Once, when the baby was about six months old, we took the bus into town. I forget where we were going – some group or other, there were so many, I could hardly keep track – but it was viciously hot and there was barely room for us, what with the stroller and the diaper bag. I remember I pushed back her sun shade so that she could look around. She liked to look around. So she looked around, and I squeezed into the jump seat beside her, sweat clinging greasily to my forehead, my neck, my shoulders.
We were maybe two stops from where we needed to get off when it happened. There was a long line of people waiting to get on – lord knows how they all fit, it was so crowded – and at first, everything seemed normal. Everyone was hot and fractious, sighing and wiping their faces with the backs of their hands as they crammed into every available space. It wasn’t until the bus set off that I realised something was amiss. The chatter and the overheated grumbling had stopped. Suddenly everything was quiet. Something in the air had changed. It was as if everyone had decided to hold their breath, all at the same time.
I didn’t know what was going on at first – just that something was wrong. Very wrong. I looked over at the baby, and she grinned at me, blissfully unaware. Then I heard it. Somewhere near the back of the bus, someone was shouting. It wasn’t the shouting, in and of itself, that was worrying. I’d heard plenty of rows on public transport before. You fucking slut this. You ungrateful bastard that. No, it was the nature of it this time – the words, and who was speaking them. It wasn’t a row, or even a conversation. It was just one man, sitting next to a terrified-looking old woman, and he was yelling at everyone and no one.
“It’s all fucking garbage!” he hollered. “Not fit to wipe your ass with!” I tried not to stare. We all did. No one wanted to make eye contact. “And you know they’re all in on it! Best of goddamn luck to you, I suppose.”
I didn’t want to be afraid of him. I wanted to be compassionate. I wanted to treat him with the respect and dignity he obviously lacked. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t, however much I hated myself for it. I had the baby to think about – this tiny, helpless, precious, oblivious thing. I could see another mother across the aisle, thinking along the same lines, fearful eyes fixed intently on her little boy, who went on playing with his toy truck without even looking up.
“What a fucking joke!” the man went on. “A fucking joke! Off with their heads, that’s what’s right. It’ll all be over before you know it.”
The minutes ticked painfully by and still, no one breathed. We didn’t dare. We were sitting on a heap of explosives and the slightest twitch would blow us all to kingdom come.
“They’ll get what’s coming! A fucking joke!” the man shouted. “Off with their heads!”
He shouted, and the children played. The baby kicked at her plastic keys, and the little boy made engine noises as he drove his truck up and down his leg. I envied them that – that pure, innocent fearlessness – and then the bus stopped. A chunk of the crowd clustered at the back of the bus broke away, preparing to get off, and I realised the man was among them. Finally, I let myself look at him. He looked so… normal. The word felt empty as I let it roll around in my mind but there it was. Shameful as it was, I’d been imagining this monster – wild-eyed, unkempt, inhuman – but that wasn’t him. He was clean-shaven, fingernails trimmed, hair neatly combed, wearing a t-shirt and shorts. Just like everyone else. I almost resented him for it.
I kept my eye on him as he moved towards the front of the bus. He was staring all around, unseeing, while his fellow passengers kept their gaze studiously out of the windows. As he approached the stroller space, he leaned down towards the baby – not especially close, but too close for my comfort – and however illogical it might have been, I felt myself readying to fling myself over her, preparing to cover her body with my body if I had to.
“The best of luck,” he said. And then he was gone.