One cannot be humble and aware of oneself at the same time.
- Madeleine L'Engle, A Circle of Quiet
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I wait on the platform for the bus to arrive. It was a dark night. Seemed like even the moon and stars were afraid of it and were hiding behind the clouds. The bus stand was less crowded than the usual. I sat on the empty bench placing the bag on my lap. I closed my eyes to feel the cool, silent breeze on my face. I could hear the crickets making their happy sound, the murmuring of the people sitting around, the footsteps of people walking and the screeching sound of the bus that just turned the corner to leave the stand. I was enjoying this wonderful moment of visualizing the sounds in my head. Just then I hear a loud scream right next to my left ear. In bewilderment I open my eyes to see a kid smiling naughtily at me. Before I could ask him why he had screamed, he strutted off turning back only once. I could see a sense of achievement in his face. He had woken me from a semi-sleep state. I stand to shake off the sleep and walked towards the enquiry counter. I saw rusty bars, dust topped tables, empty chairs, rack filled with files and books, but none to speak to. I came back to the platform. The bus had arrived and the conductor was checking the ticket of a few boarding passengers. I took mine from the bag and walked towards him.
I had booked a window seat for a few reasons – firstly I could sit without any disturbance from the co-passenger. Secondly I could lean on the window while I slept. But the main reason was “I had travelling sickness”. Now whose the disturbance right?!!. Made myself comfortable by pushing back the seat. Adjusted the window only to let an inch of the cool air inside. The conductor took a last count of the passengers, checked his list and gave quick short whistle to the driver to start. Instantly the engine roared and we were off.
The signals, honking, the lights inside the bus were clear indications that the bus was still in the city limits. Not much of a view outside the window. Just the street lights, shops, vehicles, more vehicles. I rested my head on the window and observed the people inside instead. The seats in front of mine were occupied by a couple and an infant. Both mother and father were discussing, rather arguing on who should hold the baby for how long. The baby was wailing as if did not care. It just had to be held for it to sleep. From the seat behind me I could just hear whispering and a few giggles between the talks. An old couple sat towards my left. I could just smile to myself. “Just married” at the back, “Just parents” in the front I was packed for the night. After a while I fell asleep.
Sudden brakes and a hard turn and my head hit the window. Rubbing the side of my head, I blink my eyes a few times to adjust to the dim lit bus. I looked outside the window. It was pitch dark. Not a thing I could see. I find my bag carelessly lying at my feet. I immediately open it to check the contents. I had a water bottle, a pair of dress, ear phone, packet of half eaten biscuit and my purse. Yes everything was intact. Yawning I close the zip and place the bag on the seat next to me. I cross my arms, lean on the window and go back to my sleep.
With my position still the same I turn my head slightly towards the left. The seat next to me was empty. I grabbed the bag from that seat and hold it much tighter, literally hugging it. I stand and take a look around. All were asleep. I looked towards the door, thinking the person might have gone to the conductor. Nobody came walking back from that side. I was waiting. Where had he gone? This person was nobody to me. Why did I care? I pulled out the ear phone, plugged it to the phone and my ears and turned my gaze towards the road. But the empty seat never left my mind. I kept wondering what had happened from the time I boarded the bus. I stand again cautiously. Straining my eyes I looked around. All the seats were filled except the one next to me. This made my stomach cringe slightly. I had no idea why was worrying so much about an empty seat.
I tried hard not to think about it. The night was silent. I could see few stars now peeping out of the clouded sky. No sign of the moon though. A truck or a car often passed in the opposite direction lighting the tree or rocks near-by. All this sight seemed like a lullaby to put me back to sleep. My dreams too seemed like was obsessed with the empty seat. Posing all sort of questions and imagining what might have happened to the person.
I sense somebody poking my left shoulder and calling, “Madam madam”. Irritated I shout, ”What is it?”. And the conductor replied, ”Last stop madam”. The phrase ‘last stop’ scared away all the sleep. I walked towards the door, gave a sheepish smile to the driver which he never returned and stepped down the bus.
“Oh! No wait, the empty seat”, screamed my mind. I turned back towards the bus and climbed back in. I enquired the conductor whether there was a person sitting next to my seat. He handed me a neatly folded piece of white paper. Sensing the puzzled look on my face he told, ”He requested me to give it you. ” pointing first towards the list of passengers and then to the seat next to where I was seated. He asked me to get down from the bus so that they can leave. I still had many unanswered questions. He shut the door so hard it made me take a step back.
The only hope to all my confusion seemed to be in my hand, inside the white piece of note. I unfolded the paper. The note read-
“Sleepy heads are strong, If messed with can go wrong
Light bags take you far, but empty seats leave you ajar.”
-From passenger in Seat No.16
P.S. – Please book a double ticket next time.
I had to read the riddled letter again to understand the hidden meaning in that person’s note. It all made sense now. The head banged not on the window but his shoulder. The empty seat bothered us both. I started laughing imagining the plight of my neighbour and felt sorry for causing him all the trouble.