(Coward - Vic Chesnutt)
They climbed the stairs to the top deck of the bus, and the four people already up there looked out of the windows as if something really interesting was going on out there. A man sat at the back of the bus, and an elderly couple were a few seats in front of Carter.
The two men who had got on looked about sixty but probably weren’t out of their thirties. Everything about them was thin and hard, and they looked like had been weathered, rather than aged.
You can tell, Carter thought. Everyone can. You can feel it. You can smell the tightly-wound threat of sudden violence like a stink of body odour. All the hairs on the back of his neck rose as the men walked towards him, and then they passed. He swallowed hard and wished he was the sort of person who wasn’t intimidated by men who made it their life’s work to be intimidating for no reason.
A loud belch came from the back of the bus, and the elderly woman turned her head, just a little, but it was enough for a what you looking at, and she turned back and stared ahead. A clunk, and Carter thought, what’s that, and then thought: kicking a seat.
“Gi’s a fag mate.”
“I don’t smoke.” Carter felt sorry for the man behind him, but not sorry that it wasn’t him.
“Gi’s a fag mate.”
“I don’t have any.”
“Why the fuck not?”
“I don’t smoke.”
“I – I just don’t.”
“Fuck. You, oi, you.” Carter froze in horror. “You. You fucking ignoring me? You blanking me, you?”
Carter turned his head, but not so much he would have to look them in the eye.
“Sorry mate, don’t smoke.”
“Don’t fucking mate me you cunt, you’re not my mate.”
Carter nearly said sorry again, because he had spent his life saying sorry to people for things that they had done to him. The bus slowed, and the elderly couple hurried towards the stairs, looking down at their feet. Carter had the feeling that it wasn’t their stop. The bus stopped, and the doors hissed, and nobody else got on so the doors hissed closed again and it drove on.
“Lend us a quid.”
The man behind mumbled something.
“Not got any change,” Carter said. “Sorry.”
“Fucking funny that, how neither of you got any fucking change. You fucking lying to me?”
“We’ll take a fucking tenner then,” the other one said, and they both laughed. This is it, Carter thought, this is the moment where what I’ve always been scared of happens. I’ve lived my life not doing things because I’ve been scared. And it hasn’t done me any good.
“Ask again,” the voice said. “Lend us some fucking money.”
Carter surged out of his seat, pressing the bell as he went. He careered down the bus, expecting to hear feet coming after him, and he moved so quick he nearly fell down the stairs.
“Just missed the stop,” the driver said, but he pulled over to the side anyway. Carter stepped out, and then went cold with the thought that the two men would follow him off, and would be with him here, on this lonely street.
But they didn’t. The doors closed, and the bus pulled away. Carter looked up, and he saw the face of the man left on the top deck, looking back at him, his expression unreadable, his face a white moon behind dirty windows. Carter never forgot that moment, and never would have forgotten it, even if what happened next hadn’t ended up all over the front pages the next day.