“What if God was One of Us?” – 5,170 words
You meet the strangest characters driving a bus in London.
The driver cursed internally, thinking about what he’d been missing all day. He realised now that he’d left the light on in the bathroom and, cursing as he realised this, the plug in the bath, which had developed a drip. He’d come home to a flooded house again, and wouldn’t the wife be happy to see him.
He took a corner too sharply, barely holding in the rage he had towards London drivers. I mean, did they all just decide that his routes were the best time for them to go out driving? They pissed him off so badly, but he couldn’t afford to let go of his road rage. He only had three points left on his licence, and he needed this job. Especially if he’d flooded the house again…
The stench of that passenger floated over to him, and he started to heave. He didn’t know what had possessed him to allow that guy on his bus again this morning, especially after what his stench had done to his stomach last time. He’d lost so much weight last week when the guy had pressed up against him, because he couldn’t get the smell out of his nose and it made him queasy just to think of it.
He made a silent resolution to himself as he opened his window, preferring the smog of London to the smell of the man. If he tries to get on the bus again, he won’t let him on. There was no way he could stand to lose another week’s worth of meals because the man made him sick.
He slammed on the breaks as some cyclists darted in front of him, and glowered when he failed to hit any of them. Not that he could have afforded the loss of his licence that would have meant, but it would have taught the bastards to respect the heavier machines on the road…
There he was again, that man.
He looked homeless, like he shouldn’t be on the bus at all, like he couldn’t afford the trip.
Mathias had been watching this man since he got on at King’s Cross. The homeless-looking man was sitting on his own, his tatty overcoat smelling strongly of a mix of garlic and candy floss—enough to make anyone who smelt it need to throw up.
Mathias flicked absently through the magazine in his hand, trying to alleviate the boredom. The rains from King’s Cross had been delayed, so he’d decided to take one of the famous red double-deckers to Hyde Park, where he was meeting his girlfriend for lunch.
There wasn’t really all that much in the magazine. A famous couple were reporting their pregnancy on page three, while somewhere around page nineteen a hero was being decorated for saving someone. Decorated, and forgotten, because who cares about saving lives when a celebrity gets pregnant?
He flicked to the crossword, pulling out a pen. His son had given him that pen for Christmas, and it was starting to run out of ink. He hoped his son would give him a new one this Christmas, so he could change the pens. Maybe he’d have a word to his ex-wife about it. She could organise it for him.
The crossword was no help. They’d barely rolled down the block when he put the magazine away, turning to stare out of the window. The traffic outside was terrible, but typical for London. No one was moving faster than a few miles an hour, and had been for almost three-quarters of an hour now.
Two rows behind Mathias, John read his paper, ignoring Mark’s hand on his thigh. His boyfriend was a little possessive, but John didn’t mind. At least Mark was afraid to lose him, unlike his last boyfriend…But, God willing, that wouldn’t happen.
John flicked through the paper, no longer reading it, and missed the look the homeless man gave him. Mark’s hand had risen to his crotch, and was gently rubbing. John tried as hard as he could to ignore it, but the feeling was gaining more attention with every pass. He lowered the paper so that the sight was hidden from the other passengers, especially the woman across the aisle, who was nursing a baby.
John glanced around as Mark undid his fly. No one else was paying attention to them, but the hobo at the front of the bus was staring at them, smiling. He was missing a few teeth, his mouth hidden by the big, bushy beard, but John could tell it was a smile, which freaked him out a little.
The hobo looked away, seemingly to give them privacy. John shuddered, but then shifted in his seat. Mark was playing with him, though his attention itself was on his mobile phone. John tried not to change his posture or move the paper, but it was so hard… Mark had a real talent for performing in public…
Sam sat by herself, her headphones covering her ears, hoodie up over her head to hide her purple hair. She was regretting the decision to colour her hair now that she was on her way home from college for the winter holidays. The bus was hot, but she didn’t want to reveal her hair here by taking it off—she stood out too much.
She read the book in her hand, not really paying attention to the words in front of her. The novel was stiff and boring—exactly what the academics at college thrust down their throats with each semester of Literature—and there was too much to attract her attention from the dry words.
The streets outside the bus were full of people rushing to and from shops, searching out the perfect Christmas present for the last minute. Everyone seemed to be frustrated or happy, depending on how many shopping bags they were carrying.
She flipped through her iPod, searching for a particular song. She knew it was here somewhere, a song that would give voice to the frustrations she felt being stuck in this city. The country home she’d been staying at all school year felt more like home than the city she’d grown up in did.
