The story opens with Mr. Richard Braithwaite riding a crowded red double-decker bus in London. He is squashed in his seat by a large, ribald lady named Rose, who engages in good-natured repartee with the other charwomen on the bus. Mr. Braithwaite, the only male on the bus besides the conductor, is amused by their banter, smiling inwardly at "the essential naturalness of these folk who were an integral part of one of the world's greatest cities." When the bus reaches Commercial Road, Rose gets off the bus, at a stop where a "slim, smartly dressed woman" gets on with a little boy. The only empty seat is the one next to Mr. Braithwaite, but the woman, who is obviously of an upper class, will not take the seat because Mr. Braithwaite is black. The conductor tells the woman that there is no standing allowed on the bus, but the woman still refuses to sit by Mr. Braithwaite. At this point, Mr. Braithwaite realizes that he has reached his destination and disembarks, thus defusing the situation.
The neighborhood in which Mr. Braithwaite finds himself is noisy and littered. There is rubble everywhere from the bombings which occurred during the recent war, as well as rubbish and a variety of unpleasant smells. Mr. Braithwaite walks down the streets, feeling "sick and dirtied," and finally reaches an alleyway where there is a sign with the legend, "GREENSLADE SECONDARY SCHOOL." When Mr. Braithwaite enters the shabby grounds of the institution, he is met by "a small, dark-haired, elfin-faced boy...dressed in blue jeans and a discolored once-white T-shirt," who directs him to the headmaster, Mr. Florian. Mr. Florian has been expecting Mr. Braithwaite, and invites him to look around the school. According to Mr. Florian, "things are done (there) somewhat differently from the usual run," and the headmaster hopes that Mr. Braithwaite will like what he sees and decide to stay (Chapter 1).