Bus No. 8
by Sue Brennan
She lifted the small hand between her own crepe-skinned, liver-spotted hands, and held it as carefully as a just-plucked rose. The hand, her granddaughter’s, just turned seven, was cool and smooth as a petal and slightly damp. She lowered it back onto the cold metal table. On the trolley nearby was everything she’d been told she’d need. She pressed a towel gently against the wrist, the shoulder, the brow, the cheeks. There was no resistance, no battle of wills, no begging to stay in the bath a little longer, no making of turbans, or running through the house butt-naked and squealing.
When she emerged an hour later, the sky had darkened, and she thought briefly of the washing she’d hung out. She wheeled the empty suitcase behind her to the bus stop. There was space on the bench beside a young man in overalls whose eyes were transfixed by the phone he held. When she sat, he shuffled slightly, still looking at his phone. She was grateful for his obliviousness and pulled the suitcase close to her knees. She looked hopefully in the direction of the bus she was waiting for.
“Where’re you off to then, love?”
Oh, dear God, she thought. Really?
She smiled and shook her head. She hadn’t realised she was going to need a cover story.
The young man repeated his question, a little louder this time, with a gesture towards the suitcase.
When she was this man’s age, a young woman—a young wife just moved down from Sydney with her new husband—she used to miss home and travelled the two hours up as often as she could. She’d pack a small suitcase with a couple of frocks, a spare cardigan, a nightie, and her toiletries under the watchful eye of her husband. He seemed to think that she was never going to return, such was her homesickness then. Of course, suitcases in those days didn’t have wheels on them; that innovation happened years after her longing to return home had finally subsided.
With this in mind, she told the young man, “Up to Sydney for a bit.”
This seemed to satisfy him—he smiled, nodded and returned to his phone-gazing.
She hated the idea of lying to anyone, even a white lie such as this, but surely it was better than the truth. He didn’t want to know that.
She’d hung her washing earlier that morning and then turned to the horrible task at hand. In her granddaughter’s room, she’d placed the suitcase on the bed and unzipped it. She’d slid the mirrored door aside to reveal the row of neatly hung dresses, pants and tops. On the floor, organised on two wooden racks, was a ridiculous number of shoes, most of them trainers. That was the fashion these days. No black, patent leather, Mary Janes here. She’d stared at the colourful scene—so much purple— for a very long time.
The problem was the occasion. What was she dressing the child for?
“Choose her favourite outfit,” they’d suggested at the funeral home.
So she’d selected a purple T-shirt with a little frill around the hem and a picture of Ariel the mermaid on the front. She’d dithered over pants or a skirt—again, confused about the level of formality required—and finally went with a white skirt covered in lime-green polka dots and a pair of lollie-pink trainers. She’d laid the outfit out on the bed, patting it gently, smoothing it into place. She’d gone to the dresser for underpants, a singlet and some socks. These, too, were fretted over. Most of the undies needed throwing out, she’d been ashamed to discover. The elastic was snapped on half of them, with little holes and pilling on the rest.
Perhaps I should run out and buy a new pair?
She’d chosen the best of the lot, folded each item and placed them in the case. On top of the dresser was the child’s extensive collection of accessories: bangles, rings, necklaces, hair-scrunchies, bobby-pins adorned with little beads, and whatnot. She’d chosen the ring-necklace-earrings set that she had given the child on her seventh birthday. Looking back at the dresser and the open wardrobe, she’d been overwhelmed by the realisation that she’d have to do something, at some point, with all of it. This had been followed by the second realisation that her life had now been rendered meaningless. Getting the child out of bed each morning and back into it at the end of each day, keeping her fed and healthy, making sure homework was done, permission forms for this and that signed and returned to school—this had been her life.
One step at a time, old lady.
The flick of a cigarette lighter caused her to look involuntarily at the man. He dragged deeply on the cigarette, and she recalled with sadness her husband’s death from emphysema many years ago. She ran her thumb over the edge of her Opal card. How bitterly they’d fought over his life-long smoking habit, even at the end when he still insisted it wasn’t the cigarettes that had done it.
“Bloody battery’s dead,” the man said, and then as if in response to a question, “Yeah, I’m down to Canberra this weekend.”
She looked at him, trying to decide how long she wanted this interaction to last. “Canberra’s nice,” she said.
“It’s a shit-hole,” he said and laughed, smoke billowing out of his mouth. “If you don’t mind me saying.”
“Why are you going then?” she asked.
