You don’t fall in love with ‘the girl on the bus.’ It just isn’t done. Maybe you look at her chest, maybe you chat her up even. But to fall deeply and silently in love with a stranger who just happens to be a regular on the same bus: that would just be sad. And there is nothing worse than being sad, right?
Steph was never sad. He never took the bus either. Steph’s and Alexander’s schoolboy friendship had been consolidated during the time the two had spent in uniform together as police recruits. Steph’s indestructible cheeriness seemed to complement Alexander’s own dour demeanour. Alexander used to call him the laughing policeman, and in return Steph called Alexander ‘Taggart,’ after the dour TV detective, which only served to flatter his considerable ambition. Steph’s ambition was rather more modest, as is generally the case with happy people.
Back then, Steph was always telling Alexander about this girl he was after. He insisted on spilling out his heart in the pub every night, despite Alexander’s obvious lack of interest. (Maybe Steph mistook his silently pained expression for that of a ‘good listener.’) Anyway, the girl was called Laura, and she looked just like the young Lauren Bacall, Steph insisted. Which kept Alexander slightly interested. Steph was smitten, but he was worried that she thought of him as a friend rather than a potential lover. This struck Alexander as peculiar, since he had never had a female friend and could not imagine how such a state of affairs might come about. It didn’t matter though: Steph wasn’t after Alexander’s advice. He just enjoyed flaunting his anguish.
Alexander preferred to keep his anguish to himself. To mull it over on the bus. And, yes, love did make him sad. It is not just that an unfulfilled desire made him sad. He found love itself very hard to live with. He couldn’t eat properly. He couldn’t sleep properly. He talked nonsense to himself. The girl on the bus looked just like the young Lauren Bacall. Three or four times a week Alexander would see her on the 66. The rest of the time he’d see her in his head.
Laura was a nurse, which gave Steph hope: cops and nurses, he told Alexander, make ideal partners. Lauren didn’t look like a nurse to Alexander, though. She had a distant quality that jarred with his impression of nurses as earthy, practical women. On their bus journeys she watched the window as if it were a cinema screen, only occasionally returning his gaze and causing him to stare at the floor. Despite her unnursely demeanour though, Alexander had a hunch that his Lauren was indeed Steph’s Laura. It was the sort of thing that happened to him. He thought about the situation for a while, and then he suggested to Steph that Laura was probably out of his league.
It was Alexander’s honest opinion, and since the alternative was getting into some protracted Cyrano de Bergerac-type nonsense, he thought it best to smother Steph’s interest forthwith. Happily, Steph seemed to share this analysis of the situation. He had obviously suspected from the start that he was onto a loser, and so he resolved to be satisfied with Laura’s friendship. She was such a nice and down-to-earth person, he said, that he would hate to risk losing her as a friend. This down-to-earth business left Alexander wondering what Steph saw in him as a friend, and frankly doubting the sincerity of his sentiments. People find comfort in the strangest ways.
It troubled Alexander for another reason, too. He just couldn’t see Lauren in Steph’s description of Laura, and he began to wonder if he had made a mistake. No, Steph said, Laura did not have a twin. And so Alexander studied his beloved on the bus, looking for traces of uniform, a name badge, an upside-down watch, sensible shoes. None of the above was in evidence. Lauren dressed unusually well for a young woman; she was stylish rather than trendy. Chic. And mysterious. He watched her face for as long as he dared and it gave nothing away. All he could say was that Lauren looked like a troubled drifter, a femme fatale. The sort of woman who would fall for the smart, laconic detective Alexander was not yet but was about to be. Of course he thought about following her off the bus to find out more, but he would have felt stupid doing that. Time after time then, he sat close enough to touch, unable to touch. As far as he could see, his only hope of reaching her was through Steph. And then only if Lauren really were Laura.
In desperation, Alexander considered making a move for Lauren on his own, striking up a conversation on the bus and charming her into loving him. But how? Why would she even have liked him? If she had liked him, frankly he would have thought less of her. It wasn’t that Alexander suffered from low self-esteem, just that he hated what other people saw of him. He was just a polis in clunky polis boots. Entirely unlovable. If, despite everything, Lauren was Steph’s friend, then at least Steph could read her a rough draft of the real Alexander, teach her to appreciate his deeper, darker qualities. As long as she and Alexander were just strangers on the bus though, he was entirely without hope. And entirely miserable.
For this reason he was unable to drop completely the hope that Lauren really was Laura, so when Steph asked him to help him with an old sofa he was giving Laura for her new flat, his heart spun uncontrollably. Alexander told Steph it would be nice to meet his friend, but this uncharacteristic sociability was a thin cloak for his own undying hope. As the two men heaved the sofa up six flights of stairs, the clashing aftershave fumes were quite overwhelming.
‘Hi there,’ said a voice from above. Alexander turned his head to see Lauren at the top of the stairs. He dropped his end of the sofa, causing poor Steph to tumble down several steps under its weight. Laura laughed. ‘I thought you policemen were supposed to be strong!’ She gave Alexander a teasing look. He blushed and picked up the sofa, smiling apologetically at Steph. ‘I know your face from somewhere,’ Laura said as she opened the storm door to make room for the sofa.
