Seats on Dublin Bus are made for two, but I always found myself on buses alone.
Rain claimed every surface. All the paving slabs in central Dublin were darkened by damp and covered in a cold liquid film ready to splash over smart work shoes and snake up the backs of teenagers’ and students’ jeans. The Liffey’s muddy waters swirled with a disordered, chaotic turbulence as an icy rain pelted everything in its path without mercy or release. Across the shelves and storefronts of Dublin, Hallow’een merchandise was being frantically removed as though Dublin’s retail community were trying to destroy evidence of a crime. It was all to make way for gaudy, tacky Christmas decorations long before anyone was in the mood to even look at them. Early Christmas stock used to look like greed to profit. Now it just looked like desperation to survive. I stuck out my hand and waited for the heavy, lumbering double-decker bus to grind to a halt, sending up a spray of water to soak my legs. Inside, rainwater had slid from passengers’ coats and packages so that it pooled on the grey lino of the floor and sloshed about every time the bus moved, turned or stopped. Too many saturated people were crowded together and moisture permeated everything, from the plastic rails to the dull metal seat rails and the blue patterned seats.
I sat upstairs and wiped a small circle clear of damp condensation so I could gaze out of the window onto rush hour Dublin in the rain. We know our weather is too windy and our city centre too crowded for umbrellas but we bring them anyway to increase our suffering as we fight to get to where we want to go, somewhere dry. Everything moves more slowly when things are wet because too many people are trying to move too fast. The buses that had passed my lonely office window had kept their lights on and both the November grey and my mood had been so bleak all day it didn’t seem much darker at night than it had before sunset.
An old man was sitting alone on the seat in front of mine. His clothes were worn and patched. Gnarled hands that shook as they weakly rested on the metal seat railing in front of him were unadorned and there was no sign that anything like wedding ring ever had rested on his finger. He muttered to himself as the bus trundled along, sometimes quietly, sometimes loudly, but always incomprehensible. He looked like he was surely too ill to still live, yet there he was. You couldn’t imagine that he had ever been young, content, or in good health. A few solitary wisps of grey peeked out from under a tweed cap and his face was misshapen, with slack cheeks and a nose that had been broken at least once. I wondered what bastards had broken it. The smell was overwhelming. I buried my nose in my scarf, trying to be as discreet as I could, although I don’t think he would have noticed me no matter what I did. He smelt of age, and neglect. There was the scent of a much-unwashed body and unchanged clothes, and an acrid hint of urine from his patched trousers. But beneath all that there was something I had never smelt on another human before, something more repulsive, terrifying. He smelt like meat that had turned and was starting to decay. He stayed on when my stop came up and I wondered where he was going. Did he have somewhere to go or did he just get on the bus with his free bus pass and stay on all day, then wander, muttering to the demons that haunted his world all night, until he alighted the first bus of the morning as it left its terminus?
I can’t explain what I felt as I got off the bus. Relief at the fresh, clean air firstly and then a hard anger, the fury of its energy sapped by a deep sadness and shame. Who was that man, and how did he end up like that? Why are there so many people like that in this city and why doesn’t anybody ever help them? As I stopped to make sure my hair was tucked in in a dusty window pane (dying my hair green with a hair mascara that had refused to wash outfit Amy’s Hallow’een party had kept my hair under wraps for days), I took a look at myself. I saw him, I realised, and my sadness and anger turned on myself. All those people in this cold, uncaring city who looked on misfortune and did nothing to help, now included me. I should have done something. I didn’t know what I could have done, but it hadn’t even crossed my mind to try.
I fumbled with my mp3 player, hitting the random button in the hope of finding something upbeat to energise me and get me home quicker. The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” slipped from my headphones into my mind, John, Paul, George and Ringo asking the same questions that troubled me about the old man and the bus. Selfishly, I decided I didn’t want to think about the strange old man’s alienation or my own selfishness anymore, and hit the random button again.
“Since I was born I started to decay.” My mp3 player had given me Placebo’s Teenage Angst, another bad choice for that day. I turned it off and trudged home in silence. We all age. Placebo’s line describes life’s great paradox perfectly – every day we grow is a day we grow older, getting closer all the while to the life expectancy statistic. We all age. That man was me, once, and would I, decades from now, be him? Even when we are teenagers some of us easily find partners, sometimes a companion for life and sometimes a suitor to be twirled around a dancefloor for a song or two before gracefully moving on to the next one. And some of us find ourselves inexplicably alone, trying to convince ourselves that it will improve. Adulthood will be better. College will be better. Moving to a city will make it better. I was in my twenties. Popular culture decreed that I should be broke but happy, spending all of my nights out, surrounded by friends and admirers. Broke was the only one on the list I had gotten right. Most of my friends had left or were too besotted with trophy other halves to see me all that much anymore. And here I was, alone, going home to a freezing cold studio box to cook a lonely dinner and shiver myself to sleep with an imaginary partner’s imaginary arms wrapped around me. My logical brain tried to shut my inner voice up as it told me that I would be just like the lonely old man on the bus one day, but I was cold, wet, hungry and depressed and logic just wasn’t working.
I hadn’t seen or heard from Mark at all since the night we almost kissed. I tried to stop thinking about him, but when I did that I discovered that I didn’t have enough to think about anymore to get me through my days of cold boredom. I hadn’t realised how much he had become part of my life until suddenly, he just wasn’t there anymore.
My breath frosted into a mist inside my flat. The heating included in my rent was still a phantom. Cold rose up from beneath the carpet and crept in through the walls. I plugged in the electric heater and spent most of the evening huddled next to it. I turned on the TV and discovered nothing of any interest. Nothing of any use on the internet either. I wasn’t in the mood to paint, but I had to do something to take my mind out of the ridiculous melancholy in which it seemed determined to wallow. I put on the Crannberries’ What you were and decided to copy a diagram of an ammonite with its ugly head poking out of its beautiful shell. The lyrics were close to the bone “You left me here behind/a stupid state of mind/and I’m lonely” but the melody was soothing, reminding me that although my current melancholy sucked, it didn’t mean there was anything wrong with me. I sketched the ammonite’s outline first, emptying my mind of thoughts and just focusing on refining technique. But as time went on my imagination kicked in and the scientific diagram was soon forgotten as a new picture took shape in my mind and on the page. I painted an ammonite instead with its head retreating back into its spiral sanctuary, a tear squeezing from its round unblinking eye, while a stormy sea roiled around it. It certainly wasn’t the exercise in paleoart that I’d meant it to be. But once I added the right colours, it would look striking. And that almost cheered me up. Almost.