Majid and Mira are twins. They are adults. They have special needs. Majid and Mira have “special”, special needs though. We collected them from the Centre to take them home. The bus I was driving was fitted with a tail lift, spaces for wheelchair users as well as some regular seats. We arrived at their home. The escort was helping Majid off the bus when his father came to the door, angry and gesticulating. “Majid should have been taken to the respite house to stay overnight!” “Sit down again Majid”, the escort said and then helped Mira off the bus.
Your gold balloons float in the tube carriage. In that special wind you get in underground trains. I count five of them. You get them under control and we make eye contact. We talk without speaking. It’s like we’ve said hello I like your balloons, hello. I will speak to you properly and ask you who they’re for. At Brixton, the doors open and men and women in silver hotpants and fluorescent green leggings rush up to the train on the other platform. Another night at Brixton Academy. I love them, I love you and your gold balloons. We leave.
I’m next to you at the bar as you sample the red wine, and I feel a bond. I order a glass too. We share an Oyster cardholder, the Ikea one, so I ask if you’re from London. You’re not, you’re a local, although you were there recently. We talk for a while, you half-heartedly, me with my usual puppy dog enthusiasm that I both enjoy and resist. When your girlfriend arrives the two of you head to the bar, and I slip away discretely, disappointed. We’re not even going to the same show. And I had such high hopes.
I offer to take your coat, and keep it with mine. You hesitate, then decline. But, ice broken, we discuss the show we are going to see. You know one of the actors, via your son, which explains why you are here alone too. I mention that I’ve seen it before, in London, anticipation barely restrained. You introduce yourself, formally, but I forget your name as soon as you say it. You remember mine though, and use it two hours later when we say goodbye. I’m thrilled that you love the show. I take it personally. Maybe we’ll meet tomorrow?
You help yourself to a poem from the home made cracker trash on our table, read it out in the style of Michael Caine, and introduce yourself by touching my hand to your forehead. Your encore is a performance of the perfectly recalled and recited lyrics of an eighties dance anthem, and you apologise for the fact that the words ‘sex life’ are inlcuded within them. My friends pool their change and Rizlas to swap for a copy of your magazine. ‘We’re all two bad mistakes away from the streets’ they say, and I count my fingers under the table.
We share an intimate space- the crush of the tube, the unrealistic expectations of space, the clamouring to be the first one to work makes us share a smile. We’re both reading. We’re both reading the same book. You’re further along than I am so I smile, gesture to the book and say, ‘No spoilers.’ You smirk with the realisation and ask if we’re the sanest people on the tube today. ‘Why? Because we’re reading the same awesome book?’ No, you reply… because we’ve escaped. I laugh at your cheesiness and fall back into my book.
You didn’t know what I wanted, and I didn’t know how to explain, but you told me you liked the paddling pool – you’d taken your son there when he was 3. He’s 43 now, you said, and made that noise people make when they think about getting old. I wondered about the purple scarf you’d tied around your hair, the dust of foundation on your skin, your clutch of Horror books. I don’t like Romances, you told me, I like to be frightened. You smiled, and I watched my own surprise.
You pat your knee, invite me to sit, and it makes me tired. In this slick mass of too-carefully dressed thirty-somethings, everyone’s a stranger, and there is no-one I want to know. A line of coke makes it easier to smile. Tuck your loneliness into your handbag. Don’t think too hard.
Later, you try again: tell my friend to lift her pool cue a little higher for a better chance of getting one in. I’m Australian, I’m single, I play a lot of pool, you say. It goes nowhere.
I don’t like to speak to strangers but you greet me from your till, a siren breaking the morning silence. I mumble and manoeuvre a swift circumference from cotton wool buds to nappies and back to till. You beam and ask if I collect air miles or baby stamps, plastic bags or receipts. No. I thank you because there is nothing left to avoid saying, because I cannot buy essentials without your help. You say ‘See you soon’ three times while I clatter the pushchair through the security gates. I hope you are wrong and make it so: “Doubt it!”.
If two buses arrive at the same time then TFL only pay for one, you tell me, because effectively they’re the same bus. I ask if you stand here – under the bridge where Old Kent Road meets the Elephant and Castle – watching buses every day. And you say yes, the contracts are worth millions, as though that is enough of an explanation. There are others, you say, and I imagine reflections of you dotted across the city.
It used to be a warehouse for fruit, you tell me, and I imagine crates of apples and mangoes, where tonight worshippers lower their heads to a carpet covered by white sheets. We stand beneath the polystyrene ceiling panels and talk about the first Asian child to be born in Bexley.
On the train home there is a swastika scratched onto the window by my seat.
I’m looking for Orchard Road, you say. I am flattered to be asked, disappointed not to know, but I find it for you on the train station map, which is better than nothing. I imagine an orchard, spreading white blossom in this grey space. The silence stretches between us, but our pace and direction is the same, so there is nothing to do but walk together. We are both relieved when our paths split. I listen to your heels on the concrete, and wonder if there are still trees where you are going.
It appears the whole of London wants to go to Manchester this Friday night. The three of you fill up the table seats. I explain how the reservations work, and a minute later two of you are usurped. I listen to the rhythm of your conversation and realise it’s been ten years since I first touched African soil. I feel old. I watch your eyes follow a woman in a red dress and I wonder if you’re lonely. I realise that, when I don’t understand the meaning, I recognise language as music.
Why are you so angry? Has life disappointed you so much? All I asked was: ‘do you do gift-wrapping?’ You didn’t have to take it so personally. How does London do this to us: make us develop these hard exteriors, this armour-plate? Wearing your silly livery, your brown cotton apron and rigorously scraped back hair, your alice band and all-too-predictable pearl earrings, you are filled with a sense of self-importance that does not really befit a shop assistant. Even if the shop is as posh and pretentious as this one. I hope one day you will learn to forgive yourself.
Signal problems result in my tube terminating at the station. As I’m making my way off the platform, I see you struggling into a crowd of people, milling about, confused by the announcements. I spot your white stick against your black jacket. Surging through the crowd, I touch you lightly on your arm and ask if you want some help. You smile, and take up my offer. We chat about your usual journey to work, and about our jobs. You tell me about looking after the library books when you were at school, and about a book published in 1913.
Age: 41-50, Gender: Male, Location: Public Transport, Tagged city, blind, conversations, jobs, journey, books, london, Baker Street station, One Hundred Days To Make Me A Better Person, strangers, writing