You swing up the final step as the bus lurches a corner, sprinkling rain from your coat hem, your cuffs, your sorry excuse for an umbrella. Faces turn, from where they’re clustered, in pairs. Gazes grab at you, dismiss you –
Sitting at the very front, there’s an elderly couple on the left, while on the right, a young mum and her son dip and sway with the pattering night.
Hastily, the toddler returns to his earnest driving, his invisible wheel clenched tightly between woollen paws, his gone-bedtime eyes intense. It’s a good job he knows where you’re going, since no one else can see anything. Every single window is cottoned with condensation. You smell wet wool and cigarette ends. The secret leaves and mud patterns gridded to damp boots.
The middle seats are occupied by Girls Going Out. Insect eyelashes and hair straightened to the fluidity of tarmac – brittle blond, brunette and a combination of the two, carefully arranged stripes of oak and gold. Frosted lips all round. But these girls aren’t raucous, or giggling, as you might have expected. They’re not even whispering. Texting …
At the very back, one man, alone.
You take the seat behind the girls, but more because you’re afraid of skidding or stumbling than anything else. You haven’t realised, yet.
It doesn’t take long though, before you hear him. The way he’s drumming his heels against the floor, the thud of it an irregular heartbeat, almost exquisitely out of time with the engine’s wheezing, with the rain’s hiss and spatter. And when he speaks you realise that he’s probably been talking for some time. You’ve interrupted.
“I’m telling myself I’m a fucking idiot,” he says.
And you turn, of course you do, along with everyone else. And yes, he’s definitely on his own. And no, he isn’t on a mobile.
He isn’t even old, or grubby-looking. But there’s the hollow volume of his voice. That shuffle-stamping. Thud … Thud-thud, thud –
The girls’ eyes flash back at you. The old woman shakes her head.
But he continues:
“I’m telling myself not to think these things.”
And his words seem so deliberate, it’s almost funny; they’re so painstakingly enunciated –
You realise that the folds of your umbrella are soaking a patch of darkness into the empty space at your side. And you know you ought to place it on the grey-glistening floor, but you don’t. Not yet. Because at the moment, you’re not moving. You’re listening.
“Just because these people,” the man says. “These people –”
And now no one’s looking back there anymore. Everyone’s attention is singularly focused on those wide front windows, on the nothingness there, and a child humming. Driving with blind confidence into an expanse of clouded white.