The snow had fallen heavy the night before. The night before that had been the same. The day between had brought sun to melt and gloss and all kinds of traffic to flatten and buff, from the multi-ton roll of buses and lorries to the single-gouge routs left behind by the cyclists. A million prints gridded and latticed into the white too: the ghost markings of robust footwear made necessary by the weather. Pressed and raked, settled and disturbed, the freeze of night and the thaw of day: the bus made it up the hill that morning, but only just.
Pete and I sat upstairs. Out of the window, the bullying pressures of all that had passed over the ground below showed only as small blemishes. From up there, everything looked so striking; that kind of unequivocal beauty that mind and eye are treated to so rarely. Our breaths: distinguishable little forms in front of us, cumuli reminders of the most bitterly cold day there could be. But with the scare of the hill behind us, only flat, open road lay ahead. The onward journey seemed slow and arduous and the cold so bitter, but only to those who hadn’t already lost themselves to the wonder beyond the glass.
We would arrive at school late, but with the most perfectly tailored excuse for being so. Of all the children, we were the ones with the longest distance to travel. And yet, had we turned on the radio that morning, or had there been a phone in our house for our mother to make contact with another parent, we might not have set off and lost part of the day to a bus skidding and teetering at the top of a hill, might not have seen this glistening white spectacle in all its glory, and might not have made it through the doors of the school only to be greeted by one of the few staff also to have persevered their way to this place. Each of our efforts in that respect: in vain. We arrived and in the space of a few minutes we were being asked to return home: to repeat our journey, to take in these wonders and thrills once more, only this time in reverse.
The Warwick Road bus stop opposite the school building had long ceased being the one we used. The clamour of too many others; the bullying squeeze that separated the weak from those who pushed strongest. But today we could and would wait there, sure that no rush could ensue. No stampede could define itself with only two children to step up and onto that floor, exchange their copper coins for paper tickets and file towards the seat where the heater thumped out the welcome we longed for.
The number 44 was beautiful to me. The most beautifully named bus there was. So symmetrically perfect. Two big slab-serif white numerals, each 4 on its own slate-black roller, housed in a small window above the main windscreen. The 37 shared this part of the route too, but it was only the 44 that would take us home: a twenty-minute journey from school building to terminus point with a two-minute walk beyond that. I replayed the small joy of searching for and finding those two numbers every school day. Small joys such as that should be savoured. Every time those two numbers in proximity came into view, it meant a journey could begin; our punctual arrival at school might be ensured; our swift return home could be enabled. On this particular day, we searched so hard, and as we did, the school closure, the freezing wind and the ice on the ground all conspired to begin their violence upon us.
The cold bit deeper and deeper. Seconds stacked slowly, sixty at a time. Minutes grouped into fives and tens. Time became strangely warped and dislocated from place. Fourty-four. For-tee-fore. I whispered every permutation of those two numbers I could think of, every rhythm for putting them out there again and again, searching for them more keenly than I had ever looked for them before. Four. Four. Twin brothers desperately hoping to find these twin numbers. We kidded ourselves that the longer and more fixed our stare towards that point at the bottom of the road, the more imminent the arrival of our bus would surely be. But time itself was now something that was beginning to cut and hurt us. Time, like the world around us, was also becoming frozen and fixed.
