Heleen Sliep

A man


The carry handles of the Woolworths bag were tied with a double knot.  He tried to undo it with dirty fingernails.  The people boarding the bus looked at him, and then moved past him quickly.  He sat on the single seat in the first row.  He knew people were staring at him but he didn’t look up.  He kept his focus on the knots.  He felt the disgust as the passengers walked past him.  Teenagers in the back seats yelled swearwords at passing cars.  He placed the plastic bag on his lap with the Woolworths logo face-up hoping they wouldn’t notice his ragged and filthy clothes.  He became panicky because he couldn’t get the knots untied.

The hydraulics of the bus made a hissing sound as the doors opened and closed. A thud followed as they hit the metal frame.  He managed to find some rhythm in that.  Stop, hiss, thud.  Footsteps of new passengers.  Stop, hiss, thud.  Footsteps of new passengers.  He listened in anticipation as each stop approached.  Some passengers were openly disgusted.  Didn’t they notice the shopping bag?  The panic crept up on him. Up from the pit of his stomach.  Aching its way past his lungs, squashing what air there was left.  Out through his throat in a muffled sound.  His head began to buzz, his hands started shaking.  He jumped up, his eyes wild.  He leaned over the back of the seat and yelled out: “It’s a Woolworths bag.” He recalls his brother’s voice: “We will go to Woolworths and buy her some Belgian Chocolates and yellow roses. Ma loves yellow flowers, especially yellow roses”.  His brother bought chocolates, flowers and a tiny wooden horse wrapped in a parcel of toffees.  He gave him the little parcel when they left the shop.  He can still feel the excitement. Oh he felt so loved at that moment.  They were so happy then.

He was frightened by his outburst.  He had shouted so loudly. It frightened him.  He had never been so loud before.  He slid back into his seat.  His ears burned bright red, he could feel them hot at the side of his head, but his breath was easier.  He could start to feel the rhythm coming back.  He heard the sniggers followed by laughter.  It was the youngsters in the back of the bus.  No manners, no manners. They had no manners.  He tried to find the rhythm as the bus came to a halt again.  Stop, hiss, thud.  Footsteps of new passengers.  Stop, hiss.  He looked up, waiting for the thud, and saw a man neatly dressed in a dark grey suit.  His blue tie had the neatest knot he had ever seen.  The man looked at him and quickly looked away.  He recognised the man and smiled.  He wished he was sitting on a double seat so that the man could sit next to him.  He self-consciously moved the Woolworths bag to the floor.  The man in the suit walked past then stopped suddenly and retraced his steps. He looked him in the eye and hesitated.  Then he gave him the leather sling bag which was hanging from his shoulder and walked on.  He opened the sling bag, peered inside and quickly closed it again.  He then slung it across his shoulder and bent down to pick up the plastic bag. He pierced a hole in the bag with a long dirty fingernail and gently lifted out a tiny wooden horse. 

The bus stopped again.  He got up, leaned over to a little boy seated on the other side of the aisle and gave him the little wooden horse.  The doors hissed and thudded against the metal frame and he got off the bus clutching his Woolworths bag.  The thumping bass of music from a car vibrated through the tarmac on the pavement and entered his body through the soles of his tattered shoes.  He liked the feeling of the music as it thumped inside him.  There was no tune, just the rhythmic beat that warmed up his insides.  His back grew straight. He smelled clean clothes on his skin.  He smiled.  A woman passing smiled back.

Hiss. Thud!  The little boy flashed past him, his hand guiding the wooden horse on a make-believe gallop along the window.   He leapt towards the boy with astonishing speed.

The driver of the bus sat frozen, knuckles white.  The passengers gathered on the pavement and speculated in hushed voices.  The little boy’s mother gasped hysterically and hugged his head against her chest.  He tried to wriggle free, reaching for the small horse on the pavement.  The neatly dressed man in the dark grey suit stood on the pavement, tears flowing down his cheeks.
The paramedics asked if anybody knew who the man was.
The man in the suit stumbled forward, his foot catching on a bloodied plastic bag.
“That’s my brother,” he said.