Art Pact 26

Outside the bus, neon smears of blue and red glided past, bumped into wiggly waveforms by the terrible state of the road. I let my head rest against the window, which leapt away from it every few seconds so that it could jump back and slam into my forehead. After a few minutes the constant banging started to give me a headache, so I turned to look around the inside of the cab.

Directly ahead of me, spilling out over the edge of his chair, was a middle-aged man in a grey cagoule who had taken up the traditional posture of the tall bus-bound man, knees splayed so that he could fit in without having to stand up or snap his legs in half. He scratched behind his right ear, then his left, then again behind his right.

To my left, in the seat beside me, the middle-aged woman made her way laboriously down the page of her book. By my calculation she had re-read the same paragraph five times, which must have been a terrible burden on Ignatius J. Reilly, since it was the fifth time that he fallen into a glass door, breaking it. She read by carefully scanning each line with her finger, peering over the top of her glasses. Perhaps sensing my gaze following the motion of her delicately painted fingernail she looked round at me, forcing me to look away.

The girl I'd noticed getting onto the bus was still resting against the wheelchair locking bar, nodding gently to the music from her white earbuds. As I watched she shifted the long plait from her right shoulder to her left, finally making sense of the unusual slant of the rest of the hairstyle. The right of her head had been partly shaved, the plait stretching down at forty-five degrees from there. Her face was tanned, her nose gently hooked, and there was something about her lips that was marvelously cruel, a sort of built-in sneer that if it had been a forced expression would have looked aggressive, but as a simple fact of the construction of her face was so compelling that I could hardly look away.

The bus lurched to a stop on the edge of Hackney, and the two young men on the sideways seats behind the bus got up. I saw the closest one, followed his eyeline to the girl, knew that he was thinking something similar to me. He turned to his friend, nodded with his head, and the two of them stared at her until the queue of people in front of them in the aisle had emptied. I caught the first guy's eye as he walked to the exit in the middle of the bus. I think he knew what I was thinking, but perhaps I was just another middle-class white person staring disapprovingly. I glanced away, felt as angry at myself for breaking eye contact as for making it, and looked back just in time to see him step off the bus and vanish into the night along with all the other passengers. The doors beeped, then clunked shut again.

As the bus rolled off from the curb it cut in front of a badly-muffled bike carrying two helmet-less teens who sped up to zoom around it and banged on the windows as they passed. I didn't recognise either of them, but they looked just like my brother's friends, the ones that had come to the funeral, zits and Brillcream and ill at ease in black suits that used to belong to their fathers before they got old and fat.

My phone beeped in my pocket, but I ignored it. A skinny professional had got on the bus, carrying a red Brompton folded up into a neat cuboid of pipes and wheels, but for some reason he had decided to unfold it again in the space in front of the exit doors, directly ahead of the girl. As he backed around, lifting this, twisting that, tightening the other, his arse stuck out and the girl had to move around, taking constant evasive action to avoid the rogue derriere.

Another beep. I tried to get at my pocket, but I was pressed up too close to the window. On the other side of me the middle-aged woman was taking her seventh run at the same page. I twisted a bit towards her (another glare as I distracted her, no doubt prompting an eighth attempt), and managed to maneuvre my hip up into a position where I could get at my phone. As I expected, Tom: WHERE R U?

TEN MINUTES AWAY, I replied, thinking that might be enough to keep him hopeful and occupied while I got another ten minutes away.


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