Off duty

“Hi, single to the hospital, please.”

“You’re not ill, are ya?” The bus driver teased.

“No-no, I’m just training there.”

He let her go with a laugh and she walked up the aisle of the bus. The white tunic with blue trim poking out from under her coat made me guess student nurse. I was next in the queue; the driver spared me the same joke when I asked for the same ticket.

I swung into my seat near the front, and put my newly bought laptop (long-awaited, and now looked-forward-to) on my lap. It was around seven, and the sky was in the throes of a stretched out summer sunset. The bus lurched forward, and my attention wandered.

“It’s his stop!”

The bus had stopped, for longer than it usually did. I looked up to see what was going on.

“It’s his stop!” The bus driver said again.

I looked outside. There were three men. Two were younger – late teens, maybe, with black t-shirts with heavy metal logos and incipient beards. They were trying to talk to the third man.

“Mate, it’s your stop,” one of them said.

“He can’t hear you, shout louder!” The bus driver said. “It’s your stop!”

The third man was older, in tracksuits, an anorak, and a blind man’s cane: all white, with a ball on its tip. He shuffled unsteadily, as if in two minds where to be, and his gaze wandered tremulously around on his head. The rising pitch of his repetitious, festinating speech betrayed he was getting more distressed.

“Shops! Wanna-go-away-from-the-bloody-shops! Bus! Where are-the-buses! Need to go home!”

“This is your bus! Right here!” said the other man outside, more loudly. No luck, he looked at his partner and shrugged.

I thought worse of trying to help, and leant back instead, wrapping my hands behind my head and pushing my forearms against my ears. I had seen him before in the hospital, looking for one of his friends. Then he had someone with him to help him around. I wondered whether the woman then was his carer, or just someone trying to help: maybe he was propelled through life thanks to little acts of kindness from strangers, or passers by – he was definitely known to the bus service.

But not me, not today. I just wanted to get home. Besides, I’d stayed late an hour to help out in hospital – my moral account would surely stay in credit regardless.

She walked past me off the bus. It was the trainee nurse from earlier. I leaned against the window to get another look at her: average height, average build, shoulder length brown hair. She squared off against the man with the cane.

“Hello, can you hear me?” she said. He didn’t respond, shuffling across the pavement haphazardly.

She followed him and took one of his hands, pushing it against her neck. I’d seen the other woman do that in the hospital. Did she know him?

“Hi, I’m Sarah. Your bus to go home is right here.”

He muttered something, but stopped moving.

“Here,” she said, taking his arm and leading him on the bus.

She let him go and he moved to his seat, looking off into space, muttering to himself. The other two men got on afterwards, plonking themselves down in the row in front of me.

“Thanks love,” the driver said.

She walked back to her seat, not registering my sheepish smile as she passed me. She got off at the next stop before I could thank her.

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