It is Lees’ last stand and he knows with a wave of his hand, a shrug of his shoulder, he can make it all go away, make it better, but something inside him has cracked open and he cannot back down.
He turns off the engine, hears the hiss of the airbrakes and stares at the would be passenger.
Mid 20s, jeans hanging off his narrow hips, Primark pants on display for everyone to see, Lee wants to say “Just pull you bloody trousers up”, but instead, he smiles, a forced company policy smile and says again
“that’ll be £2.50 mate”.
There is a pause, the man doesn’t speak, doesn’t move his hand towards his pocket, doesn’t step back off the bus, doesn’t actually do anything.
The other passengers have begun to register that something is happening, eyes are lifted from phones, conversations stop, necks turn to get a better look at the front of the bus.
Lee stretches his hand out
“Pay the fare mate, we’re going nowhere till you pay up”
The man looks directly at Lee and then slowly, deliberately spits on the floor and then walks down the bus and sits on the first empty seats, there is a beat, a pause and then he leans back, lifts his feet in impossibly over -sized ugly trainers and reaches into jeans, pulls out a battered packet of budget cigarettes and lights one.
And it is at this point, that Lee recognizes exactly how angry he is and it’s not just this no-mark yobbo, it’s months and years of the vomiters and the drunks and the mad and the simply rude. It’s all the passengers who don’t even see him, don’t even notice that there’s a man, a real person driving the bloody night bus.
He opens the little door that separates the driver from the punters , enters into the body of the bus, is aware of the passengers looking at him and then, with a voice tight with years of suppressed anger, he shouts down the aisle
“This bus is going no-where, until he” and he jabs the air with his finger ” until he pays the bloody fare”.
All over the bus, passengers are turning to each-other, a Mexican wave of questions and answers.
A woman, her face grey with fatigue, a regular, works at one of the big hotels down west, looks up at Lee
“Come on man, I need to get home, need to get my kids up for school”
And it would be so easy to turn around, climb back onto the drivers’ seat, turn on the engine and finish the shift and Lee is not a brave man, knows that he will get into all kinds of shit for this, this last stand, but he doesn’t, he just continues to stand, staring down the bus, watching the man finish his smoke and then carefully stub the cigarette end onto the fabric of the seat in front of him.
All over the bus, there are mutterings, side ways glances at the smoker. No-body seems to want to take him on. Everybody has the big city don’t get involved look, Lee is a much easier target.
There is a chorus of “Come on driver, just drive the bloody bus”, Lee lets it wash over him, never stops staring at the fare dodger, holding him in his gaze.
There is a pause, a couple of passengers, girls in teeny clothes, make up slipping after a heavy club night, stand up, start down the bus, talking about finding a cab. Their voices, self assured, loud, borderline posh, cut through the background low grade moaning. They push pass Lee
“Saddo” says the taller one and then they are through the open door and into the night.
Their shouts of “Taxi, Taxi” float back, blurred by the rain hammering on the pavement.
The rest of the passengers sit, listening to the storm, conscious of the weather and all to aware of the cost of a cab at this time of night.
Another pause, a man, uniformed, security guard, night porter, something minimum wage, looks at Lee, shrugs tiredly
“I’ll pay his sodding fare then” and he is fumbling in his pocket for the right change.
But Lee, surprising even himself, shakes his head
“Nah mate, he’s gotta pay it himself” and even as he says it, he understands the truth in the sentence.
The other passengers are waiting, waiting for some resolution, waiting for Lee to back down, become invisible again.
He takes a deep breath, turns back to the cab, reaches for his jacket, extracts a cigarette and against all company rules, lights it, inhales, exhales and by chance blows two perfect smoke rings and then he steps off the bus.
The rain, heavy summer rain soaks him almost immediately.
It is completely refreshing.