by Vicky Grut
A man in his middle thirties came stumbling onto the top deck of a London bus, talking to everyone he passed as if he knew them. People looked up with dazed glances but as soon as they understood he was a stranger they gathered themselves into their coats and tucked away their eyes.
He flung himself into a seat at the front. ‘That’s better,’ he said. ‘What a day!’ Everyone manufactured expressions of concentrated blankness except for the red-headed girl sitting across the aisle. She turned and smiled. She had a lovely smile, not at all intimidating. She had heaps of pale red hair piled up any-old-how on her head, pale skin and lazy red lips. She looked as if she had just stepped straight out of a warm bath and into the arms of the rich brown fur coat she wore.
The stranger registered her smile. ‘I’m really tired out,’ he said. ‘I’ve been all over the place today.’
His jeans and jumper were neat and new, his face was clean-shaven, but the initial impression of coherence disappeared as soon as he started to speak. He slurred his words and waved his arms – there really wasn’t room for that kind of thing on a bus in the middle of winter.
‘I was right up in the centre of town today,’ he said to the girl. ‘I went to see this man who wasn’t there. I left him a note, see, because he wasn’t there. Then I went to see another man who wasn’t there. And he was in. So I stayed with him for a bit. Then I came back down south again to see about some business. And now I’m going home. I’m right tired out.’ He shook his head. ‘How about you?’
‘I’m going to see my boyfriend,’ said the red-headed girl.
‘Ah damn,’ said the man getting to his feet and peering out of the window. ‘I’ve missed it now, haven’t I?’
‘Brixton. I wanted to get off at Brixton and get the tube.’
‘No, no,’ said the girl. ‘We’re not there yet. We’ve only gone a little way.’
‘Ah.’ He sat down again. ‘I wanted to get off in Brixton and get the tube to the Oval because that brings me right to my door, see. Not much of a walk. I’ve got no energy for walking. I had the flu over Christmas and all through the New Year – all that time.’
The girl smiled and nodded sympathetically, then she turned her gaze back to the road and sank away inside her brown fur coat. At first glance it looked like a real fur. No doubt most bears would willingly have slipped off their skin for a girl like this, though she’d never have dreamed of asking. On closer inspection you could see that it was fake.
‘So where you off to then?’ the man asked, looking wildly around the bus.
‘I’m going to meet my boyfriend,’ the girl said again. ‘I’m a bit late actually. I was supposed to be there at five …’
‘A bit late!’
The whole bus was listening now, straining to catch every word of their exchange.
‘Yes. I got a bit delayed because …’
‘A bit late?! You’re more than a bit late.’ The man turned and peered out of the dark windows of the bus. ‘Don’t you know what time it is? It’s gone eight already!’
‘No,’ said the girl pleasantly, ‘it’s only just coming up to five.’
Everyone on the bus checked their watches.
‘I shouldn’t think so,’ said the man. He turned to his neighbour. ‘’Scuse me, ’scuse me, mate. D’you have the time please?’
‘Five past five,’ said the neat Asian man in the window seat.
‘Oh,’ said the stranger, crestfallen, and then: ‘I’ve been sick, see.’
‘Don’t worry about it,’ said the red-headed girl. ‘It’s easy to lose track of things when you’re rushing about.’
‘I had the flu all over Christmas. Just couldn’t get rid of it.’
‘That’s a shame.’
‘I went to the doctor in the end, got them to test me because I wasn’t feeling any better. I said to them, I said, test for everything: Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, Aids, TB – the lot! Find out what’s the matter.’
The girl nodded again. ‘Best to be sure.’
‘But the thing is, I haven’t got any of them.’
‘That’s good, isn’t it?’
There was a little silence. ‘I’m HIV negative.’
‘Well, that’s good, isn’t it?’
‘Really good news. A nice New Year’s present for you.’
‘It is good, isn’t?’ The man sounded surprised. ‘Nothing wrong with me at all.’
The rest of the people on the bus turned away from the man and the girl now. They pressed their faces to the windows, pretending to stare at the glittering winter streets as if they feared that whatever ailed this man might somehow leak out and contaminate them. Bad news, they were thinking. This character is bad news.
The bus stopped and he leapt to his feet again, peering out of the windows at the road. ‘Ah Jesus! No! I’m definitely going the wrong way here. I’m going completely the wrong … I want to go to Brixton … and this … this …’
‘We are going to Brixton,’ called the red-headed girl. But the stranger had already begun to stumble back down the aisle towards the exit, knocking shins and shoulders and heads as he went.
‘Sorry, sorry …’ he muttered, treading on everyone’s feet. The bus started off again and he was still only halfway down the aisle. ‘Christ, no!’ he called, arms flailing wildly. ‘Wait! Stop the bus! This is all wrong. I’ve got to get off!’ Several of the other passengers began to object loudly. One of them stood up and grabbed his arm: ‘Take it easy, mate. You’re disturbing people!’
‘But don’t you understand?’ cried the stranger. ‘I don’t know where the hell I am. This is all wrong. I’ve got to get off now …’
The more frantically he tried to hurry the more he became entangled in the coats and bags and umbrellas of the people around him.
‘Ring the bell,’ said someone. ‘Alert the driver.’
The bus gave a sudden lurch. For a brief moment the stranger seemed to spin with an almost unearthly lightness. Then he fell, disappearing in a welter of arms and legs like a wild bird in a box of string.
Excerpted from Live Show, Drink Included – Collected Stories, by Vicky Grut, Holland Park Press, 2018. Excerpted with permission of the publisher.
Image by Kevin Harber