Of course there are those moments in your life that you can’t quite believe. Fate and the gods seem to be in the mood for a jolly jape and for some reason they have chosen you to be part of their game. This has happened to me on a number of occasions, but back in London in 1974 was one such time.
I was a student teacher and I was on my first teaching practice at a primary school, East Bedfont Primary, near Heathrow Airport. It was the end of a long day and I was awaiting a bus at the main road. Experience had told me that there would be a bus eventually, but in London, this could be a single bus after a few minutes or a convoy of four in an hour. I hate to admit it now, but I was a smoker then and I had just lit a cigarette. It was a cold afternoon and I was pleased I was wearing my warm reefer jacket. This sailors’ jacket had four pockets, two regular square ones and two for keeping your hands warm on a cold day and this was a very cold day.
My square pockets were collecting points for a mixed selection of refuse. Cigarette cards, sweet wrappers and old tissues were often to be found lurking with a selection of odd notes and very occasionally money. I had just lit the smoke and was happily puffing away when a bus suddenly appeared. It was a single decker bus that would take me the twenty minutes journey back to Hounslow. At this time you could not smoke on single decker busses, so having just lit the cigarette, I knocked off the fiery end and secreted the remainder it in my pocket. I pulled out the cash for the fare and jumped on board, very pleased at the swift arrival.
On board the bust was quiet. I made my way to a spare couple of seats and sat next to the window. Behind me there were about six other passengers and in front, three or four. I stared out the window and eyes heavy, I drifted into a relaxed state of consciousness. I can not say what first caught my attention. I don’t think it was the smell of smoke, as I do not have a good sense in that regard, but for some reason I became aware of smoke filling the bus. Annoyed that someone would be flaunting the smoking ban, I turned to see who it was and to give them a suitably irritated look. Behind me the bus cabin was filled with a quite visible mist of smoke, but no one behind me was smoking. Was the bus on fire? At this point I became aware of the strong smell and aware that the source of the smoke was me. Clouds were oozing from my clothing and with shock I beat my jacket and even more smoke billowed out. Instantly I beat furiously at my pocket, the one I had stashed my part-used cigarette in. I reached into the pocket and retrieved the cigarette and a collection of smoldering papers. Disaster averted! I checked my jacket to find that a hole had burnt through the lining and would shortly have burnt into me.
I looked back with amazement at the six sitting behind me. I was stunned that not one of them had tapped me on the shoulder to inform me that I was on fire. Their faces registered no sign of being aware that anything unusual had happened. In hindsight, I suppose I am not surprised. People in London were always very suspicious of one another. No one ever said, ‘Hello!’ or greeted strangers at a bus stop, or during a journey, which was such a contrast to my home. In Yorkshire everyone spoke to each other and discovered each other’s life stories on a short bus ride, whether you wanted to participate or not.
Many years later I spoke with my brothers and recounted this experience. To my surprise I discovered this was a family tradition as both had stories of setting themselves on fire. There I was thinking I was special!