Dawn had been away for the whole Easter weekend staying with her cousin’s family and getting to know their freshly squeezed first son. The next generation. He had arrived three weeks prior, with all the pulp and all the bits of new life, and she’d fallen in love with him the moment she’d met him. The un-creased soles of his feet. His curiosity. His reach. The limitless futures that lay before him.
Her time away had been very happy. There had been wide-eyed potential there.
But it is all deftly replaced by the trudge and dust of her own whittled eternity as she walks from her cousin’s car toward the train that’s waiting at the single-platform terminus to encase her and carry her away.
Three train rides. Two and a half hours with landscapes whipping by, hypnotising her; in cahoots with the sway of the train, lulling her to drift away and miss spotting that windswept lonely tree on the hill that looks like a ragged parrot tied to a perch. Or a well-worn beret on a hat stand, as her cousin had suggested when they were tipsily making the same journey together four years prior.
She steps through the sliding interior doors of the train, clutching her torn and stained camping rucksack and a scrunched-up carrier bag in her right hand. What had looked like a mostly empty carriage from the outside reveals itself to be half-full and to have only backward-facing seats free. Her slight frame hunches a little at the realisation and her usually outwardly calm face subtly dulls. Disappointment is all in her shoulders, and in the tiniest corners of her thin lips and wide eyes. And right now, in the way her light-blue jeans and black Stone Roses t-shirt engulf her momentarily.
She had been hoping for a space she could make her own.
She takes off her bright red jacket as she walks down the aisle, roll-folding it into its hood as she goes. When it’s done, she stops, throws it in the overhead rack with her rucksack and sits in the closest seat that has a table. She doesn’t like those fold down tray things; too close.
She empties her carrier bag onto the table in front of her. A banana, a bottle of water, her book, her debit card and her phone tumble out. Of the two people opposite her, one raises an eyebrow and goes back to staring blankly out of the window while the other kindly rolls the wayward water bottle back towards her with a smile. She smiles back, picks up her phone and skims through the pictures she’d taken over the weekend. Seeing the baby gets her thinking about potential again. She starts to wonder if she really ought to explore the train more fully to find a forward-facing seat in another carriage. There is potential in everything after all.
But she decides not to bother.
After a long, slow journey, the train is late pulling into her final station. Dawn only has two minutes to get to her bus.
She runs over the large, angular, echoey, corrugated iron bridge that connects all fifteen platforms at Reading Station. Politely dodging people on the two sets of escalators (one up, one down) proves particularly complicated, but she does her best to be humble and nimble.
She flails her ticket at the guard by the luggage gate (who momentarily considers stopping her, but thinks better – kinder – of the situation) and then she careers on through the concourse-cum-captive-capitalist-cathedral, grateful she doesn’t have the time to be hoodwinked by the insistence and availability.
Once out in the fresh-ish air she hurtles across the busy access road / bus station / taxi rank towards the waiting bus, holding her bags out to either side at waist level for balance, to stop her tripping on them, to ward off all the vehicles around her. When crossing roads, she always feels a need to summon an assertiveness that does not come naturally to her.
The bus closes its doors and starts to move off. Desperate to get home quickly and not wanting to have to stand and wait for half an hour, she steps into its path, flaps her arms up and down frantically while still running, and tries to make eye contact with the driver. He stops the bus – it hadn’t moved more than a metre or so – and re-opens the door.
Less panicked now, she slows. But her thick brown hair, which has always had a life of its own, has momentum. It swirls around her head, into her mouth and sticks to her sweaty, flushed face and neck.
She gets onto the bus a little dishevelled, completely out of breath, and stumbling slightly from the adrenaline. She dumps her rucksack into the luggage rack and while tapping her card to pay she briskly rubs her face five or six times to get rid of the tickly hair that’s gathered there. Then she walks straight to the back to stand. There are seats, but she’s been sat down on the train for too long.
The sun starts setting as the bus pulls off.
Her body still vibrating a little from the rush of the rush and her mind racing, her eyes come to a rest first. Watching the upcoming bus stops scroll by on the digital display above the door.
It strikes her that she has no idea where Turnham’s Farm is. It is part of her hometown; well, she reasons it must be because the bus terminates there; and she has lived in Reading fully twenty-seven years with the thirty-three bus a thoroughly real and solidly present part of her life the entire time.
Really, since as far back as she can remember she has been riding it.
It is the same number thirty-three bus she had always caught into town with her mum as a child, almost every weekend for shopping or to catch the train on to the grandparents’. The same number thirty-three bus that had taken her and her mum to the local park too. The same bus she’d ridden into town with her mates a few times, bunking off school. The same one she’d got drunk and puked on aged seventeen when she’d first started going out. The same one she’d taken to college and then Uni and then work.
It is almost as if she’d lived her entire life on that bus. Or at least that it connects every point in hr life.
