I used to spend a lot of time on the bus. About six hours a week. Every Friday, after school, down to Norwich bus station, pay £7.10 for my return ticket on the 97 bus, clamber aboard the ancient, smelly, sticky-floored double decker with scratchy seats, and find my place at the back of the top deck. Reading or writing made me feel sick on that two and a half hour journey, so instead I would watch the people around me. Usually I’d end up getting drawn into a conversation with someone, and because I was bored and a teenager, I’d make up some outlandish story about myself.
I was studying Creative Writing at UEA. I was South African (my accent was impeccable; I can still say ‘chull aht rum’ with the best of them). I was 19 (actually I was between 14-18). I was visiting friends. I was about to go backpacking around the world. I was an actress (hmm…). I didn’t make up these stories to make strangers look stupid (although I undoubtedly was a massive idiot myself). I did it because I was bored, I wanted to fill the time, and simply, because I loved it. I loved not knowing what character I would create that afternoon. I loved thinking on my feet and pencilling a rough outline of a person, before filling in the little details and lies that created a new persona. And once the person I was talking to had got off the bus (few people travelled as far I did) I’d lose myself in thoughts of this shadowy female I’d made up.
Sometimes though, I wouldn’t fall into conversation. On those journeys instead, I’d watch the people around me, wondering what combination of events had meant that their destiny was to be on the same uncomfortable bus as I was. Sometimes it was obvious. The kids from out in the sticks on their way home after a day at City College. The two women who’d gone shopping ‘up the city’ for the day. The mum and toddler chatting about their visit to Nan. But for everyone I could identify, there would be mysteries, people who weren’t so easy to read. The crying girl, staring out of the window. The man in a smart suit, reading papers on top of his briefcase. The young couple. What was going on in their lives?
Same with the houses. The 97 used to wind and wend in and out of every village that studs the A47 as it heads west, every town too. In places like Dereham and Swaffham, it would squeeze down narrow streets, onto market squares now long redundant, before picking up pace again on housing estates. I’d gaze out of the windows at the identikit 1980s 3 bedroomed red brick houses and wonder about the people who lived in them, their lives, their stories, their secret heartaches, their troubles, the pleasures that gave them joy. Who could really know what went on once the front door was closed?
Think of your own life. Think of all the complexities, the battles, the hurts, the laughter. We only ever reveal a fraction of that to the outside world. When I'm logged out of twitter, when the door is locked, when the three Blondies are in bed, or at work or school... Who knows the innermost workings of my head, or yours? Who knows what's really going on in other peoples lives? I don't, but I want to. I want to watch every human life and understand it, why we do the things we do, feel the way we do, break down the way we do.
I don’t go on the bus so much these days. No need or wish to visit the Fens. So I content myself instead with people in cafes, pubs, on the streets, picking up less on what people are saying, and more on what they’re unknowingly telling me. The nervous movements. The forced laughter. The protective body language.
And from that, I can build up a picture of who they really are. Know the secrets behind the smiles. In every home a heartache.