Thursday 21 November 2019

Roddy Doyle's Charlie Savage: People watching when you're stuck on the bus without headphones

Illustration by Ben Hickey
Illustration by Ben Hickey
Roddy Doyle

Roddy Doyle

I'm on the bus and it's packed. It's a horrible day out there, one of the those warm and wet days when you're sweating and freezing, and the windows of the bus are steaming; there's nothing to see. I'm standing downstairs, clinging to a pole, even though the bus isn't moving. Upstairs is my natural habitat but it's full. So I'm stuck here.

I don't have a book with me, or headphones - or earphones or whatever they're called.

The daughter showed me how to download podcasts on to my phone and I've been listening to an old 1950s radio show called Gunsmoke.

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It's brilliant, a real old-fashioned 'cowier'. There's gunfights and horses and a deep-voiced marshal and a saloon landlady; you can tell from her voice, she's lived a bit. There are hundreds of episodes and I'm going through all of them, in the proper order. But my ear-things aren't in any of my pockets.

The bus moves two feet, and stops. I don't know where we are. It's probably Beresford Place but, if I leaned across and wiped a window, I wouldn't be that surprised to see Ho Chi Minh City or Sligo.

I look at the other passengers and try not to look like I'm looking at them.

Most of them are looking at their phones, but I doubt if any of them are listening to Gunsmoke.

William Conrad plays Marshal Dillon, by the way. Do you remember him, the big lad, the detective in Cannon, in the '70s? 'A Quinn Martin production.' There must have been less of William in the '50s, because there's no complaints or wheezing from his horse in Gunsmoke. Mind you, chances are it wasn't a real horse in the studio, just sound effects, some chap with a pair of coconut shells making the noise of the hooves.

Or maybe William Conrad brought his own coconut shells into work with him every morning.

Anyway, he's brilliant - 'I'm the first man they look for and the last they want to meet' - and I'm cursing myself for not making sure I had the ear-yokes with me when I left the house. I've a feeling one of the dogs ate them and I'll find them, recycled, out the back, in a couple of days. I'll be buying a new pair, or robbing a pair of the grandkids'.

Anyway, the bus lurches again and I see something interesting. There's a young chap, squashed into the corner beside the luggage rack thing. He's very young looking, a kid. He's just off a building site, I think, on his way home. He has that look; he could come from any of the decades that I've lived in - except for the phone. He's holding the phone up over his head and he's talking at the screen.

He's Skyping. And I realise: he's not on his way home, strictly speaking; he's talking to his family and they're thousands of miles away. He looks way too young to have a wife and kids. But I can see them now on the screen - on the phone - over his head.

He's Polish, I think. He's talking like a man who's had a long day, who's been inhaling dust and exhaust fumes. He's listening, then responding. His wife looks lovely; I can see her from where I'm standing. And the kids - I think there's three of them - they're pushing and shoving for space on the screen; they're fighting to be seen by their daddy. I can hear him. I can hear his kids, his wife. He looks exhausted.

I envy him.

It's terrible that he has to come this far to make a living, that he gets to hug his children only once or twice a year. But I envy him. His tiredness, his kids fighting for his attention, the way his voice changes when he's talking to them - I wish I was him now. I wish I was that young; I wish people needed me as much as his family needs him. I wish I had his vitality. I don't know him, but I like him. He looks much younger than all of my kids but he's a man. He's an old-fashioned man. He's a good man. And just for a second or two, I wish I was him. I wish I was back there, on my way home to children.

I take out my own phone.

I don't know how to do Skype but there's a thing called FaceTime on my screen. I open it and call the wife. I hold the phone over my head, just like your man across the way.

I see her face on the screen.

- Charlie?

- Howyeh.

- Jesus, she says. - Are you trapped down a well or something?

- I'm on the bus, I say. - I'll be home in 10 minutes.

We both start laughing.

- That's good to know, she says.

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