Bernie by Verity Holloway

You will have seen Bernie.

From the window of your Citi2 bus as it circuits through the Cambridge suburb of Chesterton, Bernie is the old man standing at the bus shelter opposite Abacus Nursery. He is always at the bus shelter. Though your eyes pass over countless people as you rest your head against the greasy glass, you will have noticed Bernie. He is the old man in the pyjama jacket, and, as usual, the buttons are undone.

Undaunted by the freezing fog of February or the concrete heat of August, Bernie displays his hard, weather-darkened hide to the traffic passing him by. He has remembered to don his slippers today, and this is just as well considering the shattered Corona bottle waiting to be dealt with by the council sweepers. For you, on your way to work or on your way home - always one of the two, never anything different - Bernie is a landmark.

The bus never stops for Bernie. Once in a while a new driver will make the mistake of slowing down as they approach the shelter with its covering of scaly blue paint and flyers for last summer's church fete. As the doors swing open, the new driver will have a moment to take in Bernie's unusual appearance as he stands on the wet concrete: the tough grey hairs of his chest like an old cat's whiskers, the blue pyjama top, vaguely reminiscent of long-abolished institutions, and the rumpled beige safari jacket on top, slipping slightly from one hunched shoulder. In his hand is a Co-Op carrier bag heavy with browning fruit. His pale eyes contrast pleasantly with his outdoorsman's skin as he stares impassively up at the driver.

He says, "Here it comes again".

In these awkward moments, some passengers will glance at Bernie and judge him to be a 65 year-old with a hard life behind him. His elephantine ears give the impression of great age, although no-one has ever concentrated on Bernie long enough to make an accurate estimation. Some will think he is a youngish eighty and hope he remembers how to get home. He may have taken part in the Second World War; the blue pyjama jacket, with a bit of work, could be an RAF blazer. Others try to see Bernie as he may once have been: a young man with a pitchfork in his hand, hefting hay out in Madingley where all those American servicemen were yet to be buried. With a little imagination, Bernie could be inserted into a nineteenth-century novel, the good-natured old fool, maybe, or the vagabond father of the hero, because he does carry a certain dignity, in a shabby way.

Most simply think old.

Bernie never gets on the bus. Irritated and embarrassed, the new driver shuts the doors and remembers not to stop for that old git again.

Sometimes, you will notice another person waiting at the shelter alongside Bernie. On Monday mornings, a lone young man in a Sainsbury's uniform. On Thursday evenings, a woman with a toddler in a pram.

"Here it comes again," Bernie will say as the bus appears, and the young man will raise eyebrows, wipe nose, check phone. The mother will look steadily ahead while her daughter considers this grandfather figure, this strange, earthy-smelling Father Christmas.

Bernie likes to watch the buses.

He knows that the single-decker Citi2 – your bus – begins its day in the depot halfway between the village of Milton and the council houses of Chesterton. He knows it swings into the Science Park, picking up all the people who had hoped their lives would be more exciting than this – including you, don't deny it – and then takes them on a circuit up to Addenbrookes hospital, which Bernie, for all his difficulty with old wounds in the cold months, has never been to, at least not under that name.

During the journey, the bus will snake across the river Cam and through the pretty centre of town where the famous colleges preside. It is their eight-hundredth birthday this year. Bernie does not care.

It is the circle that pleases him.

Bernie knows that your bus will travel over the railway bridge past the old Mill Road workhouse that frightened him years ago. Then, on towards Cherry Hinton, the dreary parish built on layers of chalk fossils that once attracted men in strange, tall hats. The bus will then return in a wide circle via the noisy epicenter of Drummer Street bus station, through which all the other public conveyances pass like satellites on their own regular, unchanging beats.

One is coming now. He registers its arrival with a mumble of satisfaction: "Here it comes again."

A Citi2 bus passes Bernie every ten minutes unless it is late, which it often is because, as Bernie could tell you, the narrow streets of Cambridge were designed for horses and carts, not fourteen-tonne monsters of steel and glass.

