We were touching, chest-to-chest. I could smell his sweat. The whites of his eyes and the ebony black of his skin were an inch away from my face.
And I was scared stiff. I knew beyond any doubt, that I was a few seconds away from death or serious injury.
This was in 1962. I was a ten-year-old schoolboy, jumping onto the number 3 bus at the busy roundabout at Crystal Palace, London, at the height of the rush hour. Late for school, stupid and reckless, I had dashed on to the rear platform of the bus (in the days long before safety doors), misjudged my step and was teetering backwards. In that ‘all too aware’ stage of prescient danger I felt myself falling out of the bus and onto the road. I was going to crack my skull on the pavement, then fall under the wheels of whatever speeding car was behind me.
And there was nothing I could do to save myself.
It didn’t happen.
Because at the very moment when the bus suddenly accelerated, tipping me backwards to oblivion, the quick-thinking bus conductor grabbed my lapels and literally hauled me back to safety. My feet had actually come off the platform, one was already scraping the tarmac. I have this vivid memory of being hauled forwards and upwards through mid-air, about eight inches, being pulled up against his body, the bus’s grab-bar, which acted as his anchor, being the only thing stopping him being dragged out of the bus by my weight.
I was young, stupid, embarrassed and confused. And scared. I’d almost been killed. And black people were a mystery to me, in fact I’d never seen a black person up so close, nor had anyone saved my life before.
And, to my eternal shame, I never even thanked him. I just walked shakily into the bus, sat down, didn’t even talk to him, and pretended it hadn’t happened.
To my eternal shame, I didn’t even thank him. And I didn’t tell anyone about it. If I’d told my mother, I know categorically that she would have gone to the ends of the earth to find out the name of bus conductor no. 50462 (I still remember his number) from London Transport (before London buses were run by TFL) and thanked him personally and made it her business to make sure his employers and colleagues knew what a hero he was. Giving him money would have been crass, perhaps an insult, but, as she always said to me, “All people want is to know that they are appreciated, and that the good things they’ve done have not been forgotten.”
Now that I’ve retired, my children are grown up and my wife and I have parted, I’ve got plenty of spare time and more than enough money for my needs. So I decided to embark on what would obviously be a wild goose chase, and try to find the man who’d saved my life, fifty-four years ago.
The person in the media department of TFL turned out to be a young, delightful and enthusiastic chap, by the name of Jack Paradine. Jack told me that this was his first job after graduating in modern history at university, and he thought that my story was fascinating. He went on to say that black bus conductors of the 1960s were amongst the first wave of people who’d been encouraged to come to this country from Trinidad and Jamaica, to provide valuable labour. He promised to contact the ‘historian’ who kept the archives of the old London Transport, and, with any luck, he said there was a chance they might find out who bus conductor no 50462 was.
The next day he phoned back, full of enthusiasm. My conductor had been Sammy Adebayer, and he had his address in those days. Since, by Jack’s estimation, Sammy would be ninety-four now, the likelihood was that he had met his maker, but, Jack encouraged, “you never know. Good luck in your search.” He advised me to try the services of a private detective, as he’d told me they had access to electoral roles, censuses, and all kinds of other data that others could not reach.
The detective wasn’t hopeful, but within a day he phoned me back, sounding surprised. “Your Sammy Adebayer, according to our records, seems to be the same as the one I found, who matches with the census of 1961,” he told me. “He died ten years ago, but I do have a current address of his son – it’s in Birmingham.”
Having come this far, I thought, why not go all the way, and take the train up to the Midlands?
But my luck had run out. A neighbour told me that Fergus Adebayer had left that address last year, but they had the phone number of his wife. Passing on my mobile number to the helpful neighbour, the wife rang me ten minutes later, telling me that her husband had left her and she had no idea where he was. All I can think of, she told me, “Is to give you the address of my son Gary – he’s a good boy, he still keeps in touch with him.”
Feeling more and more despondent, trudging up the steps of the grim-looking block of flats, I wondered why I was doing all this. The man who answered the door seemed wary at first, but when he heard my story, he was welcoming and friendly and invited me inside, where his wife and children were bustling around the overcrowded living room.
“My grandad?” he said in surprise. “I can’t believe it! He saved your life? You’re kidding me.”
“No, it’s true,” I told him.
His face broke into a huge smile. “All my life I’ve heard nothing but what a no-good bastard he was. How he abandoned three wives and lots of children! How he ran around with gangsters and never held down a job for long in all of his life. If it hadn’t been for his brother, Jonny, this family would have been finished. Jonny died years ago too, but he was the great hero. Jonny looked after my mum and her brothers, apparently, he was the rock of the family, was my great uncle Jonny. Sammy, my granddad, I’ve always felt kind of sorry for him. He was supposed to be a really useless bastard. A waste of space. Good for nothing.”
“Well,” I told him, “he was certainly good for something. He saved my life, or maybe saved me from something possibly worse – being seriously paralysed or brain dead. And I’ve been a doctor in a London hospital all my working life, so, in fact, he made all my work possible too, when you think of it that way.”
“No kidding me!”
We chatted a bit longer. And, to my relief, he accepted my cheque for £20,000. He was over the moon, telling me that, added to the couple’s savings, meant they now had enough for a deposit on a flat in a decent area, where his children could go to a good school and have a fair start in life.
“It’s not just the money you’ve given me I’m grateful for,” he told me as I was shaking his hand at the door, promising to keep in touch. “It’s the knowledge that, scoundrel that Sammy obviously was, I accept that, but now I know that my grandad did at least do one good thing in his life that we can all be proud of. He wasn’t just a good for nothing waste of space like everyone says. And that means a lot to me. The money means everything, of course it does, but knowing grandad Sammy wasn’t the complete arsehole that everyone says he was means a whole lot more. I can tell my kids that although their great grandad from Trinidad did lots of bad things, he did do this one good thing in his life. You’ve given us all a good memory of him. Can you understand?”
A couple of weeks later, I got a photo of my erstwhile saviour: Gary had sent an old black-and-white snap of his grandad, Sammy Adebayer, wearing a suit and smiling at the camera. I put it on the mantelpiece in pride of place.
Next day, my new friend Jack Paradine phoned me at home.
“Peter, I’m so so sorry, but there’s been a mistake.”
“Well, it seems that Alistair, my friend who looks after the archives of London Transport, has muddled things up. Bus conductor no 50462 wasn’t Sammy Adebayer, it was in fact his brother, Jonny. To double check, Alistair tracked down the personnel records and it seems that Sammy Adebayer was sacked at the end of 1961. Something to do with stealing money, attacking a passenger or something. Brother Jonny is the good guy who saved your life. Looking at his work record it seems that Sammy was pretty much good for nothing.”
“No, Jack,” I told him, smiling at the black-and-white picture of Sammy, who was beaming at me from beyond the grave, as if our shared secret was a great joke. “Everyone is good for something.”