Perry Johnson stood at the bus stop waiting for the number 89. Every workday evening he did this. The six twenty-five bus home was his.
He liked the regularity of it. This waiting around at the same time, same place. Regularity was a thing Perry enjoyed, something he needed.
If you’d asked him why he liked it, why it was he needed it, he’d probably have explained that he was not the type of person that thrived in chaos. He needed a purpose, some structure to his day if he was to see any sense in it. By way of explanation, he would no doubt have left it at that. Perry was a man of few words.
So he waited at the bus stop and enjoyed it. Enjoyed the peace it brought him. He was happy.
A day later he was there again, a little earlier than usual. It was Friday, not his favourite day, because the weekend lay ahead, and the weekends were hard to fill. But as he stood waiting, he didn’t think about this, about the two days that lay ahead of him. He simply stood still and tried to think of nothing. That was the best way to let time pass.
At six ten a girl joined the queue behind Perry. She was young, around twenty, with long, very dark hair. Her skin was pale, her eyes green and almond shaped. Her face was neither soft nor angular – the cheekbones were high and broad, but the mouth was full and soft, the chin pert rather than strong, the nose straight but not sharp. People said she looked like Ava Gardner. She was too young to know who Ava Gardner was, so had looked her up. She was a dead movie star that had once been married to Frank Sinatra.
When she saw the photos of Ava, she had been amazed to see just how beautiful Ava Gardner had been. Amazed that people looked at her and were reminded of this exquisite woman, this siren that had broken Frank Sinatra’s heart. It made her feel invincible to think that this was what people saw when they looked at her.
But she was still young and this was as far as she’d come in understanding quite how powerful beauty could be. She was aware of it, but didn’t know how to use it. Didn’t know the full impact of it.
So at six ten she joined Perry in the queue for the bus, unaware of the difference a face like hers could make to people’s lives.
To people like Perry.
Perry stood quietly as he always did, looking ahead down the street, waiting to catch sight of the bus as it rounded the corner. Even though he knew there were fifteen minutes to go before the bus would come, he kept a lookout for it anyway. He liked to see the nose of the bus edge round the corner, to catch the very first glimpse of it possible. As soon as he saw it he would start to get ready, to pick up his bags and take his ticket out of his pocket, ready to show the driver.
He never looked around him when he stood in the queue, never entered into the usual banter to be had at bus stops. He simply stood and waited, looking straight ahead. No one ever bothered him. People saw him standing and left him alone. If they wanted to know the time or to know when the bus was due, or even just to pass the time of day, they would chose someone else. Perry was always left alone.
The girl sensed this too and stood behind him saying nothing. She watched him for a while though, mildly curious about him, without knowing why. On the surface, there was nothing to watch. A man standing at a bus stop, ignoring the people around him was a sight to be seen in any city at any time anywhere in the world. There was nothing special about it. It was ridiculously banal in fact.
But still she kept watching him. For at least five minutes, she watched. Watched the back of Perry as he stood straight and still waiting for his bus. She wondered about him and tried to picture his life. Something about the way he stood, the very erectness of it, made her curious. And she liked to muse. It was the best way to let time pass.
So she mused a while about Perry. It was his coat that had caught her attention. He kept it buttoned up. All the buttons were buttoned, even the top one. The day wasn’t warm, but it wasn’t so cold either. It was the type of day where you would keep the top button loosened, she thought. She wondered why he didn’t.
Then looking at his back, at the straightness of it, at his unmoving head, his unflinching gaze, she realised why it was that his top button was buttoned up.
He would always button it up. It was that simple. As he stood there he would be unaware that he had done it. Unaware that it was a warm enough day for other people to have their shirts and coats loosened. It would just be part of the routine for him. An unconscious act. He would button all his buttons every day.
And not just that, she thought, in all things he would stick very purposefully to a routine. There would be a similarity, an order to his days that he was perhaps only vaguely aware of, that he no doubt preferred not to acknowledge.
Why would he do that, she wondered?
The answer came more or less immediately. It made the time pass less painfully.
With all these little rituals to perform, the days could be broken into pieces and neatly ordered. As soon as the first of them was performed – the ringing of the alarm clock say, or eating toast and marmalade for breakfast – then all the rest would simply follow suit, would just start to happen of their own accord, like a chain reaction.
And so the day would pass and there would be no need to think about anything.
