It is the beginning of October, but Christmas has arrived in London in little spurts. It’s a lit tree here, a shelf of ornaments there, a harried shopper with large bags. Everywhere I look, everything is slowly but surely turning red and green with a hint of autumnal gold. Soon, Halloween’s deep orange and black will be overshadowed and Christmas will finally bloom, breaking the winter grey with cheery red.
In the middle of an empty afternoon, I take the usual route into the city. The journey is broken down by the modes of transport and the bus gets me through the first leg. Routine announcements echo as I step in, punctuated by expertly braked stops and the beeping of the ticket machine, subtly announcing attendance of each new passenger. The doors close with creaking exhaustion and once again, the sun blankets everyone in warmth and contention. The teenagers at the back of the bus are sipping Orangina and listening to thumping music through shared earphones and shared interests in one hit wonders. A toddler yawns, wrapped lovingly in a soft pink blanket and his mother’s gaze. An old couple sits in the priority seat. Their hands are distractedly entangled, veins poking through wrinkly skin that has weathered many winters. Their shoulders rub slightly in the way that a seasoned pair can, bodies only slightly touching and their thoughts somewhere else entirely.
The route is familiar to the passengers of 487, as are the stops, turns and the passengers that rattle within. Outside, as the bus moves through the lanes, London is in transition. The vivid spring green that was omnipresent cloaking parks, trees and lawns through the warmer months is now retiring to burnt Siena. The trees mourn the loss especially, shedding one clover shaped leaf after another, their branches in a downward slump. The bus takes a swift turn and promptly blows dried leaves to the sidewalk and a greasy haired man steps on a few unfortunate ones, his step timed perfectly for crunching the leaves beneath him with a satisfactory sound.
Alerted by an automated faceless voice, I step off the bus to my usual stop for the sequel journey. The path is already paved with weary travellers eating the last of their day’s lunch. The aged trudge on the right, stepping in careful deliberation, unhurried and unusual for London but undisturbed. In the land of sharp elbows, the walkers on the right preach a silent lesson. I must stop and smell the roses. As I switch lanes to the left and join commuters with grim faces and quickened paces, I notice the station manager. He is weaved into my daily fabric of the commute as an unnoticeable thread, bearing the TFL logo on his jacket sleeve. Usually, he is blurred in memory in lieu of catching the 2.14 to Loughton. Today, I see his face, creased by alternating wrinkles and freckles, only to be broken by a wide smile that is well on its way to a laugh. His eyes hold the private joke within them, shining with contained delight. His back is turned to me as he begins to write on the board ‘Smile and let the whole world –’. I stop and watch, only slightly aware that I’m missing the next train.
I take a long time to find the quote. Quotes are really important, methinks. I can see some passengers coming through the gates, traces of weariness on their faces. Sometimes they just pass through without glancing at the board. But that’s okay too. They all have places to be. The city has purpose. Everyone has purpose. It’s important to keep smiling.
The station is full of transits. People tap in, tap out. Beep, beep, beep. Ocassionally, they come to me and ask me questions. It means standing in the cold, too. But Margie keeps me prepared for that. She packs me lunch. A large sandwich with little bacon and steaming coffee in a flask. It comes in one of those where the cup detaches itself so I can hold the hot cup in my hands as I watch everyone come and go. I don’t know their names or where they go exactly but I know them. I hear bits of their conversation too. No, no. That’s not prying. It’s my daily soundtrack, full of gems.
‘Well, he sounds like a fucking pig, to be honest. I think I’ll just see him one more time to be sure – ’
‘Marshmallows and potatoes are part of our cultural heritage practically! So I said to her, we are having potatoes!’
‘No dad, I can’t come this weekend. No. No. No. Hello? I can’t hear you.’
You see, if you listen to people you can learn so much. I don’t ask them anything, just answer. If you ask too much, sometimes they give you strange looks. So no names, but I know the girl with the beanie comes in on Fridays with noisy heels carting a little grey trolley. Then I see her on Sunday evenings, dragging the trolley back and talking of her weekend adventures to someone called Kate on the phone. She’s charming, really and sometimes smiles warmly on her way out. The mother comes in with her toddler in tow and infant in the pram. I open the larger exit for her as she comes in and she always shoots me a grateful look before darting behind the toddler who’s beginning to discover running. Good day miss, I always tell her, the boy is growing up fast, isn’t he? I do want her to have a good day. Being a new mother is wonderful, tireless job. Margie could never become a mother really so I don’t really know what it must feel like but I can imagine, you know. Margie and me are happy though. We have a good life. We’ve lived in the same apartment in Shepherd’s Bush since we married twenty-three years ago so everything is familiar and comfortable. I like my job. I like to see these people everyday without knowing too much about them. It’s what keeps them interesting. I didn’t want to do this though. No, no. I wanted to write a book, someday. Mum always told me that I could write a story. Maybe I will. Maybe, someday. For now, I find quotes to write on the board. Borrowed words, true words.
‘That’s a lovely quote, there.’
The girl with the books.
Today’s quote took me the longest to find. I’ve just begun to use Google. Computers are horrid things, plugged everywhere, beeping strangely but they are helpful. I don’t consult me books as much.
‘It’s true, isn’t it?’
‘It really is actually. People don’t stop as much, just keep moving.’
‘Don’t surprise me much. It’s the city air.’
‘Yes, the city air. Makes you free.’
‘Like the Hanseatic league? I haven’t heard that in a long time.’
‘I’m studying that now.’
When there’s a conversational lull, I usually ask of their destination, make small talk about the weather. No personal questions.
‘We seem to be having a beautiful autumn this year, eh?’
‘Yes, just beautiful.’
I can sense she wants to say more but I excuse myself and go to the control room and watch her leave. The problem with transits is that it leaves no room for anything permanent.
About the author:
Roshni Vatnani is a current MA student in Creative Writing at The University of Westminster and former pastry chef who enjoys reading, writing, eating and all other creative forms of procrastination.
Photograph © Jeff Fenton