The 6 o clock bus from university was crowded. Friday night meant the beginning of the weekend. It was mandatory for most to start it drenched with the hard stuff at the multitude of pubs at the city centre.
English rain was making its presence felt. The glass was completely smoked over. A humid warmth enveloped the riders. I found a seat on the upper deck, the first empty one I could find. She was French, maybe in her sixties. She smiled and said hello. Something no stranger here has done or said to me before. She had travelled here to see a well-regarded exhibition at the museum and was now on her way back. She expressed a genuine interest in my studies and where I was from.
It was an effortless interaction. I asked her what she did. A story emerged, first slowly and then in a steady stream of a life filled with struggle. Of dreams and wishes of what she had wanted to do, had invested in, but had never been granted. Instead she now worked harsh hours in a daily wage job, saving enough to survive and on rare occasions travel hours to exhibitions at museums like the one that had brought her here this day and led her to become my co-passenger. Her heart lay in art, the craft of stone and clay. Her eyes were sincere in that. Fate had not complied.
While she succumbed to being overwhelmed and put her head between her hands, trying not to cry, I became aware that soon my bus stop would arrive. I had a dinner to attend with a group of people I hardly really knew, who would never even miss me if I did not make it. But I had made a commitment. I had to leave. I wanted to say so many things to her.
All I could come up with was, that, I knew someone once around the same age as her who had been through something similar to what she had and that he had made it in the end. That he was happy now. That she should hang on and that things would work out. It was a platitude. But I willed it with all my heart to be true.
Her face lit up, like she actually believed me. She asked me if it was true, that what I said meant a great deal to her and she thanked me. The moment had come for me to disembark. She hugged me and kissed me like the French do on both cheeks and said “Bon Chance, this is what we say. It means good luck”. I repeated the phrase back to her.
We will never see each other again. We did not even ask each other’s names. For some reason that short 20-minute bus ride shared with a stranger left a deep impression on me. I often think, I should have skipped the meaningless dinner and rode the bus with her a little longer till the railway station. Not because I felt sorry for her, but because I felt her presence so keenly in my life within those moments. I felt it because she had gifted me with her trust. I did not see it as a moment of weakness in her, but as a moment of blind courage. The kind of courage that only people who have experienced a poverty of hope can exhibit. The kind of courage that many of my generation are losing, drowned in our virtual conversations, drunk on intoxicants, always looking for the road to that better life and revelling in individualistic lifestyles.
I think of her now, almost every day. I remember her smile and the way it formed wrinkles near her eyes.
As I got up finally, she said au revoir. We briefly held hands and it was goodbye.
Night had arrived in the city and the rain had stopped. The air outside the bus was cold. Tears formed in my eyes as I saw the bus disappear. Two strangers, one from France and the other from India, had met far from home in England and had instantly connected simply by being present for each other and exchanged excerpts from their lives. I felt like I had not given her half as much as she had given me. I felt like I had lost a friend to time again.