The Book of Smiles

I go on a lot of bus journeys, not to get anywhere quicker than a walk would, but to get some inspiration for my stories. I usually select a circle route that brings me right back to where I started without me having to get off (in Edinburgh – get the No 14). But it’s the golden moments in between my first step on to my last step off that are the best of all.

I get to meet the passengers, the salt of the earth.

Wee Jessie is heading into Leith for her butcher meat, that Anderson’s is rare this time of year for their pork, she says to her chum from under her rain hat. A few rows in front, Big Jim is heading to the Masonic Club for a round of doms with his pals. They’ve been doing it for years he bellows. Every Wednesday morning 11am, sharp as you like. Sometimes even wee Heather fae behind the bar gets them a wee scone n that. Magic, he says and licks his lips.

A wee boy of 6 or 7, possibly older but he doesn’t look it, gets onto the bus with an elderly lady and they sit down opposite me. His hair is greasy and his clothes and jacket are filthy. He has mud, something dark and tacky on his face and one of his eyes is weeping. He sniffs every few minutes and wipes his nose on his jacket sleeve.

He is clutching a book to his chest and smiling a quiet smile into his matted scarf. It’s as if he doesn’t want his Gran to notice how happy he is. He catches me watching him so I smile and look away, pretending to look out the window at the world rushing by. He sneaks a glance at my notebook. My pen is poised ready for the next sentence but I get shy and put it away. I don’t want him to know what I’m doing. But I would tell him if he asked me.

I glance back and his fingers are curling around the edges of the hard back cover, smoothing the cover under his palm as if he can’t quite believe it belongs to him. The gold and silver letters of the title shine in the dazzling overhead lights. He uses his index finger to trace their shape and hums a tune only he knows.

His Gran looks down at him and admits that he’s very lucky getting a book like that. Especially now that times are hard and there isn’t much to go around. He nods back. His simple reply says it all.

“Gran, when we get home I’m going to wrap it back up again and put it under the tree so I have something to open on Christmas Day”.

She pats his hand and smiles down at him. Turning her face to the window, her weary frown and tear-filled eyes are for everyone in the world to see but not him. He coories in beside her and they sing Ally Bally to the bus.

I get off early and walk home. The tears trickle down my face all the way.

I hug my boys extra tight that night and tell them, yet again, over and over, how lucky they are. I tell them about the boy on the bus with his book.

Everyone needs a book of smiles.