“I’m sick of having to say nothing every time your mother makes some stupid comment about me. I hate her and I hate you for letting her do it to me. And no, I wouldn’t care if she died!”
The movement in Sarah’s angry hands and face had attracted little interest, but her voice had stilled everyone in the restaurant. Her shout was all the more shocking for the silence that surrounded it. While Sarah could hear neither the noise she had made, nor the space that she had created in the chaotic clatter and chatter of Pizza Express, she could all too easily see the effects of her outburst. Every eye around seemed to be on the two of them, waiting to see what would follow. And as soon as she had said it, she realised that she really did care. In front of her, Alison sat completely still for a moment, just staring at her. Looking at Sarah as if she were a stranger who she’d never met before – and whom she didn’t ever want to meet again. Then Alison’s stare turned into furious tears as she quickly picked up her bag, pulled out her purse and shoved a twenty pound note onto the table. The chair moved with an angry screech as Alison stood up.
Sarah’s open hand went to her chin and out to Alison. Please. Again, her hand to her chin and then her hands came to rest on each other before falling to the table. Please sit down. Her fist circled her chest and then came up to her face. I’m sorry. That was stupid. By this stage, Alison was pulling her jacket on and looking away to the street. As she turned, shaking her head, Alison’s open hand came up to cover her face. I’m ashamed. Alison walked out.
All eyes turned back to their conversations. Sarah stayed where she was, looking at the half-eaten pizza in front of her. Her hands and mouth worked mechanically until the pizza disappeared. A woman’s hands removed plates, glasses and cutlery. Looking at no one, Sarah put a matching note on the table and left.
The air outside was a cold slap across her face. It brought her to her senses, and she realised that Sunday’s last tube train had already left Warren Street. Alison was probably halfway home, probably wondering what on earth they had in common, probably… Sarah’s walk quickened and then turned into a run. A bus wouldn’t get her home as quickly, but she had to sort things out soon. Her run took on a panic as she imagined Alison deciding that enough was enough. The street on a Sunday night was nowhere near as crowded as on other nights, but she still managed to bump into two or three people as she ran. She saw the angry shouts and the reproach in their faces as she turned, still running, to apologise. The run turned into a sprint, and either the cold or her remorse made a watery blur of the street before her.
She came round the corner to see two figures at the bus stop. A sickening mixture of relief and dread brought her to a halt just short of the stop. Alison was there. She must have missed the train as well. But this was too soon: Sarah hadn’t yet worked out what to say, or how to say it. And as she looked harder, beyond Alison to the man who sat on the edge of his rucksack, she saw that they were talking. Judging by the look on the man’s face and the way he leant into the conversation, they were getting on well. He was about their age, she thought: thirty-ish. He had short, dark hair, strong, expressive hands and a quirky face that was alight with a smile.
Without speaking to Alison, Sarah walked past the two of them to the far corner of the bus shelter, crouched against its side and slowly began to recover from her sprint. Sick and breathless, she could only sit and watch the stranger work his magic on Alison. He sat with his head turned away from her and towards Alison. Now, instead of sorting out the unforgivable scene she’d caused in the restaurant, Sarah would have to wait and worry in silence. And from her one-sided view of this conversation, all she could see was Alison speaking and the laughter that threatened to fill her face.
Sarah’s legs shook, the movement pulsing through her heaving body. Her lungs cried out for rest and air. She could feel the contents of her stomach fighting up into her chest and she struggled against the urge to retch. In front of her stretched the Euston Road and the eastern night sky. And against the orange and black backdrop were Alison and this man. He was called Ben, she’d gathered. She saw Alison repeat the name back to him. From behind his back, Sarah saw the muscles on Ben’s jaw move as he talked, and every now and then his head would incline to listen.
Sarah had missed Ben’s faltering introduction and would now miss his full flow. “Anyway, what I was trying to say was this,” he shouted, against the sound of the traffic. “Have you ever felt a sort of panic when you get close, really close to what you want and what you might miss?” His words fought against the roar of tyres. “Because I had that feeling just now.”
