Public Transport

water colour Image of a tram for story set on a tram journey where a man grapples with the prison of mental illness
Image by Graham Lees

“Excuse me, hi, sorry, I don’t want to bother you, have you got a cigarette, can you? Thank you.” Timothy’s eyes were scanning the face of the smoker he’d accosted as though it had a story to tell him.

Cigarette in one hand, he squeezed his free hand into his pocket, feeling the three lighters that he always carried with him. They were the same size and had the same smooth, rounded plastic curves and then the bumpy, metallic, grooved bit that Timothy liked to rub his finger tips against. Before lighting it, he walked back and forth between the two ends of the bench at the tram stop, averting his eyes when the tall man talking on the phone and two women reading their magazines caught him studying their faces. I’m only looking for the sign, he thought, but knew they wouldn’t understand, even though they probably heard him.  Three lengths complete, it was clear now that he was to use the yellow lighter. Timothy fished out all three but stopped when he caught his reflection on the side of the tram stop shelter.

Looking at the mound of his overhanging belly, he thought of J. Why is J always telling me what to do? That I’m fat, that I have to walk three paces, that I have to change the tram I catch every 4 days and if I catch the same one twice…His thoughts drifted off when he remembered he had still not lit his cigarette.

The tram was crowded, but Timothy saw that people gave him room without looking his way. J always said it was because they knew he was special. Timothy sometimes thought about the man he’d seen one time when he was a boy, how that old man had a funny smell, like wee and old sandwiches and all the people moved away except for him, until his mum said

“Timmy, come here, it’s rude to stare” and yanked him toward her.

His right hand was wound tightly around the pole on the tram. An amalgam of colours with his brown skin, yellowed index finger from the cigarettes he’d smoked down so low, and the semi shiny silver of the pole, smeared with finger prints of commuters long gone. Timothy swayed with the tram but added his own familiar movements, head oscillating back and forth, back and forth, not missing a beat.

Competing with the babble of commuters and the din of the outside traffic, a familiar voice was sounding louder and louder. In response, Timothy picked up the movements of his head, an attempt to counter the uninvited sound waves. Now his whole body was moving, shoulders and hips swaying involuntarily with the tram as it made a swooping turn around a corner. His head bopped as J instructed, his antagonist’s voice now the only sound on the whole tram, in the whole street, in the whole city, in the whole world and in all of the fractions of Timothy’s existence.

“They’re all laughing at you. I heard you talk about me before. Who will help you if I’m not around? Who will you trust? Who will tell you which colour lighter is best and warn you when they all want to kill you?”

Timothy interrupted his repetitive motion, ending the forward movement of his head abruptly against the pole before pulling it away. As J got angrier, Timothy picked up his pace, until the skin on his forehead broke and a warm trickle of blood smeared against the pole, mixing in with the left-over fingerprints. The people on the tram made more room for him. J just laughed and said

“see, I told you they think you’re special.”

Timothy let go of the pole. His hands traced their way to his forehead and he winced with the pain of sweaty hands pressing against the flesh he’d pulped against the pole. J’s voice was distant now, fading as Timothy focused all his energy on the pain. If I can just think of that and nothing more, I’ll be okay he said to himself, feeling the words forming gently in his head, like soft cushions to break his fall. He reached into his pocket and felt for the familiar groove on the top of one of his lighters. He closed his eyes tightly, shutting out the bright glare of the mid-morning sun that was hurting him as much as the small gash.  His eyes were still shut firmly when he felt something that made him turn quickly, eyes wide open in alarm. A hand was resting on his shoulder and a woman was looking at him, her mouth moving kindly, though he couldn’t hear the words. All Timothy could hear now was the thought, his own thought, he was sure, telling him if J was my friend, he wouldn’t keep hurting me like this. And Timothy believed that voice this time.


This is an edited version of a story originally published on 20th March 2011 (almost 5 years ago to the day!) on my now defunct first blog. It was during a Character & Critique Short Story course I undertook with the WriterStudio. Here, the objective was to explore a “prison” within which the main character is bound and made captive, and their journey instigated by the pressure they face at the hands of the antagonist, in this case the captor. In a similar vain, one of the other stories I wrote was to explore a “ghost” who haunts the main character.

11 thoughts on “Public Transport

    1. Thanks Derrick. I can only imagine those thoughts, but I have observed the agitation they (or my guess at the kind of thoughts) may cause. This was a hard one to write as I tried to step into Timmy’s shoes with a very real life person behind the inspiration of this fictional character (one of my brothers). If it raises empathy for people dealing with mental illness, then my objective in writing this has been achieved 😊.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That’s funny Mek! The world will not have to wait too much longer I hope. 😏 I have a little backlog of artwork to clear —- should be back in full force in about a week – Thanks for caring 💚


        Liked by 1 person

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