Monday, 6 September 2010

Your Rucksack Cannot Protect You Here

So. I'm on a bus, going into town. As buses go, this is a relatively genteel bus – one peopled by denizens of Oxford's richest quarter.

Such buses tend to be sedate, their passengers subdued.

Onto the bus steps a young chap. Mid-twenties. His suit is new, his shoes shiny. Incongruously, he has on a large, hike-style rucksack.

Rucksuit (as he shall be known) is panting slightly, as he's evidently jogged to the bus stop. He has a return ticket …

… Somewhere in his rucksack.

As befits a hiking rucksack, this receptacle has numerous pockets. Indeed, had its manufacturers wished to highlight this fact via a 'cheekily humorous' advertisement, they could simply have filmed the ensuing search.

Rucksuit is obviously of a nervous disposition: his rabbity movements and hunched shoulders are testament to his increasing panic as he scrabbles blindly through the cursed valise.

He knows: everyone is waiting; everyone is watching.

In 15 minutes time (I'll warrant), Rucksuit is going to be stinkin' with the sweat brought about by this stressful experience.

But, despite his nerves, he is also a thrifty soul. He bought a return ticket and – by God! – he's going to get his money's worth.

At this point, on the very threshold of hearing, a low burbling begins. It is like the sound of Gandalf muttering the kind of incantations that'd cause a Balrog to soil itself in dismay.

The sound comes from an ancient, wizened woman who – sitting there alone on the back seat of the bus – is at this moment more darkly menacing than any rap-playing, knife-flexing teenager you'd care to imagine.

Rucksuit's buttocks visibly clench. By now, his suit trousers are sticking to his legs like cling-film to a pair of spring onions. Tight-sinewed with terror, he fumbles with clips and zips and ploughs through strata of underpants and Kendall mint cakes like a mole through a cornfield as it hears the roar of an approaching combine harvester.

Outside the sky darkens and a wind begins to whip down the Banbury Road. A couple of unfortunate Marks & Spencer shoppers have their eco-bags torn from their flailing grasp. As in the wake of a mighty tempest, the air seems charged, crackling.

Almost incoherent with distress, Rucksuit manages to gibber out some words:

'Oh … ah, ah, ah … I think I might … just … have …'

The veins in his forehead are throbbing, his eyes bulge.

'… to buy … a single ticket.'

And, with the few vestiges of strength remaining at his disposal, he thrusts forward a banknote.

Broken, he shoulders his rucksack and shambles, exhausted, to a seat.

As the bus judders into motion once more, all is silent. Until, in a tone that could curdle Coca Cola, the old woman speaks:


Silence returns. Rucksuit scarcely moves. Were it not for the twitching muscle in his neck, he might almost have seemed unchanged.

And on his back, the half-open zip of his rucksack looks for all the world like a treacherous smile.

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