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‘Good Listeners’ by Brian Hamill

PART OF THE Blether ISSUE

‘I’ve seen him on here before, you know, doing the same thing with other people, other girls, you know, trying that old carry-on.’

Good conversation needs good listeners too, but oftentimes, and for various reasons, that skill can allude us. This short story captures this problem excellently, and comes from a brilliant new collection from a new publisher. BooksfromScotland is excited to see what comes next from The Common Breath.

 

‘Good Listeners’ by Brian Hamill
Taken from Good Listeners
By Alan Warner & Brian Hamill
Published by The Common Breath

 

Sitting there and doing nothing – he was just staring out the window. It was still a fair distance home, so no point in being impatient about it, the bus would stop as many times as it had to and people would get on and they would ask the driver stupid questions, does this one go to the hospital son, and people would be getting off and asking the driver stupid  questions again, as if he gives a shite what happens to you once you step off the ledge, and so the thing would crawl all the way to the right stop, the right street, and that would be that. And tired anyway, too tired to get annoyed, because it took energy to get annoyed and he had none, it was these morning starts that did it, the body held up fine but just a weariness, that feeling in the head, his brain going slowly, as if  everything was happening underwater, and affecting the eyes, his eyes that were starting to drop and it was only the early evening.

He became aware of a new noise, in between the sounds of the engine, of people coming in and going out, and the hissing of the door and the wind outside – somebody had started to speak. There had been no talk when he got on. One of those good journeys where there aren’t any folk that know each other, so it stays quiet, tranquil, everybody sitting alone and just shutting up. But now there was this guy, talking steadily, giggling, bits of it could be heard as he droned on and on.

Turning to look down the bus and seeing the guy immediately, the mouth going a mile a minute, stopping only to grin, wink, enjoying his own joke, before going on with the stupid, shitty story. Something about a phonecall, an argument – it being easier to pick up the words now that the fucker was in view.

And who is it he’s talking to?

The girl of course.

The girl that he must have turned round in his seat to start a conversation with, as she’s in the one behind – surely if he had known her, he’d be sitting on the one next to her, if they were friends or whatever. If they’d had relations. Then surely they would have been nestled in together.

As it is the guy’s in front, she’s stuck facing him, and the pair of them are only a few rows away, so that he can see them without it being immediately obvious he’s watching. Which is fortunate. It’s a nice sight. Her wee slim shoulders, the back of her neck, and soft brown hair. Then there’s the guy, who shouldn’t even be twisted round like that, shouldn’t be pestering an innocent lassie; and just the look on his daft fucking face, as he’s leering right in at her, the wee bastard.

Grim.

Continuing to watch them, casually. No need to try and disguise it too much – the guy didn’t look like anything to worry about. He would keep an eye on them in fact, openly, to make sure there was nothing untoward. These young girls, alone, he had heard stories of what can happen. And there’s something about the way the guy was facing her, something in his expression. It doesn’t sit right. The annoying thing is, he had actually noticed her as well when he got on – not having any sort of a good look, but just the passing acknowledgement that the seat was occupied as he went past, and that the occupant appeared to be non-male. It was just the shape, the way she sat, her thin neck, you absorb these things in a split-second, without even glancing really. Yet that’s where it had ended for him; she was keeping herself to herself so he did the same. It was a bus, it was a Tuesday, he wasn’t going to slide up next to her as if they were in a fucking cocktail bar.

But this young gun had. Ok.

Rubbing his eyes briefly, then staring over at the two of them. So either the guy had only got on at the last stop, or worse, he’d spied her and moved over from somewhere else just to give her the chat. She is on the inside seat – is her head actually resting on the glass? It is tilted to the side. And the guy, on the opposite seat in front, turned right round with one leg sticking out into the aisle.

Hard to tell if she’s replying to him. Her ponytail twitches about at the back of her head, but that’s just the motion of the bus, probably. And even so, it proved nothing. She could be uncomfortable. Frightened, even. Considering getting off and walking, or waiting on the next bus, praying that one would be free of such perverts and psychotics. Maybe she’s terrified, hating it, pinned into the wall and desperate for somebody to come over and stop him.

The bloody patter the guy was coming out with, it was not real. That feeling of being embarrassed – for him – of getting a hotness about your own fucking ears and face, and then shaking the head and having to look away for a minute: this, for a person not even known to yourself. Crazy. That’s how fucking bad it was, it was just awful, what he was saying and how he was saying it. That the cunt could keep a straight face!

