Short Story: “Hell”

A old woman sat down next to me on the bus. “Oh great,” I thought, “smelly-old-lady smell all the way back to Dunedin. I hope she doesn’t talk to me.”

I conceded a wan smile and slight nod in her direction to acknowledge her presence, and I shuffled my bags around to clear leg room for her, at the expense of some of my own. She was smiling at me, but I was careful not to make eye contact, fearing a conversation. I didn’t want her to sit down next to me; who wants a stranger sitting next to them on a six-hour bus trip? Nobody. It’s awkward having to make pleasant conversation for a prolonged length time with someone who, thanks to that law-maker Murphy, is inevitably racist, religious, or reeking of body odour. Furthermore, the whole exercise is pointless, because you will never see this stranger again, and you will not benefit from the new acquaintance in any way at all.

So, overall, I wasn’t too chuffed that this old lady was squashed in next to me.

The bus had a small screen which was playing one of my favourite movies, and I was glad to have some distraction. Some time passed in awkward silence between us, however when my legs started cramping and I felt it had been long enough to check the time on my wicked 2009 flip-phone, it had only been fifteen minutes. God! This was going to be hell.

More exciting action scenes on the tiny movie screen absorbed a little more time, but my legs simply had to be moved. The seat in front of me had a pocket, as seats often do. After playing Tetris with some of my baggage, rather than starting an awkward conversation or saying “excuse me”, I managed to find a little more leg room by emptying one of my bags into this seat pocket. But a few items, like my sunglasses and new CD, were fragile, and so I removed them from the crushing pocket, and held them lightly in my hand in full view of the old lady.

I had just been to the Pearl Jam concert in Christchurch the night before. It was a bloody great show, and I decided earlier that morning to continue the rollercoaster ride of elation and buy a CD of theirs in a local record store. It was a complete waste of money, but quite elegantly encased, and a nice memento of the trip. And that was that and I was ready to go home now without talking to anybody thank you very much.

The old lady sitting next to me was eyeing my Pearl Jam CD. “Here come the comments,” I thought. That’s the trouble with being a fan of loud grunge bands that offend the older generation..

“Did you go to that concert last night?” she asked far too loudly and directly.

“Mmm,” I replied, with a reluctant head-inclination.

“I bet that was good.” In my double-take I took in her face properly for the first time. She was grinning fiendishly and could not have been a day under seventy-five. “I’ve just flown back from a concert, too, in Auckland.”

I made some polite noise of assent and answered her intelligent questions about Pearl Jam. I foolishly asked her about her own concert experience, and she produced some kind of signed concert pass from her handbag, I forget what. It turns out she has been jetting all over the world for the last twenty years seeing Tom Jones, Stevie Nicks, AC/DC, INXS, Bon Jovi, and a number of other big rock acts with whom I am quite enamoured.

I thought of her poor kids, with their mother spending their inheritance like that, and having to compete with all of Heavy Metal for her attention and affection. Poor kids.. Or lucky kids.

The bus stopped briefly in a small town. While purchasing a soda I also grabbed a newspaper, because a review of Pearl Jam’s show was on the cover. When we hopped back on the bus, she didn’t mind holding the corner for me so that I could fully open it to read. She chatted some more, and soon I closed the paper and chatted back.

I tore out a small advert for a concert she was keen on seeing, and then we had arrived at her stop, another small town half-way between Christchurch and Dunedin.

“Rock on,” she imparted, as she patted my arm affectionately and left. I waved to her through the window, and she was gone. I supposed I should have asked her name at some point.

I stretched my legs out into my new kingdom. Well, the trip hadn’t been hell after all, despite a score of her anecdotes. After ten minutes of driving through identically boring green fields, I thought with a laugh that I even missed her.

After twenty, I knew I did.

