People-watching from the back of the bus reveals not all journeys are simply humdrum commutes – Laura Waddell

Laura Waddell finds herself intrigued by a fellow passenger’s plan to engage in illicit meat smuggling in a future world in which it is banned

I have just finished a job contract and, until I fill the days with fresh work, my hours are mine again. Recently, early one afternoon, meeting my friend Helen for coffee, huddled in a trenchcoat zipped to the neck at an outdoor table so she could smoke with her cappuccino and I could wish the warmer days were here already, we watched as a nearby man knocked over a freshly poured pint of Tennent’s.

Before the sheet of amber liquid could sweep the metal table top, his drinking buddy plucked a wriggling, oblivious baby away from the beery drops about to descend over its parked pram. With more time to look around rather than rush through, I always feel a little off kilter with the world when changing my schedule and coming up for air again.

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Taking in my immediate surroundings with new acuity is as much about checking and securing my footing as it is trying to ascertain which path to take next. The evidence here was that I was on a different time zone from those around; the guys along the way reaching for happy hour, me still fully waking up, the froth of my latte and the complimentary gingerbead man lounging on the saucer the first thing I’d imbibed that day.

Catching a bus can lead to a journey into the unknown recesses of fellow passengers' minds (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)Catching a bus can lead to a journey into the unknown recesses of fellow passengers' minds (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
Catching a bus can lead to a journey into the unknown recesses of fellow passengers' minds (Picture: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Interactions between strangers

I overheard an intriguing conversation on the bus a couple of weeks ago. Heading home laden with bags, I made my way to the back row where, when it’s not at peak demand, one can more easily sit at a sideways angle with legs kicked out, unbothered and at no risk of tripping any one else up for the duration.

I was planning to zone out for a headachy half an hour of sitting in the engine heat with juddering, bus-lane halts, but the back seat is also the best spot for people watching and listening to conversations carried over seats. The minute interactions between strangers and fellow travellers, neighbours and friends who bump into one another and blether can be as interesting as anything spied from the window, or at least distracting enough to stop wishing the journey away.

Working the irregular hours of a creative freelancer, especially one who prefers to start and finish late, ever the unapologetic night owl, it’s been while since I’ve had reason to catch a regular train or bus, day after day, and so there is always the mental temptation to project inner anxiety about this untethered state over calm fellow passengers by fetishising their appearance of routine.

Appearances can be deceiving

They seem, in the onlooker’s imagination, to have their lives together by virtue of having some supposed schedule worked out while I, rushing from place to place with a notebook trailing out of my bag and tissues from my pocket, feel like the messy outlier on the workaday path of neat and ordered fellow human beings who seem correct and confident in assuming their roles.

But life is not a Ladybird book of easy As to Zs, of people carrying out the tasks and jobs they are meant to without a million other things going on at once internally, as much as it is comforting to hope life can be as simple as that. The humdrum commute tells only the surface story of passengers’ journeys, not which mental terrain they are really traversing when gazing out of dust-splattered windows at Renfrew or Renfield Street as the vehicle they are on winds its hesitant way through the grid of the city centre.

On that day recently, a little ahead of me was an old guy making conversation, or rather seizing the opportunity to talk aloud at a politely nodding audience of one across the aisle, a young trainee footballer shouldering a duffel bag while making his way to or from practise; which, it wasn’t clear.

It came to light the old guy had moved here not so long ago, having taken a big personal leap of abandoning a long-despised job, and the talk circled his general findings of Glasgow, assessing the people (down to earth, friendly, as his ability to make small talk on the bus attested to) and the weather (like every other resident old or new, he was finding it cold and damp and looking forward to spring) until the chat strayed onto food and the city’s reputation for vegan restaurants.

‘Underground meat trade’

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The old guy’s voice suddenly shifted from detached and observational to emotive. Taking on the tone of the confessional, he shared wistfully that he absolutely had to have meat on his plate, that nothing satisfied him like it, and that he had, in fact, always dreamed of getting into the meat industry. “The meat industry?” the lad nervously laughed, unsure how to respond to this unexpected declaration of unusual yearning. Yes, but the ambition was not in rearing or butchery.

The old guy went on to share, with distinct conviction, his view that if meat was banned in the UK, by his reckoning clearly a prospect of distinct possibility, there would be a “roaring underground meat trade” to rival the illegal drugs market. The unspoken implication was money to be made, and intention to make it. Thanking the lad for the conversation, which had seemed to be cathartic, he then promptly stood up to get off at the next stop.

As the bus closed its doors and trundled off, leaving him on the pavement, lingering in the air was palpable relief from the uncertain young footballer, newly released, and the general mystery – the meat of which beasts?



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