The Never Ending Bus Trip

By LEO HOGAN | Published: August 23, 2009

The rickety old bus rattled along High Street at Toowong. Apart from an urgent need for a new paint job and an engine one evolutionary step ahead of coal-power trying in vain to get the vehicle up to something resembling acceptable pace on the gentle upward slope, it had and a cabin-full of unruly private school children. This was the worst possible assignment for the men and women entrusted with the task of piloting these machines around the sealed, occasionally maintained streets of Brisbane. Only the toughest, most experienced among the council’s elite squad were selected or volunteered for such a task.

Today was no exception.

The driver of the bus was a gentle, if not slightly absent man. His absent-mindedness was all-too obvious to the wagon-train of bemused motorists held up by his hasty retreat from the safety of the Royal Exchange bus-stop. It was his gentle nature that made him ideally suited to the assignment at hand, for lack of patience had brought many colleagues undone before him.

He wore his full uniform with pride; the crisply ironed white shirt and spotless navy-blue cotton tie, navy-blue dress shorts and the Akubra-style hat all gave the man an air of professionalism. Dedication to the people of his community was exemplified by the dozens of badges and pins, acquired from various charities during his many years of service, adorning every possible exposed surface of his hat. This point alone made him a somewhat iconic figure among passengers in the area. His warm greeting and friendly manner to all he served only increased the respect held for him.

His passengers today predominantly came from two of the exclusive inner-city schools, one a boys school and the other for the fairer gender. To the casual observer a general impression of unrest and contempt appeared to reside between the 2 camps, but this belied the respect each held for the other.

Discreetly accepting the kind invitation of a seat from one of the younger boys, I settled down at the front of the bus with headphones firmly in place to drown out the noise of the juvenile masses. It was through great misfortune that I’d even made it onto this particular bus; it had been quite a day so far.

Earlier, having just finished polishing up an assignment that was due in the afternoon, I’d decided to get something to eat. The urgency of getting on campus to finish assessment had meant I’d forgotten to bring my lunch again. A sandwich, comprising a slab of meat whose animal origin was impossible to determine, a murky, sticky condiment whose appearance cried out 'chutney', even if its taste did not, and either a very creamy cheese slice or a very think slab of butter, was purchased from the University refectory to compliment the apple and still-unripe white nectarine that had been left in my bag from the day before. I found a shady spot in the gardens below Wordsmiths café, sat down and started to unwind a little.

My mere presence earned instant acclaim from the one crow whose arrival coincided with the breaking of the seal on my sandwich wrapper. It looked at me out of one eye, then the other, then back to the first again, before deciding that whatever task it was about to take on was too much for one bird to handle alone.

So it called for back up.

I ate while listening to the Strokes on my iPod and giving my best impression of not caring about the presence of the crow. It also hoped that the musical interlude would somehow mask the taste of whatever was being ingested.

Then the back up arrived.

I had my hand to my mouth holding the sandwich and taking a bite when an unexpected whipping action swept across my knuckles. It was the wing of a minor bird. It flew through on a reconnaissance mission closely followed by another bird, which lightly swept the very top of my head as it powered through. A third bird came in from the east, pulling up and landing less than a metre away, eagerly, greedily watching my every bite. Within a couple of minutes of that first call for assistance, the crow had surrounded itself with 5 minor birds, 2 more crows and even a curious child eating wedges who appeared to have become estranged from whichever parent was supposedly looking after him. Having seen and heard about the potential annoyance of the minor birds, the current situation was making me feel just a little bit uneasy.

It only got worse.

One of the minors became airborne and launched itself straight towards me, making an audacious bid for the portion of sandwich still clasped tightly in my right hand. With the other hand, I swept hurriedly and dismissed the attack easily, almost too easily. Three of the minors took off at this and retreated to a safer distance. The crows decided they'd had enough and flew off together. My unease lessened slightly at the thinning out of the flock; if it was a false sense of security they were trying to create, they succeeded for I didn't anticipate what was coming next.

The three minors returned in a blaze of action; one swept past my right ear, coming from behind; the second swept just in front of my face, coming in from the south and the third came in from the east, deliberately making sure it was in my line-of-site for at least one-hundred metres of its approach, taunting me. It came closer and I prepared to fend off this attack. I raised my arm to swat at the third minor, but one of those that had remained on the ground from earlier made another desperate grab for the sandwich. I reeled back and made an expansive, rapid-fire sweep with my left hand, feeling the flutter of the latter bird's wing as it urgently corrected its movement out of harm's way.

