The Tales We Tell Ourselves
We live inside a series of narratives
Issue #11, Monday 23 May 2022
The bus seemed to be taking forever that morning. Mary Benson fumed as she craned her neck past the others in the queue. She was going to be late for her shift at the hospital. At least she was on a normal day shift for the moment. She hated the evening shift in the Emergency Department when you had so many more drunks, drug abusers and car accident victims to deal with at the counter. Thank God for the security window, though that didn't stop the verbal abuse.
Here came the bus at last. But as usual, it was nearly full already, and she would have to cram in and stand.
Just as she started to climb up the stairs, though, someone seemed to stumble into her from behind and she felt a hand slap onto her right buttock and squeeze. Flushing, she turned to see who had assaulted her, but the other passengers were pushing her forward onto the bus. To her right, a young man with a stubble beard forced his way up, and then deeper into the bus. Behind her, a short balding man in a grey suit climbed on, deliberately looking away from her. Once on board, he turned his back on her. Him, then! What a creep!
Mary briefly debated making a scene, but thought better of it. But she kept her eye on the man. If he tried to grope another woman -- there was a tall young woman with closely cropped hair on the other side of him -- she would punch him. Nothing he could say or do would shock her. She saw and heard far worse almost every day in her job.
Bob Graham had been thinking about his up-coming meeting that morning with the sales manager, and he wasn't looking forward to it. It had been a bad quarter, sales were down. It was only to be expected. There was a new model coming out next month and their chairman had been raving in public about how good it was going to be. Of course customers were deferring their purchases. Why buy an old one now when a better one was just about to hit the stores? But there was no use telling his hot new manager that. He kept piling on the pressure, wanted to clear the inventory. Bob was ten years older than his manager. It was humiliating, but he had to keep biting his tongue instead of telling the guy what a fool he was.
Finally, the bus arrived. Just in front of him was a thin middle-aged woman dressed in a black outfit with white trim. Her face was severe. Looked like a school-teacher maybe, a tough one. He'd had a few of those when he was a kid, what seemed like a century ago.
As the doors of the bus opened, the woman started to climb the stairs and Bob began to follow. Just at that moment, a scruffy young man bounded forward, trying to jump the queue, it seemed, and knocked into Bob so heavily that he lost his balance and stumbled forward. Encumbered by the briefcase in his right hand, Bob flailed out with his left to stop himself falling, and found to his intense embarrassment that he had put his hand on the woman's rump. He was forced to push briefly on her to regain his balance, though now the young man was helping, pulling him up by his jacket.
"Sorry, mate," said the scruffy man, and then bounded up the stairs.
There were more passengers behind Bob, all pushing to get on the bus before the doors closed, complaining about the delay. So he climbed up. Should he apologise to the woman? No, his explanation would seem like a feeble excuse, and she wouldn't believe him. He turned away from her at the top of the stairs to hide his embarrassment.
He glared across at the young man, who had incredibly just gained a seat, as the elderly lady in front of him was getting up, probably to get off at the next stop. There was no justice in the world. Probably one of those unemployed louts heading in to that stupid climate protest. Why couldn't he grow up and get himself a job?
Shaun O'Brien smiled as he sat down, pushing in to get the old woman's seat the instant she stood up. He ignored the glares from the other nearby passengers who'd been on the bus longer than him. They could all get stuffed, he didn't give a flying fuck what they thought.
He felt in his jacket pocket for the old guy's wallet. Stupid prick had been a pushover, literally. He laughed inwardly, thinking about the face on that uptight bitch when the old guy had put his hand on her bum. What she needed was a good fuck, that would cheer her up. Probably some kind of secretary, he thought idly. But not the kind that would sit on the boss' knee.
He wondered how much cash was in the old guy's wallet. People didn't carry so much cash these days. He'd have to move quick to make what he could from the credit cards. Maybe he could sell the driver's license and other ID. Identity theft was a big deal these days, they said, but Shaun wasn't sure that he knew the right contacts yet. Maybe one of the guys at the factory could give him a tip. He would ask Jacko tomorrow, when he went back to work.
He glanced up. Standing in front of him in jeans and T-shirt was a good-looking young chick, with short cropped hair. The T-shirt read A Woman Needs a Man Like a Fish Needs a Bicycle, with a cartoon of a goldfish on a push-bike seat. What the crap did that mean? Nice tits, though. He wondered what she'd say if he asked her out. Mind you, he'd nicked the seat from her, so she'd probably be pretty snarky. As if to confirm that, she looked down suddenly and glared at him.
