159 bus to Streatham driving in daytime

Given an honorable mention by the Five Stop Story competition Oct 2011.

Cars were crying in the road. Sorrowful Mazdas sobbed shrilly, tears collecting in their bumpers, while smaller vehicles, one Ford Ka in particular, let out piercing bouts of electronic histrionics. It was the rain, throwing moist boulders down to street level, lolloping parcels of saliva from a heavenly mouth that slooped on contact with metal roofs, boots and bonnets. Despite the screeching, Karen would have given anything to be in a car right now.

Instead she was on the top deck of a sweltering bus packed full of home-time commuters. She knew the human body consisted of 70% water, but had never felt it as keenly as now. Hot bodily vapour was rising from each person on the bus as if each seat was occupied by a giant kettle teetering to the boil. This was the hot house at Kew Gardens without the foliage. The only things growing here were chewing gum stalactites and crisp packet shrubberies. Her job in HR was stressful enough, she didn’t need this shit on the way home too. This was worse than the sauna at the public gym that was populated by fat men and corn plasters. At least the gym didn’t have a rogue bottled drink rolling under the seats and hitting the sides with a heavy slosh. The next time it hit her feet, she resolved to throw it out of the window, if it hit a pedestrian, so much the better.

The condensation was thick on the glass. She looked down at the M&S bag on her lap. This is how her salmon dinner would feel as it baked in the oven tonight. Was it baking right now? It was definitely gasping. The condensation on the ceiling of its plastic tray screamed staphylococcus. She might have to skip the protein part of her meal and stick to the steamed buttery veg and red wine. Though at this rate even the veg would bloat beyond consumption. Just the wine then. Her attempt at a healthy lifestyle engorged before her eyes. In frustration she turned to the window and using her scrunched up till receipt as a buffer between all those bodily fluids wrote ‘help me’ in large squeaking letters on the glass followed by a picture of a stick man in a noose. The passenger next to her gave her an odd look. She quickly wiped a misty porthole over her doodle with her sleeve and peered out thinking, this jacket goes straight in the wash when I get in.

The bus was still on the High Road. How had they only got this far by 5:50?  It had just reached the northernmost corner of the common. As they passed painfully slowly, she watched people sheltering under the café’s stoop. The unluckier of the park’s occupants were lingering by the doors of the public toilets waiting for the rain to abate. Such was the spontaneous down-pouring of the heavens that many had been caught out- joggers shuddered in their Lycra pants, dog-owners consoled their whimpering charges as another peal of thunder broke around the park.  A solitary figure, a schoolgirl in a saturated royal blue uniform, trounced the path, taking extra care to step in every single puddle on the way. Was she mad? Unhinged? Suffering some social impairment? It was very clearly raining. Her legs were pebble-dashed with splats of mud, grit and grey puddle water. The elastic on her socks had buckled under the strain and the once white ankle cut sagged into her shoes. Her skin was undoubtedly raw and raised and yet she was smiling.

At the back of the bus the tinny noise of a phone interrupted her thoughts. “Come here baby put your hands on my body, Hands on my body oh oh oh” it intoned suggestively. The thought of anyone touching her sexually on this bus right now was repugnant. And then it happened. That bloody bottle hit her feet again. And not just any bottle. A Lucozade. Reminding her that she was avoiding gym right now. A flood of guilt, then worse: the lid wasn’t properly screwed on and the bottle vommed a tiny trail of bile onto the erect hairs on her horrified toes through the straps on her River Island sandals. She had to get out.

She got up and rang the bell, pushing her way past towards the doors. She caught a distinct whiff of homeless people and wondered with disgust how many of them had hopped on this bus just to avoid the rain. She rang the bell frantically then stopped, remembering that sometimes the drivers kept you on for longer the more desperately your fingers screamed to get out. The sticky syrup was hardening. With one hand grasping the yellow rail she simultaneously rooted around in her handbag for a tissue and balanced her body so she wouldn’t bump into any of the other bodies even if the bus driver had ideas to the contrary. The day was getting worse – her usually full handy pack of Kleenex was an empty sleeve of germs.

The bus jolted to a halt. A carpet of steam rolled out as the doors opened and Karen descended the step. The stop was by a dilapidated row of shops and she joined a small group of others huddling under the awnings next to rows of lilac coloured plastic fruit bowls with shivering grapes, sodden mushrooms and soggy lettuces. This was ridiculous. She’s be waiting here forever. At this rate she’d miss even the 7pm showing of Neighbours. Then she glanced at her foot – the sickly yellow trail had become partly moistened by the short dash from bus to stoop and was lifting, but only partially. Surely wet was preferable to dirty, and that schoolgirl, the sopping one on the common, she had actually been smiling.

Karen stepped out from under the awning. An old lady who was suitably attired with her clear plastic hood and waterproof Mac but was nonetheless sheltering with the rest screeched “Are you mad, can’t you see it’s raining?”

“Oh really?” Karen replied raising her hands to the skies “because I can’t feel a thing.  My hair feels like I’ve just stepped out of a salon” (It didn’t, it felt like frogspawn and pondweed.) “And these patches on my clothes, they’re just sweat, caused by my pleasant and sun-drenched walk, on this glorious, glorious day.” (Impossible as Karen always applied two types of deodorant.) The crowd stared at her bemused. She turned and waded off in defiance, the word “weirdo” catching her ears over the cascading water washing in channels over the pavement; waves spilling over from car tyres in the road.

Her stout waddle was shadowed by a daily newspaper following her in the gutter-stream.  She watched her companion as its grainy chunks dissolved, printed word by papered paragraph, each syllable dropping down the drain with troglodyte toilet noises. She could feel patches of her skin doing the same. Endodermic husks lifting off layers of her Boots self-tan lotion leaving mottled white and pink patches below; but at least the Lucozade was diluting itself. The breathy condensation on her sleeve from the bus window was being replaced by cleaner water. The tramp odours from the bus were lifting their microparticles from the fabric of her clothes, removing themselves, one bad black molecule at a time, just like that science bit in the adverts. The corners of her mouth lifted as if they were feeling the effects of some gravity defying anti-wrinkle cream; she was becoming clean.

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