He sometimes finds the buses upsetting: their unsuitable size, their solidity, fill him with faint and puzzling distress. It will take a long time for them to crumble into nothing and when they do, they'll be of little use to the earth. Compounds of metal. Hard to digest. Windows and chassis - which is a silly, short-lived modern word, Bernie thinks, like chardonnay or exfactor - and wheels and handrails and upholstery and petrol made of crushed ancient sea creatures, like whelks and cockles. Bernie doesn't know much about those. His place is on land.

"This was all fields, once," was something he used to say very often, but not any more. Bernie has one of those rich fenland accents, crumbly and dark.

Another ten minutes has gone by, and the bus is passing his stop.

"Here it comes again."

Does he not have a home to go to, the passengers around you wonder? A wife? He is always standing at that stop. Whitefriars old folk's home is just a few minutes up the road, on the bus route in fact, and surely the staff have noticed him loitering? He isn't a tramp. The Guardian readers onboard are aware that the average life expectancy of a homeless man in Britain is forty-seven years. Bernie is not thin or brittle, nor does he appear drunk. Despite his passive watchful look, he appears strong, even tough. Alzheimer's, most of the passengers suspect, and are glad when the bus turns the corner.

In the breeze whipped up by the acceleration, Bernie's Co-Op carrier bag rustles like reeds on a riverbank. It is a new invention, a bio-degradeable plastic with the texture of skin that flakes into pieces after eighteen months. Before his current bag, the older plastic variety lasted a few summers, and before that, he had a mesh bag like a fishing net, and before that, he can't recall. At one point, there was something made of hessian. It scratched, he can remember that much.

Bernie is glad his Co-Op bag will not last long before surrendering to decay, but less happy that this usually results in losing his fruit all over the pavement when it finally splits. Bouncing apples and plums roll into the road where he will watch them being squashed into pulp at ten-minute intervals: bus, bus, bus.

No one notices Bernie shuffling to the plum tree in the front garden beside his bus shelter. The plums are small but plentiful, and he likes the gripe they put in his stomach when he eats more than two. It is a regular September sensation. Whoever lives in the house with the tree has never complained at having their fruit stolen. Most of it ends up in the grass for this is a wasteful generation. A front garden on the other side of the road boasts a mulberry tree. Bernie avails himself of this every August when the fruit is ripe, and once spied a small polyester Union Jack in the front room, on top of the television. This still makes Bernie chuckle. Plums and mulberries were brought to the British Isles by the Romans, who had a big gold bird, not a flag. No Englishman would uproot a tree and drag it back to his house for amusement. A tree's place is wherever it pleases. They pick a spot and they stick with it. Like Bernie.

Just as the fruit trees are foreign invaders, each year brings a new crop of students to Cambridge. There have almost always been students, but not this kind, flying in from far eastern countries and leaving again with impressive letters after their names. Some of the bus drivers are Polish or Nigerian. Bernie remembers a time when people stayed put. One house, one parish, one church, a room in which to congregate, a space. His roots are tangled in a time when a fellow was a Cambridge man, or a Grantchester man, or a Royston man, and that was what he would remain.

Catevellauni, Icini, Pict.

Bernie is concerned for a moment. These days he finds nonsense words creeping into his head, like doodlebug, and andalucia, and deefessale, and he doesn't like it.

It is nearly ten o'clock at night, and soon the last bus will thrum by. It will be empty. Bernie's pyjama jacket is letting in the cold and the old flesh puckers where it hangs loose on the bones. Bernie stands firm. It is only a pause in the timetable; tomorrow at six, the fleet of Citi2s will emerge again from the depot and Bernie's watch will go on.

his Co-Op bag has a pigeon in it, a wild city pigeon, well dead. Some boys in a small car had come careening around the corner from the chip shop and hit it as it dithered in the road. Thunk! Feathers and flapping and dead. Bernie would once have plucked out the feathers and done something useful with the carcass, but ten minutes has passed since the last bus, and he can feel the final one advancing steadily in the distance.

"Here it comes again," he says. The pigeon sits in the bag with the plums for later.

The weather was warm a while ago, and now it is cold. The Polish bus drivers will start to wear their uniform fleeces, and you, as a passenger, will have difficulty seeing out of the windows as the bodies around you perspire in plastic anoraks and thermal vests.

Bernie is unmoved.

"Here it comes again," says Bernie. Bernard. Bernhard. Bearnárd. Berinhard. Bernd.




Lovely and contemplative.

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