Freedom comes in many flavours, but in order to taste any one of them, you have to know whether it is freedom from, or freedom to. There is a difference. Take Retirement, for example -‘Freedom 65’ as it’s sometimes called is something we hear about all the time. The implication is that you’ve survived 65 years, say, of what –Hell? Punishment? Imprisonment…? – and have finally been released from it. But for those who have lived their lives in a cage, sudden expulsion, might well be a form of exile –expatriation in one’s own country.
So I’m not really sure, despite the choices –the flavours– what the freedom of Retirement entails, exactly. Shakespeare put it a clever way: ‘Though age from folly could not give me freedom, It does from childishness.’ Well, perhaps, but I have to say, I am more inclined to the view of A.D. Foster, the American writer: ‘Freedom is just chaos, with better lighting.’
I have always wanted to ride buses –not to exotic places, you understand, but just through the city. Unfortunately, the constraints of my work and its unusual hours did not allow it. So freedom, for me at least, has been the bus. I don’t travel to arrive, usually; I travel to see. To hear. To submerge myself in a world I have never known, with people I have never met, nor likely ever will again.
It is a world I have come to enjoy but which like any culture, has its rules and customs that are derogated at the risk of civil but nonetheless obvious censure: loud whispers, and faces wrinkled with ill-disguised irritation; raptor eyes, only barely leashed. It can be a dark country, the bus –the best of times, the worst of times. And yet, for me, the often silent witness, it has been an interactive movie.
I was on a journey to nowhere in particular the other day and happened to be sitting behind a studious looking middle-aged woman with a folder of papers open on her lap. She was flipping pages noisily and writing on them as the mood struck. I have to admit that I was only mildly curious, although I admired her ability to work on a crowded bus that swerved and braked its way through rush hour traffic. As I watched people accumulate in the aisles during the innumerable stops, I quickly lost interest in her –until, that is, she erupted in a truly theatrical shrug, reached into her briefcase and extracted some earbuds. To her credit, I suppose, she kept the volume down so what leaked out contained only the rhythm section. But what I hadn’t noticed before was her metallic heels. Who wears metal heels nowadays? Anyway, one of them managed to find one of the large bolts that held her seat to the floor and proceeded to tap on it like a woodpecker on a tree. That was annoying, but her obviously off-tune humming coupled with the incessant, silly bobbing of her head began to dissipate the background cloud of conversation enveloping our immediate neighbourhood.
The worst was the humming. It was a noise that shifted both randomly and indiscriminately between almost-words and almost-melody, capturing neither sufficiently well to satisfy the unwilling audience. Soon, heads began to turn and eyes narrow –but cannily. Carefully –not willing to give offence.
Then, the first eyes rolled –they belonged to a backpack-wearing man standing beside her in the aisle. They glanced around at other fellow eyes, flitting from face to face seeking solace and acknowledgment at first and then, quickly, permission. Little retributive justice is meted out on a bus without some sort of consensus. Slowly, after an almost imperceptible nod, he swung the backpack accidentally into her shoulder –a camouflaged request, disguised as an accident, disguising a warning.
She looked up at the man, made a rude face, and retreated into her private inharmonious, inner concert. He, in turn, feigned an apology and smiled. But he might as well have been a ship passing in her night. The clicking of her heels became louder and the humming more insistent. She had, however, replaced the papers in her briefcase, the better to concentrate on her music. It was, and was seen as, a rejection of his attempts to broker a ceasefire.
The man looked around for further sustenance, feeding off those around him like a bear on berries. It was a snub that called for retaliation, but he realized that a backpack nudging a shoulder once is an accident, twice is a provocation. He would have to be cautious. He would have to pick his next opportunity carefully.
He waited until the next rapid deceleration and pretended to lose his balance and fall into one of the tiny earbud wires with an outstretched hand, tearing them both gently but firmly from her ears. This, of course, dislodged the iPhone from her lap to which the common wire had been connected. The phone went skittering under the seats as the bus came to a stop, but before the woman could register her outrage, he immediately offered his surprised and rather maudlin apologies.
The other nearby passengers, trying not to show too much relief, tut-tutted their commiserations and solicited help to find the phone from the seats ahead of her. Lazy eyes inspected the floors, and slow hands reached under their seats.
Eventually the phone was found and passed back to her with compassionate smiles while knowing eyes foraged among the complicit strangers. The woman, for her part, struck up a conversation with her assailant and when the phone arrived, mercifully stored both it and the buds in her briefcase. And laughter reigned and smiles opened like flowers on all the faces near her. And everybody probably lived happily ever after.
I don’t know if this was one small step for Man on the journey to universal peace, or whether buses around the world will ever hear of it; I doubt that the incident will be commemorated in song, and I would be surprised if my grandchildren will be encouraged to draw pictures of it for their fridge doors at home, but I will remember it as yet another doorway for a world to which I am now privy with my new-found freedom. My freedom to.