The bus was full of the faces, the masks of the people of the commute, gazing blankly out of the windows at the traffic on the streets, the cars stewing in the still air of the dull daylight, the leaves dying on the trees, the clouds frozen in a perpetual grey sigh. The seats were scarred, dirtied with the wounds and the blemishes left by the routine, the daily slog, the ritual of the dragging tired limbs. The upholstery sucked in the odours, the scents and the stench like a sponge and puffed out the fragrance, the unique blend of the journey when nudged or pressed too firmly. The driver worked in his booth, stirred only by the rattle of change, unwinding like a wind-up doll. The stifled noise of the playlist, the podcast, the presenter mingled in the air with the sickly cough of the flu sufferer, the whiff of the smoker and the bite of deodorant on plastic. The eyes in the faces averted the looks of the others. Today almost every other passenger felt the gloss of the new and the successful on the tips of their fingers as they flicked through the pages, the chapters, the spooling sentences and crafted scenes of the same book, emblazoned with praise, the novel of the moment.
The old woman in the usual seat grimaced at the vulgarity. The sex was frequent. The work was hailed as a scathing, insightful indictment of our times, a wake-up call for morality. The book club would discuss it on Thursday. Half way through and yet another man, an oath, drooling obscenely about the thrills of ejaculation, the limited use of women, the casual disposable nature of intimacy. Whenever she got slightly hooked by the narrative, pleased by the occasional subtlety and truth of the language, the flow would be punctured by a seemingly gratuitous bout of nakedness and pleasure. Whoever wrote this was an animal; open to urges she’d never allowed herself to feel. She blushed as a paragraph reached a graphic conclusion, skipping ahead, wondering why she was tolerating this modern tripe.
The barmaid noticed the woman’s quivering eye brows as she turned the page from across the aisle. She estimated whereabouts she must be, concluded she was ploughing through a particularly filthy section she had long since devoured. The barmaid was almost finished and was enthralled by the story. She had paused now to collect the twists in her mind and make sense of them before plunging on to the end. Her glance at the old lady was loaded with amused anger. If the woman had lived a little, admitted her desires, she would not be so prudish about the glaring gaps in her experience exposed by the printed words. The smell of the polish and the spicy side dishes from work floated up her nostrils from her finger nails, still lodged there from yesterday. She had not had time to properly clean up before her gig. She allowed her dreams, aspirations and joys of singing to mix and fuse with those of the character lighting up the page before her, so that she could escape and share the tightly packaged end to come.
The fresher sat with his back to the barmaid. For him the journey played out backwards. On the bypass he caught sight of a lovingly restored MG, looming in the back window, contemplating an overtaking move. Mostly he read his book, the book, inhabiting the world erected within the pages and bundles of words as the barmaid did. Every pen portrait painstakingly etched by the writer to create an individual female character, whether it was stirringly primal or beautifully poetic, only succeeded in illuminating images of the girl he had left behind in his mind, conjuring slightly different manifestations of her. To say he had left her behind made it sound as if he had once had her but he never had. She had been unattainable, a good friend only. The almost four months of near total absence from his life had not helped his feeling for her fade, vacating a space in his essence to be filled, but merely left a hole in him. In the past his obsessions had always dissipated but this one would not. It worried him. In the street every girl bearing even the slightest resemblance would catch his eye. Even on this bus, this morning, he had noticed a girl wearing similar clothing to an outfit he had adored her in. He ought to be moving on, embracing his new life. He felt himself harden as another character got fucked richly and evocatively on the page. He felt a pang of pain as he thought of her again, realising that even in some miracle future universe where he wins her heart with a grand gesture he shall never be her first, the one to banish her scepticism of romance, the one she trusted to share the ecstasy and pain of their bodies. Pain was something his body subjected his mind to often. He felt another wave of it building now, hoped it would wait until his stop near the campus to peak. Quickly it became clear from the bunching and tightening of the sensation that it would not swiftly pass. He recalled being curled on the bathroom floor that morning, wrapped in a sodden towel, riding out another wave. He felt dirty, was already tired of rushing his showers to beat the cold water’s descent through the pipes. He tried to immerse himself in the sentences and couldn’t help but smile at existence, the erotic bulge of pleasure at his crotch and the swelling agony in his gut. Further concentration was pointless, he let the book fall face down in his lap between his thumb and forefinger, looked up to begin the countdown to his stop. He arched his neck back into the seat as he often did during such intense spells, felt the plastic pressing into his spine as a distraction, thought how she had probably shifted her body in a similar way, filled with pleasure from her boyfriend. His eyes darted across the faces of the bus, had they noticed his discomfort? No of course not. He let his head overflow with music, a song he had heard last night at a gig, a beautiful rendition of it by a beautiful girl. He shut his eyes and listened to the voice, let it wash through the background of a memory, a memory of the girl he loved. Her face consumed his mind’s eye as the pain reached a crescendo and refused to break, his fingers curled around the plastic of the seat in front and squeezed until the blessed hiss of the brakes.
The post-graduate had finished the book. It had impressed him. Like most people to have read it much of the appeal lay with the ease in which you could empathise with the characters, the many varied viewpoints it engaged. He was turning the thing over in his hands, feeling its heft, drawing a list of pros and cons as a review in his head. The thing was certainly flawed. Some of the characters were really stick thin and at times the story veered into melodrama and cliché. But generally he didn’t like to dissect too much, not outside his work. He had enjoyed the book, the author could be proud of it. He remembered a particularly poignant passage about two lovers, the way the man had held the woman close, wrapped only in a damp, black towel and looked forward to his evening and felt glad to be alive.
The journalist thought that muggy was the perfect way to describe the day. She shouldn’t be stealing a chapter now but the clammy, joyless heat and the frowning sky didn’t put her in the right frame of mind for work. Besides she had the interview more or less mentally compiled and one of the lines she just read would work so perfectly, adapted of course, to describe her youthful politician. She wanted more from the scriptwriting character, disillusioned with her life, wanting to get on with that one meaningful work. She shared all the character’s anxieties about mediocrity and failure and settling for a soulless pay packet that said nothing of her beliefs, her talents and convictions. She worried that even now she wasted her hours dithering over the right phrase to paint a picture of a MP’s unruly mop of hair and his ingrained “moral fibre”. She was kidding herself if she thought her judgements had any effect on policy, on people’s lives and hopes and dreams.
The bus was emptying, the faces dispersing, the masks slightly more alert. The city centre swallowed them up and the driver pulled mechanically away with hisses and whines. The author lingered, watched them all stash his shiny bestseller in their bags and cases before descending to the daily drudgery of life. He felt the excitement he had felt at the factory, watching rows and rows of fresh, new smelling books accumulate and disappear in boxes. He felt pride at his success, confident he had said at least part of what he wanted to say but also realistic that he had had to compromise. No one would fully understand what he had originally intended, everyone would read the novel, the story, the characters in their own way. Everyone would place their own versions of the faces to his descriptions, everyone would relate to their own pains and pleasures. Regardless of events, shared experiences, links, ties and connections, lives could never truly intersect, and that had, sort of, been his point.