The Girl on the Bus
WILLIAM SANSOM “can make you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell to his order,”wrote Eudora Welty when she had finished reading South with its lustrous descriptions of the Mediterranean. From Mr. Sansom’s new volume, The Passionate North, a collection of short stories drawn from the harsh panorama of Scandinavia and the Western Isles of Scotland, the Atlantic has selected two narratives. The book will be published this month by Harcourt, Brace.
by WILLIAM SANSOM
SINCE to love is better than to be loved, unrequited love may be the finest love of all. If this is so, then the less requited the finer. And it follows that the most refined passion possible for us must finally be for those to whom we have never even spoken, whom we have never met. The passing face, the anguish of a vision of a face, a face sitting alone in front of you so endearing and so moving and so beautiful that you are torn and sick inside with hope and despair, instant despair . . . for it is hopelessly plain that no word can ever be spoken, those eyes will never greet yours, in a few minutes the bus will shudder to a stop, and down some impersonal side street she will be gone. Never to be seen again.
It is due to such an encounter that I find engaging the story of my friend Harry. Only Harry’s girl was not on a bus, she passed on skis.
It was one late January afternoon when Harry was walking out at Haga. The snow lay thick, and everywhere over the fine rolling park groups of Stockholmers had sought out the best slopes for an afternoon’s skiing. The sun was already low and yellow over the firs; it sent a cold tired dusk across the snow and one could feel the pleasantly weary, flushed trudge of the skiers making their last climb before nightfall. Harry walked about enjoying the rich smell of birchwood burning, watching the first yellow lights square in the cream-colored palace, tasting his own frosted breath. Every so often through the tall erect firs black-crouched skiers would glide, swift as shadows, like trees themselves flickering downward home.
It was some time then, in this bright half-light, that Harry turned and saw on the path behind him the figure of a girl trudging up on skis. He walked down towards her, enjoying the precision of her slender erect shape slide-stepping along towards him. Skiers walk with a beautifully controlled motion, feet always close together on the long hickory, pressing so lightly forward in long strides, pausing it seems invisibly between each forward motion, listening to a music playing somewhere in their shoulders — and always in firm endeavor, as on some enviable purposed unhurried quest pondering seriously forward.
Harry was looking down at her skis as she came up, taking pleasure from the movement and the slimness of her stride. So that not until she was nearly parallel with him and about to pass did he glance up at her face.
What he saw then took his breath away; he drew in a deep astounded breath and this then disappeared, so that there was nothing inside him at all.
Poor Harry did not have even a bus-ride’s worth. He had the length of two long ski-strides’ worth. But that, he said, was in its expanded way enough. Not as much as he wanted — that would have amounted to a lifetime — but enough to provoke the indelible impression such passing visions may leave for a lifetime.
It would be useless to describe her. When Harry told me, he talked of “beauty” and of a color of hair and a grace of cheekbone and an expression of lips. But what he said did not amount to a concrete image, and particularly she did not necessarily fit the blueprint of my own imagined vision, should such a one ever chance to pass. Each to his own. Suffice it that this woman’s face and manner and whatever she evoked was for Harry perfection; was beyond what he thought might be perfection; was absolute.
He was so shocked he nearly stopped; he certainly hesitated and half turned his body — heavily coated and thus making what must have been a most noticeable movement — to follow his wide-eyed worshiping glance. But in the same short time, perhaps on her second stride forward, she suddenly turned her face to him. Terrified, he looked away. He never knew whether she saw him staring, or saw him at all, or looked past or through him — he only felt a surge of embarrassment out of all proportion to the occasion. He felt small, despairing, hopeless, and above all horrified that she might have caught his eye and thought it the eye of an intruder.
She passed. It was a long time before Harry could bring himself to turn round. But by then she was a black speck among others in the lengthening snow, she was irretrievable.
For the next minutes Harry walked on and out of the park, elated in spite of his distress. He was elated in the way a man is when he has suddenly come face to face with a giddying good work of art. The feeling was universal — it made to say, “Good, good — so there are still such things in the world!” It was a feeling of hope.
But of no practical hope. He knew that he would never see the girl again. However, she had sent his spirits up — but soon, it was apparent, too far. For once outside the park, her park, the world proclaimed itself again. And it looked exceedingly bare and dull. The tram-ride home, among skiers now wet and drab in the electric light, was lowering. His hotel, white-walled as a sanatorium, primed with red corridor lights and reticent switches, appalled him with its sterile gloom. He took a glass of aquavit and telephoned a friend for dinner.
