|A line in the local newspaper was all that it merited, a single line, just below the picture of the Councillor with the fake smile, not much to sum up a lifetime. The police did try, but there was nothing really to investigate. There was simply no reason for him to run in front of the car. It was just so out of character. His work colleagues used words like ‘meticulous’, ‘diligent’ and most of all, ‘careful’, of course he was respected by his colleagues, but did they actually like him asked the police, the embarrassed silence said it all really.
Loneliness can strike in the moment of a smile and up to that moment Benjamin Leigh would have said he was content with his lot in life. True, it was a rather ordinary life lived in the nondescript town of Maresfield, a place where nothing happened and more importantly nothing was ever expected to happen, which was a source of great comfort to most of its inhabitants.
Leigh’s life was bounded and defined by the timetable of the Maresfield Omnibus Company, a document regarded as advisory by the company and a work of fiction by its customers. In the morning he caught the Number 12 at 8.25, unless the weather was horrible in which case, for some perverse reason, it became the 8.30 and in the evening, the 17.20, this sometimes left at 17.15 an act of pure wickedness for which the driver was roundly and routinely condemned particularly by those who were not actually on it at the time. In between those hours he worked as an actuary for the Maresfield Insurance Company. It was not perhaps the most exciting of positions, but the company was solid and respectable, and his career was not without prospects.
In short, as the police noted, Leigh was a solid respectable citizen leading a regular life. And so it was right up to the point he first saw her that Wednesday afternoon.It had been a day much like any other. In the morning he was thrilled to discover a small discrepancy in one of the life expectancy tables. Buoyed with this success, it was with particular relish that he partook of his customary dinnertime sandwich of chicken on white bread. The afternoon was something of anti-climax consisting of the correction in red ink of various draft documents and replies to numerous e-mails. At precisely 17.03 he walked down the steps of the main entrance onto Caulfield Street and then did a smart left onto the High Street.
Walking at a brisk pace he passed the Castle Arms at 17.06, barely noticing a red Clio turning into the High Street, reached the chemists by 17.08 and then catastrophe. A mother and her small daughter seemed to come out of nowhere forcing him to halt suddenly. He tried to walk around them, but the mother somehow managed to block his way. Forced to pay attention he noticed that the mother was arguing with her daughter, a lonely little girl with sad green eyes. The girl looked at him curiously, something which Leigh found most disconcerting being unused to the attentions of one so small.
Leigh looked at his watch, 17.11, there was still time for a quick glance at the offers in the windows of Waterstone’s and then he would be on his way. Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a single-decker Number 19 bus parked across the road with its engine running. This was a little strange as he had been walking up and down the street every weekday for the last five years and could not recall ever seeing a bus stop there, most likely something to do with road works he thought.
What made him glance again he could not have said, but what he saw brought a flash of colour into an unimaginative mind, ‘strawberry blonde’ was his first thought, although he doubted there was such a colour it seemed to be the best way to describe the young woman sitting on the bus reading a book.
‘Who are you?’ he said more to himself than anyone else.
Surprisingly, the young woman reacted as if she had heard something, looking about for a few moments before she settled upon Leigh and smiled. As she did so an infinite world of colour and shape suddenly opened up to Leigh. He felt light headed. A life once thought adequate was in reality empty. All that he was, or ever hoped to be, seemed so insignificant when balanced against the sublime moment of that smile.
It was only when the bus revved its engine and pulled away was he conscious that he was standing in the middle of the street being stared at by a number of people.
‘Pull yourself together,’ he told himself as he glanced at his watch. All was not yet lost if the bus driver stuck to the timetable, which naturally he didn’t, and Leigh was left to contemplate the mystery of the Strawberry Blonde while he sat shivering in the bus station waiting for the next bus, due in two hours; hopefully.
The following day began with the resolution that the Number 19 was a matter that required his further investigation. After listening to the morning weather forecast of severe cold with the strong possibility of snow for the next few days, he deduced correctly that a measured pace would allow him to arrive at the bus stop at the same time as the bus that being precisely 8.30. If the bus driver had the look of someone thwarted in his endeavour Leigh contrived not to notice.
