Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Bus Trip by Katherin Lyall Watson

I always sit in the same seat. I walk an extra kilometre so that I can get on the bus at the first stop; that way I’m guaranteed to find it empty.

I suppose it’s a habit now. That there’s nothing more than an old man, fixed to his special spot in a bus, refusing to budge. That’s all that other people see. They don’t notice the way I watch as people get on the bus. The way I lean forward when a woman with a certain tilt to her head enters.

It must be twenty years since she sat next to me. And still I expect her to look the same. I shouldn’t be watching for that sweep of black hair anymore. I should be looking for an older woman with a perm. But in my head she’s always the same.

I’ve relived that bus trip countless times. It’s kept me company on more lonely nights than you could imagine.

You think this is about sex, don’t you? You’re imagining some woman straddling a man on a bus, humping furtively behind the seats, all sweat and stickiness and the sad, stale smell of the bus. That’s not how it was at all.

I didn’t see her when she walked on the bus. I was reading, in this same seat I’m sitting in now, but it wasn’t my special seat then. It was just where I happened to be sitting. I had the Financial Times and I was checking the ebbs and flows in the stock market.

Someone sat next to me but I didn’t glance up. I didn’t like conversing with strangers, still don’t. I was thinking about work and weighing up the market, working out how best to take advantage of someone else’s losses. I didn’t register the closeness of this other passenger. Not until I felt a hand brush against my lap, under my newspaper.

I froze. The hand was gone. Perhaps I’d imagined it. I shifted my weight in the seat and tried to glance to the side without making it obvious. There was a woman seated next to me. She had thick black hair and she was reading a book. It was a hardback. A library book. Her hair hung down between us. I couldn’t see her face.

I crossed my legs. Embarrassed even to have imagined such a scenario. I was no lothario. In my fifties and with the sort of soft flesh that comes with too many years at a desk job, there was no way an attractive young woman would make a pass at me. No one had ever made a pass at me.

I cleared my throat and went back to my reading, but I couldn’t concentrate. The thought of that hand, if there had been a hand, and the scent of cloves coming from her hair had put me into, shall we say, a delicate position. This sort of uprising in public hadn’t happened to me since my twenties.

As I shifted and coughed I felt it again, only this time there was more pressure. Her fingers were tracing the outline of my tumescence. I turned to her but still her face was hidden. The curtain of hair didn’t sway. She seemed bent to her book, oblivious to the world. But the hand that was closest to me wasn’t on her lap. I could see it disappearing under my Financial Times.

It didn’t take long. Her fingers were skilful and cool and I’d been alone more years than I care to remember. There was stickiness, I’ll grant you that, but only on the inside of my trousers.

Her hand withdrew. I didn’t know where to look. Didn’t know what one does in this sort of situation. Should I have spoken to her? Should I have thanked her? Her hand, that miraculous hand, came up to her hair and smoothed it. Her skin was creamy. Or was it olive? I’ve remembered it so often that I’m no longer sure what shade or hue tinted that hand. She wore no rings. Her hair shone and I caught myself wondering if it was a little bit of my fluid that made it gleam so.

I was trembling, flustered. The paper shook in my hand. I was thinking about the mess. Wondering if there’d be a stain on the front of my trousers and how I’d get to the office without it being seen.

She left the bus as lightly as she’d arrived. One moment I was staring ahead, flushed and giddy and the next I was alone. I didn’t want to stare. I waited for her to get off before I looked out the window. But she’d turned the other way. There was nothing for me to see.

For twenty years now I’ve taken the same bus and sat in the same seat. Hoping to see that sweep of black hair again.

You see, if she reaches her hand to me again, I’ll place my hand in her lap, too.

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