By L R Fletcher
Toni holds his breath to avoid inhaling the bus’s fetid fumes as he bounces aboard, the promise of the special weekend ahead putting an extra spring in his step, and pauses for the eagle-eyed driver to inspect his pass. The hook-nosed pilot is the only one on this route to have ever taken more than a cursory glance since Toni started work, and he examines it dubiously like he has every other time. After all these months, he could have come to recognise Toni; but maybe, Toni supposes, he just isn’t that memorable.
He consoles himself that the driver has always done the same to all of the public-transport-dependents that Toni recognises from their daily commute: the teen Tesco worker dropping off her fidgety four-year-old at nursery on her way to work; the stern middle-aged woman working from her briefcase; the annoyingly-cool student with his afro squashed by over-the-ear headphones, eyes closed, finger tapping his iPod to the beat; the older lady with her tartan bag on her lap, content to watch the world go by through the window; and the lads at the back, raucously re-enacting comedy sketches as though the other hadn’t seen it, despite starting their conversation with, “Did you see the Little Britain?”
Other than the lads’ rerun of last night’s telly, none of them ever speak to each other. A polite lift of the eyebrows in recognition, possibly a half-grin if it’s a really good day. Together in an airless box for 30 minutes every weekday, they maintain the limited personal space they can claim as their own by keeping to it.
There’s a scattering of other non-regulars, some of whom look familiar, and a couple of newbies, but not enough to fill the bus. Fridays are always a bit quieter. Toni chooses an empty bench on the driver’s side, three rows back, and shuffles up next to the window. Out of the biting early-winter wind, he unbuttons his charcoal grey parka and gets as comfortable as he can, turning his legs slightly so his knees aren’t jammed against the seat in front.
He gazes out the window and lets his mind drift – not too far, he can’t relax for another three stops yet – and daydreams about his big day tomorrow. He’s been looking forward to it for ages.
The bus stops once, twice. Toni ignores the passengers embarking and disembarking, not interested, but anticipation rises inside him like bile.
They move again. One more roundabout, past the BP garage, and the bus begins to slow…
Damn. Part of him (the part he hates) had hoped they wouldn’t have to stop here. Not today.
The class returns reluctantly from break-time, all except for Toni, who’s atypically quick to arrive back. He can feel Mrs Daniels watching him over her reading glasses as he rushes to take a seat at a different table from usual, and pretends he isn’t eager to save the seat next to him for its usual occupant.
Tracy guffaws at something her friend Saffie said as she shuffles in and slumps into the chair next to Toni, her ponytail of spring-curled blonde hair bouncing and swinging with a joie de vivre both alien and alluring to him. Saffie scowls at Toni for his intrusion, but doesn’t get a chance to complain.
“Okay, settle down,” Mrs Daniels bellows over the babble. “Spelling test.”
There are a couple of groaners, but Toni isn’t one of them. He’s always been good at spelling. Because of that, he’s always had to cover his work to prevent others copying him. But he’s not doing that today. Not from Tracy, anyway.
Mrs Daniels goes through the words as normal, each getting gradually tougher until she reaches the tenth. Toni sits back, pretty satisfied he’s got them all right, except maybe for “separate” – he can never remember whether it’s an “a” or an “e” after the “p”.
They swap papers with the desk next to them, and Mrs Daniels goes through the spellings. Toni’s marking Iain’s, and is secretly pleased to give him only five out of ten.
They all get their papers back, and Toni did get “separate” wrong. It should have been “a” for “annoying”; that’s how he’ll remember it from now on. Mrs Daniels asks for a show of hands who got ten out of ten: Michelle is the only person to put her hand up, which irks Toni. He and her are always battling for top place.
Toni and Tracy, and two others, put their hands up for nine.
“Well done,” Toni whispers to her, and she grins wickedly back.
“Tracy, that’s a big improvement for you,” Mrs Daniels says. “I’ll look forward to seeing you repeat that next time. Toni, you can go back to your normal seat now, please.”
It doesn’t even occur to him to argue. Saffie’s clearly happy he’s been put in his place, but Tracy’s sympathetic smile as he moves makes it worthwhile.
The reason this bus-stop has got Toni’s rapt attention is soon catwalking down the bus.
She seems to move in slow motion, like a model in a music video, in her pencil skirt, knee-high stiletto boots, and long coat, all of black leather. She’s not a goth or anything, not that Toni can tell; instead her attire seems to be a rebellion of sorts against her cute features and goody-two-shoes smile, maybe an effort to sex-up her image or something. Toni doesn’t know and doesn’t much care, as long as she continues dressing that way. Actually, he remembers, with 50% regret and 50% relief, that doesn’t matter after today.
Despite having a decent view from the reflection in the window, Toni has to fight the compulsion to turn his head, not wanting her to notice…
Crap! She saw him looking!
