It was a bus journey, plain and simple. I had returned to Manchester from Newcastle to visit with relatives in Oldham. Catching the number 83 bus on Oldham Street near to Piccadilly Square was its usual array of watching and seeing strange characters (as in every city). It was early afternoon and already the drunks lurched in to doorways to escape the chilling wind, each struggling to light up their roll-up cigarettes, young hoodies hanging around outside the game and slot machine parlours, their colourful language along with hawking and spitting incessantly totally devoid of any respect for the elderly women walking by, taxi cabs honking horns whilst careering around corners too quickly, people of all shapes and sizes milling, jostling, bumping, forcing their way through throngs of waiting people in bus queues, sheltering from the spattering of rain blown by the chilling wind.
The bus arrived and I took my place on a seat near to the front of the bus in the bay designed for those parents with prams or the disabled, my having a very large suitcase that I needed to park out of the way of other passengers. Many other passengers follow me to take their seats downstairs or jog up the steps to the top deck. And so, the journey began with the usual bumping uncomfortably along, hanging on to grab handles, muscles straining to resist the sharp braking of an inconsiderate bus driver, swerving around traffic queues, stopping quickly for more passengers and then again, more sharp acceleration even before the elderly people have gotten to their seats, seeing them grab for handles and stumble past. Typical bus rides hundreds of thousands of people endure each and every day.
Arrival in Oldham and the bus has to stop in the town centre. Two people get on to the bus and pay their fares but just before the driver has a chance to set off on his next imaginary fantasy lap of a grand Prix Circuit I hear a mans voice outside saying “Yes, this is our bus, come on, hurry up.”
A rotund man gets on to the bus and turns to help his partner, a woman, overweight herself but as she climbs on the bus and makes her way I can understand why. Her mobility is horrendous. She suffers terribly from either Parkinson’s Disease or Motor Neurone Syndrome. She has a simple walking stick in one hand but her difficulty in movement is so shocking for me to see. Her arms and legs just will not do what her brain is telling them. Her face is a graphic picture of intense concentration, of single focus and intent, of sheer determination and deliberation, her eyes wide, her tongue poking out the corner of her mouth. Her physical bodily tremors whilst standing and walking are horribly exaggerated as her legs shake uncontrollably. Hand eye co-ordination is almost totally lacking as she reaches for and misses a grab handle. Her partner has now paid the fares but is behind her, her walking stick clack, clack clacking against the buses frame.
The driver sets off like Lewis Hamilton at the start of another GP race and the woman stumbles badly. Panic silently screams and flashes across her face, sheer horror in her widened eyes even, in the realisation that she is a long way from safety. She waves and weaves drunkenly, eyes wide, mouth open, hands grabbing free air as she tries to steady herself but can’t and then … like some big tree being cut down she starts the decent towards the floor. A look passes again over her face, horror of what is and what will now take place. The danger of falling, of injury, the ignominy of falling in front of so many people who are just sitting like an audience watching a play on a stage. Her partner tries to grab her, to hold her but he is behind her. “Timber”, as down she comes, face first, a silent scream caught in her throat. How I managed it I don’t know but I move and catch her. My arms thrust under her arms as her face crashed in to my chest and shoulder but I held her. I hear her mumble something and see her partner pulling down the seat for the disabled behind her. The bus driver still accelerating and swerving I managed somehow to brace myself, hold and lift her, guiding her towards the seat. Strangely, while my arms are around her, I feel her tremors as waves pass through her whole body, tightness, stressed, then total relaxation then tightness, all in such rapid succession, wave after wave after wave. Guiding her now, between us (her partner and I), the woman sits, gasping for air, the panic still apparent. She reaches out grabbling for anything solid and fixed, feet firmly and widely planted and stabilising though shaking, her breathing coming in short gasps, “thank you, thank you” she whispers almost breathlessly. Her partner picks up her walking stick and hands it to her saying, “there you are, and here’s your stick.”
Returning to my seat I watch her emotions that seem so chiselled and expressed on her face. Emotions of concern, of fear and panic which, now she has sat down and is relatively safe, start to recede. As she becomes calmer her breathing slows and at one point, I watch as she breathes a big sigh and a form of calmness returns. No conversation with her partner takes place, just her white knuckles gripping as she holds on to the grab handle, white bloodless face, staring eyes, keen concentration on keeping in her seat for this simple bus journey.
How often I wonder, does she have to use a bus? How often does she put herself through these hair-raising events that clearly are extremely difficult for her. Where is the help and assistance that she needs because clearly, she NEEDS help and more than just a simple walking stick, which to my mind is too short anyway?