She found the song, set it to play and turned the volume up a little. She tapped her foot in time to it and put her book away, intending to close her eyes and listen through the song a few times to settle her nerves. In fact, the song, about God sitting on a bus, made her tear up a little, and she did her best to discreetly wipe the tears away.
She looked up from her bag, feeling someone watching her. The man who had been watching the two men a few seats down from her was now staring at her, a smile on his face. He pointed to his ear for a second, then gave her the thumbs up.
She stared at him, unable to figure out if her music was loud enough to carry along the bus, or if he was messing with her. His serene smile didn’t do much to convince her of either. There was something about him that seemed so familiar, as though he was an old friend she hadn’t seen in decades…
Trevor, sitting behind the person wearing the hoodie, stared at the homeless guy, trying to work out what was going on. He could hear the song the girl was playing—he’d seen her face for a second when she was putting her book away—but it was faint and indistinct. How could the guy down thee other end of the bus be able to hear the sing well enough to comment on it?
He flicked his lighter, ignoring the stare the old woman across the aisle was giving him, as though she wanted to peel his flesh from his bones. He was thinking, and he could only think while flicking the lighter. Bugger the old broad, he thought, slipping the lighter back into his pocket and standing up. He needed to stretch his legs.
The bearded man at the front of the bus didn’t look so homeless now. Trevor couldn’t work out why, until he realised that the man’s face wasn’t so dirty now, as though he’d just wiped his forehead on the sleeve of his jacket, which was impossible. Trevor had been staring the man in the eye, he would have seen his hand lift…
Trevor shook his head. The man was a homeless bum, whether he could afford—or talk his way onto—a trip from King’s Cross to Piccadilly or not. He was just as filthy as he’d been before, and his stench… Trevor could smell it now, garlic and candy floss. It made him queasy, and he sat down quickly, looking out the window and trying not to breathe.
Josh and Daisy sat together, Daisy’s head on Josh’s shoulder. They were holding hands, mostly because Daisy was trying to prevent Josh’s hand from climbing underneath her skirt. The boy was grabby, and if she didn’t love him as much as she did, she would have slapped him and told him to keep his hands to himself.
Daisy, one finger tracing the back of Josh’s hand, was staring at the man at the front of the bus. She smiled back at him when he smiled at her, and she even waved, once. The man was the most hansom man she had ever seen, his beard trimmed really well, his suit a glowing white, clean and pressed. He looked happy to be sitting on the bus, riding along with them, and she couldn’t help but wish she knew the man’s story.
Josh was staring at the man too, but for an entirely different reason. Aside from resenting the attention his girlfriend was giving the dirty homeless man, he couldn’t help but notice that, while the man was dirty, his hands were clean, pale and perfectly manicured. It was as though he had enough money to ensure his hands were clean, but not enough to get a new coat or buy some razors and have a shave.
He noticed that Daisy’s hand was no longer tracing the back of his. He glanced at her, to find her hand clinging to the golden cross hanging around her neck. He frowned, glancing back at the man, and did a double-take.
The homeless man’s beard was shorter, wasn’t it? Josh could have sworn that his beard was down to his waist before, and now it was a few inches shorter and well-trimmed.
Josh’s free hand made its way up to the cross hanging around his own neck, but nothing changed. He kept his eyes on the man, anyway, just to make sure. There was something strange about him, and not just the perfume of cotton candy wafting up the aisle.
Josh was determined to find out what it was.
Daisy already knew.
Taylor sat, curled up in the corner of the bus, his knees pulled up to his chest. There were bruises around his neck, over his body. He’d been beaten again by the man he’d been forced to call father for fifteen years, and he’d finally run away.
Not that he knew where he was going. For all he knew, he’d end up like the man at the front of the bus, who was smiling at everyone, his attention mainly focussed on the young black couple sitting at the other end of the long seat, at the back of the bus. Taylor glanced at the pair now and then, wary. The pair were holding the gold chains around their neck, which Taylor suspected held Christian crosses.
Taylor moved slightly, gripping the Star of David charm that his mother had given him for his last birthday. His step-father had used it to strangle him a few times, but Taylor had not let it go, just as he would not let his faith go that there was someone above who would look out for him and help him escape the abusive bastard who had married his mother.
The man at the front of the bus smiled at Taylor, rubbing at his neck underneath the suddenly-trimmed beard. Taylor stared at him, and sat up a little straighter. The aches seemed to be lessening, somehow. There was strength in his arms and legs too, just enough strength to walk form the bus to his future, if he wanted it.
