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The 137 bus took, on average, 37 minutes to get from Clapham Common North Side to Sloane Square. He saw her every morning and most evenings, which meant he got the best part of five hours a week in her presence. If you factor out holidays and sick days that’s about 235 hours a year. Or just under ten days.
“I spent the first 27 hours trying not to catch her eye,” he told Chris. “You know, when you like the look of someone and you just keep snatching cheeky glances across.”
“Bet she caught you looking somewhere you shouldn’t have been!” he smirked.
“Exactly! Exactly. Why does that that always happen eh?”
“So did she?”
“Did she what?”
“Catch you gawping at her?”
“Chris, you know me better than that…”.
“So she did! So what happened at hour 28? Did she slap you round the face?”
That was when it really started to happen. If you’ve ever been a regular commuter you’ll know there is a strict set of unwritten rules governing behaviour: everyone has their preferred spot, so don’t take it; don’t talk beyond the basics, and if you have to, keep it quiet; keep your phone on silent, especially keyboard tones; and if you’ve got a runny nose, blow it, don’t sniff.
It takes time to learn the rules and be acknowledged by your fellow sardines. But after being squashed in together for a total of 27 hours the other commuters start to accept you as one of their own, and give you a curt nod or a grunt when they see you at the bus stop or train platform.
“No, hour 28 she smiled at me, not a big smile, not even with both sides of her mouth, but it was a smile,” Tim said.
“Sounds more like a smirk.”
“No, it was definitely a smile. No doubt.”
He knew it was a smile because, like all-important smiles, it started off small and grew and grew until hour 31, when it ratcheted up to a full-on beam.
“How’s the commute fairing up?” she inquired – a standard commuter question.
“Fine, thanks, fine. Getting to read a lot of books,” said Tim – a standard commuter response.
She smiled the smile and moved down the line.
“And then I knew that I’d made it.”
“What do you mean, she only smiled at you!” Chris said.
“No, no, THAT came later. I mean I’d made it as a commuter.”
Chris erupted into a roar of laughter. “Seriously? You made it as a commuter? Jesus, I always thought it was bad enough that you took that shitty job in London, but to be proud of being a commuter? That’s sad, really sad.”
Tim looked down and kept chopping. “You’re right, it’s a long way from wanting to be a tree surgeon, of course I recognise that. But after all that money trouble it felt good to be back on an even keel, to start to make something of myself and…”
“You sound like your dad talking now,” Chris interrupted.
“I know you don’t agree with it all, and that you think I should be living a freer, romantic life, like you, but I’m happy for once.”
“There’s nothing romantic about living on a barge in the winter. Do you know how cold it can get?”
“No, I know, but it has that appeal doesn’t it, that romanticism, bucking the trend, being able to move on when you want? But I don’t want that. Not anymore. So yes, I was very glad to be recognised as a commuter, especially by her.”
That morning, when my alarm went off at its usual 6.36am, I ended up snoozing it five times, which was three times too many.
Somehow I managed to make it to the bus stop on time, and she got there straight after me, so was directly behind me in the queue. We both filed upstairs in search of the elusive seat. I could see a spare double towards the back of the bus, and my heart leapt at the thought of sharing it with her.
But when I got to it I saw that the window seat was covered in squashed, sticky food and was unsitdownable.
I carried on past the seat, turned round and offered her the spare, clean place.
“Are you sure,” she asked.
“Of course, please, you have it.”
“Thanks, I will.” And she did.
I made sure I was there early the next morning. There was a mobile coffee shop 50 metres down from the stop and he usually went there for a black coffee. I watched him place his order and fumble for his money, and then saw his reaction when the barista told him, as directed, “it was already paid for, in thanks for giving up your seat yesterday.”
He walked back towards me, raised the paper cup and nodded his thanks, smiling.
“So you’ve never actually spoken to her?” Chris asked.
“Well, no, but yes, sort of.”
“How does that work?! You either have or you haven’t.”
“Well, if you mean a conversation, a full-blown two way discussion, then no.”
“So is that why we’re doing all this?”
“Exactly, it just seems right.”
“But based on what? How do you know it’s going to work?”
“What, biologically or emotionally?”
“I don’t, but you’ve got to try, haven’t you?”
“You do. Yes. Shall I keep on mixing then?”
“Yes, keep on stirring. We’ve nearly got enough.”
He’d tested the biological element over the last few weeks, refining the recipe over time till he got it just right. The first version had been too appealing to birds, the second just kind of dissolved into nothingness, the third blew away, the fourth didn’t take on any mold and the fifth was really hard to shape.
But the sixth – a mixture of natural yoghurt (for the mold), breadcrumbs (for the bulk), chilli powder (to stop the birds) and butter (to hold it together and form the shape) – seemed to be about right. It was now time to put it to the test.
They left the pub after last orders, hanging around as long as they could to give the other drinkers a chance to clear the streets. What they were planning wasn’t, as far as they knew, illegal. But it wasn’t in any way normal and stood a strong chance of attracting the wrong kind of attention.
They approached the first target, on Cedars Road, just down from the pub. Chris gave Tim a boost up and then passed him the Tupperware and spatula, leaving Chris on the street as lookout.