They went to a large old-fashioned restaurant. There were many hundreds of people, an orchestra of twenty players blared music to the farthest microphoned corner, waiters bobbed and slid like black dolphins in the white sea of tablecloth, and all around and up to the roof, high as an exhibition hall, the gilded ornament twisted and plushly glittered. There were palms, flowers, flags, and chandeliers.
But here also Strindberg had kept his private dining room, and it was with something of the same pessimist eye that Harry now allowed his spirits to sink below the level of the nightfaring populace about. A tarnish shadowed the gilt, a dull propriety seemed to stuff the people. The band played ballad music of the nineties — and he felt no nostalgia, but a vehement disgust at the stuffed rose-love-garden pomp the song pictured for him. The diners, sitting too erect and quiet and uncomfortably unlaughing, began to look like the awkward guests at a staff dinner. Two Salvation Army lasses, in fur bonnets, threaded their way through the tables. When the band began to play a gay Spanish march it was no better, it sounded too slow. And there were too many fiddles.
Now if you knew Harry as I know Harry, you would know that Harry then began to worry. He began to theorize. “The sight of that girl,” he told himself, “has colored my whole life. By a hundredth chance I was in Stockholm, by a hundredth chance I went to Haga, by another hundredth I happened to be passing that path at that moment — and I had to see her. Now forever I am left with a standard of beauty which my world will always slightly fail. My relationships with women will never seem quite so keen, all other pursuits will seem henceforth without quite so much purpose. Of course, I shall enjoy myself in degree. But perfection has been trifled with. This kind of thing goes deeper than one thinks. . . . Oh why in hell did I go to Haga? And it is not as if I were as young as I was.”
HE WAS still considering her on the train to Malmö next morning: “The woman was always destined to be unattainable — and it is significant that I am leaving the city today. I suppose this will result in a fixation on Stockholm for the rest of my life. God knows how many superior contracts in other towns I shall discard for the subconscious opportunity of getting back to this blasted place.”
The train drew into Norrköping and lunch was served. It was difficult, sitting wedged with three other men, to know how much of each small dish to take for himself, so he took too little of each. But rather much of the one he liked most. In guilty despondence, he looked out at the short orange trams circling the Morrköping neatnesses. How plain life could be! And these men eating in front and to the side of him were so large and well-conditioned! He felt himself smaller against their giant, businessy, gray-suited size. None of them spoke. They exchanged the dishes with little bows, and then relapsed into their erect selves. But as the train drew slowly out of Norrköping a group of children waved from behind railings. As one man, the three leaned slightly forward and made small flutterings with their white heavy hands. And without a word readdressed themselves to their food.
Hell, thought Harry looking down at his own hand and seeing that it had not even the initiative to join in such a dull nice action. Hell, he thought, I shall have to wake myself up. And it was then that he decided on a new course of life, a disciplined course of self-indulgence. He would drink more, seek out more people, spend more money, and work less. It was difficult for Harry, wedged in now with his coffee, to see how to start on his new program. It would have been ostentatious, he felt, to order a few brandies. But when one of the men asked for an after-dinner sherry, he did the same. One of these was enough. He felt slightly sick. The businessmen, in their hard girth and with their large pale faces, began to look very like boulders.
But at Malmö a difference charged the air. At first this might have passed for the ambrosia of arrival — a search for luggage, the disturbing sea air, the genial sheds and asphalt of docks. The delight of safe danger. But no — once aboard the ferry what had come upon people was evident. A glance into the smoke room told much of the tale. Already, five minutes after the train had arrived, they were singing in the smoke room. Tables were already massing empty bottles. The three silent, kind, well-conditioned Swedish businessmen were laughing together and sitting spread and easy. lint it was not only a matter of alcohol — although the free dispensation of this, after a severely restricted country, proved in every way intoxicating. It was a broader sense of freedom. A shedding of propriety, of reserve — a change of manners, not from good to bad, but from good to good of another kind. Geniality and tolerance warmed the air.
Waiters hurried up with plates of enormous Danish sandwiches. In the very sandwiches there could be felt the difference between the two countries parted by a mile of water. Gone were the elegant and excellent Swedish confections; here were thick slabs of appetitious meat and fish piled hugely helter-skelter on a token of bread: Smörgåsbord had become Smϕrrebrϕd. And when they landed and walked about the Danish train, Harry noticed immediately how the people had lost height and gained thickness, and how the porters wore dirtier, easier clothes. And standing in the street there was a beggar.