And there’s no way in this world she doesn’t know what he’s up to. It was impossible not to, an absolute impossibility, there was not a fucking mammal on land that couldn’t have, no no no.

No.

These are the times where it’s good to not be a girl, to never have to put up with this kind of rubbish, this transparent insulting fucking nonsense. He’s looking right at her, this young deviant, right now, for God sake, his head getting ever closer. The eyes he keeps giving her, it’s obvious to the point of being quite threatening. How could she not feel threatened? The beady eyes, moving about on her, burrowing into her – even he could see that and he was rows further back.

If only a message could be relayed to the guy somehow. Maybe to his phone, or into a fucking earpiece, something inreal-time just to say to him, to tell him, so that he would know: LISTEN, YOU’RE DOING TERRIBLE MATE, TERRIBLE, SHE’S EMBARRASSED, AND WE’RE ALL EMBARRASSED TOO, COZ YOU’RE GIVING US A BAD NAME HERE. TOO, TOO BAD. SERIOUSLY NOW, JUST FUCK OFF, OK, LEAVE IT. LEAVE IT AND COUNT YOURSELF LUCKY. OK? FUCK OFF.

But still they’re chatting, at least he is, when a group of new people come in, some going upstairs, some sitting down here. This big, heavy-looking older woman parking herself in the chair in front – he has to move out to the aisle seat just to keep a bloody view of them, on account of this old dame’s giant head with the hair all piled up and this hat perched on the top of it, looking absolutely ludicrous, really, but thankfully able to see them again . . . and having to blink and strain the eyes for a second to be sure, to see it clearly, but aye, it’s there, it was happening, the bastard had snaked his hand over the top of the seat and left it dangling down on her side. Fucking unbelievable! The fingers, so close to her, it was an invasion, but more than that – we were now nothing but a pot hole away from full fake-accidental hand-to-tit contact.

It is too much.

Too far.

He takes a long breath in.

The bus, swaying round corners, but managing to hold the handrails and get down to where they are, and seeing her wee face for the first time, she was quite young as expected, and so saying to him: Right, RIGHT!(to get him to look up, then going on: You leave the lassie alone, right? RIGHT? Don’t give me any shite – and actually having to shout a bit coz of the engine noise – Don’t even try it, you never came on with her, you’re annoying her and you’re annoying me, so go, go wait at the door, you’re getting off the next stop.

The guy’s eyes are opened wide, he tries to laugh, then his mouth moves in response, these words he’s saying, he’s trying to excuse himself, to plead maybe, but there’s too much feeling boiling up for it even to be listened to, nothing is being heard, nothing, there’s just no point to it, whatever daft shite he was saying, it’s only sound in a vacuum; but he’s talking faster and faster, he’s desperate to be listened to. Instead, moving forward quickly to grab a handful of the Bastard’s t-shirt, trying to pull him off the fucking seat since he wouldn’t stand up, but then she says something too and that seems to work, he reacts to her words and starts to rise, slowly, he’s whispering, holding his hands up like he’d a gun pointed at him. The grip of the t-shirt released accordingly. The guy squeezes out, taking care not to make any contact, and goes on down to where the door is. When he gets there he gives this look back, this nasty look with the lips moving again, and there’s a second or two when the thought passes through – the thought that maybe he shouldn’t be getting off so lightly. Maybe he is getting off way too light here. And there’s still time. The driver was not slowing.

But it’s the bloody tiredness.

It’s there again, he can feel it, there in his arms, his shoulders, his eyelids and the sides of his face, even down to his knees and his hips, like he was an old man, ready for the fucking glue factory, and is this guy even worth it anyway, really, when he had already shit himself and went to leave, he was nothing, the guy, in fact he was worse than nothing, he wasn’t anything, a non-person, a non-entity, a fucking waste of skin, you could go on and on about such a guy, but why even bother.

And anyhow: the girl.

He turns and smiles, and she starts speaking now, so the smart move is to sit down, to listen, because she can’t be heard as it is, so noisy on this bus, these fucking sounds, all of them, and all at the same fucking time, it’s just too noisy, it is.

I know, she says. I know.

And I’m sorry about that, what I had to do there, but I could tell he was over trying his luck. I saw you were sitting minding your own business when I got on.

He was ok, she says.

