Short Story

The People on the Bus Go Up and Down

Joyce tapped her OPAL card and found a seat. At least boarding at the start gets me a window. 

            A young woman was struggling aboard, asking the driver to wait while she juggled a chunky pink stroller under the sign saying - Please Give Up This Seat For The Elderly, before going back to haul up a larger, black suitcase which she parked in the aisle.

            Joyce seated diagonally opposite, glared disapproval. She’s not leaving that in the aisle? I’ll be saying something if she does.

            The woman bent over the child, tucking a blanket over its legs, talking softly.

            African kiddy? Adopted clearly. And she’s put bows in its hair to match the stroller. How quaint. 

            As the woman sank wearily into the seat, Joyce had the strange feeling she’d seen her before. I can’t remember where. Either that or she has one of those faces you recognise. Like pages of different faces, different races, and you have to guess where they’re from. Bother! Now I’ll sit here all trip wondering where I’ve seen her. 

            It reminded her of that time, years ago, when her mother was doing a crossword. "Who wrote East Lynne?" she asked and Joyce couldn't think. Then next morning at breakfast her mother blurted out, "Mrs Henry Wood."  

            "Pardon?"

            "Mrs Henry Wood wrote East Lynne. I’ve been lying awake half the night trying to remember. You know, 'Dead! Dead! and never called me mother.’”

            Joyce chuckled at the memory. 

            The bus was well underway and again she turned to the young woman. Maybe it was in a magazine? At the hairdresser's, perhaps? Or the doctor's? These were the only places she read magazines. All that stupid gossip about celebrities I’ve never heard of. But she’s not one of them. If she were, she wouldn’t be in a bus, but a stretch limo. Especially with a kiddy and that big suitcase. Maybe she’s an actress, in one of the soaps? 

            It was while she was staring, that the woman suddenly turned and stared back, riveting Joyce like a pinned and venomous spider. Joyce pretended she’d actually been looking out the window, but the woman remained unconvinced.

            Then Joyce noticed the stroller. Only - it wasn't, it was a small wheelchair, festooned with rattles and fluffy animals, making the dark-skinned, toddler with her peppercorn curls seem positively exotic. 

            And disabled. 

            I wish I’d never caught the bus. I nearly didn't. I was thinking of getting a taxi, since it looked like rain, but the walk home from the bus would do me good. Besides, I need to watch my pennies.

            She hadn't really noticed the child, so busy was she trying to remember the mother’s face, but the young woman clearly thought otherwise. Joyce regretted she wasn’t close enough to apologise, explain that she looked familiar. But it would only sound fake. 

            Then she remembered where. There’d been this TV documentary on adoption, how far fewer children were available. So now disabled kids and those from Third World countries were being given a chance. The woman was interviewed as an adopting parent. I remember thinking ‘How kind’. You could only admire someone prepared to devote her life to caring for a child who wasn’t hers and who wouldn’t have stood a chance.

            Joyce was trying desperately to think how to make amends. She’d hurt a complete stranger. Inadvertently perhaps, but nonetheless, unforgiveable. She could almost hear her mother appalled, saying, "Joyce, how could you! It's so rude to stare." 

            At that moment, the young woman, having revived a little, stood up and began manoeuvring the heavy suitcase up the aisle to the luggage rack, where with an almighty heave, she hoisted it over the bars. 

            Oh dear, I would have helped. If you’d said. Again Joyce realised her missed opportunity. The young woman resumed her seat casting a – there, happy now? stare at Joyce.

            Never mind, if she gets off before me, I’ll offer to help then. And if not, when my stop comes, I’ll make sure to apologise. That way, at least, she’ll know I’m not completely lacking in feeling. 

            The young woman reached across and lifted the child out of the wheelchair. The little one's head lolled on her chest and her eyes showed no recognition of the woman or her surroundings. The mother settled the child, cradling her arms about her, bending her head, whispering murmurs of love. 

            Joyce felt at once privileged to witness such intimacy, their heads so close, but at the same time, embarrassed, as if she were some sort of voyeur especially as the young woman was protecting the child from the likes of Joyce. The sticky-beaks, hard-hearted, indifferent, uncharitable, and yes, she had to admit, cruel people, she had come to represent. Now she was even more determined to bend down and say how sorry she was, that she'd seen the program on TV and thought she was simply wonderful.

            At the next stop a giggle of students boarded, after that, office workers, nine-to-fivers. Businessmen and women rushing home for evening meals now packed the aisle and Joyce could no longer see the woman or her child. She would have to fight her way through when her stop came to reach them, but fight she would. 

            She pressed the stop button early, readied her stick and shopping bag, then excusing herself, pushed past the man beside her as he swung his knees into the aisle to let her pass. The doors slid back and more people surged on board leaving Joyce to push her way through to tap her OPAL. Oh please. Wait! What if the doors close and I get carried on another two blocks and have to walk all the way back? 

            At last she made it out and found herself on the pavement staring as the bus drove off, seeing the head of a young woman bent over her child and imagined her softly singing, cradling the child in loving arms.

© Vashti Farrer

Australian Author

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© Vashti Farrer 2017

Sydney, Australia