A Face in the Crowd – Kerry Wilkinson

Ben pats the breast pocket of his suit jacket, then his trouser pocket, his backside and his wrist. Keys, wallet, phone and watch. It’s the new head, shoulders, knees and toes. ‘Got everything?’ I ask, unable to come up with anything better to say. He checks his trouser pocket once more, removing his phone to make sure it’s definitely there. I don’t like it when he’s nervous; his anxiety feeds mine, a contagion that’s spreading along the hallway of our house. ‘We’re close,’ he says, answering a question I hadn’t asked. ‘If I can just get this bloke to invest…’ He tails off, biting his lip and glancing towards the front door. ‘Train tickets,’ he says to himself, going back through the routine of checking all his pockets. Keys, wallet, phone and watch; phone and watch… and eyes and ears and mouth and nose… Ben eventually finds the train tickets in his inside pocket, breathing a sigh of relief. There’s a bead of sweat along his hairline, which he wipes away with his sleeve. He scratches the base of his neck, tugging at the collar of his shirt, where the top button looks as if it’s done up a little too tightly. After that, he rubs the scar that’s underneath his Adam’s apple. He does this a lot when he’s worried. The mark is barely there and, if he’d not pointed it out on our very first date, I’m not sure I’d have noticed it unless I really looked.

There’s a narrow trace of squiggly purple that hoops under the bulge in his throat – an old rugby injury, apparently. He needed reconstructive surgery. I was shocked when he said he got it playing rugby. He’s not particularly tall or broad, and nothing like the rugger-bugger type. He said it happened at school. ‘This is it,’ he says. ‘We might be able to book the venue tomorrow. It’ll be the wedding you’ve always dreamed of.’ I almost tell him that the venue doesn’t matter to me. That it feels like, for all the talk of what I’ve always dreamed of, what we’ve really spent months looking into is the wedding he’s always dreamed of.

Montgomery Manor is out in the countryside, a massive building that’s featured in at least half-a-dozen movies and television shows. We’ve visited twice, ostensibly to decide the room in which we’d like to be married. There’s the Robinson Suite that overlooks the stream at the back, with lots of natural daylight during spring and summer, apparently. If not that, there’s the Westley Room, in which Kate Winslet once snogged some actor whose name I can never remember in a film I’ve not seen. The reason we’ve committed to neither room is that we can’t afford it. Even marrying on a weekday off-season is beyond our budget. I don’t mind. I’d get married in a register officer with no hesitation. I’d do it this weekend. I’d do it tomorrow.

Ben breathes out deeply and strides towards the front door. He opens it and then pauses before leaving, taking another deep breath. ‘I’ve been thinking,’ he says, half turned. ‘Once we’ve got the house by the park, we could maybe think about getting you those stables…?’ It takes me a second to process what he’s said – but it still makes no sense. ‘Getting those what?’ I ask. ‘Remember on our second date when you said you liked horses and always wanted your own when you were a girl? If everything comes through today, I might be able to make that happen.’ He stares at me with such clear, unblinking focus that a tingle flickers up my spine, making me shiver. One of the first things I noticed about Ben was those long eyelashes. They make his brown eyes appear even duskier than they are. Some women would kill for eyelashes like those – either that, or pay a small fortune to a doctor somewhere.

It is part of what makes him so seductive; so appealing. But the darkness of his eyes is also what makes me feel as if there’s something else there. Something about him that I’ll never understand. ‘I’m not sure if I want stables,’ I say, stumbling over the words. The truth is, I’d forgotten telling him about my young dreams of owning a horse. Seven-year-old girls want for all sorts of things. That was eighteen years ago. I’ve barely thought about it since. I wanted a pink helicopter and an endless supply of Cadbury’s Fruit ’N’ Nut bars when I was that age, too. ‘It was only an idea,’ he replies.

‘I want to provide for you.’ ‘I don’t mind working. I like working.’ He nods, but it doesn’t feel as if he’s listening. ‘You’ll be able to do what you want. Work or not work. Study or not study.’ There’s a momentary pause and then: ‘Take a few years off and we can try for kids…’ I fight away a roll of the eyes. We’ve been through this and I’m not ready for kids. I want to visit Thailand and travel through south-east Asia.

