“A quiet word in your ear,” he said. Being almost a stranger, I still thought I knew him better than most.
He brushed my cheek with that grizzled mask of his as if to kiss me: and I felt something cold and slimy slip inside my ear; slimy yet hard and set in shape.
I fully expected whatever it was to be withdrawn as soon as he relaxed back into the coach seat next to mine. However, as he turned away with his attention to the Hello magazine on his lap, I sensed the object still lodged in my ear. It was louder now, because the quiet word he’d spoken was gaining in confidence; whistling or throbbing now with some staccato bravado; not exactly strident, but relentlessly static like a radio’s mistuning. It squirmed. Or I imagined it squirming, because there was no feeling of movement within my ear. Just a cold whine.
I watched him watching the landscape urgently fleeing towards our destination. As if it knew we were late. The coach window however did not help our view of things, because it was steamed up.
He dropped the magazine to the floor where it sat among all the other detritus of a journey.
All these words have been written for me. I don’t usually describe a common coach trip with such wordiness. I have even found myself misusing words I’d never even heard of before.
‘Staccato’, for example, was not a usual inhabitant on the tip of my tongue, given even the most fluid spontaneity of a dream-like state. I was usually leaden and tongue-tied … wooden like a wooden actor who’d not only lost every cue-line but corpsed at every opportunity.
Johnny – I recall my neighbour’s name now – was infected by the hum of humour. A motorised thrumming that made the wheels part of our own bodies, with eventual belly-laughs or outright black comedy tights instead of skin.
He was a surly man at the best of times. The coach trip was the final straw. Strange how one can be slid into concertina situations without even realising one had stepped on the skid-row in the first place. I somehow knew his mother. A bat with huge butterfly wings and a veil that solved many problems of incipient ugliness. My own mother was a picture, by comparison, a painterly canalscape by Canaletto, if one could examine its many tiny faces with a microscope, in search of the beauty that most resembled her beauty.
By now, no amount of counteractive thinking in slipstream or slow-motion retrenchment of a personality-I-thought-I’d-started-the-day-with could deflect me from thinking of the creature Johnny had slid into my ear. I feared it would eat my brain. I’d suffered travel sickness in a coach before. I saw Johnny reaching for the bowl he’d brought in case of any eventuality of emission or evacuation: a green tupperware one which gave plenty of splatter grace, should he vomit in cinemascope.
Canaletto would have made a great film director, I guess. I felt more like one of Bacon’s screaming popes, however, at the moment.
The coach pulled into the terminus, having decided the driver was past his sleepover limits; yet the bus station was very little different from the interminable mountainless sameness of hard highway shoulders we’d just transgressed with our overheated minds. A lay-by, then, not the Hotel called Heaven we’d hoped to reach.
The cold pellet – it used several words for itself like pessary, egg, chrysalis, enema – had also reached, via the ear, its own dubious destination in my head. Like a bullet.
Suicide or murder? The police spent little more than a day investigating. There was nobody accompanying the dead-man-who-had-once-been-me on the coach, the window seat having been left vacant or, rather, bestrewn with the pathetic leavings of my life. Magazines open at pages about rich people, exclusive wedding photographs, starlets in their natural setting, beefcakes dripping in diamonds, spice girls in reunion….
The coach driver could not help. Nor were the eye witness reports of the other passengers at all reliable. Many had already alighted at various way-stations or outposts along the way. The rest sported ear-plugs for ease of dozing.
What remained certain was the wide-screen vista of life’s journey with its manifold crimes – accidents of intention and misdetection that never reached all those discarded newspapers or magazines before becoming mountains of pulp.