I sat back up and looked around.

The fountain in the university lake below my perch burst into life, scattering a ring of ducks patrolling the adjacent waters, while the five minor birds moved into a circular formation around their target. They taunted with their high-pitched cries and intimidated with spontaneous fluttering of wings. The tension was palpable.

"You won't beat me," I wanted to say, but my throat was dry, my breath rapid and shallow.

They advanced towards me, like a pack of cats stalking an injured buffalo in the wilds of Africa. I kicked out defensively with my right leg, showering dirt and recent grass clippings over a few of their ranks. The momentary shock and sensing of impending danger caused them to retreat slightly, ever so slightly.

I’d gamely continued to eat throughout the ordeal up to this point and finally now put the last bits of crust in my mouth. Having played skirmish at Keperra the weekend before, memories of the ‘capture-the-flag’ rounds had me convinced that the birds would finally see that they could not win this battle; I had effectively eaten their ‘flag’.

All I’d managed to do, however, was change the focus of the attack.

They advanced again. I kicked out again with my right foot. This time, the thong released itself from its foot and flew straight into an unsuspecting minor. It didn't hit hard, but the force was enough to shake the bird’s composure. It retreated to a nearby tree and started to bark out instructions to its comrades.

I was expecting a new wave of attacks, perhaps seeking vengeance for the suicide thong that had rocked their leader, possibly some form of misguided retaliation for eating a sandwich that would more than likely have caused significant damage to any creature with a stomach of lower fortification than my own.

The birds respectively retreated to various parts of the canopy above and around, my stocks seemed to be rising. It appeared that the scent had been lost and I had been spared. Soon, only one bird remained.

The leader had returned.

It stood 2 metres from me now, surveying the scene in front of it and plotting. Always plotting.

I mockingly picked up the empty sandwich wrapper and thrust it towards the bird. It wasn’t impressed, but stood its ground thoughtfully. Mimicking the earlier actions of the crow, it looked at me through alternate eyes for several minutes, while the child finished off his wedges and started walking in the direction of his father’s impatient calls.

I finally decided to call an end to the standoff and moved to pack up the belongings that had been sprawled around my resting place. Fortune favours the brave, as they say, and the minor bird wasn’t going to let its last opportunity go begging. I was picking up my car-keys from on top of my bag, when the bird took flight and headed straight for the hand that held them; the shock of the potential collision caused me to drop the keys and recoil.

The keys didn’t even hit the ground, as the bird caught them mid-swoop. It turned and rocketed away, eluding a grab of desperation from its surprised victim. I could do nothing but watch in slow-motion as the other birds slipped in behind their marauding leader and disappeared over the other side of the lake, doubtless to perform some sort of ritualistic sacrifice of my poor Bundy Rum key-ring; the thought made me shudder.

So the front seat of that 733 bus from Toowong suddenly became something much more than an unwanted back-up plan; it was my only option if the spare key was to be retrieved in time to get back into St Lucia that afternoon.

Despite their supposedly superior upbringing, the children sharing the ride clearly strayed from behavioural impeccability on occasion. Towards the back of the bus, the younger men were starting to get excited at the approach of a rival boys college residing a few hundred metres down the road from the Royal Exchange Hotel.

Every afternoon, as the buses puttered past the stops adjacent to the school, all manner of food matter would be hurled from the bus windows at those unfortunate enough to be standing in front of the shelters erected by the council – ground zero, if you will. The key to a successful raid was not necessarily the size of the produce payload laying in wait; of more importance was the preparedness of the inbound missiles. To this end, several highly trained students had been enlisted to perform the delicate apple-softening procedure that would ensure maximum results on impact. For although an injury-related outcome was more than a minor possibility for the unwitting victims of this kind of mission, immediate, graphic results brought far greater acclaim to the perpetrators; the girls on the bus loved a show and as pre-softened fruit exploded against any solid object encountered, they let out a chorus of appreciative cries, followed by excited chatter among themselves. Their reaction told the uninformed that today’s objectives had been achieved; dry-cleaning would be required. There was a constant risk of exposure and potential damage to innocent members of the public, but this seemed to only heighten the prestige of such wanton acts of schoolboy terrorism.