I want to finally go to university, or study for a degree from home. It’s not the time to point all that out, however. I don’t want to burst Ben’s bubble when he’s got such an important day ahead of him. I’m hoping that, if today goes well, it’ll put an end to the mood swings and the nights by myself when he sleeps on the sofa. Ben works as a day trader, buying and selling shares from the relative comfort of our living room. I can always tell the type of day he’s had by the way he greets me when I get home from work. Or, indeed, whether he greets me at all. There’s darkness and light within him – or, more recently, darkness and dark. The light makes it worth it, though. The way he smiles; the times we cuddle under a blanket on the sofa to binge-watch some overhyped drama series; even the way he says my name.

He’s never called me ‘Lucy’, always ‘Luce’ – or ‘Loose’, I suppose. It’s hard to describe, but it makes me feel as if I’m at the centre of the world. As if there’s only me. That’s love, isn’t it? When a single word spoken can make a person’s throat dry up. From nowhere, Ben grimaces. He angles forward slightly, as if about to bow. ‘What’s wrong?’ I ask. He closes his eyes for a moment and then reopens them. ‘Last night’s sushi, I think.’ ‘Will you be okay?’ He shrugs, which is something I hate.

It’s hard to say why, other than that it doesn’t suit him. It’s like when I try to do something left-handed. There’s a lack of coordination; a general sense that the action isn’t quite right. ‘I’ve got to go,’ he replies. ‘I love you.’ ‘I love you, too.’ A reflex. Bang. I love you―I love you, too. I’m pretty sure I do love him.

Sometimes I’m certain, other times I wonder if I know what the word means. ‘See you later,’ he says. He’s being kind today, going through the whole routine. He doesn’t always say goodbye. I sometimes leave for work and he doesn’t look up from his computer. Sometimes, I say I love him and he doesn’t reply at all. ‘See you later,’ I say, parroting him. ‘You’ll do brilliantly today.’ He steps outside, leaving a hand on the front door. ‘Yes,’ he says, not sounding convinced.

‘Good luck,’ I add. There’s a second in which I wonder if I’ve said the wrong thing. As if I’m doubting his ability by implying he needs good fortune. Luck shouldn’t come into it, after all. Luck is what people need if they aren’t skilled enough to get the job done. A flutter tickles my heart, but he doesn’t pick up on it. ‘Thanks,’ Ben replies. He checks his pockets and wrist one final time – keys, wallet, phone and watch – then he pulls the door closed. I stand alone in the hall for a moment, watching through the rippled glass of the front door as his silhouette shrinks its way to the end of our driveway. ‘See you later,’ I repeat, this time to myself.

CHAPTER ONE FRIDAY I’m not sure if there are many things more humiliating than looking at a rolly-eyed bus driver and saying, ‘Don’t you recognise me?’ He has tufty gingery hair and is wearing the weary expression of a man who can’t wait to finish his shift. I get on this bus twice a day, five days a week. He drives it three or four times of those ten journeys. We do not know one another, but there’s still indignity in that I recognise him, while he’s sure he’s never once set eyes on me. ‘It’s two-twenty,’ he says with yet another roll of the eyes. I can practically hear his thoughts. Not another nutter… ‘I’m not trying it on,’ I reply, ‘I really do have a monthly pass. I use it every day. I was hoping you’d know me…?’ I tail off, knowing I’ve lost the argument. The person behind me in the queue to get on shuffles and sighs.

I’m one of those people. The ones who can’t simply get on a bus without causing trouble. My purse gives no clues as to where the pass could be. I always leave it in the front window section, precisely so that it’s impossible to lose. It’s not there and neither is it in that compartment. ‘Two-twenty or you’ll have to get off,’ he says. I half turn, ready to get off, but it’s at that moment the rain starts to thrash the windscreen like a kid playing whack-a-mole at the fair. Losing something is surely one of the worst feelings in the world. I’ve known real loss and pain, but there’s something about the way a person’s stomach sinks when a valued item has gone astray. I start to fumble through the coin part of my purse, but this is about more than the two pounds and twenty pence.

By the time I’ve paid rent and all the other bits and pieces, there’s so little left that everything else is brutally budgeted. This extra £2.20 means I’ll probably have to miss a meal. It’s a straight choice: Food – or a six-mile walk home in the pounding rain. ‘I’ll pay.’ It’s the man behind me in the queue. No, not a man. A teenager at most. He’s probably fifteen or sixteen, clutching a backpack. I start to say no, but my heart isn’t in it because everything about me must be screaming yes.