But although at first Harry responded to this interesting new brightness, he soon found he was the only one on the train who had no reason to be elated. He sank into greater gloom. He tried to revive his spirits with a fine meal and a night out in Copenhagen. But even when friendly Copenhageners, seeing him sitting alone, asked him to sit with them, plied him with food and drink, joked and prompted him in every way to enjoy himself, his mood remained. He felt nervous, frustrated, dull.
THE next day, a little freshened by the morning, he boarded a midday boat train for Esbjerg and England. After all, he felt, things might be better. He was a fool to have taken a passing emotion so seriously. In fact, it was only an emotion and as such ephemeral and replaceable.
So that when they came to the Great Belt, and the train trundled aboard the ferry that was to take it across that wide flat water, Harry took to regarding his fellow passengers with more interest. There is always an excitement when a compartmented train turns out its passengers to walk about and make a deckful. One has grown used and even loyal to one’s own compartment: one knows the number of the carriage, it seems to be the best number of all! One even feels a sympathetic acquaintanceship with people seen through the glass of adjoining compartments and with those in the corridor. But there, on the boat, one must face a rival world — the world of other carriages. One resents their apparent assumption of equality — yet, inimical or not, it is a source of wonder that here are so many fellow travelers of whose existence one was ignorant. One notes them with interest. One must watch and sniff.
Almost the first person Harry noted was the girl from Haga. It could not be, it could, it was. Harry’s heart jumped and his stomach sank. He turned furtively away.
He walked twenty yards down the deck, took out a cigarette and pretended that it was necessary to turn to light this against the wind. Then he backed against the cabin wall and, thus hidden, watched her. His emotion beat so strong that he imagined every passenger on the boat must recognize it, there would be a conspiracy aboard to smile about him. And consequently, though in the past days he had reproved himself for not having taken more courageous action at their first encounter — he had imagined all kinds of calm, forceful gallantry — his instinct now was for instant flight. However, common sense and a suspicion of the ridiculous strengthened him. And he was able to compromise by watching her from a distance.
She stood for a few minutes on deck, engrossed in her bag and some process of putting her coat and scarf and hat in order. These affairs she conducted with a tranquil efficiency. She was detached and sure, removed from all the others. She never raised her eyes to look at other people.
Then she turned and walked along to the luncheon saloon. Carefully Harry followed, pausing and looking away as if in search of somebody or something else, and chose a table about three away from hers. There he munched his enormous pork cutlet and kept her surveyed. Every time he dared to look at her it seemed a stolen, intrusive moment. But he congratulated himself on his discretion. He told himself there was time, she must be going aboard for the Harwich boat. There, with a day and a night to stroll about the large saloons, opportunity would present itself. He stole another glance. With horror he found her looking straight at him, frowning a little. She knew!
He left, and went down the steel staircase to where the train, strangely tall and of such dark heavy metal, stood waiting. He sat smoking and unnerved, alone in the carriage. But in a few minutes the ferry docked, and soon the train was rumbling out onto Jutland and the last stretch to Esbjerg.
THE ship, white and clean and smiling with stewardesses, welcomed them from the smoke and cramp of the train. But the weather was beginning to blow; a freshness of pounding black waves echoed in from the North Sea and storm clouds raced ragged across a dark sky. Harry hurried aboard, established his cabin, and went up to watch the other passengers come up the gangway. He waited for half an hour, watched the last arrivals drift in from the lighted sheds across the gritty dark quay. But he had missed her. In some panic, and in her absence growing more self-assured each moment, he searched the ship. Up and down the steep stairways, in and out of strange saloons, into the second class and once, daring all, by intentional mistake into the ladies’ rest room. But she was nowhere. And the ship sailed.
Harry saw how he had missed his second chance. He looked back at that hour on the ferry and cursed his ineptitude. He despised himself, as he saw himself independent and adult and assured yet balking at the evident chance. He swore that if ever again . . . but when she appeared in the lounge after dinner he plunged his hand out for a colored engineering gazette. All his fears returned. One does not necessarily learn from experience.
