It’s a wonder everyone who uses public transport in winter doesn’t keel over and die of germ overload. In the last ten minutes I’ve been coughed on and sneezed at, and if the woman in front of me shakes her dandruff my way again, I might just douse her with the dregs of the lukewarm coffee that I’m no longer able to drink because it’s full of her scalp.
I’m so tired I could sleep right here on the top deck of this swaying, rammed-full bus. Thank God I’ve finally finished work for Christmas, because I don’t think my brain or my body could withstand even one more shift behind that awful hotel reception desk. It might be festooned with garlands and pretty lights on the customer side, but step behind the curtain and it’s a soulless hellhole. I’m practically asleep, even when I’m awake. I’m loosely planning to hibernate until next year once I get home to the nostalgic familiarity of my parents’ house tomorrow. There’s something soothingly time warp-ish about leaving London for an interlude of sedate Midlands village life in my childhood bedroom, even if not all of my childhood memories are happy ones. Even the closest of families have their tragedies, and it’s fair to say that ours came early and cut deep. I won’t dwell though, because Christmas should be a time of hope and love and, most appealing of all at this very moment, sleep. Sleep, punctuated by bouts of competitive eating with my brother, Daryl, and his girlfriend, Anna, and the whole gamut of cheesy Christmas movies. Because how could you ever be too tired to watch some hapless guy stand out in the cold and hold up signs silently declaring to his best friend’s wife that his wasted heart will always love her? Though – is that romance? I’m not so sure. I mean, it kind of is, in a schmaltzy way, but it’s also being the shittiest friend on the planet.
I’ve given up worrying about the germs in here because I’ve undoubtedly ingested enough to kill me if they’re going to, so I lean my forehead against the steamy window and watch Camden High Street slide by in a glitter of Christmas lights and bright, fuggy shop windows selling everything from leather jackets to tacky London souvenirs. It’s barely four in the afternoon, yet already it’s dusk over London; I don’t think it got properly light at all today.
My reflection tells me that I should probably pull the naff halo of tinsel from my hair that my cow of a manager made me wear, because I look like I’m trying out for Angel Gabriel in a primary school nativity, but I find that I really can’t be bothered. No one else on this bus could care less; not the damp, anoraked man next to me taking up more than his half of the seat as he dozes over yesterday’s paper, nor the bunch of schoolkids shouting across each other on the back seats and certainly not dandruff woman in front of me with her flashing snowflake earrings. The irony of her jewellery choice is not lost on me; if I were more of a bitch I might tap her on the shoulder to advise her that she’s drawing attention to the skin blizzard she’s depositing with every shake of her head. I’m not a bitch though; or maybe I’m just a quiet one inside my own head. Isn’t everyone?
Jesus, how many more stops is this bus going to make? I’m still a couple of miles from my flat and already it’s fuller than a cattle truck on market day. Come on, I think. Move. Take me home. Though home is going to be a pretty depressing place now that my flatmate, Sarah, has gone back to her parents’. Only one more day then I’ll be out of here too, I remind myself.
The bus shudders to a halt at the end of the street and I watch as down below a stream of people jostle to get off at the same time as others try to push their way on. It’s as if they think it’s one of those competitions to see how many people can fit into one small space.
There’s a guy perched on one of the fold-down seats in the bus shelter. This can’t be his bus, because he’s engrossed in the hardback book in his hands. I notice him because he seems oblivious to the pushing and shoving happening right in front of him, like one of those fancy special effects at the movies where someone is completely still and the world kaleidoscopes around them, slightly out of focus.
I can’t see his face, just the top of his sandy hair, cut slightly long and given to a wave when it grows, I should imagine. He’s bundled into a navy woollen reefer jacket and a scarf that looks like someone might have knitted it for him. It’s kitsch and unexpected against the coolness of the rest of his attire – dark skinny jeans and boots – and his concentration is completely held by his book. I squint, trying to duck my head to see what he’s reading, wiping the steamed‑up window with my coat sleeve to get a better look.
I don’t know if it’s the movement of my arm across the glass or the flickering lights of dandruff-woman’s earrings that snag in his peripheral vision, but he lifts his head and blinks a few times as he focuses his attention on my window. On me.
We stare straight at each other and I can’t look away. I feel my lips move as if I’m going to say something, God knows what, and all of a sudden and out of nowhere I need to get off this bus. I’m gripped by the overwhelming urge to go outside, to get to him. But I don’t. I don’t move a muscle, because I know there isn’t a chance in hell that I can get past anorak man beside me and push through the packed bus before it pulls away. So I make the split-second decision to stay rooted to the spot and try to convey to him to get on board using just the hot, desperate longing in my eyes.
He’s not film-star good-looking or classically perfect, but there is an air of preppy dishevelledness and an earnest, ‘who me?’ charm about him that captivates me. I can’t quite make out the colour of his eyes from here. Green, I’d say, or blue maybe?
And here’s the thing. Call it wishful thinking, but I’m sure I see the same thunderbolt hit him too; as if an invisible fork of lightning has inexplicably joined us together. Recognition; naked, electric shock in his rounded eyes. He does something close to an incredulous double take, the kind of thing you might do when you coincidentally spot your oldest and best friend who you haven’t seen for ages and you can’t actually believe they’re there.
It’s a look of Hello you, and Oh my God, it’s you, and I can’t believe how good it is to see you, all in one.
His eyes dart towards the dwindling queue still waiting to board and then back up to me, and it’s as if I can hear the thoughts racing through his head. He’s wondering if it’d be crazy to get on the bus, what he’d say if we weren’t separated by the glass and the hordes, if he’d feel foolish taking the stairs two at a time to get to me.
No, I try to relay back. No, you wouldn’t feel foolish. I wouldn’t let you. Just get on the bloody bus, will you! He’s staring right at me, and then a slow smile creeps across his generous mouth, as if he can’t hold it in. And then I’m smiling back, giddy almost. I can’t help it either.
Please get on the bus. He snaps, making a sudden decision, slamming his book closed and shoving it down in the rucksack between his ankles. He’s walking forward now, and I hold my breath and press my palm flat against the glass, urging him to hurry even as I hear the sickly hiss of the doors closing and the lurch of the handbrake being released.
No! No! Oh God, don’t you dare drive away from this stop! It’s Christmas! I want to yell, even as the bus pulls out into the traffic and gathers pace, and outside he is breathless standing in the road, watching us leave. I see defeat turn out the light in his eyes, and because it’s Christmas and because I’ve just fallen hopelessly in love with a stranger at a bus stop, I blow him a forlorn kiss and lay my forehead against the glass, watching him until he’s out of sight.
Then I realize. Shit. Why didn’t I take a leaf out of hapless guy’s book and write something down to show him? I could have done that. I could even have written my mobile number in the condensation. I could have opened the tiny quarter-pane and yelled my name and address or something. I can think of any number of things I could and should have done, yet at the time none of them occurred to me because I simply couldn’t take my eyes off him.
For onlookers, it must have been an Oscar-worthy sixty-second silent movie. From now on, if anyone asks me if I’ve ever fallen in love at first sight, I shall say yes, for one glorious minute on 21 December 2008.