I was about to elicit an appreciative smile when the woman sitting beside me, who was surely aged somewhere over 100, stuck what was likely a finger but felt more like a sharpened pencil into the shoulder made sensitive by a heavy, accidental collision in social soccer the day before.

“Disgusting, isn’t it,” she croaked. It sounded like an incredibly eloquent box of gravel had replaced her voice box.

“What’s that?”

“The kids these days. They deserve a good old-fashioned belting.” Given her vintage, ‘old-fashioned’ suggested that beltings must have gone out of fashion sometime before World War II.

“Ok,” was my only reply.

If there’s one lesson I’ve learnt from catching public transport next to old women like this its that you should never disagree with any points they raise, for you won’t hear the end of their side of the story. The other trap of course is agreeing with them, in which case you’ll also be subjected to their side of the argument, even though it may well correspond with your own. The best approach is to say nothing and also to keep your head as still as possible; even an unintentional nod or shake can be taken as vindication or otherwise of their words. Not all older citizens present such a threat and its difficult to provide a set-list of warning signs you should be looking for. The key thing is to be alert, not alarmed.

The blithering rant from my travelling companion thankfully only lasted a few minutes as the bus flowed along Moggill Road through Taringa and into the heart of Indooroopilly, where the major bus interchange lies. Her soliloquy was all the more remarkable for the fact that I had headphones firmly in place for its entirety.

Making this portion of the trip seem that little bit longer was the over-powering stench of rice-crackers emanating from the seat behind mine. One of the school children had decided to blatantly flout the well-advertised ban on eating on public transport and gorge on an entire pack of Sakatas, probably barbecue flavour judging from the smell. Given the stuffiness brought about by the crowding on the bus, this conspired to magnify the pungency of the smell.

The bus pulled up at the platform at 3:49pm according to the ticket machine display near the driver. I reached in to my pocket to see if my phone-time was synchronised with Brisbane City Council time, but was dismayed to find the battery had died; the screen was blank. I returned the phone to its usual pocket and took in the surroundings. A sea of school children always ensured standing room only for anybody awaiting a bus at this time of a weekday at Indooroopilly. For many, the bus platform presented their only chance of social interaction with others from within their school and otherwise during the week. For non-school travelers, the school crowd made public transport that little bit more unpleasant, the experience that bit more forced.

The bus doors opened and the queue of boarding passengers politely waited until all disembarking passengers, including the elderly one, had cleared the way.

When the way forth was clear, the first person to get on the bus was a man of about 45 years dressed in a business suit. The noteworthy point about him was that he carried the burden of horrible body odour, despite the October weather being reasonably mild. Words cannot describe how grave the situation had suddenly become, with the Sakatas still only half finished and this new smell inbound. For a fleeting moment, my imagination ran wild with thoughts of possible atrocities brought about by the collision of body odour with rice-cracker odour.

It wasn’t too late to get off the bus. There’d be other buses heading my way later in the afternoon. Maybe they wouldn’t tow my car if I left it at Uni overnight.

I thought about all the things in life that would be missed if this was to be the last hurrah; my family, friends, pets, the car for whom this trip was being made. All would feel sadness, all would feel a degree of emptiness, but they’d all go on without me. In a strange way, they’d take comfort from the knowledge that I’d died as I’d lived, surrounded by strange odours.

Inevitably, these tricky situations have a way of sorting themselves out. At the front of the bus, the odorous mass spoke briefly to the driver, his tone far from warm and welcoming. He then appeared to struggle in his pockets to find enough money to buy his ticket. When this labour proved fruitless, he threw a few choice words at the driver, then turned and made out that he was going to walk into the made cabin of the bus. He took made it 3 steps before his right foot hit an unseen school bag lying in his path. In slow motion, it was like watching a giant tree shaking violently at the final axe-strike then gracelessly plummeting to the unsuspecting world below. He hit the ground hard, probably only saved from serious injury by the same obstacles that had caused his original imbalance.

Despite the dramatic nature of the episode and the possibility of injury, the school students near the back of the bus still found humour in what they’d seen; some laughed, others entered animated discussion, while I even heard one clapping.

