It is a strange word; it has a sharp sheer edge to it.
The bus driver glowered at me, his lips latching to the question as if by instinct. He was half-occupied by early morning impulses, the honeycomb of sleep cracking at the corner of the eyes, consciousness coming through like the slow push of hair through a layer of skin. I shuddered where I stood, poised on the front step of the bus, feeling the mechanical suspension wavering like a tired bottom lip.
He repeated himself again in energy of irritation more apparent this time.
It made me smile. I thought – ‘why is he apologising to me?’ After all, ‘sorry’ must be one the most frequented phrases for apparently improper reasons. Of course, he was not ‘sorry’ at all, and this only added to the hilarity. I could have laughed that I wanted to go ‘everywhere’ ‘anywhere’, for don’t we all? Do we not all want to escape this routine of language and systemised relationships and plunge away entirely. The thought of asking itched like something devious at the edge of my lips. My tongue moved like a mollusc over the grit in my teeth as I swallowed the words back, attempting to find some acceptable sentence.
“The girl has got a bloody day ticket, just let her on already!” A man behind me shrilled.
That was my first trick of the day. I had cultivated apology ceaselessly. A triumph ran like a congratulatory hand beneath my clothes. And then came the same old empty stare, of eyes upon ticket, tracing the date, attempting the conviction of enjoying numerical connection - all captured in the movement of the drivers eyes across the ticket pinched between my fingers. It was almost like instead of the paper pressed by touch, I had told of the finest string, releasing the pressure at the corner of his eyes. His stare was greasy and watering, whether from tiredness or some strangled emotion, I did not know.
It was breath warm and stale through which he muttered ‘Why didn’t she say so in the first place.”
Another morning trick, another thrill, I had been made third person.
It was as ‘she’ I ambled up that sodden aisle of public transport. The acrid tang of coffee hung heavy, like the hand which held the top-chewed plastic cup. The hand of the man I sat beside. I don’t know what made me sit by him, perhaps it was the particular thread-work of the veins which almost appeared to sting through the skin. For such a cold morning I considered it incredibly vascular. After all, it was a morning of incredulity, I was ‘she’ and sitting next to a ‘stranger’ when there were other seats available, further back on the bus.
She who was socially unacceptable. There are lot of stories regarding ‘she who is socially unacceptable’. Girls who dabble in that marvellous cliché ‘going off the rails’, drugs and drink. Some call it ‘finding themselves’.
You see, there is an awful multiplicity to life, no matter how incredible you think it is.
I wanted to say this to the man who I sat beside, the man who shifted his knees away from me in the curiously slow motion which both invites and repels touch. Where his corduroys creased over the bone, a black stain bunched and fell - cigarette ash. It made me wonder if he wore the coffee as a mask then, wanting to cultivate some more socially acceptable scent – the cosmopolitan act for the office, the girlfriend, the aging parents.
He had the lips of a smoker though, cracked in the corners, slightly bloodless. They were pressed firmly together over the teeth, with a resolution which made it difficult to picture the crumple of drawing on a cigarette end or an unaffectionate kiss. Perhaps he had kissed the cheek of someone who convention called his ‘girlfriend’ that morning,. Not sure why, not sure why her skin had that haunting flavour of chalk.
I once tasted chalk too; made to stand so the granules of dust brushed against my lips, face pressed against the blackboard in the primary school classroom. I had told the teacher I could not see the point. The result was to be made to try and feel it.
I wondered if the man’s hands felt as cold and uncooperative as that blackboard. A blackboard full of scars. Perhaps he had a slight scar on his palm where he had used the wall of flesh to shield the flame of his plastic lighter. The lighter in question was tangled like a tacky jewel on the end of a necklace – only instead wrapped in the cord of his headphones.
I envied him and his convenient string of narratives. The dull bubble of music seemed to slip from his shielded ears, his eyes indulged in thought. And thought itself is a strange field – like that which I sowed through words in the weeks of my childhood, bringing my parents to tears. They wanted to think that I was happy. Perhaps the old woman who sat a couple of seats behind on the bus was trying to convince herself of a similar situation. Her milky eyes presented a young couple accompanying each other on the morning commute, sat slightly apart in that abashed affection of the young. Adjectives like ‘nice’ and ‘sweet’ might have stirred through her head, anticipating that we had perhaps been together for a couple of months.
Months and minutes perhaps are only adjectives.
I tried to estimate how old he was, but the determinism seemed somehow cruel. After all, I thought to myself, we are travelling on a bus. ‘Travelling’ or ‘commuting’ –whatever the appropriate verb was, the atmosphere seemed flavoured in its artificiality. We were a scene in some grand act, sliding through space and time indeterminate – I was ‘she’ of no fixed abode, going to work, warily watching my partner.
Not that I knew who he was either.
He could have been able to love me. He could have been able to turn and sink those cold hands into my windpipe in that series of swift movements he had always dreamed of. He could have done anything.
I played with the pronouns ‘we’ ‘he’ ‘she’. They could all do anything. Yes, all those people who sat there on the bus, all practised actors in that little theatre. Some still has the smiles and ring-eyes of amateurs. But the act was being kept. The slow spread of acceptance as we all placed our lives in the hands of a man at a wheel. A man who said sorry before it had happened.
It that always happens.
We open the curtains
That ceremonial gesture, inviting others to look
What we have assembled. This is a home,
This is a family, pretending
That we do not look, and never meant to.
Yet in the asides, we stare out of the windows
Watching the pantomime bubble by
Smile at the comedy of commuter traffic
- Being told through the plastic answer phone
‘get your act together.’
The dishes dry
In the wire racks of the face
Teeth as cutlery, eyes as plates
- The table is happy.
That suburban silver-screen ideal
Only occasionally aware of the steel seats
The sound of choking on the reel.