Friday, 27 July 2012

Knowing when you're licked

Today, when all the media is focused, laser-like, on the opening of the Olympic Games, I was interested to read about a young man who chewed a bus seat in Devon.  He was caught on CCTV biting a chunk out of the leather seat (clearly not a vegetarian), and washing it down with a bottle of what looks suspiciously like the widely-known, tooth-rotting, Olympic soft drink.  Was he, I could not help but wonder, a visiting American who mistakenly thought the seats were made of beef jerky?
I think my favourite part of the story was the spokeswoman for the bus company who said he had ‘...only eaten a small part of the seat.  It’s not the case that he ate the whole seat’.  That’s a relief; imagine the effect on the digestion of eating an entire bus seat—all that foam...
I have seen quite a lot of things on the bus, but have yet to see anyone even so much as sample a seat.  Perhaps this is because seats on most Lothian Buses are covered in a sort of sinister velour-like fabric—it makes my teeth feel fuzzy just thinking about it.   I can’t help but feel sorry for anyone who is so bored on a journey that they are reduced to eating the soft furnishings.  Did his mother never issue the classic remonstration: ‘don’t eat that, you don’t know where it’s been?’
In other news I learned that, rather than chewing on bus seats, in Afghanistan there is a thriving company uniting the country through the medium of ice cream: from strawberry swirls to orange ice lollies and chocolate-almond covered Nescafe version of a Magnum, the Herat Ice Cream Company delivers where others fear to go.  Apparently even the Taliban go a bundle for a saffron flavoured ice cream sandwich or a vanilla, sour cherry and pistachio ice cream.   We can only hope no one ever tells them about Mr Whippy.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Space and the yoga bunny

The last few weeks the bus has carried passengers with blotting paper faces; each of us in our little, isolated puddles of misery, barely acknowledging the presence of other human beings. Unless, that is, one of them intrudes on our space.  
 There is a woman who occasionally gets on the bus, usually when it is more or less empty.  She  ignores the empty seats and plops down with a great, gusty sigh next to some blameless soul, spreading herself over the seat like Hitler invading Poland.  She did it to me once, when I was the only person on the bus.  I looked around in what I considered a pointed sort of fashion (I have an advanced degree in passive aggression).  She remained as immovably impassive as an Easter Island statue.  I gazed around some more, leaning forward, looking back over my shoulder, taking in the full panorama of empty bus seats before fixing my disapproving gaze on the side of her head once more.  I received a sidelong glance, no more.  Finally, I broke. ‘Ummm, there are plenty of empty seats...why are you sitting in this one....?’
She twisted around as well as she could, dislodging two potatoes, a hairbrush and a Curly Wurly from her gaping handbag and said...’I want to sit here.’
Well, there’s no answer to that, is there?  Or at least, not if you are wedged against the window by someone who looks as if they snack on puppies and kittens, as well as raw potatoes and Curly Wurly's.
Curiously, something similar happened to me at the weekend.   There I sat, in corner of a perfectly empty room, peacefully perusing the Sunday paper when a woman walked across the empty room, past all the other chairs and tables and sofas--to come and sit across from me.  We would have been knee to knee if it weren’t for the fact that she was sitting with her feet in the chair—tailor fashion—like a badly folded piece of origami.  She spent several minutes adjusting her various layers of lycra, squirming like a small child listening to a long sermon and fiddling with her ringleted, red hair.  She looked as if she was working a Madonna/ Little Orphan Annie vibe. 
She rearranged her legs and wiggled some more.  She twisted her clothes.  She wiggled again.  She sighed.  She put her hair up in a stretchy headband.  She took her hair down.  She put her hair up again.
I tried my previously unsuccessful bus tactic (I'm a slow learner) of looking around the room, staring pointedly, looking around again, staring again--but this time with a ruefully arched eyebrow (I am always open to new techniques).
She squirmed some more, then with great ceremony took a book on Bikram yoga out of her patchwork bag and made great work of opening it, holding it in front of her face about four inches from her nose.  The subject matter wasn’t entirely surprising, given the lycra and the ‘let’s sit like a swami’ thing.--her bare arms looked as they had been badly plaited. 
 She read for about thirty seconds.  Then she put the book down and wriggled.  Then she picked the book up and read for about 15 seconds.  Put the book down.  Wiggled.  Picked the book up.  Re-arranged my stuff on the table next to me, pushing my bag onto the floor.  Picked the book up again, Put it down.  Wriggled.  Sighed.  Did the thing with her hair again.
When she pushed my papers off the table and spilled my cup of chai, I suggested she might find it easier if she sat somewhere she had a bit more room.
‘I can’t,’ she replied.  ‘I have to sit near a window.  I need the openness.’
I managed not to point out that the window was currently in a state of closedness or that  there was another one just like it three feet away. 
‘Claustrophobic?’  I asked, sympathetically.
‘No,’ she replied.  ‘It’s just a ‘me’ thing.’
As she worked her way through the entire wriggle, sigh, etc. process again, I decided to go and  started to gather up my things.
‘Would you like my paper?’ I asked (you can’t beat hostility veiled in politeness—it built an empire).
‘God no,’ she exclaimed.  ‘They just glorify greed and evil--all that corporate consumerism—it hurts my soul.’  She picked up her yoga book again, shuddering as if I had tried to contaminate her.   I wouldn’t have minded so much if she hadn’t been drinking a bucket of crappacino at the time.
As I left I noticed she had moved to the opposite side of the room, where someone else was now sitting.  She was playing with her hair and reading a copy of ‘Hello’.