To think about the time, about how much of it there was, and how difficult it was to fill. No, in this way the days would fill themselves. And being all the same, it would be hard in the end to tell one day from the next. To distinguish one week, one month, or even a year, from any other. There would just be these moments, moments like this, in which you stood with your collar buttoned fast, waiting for the bus to take you home.
It took her five minutes to think these things.
She was surprised by some of her thoughts, because they came from nowhere, and had no real grounds, but still, she felt she was right about him. And she was. In all these things, in all these small observations, she was correct. These were the thoughts Perry avoided. The things about himself he chose to ignore, but the things other people saw. People like this girl who didn’t know him, but who could tell, just from standing behind him at a bus stop and watching the way he stood waiting, what his life was like.
Perry, for his part, was oblivious to it all. Oblivious to the girl’s thoughts about him, to the people all around him who were stealing furtive glances at this girl who looked like Ava Gardner. And oblivious he would no doubt have remained, had she not decided to eat an orange.
After her five minutes pondering Perry’s back, she reckoned she had figured out all there was to know about the man standing in front of her, or at least, all she cared to imagine about him. She was thinking about walking on to the next stop, just to shorten the wait, when she remembered the orange in her bag. There was just time enough to peel it and eat it before the bus came, so that was what she did.
Perry was staring straight ahead when the smell of the zest hit his nostrils. It hit him like an electric shock. Who on earth eats an orange at a bus stop, he thought? For some reason, it seemed to him a very peculiar thing to do.
And so in spite of himself, he turned to take a look.
She was slipping a segment of orange into her mouth as he turned, and catching his gaze, she smiled at him, a little surprised to see him turn to face her, it seemed.
And at that moment Perry let out a sigh. A terrible, lonely sigh.
It shuddered through him and made his bones ache. Filled his head with a crushing, searing pain that sent white light flashing across his eyes. It was a moan that came from deep within him. A moan that had resisted escape for so many years but which now raged up through his throat and seared him.
The girl saw it happen, saw Perry shiver and quake as though about to fall. But she was young and thought nothing of it. Failed to realise that it was because of her that he was shivering.
Shivering because her face was so beautiful, so much like Ava Gardner’s. Shaking, because there was a tiny drop of orange juice glistening on her lip that he wanted to wipe away. Fainting, because she had smiled at him and held his gaze with those amazing eyes.
Sighing, because all he wanted to do, more than anything else in the world at that moment, was to reach out and touch her. Touch her dark hair, her pale skin, if only for an instant, just to know what it felt like. Just so he would be able to remember it and savour it again and again.
All of this took no more than a few seconds, just time enough for the bus to nose round the corner, move down the street and pull to a halt at the stop where Perry and the girl stood. Perry had failed to notice it and found himself stumbling, as though half drunk, onto the bus which had somehow materialised in front of him.
As they pulled away, he caught a glimpse of the girl as she stood on the street. The six twenty-five was not her bus.
He could only watch as she faded away before him, the bus pushing on, keeping to the schedule, keeping time, in that way he knew so well.
It was this image that filled his weekend, filled the next days and nights. The sight of her getting smaller and smaller before his eyes, the weight in his stomach becoming heavier and heavier as the distance increased.
He had come home and retched. Vomited out that terrible aching moan, like green bile, like a poison, that he had needed to purge himself of.
He didn’t want these feelings. Had never wanted these feelings. These disruptions. Disruptions that made him sit in his chair all weekend and recall over and over the way she had looked up at him and smiled. That caused him to wonder why it was that something so small should become so significant. Why a simple smile should hit him with the full force of a punch to the gut. He didn’t want to think about any of this. He simply wanted to get back to being again. That was all he wanted now.
When Monday arrived, the alarm rang at six thirty just as it always did. He rose and slowly went about the day as usual. He showered, made tea and toast and marmalade, listened to the news headlines on the radio, then took the eight o’clock bus to work. These were the things he did every weekday and this was the way he had always done them. But today he took no comfort in them. Instead he performed the little rituals as though in a daze, the insomniac buzz.
To a casual observer very little would seem to have changed. The neighbours would have watched Perry leave for work, and would have thought nothing of it. His colleagues would have paid no attention as he went about his business in much the same way as he had always done. Everything would have appeared the same.
Only the girl would have noticed a difference perhaps.
Would have noted that something was wrong because the top button of his shirt was undone.
At six twenty-five Perry stood at the bus stop and watched as the bus pulled away from the pavement.
At eleven p.m. he was still waiting.
Waiting on the off chance that she would be there again. That she would slip behind him in the queue and would smile once more when he turned to face her.