I ran for the bus. It wasn’t leaving, I just had to get away again. I heard voices shouting after me but I didn’t want to listen to them.
I scanned for a safe spot amongst the 12 people I had counted in front of me. I settled on a seat on the right hand side as I looked, nearer the back, identical in every way to all the other seats – a lurid pattern of hexagons smothered over it, holes emerging in the cheap fabric. I folded up the ticket I was still holding in my gloved hand and placed it in my back pocket with several other folded tickets. I slid myself downwards, using the pole to lower myself into as comfortable a position as I could manage.
I sniffed and breathed out several long sighs of cold. I took off my gloves and brushed the strands of hair that were protruding from my bobbled hat back from where they had escaped. I knew I should probably take off my hat too because Sam said I shouldn’t wear it indoors, but I was cold and I didn’t want to take it off because I didn’t have a pocket to stuff it in and so I’d have to perch it on my lap. And I didn’t want to do that in case it fell on the floor of the bus and got dirty. So I didn’t. Plus Sam said a lot that I didn’t like to take much notice of.
The bus was moving now, taking the station out of sight and progressing into the city. I liked the view on the M79, especially at this time of evening. Nobody seemed to be appreciating it – everybody was resting their eyes or talking on the phone to Lucy about what Sally had done yesterday and how they just couldn’t believe it. So I looked on my own. Stars poked through the darkening sky. The moon washed over the city, mixing with shop lights and car beams and lampposts. Last time I ran away it wasn’t nearly this dark.
I settled in my seat and moved my hand to my pocket, reaching for my ringing phone. I pulled it out and brought it to my face, finger on the power button. I read the name. I pressed the button. Sam. I didn’t want to talk to her, not right now. Not for a while.
I pushed the phone back. The bus stuttered to a halt and I thrust out a hand to halt my momentum. I reeled it back in, via the escaped hair under my hat again. Another hand stretched out, grasping the pole by my chair. A body swung round it, a face glanced over mine, stray knees bumped.
“I’m sorry,” I said, although I wasn’t sure exactly why.
“Sorry,” said my new companion. I looked over at the face as it spoke. It wasn’t an unkind face: slightly round, crimson-tinted cheeks on dark skin, thick lips slightly chapped by the harsh night air. The bus jolted back into its journey, jostling through the traffic. I returned to window-gazing and peering through hazy lights and frosted windows and into the lives of adjacent car-drivers. A woman in a suit drove home from a long day at the office and an elderly man crept towards the comfort of his family and a mother turned around in her seat, looking at her children in the back, although I couldn’t tell whether she was joining in with their joke or chastising their bad behaviour. I thought of Sam. I pushed hair under hat again.
“Busy, isn’t it?” asked round-face.
“Hmm? Oh. Yeah, it is.” Nobody had ever really spoken to me on the bus before. I tried to be polite. Sam always said I should try to do that, although she never seemed to bother with me. “I don’t know why, it isn’t normally busy at this time.”
“Cold weather, I suppose.” I turned to look at the round face, getting a proper view of her for the first time. Her black hair straddled slightly broad shoulders and covered a short neck, resting over the top buttons of a shirt. “Plus I suppose everybody wants to get back to their families this time of year.”
“Is that what you’re doing?”
“No, not me. Night shifts.” She lifted up a flask and a tupperware and asked if I was on my way home.
“Not exactly,” I said. I wasn’t sure how much it was polite to share. “I like the bus, it helps me clear my head.” I wasn’t changing the subject. I tried not to think of the broken wine glass.
“It gives you time to reflect, doesn’t it?” She poured coffee into the cup of her flask and pressed it to her lips, sipping carefully so as not to spill any when the bus jerked. The city passed by in the window, shops, restaurants, houses. She swallowed, tilted her head to the side, raised her eyebrows slightly; “Though I don’t know if that’s always a good thing.” She let out a timid laugh.
We sat in silence for a while after that, but the physical company itself made me feel better. In front of us, I watched cars inch past traffic lights and heard their horns blare. “I hope this traffic doesn’t make me late,” said the woman. I said I hoped it didn’t either. The strand of hair had escaped from under my hat again. I decided to take it off and just hold onto it so that it didn’t slip onto the floor. I thought of the broken wine glass and what Sam had said about going to see a doctor.
I watched the woman take another sip, finishing what she had poured and screwing the lid back on at the second attempt. She put the flask between her legs and shook hair off her face, revealing eyes focused on me.
“I like your hat,” she smiled.
“Thank you,” I replied, thumbing the bobble and trying not to look embarrassed – I couldn’t remember anybody ever complimenting my clothes like that before. “Sam bought it for me for Christmas. Last Christmas, I mean.”
“Who’s Sam?” Suddenly I thought it looked ugly and cheap and childish. The bus swung round another corner. I traced a hand over the bruise emerging on my temple, hoping the woman wouldn’t see and ask any more questions.
I was about to introduce myself when the woman pressed a finger to the stop button and told me this was her, so then I didn’t see the point anymore. I suppose there wouldn’t have been much point anyway.
The bus slowed outside a great industrial estate. It looked bleak. I thought that the woman deserved to work somewhere nicer, and then I thought maybe she liked working there.
“Well it was nice meeting you,” she said, her round face curving into a smile. “I hope you get to clear your head.”
“Thanks,” I said. I breathed out. I fingered my bruise. “I’m sure I will.” I watched her walk off the bus and into her life.
After that, the journey seemed boring. Buses never bored me, but the rest of this journey did. I looked at the people in the cars and they all seemed fake, their lives distant, their connections unreal, their emotions fabricated. A man got off at the next stop and said “Thanks, mate,” to the driver even though he didn’t know the driver at all, and might never have seen him before. Somebody else came and sat next to me. I said hi and smiled, but they barely looked at me. Night began to obscure the view.
By the time it was the stop I wanted I was already standing at the front of the bus. My stop was the one furthest from the house and furthest into the outside and furthest away. I stepped off and pulled on my gloves and begrudgingly replaced my hat. I took in the surroundings, despite having seen them all before: wind whistled through tree branches, exhaust trails contaminated the smell of pine needles, the path home stretched out, beckoning, like it always did.
I checked my phone. Three missed calls. I wondered how long it would take me to walk to the industrial estate, but I knew I couldn’t go now. Wind bit the back of my neck and cold attacked my toes.
My phone started ringing again. I hovered my finger over the power button. Sam. I thought of my new friend, although I didn’t know them at all and might never see them again. I thought about the glass and the doctor and clearing my bruised head and how angry Sam would be if I wasn’t back soon. A bus drove past, full of people. I saw a black haired woman chatting and laughing with someone.
“Hello Sam.” Hair, hat, again. I looked ahead and breathed out and started walking. “Nowhere. I’m sorry.”