Waiting to board a bus, her reflection tells quite a different story. A rich, young, independent woman. She shuffles forward, watches herself in the glass. Hair, suit, handbag. Can anyone tell it’s fake? Shuffle forward.
She boards, swipes her ticket, takes the priority seating at the front. Across the aisle is a baby on a lap, amazed at the sight of her, amazed at everything. They watch each other, then the baby looks away, startled by the next phenomenon.
Poor thing, she thinks, so dependent. You have no idea what’s coming. They always bring out her pity, babies. Them and displaced people, who know all too well what’s coming.
And me? What’s keeping me from the street? She sees herself as a raft spider, held by nothing more than surface tension. All it takes is one little misfortune, an illness, a redundancy, payments forfeit … and then?
She feigns interest in the ceiling and blinks her eyes dry. Looks back down at her reflection in the glass. She smoothes her hair and surreptitiously angles her face. Am I still beautiful enough? And when it fades, who’ll care for me then?
The bus lurches and she sprawls. Her handbag spills her secrets across the aisle. She can read their minds – Are those prescription? Why so much cash? Who carries a passport around? – and clutches her throat.
“You all right, love?”
The mother looks concerned and even the baby’s brow furrows. Even a baby.
Her face is burning, and then she glimpses red. Dad! But no, it’s not a fireman, it’s just some guy in a shirt. He’s stuffing her things back in the handbag, giving it to her, touching her shoulder.
She imagines him covered with sweat and soot, imagines being carried away, a startled look on her face.
“Here we go,” he says, soothing.
The bus pulls to a stop, she stands and they link arms.
He smiles to the driver, “Thanks,” and helps her onto the footpath, leads her to a café. The table by the fireplace is free.
“Hot chocolate?” he says.
She doesn’t object.
It’s cosy in here, with soft music, low lights. Through the window she watches dead leaves in the wind. Tinder and oxygen, she thinks.
Then the hot chocolates arrive. They’ve added marshmallows, to appease the inner child. She stares at the second cup for a while, watching it cool, humiliation on display. Day fades in the time it takes her to finish.
She leaves, makes her way down the street, pulling her jacket around herself. What was he thinking, in that minute between ordering and walking out? What did I do wrong?
She stops at a door, pulls out keys and starts up the stairwell. It was an interesting scenario, this time, meeting her on a bus. She never knows when she’ll glimpse that colour next. When she checks her watch, there’s just enough time to make dinner before he gets home.
In the flat she looks around, everything in its right place. And there he is, too, in a red frame on the shelf. She walks over and picks it up. How she wishes he’d been a fireman.
Women are not the only ones to suffer from this bigotry. Prejudice impoverishes everyone involved. Whilst they may retain a form of power, oppressors too are robbed of their full potential: to be free, to be loved & to be wholly human.