Ten minutes later the three were installed on the sofa in front of the television, drinking tea and talking about the weather. Which made Alexander think. Instinctively, he had denied ever having seen Laura’s face before, except of course in To Have and Have Not. She had been quite charmed by the comparison with Miss Bacall, which Steph had evidently never shared with her. This revelation, along with the unexpectedly domestic ambience that had quickly resumed, gave Alexander an insight into the mysterious ‘friendship’ between his friend and the object of his desire. Quite simply, Steph was useless with women. It was hard not to be amused. Alexander managed to contain his delight in a slight smirk though, before turning his attention to Laura.
She was dressed in a knee-length skirt and a cashmere sweater: perhaps a little more Doris Day than Lauren Bacall, but a world away from the down-to-earth nurse described by Steph. A less-is-more application of mascara brought out something cool and urbane in Laura’s expression. Alexander detected a new element in his feelings for her: it was lust. All this was making unreasonable demands of his tea, so he suggested they go out for a drink. The motion was passed unanimously. On the way out, Laura tapped Alexander on the arm. ‘I know where I’ve seen you: it’s on the bus. You’re the guy who’s always staring at the floor.’ He said something forgettably stupid in response. She smiled in a way that combined how-are-we-this-morning? with you-know-how-to-whistle-don’tcha? to devastating effect. He took a deep breath.
It was raining outside, and while Steph huddled under Laura’s umbrella Alexander walked manfully in the rain. Several times he exchanged glances with Laura, quietly thrilled that he no longer had to look away when their eyes met (or, more accurately, he no longer felt that he had to look away). He could tell that Laura was warming to him, and by the time he arrived at a suitable bar they were practically an item. It really was that fast, which was most disconcerting. Still, they all managed to act as if nothing had happened. Over drinks, Steph facilitated the customary exchange of personal information between Laura and Alexander. It transpired that Laura had been a ballet dancer in her teens and was currently taking a part-time course in choreography along with the nursing. In contrast, Steph explained, Alexander was an incorrigible workaholic. He was destined to become the youngest DI in the history of the force, Steph said, but his maverick ways would make him a thorn in the side of the establishment. Alexander smiled, but was strangely disturbed; it struck him that Steph had summed up his character a little too easily. Alexander was perhaps not as deep and dark as he had thought.
As he struggled to come to terms with what was happening then, to adjust to the fact that he was now in love with a real person, to face the sudden possibility of actual happiness, Alexander’s usual quick wit and ready repartee deserted him. An awkward silence descended.
‘Tell us that joke about the one-armed twin,’ Steph suggested. ‘I’ve still not heard it.’
He had heard Alexander telling the one-armed twin story to the sergeant that morning, and evidently had decided that he was missing out on something. Alexander looked nervously at Laura before beginning.
‘It’s a true story, an anecdote rather than a joke, right. I’m telling you this now because it’s not that funny and I don’t want you to get your hopes up. OK, there’s these twin brothers who both work in the same supermarket. One of them has two arms but the other one has one arm missing, right? Or was it left? Let’s say left, right? He used to have both arms but now only the right one’s left…’ Laura giggled gratifyingly.
‘Is this the joke?’ Steph interrupted.
‘No, this is padding. I told you, this story needs all the help it can get. So one twin has two arms and he’s the manager, and the other twin…’
‘Just how unfunny are we talking about?’ Steph interrupted again.
‘Remember The Two Ronnies? Ronnie Corbett on the armchair…’
‘I’ll get a round,’ Steph upped and left, leaving Laura and Alexander alone.
Alexander continued valiantly with the anecdote – which really isn’t funny, I promise you – and when Steph returned a few minutes later Laura was wiping tears of laughter from her face with a stylish silk scarf. They were both deliriously happy.
The next day at work Steph bit the bullet. ‘I think Laura likes you.’
‘I guess,’ Alexander said.
‘I thought you two might get on,’ Steph continued. And as Alexander realised what had happened, he almost felt guilty. Steph had taken this mysterious friendship to the extreme by putting Laura’s happiness before his own. Naturally though, the self-sacrifice only made him happier. He developed an intolerable warm glow. And as for the happy couple… well, you can guess the rest.
I said before that Alexander didn’t dislike himself before he met Laura, but having settled into a relationship with Laura, he didn’t like himself at all. Instead of writing Laura into his own noir script, he was dragged into some horrible BBC sitcom about a cop and a nurse. Laura was nursing him into someone he didn’t want to be. In her company, he felt big and stupid, a loveable plonker. Only a few weeks after that night in the rain, Alexander realised that his love was dead. But he began to see something new in Laura. Something that suggested the relationship might be worth pursuing after all. Not the promise of happiness that he had never really wanted anyway, but something far more in keeping with his personality, and indeed his ambition. As the love that had become lust turned finally to resentment, it hit him. Laura would make an excellent wife.
‘A comedy of Eros’ is an excerpt from That Existential Leap: a crime story. Buy here.