The bus was empty, but I knew as soon as I saw him climb aboard, that he would choose to sit beside me. He smelled like a dump in summer and something of which he appeared completely unaware, was moving around under his coat. He tried to release a smile, but it merely flitted across his face like a leer in a convent and as he sat, he turned his entire body towards me as though his head had become fused to his shoulders. He licked his lips revealing teeth the colour of teak. He had eyes like midnight and breath like petrol, his hair sat atop his head like a hat, threadbare, unkempt and matted like a cat that could no longer clean itself, undisturbed since sleep. He pulled a slightly threadbare fur coat tight around his shoulders, just failing to cover the lace neckline of the nightdress he wore beneath it, in an overt attempt to create a small space between us. In his hand he carried a small stuffed toy: a penguin I think, it was hard to tell. His stare forced me to look away and casting my eyes down I noticed that his shoes were several sizes too big for his feet, that one sole flapped loosely, mouth-like, allowing fleeting glimpses of an un-socked foot as he moved his toes rhythmically, as if they were accompanying a song in his head.
I had seen him before walking around the town, unhurried and unbothered by both drunken youths and bored policemen, and I ‘knew’ his story in my head, his name and everything about him. His name, I concluded, was Geoffrey and he had a St John in there somewhere. His surname was double-barrelled, probably featuring a double ‘f’. He was definitely aristocratic, devoted to his mother who had died unexpectedly – probably from Lassa Fever or something equally romantic – leaving him alone, vulnerable and, eventually, here on the upper deck of a midnight bus with me. A mental breakdown between then and now I surmised, life in an institution surrounded by his mother’s furs and nightclothes, and his own childhood toys, but nobody to care when he wasn’t there at night. Nobody to worry.
I offered him a mint which he took with thin, elegant but grubby hands and a nod of thanks. His nails were long and grimy, but elegantly filed into shape. It seemed strange that he should take such care over the shape of his nails, but show no concern over the filth that had accumulated behind and around them. I wondered if he cared for anything else in his life or whether this was the last thing he refused to let go. I noticed that he had worn a ring until recently, the mark still palely traced across his finger, and wondered if it had been stolen from him or whether he had sold it to buy… what? He didn’t smell of booze or cigarettes, just decay. He wore nothing that could have been even approximately new and I remembered that when I had seen him around the town centre in the past he had often worn long, white satin evening gloves, the kind that are only ever otherwise seen on overdressed women at the opera or by the murderer in an Agatha Christie mystery. Where were they now? Had they been taken with the ring?
The bus slowed to a halt and he half-turned his body so that he faced the curved mirror that allowed a view of the bus’s doors below. He seemed fixated on the doors, but they did not open. I guessed the stop was one of those where the driver had to stop – do they call them ‘timing points’? – but I wasn’t sure: I had never travelled the route before. I would normally have got a taxi home, but it was a warm night so I had started to walk, unaware of the rainclouds developing in the darkness above my head. I was sheltering in a bus stop when the bus came along so I jumped on and asked the driver where would be the best place to get off. I won’t pretend that his first answer was altogether helpful, but eventually we found somewhere acceptable so I paid the fare and took a seat upstairs that was, as far as I could tell, out of his view and beyond any unwelcome conversation, where I sat, happily disengaged, until my ‘companion’ stumbled into his seat.
Eventually, after I’m not certain how long, maybe two or three minutes, the bus sighed, juddered into gear and pulled away from the kerb, and my companion dragged his attention away from the mirror. I felt a sudden pressure to speak, but I am the king of the non-committal nod. I have perfected the shy smile and slight eyebrow twitch to such a degree that I seldom find it necessary to actually engage anybody in conversation. It wasn’t going to work here though, was it? I knew I had to speak, but how to start? “You know, you really could do with a bath,” was honest, but not entirely tactful. “Excuse me, but is your name Geoffrey?” might lead him to think that I was confusing him with somebody else – I had no real basis whatsoever on which to assume that it really was his name. How do you start a conversation with a smelly, old man upstairs on a midnight bus that is not open to misinterpretation? “What’s a smelly old man like you doing on a shitty old bus like this and why, in God’s name, did you choose to sit next to me, putting me in this insidious position?” was probably not going to cut it. In the end, societal cowardice dictated my subsequent strategy. “Excuse me,” I muttered, half rising. “I think this is my stop.”
And it was then that I caught the unmistakable glint of reflected light from the knife blade as I felt it nestle uncomfortably against my side. I felt shocked at first, not by the action, but my reaction to it. I knew that I would not be unable to lunge past him and all that I could remember thinking was, “How has he kept that blade so shiny when he can’t even wash his bloody hands?” but I felt it unwise to enquire. I sat down heavily. Should I shout out for the driver who, without question, would not put himself in danger to help me? Strangely calm, I wondered whether this was how it was all going to end for me, on the top deck of a bus with a smelly old tramp, when a sudden realisation hit me, that he probably felt he was just protecting himself, that he himself had felt threatened by something that I had said or done. I raised my arms, palms open, as I believe it is done, and opened my mouth to speak, but he merely lifted one grimy finger to his lips and shushed quietly. “Money, phone and watch,” was all he said.