Waiting For The Night Bus
I was standing in Poole bus station waiting for the night bus when I noticed the bald man approaching. He had the slight stumble of a drunk and several plastic bags that banged against his legs as he walked. He took a seat on a wooden bench away from where I was stood. The young man sitting next to him instantly became uncomfortable, which is understandable. When it’s late at night and you just want to get home, you don’t want any hassle. You just want to be in your warm bed sleeping off the alcohol in your system.
The bald man was not heading home after a nights drinking. He looked like he could be homeless or an addict. There were fresh scabs on the top of his head and when he walked over, he would stop to pick cigarette butts off the floor. There is something in alcohol that makes some people more friendly, more open to striking a conversation with a total stranger. Normally I am not one of those people, but tonight I would make a different choice.
“Scuse me mate. You got a ciggie I can have?” the bald man said.
“Sorry mate, don’t smoke,” I replied, trying to look like I was deep in thought and shouldn’t be disturbed again.
The bald man asked the young man who also replied in the negative. The young man stood up and started inspecting all the noticeboards and posters in the bus station like some sort of scholar. It was a good move. Now the bald man just had me to speak to.
The bald man sat muttering to himself, rifling through his plastic bags. A bus arrived at the station. The solitary passenger disembarked and the driver quickly drove away, changing the electronic display to “Not in Service” as fast as he could. The last normal bus of the day. Just night buses now. The passenger walked past us and the bald man asked him if he had a cigarette too. Either because he had his ipod earphones in or, as I would have done in a more populous place, he ignored him and walked away, much to the bald man’s irritation. “Hey,” he shouted, “is he ignoring me? What a prick.”
The bus station went quiet, the only sound the rustling of the bald man’s plastic bags. It is an ugly place, the bus station, designed in the 60s when concrete was really in vogue. Small shops back onto the concourse, opening up to where the buses stop in small loading bays. None of the shops are big name high street chains, which shows how much business there must be there. People don’t want to spend any more time here than they have to. The Dolphin shopping centre is at one end, the leisure centre at the other. Sandwiched in between is the bus station. The government want more people to use public transport, but when it is so grim and the atmosphere so oppressive, it’s little wonder that the only passengers are those who have to use it. During the day you can walk through the shopping centre to reach the high street, but at night you have to walk around the back roads, past loading bays and the multi storey car park. It’s not a pleasant walk, reminiscent of many mugging scenes in films and the imagination. You keep your head down and pray that you don’t bump into anyone.
“I’m going for a wander. If you touch my stuff, I’ll kill you.”
The bald man stood up and walked through the bus station, his eyes searching for unfinished cigarettes. He disappeared behind a pillar for a moment and appeared the other side, this time with a large plastic Tesco shopping bag. He never stopped muttering to himself. Slowly he made his way back to his seat on the bench. He added the Tesco bag to his collection. “Here, you can have a doughnut,” the bald man said to the young man, producing a four pack of own brand ring doughnuts from the Tesco bag. He didn’t get a response.
“Twenty seven years I served,” the bald man said, mumbling some words after that I couldn’t hear.
“95% of people are total cunts,” the bald man said, making eye contact with me.
I smiled politely, trying not to engage but finding myself being drawn in. Every time he looked at me, I could see something in amongst the dark shadows that circled his eyes. It looked like hurt but it could have been a sad loneliness exacerbated by the alcohol that was visibly running through his system.
“No that’s wrong,” the bald man continued, “Seventy, seventy percent of people are cunts. I don’t mean you people.”
He put his hand up as an apology. The young man was still ignoring him. I made a decision, I walked a little closer so I could listen to him better. “What have you done with your life?”
“Pardon?” I said, caught off guard.
“What have you done with your life?”
“Not enough,” I said. I answered honestly though I’m not sure why.
“Well what do you do for a living?” the bald man said.
“I work at the car auctions,” I said twice, he didn’t hear me the first.
“That’s good then. You get people a good deal, you do them right,” he said, satisfied with my answer. I didn’t disagree.
He reached into his pocket and pulled out a Rizla and some tobacco. He started to roll himself a cigarette. “They say I have an anti-personnel disorder. That I’m not good with people.”
From my position closer to him, I could see the scabs on his head more clearly. I tried to work out what could have caused them, if it was a fight or an accident, but they were placed like something had bitten him but not severely. Just dug their teeth in and spat him out.
“I don’t get along with most people, unless I’m drunk,” said the bald man.
“Were you in the army?” I asked. I wanted to know more about the twenty seven years of service.
“Nah, the Royal Marines. Places I’ve been,” he shook his head sadly, bad memories for him.
“Where did you serve?” I said.
“Falklands, Afghanistan, Iraq. Nigeria, Borneo though we weren’t there officially,” he said, his hands making inverted commas in the air.
“You were a mercenary?”
“I was a Royal marine so of course I was a mercenary,” he said, lighting the freshly rolled cigarette and taking a long drag.
He coughed violently. “Where can you get a drink of water round here?” he asked between violent coughs.
“There’s nowhere open,” I said. If I had had a bottle of water, I would have given it to him. He may have seemed pathetic, but there was a genuine pain I could see in the way he rolled his cigarette or looked after his plastic bags.
“There was this woman, one of two woman. I’ll tell you her name. Kimberley….” he mumbled again, mangling the second part of her name. The way he stared off into the distance, I started to wonder if he would have been having this conversation whether I was there or not.
“She was the second woman to complete the full 26 week training to become a marine.”
“She must have taken some stick?” I said.
“Course. She was a tough woman. Really strong mentally. She took some stick but it was all friendly. By the end of it she was one of us.”
He took another drag from the cigarette followed by another fit of violent coughs. “I went up to her one day and said ‘Are you a lezzer?’ and she said ‘No, course not’. So I said ‘Do you like men?’ and she said ‘Yeah, I do’. So then I said ‘So are you gonna marry me then or what?’ And we were married two days later. On the army base.”
The bald man became quiet, more introspective. “We were out in the field when she was shot. Just took a bullet in her head. Bang. Killed her instantly. There was submachine gun fire going off everywhere, we were in the middle of a warzone. But I just stood up and walked out. I couldn’t take it no more. They tried to punish me, give me a dishonourable discharge. But I didn’t care, it wasn’t a punishment for me.”
He dropped the finished roll up on the floor and squashed it with his foot. “They gave me an honourable discharge in the end.”
The night bus arrived at the other end of the station. The few people who were waiting walking over to get on board out of the cold night air. “Are you getting the bus?” I asked the man.
“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said. “But at least I woke up this morning, at least that’s something.”
I didn’t know what to say, so I just gave him an empty yet sincere platitude. “Well I hope it gets better for you.”
The bald man didn’t say anything. “I got to go catch my bus. Bye.”
I left him behind, slumped forward in the bench staring at the ground. As I sat on the bus as it left the station, I tried to think of anything that I could have done to help him. For all I know, he could have been lying, playing for sympathy in the hope that I would have given him some money. But he never asked for anything. He just seemed to appreciate having someone interested in what he had to say. There was a lot of pain there. A hurt that he was trying to deal with. I hope that he finds some relief from it all. But deep down, I expect the drink will take him.