Alison had noticed Sarah: her eyes flicked between the two of them and pointedly settled back on Ben with a smile. Sarah was looking down at the pavement as Alison replied. “Sorry, that just sounds weird. What are you talking about?”
“The bus, I mean. Just before you came along. I walked round that corner and saw the bus and realised that I was going to miss it when it was only yards away, and that running was too late. You only start to worry and run when you’re almost in range. And it was the same on the plane, earlier today. This sounds so stupid, but looking down at the ground as we landed, all I could think was that we’d never make it and that I should take in as much as I could of the view before it all went. You do think it’s stupid, don’t you? I can see. Or is it because a complete stranger has just started telling you what a neurotic idiot he is?”
“A bit of both.”
Alison’s brief response was all that Sarah caught of this exchange. Alison appeared to be fighting the urge to laugh at what this man was saying. It wasn’t unusual for Alison to talk to strangers, but this felt different. Was Alison making a point?
Ben managed both a grin and a grimace. “And I couldn’t even run for the bloody thing – you must have seen me passing you. My left leg doesn’t work as well as my right. So my run is more of a hop, a skip and a jump, and with this thing on my back it’s as painful as it is comical.”
Sarah saw his head bow down towards his rucksack, taking Alison’s eyes with him. Alison’s glance then snapped up towards Sarah and stayed there. Another long, angry stare. So nothing had changed since the restaurant.
Ben’s head followed Alison’s glare and traced it back to her eyes. “You two know each other?” Alison’s head turned away towards an approaching bus. It had the wrong number on its front. Gazing into the distance, her face grew irritated and impatient. Turning back, she said yes and smiled politely.
Something more than the exertion of catching up with Alison now made Sarah’s heart work harder in her chest. What had Alison agreed to?
“Your friend says even less than you do.” Ben was still soldiering on with his line of conversation. Alison turned again to look at the trickle of oncoming traffic, her face now looking even more desperate to escape from this bus stop. She turned back to look coldly at Sarah and with a forced friendliness towards Ben.
Ben nodded his interest at what Alison had said and began to talk. “That’s fascinating. So are you – ? No that’s stupid. You’re talking to me. Well, that must make it interesting – sorry, I’m coming across as an even bigger idiot.”
“Yes, now you mention it.”
Sarah knew that they were talking about her: she’d seen Alison’s short replies. But she couldn’t bring herself to stand, to join in, to make a noise. Either the effort of running, or the awkwardness that she now felt, left her dumbstruck.
Ben, apparently emboldened rather than abashed by her blunt reply, tried another approach. “Tell you what, I’ll prattle on until the bus arrives and you can decide – on the basis of whatever I manage to get in edgeways – whether I’m an axe murderer or a nice guy. Sorry. That’s stupid for a start. Forget the axe. The police have.” His voice trailed away. It seemed as if his own line of conversation and failing attempts at humour had been a more effective dampener than anything Alison could have said.
Alison mustered another strained smile and looked down to scratch away an encrusted smear on her jacket. Another bus driver slowed, saw that no one was flagging him down, and drove past.
Sarah couldn’t work out from Alison’s face alone what they were talking about. Ben had said quite a bit, but Alison had stayed silent. What was going on? She felt a hot fire of shame and anger run across the skin of her face, neck and chest. Frustrated tears blurred her view of the conversation and a heavy pulse drummed inside her head, but still she could say nothing.
Ben’s voice displayed an enthusiasm in his subject. “I’m a television producer – still quite new. I’m just finishing my first really serious project, a series about forensic science. Not that original, but it’s not been looked at from this angle before. Well, I’ve managed to persuade the commissioning editors at Channel 4 that it’s new. Am I boring you?”