Once Tim had tested the strength of the bus stop roof, and found that it could easily take his weight, he simply stood and looked.
The people carried on walking past below him and cars kept driving by, but none of them had any idea he was up there, inhabiting his own private part of the city. Granted, it was only six feet by 12 feet, but Tim instantly felt a sense of possession over the space.
He’d never make it the moon, or be the first to climb an obscure Himalayan peak, but he was pretty sure he was the first to stand on top of this bus stop to paint a message in butter and breadcrumbs for a girl he’d never really spoken to.
“I’m an urban pioneer, and nobody knows I’m here,” he said, as he started to write his message.
“Ha ha, did you hear that Chris, it rhymes: I’m an urban pioneer, and nobody knows…”
“Shut up and get down you idiot, there’s a bus coming – everyone on the top deck will know you’re there!”
Rather than jump down Tim sat and watched the bus draw up. His head was level with the bottom of the top-deck windows, which were dripping with condensation. A couple of passengers had wiped them down so they could see out, and one, a middle-aged man, caught Tim’s eye just as the bus moved on.
Tim gave him a jaunty salute, and the passenger responded with a cautious, confused wave.
“That was brilliant Chris, just great. You should’ve seen the look on his face. He couldn’t work it out.”
“Great,” Chris replied angrily. “Just get the job done and get down before another bloody bus turns up.”
“OK, just the ‘f’ left to write now.”
One minute later Tim’s legs were hanging over the edge of the shelter, and he dropped to the ground.
“Oomph. It’s higher up when you’re on your way down.”
“How much did you fit on?”
“Two words. Eight left. Let’s get on with it.”
“So how did it look this morning?” Chris asked.
“OK, I think it’s OK. I could see it and just about read it, but I knew what I was looking for. It’s going to take a while before it’s obvious to anyone else though.”
“Do you still think this is a great idea, I mean, come on, you don’t really know her do you?”
“I know enough.”
“Really? So she’s not in a relationship then?”
“Well, I don’t think so…”
“So she might be?”
“Yes, she might be, but she might not.”
“And I know what you’re going to say next.”
“Dead dogs don’t eat donuts?”
“No, that’s not what you were going to say. What you were going to say is ‘’Feint heart never won fair maid’.”
“Well, perhaps, but so what, it’s right isn’t it?”
“Perhaps, but feint heart never left someone covered in a buttery breadcrumb mix, with the potential to look even more of an idiot when he gets knocked back.”
“Yes, that wasn’t my finest moment, sitting in the butter mix was it?! And I know what you’re saying, but I’ve got to give it a go. I thought you of all people would agree with the carpe diem approach to life?”
“And I knew you were going to trot out that Carpe diem cliché. Let’s hope she decides to seize the day too.”
Words three and four
“What’s that down their Dave?”
“Down where? Every where’s down when you’re on a double-decker.”
“Is it, are we taller than that church, or that tree, or that bank. Are we Dave?”
“God you’re so pedantic. Alright, I accept the fact that not everywhere is down. So what bit of the world underneath us are you referring to?”
“You’ve missed it. Typical. You want to debate everything and never see what’s in front of you.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing, it’s nothing.”
“Is this about all these extra hours you’ve been working?”
“No, look, let’s not talk about it now Dave, please.”
“What does that mean… Oh look, there’s another one, see, there, on the bus stop ceiling.”
“It’s the roof.”
“No, it’s a message – Oh, I see what you mean. You’re such an arse Dave. And you wonder why I’ve been ‘working late’ so much.”
“Oh I see. ‘The coffee’. It’ll be some coffee chain, trying to get us to waste more money. What was that you were saying about working late?”
“Never mind Dave. Never mind.”
Words 7 and 8
“Seven across. Three three. Starts with an O, ‘Out of date’.”
“No, right number of characters but it’s not a saying darling, and crossword answers are generally full of regular sayings. ‘Out for’ isn’t one of them. Unless you’re talking in a cricketing sense…”
“It is a saying Daddy”
“Sorry, but it’s not.”
“So why has someone written it on there?”
“Where, oh, I see, yes, ‘out for’. Well done, but I think the phrase we’re looking for it ‘Old Hat’, see. If something is Out of Date it can also be old, and we know it starts with O, so I think the first word is ‘Old’. Then because the second word is three letters, I can’t see that it’s anything else than ‘Old Hat’.
“Now, that gives us the T for nine down, seven letters… Hold on, time to move Moo, this is our stop.”
“Out for us!”
“Very good darling, very good, come on, you don’t want to be late for school, do you? Have you got everything?”
Words 1 and 2
It had taken him 15 years to get to this state, but Roger was finally beginning to acknowledge that his friends may be right, and that perhaps he was drinking a bit too much.
He’d only ever had one or two blackouts, and everyone has those, don’t they? At least that’s what he thought, so he didn’t let them bother him too much. It was the hallucination that scared him.
When he asked her: “Remember last Thursday night?” she knew there was some sort of confession coming up.
“Yes, we met at The Lion in Clapham for a couple of beers. Well, I had a couple, you had five. What of it?”
