An elderly man sat across the aisle from me on the bus yesterday.
There’s nothing unusual in that, per se. But this was an unusual man.
I’m not sure if he was drunk or simply strange, but he kept asking me questions. I didn’t realise it at first, because I was listening to music; my earphones are sound-reducing. God knows what the other passengers thought of me, sitting there while a guy tried to engage me in conversation. But they weren’t the kind of questions travellers normally ask one another. Not “how are you?” or “what time is it?”, but “where does this bus go?”
“It goes past the school, then on to the city,” I said.
He looked blankly at me. “Cork city?”
I nodded politely. My interior monologue said: “No, Belfast.” (There are times when I wonder what it would be like to speak my mind at any given moment, then remind myself I wouldn’t want to live in such a world.)
“Where does it stop?”
“The South Mall.”
He seemed to mutter absently for much of the trip; the fact that I could make out the noise (but not the detail) while wearing my earphones seems to imply he was being pretty loud.
The schoolkids got on and the old man was drowned out. But about five or six stops later most of them were gone and the aisle between me and the aul fella was clear again. I was sitting there, listening to music and utterly oblivious to the world around me, including him.
I don’t know how long he’d been trying to get my attention. He didn’t gesture at me in a bid to catch my eye, he just kept calling out. Eventually I twigged that someone was talking to me.
He smiled at me with yellow teeth worn down to nubs. “Are we in Cork yet?”
“No, two more stops.”
“Two more stops.”
“Oh. Will you tell me when?”
“I’ll tell you, it’s okay.”
I dimly wondered what kind of life this man had led if he didn’t recognise Cork or realise the bus went there (it’s the last stop on this particular route). But I was in work mode and was largely lost in thoughts of what I had to do. Perhaps I should have asked him, but it never occurred to me.
As the bus trundled along George’s Quay I anticipated the guy’s next request.
“Are we in Cork yet?”
“It’s the next stop, but you can get out here if you like.”
“You can get out here. It’s near the South Mall.”
“I’ll get out here so. Thank you, man.”
I hadn’t realised how frail the fellow was. He was wearing a sling yellowed with either sweat or cigarette smoke, although it was hanging around his neck and not supporting his arm. He was almost bent over double as he shuffled his way down the aisle of the bus and down the steps.
I couldn’t see exactly what happened next, but I think he fell. The driver leaped from his seat and down the steps after the old man. I don’t know where he went or how he got there. I wonder if I’ll see him again.
Descendents have a song called “When I Get Old”:
As I travel through my time / will I like what I find? / What will it be like / when I get old?
I don’t want to be that old man. But then, if I were to get into that state, would I be aware of it? And if I was, at 70 years of age, would I care? The 20-something me does, though. Perhaps I’m just a proud man, or perhaps I just like to be in control of my faculties. But I really mean it. I don’t want to be that old man.