And yet, still, as she stands there rolling closer to home, she is unable to escape the truth. That she knows nothing about Turnham’s Farm. Nothing about the full potential of this bus that she has ridden hundreds, probably thousands, of times; that she has shared so much of her life with. She only knows what she sees of it.
It’s the same with the people on the bus too. As they get off, she finds herself wondering what each of them might be doing, where they’ve come from, where they’re going. What their potential is. Whether any of them knows where Turnham’s Farm is. If any of them have been there. And before she knows it, her stop is upon her.
Having relaxed now as completely as she ever does, she gets off carefully, making sure not to knock anything or anyone, and remembering to thank the driver. As the bus moves off with all the other passengers still on it, she can’t help herself wondering if any of them are going to Turnham’s Farm.
It is a seven walk under sycamore trees from the bus-stop to the Victorian terrace she half owns with Antoan, a friend she’d met in university. He’d come to Reading from a small hill-side town in Greece and settled; she’d never left.
When she gets in, he has clearly been stripping the living-room wallpaper all day. It is quite late so, leaving him undisturbed apart from popping her head in to say a quick hello, Dawn continues down the thin hall beside the stairs to their neat but dated kitchen to put on some dinner for them both. Nothing special. Just pie, chips and peas.
She can cook well but doesn’t usually bother. It doesn’t give her all that much joy to spend such a long time chopping, mashing, roasting, etc. It is not laziness as such, more … efficiency. She just wants to eat more than she wants to cook. And that’s understandable, isn’t it.
While the pies start cooking, she runs to the local shop to buy some wine to take the edge off the travel-tiredness that has set in and returns just in time to put the chips into the oven with the pies. Then she takes all the sauces, salt, pepper, wineglasses, etc., into the living room with knives and forks, and places them on the floor as she cannot reach the coffee table. The clatter surprises Antoan who is up on a ladder scraping away at the last remaining corner of the room.
“It’s not that dinner is remotely ready yet, I just felt like being remotely prepared,” she says even though she hadn’t meant to. Her intent was funnier / cleverer / more worth a response in her mind. She really is tired. She stifles a little yawn and goes back into the kitchen to idly flick through the Evening Post while the dinner finishes cooking.
The table she sits at and the chair onto which she collapses are seventies/eighties in style, like the rest of the kitchen (except the electrical goods, which are all basic and modern). You could call it kitsch or throwback. Or maybe you’d call it old-school to make the luddites and stick-in-the-muds look cool. I’m not sure. Perhaps it’s not yet past enough to have a special word for it. Anyway, the stuff in there they intentionally bought was only to fit in with what the last owners of the house had left them with. Which Dawn and Antoan haven’t decided about changing yet. He wants to, she doesn’t; she doesn’t see the point.
Dawn often ‘reads’ the paper while food cooks, but in truth she never pays attention even in the slightest to any of it except the jobs section (just in case), the courts section (just in case) and she always reads the horoscopes too for some reason. Just in case, probably.
She steadily turns the pages of the paper until the alarm she’d set on her phone goes off. Then she jumps up, turns on the microwave for the frozen peas that have been waiting in a part-clingfilmed mug inside it, crashes open the oven, burns herself slightly on the wrist as she takes out the food, clatters some plates out of the cupboard, and throws it all together in one similarly less than graceful set of motions.
“Dinner’s here.” She says as she carries the plates into the living room with the bottle of wine under her arm.
“Phew,” says Antoan, “getting ‘bout time to stop this now.” He sounds honestly thankful, as if he’d been looking for an excuse to stop all day.
The sofas and other furniture (set of maybe antique draws, two identical Ikea wooden side tables, a worn red velvet footstool and a pine boot-sale coffee table) are pushed up close to the TV for Antoan to work around. Dawn finds there is no way in. She has to step over the table to get onto the sofa. She does so clumsily, almost dropping Antoan’s plate as she attempts to hand it to him while clambering.
“Has the room shrunk a bit?” She’s not that funny today. Perhaps she never is.
“Yes, cosy ain’t it.” Antoan smiles. Sarcastic lips, kind eyes. “How was the trip?”
“Nice.” Her tired eyes scan the room. “Really nice.”
All the paper is now off the walls. It looks as though he’d been neatly tidying it into a pile in the corner as he went. The bare, mottled and pock-marked plaster is exposed.
She’d forgotten the true depth of the bay window, and how nice it is to see some of the wall and feel space behind you when you sit down. Plus, where Antoan had lifted the edges of the old blue carpet to protect it against drips from solvent he’d been using to remove the stubborn bits of paper, she saw the potential of floorboards too.
Perhaps a change would come soon.
While Antoan pours two glasses of wine, Dawn says it looks like he’s done a thorough job and tells him, perhaps obviously (I should give her a break, she’s tired), that the room will probably need a lot of skimming to even it all out before they can re-paper and paint. She also says something about cornices, though she doesn’t really know what they are. And nor does Antoan. Then she turns on the TV and goes straight for Netflix.