The morning grew so viciously sore and brutal. Our legs began to abacus-swing in denial. Each stiff limb arced upwards from the floor, a release serving only to further torment the grounded foot left behind. The speed of that limb quickened and slowed, though neither variation could diminish the pain beginning to swell like an inverted migraine rising up and into us from below. The cold felt more like heat; a burn that was beginning to scald. Tears welled with the dual realisation of both our pain and our poverty: the one resulting from the other. A downward glance once more, to shoes of plasticky mock leather, to their vulgar shine, their kicked-in ends and perforated soles. Each punctured shoe clawing cold in. Inside, a cardboard insert that had insulated and cushioned on dry pavement days earlier was now being subjected to the most appalling abuse. I lifted a foot and cocked it up onto the opposite knee to inspect the damage and found no evidence of the previous day’s fortification. The makeshift sole had become pulp and the nylon sock behind it had shredded. Seeing the flesh of my own foot through this strange hole was like looking down upon a miniature balaclava-clad head. I pulled the cereal-box insole from inside, replaced the shoe and made contact with the ground once again to trigger the most shuddering pain and tears which could no longer be supressed. I lifted the other foot, found the same damage and removed the insole from that shoe too, returning that part-naked foot to the ground. The pain again. I let the cardboard fall to the ground; the red comb and green head of the Cornflakes cockerel so terribly decimated, so mocking of our situation, yet so honest a document of a struggle that went far beyond waiting for a bus on a freezing-cold winter’s day. Time and place and pain and pity had all become blurrily whole: an almost incomprehensible form of paralaysis.
It seemed possible that those two numbers might not appear that day. As minutes passed into the first completed hour – maybe before that, maybe after – we decided that we could no longer bear standing still and yet knew not how to will ourselves out of inaction. Almost unconsciously we did move, agreeing to walk towards the next bus stop along the route, knowing that seeing those two numbers appear halfway between one place and the other would see us completely stranded. But the bus had almost become too remote a possibility for us to have faith in any more. Our journey towards that next stop was the most provocative challenge we could think to lay down; we dared it to come now. Step after step, towards and past that middle point, closer to a new arbitrary place to station ourselves; each contact with the ground biting our flesh more and more cruelly.
On reaching the other stop, in accomplishing something yet having nothing to show for it, we stopped and shivered and cried harder. And nothing had changed.
And sixty seconds passed. And another sixty seconds passed.
And again, and again, and again.
And then, there at that furthest point – I don’t know which one of us saw it first – the shape and size of a vehicle that might have been lorry or coach. A pause (in time itself, or in this vehicle’s movement towards us, I was no longer certain), but then it moved, came closer and we ruled out one possibility and then another. And then closer, close enough to see a large windscreen and the smaller window above it: a small black housing, and the larger black window to its right. And then the white against the black, something without definition at first, but then crisper, showing as two distinctly separate yet identical forms. And then, emerging finally, those forms becoming razor-sharp, confirming that thing which we had begun to think almost impossible. We cried again, harder but now intensely happy. Four and four. A small joy to savour like never before.
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Time would soon disentangle itself. Diffident and bruised, twin boys would locate themselves once more within this world. So little had been spoken between us, so few glances shared during what had just passed. The most comforting and yet awful consequence of having someone to share the pain and dents to self-esteem that poverty brings is that you experience each suffering and humiliation twice. We could withstand the pity we felt for ourselves, but the pity we felt for one another tortured us terribly. For every anguish shared it became something enlarged, not reduced.
We found privacy on the empty upper deck of the bus. I stepped down onto the back of my left heel with my right shoe and prised out a foot; went to repeat the action with the free foot upon the right shoe, but it was too numb to articulate any kind of response. I pulled it free with my hand and then removed the destroyed sock. We both rummaged into rucksacks, pulled orange-and-green-hooped rugby socks from our sports kit. Pete layered over socks and I dressed bare feet. We each found the green jersey from the same kit bags, removed coats and double-insulated over the tops of school jumpers. The violence of the day was already beginning to recede. There was a point on this new journey at which we each acknowledged our recovery to the other with a glance and a few words, although I can’t now recall what they were. We would have found the other’s eyes wet, each of us n0w able to shake once more, backs spasming as our bodies unstiffened, feet burning anew as our refrigerated limbs began their thaw. It was an overwhelming sense of sympathy towards the brother who also had to endure that stabbed the most for me, and I think for him too. We would have sat watching that wonder once more through the window, fearfully; quiet again but for the recuperative groans and cries which we weren’t yet able to silence.
Our minds would have wandered to the hill again: would the bus falter? Would we find that same soft-blemished ground there? That blanket we had found there that morning, which snow and wind, and man and machine, had limboed into being forever straightened and creased.