Bah Humbug


© Clare London



Drew stood on the bus, his arm gripping on to the overhead strap, his body lurching from side to side with every twist and turn of the city road. The other passengers were crushed up against him, their bodies moving as one, now bearing to the left, now taking a sharp right.

Someone coughed in his ear, a hacking influenza-fuelled sound. Some shopping bags toppled over and a dozen oranges rolled all over the floor, squelching under people’s helpless feet. A baby started to wail from a seat near the back of the bus. The bus made a sudden sharp climb up towards the mall and a group of kids lost their footing again, stumbling against Drew. They had glitter in their hair and tinsel garlands around their necks: they were laughing loudly and incidentally stabbing him in the back with a school bag full of books.

“Just tell me why,” Drew muttered through gritted teeth. “Tell me why, every damned year, they cut the bus services in the week before Christmas. Don’t they know the traffic’s going to be worse than ever? Shoppers; extra staff; poor bastards like us who just want to get to and from work without losing a kidney.”

His companion was pressed up to him, almost nose to nose. Joe blew out gently, dislodging a stray hair of Drew’s that had tangled around his chin. “I think there’s been an accident at the bus garage – the bad weather caused a burst pipe or something. Several routes had to be closed down.”

Drew grunted, because Joe’s proximity made him feel even grumpier, in a deliciously disturbing kind of way. “Tell me why that catches people unawares every damned Christmas. The cold weather comes; the snow falls. It’s Christmas. Duh. But everyone’s still ‘shock!horror’, my car won’t start; my drive is blocked; my bus won’t run. I’ve just discovered my coat isn’t windproof; I must stock up my house with three hundred tins of soup in case this isn’t Christmas at all, it’s Armageddon.”

Joe smiled. Drew was a long-time colleague and sometimes frustrating friend, he knew the pattern well enough by now. Someone nudged past him to get off at the next stop and pushed him up tight against the other man. His nose was briefly buried in Drew’s coat and he smelled a mixture of coffee and damp rainfall and the fresh citrus sharpness of Drew’s soap. He took an extra breath, savoring it. “It’s a good thing, the change of seasons. Makes life refreshing. And you’re no better prepared for it, I reckon. I remember one year you left your boots out on your front porch and they filled up with snow overnight.”

Drew gave a grudging smile back. Joe was smart and cute and usually right, and he knew he should be damned grateful the man found any time for him at all. The bus spun around the junction just a little too fast and the passenger mass swerved with it. Drew got an umbrella in his shins this time. He peered out of the window between three other upstretched arms. Hordes of shoppers were outside the mall, passing the window like blurred, scurrying, parcel-laden ants. In the background, Christmas music was playing from a loudspeaker, badly out of tune. “Tell me why they have to leave all their shopping until the last week,” he grumbled. “The damned shops have been full of the Christmas stuff and nonsense since October. Why do the masses have to come out in full force, blocking the streets and trebling the queues at the coffee shops, all day long?”

“You mean, specifically, when you want to get home after a bad day at work,” Joe smiled. When the bus shrieked to a sudden stop because of shoppers spilling out haphazardly on to the crossing, he had to grasp Drew’s arm to steady himself. He continued to hold it when the bus started up again. “Some of these people don’t work easy shifts, don’t have the internet – they have to shop when they get a free hour. They make it a social event, you know. It’s fun to be out among the decorations and the lights and the music.”

Drew groaned and shook his head. “No way. Tell me I don’t have to listen to the carols as well, it’s bad enough trying to find my usual items in shops that are full of inflatable Santas and winking plastic reindeer. God, this happens every year. Enforced jollity; rampant commercialism; discomfort and bad humour all around.” Joe’s hand on his arm was warm and firm. Drew felt disturbed all over again, and he didn’t think it was due in any way to the winking plastic reindeer. “Tell me something new,” he growled.

The bus slid to a relatively sedate stop at a traffic light. Joe took a deep breath.

“I love you and I want to spend Christmas with you,” he said, clearly and steadily.

Someone behind Drew gasped; the school children giggled. A chorus of ‘Winter Wonderland’ floated through the half-open bus window from a nearby shop, apparently sung by electronic chipmunks. The brakes of the bus hissed and squealed as it prepared to pull away again.

Drew stared back at Joe. Of course, they did keep meeting at the water cooler, then wandering back off with still-empty cups, grinning sheepishly… then there’d been that clumsy kiss at the office party…

Joe stared back. “I’ve thought it for a long time, but never told you before,” he said. He didn’t understand why everyone else on the bus wasn’t deafened by the sound of his heart beating. “That’s something new, isn’t it?”

Drew continued to stare. He knew he was blushing. His free hand moved up to rest at Joe’s waist and it felt pretty comfortable there. “Smart and cute and usually right,” he muttered, like a mantra.

Joe was puzzled by the reference, but he was happy just to go on smiling, probably for the rest of the Holidays. “It’s my stop next. What are you doing for this season of peace and goodwill to all men, Drew? Bearing in mind the enforced jollity and the rampant commercialism – oh, and the squashed orange that’s sticking to your boot?”

Drew’s mouth opened of its own volition. “I’m coming back to yours,” he said, a little weakly. “I’d rather like to spend Christmas with you, too.”

Joe grinned. He was glad he’d bought a new copy of Phil Spector’s Christmas Hits to play over supper. After all, if there was going to be any lingering discomfort or bad humour this Christmas, he knew no-one else he’d rather share it with.