A couple of my friends had made the trip to Christchurch with me, and they were sitting a few seats ahead, but I wasn’t really in the mood for I-spy or their other hysterical silliness of the day. With a sad sigh I resigned myself to staring out the window back here on my own. The Old Rocker Lady seemed a much more interesting and pleasant prospect today than my friends and their road-trip-induced high spirits.

By the time the bus rolled through the next town, very little time had passed, but just the same my legs were cramping badly all over again, helped in no way by my having jumped around at the concert last night. There was no relief to be found in a new sitting position, so I searched for distraction. I began a close examination of the other bus passengers.

The stocky young man opposite, wearing the beanie and boots, looked quite surly. A bit like me, I thought, some time ago before I was aware of my natural tendency to look surly. Like me, his height and build probably inspires wariness in people who are a physically smaller. He probably hates these assumptions and is quite a teddy bear. But he was engrossed in his cellphone, and I know that when I am using my cellphone on a bus the last thing I want is for a stranger to come over and start talking. I moved my gaze on.

The girl sitting a few seats in front of him was pretty. Pretty in that way that you would look at her and think “she’s pretty” and then begin judging her for spending hours and hours early in the morning to put on that much makeup for a mere bus ride. But then I saw she was listening to headphones – saw, mind you. And though she was close I could not hear them, which meant that like me she was worried about offending people with loud music and had preemptively turned down the volume. Judgement was replaced with shame and empathy, and I suspected her of being very caring. But she pulled out a second cellphone and began texting on that, and nothing says “leave me the fuck alone” like listening to music and two cellphones.

My friends were all on their cellphones in between hilarious outbursts. I pulled out my own cellphone and texted one of my friends who was not on the bus. I texted some other people I wouldn’t exactly call “friends”, just for something to do.

There was another girl on the bus, sitting right at the front chatting happily with the driver and also using a cellphone. From the back I could see only wild hair, but when she turned around to ask if anybody minded if she turned off the movie, I didn’t even raise an objection because she had such interesting bright eyes. I wondered how in the hell she did it, jumping up and chatting to the whole bus full of strangers like that. When strangers spend time together without speaking, the wall between them is built higher and more oppressive with each minute of silence, and is not easily scaled.

I was still feeling exhausted and drained and sore, but there was to be no rest or respite on this bus ride. It was hell.

I wondered who everybody was texting. Everybody looked kind-of miserable on their cellphones – especially me. I suddenly roused and wanted desperately to go up to each of them and say hi, pass the time, or cheer them up. But of course, the wall was already under construction and well above my head height by now.

I saw the bus passengers as a sort of tragedy being enacted before my very eyes. How can you interact with someone through a goddam cellphone? Why was nobody talking? Why was I not talking? Text messages don’t really communicate anything other than cold information. Isn’t there anything to be said for looking into somebody’s eyes and knowing they understand you? Or hearing more in the tone of someone’s voice than their words? Old Rocker Lady came from a time before cellphones and social media, and she understood that. I had just been to see Pearl Jam play songs live on a stage in front of me, instead of just listening to them over and over on my own on my iPod. Perhaps I should have understood that.

Though nobody had moved or spoken, I felt deeply connected to the strangers on the bus. In my crazy mood, which was part bulletproof from the night before and part sleep-deprived, I could easily have jumped up and gone and chatted with any of them, even the surly hoodlum, if I willed it. After all, I talked to the Old Rocker Lady. It would be so simple to break down the wall and live outside of my barren comfort zone for just a little while. Just go talk to someone. You’re out on the road away from home. Time to be THAT guy. Just go do it. It’ll be great.

But nobody wants a stranger making awkward conversation with them on the bus. I wasn’t staring too obviously, but I knew that they all knew I was studying them. It was pretty clear they all wanted me to ignore them.

Hours of hell passed. We reached my stop. I grunted something to my hysterical companions, snapped my phone shut, and marched smartly down the aisle without looking at any of the strangers. I will never see them again, and I could not have benefited from the new acquaintances in any way at all.

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