“Well, yes, that is, well…”
“Come on, what happened?”
“Well, I think I need to cut down a bit.”
“God, it must’ve been a bad night. You told me you were going home when we left, what on earth happened?”
“Oh no, yes, I did go home. Straight home. Bus 137 to Battersea Park. Absolutely. But it wasn’t right.”
“Eh? You live in Battersea, so what was the problem?”
“Oh no, the bus was right. It was just that, er, well, you see…”
“Come on, just say it.”
“Well, it’s like this, there was someone out there.”
“On the bus. Well, no, not actually on the bus. Outside of the bus.”
“There are always people outside of buses.”
“Not like this though. Not looking in the top deck window. And saluting.”
“It was this little man, like a goblin, and he was on the top of the bus stop, with a trowel and a little pot. And he’d written something. ‘Ta fo’.”
“’Ta fo’? That doesn’t mean anything.”
“Exactly. It was Elvish you see.”
“Well, that’s what I thought at the time, you know, after being in The Lion with you all evening.
“But now I’ve sobered up a bit, I think, well, you know, I think I may have imagined it.”
“So there wasn’t really an Elf on a bus stop roof writing a mystery message? You amaze me…”
“No, I definitely saw it. I really did, I waved back. At least at the time I was sure I saw it, now I’m not so sure. I think it was the drink.”
“A hallucination. It’s one of the signs, you know, for people who drink perhaps one or two beers over their daily limit. I think it’s time that I went on the wagon for a while. What do you think?”
“I think that’s exactly what we’ve all been telling you for the past two years. Thank god for the Elves!”
The message unfolds
I’d heard some mutterings on the way to and from work the last couple of days, but never really had a look myself. I tend to just zone out once I’m on the bus – music, book, daydreams and sometimes a short snooze, although that can be dangerous.
Thursday nights are exercise class night, so I was trying to stay awake and alert so I’d be in the mood for my lesson. I could think of a thousand things I’d rather do when I got home, but I knew it was good for me so I was determined to go.
I was just getting to my stop when I heard someone up front telling their friend to look out of the window, quickly. I gazed out across the road and saw it – someone had written ‘Ta for’ on the bus stop roof. I say written, it was kind of smeared there, and had gone a crusty yellow colour. Part of the ‘f’ was missing, but you could definitely make out that it was meant to say ‘Ta for’.
I got off, went to my class and though nothing more of it till the next morning.
Being a Friday I was looking forward to the weekend and was planning my plans when I remembered what I’d seen the previous night. I decided to pay more attention and see if there was anything else out there.
Instead of dozing my way to work as I usually did on a Friday, I turned my music up and kept a close look out of the window. I got on at Cedars Road and there it was again:
I kept looking out of the window and watched the message unfold, stop by stop.
Queenstown Road – the coffee
Battersea Park – fancy going
Chelsea Park – out for
Sloane Square– a beer?
As I got up to get off the bus I saw that he was sitting behind me, and that he must’ve seen me looking at the messages. He looked very embarrassed and sheepish, and gave me a pleading ‘I’m sorry’ look.
The penny dropped. It was for me.
I gave him a small smile, picked up my bag and got off the bus.
I’ve been dreading this all weekend. Why didn’t she say anything on Friday? She obviously twigged that the messages were for her. I’ve made such a fool of myself, how on earth did I think that this was ever going to go well?
All I need to do is keep my cool; perhaps she didn’t put two and two together. Perhaps. But she did, didn’t she? That smile she gave me said it all. I bet she’s married or something, Chris was right, it was stupid to do this without even knowing if she was single.
If she reports me I’ll get banned from using the bus. They’ll arrest me for trespassing on bus shelter roofs, or for graffiti or reckless behaviour or something. Oh god, why didn’t I just talk to her and ask her out? It would’ve been easier… there she is, she’s here, she’s at the bus stop. She’s seen me. What am I going to say to her?
OK, here’s the bus, I just need to get on and sit downstairs from now on, she never sits downstairs. As long as I don’t go up top I’ll be OK. She’ll think I’m not interested in her and that it wasn’t me. Even though I am, and it was.
Here we go, there’s a space right on the back seat, perfect, this might just work. Right, she’s on. What, she’s not going upstairs; she’s coming towards me?! She looks really serious. There’s no smile, completely deadpan. Please don’t lay into me on the bus, please…
She’s sitting opposite me, why oh why do these buses have seats facing each other at the back? Why did I sit here? She’s not saying anything. Why isn’t she saying anything? Come on; just tell me to clear off, to stop bothering you. Please, say something. She’s going into her bag, what’s this, a newspaper? She’s going to sit and read the newspaper and not say anything. I’d almost prefer it if she laid into me, I don’t think I can take the pressure.
She’s opening it up, it’s yesterday’s Observer. Fair enough, nobody can read a Sunday newspaper in one day. What’s this, there’s a hole in it, she’s got a paper with a hole in it. She’s looking at me through the hole and laughing at me. Oh, hold on, it’s not a hole. It’s a word. She’s cut words into the paper. She’s opening it up.
‘Would love to’.