WAITING FOR THE BUS
It is six o’clock and the day is tired and dirty. The wind funnels a steady torrent of trucks, taxis, bikes, motorbikes, vans, buses both single and double-decker, cars and yet more cars up the hill. Blue exhaust splutters into faces, greasing hair and dulling the complexion. Eddies of dead leaves are dragged tumbling like filthy kite-tails along the pavement gathering paper cups, drinks cans and newspaper.
A bus squeals to a halt opposite the Odeon. The doors rattle open, swallow the queue, disgorge the rejects, rattle closed. The bus picks up speed, shudders, brakes, swerves to avoid a delivery van that has cut in front of it then growls away up the hill.
The bus doors have rattled closed in Maureen Miller’s face. She has missed the bus by the skin of her teeth - the skin of her sodding teeth, having wobbled on weak ankles all the way from the tube station. Her shoes pinch and her tights - new on that morning for the interview for the job she didn’t get, have been snagged by a belligerent shopping basket. She watches in impotent rage as the bus sails serenely up the hill and away, scooped into the sweep of the traffic, roaring off into the murky-brown city sunset. So much for a long soak in the tub. That Romanian in the downstairs room will have got in first, leaving curled black pubic hairs clogging the plug-hole and a tide mark as wide as an oil-slick - and cold water. At least she’s first in the queue. Another bus will come in about three minutes if she’s lucky.
Glenda Green in her frayed anorak and pull-on hat that date back to her Greenham Common days arrives at the stop, sniffs disapprovingly at the girl in front of her. Short-skirt, sling-backed shoes, diamante buckles, heels as high as a skyscraper. Has twenty years’ struggle to free her sisters from body slavery done nothing? Where is that bus? The timetable says every three minutes between four-thirty and seven. What a joke. And whose fault is that? Glenda knows. It’s the Tories who call themselves New Labour. Whatever happened to proper socialism?
No sign of a bus. Six minutes have passed. Shaz is still crying as she drags Dougie to the end of the small queue. Dougie drops an awkward arm on her shoulder. Shaz pushes it away. ‘This is all your fault. You didn’t remind me to take my pill.’ Dougie grins but doesn’t let her see. He has fathered a child. Scored the winning goal. He kicks an empty Starbucks cup in triumph. It catches the legs of the woman in front of him, an anonymous back in a filthy old anorak. She turns round sharply and scowls. Dougie doesn’t care. He’s going to be a father. He’s going down the Feathers tonight to crow to the boys. They’ll be well-impressed - that is, if this fucking bus will ever come and Shaz will shut up. He always thought women wanted kids. Not bloody Shaz. Has to be different, don’t she? But he’s got to stick with her now if he ever wants to take his kid to the Emirates Stadium to see the lads in action. Reckon he can put up with Shaz for that.
It is five minutes since the last bus. George Ferris carefully places himself a yard behind the couple in front, who look decidedly common, and pretends he isn’t waiting for a bus, but idly passing the time. A gentleman of leisure. He flips open his mobile. ‘Yeah. Right. Bit busy at the mo. Cheers, he says to no-one. Now the day is over at Madame for Fashion, Oxford Street, he can pretend he doesn’t spend his day mouthing platitudes to sweaty fat ladies in front of flattering mirrors, pretending that the thin polyester they pour their bulk into suits them. He smoothes his hand over his bald head and anticipates the evening ahead. His bath will be run, soft towels aired. Mario will have the dinner in the oven and will be ready with the oils. Such an obliging boy. One day when he’s old enough George will buy him his own little run-around, one of those sweet little blue Fiats with dimpled curves like Mario’s sweet little arse. Then he won’t have to slum it on public transport, although sometimes there’s the chance to catch the eye of a darling boy and invite him home for an old-fashioned English tea with afters when Mario’s at his English class. George prefers Greek boys but Mario from Palermo will to do for the time being. Such a sweet, obliging boy. He flocks open his phone. ‘Yeah. Hi! Returning your call. About those shares,’ he says to the dialling tone.
It is fifteen minutes since the last bus. Suddenly the queue is dazzled by the blast of blue and white light as an ambulance roars past, scattering traffic, filling heads with the scream of its siren that changes pitch as it roars past. The Doppler Effect remembers Anne joining the queue behind a fat man, wheezing platitudes into his mobile – a walking coronary if ever there was one. She rests two bulging carrier bags on the pavement either side of her thick sensible ankles and idly watches the ambulance pass, relieved it has nothing to do with her. The Doppler effect, she smiles. Fancy remembering that. She hasn’t thought of such things since third year physics with Mr Schofield and his soft brown eyes and endearing blush for whom she wore black bras beneath her white school shirt. She’s glad he never seemed to notice though.
Lucky baby, languorous in the warm waters of my belly thinks. Sunetra, joining the tail of the long, long queue behind the English woman and her two carrier bags full of easy convenience food she is not allowed to buy. Lucky English woman. Your back doesn’t ache, your head doesn’t pound with the thud of the treadle, the grind of the wheel, the stab of the needle through shirt after shirt after shirt. Who needs all these cheap shirts? Tonight I will spend hours cooking for a dull husband and a mother-in-law who will despise me even more deeply if you, my precious baby, turn out to be a girl. Oh to be alone, languorous in warm water, turning slowly, floating, drifting around the dark silent softness of the universe, stretched, sleeping, sleeping forever, forever . . .
‘Quick!’ calls Mum, pacing the traffic up the hill, towing Sophie by the tug of her arm. ‘Quick!’ repeats Sophie to Mr Ted, his one remaining brown ear scrunched in her other hand.
The bus is coming!’ cries Mum to Sophie.
‘The bus is coming,’ cries Sophie to Mr Ted.
‘Let the others get on first, love.’ She smiles at the Indian girl in front. So serene they are, so sure of themselves in their elegant saris and smooth black hair. They could teach us a thing or two.
‘Aren’t we lucky?’ says Mum as the queue shuffles forward and Mum hoists Sophie and Mr Ted up the steps of the big red bus, fumbling in her bag for change before the doors hwish shut.
Mum lifts Sophie on to her knee and Sophie sits Mr Ted on hers so that he can drive the big red bus up the hill. As he steers the bus away from the stop, Kate turns round and sees the man who has just missed it jumping up and down and waving. She and Mr Ted wave back as the big, red bus sails away into the sunset and fish fingers on toast, her favourite.
It’s fifteen minutes to the next bus. Tony swears and pulls a dog-eared copy of The Da Vinci Code from his pocket and continues where he left off.