Before I can make any sort of fake protest, he’s passed a five-pound note to the driver and told him to take it out of that. I mutter a ‘thanks’, but it doesn’t feel like enough. A wave of relief slams into me as if the bus itself has thundered into a wall. I try to take a step, but my knees wobble. For his part, the kid shrugs away my thanks with a, ‘no problem – it’s only two quid’. He offers a thin smile and then edges past, manoeuvring his way as far back into the bus as he can manage. Only two quid. Only. It’s funny how far I can make only two quid stretch. I’m lost for a moment, but, as more passengers get on, I find myself following the flow until I’m clinging to a pole.

The engine rumbles like a low-level earthquake and then everyone shunts forward as we set off. It takes me a few seconds to realise that the man next to me has gone full-on chemical warfare. If any government agencies are still hunting for weapons of mass destruction, this guy is hiding in plain sight. He’s clinging onto one of those plastic loops that hang from the roof of the bus, thrusting his armpit to within a few centimetres of my face. Showering is free and even I can afford deodorant. How hard is it to not smell like mouldy cheese? What is wrong with some people? The man is oblivious, holding his phone with his other hand and thumbing his way through Facebook. Someone named Jenny has some seriously ugly children. Someone called Dave has posted a map of the route he ran that morning. Mr Stinky types ‘Good going dude’ into the comments and presses ‘post’. In all the millions of words that have been added to the internet since it was invented, I wonder if there has ever been anything more inane.

I’d move away but it’s a Friday, so the number 24 bus is full. I’m never quite sure why so many more people appear on this one single day of the week compared to any others. It’s a throbbing, sweating pit of humanity. I attempt to ignore the smell while also trying not to worry about my missing bus pass. It will be in my bag somewhere. I had it this morning. I still have the receipt at home, too. If need be, I can go to the bus station and get it replaced. The bus slows and the floor starts to vibrate as the driver pulls into the next stop. There’s a collective groan from the people around me.

As if the bus isn’t full enough. We’re British, though, so nobody says anything. No one gets off, but passengers start to shuffle into one another as, presumably, more people get on. I can’t see much past Mr Stinky. His armpit edges ever closer, the chloroform about to smother its target. I’m in the front third of the bus, with people standing all around me. The unseen door hisses closed again and there’s now no room to move. Barely room to breathe. We’re packed in like beans in a can. As the bus pulls away, I wobble slightly and tighten my grip on the vertical metal pole with one hand, while trying to cling onto my bag with the other.

It’s no wonder the roads are full of cars. Who’d choose to travel like this? To pay to travel like this? It feels as if everyone around me is so much taller than I am. As well as Mr Stinky’s armpit, there’s a woman in gym gear with one of those drawstring bags over her shoulders. She’s holding onto a pole with one hand and thumbing away at her phone with the other. If nothing else, modern technology has turned us into a population of multitaskers. The groan of the engine changes as we slow for a set of traffic lights. I take this bus so often that I know the potholes, the traffic lights, the junctions, and the give-way signs, even though I don’t own a car of my own. There’s a scuff of feet from behind, but I’m too crammed in to be able to turn. A man in a beanie hat lurches sideways and lightly treads on my foot. ‘Sorry,’ he mutters, straightening himself as the bus speeds up again.

He’s young; early twenties or late-teens. Probably on the way back from college, something like that. He’s got a kindly smile but immediately looks back to his phone. ‘It’s fine,’ I reply, though he doesn’t acknowledge it. The bus slows and someone from the back shouts that this is his stop. After that, it’s a series of oohs and aahs as a succession of people squeeze through the crowd to get off via the front door. The man in the beanie disappears, along with the woman in gym gear. There’s suddenly a little more space and I try to do-si-do myself away from Mr Stinky. There’s little respite as he slides around half-a-dozen newcomers who scramble to get the most secure handholds. I’m left clinging to a new metal pole, slightly nearer the front.

The bus surges forward and I’m two stops from sanctuary. There are traffic lights between here and there, which means another wobbling lurch of bodies swaying into one another. Mr Stinky is still on Facebook, telling someone named ‘Big Tom’ that his pimped-out twatmobile of a car is ‘the dog’s’. We stop at my penultimate bus stop. The boy with the backpack who gave me two pounds wriggles through the horde and gets off. He clutches his phone in his hand and doesn’t acknowledge me. I’m not sure why I thought he might, or should. For him, the two pounds was a shrug. It was nothing. He might have rich parents.

