Black Star

‘Do you think we’ll get another referendum, then?’

Something disrupts the song I’m listening to, a sixth sense, a feeling there are eyes on me. I turn around. Un-suction waxy earphones. He repeats his question.

‘Do you think we’ll get another referendum?’

He’s spilling out the bench and his crumpled white shirt. Comic banker rotundness stacked in folds beneath an old suit, topped with bowler hat.

‘I don’t know,’ I muse, ‘probably not any time soon.’ I’ve used this line before, it feels aged, but not like wine, not like whisky.

‘I reckon they’ll block it at every turn.’

He clasps a cigarette between two swollen fingers, decorated with sovereign rings a size too small. He’s fumbled it from a small metallic box which he squeezes back into breast pocket.

‘Did you see the article this morning? Likening ‘No’ voters complaining about the Tories to someone grassing on their paw for cheating on their maw, then complaining when their paw kicks them out?’

His attempts at the dialect do little to disguise the operatic plummy-ness of public-schooling. I say I did see it, and laugh my most half-heartedly sincere of laughs. I readopt my post-work posturing of music through headphones, a cigarette; solemn death-stare for anyone foolhardy enough to interrupt the ritual.

Moving toward the sighing doors of my 5.50 bus – surprisingly punctual today – I nod a half-smiled goodbye and he looks up eagerly from his smoke.

I wake near Galashiels, low sun bouncing off hilltops and across my nose in a fine bar; this and the discomfort of these seats jilt me from my sleep. I have reached the reading stage of my commute. As we lull to a stop among the terraces I glance above my dog-eared horizon expectantly. I know just who will alight, and who will join us for the remainder of our journey. Half way down the aisle though, an anomaly. I recognise the silhouette of a man dressed all in tailored suit and hat. Or at least I think I do. I cannot see his hands, but the back of his neck crumples in familiar fashion.

I return to my book. Decide to ignore it. It’s impossible anyhow. I left him in Edinburgh. Still the words palimpsest on the page, until I realise I’ve half-read the same line until I realise I’ve half-read the same line until I realise I’ve half-read the same line until I realise I’ve half-read the same line until I realise I’ve half-read the same line until I realise I’ve half-read the same line until I realise I’ve half-read the same line six times, the other half of me calculating the probability of a car leaving after us, in rush hour traffic, and overtaking the bus before Gala. I decide the odds are poor. Poor enough, I don’t notice the smell of his stale smoke mingle with my own, as my view of the driver, and of the sun, is eclipsed.

‘You don’t mind?’ He gestures to the seat facing me. I wonder what a heart-attack feels like, and if it is like this. I try to smile, but I’ve lost control of my muscles. My eyes are back on the book, as his bore into my forehead. I can tell he’s grinning. My peripherals catch him mopping Niagara temples with a greying hankie.

His presence is a song at one hundred and seventy-four beats per minute. His presence is Monkey Wrench by Foo Fighters, but in B Minor. His presence is the voices in my head, Radio People, the TV static, crackling, popping, stifling life, closing my motor functions down systematically, the ugly rustle of autumn leaves on sandpaper played backward to reveal their hidden message. I won’t listen, though. I won’t. I resist the urge to cover my ears and sing, as is protocol. I decide the back seat of the X95 is not the place for this. I decide it isn’t necessary. I decide this is all just sleep deprivation. But the yellowed flakes of his psoriasis scratched skin are still snow-storm-flurrying to the floor. Still there. He’s still there. His presence is loneliness – black star loneliness – prison solitary loneliness – the loneliness of grief. His presence is Red Pollard blindness with Sea Biscuit blinkers, tunnel vision with no light at the end, doomsday solar eclipse, genocide of the entire public-transport-travelling community. I am alone. I think perhaps even the driver has upped and left. I can hardly blame him. I cannot differentiate between static landscape mural and hillsides rushing by at speed. The world may still be turning, but only just. For all intents and purposes, time is redundant. Time is my four walls of heavy fog which eats the seats about me, hems me in, hems him in. Hems me in with him. If I could scream I would sound underwater, but I think his laughter might summon avalanches. I cannot raise my head. He is 174 bpm. My heart is 174 bpm. The voices are Monkey Wrench Radio static crackle ugly leaves flakes of skin black star black star BLACK STAR his voice his voices I am blinded by them I can’t stop them, cannot stop them, where’s the switch? Is there a switch? Fog closing in.

‘Do you think we’ll get another referendum, then?’

Something disrupts the song I’m listening to, a sixth sense, a fear that there are eyes on me, a flashback. I turn around. Un-suction waxy earphones. He repeats his question.

I cup my hands to my ears and sing. I mostly get away with it, despite the audience. I unfasten my eyelids. My 5.50 bus lurches itself to a stop in front of me – unsurprisingly unpunctual today. Is that a hat under the wheel? Right fancy one. I feel the urge of a sudden to spit on it, or worse, but the driver hasn’t got all day, and I’ve embarrassed myself enough as it is. I choose a seat with none facing it. I choose my usual seat. I maintain a steady and pleasantly uninterrupted routine. At Galashiels all the right people get off, and all the right people get on.

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