The hiss of the doors again, and that moment, the sweet, sweet beauty of it, when, even without looking, the guy can be seen, having almost forgot him as soon as he was out of sight, but then from the corner of the eye, down on the pavement, his stupid, sickening face, the open mouth, shouting something or other, and the bus pulling away, so slow, the old bus, it’s glorious that it’s so slow, really drawing it out, the engine roaring, stuttering, with him in beside her and the youngster stuck outside. He smiles out at the guy, who is making a gesture with his phone in his hand, waving it around, but it doesn’t deserve a glance really, he just looks so wee and pathetic out there, this young buck, the bold one, no longer important enough to stare at, not even to smile at and shout, enjoy the walk home, fucker! Bye-byeeeeee.

The guy disappears, lost from view.

And here he still is. Right in front of the lassie, smiling.

Her hair is red, it’s red! It had looked brown but now he’s that close and it’s red, the strands so light that it’s hard to believe he couldn’t tell before. She seems to be sort of grinning too. There’s this expression on her face.

Oh, he was ok, was he? Well maybe he was but still, that’s how it starts,eh?

She nods. She just nods. Blinking her eyes a couple of times as she does so, and he notices how long her eyelashes are.

What a situation to be in.

Sitting on the chair that had been his, the young guy’s, but with the hands holding firmly to the top of it, not draped over on the other side. Her side. Not to be going about it like that; that may have been the young bastard’s way of behaving, but it certainly isn’t his.

I’ve seen him on here before, you know, doing the same thing with other people, other girls, you know, trying that old carry-on.

She shrugs, glances at the mobile she has slid out of her trouser pocket. The screen is dark.

You off home then?

Aye. She doesn’t look up. And thanks.

Or it sounded like she said thanks, but her voice was that quiet, so quiet it was hardly a noise. It’s tricky to know for sure.

He lowers his head, just a bit closer in, so that the next thing she says will definitely be picked up.

Did you say thanks there? Was that it?

RIGHT.

The shout so loud it made him jolt in his seat, almost losing his balance. It was another voice, coming from further up the bus. He turns his head sharply to see the speaker.

Somebody standing in front of the back window. Right at the centre of it, the end of the aisle. A man. It had been a man’s exclamation, and it’s a man’s shape now approaching, the light from the window strong on either side of him as he begins to move down the aisle. Squinting to try and see the face but it’s not clear; too much in the shadow.

As the person gets closer he speaks again.

You can leave the lassie alone, RIGHT? Don’t even give me any shite. I saw you going over there and making her pal get off.

He feels himself start to smile as the guy continues. It was unbelievable. Yet this was his life – these moments, these interactions, he doesn’t look for them, they seem to just seek him out, every day, on the bus, wherever he goes. What to do? Evidently this confused person thought he was up to the same disgusting game as the youngster had been.

It was wrong to think that. And to say it, with the bloody lassie in earshot. Trying to catch her eye, but she’s pretending she can’t hear it, she’s keeping her head to the front. Something about that makes him feel so sad and sorry, that she should have to be frightened like this. There was nothing to fear for her, not with him here. Nothing at all.

The new fellow is close. He’s definitely bigger than the young guy was, and still talking on and on, fucking blabbering away; more words, and more eyes looking over, more things being said. None of it is really being heard. The sound is hitting his ears, but he is closed off to it. Inside. He is closed off inside and that’s why there is no need to be frightened.

That’s what these youngsters don’t understand. These fucking idiots he has to deal with, time after time, again and again and again. He sighs.

The bus shakes slightly. He feels the drift of air from one of the side-windows, then the girl’s hand tight on the cuff of his jacket briefly, before it slides back off. That she had touched him – she had actually reached out her hand and made contact with him, and yet he couldn’t say anything, couldn’t even look. Because of the situation. Because of this new guy, who was within an arm’s length. Right fucking there. Occupying the portion of space at the edge of the seat. Blocking the way. Just that alone was threatening, the guy being there, it was a threat.

The tiredness is all gone. He feels like stone. And still this guy speaks. Watching his mouth; the teeth and tongue as they move around. The saliva on his lips. So close now.

Slowly standing up, and looking straight into the guy’s eye. He stares directly in the fucking black dot in the middle of it; right there and nowhere else. The dot staring back. It moves from side to side, shuddering, not remaining still, but continuing to gaze out from the head, returning the look.

The talk keeps going too, but he can sense the guy is backing off. There is suddenly some distance between them.

Another hand is on his wrist.

And he hears nothing.

 

‘Good Listeners’ by Brian Hamill is taken from Good Listeners by Alan Warner & Brian Hamill is published by The Common Breath, priced £7.00.

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