The Bus as a Microcosm
En masse, bus passengers are mundane. They lack the individuality possessed by drivers of the sleek cars that passengers look down at as they chug past in the car-free bus lane. From the outside, the bus looks like some jolly outing, with its lights and steamy windows, stuffed to the seams with people, it blunders along unhindered, while the drivers of cars sit in gridlocked isolation.
In fact, each passenger on the bus is intrinsically interesting, to themselves at least, and also to that particular breed of passenger who ride the bus partly as a meditation and partly for the pleasure of observing other humans in this most egalitarian of spaces.
Ade Prior was one of this breed. Of course he had to take the bus for practical purposes, but more and more frequently he found himself boarding simply for the experience of the bus journey itself.
Ade led a quietish life; he had a tendency to potter. Sometimes he worked, sometimes he didn’t, but he liked to be in the midst of things. The blankness of his room drove him out into the world; and how did one get there? On the bus. He wasn’t always certain of his intended final destination, but at least he was on the journey, and wasn’t that what it was all about?
Not according to his mother, but she was never one for going out and about. She always managed to seem busy in one place, although it was difficult to see what she was actually achieving.
Mary Prior had an unspoken fear that her son was one of the feckless poor rather than of the hardworking, or even the deserving sort; labels she had striven long and hard to attain, only to be let down by Ade.
Ade was one of life’s explorers. He had only left the city on half a dozen occasions, and yet he was a traveller. His mind wandered, which was one reason he generally worked on a temporary basis.
‘It suits me,’ he explained to his despairing mother. The truth was that the salaried world was beyond his access. He had no clue as to where its entry might be and he was slightly envious of those of his contemporaries, no more intelligent or industrious than he in their younger days, who now cruised past his bedroom window in their cars, on their way to earn regular money, by way of the gridlock he would pass on the bus.
Ade was writing a book, in his head. It was a study of the habits and customs of bus users, and, although he had not been to university, or even sixth form for that matter, his study would be held up as an interdisciplinary masterpiece of observation. As a consequence he would be called upon to lecture at the finest universities in the world, for which he would be amply remunerated, and his mother would be off his back. The fantasy moved him to stretch his arm from beneath the duvet to reach his phone. He scrolled through the messages from his friends, some of whom he had never met in the flesh. His finger was tiring with the process. He scanned the images and reports of the previous night’s exploits. Lights, colours, words flickered past his eyes and he vaguely registered the existence of the messengers beyond the digital. It fascinated and depressed him.
‘Off to catch the bus,’ he messaged no one in particular, and dragged himself from his bed, to get out there, to get some reality.
When the potential bus passenger is outside, waiting, interminably, for the bus to arrive; probably in inclement weather, probably with some urgent task to perform for which they are late, possibly with some concern about having the correct change; there is little thought of those who are already on the bus. That happy band, are cosily positioned on cushioned seats, watching the world perform for their entertainment through picture windows. No, the bus stop has none of those pleasures. Of course one does not pay to wait, not in money anyway. It’s all change once on the bus though. The travails of the wait dissipate as, with one foot on the pavement and the other on the step of the bus, the boundary is crossed and the potential passenger becomes one of the righteous riders. Those who tut when the bus slows at a stop which is not theirs, then closely inspect the newcomer undergoing their transformation into passenger, via the bus driver.
Ade noted this down, in his head. He sat towards the back of the bus, so that he had a good vantage point. Some of the regulars were already seated. The pretty young woman in the denim jacket was in her usual seat. He sometimes thought she smiled at him, although that could be the set of her mouth, or perhaps she was simply thinking of something pleasant when he was in her eye-line. She didn’t smile today.
There was the woman who asked for hair, he gave an involuntary shudder. There was nothing outwardly odd about her, but one morning she had asked Ade for a couple of strands when his hair was rather longer than usual, he was going for an absently intellectual look at the time. When he’d asked her what she wanted it for, she had explained that she used hair in her embroidery, and showed him an example in a photograph on her phone. He had squinted at the rather indistinct shapes and lurid colours and had asked why the picture was so pink. ‘Oh, I sometimes dye the hair if I need a specific colour,’ she said.
Ade had obligingly plucked a couple of mousey strands from his head and watched rather uncertainly as she dropped them into what looked like a purpose made transparent plastic bag, which she stashed into her handbag with a grateful nod. The oddness of her request had left him with a nagging doubt. Perhaps she was some sort of witch, or maybe she was doing something with his DNA. It took all of his will power to stop himself shouting, ‘Don’t let her have your hair!’ whenever he saw her leaning towards another passenger.
Ade settled into the ambience of the bus and returned to the development of his theory.
The bus contains a community, albeit for a short while, its demographic changing according to the time of day and the route taken. The early morning journey from leafy suburbia into the depths of the city finds the seats scattered with a smattering of tidy office types, but as the bus gains progress towards its destination, it fills with a more assorted collection of workers, passengers become less contained in appearance and behaviour. The most harassed of these supervise the transit of small children and their accompanying paraphernalia.
There are certain times of the day when the bus is ridden almost exclusively by school children, as it is only the foolhardy or desperate who would even attempt to travel amidst the dominating force of youth.
As the day settles into itself, there are a disproportionate number of older passengers, the bus pass being their talisman and guarantee of a comfortable seat. And so it goes, from the first service at dawn to the last one at midnight, the last bus being the most mysterious. This bus makes its discrete exit through the dark with its cargo of the guilty, inebriated and exhausted. The bus collects together a rough estimation of the citizens our politicians claim to represent. Most life is here.
He liked the conclusive tone and looked around for new passengers.
He noticed a rather handsome and agitated black woman sitting next to a young man in school uniform; Ade estimated he was around 15 or 16 years old. He presumed the young man must be the son from their shared good looks and his solicitous behaviour. He reflected on his own failings as a son, but quickly pushed the thought from him as some genuine drama seemed to be unfolding in front of him. The handsome black woman was standing five minutes before the next stop, any experienced buser knows that etiquette requires you wait until the stop comes into view. She was either displaying a woeful lack of knowledge of the route or something more interesting was about to occur.
The situation took a somewhat distressing turn. The woman was slender, but on her feet, she possessed a stately air of authority. She stretched out an arm, a finger pointing in accusation, ‘That man,’ her voice was deep but shook in her passion, ‘That man is filming me!’
Ade followed the direction of the woman’s finger with interest. It appeared to be identifying a male of rather innocuous appearance. The woman’s son sprang to his feet and put an arm around the trembling women.
The woman glared at the man, then turned her head to take in the eyes of her captive audience.
‘I had a terrible accident at work, and now,’ she turned to face the accused again, ‘and now this man follows me and films me, so they can get out of paying me what I am owed.’
There was a unified intake of breath and the audience’s eyes moved from the woman, to the man of innocuous appearance. By now the bus had reached a bus stop and the woman’s son guided her to the door, turning just once to fling a glance of hatred in the direction of the man, he then helped the woman negotiate the steps to the pavement. Ade gawped in morbid fascination at the accused man, who seemed to be completely without shame and skipped off at the following bus stop. The bus was filled with the heavy silence of thought. Not one passenger spoke to another as all dissected the scene they had just witnessed. It was an unexpected start to the day.
Ade was so engaged with the idea of the bus as an arena for personal and social tragedy, that he missed his stop and had to take a 15 minute walk back. He was going to be late, or rather, not on time. He had acquired a few days’ work packing. He mused on the possibility of understanding if he told them that there had been trouble with the bus. He thought it unlikely.