Their eyes meet in the glass and… God, he’s never been able to come up with an adequate description for the blue of her eyes. The closest he’s ever got is those tropical holiday adverts on TV, where the sky and sea are so bright and blue that they look fake. That’s what her eyes remind him of – paradise.
Toni looks away, all the blood in his body flushing straight to his face.
He has a sudden and intent interest on the pub across the road, the Britannia. Apparently it has a happy hour from 5:30 ‘til 7:00 every night. Stupid, that’s more than an hour…
Everything else stops as, despite the choice of two empty benches, The Girl unbelievably slides elegantly onto the seat next to him.
Toni panics. If he was able to stand up, he’d run around like guillotined poultry, but that would involve asking her to move and there’s no way he could talk to her! The idea is absurd. She’s a princess, a queen, a goddess.
Why on Earth would she sit next to him?!
Toni doesn’t like to play football at lunchtime anymore, not since they always make him go in goal and his mum told him off for getting a hole in his new trousers.
Instead, he wanders the concrete playgrounds with Mark and Nathan, mostly just listening to their banter. Currently, they’re debating the movie Batman & Robin.
“Nipples on the Batsuit? C’mon.” Mark wasn’t impressed.
“What? He’s a man, he has nipples, doesn’t he?”
“So does Batgirl but she hasn’t got them on her suit.”
“She should though,” Nathan says, nodding and smiling to himself at the idea.
“You’re only saying that ‘cos you fancy Alicia Silverstone.”
“Still think Saffie’s nicer,” Nathan says. “Toni, isn’t she?”
Mark doesn’t give him a chance to reply. “Toni likes Tracy.”
“Tracy?” Nathan scoffs. “Why her?”
Wow, Toni thinks, this escalated fast.
“She’s nice,” Toni shrugs, hoping they’ll let him leave it at that.
Nathan’s unimpressed. “Alright, you can have her and I’ll have Saffie.”
“Who do I get?” Mark asks.
“Mrs Daniels,” Nathan laughs.
“Ew, get lost. I’ll have Alicia then, if you’re having Saffie.”
“So you don’t think it’s rubbish anymore?”
“Oh yeah, it still is.”
And like that, they’ve moved back to the merits of Batman & Robin. Toni thanks his lucky stars. He got away lightly there. But he thought they’d have laughed at the idea of him and Tracy. Maybe he should ask her to be his girlfriend?
The bus starts moving again, resuming its route undeterred, even though The Girl chose to sit next to him! The people outside the window are continuing as if nothing happened. Are they oblivious to this momentous development? Why is the world carrying on as though everything is normal? This is not normal!
Maybe she wants to tell him off for looking at her, Toni rationalises. He doesn’t understand why this angel is slumming it on Earth with people who don’t deserve to glimpse a beauty like hers, or why the residents of Heaven would’ve let her leave. She’s so far out of his league that, not only are they not playing the same sport, but she’s at the Olympics while Toni’s sat on his couch watching her on a small black & white TV.
Except now she’s sat next to him in glorious Technicolor.
In his light-headed fuzz, he suddenly remembers he should be breathing. He gulps in so much air that he worries she’ll think he’s having an asthma attack or something.
Instead, she ruffles her hand through her spiky blonde pixie cut, and her scent washes over Toni like a wave of silk. He doesn’t know what perfume that is, but it’s amazing. He has an impulse to run off and buy her a bouquet of flowers, maybe a dozen roses or some orchids (they mean love, right?), an urge he dismisses as ludicrous.
With his legs turned slightly to avoid being jammed against the back of the seat in front, every bump causes their knees to ever so slightly brush against each other. He shifts away to give her more space, forcing his legs to fit behind the seat in front, but she follows, taking the space he’s made for her, so their knees still make occasional glancing contact. Every time, Toni holds his breath as though she’ll… Well, he doesn’t know what she might do.
The one time he’s seen her talk to anyone, she seemed really nice. Once a friend had got on the bus with her and he hadn’t wanted to eavesdrop but, well, he had. He’d had to know if she had a boyfriend so he could forget his fantasy of asking her out. Or even speaking to her. But her friend spent the whole time talking about X Factor, that karaoke show Toni refuses to watch. He hadn’t even found out The Girl’s name.
Now she’s sat next to him with an electrical storm fizzing between their knees every time the bus jostles them.
The bus-stops tick by a little quicker as they get out of town, and he gets to thinking: could he talk to her? Even if she were to shoot him down, laugh at him for thinking himself worthy of a conversation with her, he won’t be seeing any of these people again. Things have gone his way so far this week with him passing his driving test on Monday, and tomorrow he’ll be picking up his first car. He should be buzzing with confidence.
He swears he can feel everyone watching him, willing him to make a move.
Oh Lord, this is torture. Sweet, sweet torture.
To give him something else to focus on other than her heavenly aroma and ethereal aura, he starts counting down the stops until she gets off the bus, one stop before him. There are six more.