Lurching back to standard standing position, the man knew his time was up. He threw a violent glare at those who had successfully gained access to the seats he so desired, turned on his heel, then shouldered and elbowed his way off the bus and through the eager throng of near-future passengers.

The crisis had been averted for the time being.

His departure had left a void into which other commuters now filed. Without being rude enough to stare, its always nice to keep track of who is getting on the bus; you never know who might present themselves for conversation. I feigned disinterest but still kept a quiet tab on all who walked past. The majority wore school uniforms; there were a few younger adults in fast-food restaurant uniforms and a couple of older ladies carrying shopping bags. The last person to stride confidently past the driver was clearly not a school student. He was wearing a bright yellow shirt emblazoned with the slogan of one of the student political parties currently seeking election at the University of Queensland. He propped momentarily, surveying the bus to determine where seats were available. After a few seconds, he thudded into the seat next to me. Could this day get any better?

I don’t have a particularly favourable view of student politicians, fearing and loathing their annual intrusion on my life and the lives of thousands of other innocent students and staff. During campaign season on campus, you can’t walk more than 5 steps without someone in a yellow, green, red, purple or blue shirt trying to force-feed you a waste of paper with their empty promises and pointless catch-cries. It’s like some horrifying politically themed nightmare involving the Wiggles. Of course just leaving campus is no longer enough to escape their reach, for the evolutionary process has seen them adapt to public transport; the greatest fear humankind can know is that they may yet master other tasks.

The doors to the bus closed and the driver stood from his seat, turning to address the passengers.

“Right folks, as our little friend has just demonstrated so well, bags and passageways don’t mix. Any bags left on the ground without someone standing next to them will be evicted at the next stop”

Having seen such action taken previously, a flurry of preventative action followed the driver’s words as he sat down and prepared for warp-speed.

The attention turned back to the issues of the front seat. Although the thought that I should have moved further back on the bus when passengers had departed the bus at Indooroopilly was now replaying itself in my mind, possibly the most infuriating thing was that my sporadic, second-hand iPod lazily lying in its pocket had chosen this exact moment to belt out its last note for the day. The haven it provided from the outside world was gone just before Creedence could finish telling me about the adventures of Willy and the ‘poor boys’. For the first time in my life, I felt completely alone and helpless. Where there had previously been optimism and a sense of invulnerability now rested dread and a feeling of approaching doom. I toyed with the idea of leaving the lifeless headphones wedged in my ears, but somehow reasoned that this was immature. Besides, there was nothing to suggest the student ‘pollie’ couldn’t detect my fear and insecurity, in much the same way as other domesticated animals could. Without a clear physical defense mechanism, interaction seemed a foregone conclusion.

“Fun times getting a seat, eh.”

The yellow-shirted one had spoken. He sounded relatively normal and, had it not been for the blatant propaganda he wore, would easily have passed as an ordinary person in most everyday situations. I knew that this charm was all part of the act, much like a ‘Venus-Flytrap’ entices flies enough to lead them to an untimely death. Unlike elderly persons, there was no humane way to dispense with student politicians. Their drive and will to succeed meant that no physical barriers would prevent them from spreading their myopic message. Once their tractor beams locked on, only some form of violent physical or verbal outburst would potentially deter their efforts.

Garlic had also reportedly worked in some cases.

“Yeah mate.”

It was all I could conjure.

“Always copping the school rush, eh.”

“Yeah.”

My only real hope of survival was to keep my responses short, avoid eye contact and scan the surrounding windows for a possible escape route. In the interim, at no stage was any pertinent personal information to be shared.

“You go to UQ, don’t you?”

“Yeah.”

And then it began, the longest 15 minutes of my life. Matthew, as he preferred to be known, went through the entire repertoire of his campaigning tactics, from explaining the links between his organisation and the Liberal Party, to outlining the policy platform he would be laying upon election to the post of Union president by the 2.5% of students who actually voted. On the numerous occasions I felt the urge, no attempt was made to suppress yawns. At various points, I even pretended to answer a phone call and send messages. He still kept talking.

When the bus started its descent from urban to semi-rural, the bell rang and the trip came to another temporary halt. The present stop coincided with the boundary between two transit zones and was as opportune point as any for the driver to conduct a ticket inspection. After the alighting passengers had cleared the way, the driver stood and turned to face the remaining passengers.