They both scoff their food while watching two episodes of <please insert your current Netflix binge show here>, stopping occasionally to sip their wine. Nothing disturbs their relentless eat/watch/sip flow, except for ten seconds or so of laughter when Dawn hiccoughs and a bit of pie flies invisibly across the shrunken room onto the TV screen.
“I nearly died earlier”, Antoan says as he puts his plate on the floor beside his chair and reaches for the remote to turn off the TV.
“What?!” She’s so tired that part of her believes him.
Antoan laughs a little.
“Nah.” The soft creases around his green eyes admitting he had exaggerated for effect. “I fell off the ladder properly though when I was reaching up into the corner of the bay window. Spun right over the top onto the floor. Was quite a shock.”
“I bet.” It does sound it, but with the TV off she has drifted back to thinking about Turnham’s Farm. Besides, he looks fine.
After a few moments of silence, Antoan goes to get a beer from the kitchen. He’s not drunk much of his wine.
“Do you know where Turnham’s Farm is?” Dawn asks the moment he walks back into the room.
“Not really.” Antoan looks astonished by her question. Of course, he doesn’t know where it has come from, or, indeed, where it is going. “Why?” Antoan is willing her to continue though.
“It just struck me on the way home today that I haven’t the foggiest where it is.”
“I’ve been riding the thirty-three bus all my life and that’s where it goes, but I’ve never known where that is.”
“Again, so?” He pauses for a moment. “What does it matter? You’ve obviously never needed to go there then.”
“No, true. But it’d be nice to know.”
“Why?” He catches his patience by the tail.
“It just would, that’s all. It’s not important. It’d just be interesting.” She has no idea how her flights of fancy frustrate Antoan.
He doesn’t make it obvious. Her eyes and whole body are so animated when she talks about an idea she’s having, whatever it is. He would never stifle such beauty.
“Interesting in what way; for what reason; what’s the point in knowing where the end of the line is until you find yourself needing to go there?” Though he does challenge her.
“I don’t know, it’s just intriguing. The illusiveness of it.”
“Well, you would think that wouldn’t you.” Antoan pauses. Taunting. Smiling.
A gigantic silence forms between them. It is about the size and type of silence that the word god conjures up for me.
“Ride it all the way one day then,” Antoan says about a minute later.
“But that might spoil it for me. There’d be nothing mysterious left about riding the bus then.”
“Well don’t then.” Antoan draws in a sharp breath of almost frustration but immediately picks at some imaginary food in his front teeth for cover, before he continues with a smile. “It doesn’t matter. Either you do or you don’t.” Things are much simpler for him than they are for Dawn. They always have been.
She gets up and goes to her bedroom, returning quickly with her scrabble board. But she doesn’t play well. Most of the time, she thinks about what Antoan said. Either you do or you don’t. An oddly simplistic statement, far too perfect.
She yawns and shifts restlessly the whole evening, like her cousin’s baby mixing frustration with fatigue, while Antoan wins three games in a row.
“You know, that’s interesting,” she eventually says.
“What?” Antoan yawns a tremendous yawn. One that could suck in a planet and its five moons. Not six.
“What you said earlier; either you do, or you don’t. I find that statement interesting.”
“I’m glad. I’m going to bed now though.” Antoan is perfectly happy not to carry on. He stands up. “See you in the morning mate. Cheers for dinner.”
“Night,” she says distantly, looking at the ceiling, her right hand blindly pat-searching the table for her glass and her mind still orbiting the baby; potential; the destination of the bus.
She does not find her glass immediately and when she does she just holds it, swirling it in the air, thinking for a few minutes before she slowly takes a sip. The wine is warm and boring. It dries out her mouth. She looks at her phone. It is eleven-fifteen, a boring time of the day; there’s nothing left to do, and no time left in which to do it. The last bus will be going by soon.
Somewhere, something cracks.
Almost automatically, she puts down her glass, gets up herself, swings on her coat and leaves the house.
An owl coos a shiver up her spine and a train rattles abruptly at the far end of the road behind her. But these sharp alarms soon dissipate into the night and she is left alone with the wind rushing up between the dark silent houses, rattling and rustling all around her.
She walks on.
When she is halfway to the bus-stop, the night is again disturbed. This time by a startling flush of fat driving rain that soaks her through in a moment; followed a fraction of a second later by a deep, long roll of thunder that builds to a close, deafening crack accompanied by a fit of five or six intense white whips of lightening.
A storm is above her. Upon her.
Antoan is warm and dry, sleeping deeply as always.
Far away, under still skies, her cousin’s baby grumbles in his bed-side cot. His mum quietly rolls over, rests her gentle hand on his chest and hums softly to him.
Dawn marches on.