“Me brother lives down there. Going to be—God, I can hardly believe it—godparent for me new niece.”
“That’s very nice,” she commented. “Baptisms are lovely.”
Not that she believed in such things anymore. She’d had her daughter, Cassie, baptised and put her through all the other sacraments, too. What good had it come to? Hadn’t Cassie just gone her own way and filled her body with vile drugs? Being Catholic hadn’t protected them from Cassie’s thievery, or the frightening verbal assaults whenever they confronted her. Being raised a Catholic hadn’t stopped Cassie from neglecting and then abandoning her own daughter. And Gavin, where had his daily trudges up the hill to St. Andrews got him? Buried—as decreed by the Church—and a requiem mass to boot. What did any of it matter if God was going to start picking off seven-year old girls?
“Yeah,” the man said. “Pretty chuffed, got to say.”
“Hey, am I supposed to buy a present? Never done this thing before, you know.”
“Well,” she said slowly, thinking about it for a moment. “I don’t think being a godparent excuses you. Maybe just a small thing?”
“Right, right,” he said, looking at the cigarette between his yellowed fingers. He took two quick drags and flicked it onto the road.
She looked at the thin trail of smoke coming from the still-burning butt until a car ran over it. A fat raindrop splatted on the pavement in front of her, then another. She instinctively drew her feet in under the bench and the suitcase closer to her knees.
“Could do with a bit of this weather,” the man said.
“Yes,” she agreed. “It’s been a very dry spring so far.”
“This is my first time, you know, being an uncle. Jo-Jo. I’m going to be Uncle Jo-Jo.”
Sounds like a clown.
“Name’s Guiseppe. Guiseppe Alfonso Dal Busco,” he said and rolled his eyes. “Been Joe all my life.”
“Parents are. Never been there.”
“Oh, you’ll have to go. Italy’s wonderful.”
“Many years ago, I’m afraid. You should go.”
“Can’t see it happening,” he said and scowled up at the sky.
“You’re still young. Plenty of time.”
But something troubled the man. He sniffed and folded his arms across his chest. They’d clearly veered into uncomfortable territory, and she felt weighed down even further by the knowledge that such a small, innocuous interaction could go wrong.
For most of her married life, she’d been surrounded by Italian families. Their modest little weatherboard cottages had gradually been replaced by enormous brick mansions with double garages, statues and fountains in the front yard. She and Gavin couldn’t keep up—didn’t even try to—but they kept their own house and yard neat as a pin. Around the time Cassie turned thirteen, they’d added an extension at the back—a recreation room, as it was called at the time—under the assumption that there’d be groups of teenagers hanging out listening to records and watching videos. For a short while, she remembered fondly, that had been the case.
The rain was getting heavier. She looked at her watch and down the street.
“What should I get her?” the man asked, and it took her a minute to realise who he was referring to.
“People often give something religious, I think,” she finally said. “Like a picture of a guardian angel or…a little bracelet with a holy image on it. A cross?”
She thought of the earrings—silver hoops with tiny enamelled daisies on each one—that she had tried and failed to put in her granddaughter’s ears. Her hands had trembled, the Parkinson’s, and she’d called for help.
The man seemed unconvinced and asked, “Where would I buy something like that?”
“It doesn’t have to be religious, you know. Just something pretty. A heart?”
“I could get her something with her name on it. One of those necklaces.”
“Well, a necklace on a baby…”
“For when she’s older,” he added.
“I guess so. That does sound nice. I hope she’s got a common name. Not like so many of them these days.”
“Emily,” he said.
She covered her mouth with both hands as a sickening wave of nausea rose in her.
“What?” the man asked, startled by her reaction.
This must be what it feels like to be punched in the stomach.
“What?” the man asked again, moving closer along the bench and putting a hand on her shoulder.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, embarrassed, wiping her eyes.
“No, no,” he said vaguely.
“Emily was my…” she said.
He opened his mouth and then closed it again. He kept his hand lightly on her shoulder.
She nodded and said, with her fingers pressed against her lips, “Last week. You might’ve heard about the drunk driver. The girls.”
“Oh, fuck, yeah. Oh, holy fuck! I’m so sorry. Shit.”
She looked at him, at his face and his neck and hair, her vision blurring. The bus pulled up to the curb, and the door opened. The man stood and held a hand out to her.
“Some time today, folks,” the driver called from the bus.
The man went to pick up her suitcase, and she slapped at his hand. “No.”
It was pouring now, and the shelter over their heads was narrow. There’d be no escaping the rain getting onto that bus. The man stood helplessly in front of her.
