Looking At Me
Jemima James

 

Everybody is looking at me. I know they are: They do all the time. You would think people would have much better things to do than look at me, but they do, I know they do.

It started even before I got on the bus. Everybody else I know can signal a bus without a passing thought (or a passing bus!) But I can’t. By the time the bus driver had figured out I was trying to signal the bus, he had stopped 50 metres up the street. So not only do I make everybody wait while I struggle for the bus, but I manage to whack every single one of my 7 plastic shopping bags against somebody’s knees or shins or elbow or face before I reach the middle of the bus and put them in an untidy heap on the floor.

Everybody is looking at me. Well, wouldn’t you? I would look at somebody who couldn’t control her potatoes. The traitors. The potato traitors. The bus takes a slight curve and the potatoes break free of their white plastic prison and go barrelling down to the front of the bus. And back again. My dirty, unbrushed potatoes bounce joyfully, freely around the bus. They are having a fine time, my unwrapped, unwashed potatoes. A man helps me pick them up. I say thank you torturedly. He picks up all my bags and puts them into the space where any normal person would put their groceries - except for me. I mumble a little thank-you again and he smiles. Then he tells me there’s a seat available at the front of the bus.

Well.

Not just any seat. No. The seat facing the rest of the bus. The seat where the whole of the bus can see you. The seat where everybody looks at you and wonders terrible things about you. The seat where they marvel over how you could let a hairdresser cut your hair like that. The seat where they wonder where you got your clothes from. The seat where the boys snigger, and that old lady stares until you have to give her a feeble smile and she looks scornfully away. The seat where you know that everybody is looking at you.

They are all waiting for me to take that seat. I don’t want it. But if I refuse that seat, then how can I possibly take another less obtrusive one? It would be a direct snub. Everybody is waiting for me to take the seat.

I take the seat.

Perhaps if I just take my book out and bury my nose in it, I can forget that everybody is looking at me. If I can get just the book out without pulling everything else in there, out, as well.

My purse shoots out like a rocket. I retrieve it clumsily, shove it safely into my lap and open my book. I don’t expect anybody to believe that it’s a textbook. All those heaving breasts, and naked men, you would think a book on animal reproduction would have animals on it. I try and cover the cover as best as I can, but then I worry about looking awkward.

The man who helped me with the potatoes stands next to me for a moment before he takes an empty seat across the aisle. His big black bag bumps my shoulder and I close the book guiltily. He apologises nicely. He has kind eyes. Cow-like eyes. He is actually very handsome. The old lady looks at me lusting after him. I know I’m going to try that pathetic smile, then blush, then wish I hadn’t. You’d think I’d learn by now. My neck prickles. It feels as though something is climbing up it. The smile is coming now, here it is. I grin feebly.

She looks scornfully away.

Well, at least she’s not looking at me any more.

I wish I hadn’t smiled. My scalp is prickling with embarrassment so badly that I want to slither down the back of the chair into a watery heap - except, of course, that I know I would draw attention to myself. I try to concentrate on something else. I focus on the stain on my blouse. Why is it that in my crisp white Vet Nurse uniform when I am dealing with defecating dogs, caterwauling cats and bleeding budgies that I can stay as clean as a fresh swab, but the moment I put on a pretty blouse or a pair of jeans I look like a casualty? When I cook, I find things in my hair - flour, breadcrumbs, avocado. A walk in the bush, a stroll by the beach, a country sojourn has me looking like a nature exhibit and reeking of cowpats, charcoal or seaweed. I am a walking sitting cooking bus-catching disaster.

My scalp is still prickling. It really feels as though something is in it. A tiny animal, scrabbling for food. A rat, digging its claws in. A lizard, I’m sure there is a lizard in my hair. It is flexing its feet, it is trying to hang on, there is something in my hair, there is.

I know I always think people are always looking at me, that I think there is something in my hair, between my teeth, or on my blouse; that my dress is unzipped, that my fly is undone, that my skirt is tucked up around my pantyhose:

But there really – really - is something in my hair.

I try to think about my work. Animals are so much nicer than people. They don’t judge you on the way you look, or talk, or how clever you are, or how smart and witty and pretty and popular you are. They don’t ask you why you haven’t got a boyfriend.

They don’t generally live in your hair, either, but I know there is something living in mine now.

I look at the old lady opposite me, but she is asleep, her head is rolling and lolling onto the girl next to her. The girl doesn’t seem to mind at all - she just looks out the window as if she is used to riding home with complete strangers who fall asleep on top of her. I slide my view around to the man next to me. He doesn’t notice me. I dare to look at the rest of the bus. There is not one person looking at me. I have something living in my hair, scratching around for food, probably, and there are 47 people sitting and standing on this bus who are not even looking at it.

I reach around to the back of my head.

I freeze.

