The company of strangers

Suddenly I realised that someone was in my personal space. There was a hand on my bag and a voice that seemed to be addressing me.

I jumped out of my headphones-in, bus-stop-waiting trance and went into deal-with-emergency mode. Ready to confront a pickpocket or appeal for witnesses, I kicked myself for letting my guard drop that sunny autumnal Sunday morning on the fringes of affluent Chiswick. Bother; that’ll learn me.

But when I looked up, I didn’t see a malevolent thief or hear the negative words I’d expected to hear. Instead, I was confronted by a concerned yet smiling face, warning me of an immediate – though comparatively much less threatening – danger.

“A spider,” he was telling me, “there’s a spider on your back.”

Relieved that I wasn’t being mugged, I nevertheless experienced a rising panic at this new prospect. Surely it must be a veritable tarantula to compel a stranger to intervene.

“Keep still, I’ll get it,” he said, beaming at me. But by now the spider had made its way to the back of my jeans and the man paused at the potential over-familiarity. What, we were probably both wondering, was the etiquette of touching a stranger’s leg in the name of chivalry?

I must have looked sufficiently anxious about the spider because a second bus-waiter got involved. “It’s not all that big,” she smiled reassuringly.

“There it is!” she exclaimed excitedly, pointing at the tiniest of spiders which had now reached the ground and was scuttling around my feet. It was grey like the pavement, virtually invisible to the eye, and way too small to scare even me. We all laughed, and I waved my foot around to ensure that the creature was completely detached. “Don’t kill it,” the man said, putting out a protective arm.

He then started telling us about a woman in his house who recently got a bee in her room. “She went crazy. Crrrrazy!” He chuckled heartily at the memory, softening his words with comforting, rolling Eritrean ‘r’s. “I don’t know why she was so worried,” he pondered with genuine curiosity.

The woman looked bemused. “Probably because she was scared of being…” she rooted around her vocabulary for the English word, jabbing her arm like a bee and frowning. “Bitten?” She wondered. “Stung,” I suggested. “Stung,” she repeated, “stung”. “Bees sting,” I added. Smiling at this new acquisition, she filed the new word away for future use.

“But bees bring good luck,” the man persisted.

The woman and I looked unconvinced.

“Bees make honey,” he added for clarification. “They create something sweet. That’s how they bless.”

With kind incredulity, the woman shook her head at his perspective. “Not if they sting you.”

We were all still enjoying each other’s company when the bus came.



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