I apologise for starting a column about the joy of small things with the doom of depression, but it was in the middle of a quagmire of ennui, nocturnal sleeping patterns and the cold winds of increasing isolation – familiar to many who experience mental health problems – that this particular delight was discovered. It’s a slim delight, but a critical one. A delight that, when I am most well, I do not experience. It is riding buses at night.
Night buses are synonymous with drunken, rowdy revellers; takeaway food in polystyrene containers; the stink of skunk; amusing group banter overheard. But night buses midweek, when the sky is the colour of plums and the only other road users are council maintenance workers – those night buses are a different prospect altogether.
When I am deeply depressed, I sleep a lot. The opposite of the usual. I can sleep for 20 hours a day when at my most despairing. I’ll wake up at midnight or so, when all over the country novels are slipping from the grasp of married couples propped up by pillows, glasses are removed, bedside lights snapped off. I wake up hungry and alone and pathetic.
In London, in the heart of Soho, there is a cafe that’s open 24 hours a day. I pull on jeans and a jumper, close my flat door behind me – a slow, quiet click. Catching the bus at circa 2am, you can almost hear the wheels turn on the road. The driver will nod and perhaps wonder at your story. Mostly, the buses are empty. Many times, an entire journey has, start to finish, accommodated me as the only passenger. Occasionally, on the back seat, the hidden homeless sleep, or medics alight, bleary-eyed.
I head, always, to the front seats. Either I read (I read the entirety of Sally Rooney’s Conversations With Friends on the 24 bus) or, more often, track the deserted streets while listening to music. Bowie; Cat Power; James Blake; Johnny Cash. Wondering what it would be like to shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die. Thinking about the turns that life takes. Turning the corner at the hospital where you yourself almost died, but didn’t; appreciating the buildings that have survived all that technology has thrown at them. The bus waits at red lights for ghosts.
I have done some of my best thinking on night buses. The feeling of going from A to B, of having some kind of destination, when all else has ground to a halt. At the cafe, the waiters greet me warmly, as a regular who has the cover story that she works nights, but is almost certainly lying. I eat pancakes in a moat of syrup and sip at tea. I chat to them when I haven’t really seen friends in weeks. And after, the drivers of the night buses see I get back home safe.