The smoke room was large and furnished with fresh, modern, leather armchairs. The tables were ridged — and on that evening the ridges were necessary, and then not always high enough, for it was a very stormy night and the ship was rolling badly. Glasses and cups slid slowly about like motivated chessmen, and more than once the ship gave a great shuddering lurch that threw everything smashing to the floor. Harry, behind his gazette, prayed that his coffee would not be shot off clownishly across the saloon. He did not think then what a good excuse that might make to smile at her. He only prayed not to look a fool.
For her part, she sat serenely writing a letter. For some reason her glass of brandy never slid an inch. It seemed to borrow composure from her. Harry concentrated on an advertisement for dozers. And, curiously, this calmed him. It seemed so absurd, it showed up the moment: life is so very various, nothing has quite such a unique importance as we give it.
The storm grew in force. High waves smashed themselves with animal force against the windows, and the ship rolled more thunderously than ever. Stewards staggered, the armchairs tugged at their floor chains. Perhaps the smoke room was half full when coffee began, but now it was emptying; people who had resisted so far began to feel sick, and for others it had become difficult to read or to talk or, among those tilting tables, to think. As they went swaying and skidding through the doors some laughed like people at a fun fair; others dared not open their mouths. And so there came a moment, in spite of the drumming sea-noises outside, when Harry noticed a distinct quiet in the room. He looked round and saw that the room was nearly empty. There had descended the well-kept void dullness, the perceptible silence of a waiting room. Two businessmen sat apart reading. Their smallest movement in that polished quiet attracted attention. The girl wrote calmly on. The panic rose again in Harry’s chest. It would be so easy to go over and pick a magazine from the case at her side. There were even magazines lying on her own table! With no possibility of offense he could ask her permission to read one.
He knew it was then or never. He began instantly to invent excuses. For the first time he tried to reason. There, Harry said to himself, is this girl whose appearance has knocked me silly. But I know that a hundred to one her personality will never match this illusory loveliness. How do I know she won’t be an utter fool? A bitch? A moron? . . . And then s’ll have spoiled this beautiful experience. I have sipped—and that is forever more satisfying than the gross full draught. Then he looked at her again, and the detachment left him.
All right, he groaned, then at least there is the curse of classification. That has not yet disappeared. Suppose she answered me too genteelly? Or too broadly? Or in this accent or that—he heard in his ears those for which he held a deep, illogical apathy. Then he remembered she was Swedish. It would not happen.
He looked back at the dozers. He saw they were described in refined lettering as “earth-moving equipment.” He flung the magazine aside and in pale apprehension rose to his feet. The ship gave a lurch. He steadied himself. And then with great difficulty moved towards her.
Halfway across, exactly opposite the door, he who never did began to feel seasick. It was as if the paleness he had felt come over his face were spreading through him, and now with every roll of the ship a physical quease turned his stomach. It may have begun as a sickness of apprehension, but it took on all the symptoms of a sickness of sea. He felt weak, wretched, and unsure of what next. He turned out through the door and balanced down the stairway to his cabin. In the lower bunk his cabin-companion lay pale and retching. The room smelled richly of sick. Harry added to it.
But only a little later, weak and having forgotten all about the girl, he fell into a deep, unmolested sleep. Twice in the night he woke —once when his heavy suitcase slid thudding from one end of the cabin to the other, once when he himself was nearly rolled out of the bunk. But he was no longer sick.
HE WOKE late, feeling well and hungry. The ship was still pitching as heavily as before. He shaved with difficulty, watching his face swing in and out of the mirror, chasing with his razor the water that rolled in the opposite direction to that chosen by the ship. Then upstairs to breakfast. The whole ship was deserted. Harry looked at his watch, wondering whether he had misread the time and if it was perhaps still early — but his watch and the purser’s clock made it already eleven o’clock. The notion smiled through him that the company had taken to the boats in the night, he was in a wellequipped ghost-ship with steam up. And indeed, walking through the deserted saloons, it felt like that. But in the dining room three waiters were sitting.
During a breakfast that he could only eat by holding his cup in one hand and both cutting and forking his ham with the other, a waiter told him they were having one of the worst crossings he had ever known. Waves, even in such a great modern ship, had smashed plate glass in the night. A settee had broken its chains, raced across the smoking lounge, and had run over a steward, breaking his leg. Of course, it was quite safe, but the ship would be about six hours late. They had made no headway at all during the night, they had simply sat rolling in the middle of the North Sea.
