The Man At The Bus Stop

In our recent Creative Voice 2 classes, we’ve been using a variety of things as sources of inspiration. Last week it was dreams (the one time I desperately needed one, I didn’t have any, so I made something up instead), and the week before that we used old photographs. In the first week, we simply had to think of a person we knew or had encountered. There are many things I could have written about countless people I know, both good and bad, but I decided I’d pluck someone random out of thin air, and that’s how I came to write about the man at the bus stop. His story is a relatively simple one, but it isn’t something I’ll be forgetting in a hurry – it touched me and it might just touch you too.

In the autumn of 2016, when there was a 90-minute bus journey between me and my workplace at the time, I was shivering with my coat wrapped tightly around my body as I waited for the bus to arrive. It was nearing 7am and obviously still dark at that time of year, so you would be forgiven for thinking that I wouldn’t be up for talking – and I wasn’t, until the man beside me piped up. He was an elderly gentleman, and if I’m honest, he looked rather stereotypical complete with flat cap and walking stick. Even at the age of 85, though, he had lost none of his energy, and as we gradually established a conversation he exuded a great deal of warmth, particularly when he spoke about his wife.

I had noticed upon first seeing him that he had a bouquet of flowers in his hand, and he eventually told me that he was taking them to her. He’d been doing this, a four-hour round trip, six mornings a week for at least a couple of years, ever since she’d gone into a care home with dementia. He didn’t go on Sundays. They were his quiet days, which he spent alone in the house they shared – he never mentioned any children or grandchildren. I only ever knew him as a devoted husband, who told me about his wife with the kind of love I haven’t seen or heard anywhere since. He talked about their life together, what they’d done for a living, the places they’d travelled to, and what he did for her now she was in the home. He cooked for her, cleaned for her, made sure she always had clothes to wear – whatever it was, he’d help out. Apparently, she didn’t recognise him very often, but whenever there was a moment of lucidity, they could reminisce about some of their most precious moments together. Even though the woman he’d spent a lifetime with was ebbing away before his eyes, his enthusiasm for seeing her every day never seemed to waver once – I remember him telling me that despite everything, “she’s still my girl”. I couldn’t help but think that a lot of guys I knew could learn a thing or two from him.

These conversations continued for around three months, ending when the Christmas break arrived. When I started work again in January 2017, and arrived at the bus stop for my first day back, the man was nowhere to be seen. That didn’t seem like a good sign at all, since he had been so adamant about his determination to take the journey whenever he could. Then the bus pulled up, and the driver got out to help me aboard. “By the way”, he said, as he put the ramp down on the pavement, “the gentleman you’ve been speaking to wanted me to let you know his wife passed away over Christmas.”

My heart sank at that moment, as I know his will have done. We never even knew each other’s names, but I did feel like we’d established a nice little connection, and there was a definite dampener on the rest of that day for me. I haven’t seen the man anywhere since, and I don’t even know if he’s still with us. If he is, I hope he’s gotten to a place where he’s comfortable and content, and if he isn’t, I hope someone was there to show him love and support in the aftermath of his loss. It’s what he would have done for his wife, unquestionably and unconditionally. If you ask me, the man at the bus stop was the definition of true devotion.

Mason

Steak And Chips

Henry sprayed himself with his strongest aftershave once again. A thick cloud rose up and he coughed as it filled his throat. In the mirror, he saw that his fringe had already collapsed under the weight of his hair gel. Great! Producing a toothpick, he began prodding about in his mouth. “Lettuce. Ham sandwich. Pringle,” he thought. They couldn’t afford to stay there.

He was convinced that something was sabotaging his date with Emily before he’d even been on it, and he was insecure enough already.  He and Emily would be having a meal; he was pretty confident about eating. But he didn’t know how to greet her, how to say goodbye, or what to talk about in between. “Do we kiss? Do I hold her hand? What are her interests?” He felt pressure from some anonymous force to be someone he wasn’t, and he desperately wanted to impress this girl naturally.