The bus slowed down again, just enough for Taylor to realise where they were. They were crossing the Thames, the mighty river surging below the bridge. He felt the wind coming through the open window above him, and sat up properly, his feet on the floor. There was strength in that wind and—he opened his eyes—he was amazed to find there was strength in the homeless man’s gaze as well.
I have been where you are, the man’s eyes seemed to be saying. Have faith and you will endure.
Taylor’s hand returned to the Star of David around his neck, and he smiled at the homeless man, though he now noticed the man’s shoes were bright and polished, as though he’d spent hundreds of dollars on them, only three seconds ago.
Jesus Christ! Taylor thought in astonishment, then smiled at the man.
He knew this man. He knew him well. And, as far as he cared, this man represented everything that Taylor wanted to become.
Elizabeth continued to glare at the young man across the aisle, even after he put away the lighter. She could tell he was one of those juvenile delinquents that the news reported on every night, tearing up the town. She settled back in her seat, purse perched on her lap, and rode the driver’s wide corners, trying to look as prim and proper as she had been taught to be, back in the day.
She started as the young girl sitting diagonally across the aisle from her answered her phone, the high, ringing sound clashing with the noise in the girl’s ears. Elizabeth Waverly had not listened to music in decades, thank you very much, and she didn’t understand why it was such a large part of the modern teenage culture.
“Music”—at least, what they called music—was just a wall of sound with no organisation. Nothing like you used to get, back in the 30s and 40s. That was proper music, that was. Henry Hall, Paul Whiteman, Glenn Millar. They were musicians. The stuff they were calling music nowadays was just noise. No talent or sophistication needed to do music anymore!
Her gaze fell on the man at the front of the bus, who was doing his crossword—at least, he was trying to. Elizabeth sniffed at the pair of gay men a few seats behind him, annoyed. There was no room for people of such…lifestyles, in the world. If God could see those men, doing such indecent things together in their bedroom or wherever it is their unsavoury acts occur…
Her gaze travelled around the bus. She glared particularly hard at the homeless man, who was glaring right back at her, obviously annoyed. She couldn’t understand why he would be annoyed—he wasn’t the one who had to smell his pungent odour! By now his nose would have become accustomed to the smell and it would he fine to him.
The man glared at her. He shook his head at her, pointing to the two gay men. One of them seemed relaxed back in the chair, though she could tell he was controlling his breathing. They were up to something, she could tell. Elizabeth wondered if she should bring the matter to the driver’s attention and get them thrown off the bus. However, she couldn’t stand people of other races, and would rather tolerate the gays’ presence than speak to such a lowly man. God would not want it.
The homeless man at the front of the bus went back to glaring at her, but she ignored him. He didn’t know anything, that young man. Doubtless, he had done something wrong in his life, and God had punished him for it by sending him to live on the street.
Serve him right, she thought, and nodded to himself. God hates lazy people, gays, Muslims, Jews and everyone who wasn’t brought up an upper-class white English lifestyle. The sooner they realised that, the better the world would be.
May nursed baby Tia, rocking her gently. Twice, the woman behind her had kicked the back of her seat, jolting the tiny baby awake. May was only just out of the hospital, as was Tia. They didn’t need an uppity old woman obviously used to a rich lifestyle outside of riding the bus destroying any chance of rest they might get.
May was a single mother, abandoned by her family when they found out she was pregnant. She didn’t know how she was going to pay the hospital bill from the birth, or how she was going to survive. She had nowhere to go, had no money. She just had Tia and the clothes on her back, which were now too big. She’d been living from a hotel, but her pre-paid period had expired the day before, and she had no money to go back to it.
Dear God, she prayed silently, rocking her child, please help me. Help me find a way to deal with this and raise Tia the way she deserves to be raised.
The man at the front of the bus, looking hansom in his crisp white suit and his face clean-shaven, caught her attention by turning from where he’d been glaring at the old woman to smile at May. May reflexively smiled back, and he inclined his head to her. Behind May, the old woman sniffed in disapproval.
The woman kicked the back of her chair again, and May snapped. She stood up and spun around.
“What the hell is your problem?”
The old woman stared at her with the same disapproval her mother had graced May just before she kicked the seventeen-year-old out of home. “I don’t have a problem.”
“You obviously do,” May snapped back. “Stop kicking the back of my chair.”
The woman looked May in the eye for a second, then glanced around. All the passengers on the bus were looking at her, waiting. This was one of the most entertaining things they’d seen all trip, May surmised.
“I wasn’t aware I was.”
Tia started to cry in May’s arms. May glared at the old woman, trying to sooth the baby back to sleep. “Whether you intended it or not, stop doing it.”
