On A Bus
As I sit upon the clashing colours of emeralds and sapphires,
Dull, minuscule, particles jolt reaching across
To the other side:
A mixture of decades longing to escape
That tiresome journey they make each day.
Watching the condensation on the omniscient glass
Rise and fall rise and fall. I wonder how many others breathe
Their existence, their being, their woes, their memories
On that same spot as I do now.
Waiting for the right time to push
The tight squares of red stare intently in this direction
With the faded letters forming that imperative verb.
Commanding not just the driver leading this journey
But glaring back at me with ostensibly egalitarian authority.
I try to push back this intrinsic inspection.
A surplus of shapes surrounds my seat: a disjointed amalgamation.
From the right, a diminished beat of RnB straining to keep in time
With a cacophony of coughs and splutters with differing pitches.
In front, two bodies interlaced, knitted together with the wool of love.
Behind, a fierce foot tapping against the smell of stale tobacco.
My daily observation never fails to teach me.
We are together; we are separate.
We are the same; we are different.
We are constant; we are erratic.
It is easy to define us as a collective – what about the individual?
I am a dull, minuscule particle.
But do I jolt
To reach across to the other side?
I am a mixture of decades longing to escape
This tiresome journey I make each day.
A rural bus-shelter late on Tuesday 31 October in the year of our Lord 2017.
In these times of austerity, council cuts have blackened whatever lighting there used to be and I’m a small, cold figure surrounded by a depth of darkness the like of which hasn’t cloaked our village since the war. There’s fog, a dense pall of it, and I draw my coat tighter around my shivering body and am grateful for my thick black tights and fur lined boots.
It’s early evening and I’m waiting for the 350 bus into town, where I’m meeting friends for Halloween drinks. You would think we’d have grown out of it now we’re in our 30s, but life being what it is we all try to punctuate its drabness with the usual yearly round of revelry, don’t we? And I perhaps more than most. I who have closed off doors in my mind; locked them fast so that they should never be prised open to let what’s behind them see the light of day. I need the distraction that Christmas, Easter, summer holidays and all the rest of it provide. And I need the oblivion that’s to be found at the bottom of a glass.
A little group of five or six children passes by the shelter laughing and whooping and carrying pumpkin lanterns. I think how sinister their surely innocent little faces look as the light shines on them, and I’m stamping my feet on the ground to try and get some warmth into them when I hear the thrum of an engine in the distance. My mood lifts, hoping it’s my bus. A heavy goods vehicle is passing by the shelter on the other side of the road. I look up, and a double-decker bus is indeed making its way with unnerving speed towards me. The children’s voices are fading into the night as I bend my head and try to see the time by my watch, but the night is too dark. I have a torch in my pocket and I use it and look a second time. 9.00 o’clock. My watch has stopped this morning. I lift my head again and begin to raise my hand to request the stop. Then in shock I watch as the bus swerves sharply and disappears from view. There is no sound other than my heart, which is pounding in my ears. The bus must have suddenly run up against a wall of fog, and I feel a dread in the pit of my stomach as I wonder whether there has been an accident. Do I need to ring the emergency services? But before I can fumble with my gloves to rake my phone out of my coat pocket, the fog suddenly clears and all thought of the bus and its passengers leaves my head.
Because, walking out of the fog, towards the shelter, towards me, is Matthew Hodderton. Hodders. I had forgotten him over the years. But it is him. It’s been a long time, but now I see him again I would know him anywhere. There’s an awkwardness in his gait, and no wonder. He’s not wearing a jacket and it’s his white shirt against the black night that makes him visible to me.
“Hi Jessica,” he calls as he approaches me. “Do you remember me? We were at school together.”
He recognises me instantly, and, of course, I do remember him. He was in my class, and there was a time I’d hoped we might get together, be an item. But he was very young, and sporty. He only thought of football and cricket. He had no time for girls and that felt like a rejection. And so I handled that the best way I knew how. By paying back in kind.
“I’ve always so hoped we might come across each other again,” he says, “and now we have.”
He’s standing close to me now and bends to kiss my cheek. I let him kiss me, as I wish we had kissed when we were young, when we were still able to. In the distance I am aware of shouting and screaming – and I remember the last time I saw Matthew. His image comes to me now out of the depths of my fragile mind, where I had thrust it and slammed the door shut, all those years ago, rather than face the truth of what happened that monstrous, tragic day.
I look through disbelieving eyes and in turn I see him staring at me. We are caught up in time and hang frozen in the moment. Then the fabric jolts and I see a young boy, small for his age, but wiry and athletic, and his story is unfolding as my mind unravels. He was fourteen years old. Found hanged in the school gym, while the rest of his class were at school assembly. 9.00 am. “He who would valiant be, ‘gainst all disaster……..” we sing. I hear the words, and there is no escape for me as the door in my mind is flung open and I remember.
Unable to turn my gaze away, I watch you, Matthew, as you position the chair and string the rope from the cross beam to take your own young life - your life that had so much promise in it. You are so brave. You choose that brave way rather than face me day after day.
Now, forced with all the class to go to your funeral, I see your parents. Your mother is sobbing uncontrollably and your father is trying to hold her up, see her through this day and all the empty, tortured days to come. I hang my head as if in respect, but the truth is I cannot look anymore. I am not to blame for this, I tell myself. I raise my eyes and look straight ahead of me at the future. I will be OK. I am not to blame. And I see myself back in class, but I can’t see you there, not even your empty desk. There is no place for you. I have erased you entirely.
