There's ruckus below. From the top deck, I hear blurred rumblings. A drunk man downstairs: American (I think), pleading faintly with the blankly authoritative, none-shall-pass tones of the driver. Usually, these altercations revolve around the bus driver battling with aggressive, alcohol-imbibed circle talk. But the antagonist here sounds meek, unable to muster an attack on the bus driver's clipped bluntness.
- Not today mate, fuck off.
This brute finality is followed by a grumbled apology, the doors hissing shut, and the drunk man's words muting against the scratched, protective plastic of the window.
I peer outside. In the artificial white light of the bus stop, the drunk man slumps on the bright red seat, deflated, hopelessly waiting. He slides out of view and mind as the bus shudders and shifts away towards increasingly unfamiliar streets. I space out, mind blanking until I'm on the well-worn ground of punk gigs, booze and failed attempts at acquiring drugs.
A few hours later, half cut, ears ringing, I wait for the night bus at New Cross, straining my hopefully at each one that approaches, and then lighting another cigarette with inevitable disappointment.
- Excuse me, sir?
A polite, deferential, slurred American accent prickles my neck. I turn. Seeing him up close for the first time: his skin so battle cracked that it's impossible pin an age to him. Despite his drunkenness, he isn't tottering or swaying – his composure is perfect. His dull, colourless eyes look straight into mine with broken confidence. His voice sounds like a staring abyss.
- Can you spare me a pound to get a beer?
- No mate, sorry.
He breaks eye contact for a moment as if to walk off or cry, then makes another attempt at connection.
- I'm a marine.
Silence hangs between us. He breaks it with a soft, definite, direct statement.
- I want to die.
The four words are so bluntly immediate I barely have time to register them. The stumbled, awkward question leaves my mouth before my brain can stop it.
- Because I've killed too many men.
For a moment, I want to help him. For his disarming honesty. For his genuine wish to end his life. For all the cold pain that lies beyond his bones. I simply can't begin to comprehend the horrors he has bore witness to. The moment passes, and I fall back on a catch-all phrase, as useless and redundant as it is tactless.
- I'm sorry.
With a single resigned nod, he turns and drifts away, his future weighed down by unnumbered dead men. His hunched silhouette merges slowly with the night until there's nothing left.
My bus arrives and I go straight to the top deck. I peer out at nothing as the bus shudders and shifts away, returning me to a bright, comfortable, careless world where the dead don't exist and ghosts can only be found in stories.