“Happy birthday–belated birthday. I’ve only known you a day, but anyway,” Saleem says to Stephen with the warmth and genuineness that is always constant in his voice–no matter the true nature of his mood. Stephen, recently dropped out of a Fine Arts program at the mildly used age of thirty-two, had met Saleem on the bus up from Cambridge to Liverpool. The two struck up a conversation after Saleem dropped his suitcase on Stephen’s head as he was placing it in the overhead bin, a copy of Jude the Obscure escaping amid the suitcase’s tussle with the compartment.
Rubbing his head nonchalantly and picking up the book from off the seat, Stephen commented, “Hardy’s best, I reckon.” As Saleem readjusted his bag to sufficiently place it back overhead, he returned, “Really? Most people always insist it’s Far From the Madding Crowd or Tess of the d’Urbervilles.”
“Most people are idiots though, wouldn’t you say?”
And with that, their acquaintanceship felt firm. While Saleem might have put on strong airs of joviality and good will for every man, there was a dark underbelly to his “even temper.” Stephen detected this almost immediately in the way he somewhat belligerently wrestled with his luggage, not to mention his choice of reading material for the journey. A journey that Stephen found out was centered around the burial of a family member–his Aunt Rashida to be exact. They had been quite close, Stephen soon apprehended, with Rashida fulfilling the role of mother after his own abandoned the family when he was six. That’s the thing about long bus rides: you can learn the intimate details of a person’s entire life story without effort–for they assume they will never see you again, confessing as though the stranger in their midst is their non-molesting priest. In many respects, however, the stranger can turn out to be quite molesting, at least in terms of the freedom with which they probe their fellow passenger’s mind.
Saleem seemed to relish this opportunity to clear his conscience of a few things. It had been so long since he had had someone to really talk to. Candidly. Without reservation or qualms. Stephen, with his artist’s temperament, was naturally open to listening to the stories of others. It was his own selfish way of “gathering material,” for he would often stare shamelessly at people’s facial expressions as they spoke, hoping to catch the perfect “moment” or angle he could recapture from memory later. In Saleem’s case, every expression told a story of pain and repressed agony. And yet, like so many of us, Saleem couldn’t see the most obvious thing about himself. That he was radiating curmudgeonliness masked by a forced aura of pleasantness. Stephen liked this about him. It gave him a decidedly humane quality–for we all try to hide who we are from the world. Alas, this is a task seemingly only fit for con artist socialites like Anna Delvey. In short, sociopaths. But try as he might, Saleem was not a sociopath. He was just a man embittered by the trajectory of life and the inability to get off of its unpleasant and only course (said course consisting solely of working at a passionless job to make money for things that didn’t even really make him happy). That he tried so diligently to hide this annoyance made it shine through all the more, penetrating what was, in his mind, a carefully crafted emanation of “sternness,” as opposed to what Stephen could immediately see, which was complete and utter despondency. So he gave him the release he was looking for on that roughly eight-hour ride, which was, simply, to be able to talk and be listened to–heard. No one in Saleem’s life had ever truly permitted him that small courtesy that has been rendered massive in this era of encouraged and accepted self-involvement stemmed from the half-listening that comes easily with holding a phone in one’s hand at all times. Luckily, Stephen had lost his phone.
It was around the point where Saleem was just getting to describing how he ended up becoming a professor of Psychological and Behavioural Sciences at Cambridge–which Stephen didn’t really need an explanation of when taking into account that all the most psychologically damaged people gravitate toward the field–that found the bus breaking down shortly before pulling into Birmingham Coach Station.
“What did we expect? The ticket was 12 pounds 80,” Saleem mused. Stephen didn’t particularly mind the sudden setback. He was in no rush to return to Liverpool, where his job at the Beatles museum still awaited him. He wished Joe Strummer and Mick Jones had been accurate in claiming that “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust.” It certainly hadn’t in Liverpool, where it was all he could do to escape the sound of a Beatles song flowing out of some ambient and faraway speaker. He truly believed the government had set up a giant megaphone in the sky just so all of the residents would be forced to hear their catalogue at all times so as to remember who they were–Liverpudlians–and that the height of their achievement as a people had yet to be topped once more. Saleem was sympathetic to Stephen’s plight, iterating that if he had no familial ties to the town, he wouldn’t be caught dead there, if Stephen would pardon the insensitive (in this case) phrase.
As for Stephen’s motives for being in Cambridge after coming from the “far off” destination of Ireland, Saleem learned it pertained to his pursuit of a woman he had met at the very museum that promised he would always have a place there no matter how long he chose to stay away (much to his dismay). She was on her own, a blonde Swede (how original), genuinely moved by all the memorabilia and who chose to move through the space without a headset like everyone else. It endeared her to him in a way he couldn’t explain, and had to find out more about. So when he caught an opportunity to chat her up a bit as she stared at the many framed images of John Lennon toward the end of the display, he unearthed that her next stop was Dublin.
“Funny, I’m going there myself as well in the next coupla days.” This was a complete and utter lie, but it was no longer one the second he let it escape from his mouth, because he then knew, in that instant, that he would go to the ends of the earth for this girl in order just to be near her. Her interest piqued in having loose plans to meet up with someone while there traveling alone (she was visiting all the U.K. haunts of the people, mostly men, she admired), she gave him her number. So it was that he followed her to Dublin along a route that led them to Cambridge where she finally found it within her to break his heart by making out with another man right in front of him at the pub. It was the following day that he made arrangements to begin his way back from whence he came, and apparently where he was damned to stay. The worst part of it was, as he told Saleem, that this girl, Maja, would never grasp just how much she had impacted his life for the worse. Had irreparably shattered any future ability to love with even remotely the same ardor. Saleem nodded sagely, offering as comfort, “I’m very sorry Stephen. It is often the wrong people that we give all of our love to, only to realize that love of the same intensity and caliber can never be conjured for another again.” Stephen knew then that his own loss paled in comparison to Saleem’s, for he was clearly referring to the fact that he had given his love to a negligent mother, when it was his aunt all along who had deserved it most.
After some nondescript repairs, the bus summoned its passengers once more after a night of feigned sleep at the station, where Saleem caught a glimpse of Stephen’s ID as it accidentally slipped out of his wallet while he was paying for coffee that morning. It was then he noticed his birth date, which had occurred just three days ago, marking his thirty-third year. He kept the information to himself, that is, until they sat down to await the re-boarding process, at which time he wished Stephen a belated happy birthday. Rather than being appalled or disturbed by Saleem’s arcane knowledge of his new age, Stephen turned to him and said, “Thank you.” The truth was, Saleem was the only one who had wished him any kind of happiness for it, being that he was estranged from his family and had lost his phone about three weeks ago while on a bender in Dublin with Maja (he never mentioned it was his birthday to her either), so that any messages from friends were trapped in the ether for the moment. It was in this instant of sharing a connection more deeply than he had with anyone of the past five years of his life that he gathered just how significant we are to one another, even if only for the most fleeting and unexpected of occasions.