There are three things all wise men fear: the sea in storm, a night with no moon, and the anger of a gentle man. (Patrick Rothfuss’ The Wise Man’s Fear)
Poole Meadow bus station, Coventry. 1:45 am. I am early by forty five minutes. I’m waiting for the coach to Heathrow. There is a tall boy in a corner, busy with his phone. I can tell he is not waiting for the same coach as me. There are two services, one to Gatwick and the other to Heathrow, before my coach can arrive. We are the only two people in the station. Outside, far away, some taxi drivers are gathered together, talking in what sounds like Hindi. I feel a strange comfort in those partially carried sound waves. But also an alienation — I don’t speak Hindi even though I’m Indian. A coach arrives bringing familiar noise to the station. When it leaves, it takes the tall boy along with it.
Inside a continuum of silence, silence itself becomes a sound. Like every other buzz we get used to, we get used to silence. But when this silence returns, after an interruption by other sounds, we are once again aware of its true depth. Sudden silence coupled with the night is easily a scene of fear and eventually, crime. I shrivel my body to a stillness, to a blending with the wall. So, even if crime is to occur, I’d neither be party or witness to it. I’d be the wall, the secret-keeper. If there is one thing I do not want, it is to die en route.
The taxi drivers outside have fallen silent. The corridors seem to stretch and vibrate in their corners as if the corridor is only a mirage. I can hear a distant footstep. It is getting closer. I look down to my feet and concentrate in breathing. My mother has taught me that the only times I should not stop to put up a fight are when I see a gun or a ghost. Run, she has warned. The bearer of the distant footstep is now inside the station — the automatic doors have swung open, let him in.
‘Hello,’ he says. I look up very quickly, even though I had asked my body to not move. A man dressed in black, looking visibly tensed, stands in front of me holding a black plastic bag. I nod politely. ‘Do you know how to go to Peterborough?’ he asks. I’ve never heard of a Peterborough before. It feels fictional when he says it. ‘Peterborough.’ He is moving his legs here and there, turning to either side very quickly, with a lot of unease. I want him to leave. ‘Where is information?’ he asks. I point to a closed box with the letter i in blue. ‘It is not open,’ I say. ‘The police dropped me here,’ he says, taking a seat right next to me. I decide not to say anything but there is something about his body movements that hints to a frustration. So I nod. ‘They took me from here because I was making noise,’ he says. ‘Then they dropped me back. I have to go to Peterborough.’ His palm is against his eyes, the other is still holding the black bag. ‘Did you tell them that?’ It’s his turn to nod and he does it to my face. I think I catch a glimpse of tears. But I am sure there is some in mine too because my fear is only intensifying. ‘Yes. Is there another information?’ he asks. ‘Yes.’ ‘Will you show me?’ ‘I don’t think it is open now.’ ‘Can you show me?’ We walk past the automatic doors which shut behind us, through another empty corridor. He looked straight ahead, to the other side of the station. My eyes were moving in uncertainty — like his shuffling legs.
The corridor is split into two by a line of little blue seats. There are doors on which signs notify ‘Bus activated doors’. On the wall, next to the doors are electronic display boards, all with an ominous line, ‘No service available.’ We reach the closed information centre. The man kneels to the floor slowly and says again, ‘I have to go to Peterborough.’ He clutches harder at the black bag and the object inside it takes better form. A security guard walks in. The man shifts his attention to the seemingly more reliable character in the station. I leave the corridor, the mention of Peterborough ringing through the emptiness in front of me.
When I get back to the assigned gate, there are other people creating new noises. I lose all wariness and sit down, telling myself that I’d never be early. The man enters the corridor once again. I pretend not to look, not recognise. He addresses the gathering — ‘This country does not care about the people. My wife is giving birth in Peterborough. Tell the police to take me.’ There is silence. Everyone pretends to have not heard him. I have no more empathy. ‘Is your bus delayed? You wait for long time,’ he says. I know the words are directed to me. ‘This country. No care for people.’ he repeats. ‘What if I have a gun? What if I shoot everyone here?’ No one else paid any heed to the man but I was the only one whose eyes were fixed on his black bag.
I knew then, in those forty five minutes of amplified silence — the language of fear — that if I was to choose between fear and empathy, I’d call myself wise and choose fear.
The bus arrived. The door next to me opened. I was quick to my feet. From afar, ‘This is your bus? I’m glad it came. Now you go home,’ he said. I was relieved to be inside the bus. As it moved away, I looked out at the man inside Poole Meadow. An empty black bag was in his hand, flimsy. With his other, he was drinking water out of a bottle.