Unfortunately, Henry overthought every possible worst-case scenario. Last night, the latest in a long line of nightmares manifested themselves. He tossed and turned in bed as hazy images of spilling a drink on her dress, and kissing her with garlic breath, swirled in his mind. But as scary as those more trivial things seemed, there were other aspects of a potential new relationship that terrified him even more. He looked around at the paper strewn across his desk, and his overflowing bin. “What a shithole,” he thought to himself. “She’d hate this, wouldn’t she? What would her parents think? How fast would things move? Would she get bored of me?” He’d tried to fix his wonky hairdo, but there was only so much a careful comb could do. Accepting that it would probably collapse again soon, he took his keys and wallet and left his flat.

The short walk to the restaurant where Henry would be meeting Emily seemed to go on forever. Even as the town filled up with pubgoers in the twilight, he studied himself intently. He rubbed furiously at a stubborn stain on his shoe. Something he couldn’t identify that he tried and failed to rub off of his jeans. “Toothpaste? Mayonnaise?” All of the possible suspects entered his head. His eyes widened at another. “Bird poo?!”

He felt his shirt collar. It was wonky, so he promptly straightened it. He’d noticed himself sweating more now, and his hands were trembling. He quietly clenched a fist, just to confirm that he did indeed have increasingly clammy hands. He’d sniff his armpits again later on, even though he had already applied deodorant five times. Was that a spot he could feel on his nose…? Whatever it was, he removed his hand quickly, to avoid aggravating it.

“Get a grip,” Henry muttered. His friends had all told him that nerves before a first date were only natural. “It’s good to be nervous, it means that you care,” they would say. But Henry thought that being this nervous was borderline ridiculous. Surely all he had to do was be himself, and he’d be fine? Breathing in, then out again, he tried to relax his shoulders. The more Henry considered it, being himself seemed awfully cliched. He was neither outstanding nor awful, just average, and these days it seemed as though that wouldn’t cut it with anyone. There was so much pressure on so many people to look good and achieve great things in their lives. Life was presented like a race, in which nobody could afford to finish last – and as things stood, Henry was definitely finishing last. His mind flashed back to his modest room. He couldn’t help thinking that the odds were stacked against him, and his mindset didn’t improve when the restaurant appeared in the distance, modestly lit by the lamppost outside.

Henry thought about his bank balance as he patted his back pocket, just to ensure his wallet was in there. He couldn’t afford to splash the cash too much – his parents had always been very clear about the value of money. What would happen if he ordered something small? He could practically see the look of disgust on Emily’s face as a modest bowl of soup and a crusty roll faced up to rump steak and chips. “If I see her nose curl up,” he thought, “the ground may as well open up and swallow me whole.” He needn’t have worried.

With considerable trepidation, Henry slipped quietly through the door, and Emily watched as he approached. She was sat at a table surrounded by older couples who’d left the kids at home with the babysitter, and the last remnants of refracted daylight through the window almost formed an orange halo around her date. It made his skin and hair shine together; he was the physical embodiment of a deity and a dream, and she was totally at ease. All of a sudden, she wasn’t so worried about split ends or getting something stuck in her teeth. Even so, she fumbled in her bag, just to make sure the toothpicks were there.

Minutes earlier, Emily had been wiping the sweat from her brow in the toilets, such were her nerves. She had to laugh, because she’d been sweating when she first laid eyes on him as well, sitting in that university taster session.  The next time she met Henry, six months had passed, but the chemistry had been as magnetic as the attraction. She remembered having a drink outside, as the September sun made them squint and giggle as they discussed their hopes and fears. Just as she had been then, she found herself looking deep into his hazel eyes, hanging on his every word as he hung on hers. They may have been relatively new to each other, but conversation flowed like they had known one another for years. Some of those other couples looked over at them, fondly recalling the way things used to be when they were young. Who said romance was dead?

Oh, and they both got steak and chips.

Mason