The stars gaze down at me, merciless and piercing. ‘What the hell are you doing up?” they say. “We haven’t finished our shift yet.’
Don’t I know it, I think back at them, and squint through the damp at the orange readout. 15 minutes.
A schoolboy type is standing there, collar and shoes beneath an anorak. He half-turns at my arrival, letting his peripheral do the work. Probably wondering if it’s still early enough for weirdos.
Another passenger arrives, shorter, rougher. He occupies himself with a tangle of headphones before the guitar riffs of Hotel California fill his ears. 9 minutes.
A girl in a fur-lined hood makes us four and we drill the empty road with our willpower. It conjures up nothing. Then the readout resets itself and suddenly its 2 minutes. Anticipation sets in.
When the bus finally arrives, we stumble on in single file, the driver as grim as the hour. Upstairs is all two-day stubble, black woolly hats and jackets up to the chin. I fit right in.
We lurch away and my eyes wander to finger marks, smeared across the window from the night before. Behind them, shop fronts float by, the night shift workers silhouetted against pale lighting while they mingle with lorry drivers. Up the front of the bus, the glow of brake lights is like a furnace, stoked by offerings from the daily grind.
Then a few stops along, he appears. Something about his demeanour isn’t right. His movements are too energetic and he’s blabbering away on the phone like its Friday afternoon.
Groans pass along the deck as he takes a seat. I get to work, fixing him with my best glare while others turn their heads and throw a mean glance, but he appears invulnerable. Even Hotel California has noticed from two seats back as he removes his headphones and stares incredulously at the back of the man’s neatly cropped hair. He clocks me and we shake heads in unison.
Then a lad with 5am eyes glaring out of a grey hood launches across the aisle and lamps the guy on the chin. A chorus of approval erupts from the passengers. The man recoils in his seat, before scurrying down the stairs and we all press our faces to the windows to see his freshly-pressed figure disappear into the black of the morning. 5am eyes flashes a murky grin while the driver gives it a couple of hoots. The rest of us look around at each other, snarling with satisfaction. That one needed nipping in the bud.