A story about tolerance
Many years ago, I lived in Edinburgh and worked on the Royal Mile and was forced to catch the bus to and from work under sombre, heavy skies. I have never been predisposed towards early mornings in particular, so it was with a malevolent air that I used to traipse down my tenement building's many flights of stairs into the Baltic mornings to wait in line with the rest of the straggling commuters at the bus stop. Drifting silently as the occasional snowflake, we would slowly band together over a ten minute period and assume the stance unique to all travellers on the United Kingdom's myriad public transport systems: eyes fixed to the dim point on the horizon where the bus would (hopefully) eventually chug over the hill, arms and legs close to the body for fear of accidentally touching a fellow commuter, silent except for the occasional cough or sneeze or shuffle of feet. It was unwritten law that we would not attempt to communicate or, god forbid, make eye contact with each other.
After several weeks, I began to study my fellow travellers with surreptitious interest, stealing glances when I thought they might not be looking. Occasionally caught in the act, I would immediately pretend to be interested in the torn edges of the outdated bus timetable or the burn marks on the plastic seat where some cider-afflicted Ned had attempted to impress his mates with attempted arson. But there was one middle-aged woman my stare turned to again and again and as the mornings grew colder, frosting tears onto my eyelashes and turning my nose into a vermillion button, somehow my ire towards her increased. We hadn't got off to a good start, this woman and I, despite it becoming quickly apparent we were travelling the same well worn path to the Mile. On my first day at The Stop, she swivelled one beady eye in my direction while the other remained fixed on the distant point of "bus approach nirvana" - no mean feat for an oldish duck. In that split second of survey, she managed to convey an intense dislike of everything I was, causing my half-smile to falter and crack on my lips. As her glare lasered over my short, spiky hair, ragged hem, glittering nose piercing and eyes bagged from constant late nights in sweaty, subterranean night clubs, she sniffed once, loudly, scowled smugly, and swivelled the eye back towards the road.
From that day on, that woman became the secret focus of my ire and came to represent everything that was wrong with cold Scottish mornings at bus stops where people prickled with such hostility that smiles weren't allowed to flourish. Perhaps we had had a hidden karmic relationship that had bound us together through thousands of lifetimes - in some doing battle, in others reduced to mutually hostile glares. Perhaps I was just tired, and cold and grumpy, and needed a secret object of derision to distract myself from life's simple miseries. From the secret glances I caught her directing at me on occasion, I think she felt the same way. In any case, from a safe distance behind a tree and with the calculating callousness of youth, I began to study her habits.
I discovered that she walked in measured steps and stepped over cracks on her way to the stop and that she liked to be there ahead of everybody else to assume pole position for the bus-coming-fixed-stare. She wore the same sensible mid-calf length wool-based heavy skirts in brownish-greyish tweed each day (I wore mini skirts) paired with sensible brogues and dun-coloured tights. Her hair was carefully sausage rolled and she would stand, slightly duck-toed, with arms held rigidly by her side waiting for the bus to approach. She did not like newcomers to the stop and would shoot sneaky laser glares to any young head-phones wearing offender who unwittingly stole her waiting space. I have no idea how old she was - maybe late 40s? Early 50s? - but youth had eluded her some years before and assumed a flimsy quality she clearly disliked.
When the bus burped and lurched its way tiredly over the hill, she would stand slightly to attention and tuck one arm protectively over her sensible handbag, quivering slightly as it came to a halt. Leading with the same foot each day, she would step onto the bus, hold out her travel card equidistant to the bus driver's disinterested face and her own, and take measured steps towards the seat on the opposite side to the driver, just behind the rear doors. She would sit on the aisle seat so no one could share the space (one day, just for fun, I bravely asked her to shift over so I could sit down and was rewarded with radioactive waves of silent fury and a slight downward tilt of the eyebrows) and position her right hand just below the red button. As we trundled silently through the eight or nine stops to ours on the Mile (yes, we had the same stop, though she walked up the hill while I walked down) that hand would inch ever higher until we had passed the landmark bakery, at which point she would ping the bell using exactly the same pressure each day, causing it to ring out with a pure tone that would have been music to her ears. Immediately, she would stand, brush down the tweedy skirt and assume in-bus pole position in front of the double doors to always, always, be the first to alight from the bus.
Perhaps only I sensed the barest glimmer of triumph she felt as that ritual was completed day in, day out, with nary a variation except for colour. For weeks I listened to the clomp of her shoes up and down that bus with fascination, watching for a slip-up that would render her human instead of wound with a secret clockwork action. Some days it would bother me more - perhaps when I was running late, or had been forced to miss breakfast - while on others her behaviour would blend into a wider sociological survey of the "people at the stop": the weirdo art student, the boring business man with rings under his arms even in winter, the cigarette flavoured single mother with a roguish wheeze. In any case, I can't remember when my mischievous side took over and I started to arrive at the bus stop early.
The first morning she arrived to discover I was standing in pole position, casually whistling as I studied the horizon, I like to imagine I heard an intake of breath. I pretended not to notice as she clomped to stand behind me, forced to stare at the back of my fire engine red locks instead of the comforting bitumen and pulsing traffic. It was my turn to climb jauntily on to the bus and flash my card at the driver, before strolling down the aisle and plonking myself into the seat behind the double doors and placing my hand on the pole. The lady was forced to clomp into the seat on the driver's side, where she sat rigidly and shot invisible daggers into my side.
That morning, however, I might have won the battle, but I lost the war. As I saw the bakery approaching on the left hand side, my hand headed for the button but there was a resounding ping and the red sign flashed at the front of the bus. I turned my head and saw her clambering out of the seat and she was before the doors before I had time to react. I swear that morning I saw a spring in her step as she headed up the mile.
After that, it was on for young and old. I won't bore you with the details of how many times I was first on the bus, or of the many occasions when my nimble fingers were able to ping the bell as my legs swung towards the exit. There were even times when we were both stymied by an early newcomer to the stop, whose hopeful and cheery smiles up the hill would have been wiped away forthwith if they had happened to glance over their shoulder. There were occasions when one or the other of us would leap triumphantly onto the bus only to discover a fat old man had spread his buttocks over the dingy vinyl of the prized seat and had his plump hand at the ready near the button. But the days when it all came together - the stare, the seat, the victory ping and the stride - made it all worth it.
We never spoke a word to each other.