Bleary-eyed we stare ahead, the brush and slither of plastic, gore tex and canvas audible above the belch and thrum of the engine. The floor is lurching and untrustworthy. Hands grasp, knees lock, eyes fix determinedly on middle distances only we can see.
Today the seats are filled. They are the lucky ones whose heads rest against carpet-coated fibreglass, installed on their daises, unjostled, unmolested by the knee high carrier bags, head high rucksacks and face high armpits of strangers.
The rest of us brace against sudden stops and the unexpected pain of hard shoe on tender instep. ‘Sorry’ we mutter, unfailingly polite, ‘sorry, my fault’.
He is here again today. He sits in the same seat and his head rests against the window, eyes staring at the grey city rain stumbling past in pitch and toss of our journey. How far has he come? I wonder. Far enough away to be able to choose his seat before the rush and press of the crowd.
How many stops does he travel before I join his journey? Another faceless girl stepping into a sea of humanity, surging and swelling at his feet.
I feel the thought begin to dissolve when the man turns and looks directly at me, right into my eyes as if he knows I watch him.
He sees me.
A braver person would stare back, maybe smile, but I do not. I shift my gaze to my feet as the bus jerks to another halt. Distracted, I stumble humiliatingly into the fleshy man in front of me, the man in the greying shirt and purple plastic mac. My hand sinks into the soft meat of his shoulder and I can smell the stale onion sweat of him;
‘sorry, my fault.’
He smiles down at me and I wrench my gaze away, back to the floor. When I look up again he is gone and so is the man from the seat. He must have passed me as he left, maybe brushing the fabric of my winter coat. I hadn’t noticed.
I step out into the damp February air and hurry along the dog-beshitten streets of the city to my office. Strip lights flicker on magnolia walls and the place smells of cheap coffee and the stale tobacco that clings to clothes after fag breaks.
Sophie smiles at me when I take off my coat, but no-one else even looks up.
Drew leans back, slumped low in his chair, an overstuffed shirt spilling over too-tight trousers. His legs are spread wide and he flexes them open and closed, open and closed. Mugs cluster like flies on his desk and he taps sluggishly at his mouse.
At eleven I make myself and Sophie a cup of tea in the kitchen and at twelve thirty I eat my cheese sandwiches. Drew microwaves something pungent in a mug that soon joins the collection on his desk, congealing and viscous. By half past four it is dark outside.
Sophie invites me to the pub the following night. It is a casual mention - she doesn’t really care if I go or not, but I tell her maybe I’ll come for one. I hear her tell Michelle in the kitchen that she has a new boyfriend. She whispers it excitedly, a secret she wants us all to hear. Michelle dutifully asks and giggles and clutches, a little conspiracy of two.
I take my drink back to my desk. The room is overheated and dry. The glare from the computer stings my eyes.
At five o’clock I stand up to leave. Drew stretches in his chair, shirt lifting up to expose pale, soft, hairless flesh. His bored eyes land on me and he appraises me, finds me unworthy of comment, and returns to his attention to his screen, gaze sliding off my as they might a chair or a coat stand.
I have forgotten my umbrella.
At the bus top the half hearted rain coats the skin of my face and neck. I run my fingers discreetly under my eyes to check my mascara isn’t running. It isn’t. The cold slips its damp fingers inside my coat, down inside the collar.
The bus arrives to take me home to another evening of television on the sofa. A tin of soup for tea and bed by ten-thirty, ready for the whole routine to begin again tomorrow.
I manage to slip into a seat this time in front of some teenagers staging a loud conversation designed to shock. Nobody reacts. A child howls inconsolably and someone is listening to something violent without headphones on a phone.
He gets on at the museum stop, two after mine.
I wonder if he will sit beside me; the space is free, the last empty seat and I twist my legs away to emphasise its availability. This time, if he looks towards me again I promise myself I will smile at him. Sophie once told me I look nice when I smile.
I let myself imagine what I might say to him if he sits beside me. Something about the crowded journey that morning, maybe. Something to let him know that I saw him, even though I looked away. Somehow he feels like an ally.
But he ushers an older lady towards me instead. She lands heavily beside me in a cloud of old cigarette smoke and unwashed hair and I am surprised by how disappointed I am. The woman settles belligerently beside me, all elbows and gold jewellery.
He stands in the aisle, so close I could reach out and touch him. He stares fixedly ahead, his body swaying, his mind elsewhere. He wears a lanyard, a black jacket, brown trousers and plain lace-up shoes. Water droplets cling to the fine blonde hair of his beard. He isn’t handsome, but not repellant either, not like Drew, or Jeremy from accounts who leaves his trousers unzipped on purpose after visiting the bathroom. He is, for want of a better word, bland. Like tomato soup, or chips, or Catchphrase on the sofa on a Wednesday night.
