18th March

The Man on the Bus

I used not to be able to read on buses. It made me feel sick. But recently I’ve found I’ve got over that. Maybe it’s a benefit of maturity. I’m glad, anyway. There is so much still to read, and not much time left. Or maybe there is, but how would one know?

I was deep in a collection of stories by a writer new to me, recommended by someone whose opinion I respect. The stories were powerful. They told of a section of society about which I knew nothing, yet I found the characters completely convincing.

I was hardly aware of the man in the seat next to me until I heard him say, ‘Excuse me,’ twice, and realised he was addressing me.

‘I’m sorry?’ I said, looking up.

‘Are you enjoying that book?’ he asked.

‘Yes, I am,’ I said, slightly annoyed.

‘I’m glad,’ he said, smiling. ‘I wrote it.’

I looked at him more closely. His claim seemed unlikely, judging by his
dishevelled clothing, malodorous smell and bloodshot eyes. But as soon as I thought this, I realised how flawed my reasoning was. He was, indeed, not unlike some of the very characters I had been reading about.

‘Well,’ I said, ‘if you did, I congratulate you. It is excellent.’

‘You don’t believe me?’

‘You must admit,’ I said, ‘this is not something that happens every day.’

He smiled again. ‘On the contrary, I meet characters from my stories everyday of my life.’

‘That’s not quite the same thing.’

‘It is if you are me,’ he said. ‘Of course, the people I meet don’t usually know it, especially if they have yet to appear in one of my stories. Well, this is my stop. I hope you continue to enjoy the book. Goodbye.’

I watched him make his way to the front of the bus and get off.

It was only then that I remembered that on the inside back cover of the book was a photograph of the author. The picture was grainy and distant, and showed a much younger, neater man than the one who had been sitting beside me. But that, I understood, did not prove a thing.

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Piano: Kit Downes
Subscribe here for more stories & music