This Week’s Bit of String: Stagecoach Route 65
If you’re going to commute to work on rural buses, you need a bus buddy, or at the very least a placeholder.
I have a placeholder for my morning commute. She’s in Year 11, and we’re going to call her Ella. When I approach the bus stop in an inevitable rush, she’s already there. Through the hedges I see her bleach blond hair and baby blue hoodie over her tight-winched school uniform and I know I’m safe. The bus hasn’t been five or six minutes early instead of the three or four I make sure to give myself.
We don’t generally speak. We listen to our headphones and make polite, wordless gestures insisting the other board the bus first.
This is normal, of course, not speaking to strangers. Maintaining boundaries, erring on the side of giving extra distance because this seems more polite. Last week I posted about eliminating distance in our writing, about creating immediacy and manoeuvring the characters as close as we can to the readers. How often do we try, these days, to eliminate distance in real life? And is this a good thing, that we allow them to exist?
Here’s the thing with Ella. I’ve known her since she was in Year 2; I know her family. Not well, mind, but a few pages’ worth of stories out of her autobiography.
She was the first girl to have a crush on my son. She drew a little love note. I remember her standing near us at pick-up and drop-off times, watching, hopeful and expectant with an open-mouthed half-smile.
A couple years later I got a job at a nursing home where Ella’s mother was a Senior Carer. She did night shifts, and we hated starting a day after she’d been on duty. Oh, she could give sound updates at handover, but she did very little overnight to physically assist any residents.
Later, when I worked in the local comprehensive, I helped in Ella’s registration group, from when she was in Year 7, to her Media Studies GCSE class in Year 10. Her attendance was spotty. She didn’t speak much in registration, but detentions added up. Her uniform was never acceptable. She changed schools before the end of Year 10.
Hence her 40-minute, £4 bus ride every morning.
We acknowledge none of this. I don’t know if she remembers the love note she sent my son, or if she knows I worked with her mother. Maybe she’s reinvented herself at her new school and doesn’t wish to remember the old. Would we find it less necessary to maintain a respectful distance if we didn’t have that tiny bit of history?
In the last couple weeks she’s taken to fitting a cigarette in before the bus comes. The other day I saw her setting off from our last stop with a grown man who had kids of his own in tow, and I recognised Ella’s hopeful half-smile.
Going the Distance
We’ve heard about different cultural interpretations of personal space. People from certain countries might be more comfortable with closer approaches, even from strangers, that a lot of us Westerners are.
This discomfort seems to be linked to the amygdala, part of the brain relating to emotional responses, survival instinct, and memory. Tests show amygdala activity spiking when someone approaches too close, probably reflecting a deep-rooted warning system for potential danger.
On buses, though, we can’t avoid proximity. Just having a stranger in the seat behind and in front of us is closer than our amygdala would normally tolerate.
Maybe that’s why we use books and phones so prodigiously on buses and in other crowded scenarios, as this article suggests. We’re subconsciously putting up emotional barriers since we can’t put up physical ones.
The 17:25 Bus Alliance
My commute home in the evening is different. An elderly gentleman on the 17:25 Stroud to Dursley Stagecoach service has rocked the barriers we unwittingly put up.
It started with the odd comment from him: ‘Still reading that book, then?’ ‘Oh, you’ve got a different one today!’
Then he suggested charity shops where I might find more books. He
shouted the bus driver to a stop when he saw me running for it after lingering too long after work. I’m not the only one he looks after; if the young man with the red sweatshirt and impressive moustache doesn’t turn up for the 17:25, he gets a ribbing the next day, as do I if I’ve found alternative transport.
‘Where was you yesterday? You skived!’
‘My family met me for dinner and gave me a ride back,’ I tell him.
‘What’s this? But we were starving, you should have brought us along, too!’ The old man indicates himself and young Mr. Red Sweatshirt.
One day the weather attempted a semblance of warmth. Our elderly friend stepped onto the bus and scanned the group. ‘Where’s the other fellow? Can’t leave without him.’
Mr. Red Sweatshirt had removed his jumper. ‘He’s in disguise,’ I explained.
‘You almost had me there!’ More jolly banter ensued.
I don’t know their names, I don’t even know what they go to Stroud for. I’ve learned that the elderly gentleman likes to write little rhymes that publicise services on behalf of local doctor’s surgeries, and sometimes it even gets him in the paper. A part of me wants to know his story, but mostly I like him as he is, on the 17:25 Stagecoach 65 bus, and I’m reluctant to follow the string or turn the page in his tale.
Or am I just being lazy? I do get tired, especially by the end of the week. Friday afternoon I kept nodding off, finally giving up on the pages I was editing. At the penultimate stop, while the driver had a stretch, a smoke, and a fiddle with his phone, the old gentleman laboured from his seat and, gripping each available handlebar, walked back to see me.
‘Not reading today?’ His eyes are deep, almost fluid brown.
‘I’m just so tired.’
‘Never mind, you’ll soon be home. But you won’t put your feet up there, will you?’
‘Not exactly.’ I had a treadmill run to do, the dusting, washing up, two loads of laundry…
‘You rest for now, and I’ll make sure you’re awake before your stop.’
I’m glad he had the courage to disregard our distances, since I wouldn’t have done. Do you think we miss out sometimes by abiding by common etiquette? Should we try taking a few steps closer to each other and see what we can get away with?