Without knowing the question that Alison was answering, Sarah saw yes in her eyes. But with another quick glance towards Sarah, Alison shook her head. She was still listening, so Ben went on. “I got into this line of work after college years ago, starting with freelance DTP work – sorry, that’s desktop publishing. Mostly menial but they gave me a chance to work as assistant to an experienced producer. I worked all hours, kept my mouth shut and my ears open and learnt. And waited. I got blooded on some shorts – video diaries – that raised my profile. But then I made the mistake of mixing work and love.”
Ben’s voice died. Alison’s eyes seemed to say stop now but her head nodded encouragement. “Go on,” she said. Now Sarah felt as though she were dying. Alison was slipping away and there was nothing she could do. The cold sweat clinging to her chest and arms seemed suddenly colder still. The shaking that had subsided in her legs now ran through her whole body. Still she could say nothing.
Ben continued. “I’d been working with a director who’d quickly become more than that. We’d sparked off each other professionally and we sort of slipped in together. ‘I’ turned into ‘we’ and then I couldn’t imagine being anything else. Then ‘you’ forced its way in. ‘You always … you never … you should … you shouldn’t’ and two months ago it was back to ‘me, myself, I’. So that’s me. That’s why I’m Nigel No Friends at midnight in Euston Road. What about you? What about Sarah?”
He fumbled to pull out a piece of paper and a biro from his pocket. “Look, this isn’t the time or the place to be getting to know someone, but I’d really like to try again. In daylight.” As he scribbled, Alison glanced over at Sarah. Sarah just sat and looked back. With her attention once again on Ben, Alison’s eyes widened and her head shook, but he continued to write, his head bent over his task. “Here. This is my address and here’s my mobile number.”
Sarah’s mind pulled together what she’d seen and leapt to what it must mean. This was the end: if not with him, it would be with someone else. Alison had been married before, so why shouldn’t she want something more solid and sensible again? That’s what her mother would want. That’s what would be better for work. And perhaps it would be better for Sarah. She’d be alright. She’d lived alone for long enough and she could rely on her Deaf friends. They’d never been too keen on Alison. More than once they’d said, what do you have in common with her anyway? But turning to look into the glass of the shelter, Sarah saw her own reflected face and Alison’s shaking head. Very different, but a pair all the same. They belonged together, whatever they said or did. It didn’t make sense any other way.
As Alison turned again to look along the Euston Road, Sarah followed her gaze and together they noticed the approaching bus. Still two sets of lights away but the right number this time. Sarah, finally sensing that she had nothing to lose, jumped to her feet. She wouldn’t let it end in this stupid place, with this ridiculous drama. With her hands and face, she spoke to Alison, calmly but insistently. Time and again, her fist circled on her chest. Sorry. I’m sorry. I’ve been so stupid. Please don’t leave me. And for the final time, Sarah’s open hand moved down from her mouth and into a thumbs up. Please.
Alison looked hard at her with questioning eyes. The silence seemed to last for minutes. Then she looked at Ben and back at Sarah and laughed. Her laugh lit up her face. “Oh Sarah, you daft muppet!” Using her forefinger, Alison pointed at Sarah then towards herself and finally down at the ground in front of her. Come here.
As the doors of the bus opened, so did Ben’s eyes. He didn’t move, he couldn’t speak. The paper blew from his fingers, away towards Great Portland Street. While Alison and Sarah walked towards the driver, embarrassment ran like a bushfire across his face and realisation stared out of his eyes. He’d missed the point and was about to miss the bus. Behind the closing doors, the signs needed no interpretation. Ben watched Sarah’s hand move from frantic apology to Alison’s shoulder and saw Alison’s fingers stilling Sarah’s lips. They turned and stared back at him. Sarah waved. Goodbye.
The roar of the Euston Road engulfed the words that Ben shouted at the disappearing bus. No one heard. No one was listening.
A short story that I wrote in 2007. It uses Sappho’s poem, O Fainetai Moi, as a starting point and draws on my experiences of misunderstandings and late-night bus stops in London.