Jen Petridis stared down in anger at the bastard who'd pushed past everyone else to get the seat. Selfish prick! Jen didn't care about the seat herself, but the woman next to her was in the later stages of pregnancy, anyone could tell. Except this jerk.
She took her attention away from him, it wasn't worth the angst. She started thinking again about the software she was writing, part of a multi-media simulation game for the Museum. If only they wouldn't keep changing their minds about their requirements! It was starting to cost her firm a lot of money they hadn't budgeted for, and the Museum was trying to argue that their changes weren't variations to the contract. Still, that wasn't really her concern, that was her boss' worry. Instead, she started to plot out the class structure she would need to simulate the dinosaur population in the game.
After a while, she glanced again at the pregnant woman next to her. She was very neatly dressed, but the poor woman looked ill and tired. Probably an immigrant from Eastern Europe, working in some sweat-shop, sewing clothes together for a pittance per piece. What a lousy job that would be, particularly if you were pregnant, maybe coping with morning sickness. Catch that ever happening to Jen! Her girlfriend and she had decided some time ago that they wouldn't try for kids. All that IVF stuff was way too hard and expensive.
Lena Balodis was nervous, and her feet hurt. She wished that the scruffy man hadn't taken the seat. Still, it wasn't far now to her stop. Thank goodness she could sit down most of the day there. Being a personal assistant to the manager was challenging, but he was a good man and tried to make it easier for her now she was expecting, reduce the running around. The firm had a pretty good maternity leave scheme, too.
But her gaze kept drifting back to the dark-skinned youth, not much older than a teenager, who had been standing in the corner ever since she had got onto the bus. He looked as though he might be a Pakistani, and he was wearing a bulky backpack, which he kept fiddling with, adjusting it on his shoulders. He had a grim, unhappy expression.
Lena had been a teenager in London in July 2005, when terrorists blew up three trains on the Underground and then a double-decker bus. Though no one in her family had been anywhere near the incidents, they had made a powerful impression on her. Ever since then, she had kept a worried eye on other passengers when she travelled on public transport. Especially now when she was carrying her first baby inside her.
The youth kept looking at his watch. Was there some pre-arranged plan, some scheme to blow up their explosives simultaneously?
She didn't know what to do, but felt the stirrings of panic. Should she try and tell someone else? Talk to the youth and plead with him not to do it? But he might set it off as soon as she spoke to him. All it seemed she could do was pray, and so she did.
The bus pulled in to its next stop. It was Lena's stop, and she struggled through the crush to reach the doorway. Fortunately, it was a popular destination, and many other people were getting off, so it wasn't too hard. Lena stepped down to the pavement with a sigh of relief and started to walk towards her office.
But then, for some reason, she turned and looked back.
In horror, she saw that the dark young man was following her, and now he was taking off his backpack, starting to fumble with its zips. She stood, frozen with terror, as he approached.
Asanka Weerasinghe gave a puzzled look at the pregnant lady as he passed her. She was white-faced, slightly green, maybe she was going to be sick? Asanka didn't know what he could do about that, so he kept on walking, his heavy pack now carried in his hands.
His shoulders were aching painfully with carrying the weight on his back. The straps aren't adjusted properly, he thought, or maybe he should just have bought a better pack. Actually, he thought, the real problem was how much weight he was carrying in there, too much stuff. It hadn't helped that he'd had to stand the whole way on the bus.
He glanced at his watch again. Was there still time? Yes.
There was a coffee shop here. It was crowded, but he went in, seeing a small vacant table and chair near the window. He set the heavy pack down on the table gratefully and sat down.
He unzipped the backpack, took out the laptop computer from among the heavy text-books, opened it up, and started to type. There was still plenty of time before his creative writing class.
Life was full of stories, it seemed to him.
© Copyright David R. Grigg. All rights reserved
About This Story
The first version of this story was written in 2011, in response to a photo prompt put up on Google+ by Becky Raymond. The photo showed a crowded bus pulling in to a stop, and it started me thinking about the people on the bus and the stories in their heads about the other people. I’ve made a couple of minor edits here to make the story a little less dated.
Here’s a link to an audio version of the story, read by myself.
See you next time (the fourth week in June).