The bus travels on, braking sharply, accelerating too quickly, people dinging the bell to get off and negotiating their way to the front of the bus, stumbling and bumbling down the central aisle.
I’m not getting off at the usual stop but continuing on and as we pass and turn up a particular road, the woman’s face changes again. From the calmness returns the fear and panic, her reality; from the focus returns the panic, the horror of the realisation that she again has to get up and get off this damn moving floor. Her eyes widen again as she says, “press for the bell love” to her partner. Gathering herself, feet planted firmly and apart for stability, her partner says “stay sat down until the bus stops.” Swapping hands with her walking stick she looks around for a grab handle to use to lift herself and to stand up. Her legs, arms and hands again starting to shake wildly already. The bus stops and the litany of issues start again. It’s like watching a “Danse Macabre”. The bus is very quiet, many people just sitting there and watching. The woman gets up and swings her body around so very unsteadily and makes for the grab pole. She makes her way stutteringly and painfully (to watch) towards the front exit. She has managed to get to the doors now. The doors are open and her partner has got off the bus and has turned to help her but … I hear the bus driver say “I’ve stopped too far from the kerb, hang on, I’ll pull forward a bit”. The woman’s partner can do nothing, but the woman is standing at the open doorway looking down in to a deep black chasm that she just cannot manage nor fathom.
As the bus slowly draws forward the doors start to close automatically and they are closing in on the woman from both sides. Sheer and total panic sets in again as she tries to step back from the doors but that’s even more difficult than stepping forward. Her world is spinning, turning and her eyes searching but not finding the security and safety she seeks. Her arms and hands flail wildly for something to hold on to, to grab on to, some form of stability which isn’t there anyway and even though the bus hardly moves, her internal fear and horror of the doors closing in on her sets off her automatic panic reactions. I hear her as noises come from her throat but as I start to rise again out of my seat the doors start to open and her partner dashes in to get hold of both her hands and to turn her towards him, steady her. Getting off the bus is painful to see and watch and yet, everyone just sits there, even the bus driver who is nearest to them. Then, they are off the bus, standing on the pavement the man bends to retrieve the fallen walking stick again and just as the bus is setting off I hear the faint “thank you” from the woman. Thank you?
Disgusted. I feel thoroughly disgusted and so emotional. So many issues here. So many right-able wrongs. So many unnecessary issues. A bus driver, who should have more empathy to be smoother in his considerate driving. A person as ill as this woman clearly is, as disabled as she clearly is/was, NEEDS help from “us”, from society and from the institutions set up by our society; health services, social services, etc, etc, etc. Obviously I don’t know the story behind these people but having seen and experienced catching her and preventing what could have been serious injury, of having seen the sheer trauma the woman suffers, the horrors and panic of everyday living and things we take for granted or accept as ‘the way things are”, and of everyday life for ordinary people taking a simple bus ride for example, must be such a terrible, terrible stress and strain on her psyche. I just feel and felt so very, very sorry for these people that they have to endure these things “all” the time.
I arrive at my stop and as I raise from my seat to manoeuvre my suitcase and get off other passengers are alighting the bus with their usual “thank you” and “cheers mate”, to the bus driver.
I cannot say “thank you’ or ‘cheers mate’ to this moron and as I pass the driver I turn to him and say “you are a disgrace and so, so wrong in what you have done here today. Do you have any idea whatsoever what could have happened? Don’t you any empathy or sympathy?” I said some other things as well but, suffice to say, the bus driver knew my feelings on the subject and that although he offered profound regret and apologies to me saying he didn’t realise or appreciate; it still didn’t and doesn’t excuse his total disregard for his passengers’ welfare and wellbeing. It may seem inconsequential to him and I am certain now he will never think on it again but I know of people who will and do remember it, me for one.
But, what does all of this say? Is there a message here somewhere? This is just a single and simple story, of an event, a bad event, though in the greater scheme of things not the worst of events in the world. But seeing the difficulties this woman and man face and endure every single day of their lives is sobering. Watching emotions that take possession of an individual so completely is and was shocking but, not surprising. Emotions are natural and serve a purpose in so many ways. I just hope that these people find some peace and harmony when they get home and the woman has the time and familiar surroundings of comfort and facility around her to find some happiness in what is clearly a degenerative disease. Her condition will NEVER improve. She WILL get worse. Her outlook and expectations in life are not the happiest. Oh how society and the institutions that we have created could help people like this, so why don’t they?