I’m on the bus, after another dispiriting day at the office. At home, trite TV, back chatting teens, dinner drudgery and an unresponsive partner await to sap me further. Out the window I see a row of beleaguered plane trees, their stark, clipped limbs burdened with Christmas lights and decorations. I feel like one of those pruned trees these days. These years. And rather than making me stronger or healthier, I feel only the snap of disappointment and how close I’ve come to breaking. I sigh. Could I catch an airplane? Fly away on a large, chrome bird, to somewhere sizzling with excitement, opportunity and heat? And never come back?
I close my eyes, trying to clear my mind of fanciful questions and qualms. It’s a tricky balance to achieve: I’m too exhausted to consider the evening ahead, but it’s too daunting to consider an alternative life. The bus is warm, the windows steamy. My fellow passengers and I are cocooned in winterwear as the bus slowly lurches along lighted streets. People stare at nothing, look at their phones, read. Chatter comes from downstairs, but upstairs it’s quiet. Then the silence is broken. A woman near me shouts into her phone, 'Does Angela Merkel look like Angelina Jolie or Minnie Mouse?'
Six times she asks this, so I’m sure that’s the question, though I can’t fathom the answer. I struggle to even get my head around the question. I turn just enough to look at her. Her face indicates she’s blazed through middle age, but with bright orange hair and lipstick it’s clear she still has spark. She wears complicated earrings that nearly reach her shoulders. They look like dream catchers. Her lime-coloured beret and a matching scarf compliment a smart black coat that could be found within the pages of Vogue. She’s a woman with panache, carrying the whiff of rebel about her. I smile. Oh to be like that. At her age, at my age. At any age.
In the silence that ensues, I assume she’s receiving the answer to her Angela Merkel question. I lean in. I want to know too. Or rather, I want to have someone available to answer my capricious questions. I watch her earrings catch the light, I’m drawn to them and become lost in my own musings: the choices I’ve made and not made. The things I’ve done and not done.
Then she says, 'You think about that. We'll talk later,’ and hangs up.
I slump in my seat, falling back to my current reality. I won't learn the answer to the Angela Merkel question. And once I’m home my own thoughts will be pushed out of my head, out of the house, out of existence. Then it occurs to me: she wasn’t asking a question, but issuing a challenge. She already knows the Angela Merkel answer.
I take her advice and think about that. Her lack of doubt. Her belief that whatever the question, she’ll have an answer. A good one. The expectation her caller will actively search for one too. No matter how difficult the question. Or answer. My eyes slide back to her earrings. This time I don’t see my past, but trees. Silver birches, shimmering in the sun’s spring light, their slender branches tipped with delicate buds just beginning to sprout, so tiny they can hardly be seen. But they’re there, determined to grow. Rebelling against the grey banality and boredom of life. Those bright green bits bring hope.
Before I know it, I’m at my stop. I feel less weary even though I now have some additional tasks. As the bus pulls away, I see her through the window. She’s on the phone again. I silently thank her. Sometimes, all it takes is the right question – the right challenge – to find the answer.
Of course, this is just a small start. I’ll need to nurture it, develop it, my inner rebel. I mustn’t dawdle. Evening is getting on. Different challenges await me at home. But for now I’m off to the shops – I’ve decided berets suit me. Particularly when paired with dangly earrings.