Then I know at last, and with a jolt of clarity that tears at my very being, that you were never going to be mine. Fate always had quite something else in store for us. And on this Halloween night fate delivers. And I scream inside as I hear the worst sound in all the world. My own voice, ugly and jeering,
“Matthew Hodderton, you stink. You’re so thick. Everyone hates you. You’ll never have a girlfriend. No girl would even look at you. Why don’t you just give up, you loser.”
We are queueing outside the main hall for school assembly, and I push you roughly out of line, as I have so often before. This is the last day of our story, Matthew. This is where it ends. And I dismiss you from my mind, as you make your way to the gym.
Time bends and warps itself into hideous shapes, and I hear ambulance and police sirens. A man’s voice pierces the darkness,
“Are you there, love? Stay with me. Stay with me.” But I cannot.
And then I understand.
There are no breaths left for me. And I watch myself leave the shelter, climb onto that 350 bus, pay my fare and take my seat, seconds before it hits the fog and veers onto the other side of the road into the path of an oncoming lorry.
Then I hear a voice, and it is your voice, Matthew. I hear it spit out its dreadful words at me,
“What goes around, Jessica.”
And the voice goes on and on against the backdrop of my fractured, dead soul. Endlessly. Down all eternity. And that dreadful, vile, accusing voice is mine too.
The universe first holds its treacherous breath and then hisses at me “What goes around comes around, and around……. “
We feel intrepid. We laugh at ourselves for being so careful, so middle-aged, middle class. We recognise how inured we are from the everyday experience of the city. We've rented a nice flat in a smart part of the city. You have a meeting in town and I need to get some essentials - well, essentials for us - to make our stay more comfy.
We check carefully the bus timetables on-line, identify options. We're going to get separate buses back to the flat later. To allay any anxieties, we memorise street names of possible bus stops where we can alight.
We trace the bus company's map with our fingers millimetres from the screen of your lap top. We never touch the screen. When others unwittingly or unawarely do so it makes you wince and me hold my breath. We recite bus numbers and street names to one another, agree which bus and which route to take.
We're all set. Breakfast things cleared away, teeth brushed, lipstick on (me), briefcase packed (you), twenty minutes before our scheduled departure time. We have the correct change ready. We will need to change a note later for our return trips. Bus drivers don't give change nowadays we've been told. As one, we agree to leave the flat and get an earlier bus. Daring!
The walk to the stop takes us just eighty four seconds, not the three minutes anticipated by the bus company. We allow a number twelve bus to go past. You check the information at the stop and indicate, with a wave of your hand, the bus stop on the corner opposite where I am to get off when I come back. I nod, check the street name. It is as I remembered.
Our bus arrives. As the doors open, you gesture for me to get on first and follow immediately behind proffering our exact money to the driver asking for two tickets. He looks somewhat bemused. We realise we have broken some protocol. There are people waiting to get off.
I apologise, about to step back to the pavement, when a young woman barges past me and proceeds to shout obscenities and bang something hard against the side of the bus. I am not sure if the swearing is intended for me or the driver. You are worried about me, check I'm alright. I'm fine I say. Other passengers get off, walk away quickly. The driver gives you our tickets and we move down the bus and sit.
The young woman is still yelling and swearing and hammering at the bus. Everyone else is silent, keeping their heads down. It is like every movie I've ever seen where something is threatening. All of us trying not to draw attention to ourselves. She is wildly aggressive in her behaviour. And unpredictable. She's at the front of the bus now hammering with something on the windscreen. It is very loud and all the while she is screaming obscenities.
A youngish man who was at the bus stop with us tries to reason with her. The bus driver talks to her through his cab window. She proceeds to lie down in the road in front of the bus. Yelling and screaming. Cars swerve to avoid her.
I am frozen; rooted to the spot. I feel scared for her. I feel scared for all of us. This is not normal behaviour and I have no experience to call on to help or defuse the situation. As well, I feel guilty. We got it wrong. Did we unwittingly cause this with our too eager, gauche entry onto the bus?
Another passenger, an older woman, gets off the bus and persuades the girl to get off the road. I am relieved when, with more hammering down the length of the bus, the girl moves on. The driver pulls away from the bus stop at last.
Breaking habits of lifetimes of silent, solitary travel, the other passengers engage with one another. Off-loading their tension, making surmises about the young woman. They concur the poor wee lassie has some kind of mental health issue, they are universally compassionate, kind. The woman who intervened was praised for her bravery. She says she thought, being an older woman, the girl may take more notice of her. The younger man who had tried to reason with her acknowledged he had been a bit scared she might hit him. They chatter all the way into town, say goodbye to one another as they disembark at their various stops.
You and I hold hands. Silenced. We're the last off the bus. I ask the driver if he's okay, not shaken up. He tells me he's used to it. He's seen it all before.
We don't talk about it once we're off the bus. We find a lovely coffee shop, order our flat whites. You have an almond croissant and we talk about where I may pick up the things we've agreed to buy for the flat and our plans for the evening. Then it's time for you to go to your meeting so we leave the cafe and you walk with me down the road a bit to show me where I can pick up the bus for my return journey.
I spend a couple of hours enjoying being in the city, wandering round the huge department stores. I buy some placemats and a few nice mugs, a casserole dish and a knife sharpener. The knives in the flat are good quality but blunt. I can't be doing with blunt knives.
I have wandered away from where you suggested I get the return bus, but easily find a stop. I read the information and when the driver comes, double check by asking him whether it is the correct side for my part of town. I notice the street you've pointed out to me and the nice driver tells me it is my stop anyway.
When I get back to the flat I text you to let you know I'm home. I'm relieved when a few hours later I hear your key in the door.
We'll take a cab next time I expect.