It was a Tuesday, I think. The sky was white as my mood. I pulled an old grey skirt from the back of my wardrobe and wondered why I didn’t wear it more often. It was flattering but subtle. I assumed that it must be damaged or stained, but when I tried it on it was fine.

The reason came back to me as I walked to the bus stop on my way to work; the zip started to scratch against the small of my back. Of course. The sensation was at first curious, then annoying. By the time the little hand pointed to five on the clock in my office, the rubbing of this sharp little bit of plastic and metal every time I moved had become quite painful, and I found myself touching my back as I walked and then looking at my hand to see if it had finally drawn blood.

I took the 38 bus every day back then. On my way home I’d get on at Shaftesbury Avenue, which was the only way to get a seat, the perfect mid-point between the bus emptying at Piccadilly Circus and filling back up at Tottenham Court Road.

In my peripheral vision I noticed two men rubbernecking as I went by. It was the skirt. I
turned that corner in Soho and giggled to myself about having walked past the only two straight guys in a ten-block radius. Must be cops, I thought, slightly smug. A glance at my hand. Still no blood.

The 38 bus bobbed up to the stop a few minutes later. You never had to wait long for a 38 at quarter past five. I slid into one of the few empty seats and quickly put my head down, reaching into my bag and pulling out a book. The latest Barbara Kingsolver, because that’s what my life was like then. I opened it to any old page, somewhere right of the centre to make it look like I was some way into the story. It was a prop; it allowed me to fail to see when “those less able to sit” boarded the bus. It was shitty thing to do, but I’d had a long day, and this fucking zip scratching would be worse if I had to stand, and anyway I worked hard and why couldn’t one of the spotty little urchins in the back with their tinny mobile discos ever give up their seats?

I looked out the window and blinked a few times, not able to remember what had made me so angry.

The bus shrieked as it rounded the corner onto Charing Cross Road, and I looked down into my book when the doors opened at the next stop. “The forest eats itself and lives forever.” I was touched, and then annoyed. I would never write a book. Not a shitty book or a best seller or a collection of people’s phone numbers. I would wear skirts long enough not make me seem desperate but which would get me quiet attention – no cat calls, just glances. The good things about being pretty without all the fucking noise. The good things about being pretty; that would have to be enough.

Someone moved into the seat next to me and I slid over a bit, a gesture really, and read the same line again. My eyes rose up and right and I watched the guitar shops on Denmark Street pass. Then I smelled something. It was very subtle, something flinty and almost spicy. Maybe it was more of a sensation in my nose, an awareness of some new sharpness like when winter’s coming on. Whatever it was, it made me look to my left.

That’s when I saw the most beautiful man I’d ever seen. At first, the experience of seeing him brought a strange old adage to mind: Let the devil look after his own. Part of my mind tried to remember where I’d heard it and what it meant, while the rest was taking in the narrow lips, the firm jaw, eyes dark and shiny as a violin, thick eyebrows with half a dozen recalcitrant ones, double the length and shooting out wildly. I even let our eyes meet
for long moment before shifting my gaze back to my book.

I was overwhelmed by the certainty that he was going to do something. Ask me about my
book, perhaps? Instead, though, he pulled his leather bag into his lap (this much I could see whilst pretending to read) and took out a Barbie doll. I turned my head now and looked at him. The side of his lips turned up. Just then, some kind of deafness took me, like the way you hear things when you’re under water. The doors opened, people jostled in and out, the robotic voice announced the next stop, very distantly, like the last part of a deep echo.

The Barbie was like millions of others, like the ones I’d played with as a kid. There was
nothing sinister about it. Just that this particular one was laying in the lap of the most beautiful man I’d ever seen on an eastbound 38 bus. Our eyes met again and I followed them when he looked down at the doll. With strong-looking hands he turned it over, holding it, bust down, in his left palm. With his right hand he pulled at the top of its ice-blue ball gown. The rip of the velcro coming apart was the only sound I could hear with normal sharpness. The sound entered me with arousal that quickly turned to terror as he plucked off her pink plastic shoes and put his hand under her skirt, removing her sparkly blue tights with it. I think I dropped my book but I didn’t hear it fall. And I certainly didn’t look. I could take my eyes off that doll. He turned her over and tugged at her sleeves, and finally pulled her dress off, letting it drop to the floor like an empty crisp packet. I looked at her perfect smile and blue-shadowed eyes that gazed up like a fresh, dead fish. She was
wearing a pink bikini underneath and he turned her over again to untie it. The beige triangles he exposed were unsurprising, but when he took down the bottom, her square pelvis, very slightly convex pubic mound and the terribly straight gap at her hip joints made her look so desperately broken.

When I got home I was so tired that I blocked out all the lights. I closed the door and stuffed a towel in the gap, pulled the curtains to and went around turning off all the appliances at the switches so their little eyes couldn’t shed their looks on me. And even though it was only quarter past six or so, I got into bed still wearing my coat, pulled the covers over my head and went to sleep.