The bus he gets on is packed. He scans the bottom deck for an empty seat, then goes upstairs. As he reaches the top, he glances round and spots a vacant aisle seat two from the back. He sits down and almost immediately finds himself drifting into warm reflections about his time with Catherine in Morocco. The passenger sitting next to him suddenly grasps the seat rail in front with both hands and begins to rock to and fro in his seat. This action is accompanied by a hypnotic hum, as if it is some kind of alcoholic’s mantra; Jack smells the stale stench of beer coming from his mouth. The man is in his mid-fifties, with a mass of wild grey hair and a thick black beard with streaks of grey. He is stocky, thick set, big. He has a rugged, pock-marked and leathery complexion, which looks like it has suffered years of abuse and neglect as a result of heavy drinking and exposure to the winter elements. He wears an old threadbare tweed jacket, a check shirt and a grubby pair of trousers. There is a plastic bag full of books and newspaper cuttings between his legs.
Jack has encountered this man a few times before; he is difficult to miss. The last time was a few months ago, in Notting Hill not Shepherd’s Bush: Jack was getting off the bus as he was getting on. He remembers this because the man almost knocked him over. Jack had to grab hold of his shoulder to stop himself falling. The man clasped his arm, he had big hands, wore an old gold wedding ring. Jack looked at him closely then, searchingly, but the man did not reciprocate his observation. He just hurried away, as if fleeing the scene of a crime, and Jack was left to wonder how he might have ended up this way, so broken and destitute. He recalled that he talked to Sam about him the night it happened, who typically ridiculed him for his fascination with desperate strangers. It is his ‘little idiosyncrasy’: this is how Sam referred to it. Now, seated next to the man, Jack begins to speculate again about his fate. He finds himself, rather uncomfortably, staring at the man in the frankly curious manner of a small child observing a strange spectacle – an exposure of the tragic side of life, someone condemned to a life of eccentric pursuits and painful neuroses – something he must fathom. The man does not seem conscious of his inquiry as he continues to rock and hum…
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