“Right folks, please have your tickets ready for me to have a look at thanks.”

In the few seconds since the driver stood up, my traveling companion had become slightly agitated. After the driver had spoken, the yellow wiggle muttered something under his breath that sounded like “guess this is my stop”, before grabbing his bag and rising from his seat. As he stood, he rifled through his bag and produced a yellow leaflet, doubtlessly running through in lesser details what he’d just explained.

“This will answer any questions you may still have,” he said.

I raised my hand to make a ‘halt’ gesture and told him he’d adequately explained everything already. Content in the knowledge that he’d succeeded in feeding society’s contempt for him and his people, Matthew bid his farewell and left me in peace.

‘Finally’, I thought after showing the driver my valid ticket, ‘no one left to bother me for the rest of the trip.’

A quick glance around reaffirmed this thought, with fewer than a dozen people left on the bus.

As the world started to slowly move past again, the soundtrack changed from talking head to rolling thunder. My gaze snapped around to face the general direction of the new sound out the window. A sinking feeling engulfed my heart at the sight of a towering bank of clouds approaching in the near-distance. The instinctive reach for the pocket holding my phone was followed by a sharp recoil when the memory of its empty, soulless screen flashed before my eyes. The next image to mentally materialize was of an exposed, uncovered bus-stop waiting a short distance down the road. With no potential to send a mayday for alternate transport and a lack of outstanding reason to linger at the bus stop, it wouldn’t be a pleasant walk home.

Droplets of water started to speckle the windscreen of the bus about 10 seconds before it pulled up at my stop. About 10 seconds after the driver had cheerfully bid his farewells and the doors had shut as the bus pulled away it started to rain.

It really started to rain. This wasn’t the gentle mist of a chilly Irish winter or a cooling coastal shower after a warm summer’s day when the sea breeze comes in and hits the warm continental air mass.

This was a torrent. Gone were the droplets from earlier, replaced by continuously gushing streams whose catchment was the clouds above. It was the kind of rain that made windscreen wipers redundant and clear gutters overflow. For a brief instant, I even considered putting my swimming goggles on.

This was a true Brisbane thunderstorm.

The route home through semi-rural surrounds provided little in the way of shade from any of the elements; certainly the umbrella leaning against the wall behind my bedroom door would have at least tried to have done a better job against this most unprecedented onslaught.

The two minor hills between the previously under-appreciated sanctuary of the bus and my home suddenly grew taller with footing becoming treacherous and uncertain. As lightning flashed and thunder growled ever closer, I struggled to make headway, slipping several times, grazing knees and hands on exposed rocks, muttering profanities under my breath and, on at least one occasion, hoping that the moisture of my underwear was purely a product of the rain.

After ten minutes of toil, the tunnel found its end and I made my way through the front gate of our house. It was a cheerful old Queenslander with a sweeping front verandah welcoming those who sought to venture inside. I made it to the front door and decided to minimize that water-bearing clothing which was surplus to requirements.

I opened the front door and was immediately accosted by our family pet Rottweiler, Boris. He playfully jumped up and went straight for the face with his tongue. His greetings always seemed more appropriate for an absence of weeks rather than hours, but sometimes it was nice to just feel loved after a long, tiresome day. After a few moments, his insistent playfulness was dispensed with and a beeline was made for the likely location of the spare car key, passing through the kitchen along the way. The drippings from wet clothes, I decided, could be cleaned up later.

The main counter in the kitchen was empty apart from a note, hand-written on waste printer paper. I went in for a closer inspection, noticing the note had been timed as being written at 2:30pm. It read:

“Hey Steve, tried to call you but your phone was switched off. Just had a call from UQ Security. Apparently your car-keys have been handed in. Hope you don’t get caught in the storms. Will be home around 7, love Mum.”

At that moment, the late-afternoon sun burst through the cloud while the sound of rain on the corrugated iron above died down.

All that for nothing.



Any Comments?


More...

» Live Exportation - Australia's Sheep Ship Hell

On the Deathbed

By PEN AVRAM
Published: June 28, 2010

The sins of the fathers... The Perpetual Absolute How did it all start?

God

By JULIE SMITH
Published: February 12, 2010

A humorous story about a bitter retiree who visits God, turning his life around