The bus was just as buses always are on rainy winter evenings: hot and steamy, filled with the smell of impatience and anxiety, damp dogs and incubated dust, perspiration and yesterday’s kebab. It was approaching full and I was, as usual, trying to look large enough to fill both halves of the seat without actually spreading myself over the entire thing – that would be rude. I focussed briefly on each person as they walked down the aisle, beaming out my telepathic message, “Don’t sit here, sit elsewhere,” vaguely aware of how uneasy I would be if I turned out to be the last person that anyone chose to sit next to: the last person with a seat to himself – the public transport pariah – the man with whom not even the unwashed neurotic would choose to sit. Behind me, a child was rhythmically kicking the seat, sending tremors through my backbone like juddering metrical tics. I should have turned and asked his mother to make him stop, but she was in a deep and shouted mobile phone conversation with somebody called Tiff, about the lacklustre nature of her sex life and I had the feeling that any attempt to communicate would inexorably lead to accusations of a nature that would drive me, red-faced from the bus and out into the translucent sheets of freezing rain outside. In front of me two teenage girls carried out a yelled conversation, each struggling to be heard above the tinny cacophony of the friend’s still-playing i-pod. I thought of Ray Bradbury, his little ‘Seashells’ and decided that, were he not already dead, I would kill him for that one. Somewhere, someone was eating cheese and onion crisps.
“Like research labs for observers of human perversity aren’t they?” said the man at my side. I hadn’t noticed anyone sit beside me, but I knew that when I turned to reply, it would be to an elegant, lean and hirsute man, with whom I had spoken only twice before. “Buses, I mean,” he said. “All human life is here. If alien life-forms really do visit this planet of ours, they could learn all they would ever need to know of human nature by beaming up the 5.30 North Circular.”
“I’m sorry,” I was trying hard not to splutter, “I didn’t know you were there. I didn’t see you get on. I didn’t feel you sit down…”
He held out a white paper bag. “Pear drop?”
“Thanks.” I took one, popped it in my mouth and sat back.
“I have your petrol can,” I said.
“Do you?” he said, looking down at my feet.
“Well, not with me of course, but I still have it.”
“Right,” he said. “Good.”
“I need to let you have it back.”
“Do you?” He looked out of the window. “Well,” he said. “Don’t worry. You will.”
“Oh, we’ll see…”
We sat in silence for some time sucking mutely on the fossilized concoction of sugar and chemical something-or-other.
“Always seem so full of lonely people, buses, don’t you think?”
“Well, yes, I suppose so,” I said. “But, to be honest, most of them deserve to be lonely don’t they?”
“Do you think people are ever truly happy alone,” he asked.
“I thought I would be.”
“But you’re not?
“When are you not?”
“When I’m alone…” Odd, I’d never thought about it before. I loved not having to worry about anyone else, pleasing just myself, being alone, but only while I was in company – at work, in the pub, watching the football – when I was alone I felt, well, alone. I was quite happy to sit in silence when I was in company, but when I was alone I had to have the sound of music or the TV or often both. Meals for one are so bloody boring. Eating straight from the foil container is sad. Drinking straight from the bottle is sad. Waking up at three thirty in the morning with an empty wine bottle in your hand and your face in a half finished chicken vindaloo is sadder. You can judge how long a person has been single, by the strength of the take-away curry they buy. By the time they are eating phaal, they have given up on ever having friends again.
And yes, I still thought of sad, lonely people as ‘they’ and never ‘me’.
“What about you?” I asked.
“Are you happy? Are you alone?”
“It’s hard to be alone. It’s easy to be happy.”
“So, are you?”
“Alone or happy?”
“Yes,” he paused as if trying to decide. “Both,” he said. “Sometimes both. Sometimes neither. When I’m alone it is because I choose to be alone, when I’m happy it is because I choose not to be alone. Everyone deserves the everyone they get,” he said. “But you, you need a friend, I think.”
“I’ve got friends.”
“Any that don’t see friendship as weakness?” He smiled and held out the paper bag as he rose to his feet. “Have another,” he said. “This is my stop.”
He moved towards the aisle and as he did so he indicated the two teenagers in front who had fallen into silence, the music clearly audible from their earphones, a song I had known for years.
“‘Everybody Needs A Friend,’” I said.
“Exactly,” he said and was gone.
‘Everybody Needs a Friend’ – Wishbone Ash (Listen to the end of this ‘acoustic’ version for my favourite guitar outro of all time, by the great Andy Powell)