Another car must have turned unexpectedly, as I was nearly catapulted all the way to the front window when the bus came to a sudden halt.
‘Alright love,’ the driver yelled without looking. I politely told him I was fine and refrained from asking any more questions; this would only trigger a monologue about his wife’s absence, his daughter asking him for money but no longer for advice, she had outgrown that, but money they never outgrow! and endless variations of similar topics of conversation. For now, however, the bus was empty, and I was thoroughly enjoying the silence, supported by the soft humming of the motor, and the sound of raindrops ticking against the window in a neatly patterned sequence.
‘I see you’ve brought an umbrella.’
I looked up, and in the seat opposite from mine a man had taken up position, folded newspaper in hand, ready to attack. In a desperate attempt not to be too obvious I looked around the bus, but it was still empty, save for the one seat opposite from where I was sitting. I couldn’t get up to sit somewhere else, it would be rude, but I could also not ignore him, since evidently he had been talking to me, as there were no other passengers on the bus. I did have an umbrella, parked against the aisle seat left from mine, so as to avoid anyone sitting down there and striking up conversation.
‘Yes, I have,’ I told him, and turned my face to look out the window again.
‘Will you believe,’ he said, ‘that I once owned an umbrella just like yours.’
From the corner of my eye I checked my umbrella, thinking of something to say, but what was there to say really about a fairly generic black umbrella? I told the man, who introduced himself as Rey, with an E not an A, that I did believe him. ‘Umbrellas like these must have been around for a good few centuries now.’
He frowned, and said I must have misunderstood. ‘When I said just like yours,’ he continued, ‘I meant there is a greater similarity between your umbrella and mine than between any of these other generic, as you called it, umbrellas floating around town.’
‘Floating,’ I said.
Rey looked as if he wanted to sigh, but instead he sat up a little straighter and continued. ‘In Amsterdam, in 1974, I met a woman. Her name was Sheila, or Sharon, one of the two anyway, and she was the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen. Maybe her name was Shannon, come to think of it. In any case,’ he said, ‘she was beautiful. Not only beautiful, she was also highly intelligent, and was one of the nominees for the 1974 Miss Mind Awards. She didn’t win the prize, in the end, but it didn’t matter. For me, she’d always be the best candidate.’ Rey smiled a little when he said this. He had a small mouth, with very wet lips, which he occasionally licked in the intervals between sentences, where most people pause to breathe. His hair, which was quite thin so I was given a good view of his scalp, was tied back in a ponytail. I could see flecks of dandruff on the shoulders of his suit jacket, which was a little tight around the waist. His most remarkable feature, however, was his nose. It was a large, Roman nose, proudly sprouting thick grey hairs in all directions. Balanced on its bridge, there was a pair of glasses, held together by a thin golden frame, which Rey pushed a little further up multiple times, almost in sync with the licking of his lips. ‘Where was I,’ he said. ‘Oh yes, Sylvia.’
‘Sheila,’ I said.
‘Whatever,’ Rey said, and pushed his glasses up a little. ‘Sylvia and I met, as I told you, in Amsterdam in 1974. It was the beginning of, let’s say, a little more than a beautiful friendship. We adored each other. See, in my younger days, I was quite the catch. Some, of course, still think I am’ – he gave me a little wink – ‘but I won’t deny age has left its mark. Round here, mostly!’ He grabbed his stomach with two hands and shook it in my direction.
‘Right,’ I said, and wished I had taken an earlier bus.
‘It was a warm summer’s day,’ Rey continued, ‘and we stared at each other for a good few seconds before she came over. Why, she asked me, on a delicious summer’s day like this, are you walking around with an umbrella? See, if I had known she was right on her way to leaving me after having emptied my pockets, my bank account, and whatever I kept stored in the boot of the car, I would have never answered that question, of course. But I didn’t know that, and she was, as I’ve told you, incredibly beautiful. I took her hands in mine and I said darling, beautiful delicious darling, this umbrella is to shield you from harm, come hell or high water. I will fend off any interlopers, no one but Rey shall elope with you, my love!’ As he said this, Rey threw his hands up in the air dramatically. He was an animated talker, and once had been, he told me, a very successful actor.
‘So then,’ he continued, ‘naturally, she went home with me. I was quite the charmer, back then in Amsterdam in 1974. Three beautiful weeks we spent together, wining, dining, dancing, the lot. And then, one day, she was gone.’ She’d phoned him once after from a pay phone, to ask if he could wire some money to Berlin. Berlin, he had said, have you lost your mind? She’d called him a sad old miser, and hung up the phone.
Rey had stopped licking his lips, and kept them pressed together very tightly for a while. ‘You see,’ he went on, ‘she even took the umbrella. The money was replaceable, that wasn’t the problem, but I had carried around that umbrella for nine years.’ Admittedly, he had used it to charm women before, it seemed to lend itself very well for these occasions. ‘But she didn’t know that,’ he said and glanced at my umbrella, which was still leaning against the seat adjacent to mine. ‘If you don’t mind,’ Rey said, ‘perhaps you could lend me your umbrella for a week or two?’ AQ