Five little boys standing at the front of an overcrowded city 5 bus. They are probably ten years old, very dressed up in the way of little boys newly allowed into town on their own. Shoulder bags (very clean) with neat shiny badges, brand new, multi-coloured trainers (one of them, a tiny dumpling of a boy, has pink-and-yellow blue stripes on his and I have a fossilised moment of remembering how in 1998, you could never have been male and worn pink), sports tops, hoodies. Four are extremely beautiful, in the manner of pre-pubescent boys with a skin I’d kill for; one, who is tallest, already has the unfortunate dignity of acne. It looks as though somebody’s raked their nails down his skin. I think (from the teasing he gets, and his benevolent attitude, like a German Shepherd watching yappy Labrador puppies) that he’s the oldest, and stripey-trainers’ brother. They call him Kesh. From his complexion, he looks South Indian.
One is white; ash-blond hair that’s darkened faster than his face; his skin runs to porcelain and pink. He is round-faced. He has long eyelashes that are going to embarass him for a few years before they become a killer asset in snaring girls. Between him and Kesh is the most beautiful child I have ever seen; one of his parents must be black, the other a quite astonishing redhead. His features are pure African, his skin (in this washed-out weather), pale honey, and his hair, eyelashes, irises and freckles the kind of dark true chestnut you never see in real life, and which lots of white women with that dreadful aubergine tint were originally aiming for. Opposite them, sitting in the luggage rack like tiny Artful Dodgers resorting to public transport, are two South Asian boys, not brothers, Stripey-Trainers round-faced and clearly the perpetual henchman of his companion, who is good-looking and slant-eyed, kicking his heels and gesturing as he speaks. He’s tall for his age, Stripey-Trainers rather short. They’re all speaking, excitedly and almost at once. They’ve spotted the sign for the business on Jeune Street, the one renamed the Obama Car Wash the day after the US election. Chestnut’s eyes light up as he reads.
After a couple of minutes, I realise they’re talking about Gaza.
‘No, but, I saw this thing, this documentary, yeah, like all of it, about this girl, she’d lost her mum and her dad, she was all on her own, she was walking through their house, picking up this cloth and she said, oh, this was my brother’s shirt.’ Stripey-Trainers visibly shudders, knees bunched up below his chin in the luggage rack. ‘I mean, she was really young, she was, like, MIRIAM’S age.’ He gestures at the white boy. Chestnut-hair’s eyes widen. Whoever Miriam is, comparison with her youth has impressed him.
In a few more remarks it becomes clear that Stripey-Trainers and Tall are both Muslim. They start speculating about What Caused Gaza – it’s been going on for seventy years, Stripey-Trainers ventures, Tall snorts and says ‘more like two thousand’. I want to hug them. Then, out of nowhere, Stripey-Trainers says ‘We started it, though, didn’t we?’ and I freeze in anticipation of a row (Tall looks unimpressed) before Kesh says yeah, we wanted to give all the Jewish people somewhere to live after the Holocaust, and I realise with a little frisson of pride that by we, they meant Britain.
Tall gives Eyelashes a friendly kick. ‘You ever been there?’
Eyelashes is gazing vacantly out the front of the bus. ‘What?’
‘There. You’re a Jew, ain’t you?’
‘Oh. Yeah. No. My dad has.’
‘My nan has,’ interjects Tall. ‘My nan’s been there like fifty times.’
‘What, like every week?’ Chestnut grins. ‘Has she got pictures all over her walls? Did she send you postcards?’
‘Our dad’s been there,’ says Stripey-Trainers, looking to Kesh for confirmation. ‘Isn’t there a mountain there?’ Tall is nonplussed. He concedes there may be a mountain. He thinks there’s definitely something you have to walk round. Chestnut jumps back in, because the conversation is no longer including him and this has to be an oversight (Chestnut cannot shut up, keep still, or stay away from the centre of attention). They keep talking for a few more minutes, following every insightful, serious or frankly just heartbreaking remark with the obligatory ‘it’s bare bad’.
Things make even less sense when discussion of their schooldays adds another crazy religious element to the mix. They start talking about the Apocalypse. They all have theories. The name of Jesus is bandied about from mouth to mouth – Stripey-Trainers is adamant that Jesus is going to Come Back Forty Years Before The End Of The World, in order to tell everyone to start counting, and then there’ll be world peace, but only after twenty years, and then after another twenty years, Everything Will Explode. Tall thinks that’s a stupid theory because it wouldn’t take Jesus twenty years to make world peace. Chestnut points out very reasonably that Jesus ‘might just, like, die again’. Eyelashes says probably actually Jesus won’t come back right til the last minute, like Mrs Allen said in assembly. Tall and Stripey-Trainers get into another debate about mountains and the problem of Jewish repatriation until the bus gets over Magdalen Bridge and Chestnut calls the troops to order – how much money has everyone got? Twelve pounds. Thirteen pounds. They reckon Kesh MUST have a LOT of money, he’s rich, probably THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY POUNDS. Everyone likes this idea, Kesh grins bashfully above his landmine-ridden face, poor boy, and they switch to discussing exactly what they’d buy first, an iPhone, a Blackberry (they know about Blackberrys at ten?!) or a laptop. Chestnut wants a motorbike instead.
They talk again about Gaza, about the girl Dumpling saw on TV, the one who was only as old as Miriam. They’re all appalled, genuinely appalled – there’s nothing ghoulish in their eyes, they’re just shocked. They’ve all seen documentaries, they talk about it with their parents, and – above all – the fact that it’s a conflict between some Muslims and some Jews has nothing to do with them, these little boys hanging around at the front of the bus. Eyelashes’s Jewishness is just a point of uninteresting information about him, Tall’s grandmother’s pilgrimages another mad thing that old people do. They’re clearly all at the same, possibly somewhat ludicrous C of E school, and mythopoeic to a degree that would make Mervyn Peake proud. They generally would rather have an iPhone than a Blackberry, and they want pizza for lunch. They shuffle, tiny and bragging and loud, onto the High Street, shove each other sideways and set off god-knows-where. Chestnut is loudly advising Kesh to buy a Blackberry Touch. Three Muslims, a Jewish kid and one chestnut-headed little nightmare who shouldn’t be allowed to talk to girls (he was making eyes at everyone on the bus and were he five years older he’d probably have succeeded with some). By we they mean Britain and their cultural confusion is something they celebrate. My faith in humanity & the future of the world is restored; I want to grab each of those kids, and possibly ruffle their hair and coo over their tiny little faces. Then march them off to the politicians and say, do better because of this.
- This is a really great charity I heard about yesterday (because, er, Stephen Colbert, whom you may remember from such squeefests as My Personal Jesus, just joined their board). DonorsChoose.org, supporting classroom projects across the USA (I wonder if there’s a similar version for the UK?).
- The Oxonian Review is now online! 8.1 was published last Sunday & 8.2 should follow today. We’re having a board meeting next Tuesday and – I think – our launch next Thurs. Subscribe here.
- Look at the beauty. Librophiliac Love Letter is a compendium of images of some of the most beautiful libraries in the world – they are breath-taking (some, er, even make the Bodleian look a little PLAIN, although the severity of the Codrington made me proud). Feast your eyes on this if you’re feeling starved for colour.
- I’m going to see this! La la la la la. So very excited. Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, the new play for Gaza, & so perhaps not an entirely unrelated link. Tickets are free, so email.
Dr Sophie Duncan is Fellow in English at Christ Church, University of Oxford. She works regularly as a historical advisor and as a dramaturg for theatre, TV, radio and film. She likes theatre, detective fiction and cocktails.