Harry wandered out along the passages and into the smoke room. It was vexing to be so late. He was in no exact hurry, but an empty ship in stormy weather is a most tedious ordeal, and the long tossing day stretched out gray and eventless. One cannot easily write, it is difficult even to read, getting drunk is simpler but as aimless as the crashing glasses. To be sick is dreadful, but to spend a day lurching among lurching things, with never a level moment, is if not unendurable of the deepest, most troublesome tedium.
For a while Harry watched the waves. A sudden wet wall of gray running water would erect itself high as a house front over the valley of the smokeroom window; then at the last moment up would go the ship on another unseen wave. Low clouds scudded too fast to notice the ship, the horizon was no more than a jagged encampment of near waves. Not a bird, not a ship in sight.
Harry’s thoughts naturally centered on what was still at the back of his mind. Breakfast over, he brought her foremost. And found to his surprise that he was no longer apprehensive of her. He welcomed the probability of her appearance, he welcomed the emptiness of the ship. She was obviously not the seasick type, she was likely to appear. And with an empty ship there would be more opportunity to speak — and at the same time nobody to smile behind his back if she snubbed him. It seemed that his sickness of the night before had proved in all ways cathartic.
He welcomed the luncheon gong, and in his expectant joy remembered with a smile the Swedish word for this: gonggong. But she did not appear at luncheon. And gradually, his spirits falling and his stomach swelling, Harry plowed in these difficult seas through the enormous and exquisite Danish meal.
The afternoon was terrible. Nothing, nothing happened. A few odd men came lurching through. Two young Danish fellows sat for a long time laughing over their drinks. Harry went down to pack, but was forced by the state of his companion to complete this as quickly as possible.
An hour before the ship was due in, people began to come up exhausted or rested from the sanctuary of their cabins. The ship was steaming close against the English littoral, and the seas were much calmer. Disconsolate, Harry rose from his armchair, threw aside the paper on which he had been reduced to writing lists of all the vegetables he knew beginning with the letter “p,” and walked round to the little bar for a drink. There she was, bright as a bad penny, perched up on a stool between those two laughing young men.
His heart sank, but he went grimly to the other end of the bar and, with his back turned, ordered a dobbeltsnaps. He could not hear what was said, for between high laughter they spoke in the low intimate voices of people telling anecdotes, but he could watch them in a slice of mirror. And . . . So there! What had he told himself? Hadn’t he been right? She was just an ordinary flirt! She hadn’t talked to these men until five minutes before, and now she was going it hell-for-leather! Easy as pie, pie-in-the-sky! He might have known it! Hell, he had known it! And that’s why (subconsciously of course) he hadn’t gone up to her. But through this Harry knew deeply and quite consciously that he envied the young men and deprecated his own driveling loutish cowardice. He turned and took one last look at her. She was wonderful, yes, she was wonderful.
He went downstairs and made ready to leave. In a while the ship docked. He took his bags and shuffled down among the line of passengers to the rail-lined dock. It was a curious relief to feel the land under one’s feet; it brought what felt like a light unheard buzzing to the ears. Then the familiar smells and a shuffle through the customs.
Suddenly, going through the doorway to the platform, he saw her again. She was clutching the arm of a large ugly elderly man. She was stroking this man. Together the two, the elegant fresh young girl and that obscene old figure, passed through the door. Harry believed his eyes and he was disgusted. He had to pass them. They stood in the wan light of the old-fashioned station, she fingering about in her bag and at every moment flashing her eyes up at him, he bloated, gloat-eyed, mumbling heaven-knew-what salivary intimacies. It crossed Harry’s mind how strange was the phenomenon of these shipboard passengers one never sees until the last moment, these cabined mysteries — and it struck him again horribly how this applied to those two, the old slug lying down there in the comfortable depths of the ship with his fair, fresh girl.
The girl looked up and met Harry’s eyes. She immediately smiled, it seemed in relief, and came up to him. She spoke excitedly, apologetically, in Swedish: “Oh, please do excuse me — but it’s funny I remember distinctly I once saw you in Haga, you speak Swedish? You see, my father and I — we’ve lost our seat reservations. Could you tell me what is best to do? We’re new here . . .”
Harry’s heart leaped. The lights in the station seemed to turn up; it was suddenly almost sunny. With delight he showed them to the end of the train where he knew there were empty carriages. Together they traveled to London and never stopped talking. He insisted on driving them to their hotel.
Harry and his lady have now been married some seven years. He has never, as far as can be known, regretted the requital.