I feel fur, tiny little claws and something leathery. It feels like a mouse.

I have a mouse in my hair. I don’t mind mice, as a rule, but on a bus in my hair is a completely different story. But what can I do? If I pull it out I am going to draw the attention of 47 horrified people directly to me. Mice are slippery little things. Unless I pick him up properly, he’s going to be in the old lady’s lap in no time - and then away down the rest of the bus causing a terrible riot. I can see the headlines now: 47 People DIE on Bondi Bus MouseTrap. He’s not my mouse, but the fact that he’s taken up residence in my hair gives me a kind of default ownership, I think, or at least a responsibility:

The next stop is my stop. I reach out and press the button and nobody thinks I am making a pass at them. Nobody even looks at me. I figure that if I can get off the bus without dropping my purse, or flinging potatoes everywhere, or depositing a sleepy mouse onto the old lady’s lap then I should be okay.

I stand up, drop my purse, kick a stray potato down the aisle like a football, and deposit - not a mouse - but a sleepy baby bat - into the old lady’s lap.

I pick up my purse. The potato rolls aimlessly around the back of the bus. The bat looks like a tiny pair of leather gloves and is blinking dozily in the old lady’s lap. It’s going to open up like an umbrella any second and I know it won’t survive the hysterical bleating and beating of an old lady who has fallen asleep on a bus and wakes up to a scaly baby bat in her lap.

Nobody is looking at me. I sling my bag over my shoulder, pluck the bat neatly out of the old lady’s lap and tuck him securely up on my shoulder. The bus stops. I march calmly up to my groceries. I make the whole bus wait, patiently, while I arrange my shopping so that nothing can escape. The bat is squeaking a bit, but hanging on.

I walk calmly back down the centre of the bus.

Nobody notices Count Dracula on my shoulder, except for the man who helped me with my potatoes, and showed me the seat. He starts when he sees the bat, but I whisk past him serenely as if I always carry a bat on my shoulder and I am off the bus.

Nobody noticed me. With a bat on my head, under my hair, on my shoulder, hastily retrieved from an old lady’s lap - nobody noticed me. I begin to wonder what people do notice. I’ve worried for so long about tiny little things - my hair, my nose, my glasses, my clothes - yet for a whole half hour I had a bat on my head on the 380 Bus to Bondi and not one single person noticed.

Did the whole bus really look up when my expired ticket beeped a little - or did I just think they did? Nobody really seemed to care that my potatoes had struck out on their own and gone adventuring to one end of the bus and then the other - in fact, I clearly remember somebody doing exactly the same thing only with oranges, once. The orange-escaped girl just smiled while two handsome boys went scampering to retrieve them - and she wore glasses too.

I pick up my bags. Count Dracula chirrups happily. I walk past the bus which is stopped at a traffic light. The light goes green, but the bus doesn’t move. The front door opens and the handsome boy who helped me with the potatoes jumps off and, well, what do you know! He has my potato, the renegade escaped potato in his hand.

And, it turns out, I have his bat.

"I don’t suppose you want to mind her, for a while?" asks the handsome boy, after the bat and I have been properly introduced. He picks up my shopping. "My flatmate doesn’t mind the wallaby, and the wombat, or even the snakes, but she draws the line at bats. She has a vampire phobia, and as you can see, Matilda has a thing about pretty necks."

He thinks I have a pretty neck! I’ve never even thought about my neck and if I did I’m sure I would have found something wrong with it.

I ask about the wallaby and the wombat and the snakes. He works with animals, he looks after injured and orphaned natives until they can be freed. No wonder he has such kind kangaroo eyes.

"You looked so magical on the bus, with the bat," he says. "You looked like you always carried one. I didn’t know it was Matilda until I looked in my bag and found she was gone. I thought she was yours."

Magical! A pretty neck, and now I looked magical!

"Thank you for capturing my potatoes," I say.

"You’re welcome," he says. "Though to be honest, I just wanted an excuse to talk to you."

He wanted an excuse to talk to me! A pretty neck, magical, and before he even saw me with the bat he wanted an excuse to talk to me!

I tell him I would love to look after Matilda. "Maybe," I add, bravely, "maybe we could have dinner and discuss the custody rights…"

He nods his head. "Perhaps," he says, "Perhaps we could have dinner and discuss custody rights tonight…"

Nobody is looking at me, but if they were, they’d see someone magical, with a pretty neck, looking serene and sort of glowing, with a soft black corsage just beginning to wake up, stretching and fluttering its leathery little wings in the dusk. And they’d see a handsome man carrying her shopping.

The lights of Bondi start twinkling, another 380 bus roars past, and we swirl through a sea of people.

And nobody (except for a very handsome man carrying my shopping) is looking at me!

 

Copyright (c) 1998 Jemima James
Published on the World Wide Web by "www.storymania.com"