'Sitting with Cormac Jones' by student Mark Rooney was developed in Writing Fiction in 2021.
I do not recall the first time I sat beside Cormac Jones. It was for me an average journey on an ordinary day, but for Cormac it was anything but. He had waited decades for that moment. He had given up on such a moment ever happening, so, when it finally did, he hadn’t known what to say.
I was back in Dublin for the first time in almost fifteen years. I grew up there but moved to Melbourne the day after I turned 21. I hadn’t meant to stay away so long. I planned to go to Australia only for a year or two, to take a break and get things straight. Somehow, I found a home on the other side of the world and as the years went by, I became intimidated by the length of the journey home, the cruel distance of it. So, I let time pass and with it gradually went the responsibilities I once felt for home and family.
Then I got the call. My mother was sick, she was dying. My mother was old and had not lived a healthy life. She had not taken care of herself, but still it came as a great shock to hear she was dying. I didn’t know what to say. I waited silently on the phone, expecting something to happen, someone to tell me what to do. And then my sister did just that.
“You need to come home,” she said. “Now.”
Every day in November, I took the number 16 bus from my childhood home in Rathfarnham village to the Rotunda hospital in Dublin city centre to watch the ending of my mother. It was on that bus route that I sat beside Cormac Jones. Like I said, I have little recollection of the first time and did not then know his name, but I can tell you where the seat was—in the back row on the left-hand side facing forward. For fifty years he had travelled from his home in Rathfarnham village into Dublin city and sat in that exact same seat. What was different about that day was that someone had sat beside him. That someone was me.
The first thing I remember about the second time I sat next to Cormac Jones is that I was surprised to get the seat again. The number 16 is a very busy route, especially in the morning. Thousands of Dubliners travel into the city for work every day. The journey is long and dull. Dublin is cold and wet in November and the windows fog up. Inside the bus is dark. Condensation drips from the walls. Everyone smells damp and shaggy-dog like. During the morning rush, it is almost impossible to get a seat. People accept this for what it is, the price of working in the city. We stand, hold our breaths and lean in and out of each other’s lives. So, when I saw the empty seat for the second morning in a row, I hesitated.
I looked around to see if anyone else was wanting to sit there. I had been away from Dublin for so long that I didn’t think I deserved to take the last empty seat. I had left suddenly and without fanfare or farewell. I had turned my back on my hometown. There were parts of it that I no longer recognised. The streets seemed smaller now; the buildings darker. Even the sounds of the city were different. I had lost the rhythm and everything was out of tune now. It would be a bit arrogant to come home and expect to take a seat over those who had stuck around.
Five minutes passed and no one else made a move, so I did.
I’ve learned the hard way that an empty seat comes with a price. The most common cost is that you’re forced to sit and talk with a nutter for the duration of your journey. I have sat beside a few in my time. For the luxury of taking the weight off my feet, I have endured political lectures, racist rants, and various forms of protolyzing. I checked to see who was sitting next to the rare empty seat.
It was an elderly gentleman. In his late sixties, perhaps. He wore a tweed flat cap that older Irish man often wear; his white hair curling out from under. His long woollen overcoat made him look small and warm. Staring ahead, his eyes were sharp and sober. He seemed alert. His face was old in a distinguished, healthy way. He looked like a man who would give me no trouble. Something inside me wanted to sit beside him. I don’t mean tiredness or soreness. It’s not something I can explain. It was like a force inside me was drawn to that seat. So, I sat.
I won’t pretend I was thinking straight at that time. Those final days at my mother’s deathbed rendered me dreamy. Each day brought a new revelation and I had problems keeping the past and present separate or straight. I wandered the city a lot. Walked hours in the cold. I had very few conversations. The only people I spoke to were my mother, my sister and now Cormac Jones.
‘Why do you sit here?’ he said.
I heard the question but pretended I did not. I looked at the back of the head of the women in front and regretted having sat down. It seemed I was going to have to pay the nutter tax after all.
‘Excuse me sir. Might I ask, why did you take this seat?’
He had a thick Dublin accent. The kind I had grown up hearing, grown up using. I turned to the old gentleman. He really did look a distinguished older man and nothing like a crazy one. How had I misjudged the situation so badly? ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, standing, ‘are you saving this for someone?’
He grabbed my arm with some force. ‘No! Please sit down.’
I wasn’t afraid of an old man. I could easily have broken his hold on me. But I allowed his arm to slowly guide me back into the seat. In fact, in some ways I felt something else pulling me back down. What I was truly afraid of was making a scene. The last thing I wanted was to have the morning commute turn and see me wrestling with a nice old man in the back corner of the bus. I decided to engage for a while, to let things settle.
‘Are you okay?’ I asked him in a friendly way.
‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘why did you sit here in this exact seat? And yesterday too, you sat in this seat yesterday. Why did you do that?’
Some questions have such obvious answers that you hesitate to respond. You suspect you have misheard the question, or there is a deeper question within the question. So, it took me a moment to turn the old man’s words over in my mind.
‘I sat in the seat because it was free.’
‘Yes, I know was free. It’s always free. Fifty years it has been free. Fifty years I sit here and no one sits there, and then today, and yesterday too, you sit here.’ He really did have the sharpest blue eyes. He spoke with clarity and this time with some conviction.
I supposed that he probably was having some type of mental episode and that it would be best to just remove myself and hope the old man got through his day without hurting himself or others. I attempted to escape. ‘I’m sorry for interrupting your morning. I’m getting off soon. I’ll leave this seat for someone else.’
‘Someone else?’ He laughed. ‘Who? Who else would sit here? You don’t understand what’s just happened, young man.’
I smiled, nodded and stood up. The bus was packed and I was not able to get far. I loitered in the aisle and tried not to look at him, but he continued to talk at me.
‘Nobody is going to sit in this seat. Nobody! Not in fifty years. Go on offer it to someone.’
He was shouting now and I was increasingly embarrassed by the situation. I wanted everyone to know that I was the innocent party. I was just a normal guy commuting to the city to see his dying mother.
‘Free seat here! Who wants to sit down? You miss, please, take a seat. Take a load off!’ he yelled.
The other passengers heard and saw the old man. I saw how they looked at him, turned their heads, peered over books, looked up from phones. But though they saw him, no one paid him any attention. He just did not interest them.
I stood in the aisle and stared out the window, all the time doing my best to do what everyone else was doing: ignore the ramblings of Cormac Jones, though, as I have said, I did not then know his name. But I could not.
‘Come sit down again,’ he said eagerly, ‘Try it one more time. Let’s see if it can happen again.’
The bus finally pulled up at my stop and I walked away from the old man and his empty seat. I felt a sense of relief that I would no longer have to deal with this unusual individual and his claims that I was the only person for the seat beside him. As I took my leave, I smiled and nodded politely. His blue eyes followed me down the aisle and out the door, and I felt them on me as I walked across the street and into the hospital.
I spent the next four hours sitting beside my mother, talking to her. The room was white and warm and empty. I felt small in there. I had no sense of a world outside, the doctors, nurses and patients beyond those bare walls. I heard only echoes of things.
My mother was unconscious but she did not look sick, not like I had expected. I had never seen her so peaceful; it seemed all the wildness had escaped. She looked like the kind of mother I could talk to and who would listen. I told her about my life in Australia, about my career, my marriage, and the mistakes I was still making. I told her about the strange old man on the bus. I called him the old man because I didn’t yet know his name.
The following morning, I got on the number 16 and found myself again amongst the crumpled mass of commuters.
‘My name is Cormac Jones,’ he told me, reaching a hand over the empty seat and into the crowded aisle.