I look at my own reflection in the dark window. It is an unremarkable one, but I gave up caring about that long ago. I am, essentially, inoffensive. When I turn back to see if he is still there I catch the turn of his head. He is still staring straight ahead, but for a second it seemed almost as if he had been looking in my direction.
I barely notice when the bus reaches my stop. By the time I realised I’ve missed it we have already sped past it. That means a long, wet walk home for me. I make up my mind almost without realising it. When he steps off the bus three stops later I quietly slip after him. I fiddle with the strap on my bag for a while as he strides away then silently I follow after.
It is a nice area, his. The gardens along the street are neat and well-kept. Lights glow warmly in front windows, framing scenes of couples pouring glasses of wine or pyjamaed children drinking milky drinks in front of the television. I wonder which scene he will walk into. Perhaps a slim wife in an oversized jumper will be waiting for him, or a teenage daughter will be practising a piano in his front room.
But his window is a dark one. There is no car in the drive and no welcoming picture window for him to step into. His garden is tidy, but not decorative; a neat lawn, a discreet wheelie bin, a stone path to an unremarkable front door, which he unlocks then shuts behind himself.
I stand to one side in the rain-soaked streets and wait. The light in the living room flares to life and for a brief moment I see a neat, bland little room. Television in the corner, a worn brown sofa, cheap curtains. No pictures on the walls, no shelves for books, just a space to exist in until it is time to go out again.
He steps to the window and for a brief dazzling second I imagine he sees me. That he is angry; that he is pleased; that he’ll invite me in out of the rain and make me a cup of something hot.
But he closes the curtains and brings the scene to a close.
As I walk back the way I have come I let myself think about those blank walls, that featureless room. My own flat is filled with knick knacks and throws and colourful cushions, a cramped space as lonely in its own way as his plain little box.
I wonder if he notices the plainness, wishes he could change it but isn’t sure how. I think about my red knitted blanket and how it could add a splash of colour, of character to the space. I picture two mugs on a coffee table, a parcel of shared chips and puzzling out Catchphrase together on a Wednesday night.
By the time I am home I am soaked through. After the long trek up the stairs to my flat I switch on my little gas fire and trade my wet things for soft pyjamas.
The overstuffed room is busy and tonight feels overpowering, filled with nonsense to mask its emptiness. I throw ornaments and magazines and fussy little pillows into a bin bag for the charity shop on Saturday. The purge leaves me feeling brighter. Tomorrow when he looks at me I will smile back. Maybe I’ll catch his eye and raise an eyebrow when fat Mr Onion Sweat ‘accidentally’ falls into a pretty young thing standing near him again, all hands and leering apologies.
He will laugh behind his hand across the crowded bus and we will be conspirators, like Sophie and Michelle in the kitchen.
I barely notice the rain on the commute and I even manage a smile at the driver when I get on. It’s the cheerful bearded man this time and I like him better than the woman with the dyed red hair who sometimes drives on a Friday. He smiles back, perfunctorily.
When he is not in his usual seat on the bus I try not to let myself feel too disappointed. I cast a cursory glance around but I know immediately that he isn’t there. There is fat Mr Onion Sweat leaning heavily against an orange pole, though he doesn’t look up as I push past him.
I tell myself that it’s silly to feel let down. It’s not like we had ever even exchanged smiles or like he even knew I existed outside of those few seconds we caught each other's gaze yesterday, but still I feel the bitter sting of it in my chest and feel the hot rush of shame at my cheeks. How stupid to let myself get carried away with such a pointless fantasy.
At the office I manage a smile for Sophie and agree to join her at the pub for one drink after work. Drew is non-commital but we know he’ll turn up, because what else do any of us have to do on a Friday night? I notice that he has wiped some of the muck from his trainers and there are no stains on his trousers today.
The others leave before me and I almost don’t follow them. It would be so easy to slip away back to the flat, to spare myself the ordeal. But the explanations on Monday, the thought of yet more long dreary hours on the sofa nudge me towards the Wig and Pen where Drew and Michelle and Jeremy and Sophie will be drinking pinot grigio and trying to pretend that they like each other.
I see them immediately clustered around a table. Sophie stands with her arm proudly through that of a tall dark man with white teeth and an extraordinarily hairy chest escaping through an undone top button. There are some other people there too that I don’t know. Friends of Sophie’s I assume.
And then one face among them turns and as I slip my arms from my coatsleeves our eyes snag and I almost start physically with the surprise of it. And I see the spark of recognition flare back at me, the same surprise and the corners of his mouth, covered by the fine blond hair of his beard, begin to turn up and we smile across the group.