by Bridie Wilkinson
My head is rested against the damp window, and I’m trying to let the rumbles of this bus drown out the offbeat pounding of my head. I have half an hour and a walk in the rain until I am anywhere close to my bed, and I ache.
It’s been a night of stumbling legs, high-pitch shouts in backstreets and grumbled, quiet goodbyes. I spent the last bus trying to get the club stamp off the back of my hand, rubbing it against dirty seat covers, angry. Angry that I was two buses from home and too drunk to clearly think about the mess that I had left behind me, angry that this kept happening to me. Alone on a bus at whatever time we would call this twilight.
And now here I am. Bus number two. With the window. And the rumble. And raindrops, stuck against the glass that I press my cheek up against to blur my vision even more, to become invisible. My hands under my armpits because this half-empty bus is fucking freezing. Trying to keep from falling asleep by letting the endless repetition of chart songs play on and on in my mind. My head filled with everyone else’s voice but mine.
Then, something breaks through. A smooth quiet something is singing. I catch onto it for a second. It’s an echo of a song I know, an old 90s house track. It breaks through the repetitious beats and pulls me back to the top deck. I lift my head off the glass and turn. And there she is. A few seats behind, legs thrown up onto the space next to her, singing to herself whilst eating from a bag of chips.
Her drunk is so different to mine. So peaceful. Eyes half shut, cheeks flushed and glowing at me. I watch as she bounces her foot in time to the imaginary bass that I am now in tune to, watching it rise and fall in the bus aisle.
“Her drunk is so different to mine. So peaceful. Eyes half shut, cheeks flushed and glowing at me.”
She sings it again. A few words – easy, simple words that my mouth can swallow. I repeat them to myself, quietly, and her heavy eyes slide over to mine.
But not, because then she throws her head back and lets out a cackle, one that rips through this strange, night bus haze. ‘YES girl!’ She throws her legs off the seat next to her. Raises her chip-free hand and beckons me over, me, only me, above the heads of the two other people sitting on the top deck.
The bus jumps (it must jump) and I find myself spinning along the poles to swing in next to her. She smiles a full, cheeky and toothy grin, because of course she knew I would come. There is glitter in her hair which has run down the side of her face. It’s collated at the peak of her cheekbone, in a satisfying, starry constellation that I can’t stop staring at.
She tilts her paper bag towards me. ‘Chip?’
I’ve never wanted anything more. I take a handful, unapologetic as she does the same, and suddenly the space between us is even smaller, all salt and grease and giggling as we smash our fists of potato into our mouths.
She sees my hand stamp. Omigod. She was there too. She shows me her matching mark and knocks it against mine. She says, wasn’t the music so terrible, so loud, wasn’t the crowd so rude and so much men. She says she tried to go elsewhere, but couldn’t bear with an even longer bus journey. ‘Where do you live?’
I tell her, miming out the size of my tower block that makes her do that cackle again, the one that now sends a spark right down to my toes. ‘You sounds like a princess. Princess in the tower,’ she sings, sings to the same tune of that song that brought me over here. ‘You look like one too,’ and then she puts her hand in my hair, pulling it across me, staring at it through her sleepy, half-open eyes.
I start talking about the tower. I tell her it’s terrifying, it looks like a game of Jenga that could spill over South London at any moment, but the view, oh wow, the view. I try to recreate the panorama with my hands, leaning across her to smear the condensation off of the window.
It looks like that, I say, and she ducks under my arm to press her face to the blurred lights, the sparkling blurry bits of the city, the raindrops merging into them to form a swarming, glittery mess that bounces off of her constellation cheek.
She runs her finger along the view I’ve created, all the way to the end of the windowpane. ‘I live somewhere over here, maybe.’
I lower myself into the seat again, and let my damp hand drop over her finger, my limbs free from their stumbling and spinning and now desperate to touch something as delicate as her. She pulls her hand back, and looks at me, crinkling her eyes so her face now twinkles like the city behind her.
And then, I’m at my stop. It’s my stop.
‘Don’t worry, Princess,’ she says to me, as I reluctantly pull my body up from the seat. ‘I’ll find you. I’ll look to the skies to find your tower.’
As I leave, I see her pull her feet back up, and reopen her packet of chips.
Co-founder of Dear Damsels, frequenter of South London night buses.