At work Leigh committed the unforgivable administrative sin of changing his mind and correcting the completed documents from the day before and then compounded it by finding entirely different things to correct in the afternoon. To say that Amanda, his admin assistant, was not impressed by this state of affairs would be an under-statement. After the third time this had happened she stalked away and silently plotted her revenge for the following day.
Not that Leigh noticed any of this, for he was too busy thinking about the Strawberry Blonde and counting down the minutes.
At 17.03 he was on Caulfield Street, 17.06 Castle Arms, the Number 19 was still there, meanwhile a red Clio turned into the High Street, 17.08 the chemists and then he became conscious of a small shape running into him, again.
‘How many times do I have to tell you not to run away like that?’ said the mother from the day before as she grabbed hold of her daughter.
The girl watched the red Clio speed past and then turned and smiled at Leigh not that Leigh had time for such matters for by now the Number 19 was pulling away. Was she there, he could not quite see, there was someone, he peered; yes she was there, in the same place reading her book. As the bus came level she looked up, turned her head and smiled at Leigh. If a lifetime of pure joy could be encapsulated into a solitary instant then that would be some measure of the emotion that Leigh felt at that moment.
‘Pull yourself together man,’ he told himself as he glanced at his watch. There was still time, but he knew in his heart that he did not want to give the bus driver the satisfaction of pulling out as he arrived at the stop. Instead, he spent the next two hours contemplating as to why the Maresfield bus timetable only went up to the Number 18 and what he planned to do about it.
Despite the cold and the snow it was with consummate ease that Leigh caught the morning Number 12 the following morning, which proved to be a bitter disappointment to the driver who had arranged to leave Leigh’s stop at no later than 8.29.
During the journey to work the snow gave Leigh an idea, he would use it as an excuse to leave work early, certainly no later than 16.30, this would enable him to catch the Number 19 and wherever it went he could use the time spent upon the journey summoning up the courage to talk to the woman who was completely taking over his life.
At work Amanda’s carefully crafted revenge was thwarted by the fact that her labours were leaving absolutely no impression upon Leigh whose interest in worldly affairs had drifted to the high water mark of his chicken sandwich and then quickly receded again. Regrouping, Amanda decided to change tactics and knowing of his intention to leave early resolved to chain Leigh to his desk with links of triviality and petty bureaucracy. At 16.15 she was pleased to note his mild concern, at 16.25 his anxious glance of the clock and by 16.30 his genuine agitation. Serves you right she thought.
‘It’s snowing outside,’ he said with concern and regretting that he never learnt the essential management skill of knowing how to throw someone out of your office.
Leigh struggled and struggled with his chains, he proposed, he suggested and he even outright pleaded, but to not avail. A more compassionate soul may have relented at this point, but Amanda was determined that this day would not be forgotten for a very long while.
Minutes tricked away as duty battled with desire until, at last, the image in his mind displaced the physical reality of the other and he was free.
By 17.02 he was on Caulfield Street and throwing caution to the wind was soon striding through the slippery snow, 17.05, the Castle Arms, he was now clearly ahead of schedule and nothing was going to stop him. A glance revealed that the Number 19 was still there, meanwhile a red Clio turned into the High Street. By 17.07 he is conscious of someone running to the doorway of the chemists, not today little one, not today.
He sees the woman on the bus waving at him. The decisions we make in life and their consequences often turn upon fractions of a second.
‘I tried, I swear I tried,’ the driver of the red Clio told the police later, ‘but there was nothing I could do.’
Another day; the lonely little girl with the sad green eyes comes out of the chemists ahead of her distracted mother, the girl notices a man and a woman on a bus across the road, they are sitting together, she is reading a book, he a newspaper. The woman turns her head and looks at the girl, she smiles and then says something to the man who looks up and waves to her.
The little girl knows that soon she will never be lonely again.