May sat down, cooing to Tia and trying to help her sleep. The old woman didn’t kick her chair again, and Tia fell back asleep. May went back to watching the hansom man, who was alternating between smiling at May and glaring at the old woman.
May kissed her baby’s head and went back to looking out of the window, wondering what she was going to do when the bus stopped and she had to get off.
Cindy was staring at the ceiling, thinking of her return home. Well, imagining was a more apt description. She’d walked out a few months ago, after a fight with her ex-girlfriend, and now she was crawling back, hoping for forgiveness. The boyfriend she’d left with had dropped her when she told him she was pregnant, and left her on the side of the road. She’d barely had enough money for this bus ticket, and she’d have to walk a couple of miles more to get where she was going.
She had her fingers over her nose, trying to subtly block the smell of the homeless man in front of her. She would have prayed to God if she believed in him, but she found her faith had deserted her.
Cindy knew how the meeting with her girlfriend would go. Trisha would open the door, see Cindy standing there, and slam the door. Cindy would stand there knocking for an hour before Trisha would open the door again. Trisha would stand there, arms folded, glaring, and Cindy would come up with anything she could find to keep her standing there, to make her listen.
Nine times out of ten, the conversation ended with her having the door slammed in her face again, and she’d sleep on the doorstep until Trisha came out to talk to her.
But Cindy didn’t know if she could deal with that kind of conversation this time. She was on edge, caught out. Her parents were living in America, and she’d crossed an ocean to be with Trisha. But she’d done so much more bad than good in this relationship. And now, returning pregnant…
Cindy couldn’t help but think that maybe it would be better if she didn’t go back, if she just got out somewhere close and threw herself in the Thames. If she didn’t come back, surely Trisha would be happier, they wouldn’t have to fight…
Cindy looked down, rubbing a tear from her eye. The man in front of her, a shabby man dressed in a business suit, caught her eye. He was watching her, sadness in his own face. She felt as though the man knew what she was thinking, and wanted desperately to help.
She shook her head. It was impossible. He couldn’t hear her thoughts. He couldn’t know what was wrong, or how to help.
Nevertheless, she looked back into his sparkling black eyes, and saw the sadness and understanding in them.
Cindy returned to staring at the ceiling, but somehow, her thoughts had been changed by that look into the man’s eyes. She decided to complete this trip, to go back to Trisha and do whatever it took to get back with her. She didn’t know what she’d seen in the man to have him pull her from Trisha’s side, but she knew now—deep in her heart, where no one would ever find it—that she would never do it again, as long as Trisha wanted her.
Despite herself, she sent a quick prayer to God that Trisha would take her back, or at least listen to her.
Then she closed her eyes and went to sleep. Her stop was still some time away, with London traffic, and she hadn’t slept at all the night before. The ease on her mind was considerable, and she spent the rest of her trip asleep.
He sat at the front of the bus, watching over Cindy as she slept. He was vaguely amused by the antics of the obviously-gay men sitting in the other aisle, a few rows up. Sam intrigued Him, a woman who acted more like a man, but who was currently planning how to get changed into the dress in her bag, so she could avoid the usual “You are a woman!” lecture her mother gave at every return to the house.
He knew that the purple hair she was hiding from the world would get her a lecture, but He also knew that she had a wig in her bag, one that matched the length and colour of her hair before she’d left for college. She was going to wear it to avoid the lectures as long as she could.
He listened to Marty’s internal raging as he steered the bus around corners, and did what He could for the man. While he was not one of His flock, being of an Asian origin and religion, He figured He could give the man a little help. After all, was not one of His greatest messages “Love everyone, regardless of race, colour, religion or orientation”?
Mathias was a bright spark, not wanting for much—if anything—and he reminded God why He got on a bus every year, to ride around a city on Earth and do His part. He refilled the ink in Mathias’ pen and made a quick mental note to ensure that Mathias’ son Richard gave his father a handful of pens next year—one just wasn’t enough.
Trevor drew God’s attention next, as he stood up and headed down the aisle; his stop had come. God reached out a hand as the boy walked past, and slipped a piece of paper into the boy’s pocket. If Trevor followed the note, he’d get out of the trouble brewing ahead of him.
The bus rattled off, and God wondered what to do about the uptight old woman at the back of the bus. She got on His nerves, despite His all-tolerance attitude. He smiled to Himself and put the old woman in the shoes of the men she’d been glaring at for the last hour. He twisted the fabric inside her that made up who she was, and made her attracted to women instead of men. Granted, at her age, she wouldn’t act on it, but it was good to get the old bird to feel what others felt.
