On the 345 to Aspley
When I first noticed him, always sitting in the same seat, on the window side just behind the rear doors, I asked myself: why does he sit there every time? What is it about that particular seat? It began to play on my mind. So one Tuesday night, around ten o’clock, having boarded the bus on Roma Street near the Magistrates Court, I sat down in a seat close to him on the other side of the aisle. The bus was nearly empty but he was in his usual seat, as I knew he would be. I thought, I’ll lean over a bit and say something, some trivial opening remark just to get the wheels in motion, so to speak. I waited until we entered Normanby station where, as planned, I leaned over a few inches. He remained as upright as ever, gazing at or through the glass panel that separated him from the rear doors. I thought my little movement might cause him to turn his head, but no. The fluoro lights of Normanby station shone through the bus windows. I opened my mouth to speak, but nothing came out. Maybe next time, I thought. It’s harder than it sounds, asking a complete stranger why he always sits in the same seat—especially this stranger. He was a trifle—what’s the word? Borderline? Marginal? He had a tendency to wear shorts regardless of the temperature and I’d never once seen him smile. He also had matted hair and a beard. Not one of those fashionable beards but one he’d clearly had for years that was just as much a part of his face as his nose or teeth. He’d seen trends come and go—the goatee, the Van Dyke, the sculpted bush currently favoured by baristas—but clearly he paid no heed to any of them. Was any of this sufficient cause to place him in the borderline and marginal category? Let’s suppose for a moment that we’re talking about a small, elderly woman who always sits in the same seat. You wouldn’t think twice about that. But a tall forty-something man in shorts with matted hair and a beard, never smiling, always sitting in the same seat—that gives you pause. There was also the question of what he would do if that particular seat were occupied. What was his back-up plan? As far as I could see, it would have to be either (a) find another seat or (b) wait for the next bus. My money was on (b). People who always sit in the same seat tend to be time-rich. A week later I almost asked him again. We were crossing over the Inner-City Bypass and I was sitting directly behind him having devised another strategy: I would ‘accidentally’ drop my pen so that it rolled forward under his seat, stopping near his feet. He’d see it, pick it up, and turn around and hand it to me; or he’d see it, pick it up, and I’d lean forward and ask him to hand it to me; or he’d see it, do nothing, and I’d lean forward and ask him to pick it up and hand it to me; or, in a fourth and final scenario, he wouldn’t notice it at all—anything was possible with this guy—and I’d lean forward, etc, etc. I held the pen in my hand, poised, ready to drop it. The bus drove on through the night. My hand was sweating, so much so that the pen slipped out of my grasp and hit the floor. It hit the floor, but it didn’t roll forward. It remained at my feet, mocking me. The pen had ruined everything. This whole business was beginning to ‘do my head in’. I wondered if my travelling companion enjoyed some sort of special status—if maybe, having loyally caught the 345 to Aspley for so many years, he’d literally been given his own seat. I wasn’t aware of such a policy but you just never know with Translink. I asked the bus driver but she gave me short shrift; I’d venture to say no shrift at all. I had no option but to return to the source. And yet I remained hesitant. You have to be careful with a man who sits in the same seat every time. A man like that could be—I was going to say unpredictable. And yet for all I knew he could be wildly unpredictable about everything other than sitting in the same seat, always wearing shorts, and never smiling. A man so rigidly consistent, or consistently rigid, in his habits may well be consciously suppressing certain impulses, dangerous impulses. And what of his failure to crack a smile? It struck me that the reason he hadn’t smiled thus far was that nothing had occurred to make him smile. He was, after all, just riding along in a near-empty bus, at night, staring ahead. So I devised a third plan: I’d smile at him, and when he smiled back, I’d ask the question. He has to smile back, I thought; even if it’s insincere and perfunctory, he has to smile back. I got on one balmy Tuesday evening and made for the rear of the bus, so I could, under the pretext of moving to another seat, walk past him, look back, and smile. I remained at the rear until we reached Newmarket, sailing down Enoggera Road towards Sedgley Park. My stop was coming up; I couldn’t delay any longer. I stood, clutching the backs of seats to steady myself as I moved down the aisle. Then I was right behind him, near the doors, looking down at the very top of his head; his hair was thinning, the scalp just visible. I pushed on. A few more steps and then I did it. I turned around, smiled. This was the moment, the moment to deliver the question so meticulously framed in my mind. Our eyes met but he didn’t smile back. It threw me completely. It’s one thing not to smile on your own account, but certain social contracts must be upheld. Even a man who has nothing to smile about should still smile occasionally. So the question, and hence the answer, was deferred once again. On the plus side, I see us both riding the 345 for years to come. Perhaps, when the time’s right, when the circumstances are absolutely favourable, I will get to the heart of the matter. You can’t rush these things.
David Cohen is a Brisbane-based writer whose short fiction has appeared in Australian Book Review, The Big Issue, Meanjin, Seizure, and elsewhere. His novel Fear of Tennis was published by Black Pepper.
Illustration by Matt Mawson