I rode the bus today – if it’s good enough for the new Pope, it’s good enough for me. And where to go? I started out from Durham bus station and had my choice. The ends of the earth where new Popes live? Or closer to home? Perhaps a pit village? High Pittington? Esh Winning? Crook? But the pits are long gone, and maybe not Crook. This had to be a journey into faith after all and Popes and crooks don’t mix, although Jesus was crucified between thieves so what do I know?
I plumped for Newcastle upon Tyne because that bus came and I wanted to leave the bus station pretty much as soon as I arrived. The station doesn’t inspire, still the Pope might, so I fought my way through the thick pork smell of chilli dogs to buy a newspaper full of Pope-y news to read on the way. I rather like the idea of diversifying from newspapers into chillidogs – it shows an original mind, and the newsagent certainly beats the shut-up shop along from it. A cheery notice on that door warns “Doorstep Callers Beware! You are not welcome here. I do not buy at the door.” No-one had been doing much buying apparently. The landlord had left his own notice stuck to the grubby glass announcing he had “re-entered the premises and as a consequence of such re-entry the lease has been forfeited and the premises secured.” Still it works, because it really does make you want to get on a bus.
I have travelled on plenty of buses in my time of course though not in the last few years. My mother said that at four years old, criss-crossing Leeds, slicing it up between home and school, wearing a straw boater and buttercup yellow cotton, I’d talk to anyone. I have this vision of dawn travellers sinking into their shiney, slidey seats in silent horror at my Shirley Temple entrance for fear I’d sit next to them and lispingly, ruthlessly, relentlessly chat. One afternoon, I’d asked her whether I could sit next to an old lady sitting across from us whom I thought looked lonely. “You didn’t care about leaving me,” she said accusingly (the eternal cry of the mother). “You talked to her for the entire journey and when it was our stop, I took your hand to stand up and the lady said to you ‘Your mummy and daddy must be so proud of you’ and you said ’I don’t have a daddy. I’ve just got a mummy,” and that poor woman almost sank through the floor with embarrassment. I had to tell her he’d died when you were a baby – that made it worse.”
But those bus-and-glory days are long gone so why did I feel I had to ride this bus this morning? Because I wanted to know why a cardinal did not ride in a leather-seated, tinted-windowed limo though the streets of Buenos Aires, but chose instead to travel among the faithful and less-than-faithful, bumping and swaying, the wheels on the bus going round and round. What did Jorge Mario Bergoglio get from those bus-rides around the city? Stories? Comfort? Warmth? An understanding what it is to work hard, to be tired, to be lonely, to have to stand when you want to sit, to know you are going home or going far away? Maybe too, I wanted to get on the bus, any bus, because we are on our own journeys and right now at least so far as faith goes, I don’t know where I am heading. Maybe, I thought, if I catch a bus like a Pope, I’ll arrive at a destination called Faith.
The queue of pensioners and shoppers, the unemployed and students shuffled forward out of Durham bus station and onto the X21 bound for Newcastle’s Eldon Square. I asked the price of a ticket. Single or return? Return – it is always good to have a chance to come back to where you started and at £5.30 (“Valid for one return journey on the day of issue only”) it seemed like a bargain, though doubtless Pope Francis would advise the money would be better spent on the poor.
Without thinking, I plumped down in the last seat downstairs and an elderly man with knobbly cheekbones and an oversized black wool coat got on after me, then hung disconsolate from a pole. Worried for his wellbeing come any sort of corner or abrupt halt, I eased myself around him and his coat to clamber up the steep stairs: the upstairs was full, every window seat with someone in it and everyone with an empty seat next to them waiting to be filled. I sat next to Joyce. I didn’t know it was her because she started out a stranger. The thing is, when you travel by bus, you don’t have to travel next to a stranger.
Joyce lost her husband Graham eight months ago, nearly nine. She believes he visits. One night as she lay in bed she felt his cold hand on her shoulder, his cold body against hers and leaped from bed. “ ‘I’m not scared, I told him. It was just I said to him “Ooh you’re cold,” and then remembered he was dead.”
Graham used to be a rep. He was 79 when he died of oesophageal cancer. He left a letter she found in a drawer telling her that if it was possible he’d come back to her as an angel. Joyce believes in angels – they both did. She carries a little one in her purse; ceramic ones hang from her lamps; and a cast-iron male angel holding a female angel stands by the garden bench where she and Graham used to sit together. White feathers have appeared in the living room, a book with his photo has fallen over twice, and robins are everywhere, their heads cocked, eyes bright, perching on her garden angels, telling her he is with her. “We used to talk to each other all the time”, she said. “I still talk to him all the time in the house. “ I asked whether she talks to him outside the house. That too. Discretely. She demonstrated, turning to the window, her elbow leaning on it. “Well, look at that,” she said, her hand against her mouth, not something you would hear, not something you’d worry about, just an elderly little body murmuring, reminding herself of something or other - not a widow talking to a shade.
We carry the dead with us. In her purse, Joyce carries a prayer card for her dad, half of a 10 bob note from her mother in a plastic wallet (who knows the whys and wherefores of the other half – not Joyce) , and she carries too her husband’s pictures – him as a young soldier, as a devoted husband holding her as if she is most precious. We sucked on Joyce’s Trebor mints and I thought how we travel with the dead – that the vacant seats are not so very vacant it turns out, occupied as they are by lost loves, by those who have slipped from this world but remain lodged in our memories and in our hearts.
Joyce and I rejoiced when the bus hits the A1 for a stretch, acknowledged the Angel of the North with his outstretched arms, sighed passing a washeteria someplace we didn’t know we’d be. “They go a different way every time,” said Joyce, looking out the window, all adventuresome.
I liked Joyce. She has joined a walking club. Took a bus the other day and walked six miles. “You have to make the effort,” she told me, “anyway he makes me.” There was no particular reason for this particular trip. “I’ll only be in town the hour.” She took the bus today because she thought she’d make the effort. “Just for the bus ride out,” she said. The family scattered Graham’s ashes in South Shields overlooking the sea, by a bench where they’d eat fish and chips. She’d almost caught a different bus to see if the handful of daffodils bulbs she’d planted there were out, though now she’s glad she didn’t.
“And now let us begin this journey…” Pope Francis told the world last night, “this journey of the Church of Rome which presides in charity over all the Churches, a journey of brotherhood of love, of mutual trust.” I took a journey with Joyce today, and Joyce I decide is the reason cardinals take buses – to know of loss and constancy, to know there is love and death and despite death there is still love, and because there are travellers who believe in angels.