Empathy was a big part of what made the world work. For the people who had no access to empathy, He was happy to help them, whether they liked it or not. His goal was to make everyone happy on Earth, but sometimes that became almost impossible without a little intolerance Himself.
Although He was aware that money wouldn’t help everyone, He slipped some notes into May’s pocket and Sam’s bag, just in case. When Elizabeth tottered down the bus a little later, He just stared at her until the bus rounded the corner and took her from His sight.
Mathias slipped off a bit later, leaving just the gay men, the teenage couple up the back of the bus, May and Cindy, as well as God and the driver. The gay pair slipped off near Whitechapel, and God looked around at the three remaining people. These were the ones who needed His help the most.
The boy from the back of the bus stood up, heading off. God grabbed the boy’s arm as he passed, and smiled at him. Wordlessly, He pressed some paper and money into the boy’s hand, and let him go. The passengers still on the bus stared at Him, but God ignored them. He stared the boy in the eye, then let him go. The boy glanced at what had been pressed into his hand and took off down the stairs and out onto the dark streets.
God hoped Taylor would be okay.
Cindy took a deep breath at the Tower of London, before she headed off. God smiled at her and let her walk out. Just before she got to the bottom of the stairs, he pulled her up with three small sentences.
“Cindy. She’ll take you back. Have faith.”
The woman stared at Him until the driver cleared his throat. She darted off down the stairs and into the night, leaving God with the driver, May the single mother and the Christian couple up the back who were still staring at Him.
May stood up, holding her baby to her chest, somewhere near the Isle of Dogs. God stood up as she walked past, and she shrank back, shielding her baby from Him.
“May I see her?”
May stared at Him, and God could tell she was terrified. He smiled at her and reached over, pulling the blankets back from the child’s face. May glanced up from what He was doing, to look at His face, and gasped. The homeless bum had transformed into the most hansom man she’d ever seen, wearing a crisp white suit, and a neat beard. His eyes were a sparkling black, His hands soft and gentle when He pressed a finger to the girl’s forehead.
God smiled at May, who pulled Tia back away from Him, looking her over to make sure He hadn’t hurt her in any way. When she was sure the man in front of her hadn’t hurt her newborn, she scrambled from the bus and into the darkened alley that yawned before the door.
The driver stared after her for a few seconds, then shut the door and drove off.
God turned and looked to the pair sitting at the back of the bus, who were still watching Him. He surfed his way up the bus, allowing the motion to carry him up to them. He sat in the chair in front of them, and smiled at them.
“You can see me properly,” He said, looking to Daisy. He then looked to Josh, tilting His head. “You can’t quite see me.”
“Who are you?” Josh asked, staring at the man in white manifesting himself from the bum’s clothes.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, Josh,” the man said, smiling. “Nice name, by the way. My son’s name is Joshua.”
Daisy nodded, but also frowned. “The books say otherwise.”
“The books were mistranslated.” God smiled at Daisy. “You two are good kids, so I’m going to give you something you’re likely to need in the future.” He smiled and gestured for them to lean forwards. They did so, Josh hesitating at first, but moving to catch up with his girlfriend.
God leant forward and pressed His lips to Josh’s. Josh froze completely, but before he could pull back, God did. He pressed His lips to Daisy’s, and she relaxed, her eyes fluttering closed. God pulled back and smiled at the pair of them.
“The love of God is a special thing,” He said, standing up. “Don’t waste it.”
The pair looked to each other, and when they turned back, God was talking to the driver.
“Thanks for the lift, Marty,” the homeless guy said, smiling at him.
But he didn’t look like the homeless guy. Even as Marty watched, the man’s clothes fell away, as did his hair. He became the same white-suited man who had first stepped onto the bus.
Even if He did stink of garlic and cotton candy.
“You’re welcome, Stephen,” the man said automatically, still staring at Him.
“That’s not my name,” the man in white said, then smiled. “But it’s a good name. Maybe I’ll use it next time I come to London.” He patted Marty on the back. “Don’t worry, you didn’t leave it on. Your wife will be happy to see you tonight. She has some good news.”
The man in white stepped off the bus and disappeared—almost evaporated—into the darkness of London’s streets, Daisy and Josh right behind him.
Marty shook his head and shut the door, heading off towards the depot. He’d already forgotten what the man had said to him, but that didn’t matter much to him. All he knew was that his wife would be happy to see him tonight.
One thought echoed down through the evening as he parked his car in his driveway.
You meet the strangest characters driving a bus in London.
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