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

"All our geese are swans"


A  man came running round the corner on Monday morning, the tails of his  dark coat fanning out on either side of him as he loped away from me.  I heard his feet pounding on the wet pavement long before I saw him. He had straight, severely  trimmed white hair fanned out on his shoulders, his dark brown knitted cap pinched into a peak at the top of his head.
I wondered where he was headed in such a hurry; his long, gangly limbs working like one of those wooden artist’s models: bendable in unlikely ways. He had a sort of macabre grace, fleeing up the street.  
I caught up with him at the bus shelter, where he was peering at the timetable and glancing up the street anxiously, despite the fact the bus was not due for almost ten minutes. His neck was long and thin, like a stem; his features were razor sharp--you could have hung out your washing on his cheekbones.  But his rather distinguished profile was somewhat compromised by dental subsidence.  His deep-set eyes were small and dark and hard--like aniseed balls--and despite his obvious age, the skin on his face was curiously smooth and unlined, the colour of a brown hen’s egg.  He made me think of a character from a Steinbeck novel in his shabby, sober clothes.
He kept looking at his watch, up the street, and back at his watch.  Eventually he stepped out into the road, craning his neck and swaying gently, like a sailor on rolling deck.  I have seen people looking impatient at bus stops, but never anyone so anxious that they stood in the road, willing the bus to come.  
As the rain came down harder, he reluctantly came back into the bus shelter. I took out my ipod and he reached into his small backpack, pulling out a transistor radio and a set of ear plugs--retro chic at its finest.
He got off the bus at the west end, and I watched him rushing up the road, his arms extended slightly behind him, as if propelling him.  I hoped he was in time for whatever it was he was running to.
It bothered me all day.  I felt certain I had not seen him before, but there was something about him that seemed familiar; something that niggled and teased and vexed.   It wasn’t until I crossed the Dean Bridge walking home in the afternoon that I made the connection.
Early on Saturday morning as I was walking along a narrow stretch of the river I heard an extraordinary sound coming up river: whump, whump, whump .  A few seconds later an enormous swan came into view, running upstream on the water, the way they do when they are about to take off...except it didn’t take off.  It went on running, its feet slapping the water, its beating wings making that strange, deep, vibrating noise. I would never have guessed feathers could make such a solid, visceral sound.  
The swan should have looked ridiculous, clumsily trying to lift itself into the air.  Instead it looked powerful, inimical.  Suddenly Yeats‘ description of Zeus transformed in ‘Leda and the Swan’ -- ‘brute blood of the air’-- made perfect sense.
It passed a few feet away from me and still it went on running--effort surely out of all proportion to any result.  In the end it was almost out of sight before it finally broke free, urgently exchanging water for thin, blue air.

*'All our geese are swans' - Robert Burton, Anatomy of Melancholy