|‘The Other Backpack Boy’
Peering through the layers of grime and blotched graffiti, I attempt to decipher the complicated bus timetable. The contradicting, clashing times fall over each other like a contrapuntal melody, each cigarette lighter burn and melted indentation distorting the plastic on the bus shelter notice board like a disfiguring scar. My eyes search the bulletin board and my deceptively avid gaze trickles from pamphlets to stickers to old adverts until at the top of the announcements, as if proclaiming the bus stop as a small but important state of its own; the words ‘MARBLE ARCH -Property of London Borough Marylebone Council’ bring the shelter alight. The phrase painted in bold crimson illuminates the bus stop as if willing it out of the cobweb-furnished, misused position it has been unceremoniously dumped in.
I lean into the narrow, sagging bench as if cowering in a harbour, safely protected from the swarms of naïve crowds that ebb and swell around the tube station entrance, surrounding cafes and the promenade of Oxford Street. Written on my moist palm is a message scrawled in cardinal red-the words appearing to be carved into my skin like a scar on my alabaster palm, ‘Bloomsbury Theatre, 10am, 7/7’. An important audition awaits me at the end of my next bus journey. Pulling up the black, brushed cotton hood of my baggy pullover so it envelops me, I am cut off from the city which battles against the stresses and rush of our modern world. I casually check my watch and look around me, discomforted by the fact that the traffic is still heavily congested for 9am on a Thursday but fortunately my destination is not too far through the jigsaw. Emergency sirens sound like an urban squall of seagulls in the distance and as I slouch further down into the wilting plastic plank, my heavy backpack digging into me like a trowel nudging into soft earth.
A bright vermillion double-decker bus-as red as the message on my hand-pulls up at the kerb and I plunge into the current of swirling people to clamber onto it, my guard falling as my hood slips from my head while I search for change in my pocket. The bus driver glances at me, sweaty in his polyester-mix shirt and tie and I nod as I shower my fare into the counter and watch as the money is devoured, just as the bus is also swallowed whole and engulfed by the traffic.
Snatching my ticket as it is regurgitated from a machine, I bound up the stairs like a careless child who is liable to trip on the passage to the top deck or grab the handrail to save a mortifying fall. I carefully lower my backpack onto the seat next to me at the very back of the bus as if it is accompanying me on my trip; a quiet, conserved chaperone that never leaves my side. Discarded newspapers are positioned around the deck like civilised passengers, simply lounging on the seats or occasionally falling off at every sudden brake and traffic light. However, the human passengers remain too absorbed in their own worlds for me to judge them, only one I immediately notice; a young man sitting straight-backed like a well-trained ballet dancer, periodically glancing at the complicated chaos of the cars below with a backpack at his feet, his oddly calm demeanour striking an antithesis with his surroundings. I look down at my mucky plimsolls and pick at the worn blue upholstery of the seats, resigned to a fate of fading fabric and cracking frame, weary too of supporting the accelerated pace of modern Britain.
We join another inescapable queue of traffic as we approach Euston Station and crowds begin to gush from the gaping mouth of the tube entrance in contrast to the crawling pace of the metal vehicle bodies. An uncontrollable feeling of nervousness yet helplessness begins to panic me as I chant audition lines in my head and I wring my hands subconsciously as the young man continues to glance repetitively out of the window. He murmurs in a whisper and our faces reflect a pair of matching pictures, a mixture of both fear yet sincere concentration.
As the bus grinds forward a hunched old woman turns her head to glance at me. Her pastel-coloured, waxed mackintosh creases around her shoulders and she is clutching a net bag in her gnarled, powdery hands which clatters at every jolt. She stares at me with an air of disdain and disapproval, judging me from my diesel-black sweatshirt down to my mud-splashed, ripped backpack. I pull my bag closer and pull my hood up again, concealing myself from any further contempt and beginning to fidget, I nervously fiddle with my woven backpack strap.
The young man seated in front of me seemingly receives the same silent vibes of condemnation from the rest of the passengers as we are both judged for our suspicious appearances and youthful age. He reaches for his back pack as I hold mine, almost mirroring me in his actions and we both turn our shoulders against the tide of disparaging glances. The manic traffic has begun to diverge from our main route and I distinguish patches of communal gardens from the harsh brick and concrete patchwork of the surrounding urban blanket. I nonchalantly sling my backpack over my rigid shoulders, hunched like the old woman’s, and smack the ‘STOP’ buzzer on the supporting pole, as bright yellow as the continuous road markings on the street below. The sudden noise startles all the passengers and the young man turns his head, as if twitching, to look straight at me. Unlike the look I expect, I receive a glance of pure contempt and antipathy from him and as he clutches his backpack even closer, appearing anxious, I lurch down the narrow staircase tripping on my way. As the bus pulls up to the stop at Tavistock Square I leap out of the bus door onto the awaiting kerb.
I feel the heat of embarrassment explode through my cheeks and ears at the thought of humiliating myself on the bus and I walk sharply down the pavement, avoiding disposed gum and filthy cigarette ends and observe the bus’s progress towards Russell Square.
I look down at my grazed and battered watch and take a time check. With the time being only 9:46am I will be early for my audition and I begin to stride more calmly while the heat begins to dissipate from my face. I hoist my head up in time to watch in deadening horror as the top deck of the bus from which I had just dismounted tears open in a flare of flame and smoke. Beams of glowing metal fall from the air as the smog disperses across the road. I sprint towards the lacerated wreckage, shockingly resembling a tin can which has had its lid forcefully burst open. However I halt midstride, almost stumbling over a net bag on the steaming tarmac now empty of its contents, free from the clutches of the old woman. The back of the bus has been completely stripped of its proud paintwork with a garish poster sticking singed to the twisted metal framework of the bus.
An hour before, I was saved from the waves of tumbling crowds by the bus. Now there was nothing to shelter me from the infecting waves of shock flowing over me like a powerful anaesthetic and I abruptly realise the true implications of the young man’s look of hatred.
I had escaped. I was the other backpack boy.