Burdened by inflamed senses, like an alcoholic pack-mule, I cower under the heat of the midday sun and oppression of the noisy tos and fros of the neighbourhood. My odour, and that of my present company, lacking the recent attentions of a shower, causes my stomach to heave as if it contains a violent storm from an old pirate movie. “I’ve never needed water so badly in my life,” I complain self-consciously, to no-one in particular. Of course I have been in this situation before, and will again in the future. We’re sitting, hung-over, at a bus-stop surrounded by cigarette-butts, yellow-grass and social degeneration.
“So … what’s your plan for this fine day?” the voice to my right mutters, with not-so-subtle sarcasm.
“Not sure,” I reply lethargically, while pulling my mind from the depths of a depressing inner-monologue. “It’s a nice-looking sort of day, but I just don’t feel quite right.”
“Yeah, well, you only really stopped drinking between pubs last night and you went to sleep with half-a-beer in your hand,” he chuckles at my expense.
“Nah, it’s not that. I mean, yeah I’m hung-over, but that’s not what I mean about the way I feel. It’s as if there’s something that I’m meant to do, but I have no Idea what it is. I’m missing something.”
“Yeah, brain cells,” he concludes, followed by more subdued laughter.
A woman sits down silently to my left. She’s attractive but bears signs of age in the corners of her eyes and the slump of her back. If only for the purpose of a momentary distraction, I glance at her, as if to begin a conversation, however her eyes are down-cast and seem to be staring through the concrete at her feet, off toward distant people, places and problems.
“Rough night?” I query. She doesn’t reply, nor does she react, and I interpret her silence as an answer. He chuckles at my social ineptitude, pauses to take yet another drag on yet another cigarette, then continues to laugh through poisonous clouds fleeing inhospitable lungs. The smoke seems as eager to leave as a refugee from a country torn apart by years of war.
“Looks like we’re all on the same page here,” comes his inevitable garbled comment.
I turn to him and reply, “The problem between any two people, is that far from being on the same page, they are very infrequently even reading the same book.”
“Look at those people,” he says, ignoring me and gesturing to inhabitants of passing cars and pedestrians traversing the opposite side of the road. “They don’t care about us, and we don’t care about them. They’re most likely travelling with, or heading towards or away from somebody that they do care about and will go out of their way to avoid those who they don’t.”
“We’re just extras in their lives and they are but extras in ours,” I contribute.
“A bleak soap drama indeed,” he concludes.
The woman softly chuckles at our hung-over philosophy and I turn to face her again. Unfortunately, her foray into the land of comprehension was short-lived. The chewing-gum-speckled concrete has once again captured her apparently undivided attention.
Losing interest, I turn my own attention to the road, watching cars sliding past and wondering just where they might be taking their fragile passengers. It suddenly occurs to me that the faces in the windows belong to people who I will never know, never talk to, laugh or cry with. While rubbing my face with my hands, I stand and walk out of the shelter of the rusting bus stop under the harsh noon sky and peer up the road. My ride is approaching, so I remain standing in the heat as his voice returns.
“So, you’re headed back home then?” he asks incredulously.
“Well, yeah,” I answer, turning to face the source of the question. “I’m hungry, hung-over, a little bit tired and maybe suffering from heat-stroke. Where else would I go?”
He doesn’t react for a moment and stares at me as if attempting to climb inside my head, have a look around and figure out what is going on in there, as if I would have any other intentions after the pre-ceding night out. He’s the sort of person who is difficult to get on with during the sobriety of daylight hours.
“How long have we been doing this for?” I ask, with a sigh. “Five, six years?”
“Feels like about ten at the moment,” he retorts.
“You’re ten years older than me,” I begin to lecture. “You have no wife or partner, no children and your friends all grew up and got serious with their lives years ago, pretty much leaving you behind.”
“What you do with life is up to you, but surely you don’t plan on living like this for ever. You’re gonna grow old one day.”
“Maybe I don’t need a wife, two-and-a-half kids, a mutt and a desk-job.”
“I didn’t say you needed those things. It’s just … well … a rolling stone gathers no moss, y’know.”
Suddenly, he asks, “Do you think that going home will provide you with happiness?”
It’s a very odd question, even for someone like him, and as I’m no longer in the mood for a philosophical discussion, I give a blunt answer: “No, I think that home will provide me with food, water and sleep. Some people would call that happiness; others would call it the basics of life,” I pause for a moment. I can almost feel the little hang-over demon inside my brain wrench my hands from the intellectual and emotional reigns, and spur newly formed anger into a full-gallop. “Personally, my opinion on the issue lies somewhere between those extremes, and as you must be painfully aware of by now, my idea of happiness is destroying my brain-cells with copious amounts of liquor while enduring the company of losers and de-generates, not answering difficult questions in thirty-five degree heat and waiting for a bus back to my shit-hole apartment!”
As I finish my self-absorbed rant, he looks away up the road as if offended. I realise that the woman at my left has disappeared, the road is silent, void of traffic and the entire area around us seems to have become still as if holding its breath in expectation. The atmosphere seems to hang like this for a while, like a moment captured in a photograph, and is broken suddenly by a passing car. His eyes follow its journey past me and off into the distance. Immediately upon losing sight of it, his eyes lock back onto mine and linger uncomfortably. I stare right back, ready to defend my comments but also considering an apology.
Breaking the staring contest by returning his attention to the perpetuity of the tarmac, he asks, “So, same time same place next Friday then?”
After brief hesitation, I simply answer, “Yeah,” as the bus comes to a stop behind me.