The last bus
He was staring at her. At first she’d thought he’d just zoned out in her general direction, but his eyes followed her lickerishly, unblinking; leg jiggling, hand unseen, breathing fast through an open mouth. Steph squirmed in her seat.
Outside it was dark, late. Rain trickled sadly down the windows and the harsh fluorescent light inside the bus illuminated Steph’s reflection in the glass. The last bus. Sometimes she felt she spent most of her life here, scrabbling for loose change, avoiding the weirdos.
She took in her pale skin, the circles under her eyes and the hopelessness behind them, before realising she could also see the man behind her, still staring, still jiggling. His t-shirt was stained, and his jeans were torn, his age indeterminate. His coat was draped over his lap, hands submerged beneath. Steph felt sick.
The bus stopped, but nobody else got on. Behind the softly lit curtained windows were families, tucked up in bed or watching Lovejoy or Antiques Roadshow reruns. Being together. Steph thought of her own damp beige flat and envied their warm banality. Then the bus inhaled loudly, like a builder assessing dry rot, and pulled off.
When Steph got off the bus she knew, without turning, that the man was behind her. She could hear his wet breathing and the lurch of his uneven stride on the pavement.
Don’t look, keep walking. It went through her head like a mantra. Under the streetlights his shadow fell long reminding her how close he was, how tall and lumbering. He could overpower her in a heartbeat. She clutched her keys, jagged edge poking out, ready.
As she neared her flat she quickened her pace. He did too. The keys felt slippery in her hand.
Twelve doors and she was home.
There it was. His voice was low, with the slurred speech of a practised drinker. She pretended she didn’t hear.
“You...you left your phone on the bus, but I’ve got it.”
She felt in her pocket. Her phone wasn’t there. She looked and he was holding it out to her with hands that shook and juddered almost uncontrollably. She glanced at the man’s face. His eyes were screwed up, jaw set in concentration, forcing himself to hold steady.
As soon as she took it he plunged his hands deep into his trouser pockets with relief.
“Thank you. I really appreciate this.”
“I’m s...sorry if I scared you.”
Steph could hear the stammer in his voice, the concentration it seemed to take just to stand still and speak to her.
“Was this your stop?” she asked. The man shook his head.
“You mean you got off just to give me the phone? How are you going to get home?”
“Well at least let me make you a cup of tea. To say thanks?” For the first time the man met her eyes, just for a second, and smiled warmly.
And as Steph took two mugs from the cupboard instead of one, her damp beige flat suddenly didn’t seem so lonely after all.