It simply meant he could get on the bus quicker. For me, it was a gesture that means I get to eat this weekend. After he’s off, more people get on. The bus is now so full that passengers are standing level with the driver. He shouts something about moving to the back, but there’s nowhere to go. Someone presses an elbow or an arm into my back, but I don’t have enough room to see who it is. In the meantime, a woman who is wearing what can only be described as a faded curtain treads on my toe without apologising and then swings her oversized handbag into some bloke’s stomach. He grunts in pain, but she doesn’t notice because she’s busy huffing something to the woman next to her about ‘foreigners filling up all the buses’. She then turns to Mr Stinky and tells him to put his arm down because he ‘needs a wash’. Mr Stinky eyes her incredulously but lowers his arm and puts his phone away, suitably chastened.

Turns out there’s a hero in all of us – even the racist lunatics. One more stop to go. Two minutes at the most. After the bus pulls away, I stretch for the bell and the most satisfying of ding-dongs echoes along the length of the aisle. Mandela might have had a long walk to freedom, but I’ll be damned if he ever spent twenty minutes on the number 24 bus on a Friday. I’m counting the seconds when the floor rumbles and the bus slows. Moments later, everything swerves to the side and the doors fizz open. This time, it’s me apologising as I clasp my bag to my side and try to clamber around everyone else. I trample on someone’s foot, accidentally elbow someone else in the hip and then almost grab a man’s crotch as I reach for a metal pole to try to support myself. He snorts with laughter as I apologise and, in fairness, it is the most action I’ve had in longer than I care to remember.

There are a few more steps, the customary ‘thanks’ to the driver, more through habit than actual gratefulness, and then – finally! – the crisp, cool, clean air of the real world. My sentence has been expunged and I can walk free with a clear conscience. The rain has stopped and the pavement glistens bright as I hoist my bag higher and start the walk towards home. Some kids in school uniform are busy kicking a wall because… well, I have no idea. Perhaps this is what young people do nowadays? Better than hard drugs in the bushes, I suppose. I weave around them, eyes down, and then offer a watery smile towards an old woman who is wheeling one of those canvas bag things behind her. I’ve never seen them for sale anywhere. There must be an old person store for which you only get the address after reaching pension age. She smiles back and carries on heading in one direction, while I go in the other. I’m halfway across the road when I realise something doesn’t feel right.

I almost stop right there, in the join of Fisher Road and Allen Street, as I try to figure out what’s going on. It’s that same sinking feeling when a phone or purse has been lost. Or a bus pass. That panicked realisation of not being in control. A taxi is impatiently waiting to take the turn, the driver hanging out the window with that flabby-cheeked, dead-eyed gaze of a man who’s spent the day listening to radio phone-ins. He gives me that get-a-move-on-love look, so I hurry across to the safety of the pavement. There’s a strange moment in which I wonder if I’ve left my bag on the bus, before realising that it’s in my hand. Panic does odd things to the mind. Absolutes are suddenly doubted. My bag is open, however.

The zip has been sticking for months and I don’t have the money to buy a new one. Brute force sometimes works, but only ever temporarily. I suppose that could be a lesson for life, not just with bags. It’s then that it seems so obvious what’s bothering me. My bag is heavier because a padded envelope is tucked inside. It wasn’t there before and I find myself sitting on a low wall at the edge of the pavement, holding onto the envelope with a strange sense of awe. The flap is sealed closed and there’s no writing on the outside. No address, no markings, no anything. Only a plain, taupe envelope. It’s heavy and packed thick with whatever’s inside.

It must have fallen in there while I was on the bus. This envelope isn’t mine – and yet there are no clues on the outside as to whom it might belong. I have no choice but to open it – if only to find out whose it is. And so I do. There’s a tingle of excitement, like unwrapping presents on Christmas morning. The anticipation of the unknown. The tab unsticks itself from the envelope and then I pull it away, accidentally tearing off part of the corner. I reach inside, and though I instinctively know what I’m now running my fingers across, there’s still a large part of me that can’t believe what’s in front of me. It’s money. More cash than I’ve ever seen in one place before.

Hundreds of pounds. No, thousands – all wedged down until the envelope is filled. There are tight bundles of those new plastic notes. They feel so smooth and clean. So… wrong. I quickly push the notes back inside and fold the flap down while checking around to make sure nobody has seen. This would be a lot of money anywhere, but, here, on the street, in this little run-down corner of the world… The envelope is dispatched back into my bag and, this time, I do wrench the zip closed. Brute force is the champion. I set off towards home, but everything feels muddled and I almost trip over my own feet in my attempt to walk quickly. It’s as if I’ve stumbled into a mirror world.

Up is down. Left is now right. So much money. So. Much. Money. And, for now, it’s all mine.

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