He stood still and alone amid a whirl of people who all looked like they knew where to go or when to go nowhere. Most of them were looking as clueless as Ray until a bus wheezed to a halt in front of them. A dozen of them lost their demeanour of aimlessness as quickly as if they’d been told to drop it by a copper with a taser and snapped into a queue so orderly it might have been rehearsed. They marched on to the bus which pulled away with a hiss of hydraulic doors and a snarl of diesel.
Two minutes later, another bus pulled up and another random selection of people strode into a queue while no one else paid any attention to it.
How did they know?
Ray had done his homework before he came to the bus stop. He could take the 292, the 340 or the 186 to the cinema. He could tell which was which by the number on the front, side and back of the bus. He knew all that, but it turned out that it wasn’t all he needed to know.
How was he supposed to know which of the three to get on when any of them would take him from where he was to where he was going? If there had been only one bus, it would be straightforward. With three of them, he had no idea how to choose between them.
He thought about what Frank would say but. It didn’t help. He’d never chosen a bus or gone to a cinema with Frank. Deciding where to go and how to get there had always been simple for Frank. He’d say, ‘it’s me for the gym this afternoon, Ray lad, I’ve eaten too many chips,’ or, ‘Let’s have a wander round the yard while it’s not raining’.
Nothing that helped Ray choose a bus.
Ray watched a line of people board the 340 and almost joined on the end of the queue, but the door thumped shut while he was still shuffling feet that didn’t know whether to carry him toward it or stay where they were.
It was hopeless. He was never going to make it to that cinema. He turned away from the road and its perplexing busses and felt the tension slide away from his shoulders.
He stepped into a newsagent’s shop without knowing why until he saw the rack of bars of chocolate. Now he remembered what drew him in here. Chocolate had been at best a weekly treat for so long that he’d forgotten that any newsagent would sell you as much of it as you could afford.
Or would shout at you while you made off with as many as you could fit in your pockets.
No, he reminded himself, one Frank had told him to ‘keep to the straight and narrow, Ray lad, I’m counting on you to buy me a pint when I see you out there’.
If Ray wanted a bar of chocolate, he could afford to buy one with the money he was no longer going to buy a cinema ticket with.
It was less than a quid for a bar of…what?
Bounty? Snickers? Double decker?
Which one would Frank tell him to choose?
There hadn’t been bars of chocolate at the food counter. Ray had seen Frank ask for another scoop of chips on the sly every dinnertime. Sometimes he got his scoop and sometimes he didn’t, but he always asked.
The only time Frank had chocolate was when his wife sent him a Yorkie or a Toblerone or a Dairy Milk. Frank had always given Ray two or three squares, but that didn’t help right now because it hadn’t been Frank that chose it.
“Can I help you, mate?” asked the newsagent.
Ray had been staring at the chocolate for several minutes without moving. He must look like a lunatic.
He turned and left the shop. Home, he decided. He was already walking in the direction of home so fast he was almost running.
When he closed the door of his flat, he breathed a sigh of relief. The walls were bare, the cupboards were stocked with chicken and mushroom pot noodles and he’d disconnected the television so he wouldn’t need to choose a channel to watch.
He lay on his bed and looked up at the ceiling. Perhaps he’d try going outside again tomorrow.