He chances a glance away from the window, curious to what she’s doing. As she notices and turns to face him, he snaps his head back as though not wanting to miss the fascinating bushes whizzing past the window.
He swears he hears a little sigh from her, almost wistful.
Five stops to go.
The driver is forced to back off a little as they approach the next town. Traffic ahead is now the limiting factor in how fast they can go, instead of them being the limiting factor for the queue behind.
Right, he decides, he needs to pull himself together. This infatuation with a girl he doesn’t know, doesn’t have a chance with, has never spoken to, is daft. He doesn’t even know her name!
One more stop to pass, then it’ll be her turn to get off. He can handle that! Easy.
The stop/start traffic teases him. They crawl alongside the Thames before sweeping right, the traffic holding up them up twenty yards short of the stop by the train station. The stern middle-aged woman wants to debus but the bird-like driver won’t let her, not until they reach the actual bus-stop. She huffs and puffs, fiddles with her briefcase and checks her watch, but the driver won’t be swayed. When the jam edges ahead, he takes his time about moving forward, winding up the businesswoman even more, until eventually he opens the door and lets her out.
A teen couple (more regulars) get on, followed by a thirty-something guy with a Simpsons tie who Toni hasn’t seen before.
The bus fights its way back into the queue, and they’re on the home stretch.
He feels The Girl shift, turning toward him? He checks in the reflection and, yes, she’s facing him now. Why? It’s almost like she’s inviting him to talk to her.
He can’t. He can’t talk to her.
Toni knows he’s too weedy to make his way across the monkey bars properly, but he’s just tall enough to hold on if he goes on tip-toes, so he cheats his way across. There’s nothing better to do at break-time since he doesn’t know where Mark and Nathan went.
Suddenly, something feels off. The general noise of the playground, the chatter and scuffs and yells, has faded, and is replaced by the sound of a lot of kids running on the gravel – and it’s getting louder.
Toni turns to see half his class sweeping across the playground toward him in a menacing swarm. He’s too slow to escape, and they surround him, his back pressing against the chain-link fence, his fingers clamping onto the metal loops in case they try to drag him off somewhere to kill him or something. Tracy steps forward from the horde.
“Why are you telling people you fancy me?” she asks, spitting venom.
Toni’s taken aback. He thought…
She won’t give him time to think. He needs to…
“Why? You don’t, do you?” she demands, making it very clear what his answer should be.
“It’s rubbish,” Toni splutters.
“You don’t fancy me?”
He needs to make his point with more force. He’s never sworn before, but… “It’s shit.”
“Why is he saying you do?”
“Why are you telling your friends you do if…?”
“It’s shit,” he interrupts. If he keeps saying it over and over, maybe she’ll believe him and let him go. “It’s shit.” She hadn’t even asked him a question that time.
“You’d better not.” She stalks off, her sneering friends and the rest of the class (including Saffie, Nathan and Mark) follow and laugh.
The last to go is Iain, grinning his cocksure grin. “Behave.”
Toni’s left alone, trembling, wondering which of the two “friends” he told had betrayed him, but not wondering why she was so angry. He already understands that well enough.
At least it’s a short gap between bus-stops.
He can’t talk to her. He can’t find out her name, or ask to buy her a drink sometime.
Because he knows how unpalatable the idea of him being interested in them can seem to someone.
He feels like it’s not just her watching him, but everyone. The older lady with her tartan bag, the annoyingly-cool student, the new guy with the Simpsons tie – even the comedy sideshow at the back of the bus has shut up. He wouldn’t be surprised to see the driver pop out of his seat to ask him what he’s waiting for.
They won’t have long to wait. It’s only a couple of hundred yards more, and the road looks like it’s miraculously cleared. Hallelujah!
No sooner have they reached the 30mph speed limit than they’re slowing down again, this time for a bloody BMW driver who’s pulled out halfway across the road, blocking their way in his effort to turn right into the lane going the other direction. Which isn’t moving.
The BMW sits there, waiting for a gap to open in a stationary line of cars. Meanwhile, horns hoot from impatient commuters behind the bus, unimpressed at the hold up.
Toni can feel the tension rising in the bus, and not because of the BMW driver.
Is this a sign?
Today is his last chance. From tomorrow, he’ll have a car and won’t be catching the bus anymore. He’ll probably never see her again.
Should he ask her?
The snake of cars next to Toni slithers slowly forward, opening a gap for the BMW, and letting the bus move again.
He’s relieved to take that as his answer.
The bus quickly eats up the remaining distance to her stop. She presses the bell on the handrail in front of her and sighs sadly, which breaks Toni’s heart. Maybe he could…
But she’s standing and walking away from him, not looking back.
Toni watches her go, her head lowered and looking (deliberately, probably) in the other direction from him. The older lady with her tartan bag catches his eye and shakes her head, disappointed for him or disappointed in him? It doesn’t matter, Toni shares both sentiments.
Bloody Hell, he wonders, why is it so hard to talk to girls?