing and other noises to suggest that their parents aren't exactly fulfilling their role satisfactorily.
"So do you feel like you have a family here, that you keep each other safe?" Everyone nods. "No one gives a fuck about us but we look out for each other," says the little one.
"Shut up, man," says Kieran, but he is kind of smiling.
I am about to ask another question when there is a sudden rise in tension. For reasons unclear to me we have to alight. When we have boarded another bus, I ask why. They spotted another bussing group with whom they have "beef" and thought they might board. I get the impression that the other group are older and more dangerous than my lot, but when I look down on them from the lofty heights of the top deck, they just look to me like more forlorn, cold teenagers, waiting.
"So who is doing this?" I ask, once they have all settled down again. "Just how common is bussing?" They all clamour to answer, yelling over each other, and I make out "Loads!", "But we started it!", "Fucking Polish, man!" This is the first of many negative references to the Polish (I think they more broadly mean Eastern European). It is obvious that the Eastern European presence on what they consider to be "their territory" makes them very uneasy indeed.
"Shut up!" thunders Kieran and they all do, ever deferential to him. "Loads," he tells me. "Loads. And it's being taken over by loads of other groups, too."
When I ask him to expand on the "loads of other groups", he shrugs, either unable or unwilling to tell me what he means.
View from the watchtower
"So what's the appeal?" I ask. "Why are so many young people doing this?" They all start bellowing again, keen to share their theories, but it's the small, brown-eyed boy who has the most compelling one. "It's legit, man. If you are in a shopping centre or even the fucking street, you can be moved on by anyone. But if you have an Oyster you've got a right to be here. No one can say shit."
They all nod in agreement.
"Do you feel safer on a bus?" There's an instant clamour to answer.
"Yes," Kieran concedes. "From here you can see trouble coming. You're less of a mug." The notion of the bus as a watchtower both amuses and saddens me.
By now we are near Brixton and I have a practical problem: I desperately need the loo. A wall or an alleyway between buses suffices for them. It doesn't for me.
"There is no fucking way we are getting off here," says Kieran, fiercely.
"I'll buy you all some chips," I offer. I doubt they would have moved faster if I'd shouted "Last one off is a virgin!" (They all claim to be "serious playas". Translation: studs.)
Back on board, my predicament raises another question: do girls bus? Their shrieky answers suggest that they probably do but, despite "playa" boasts, these boys are still at an age where, really, they are a bit scared of talking to girls.
"So tell me truthfully," I ask them. "How many of you totally fucked up school? Refused to work, missed exams, got kicked out and so on?" Most admit to this and express regret. It's a heartbreaking paradox that teachers and parents will recognise: so many kids get it just that little too late.
"So what now?" I ask them. "Are you going to resit, go to college, what?" A few talk half-heartedly about doing something at college but the very small boy says: "What's the point? There are kids coming out of school with 11 A*s and not being able to find a job. Who's going to give us a job?"
"What did you want to be when you were little?" Blank faces. None of them can remember.
Suddenly there is much shrieking and all the boys clamber to get a look. They bang the window and hoot. After a few hours of bussing, we have found ourselves in the King's Cross area, home to dozens of street prostitutes. "That's nasty, man," says one. "Can you ever imagine being that desperate?"
"Apparently, a lot of those type of ladies often have serious drug addictions, come from broken homes," I tell them.
The small one looks at me with his big brown eyes and says: "Crack is for losers." They all seem to agree. Weed is fine; hard drugs are bad news. I hope they always think this.
"So come on," I ask them. "What about jobs? The job centre or something?" They all shout with laughter and flick their fingers. "My friend says he knows someone who caught HIV from the job centre. It's a nasty place, man!" cries one of them. When the hilarity has died down, Kieran, still attached to his phone, says: "I've got more chance of meeting Elvis than getting a job there." "Who's Elvis?" asks his friend. "Some dead brother," says another. Kieran kisses his teeth. "Elvis was white, he just sounded black. Like Eminem."
It's getting on for 3am and Kieran announces that they will be getting off in a bit to "take care of something". I don't care to find out what this euphemism means but it leads me neatly to my next question: crime. There are vague, reluctant murmurs, with the vociferous defence that "crime is becoming the only option". I ask them about last year's London riots and most of them get a look on their faces like old hippies do when asked about Woodstock. The small one says to me angrily: "That was three fucking nights of the year my mum made me stay in!"
As we near Camden Town, it is close to 4am. I am bitterly cold, exhausted and a little bit sad. "You can come with us again!" says the little one, enthusiastically. "Even though you're a woman, you being around might protect us a bit from the police and even some of the older ones who hassle us!"
Several agree: the idea that an adult might protect or help them seems a novel but pleasant concept. The only thing I can offer them is the bag I filled with sweets and snacks before I left and they pounce like penguins at feeding time, flapping and squabbling. I leave the bus to catch a cab. They all gather at the back window to see me off, smiling and waving as they head off again into the night.
*Names have been changed.
Photo credit: Alamy