The driver, a woman in her forties wearing Doc Martins—she’d remember that for a while because Cassie had practically lived in them— clambered down the stairs and asked if they needed some assistance.
The man turned to her and said, “She won’t…you hear about those girls last week? The drunk driver?”
It wasn’t a big city, and the news had been front page. The picture accompanying the headline—Innocence Mowed Down—depicted a smashed up wooden fence in front of a weatherboard house. Two days later, a follow-up article on page four showed the same fence obscured by a pile of flower bouquets, candles and balloons. There was another picture: a closeup of a handwritten card by the four girls who’d been injured. Nothing was said in the article about the driver. She’d seen him. Of course she had.
What am I expected to do with all this? she’d thought, watching from the living room window as people came and stood there gawping.
The reporter, a young man who introduced himself as Davey—not the name of a grown man, surely—wanted to know everything.
What about Emily’s parents? Out of the picture.
How long had Emily been living with her? Five years.
What were the girls doing in the front yard? Practising for a jazz ballet competition.
How long do you think the culprit should get?
It was indecent.
The bus driver crouched in front of her. The engine of the bus was idling, producing an almost comforting hum. The young man stood over them expectantly.
“Well,” said the bus driver and sighed deeply. “Well.”
She looked at the driver’s face, which was tanned and round. Her left eye was a bit wonky, looked out further than the other one, and she wondered if it was alright for her to be driving. It probably was.
“You want some help getting on this bus?” the driver asked. “Or you want to wait for the next one?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “No. Yes I do. I want to go home.”
The driver nodded and stood, knees cracking loudly. She also stood and allowed herself to be assisted onto the bus. The man carried her suitcase and placed it on the seat beside her. The other passengers on the bus looked at her with interest.
When the man got off the bus, one stop before hers, he stooped down and said, “I’m gonna get a bracelet with a cross or something on it, like you said.”
“Alright then,” she said and smiled. “Have a nice time.”
She watched him alight and saw the driver looking at her in the rearview mirror.
The bus trundled along, winding through quiet residential streets and then out onto her own much busier street. She pressed the button and gripped the suitcase. She watched as her bus-stop went past and pressed the button again.
“It’s alright,” the driver called. “I’ll take you there.”
They drove another 200 metres or so and then stopped. She heard the passengers behind her start to exchange information about the terrible accident.
The driver jumped out from behind the wheel, took a large umbrella from somewhere, and waited for her at the bottom of the steps. She descended reluctantly. The driver covered them both as they walked silently through the gate and along the short path to her front porch, past the deep gashes in the lawn where the car’s wheels had spun and were filling with rain.
She had a silly urge to ask the driver in for a cup of tea. Wasn’t that what should be done, at the very, very least?
“Thank you, my dear,” she said. “You didn’t have to. All those people. Go on.”
The woman shook her head, looked down and then hugged her tightly. She smelled citrusy.
“My name’s Kelly,” she said, standing close. “Anytime—you can ride for free anytime with me, and I’ll drop you right at the door. Rain or shine, alright?”
“Well now, that’s very—”
“No,” she said and turned. “It’s nothing.”
The windows of the bus were fogged with condensation. On the side was an advertisement for a large supermarket chain. Oversized lettuce leaves, zucchinis and tomatoes covered the bus.
Inside, she parked the suitcase in the tiled entrance area. There was nothing in the fridge to eat, as far as she remembered. She’d have to go back out or make do with a cup-o-soup and some crackers. She stood at the window, feeling utterly discombobulated.
What am I supposed to do?
She had to decide on various things regarding the funeral tomorrow—they wanted to know about songs and readings and what picture she wanted on the order of service. She couldn’t begin to think about it. She sunk onto the couch.
She remembered the day Emily became hers. Cassie had arrived holding the toddler loosely in her arms, like a bundle of clothes she’d just picked up from the floor. She’d been nervous, hyped up on something no doubt. Cassie had said that they were going to spend the whole afternoon.
“Give her to me,” she’d said, taking the child. “When did she last eat?”
“Shit,” Cassie had said. “I knew you’d be like this. I gave her something, like, an hour ago.”
They’d sat in the living room—right here—and tried to chat as though it were a routine grandma-meets-grandchild visit. She’d only met Emily a handful of times. After about twenty minutes, Cassie said she was going to duck outside for a cigarette.
“Want a snack?” she’d asked Emily as she watched through the window to see Cassie light up. “I have a pound cake I made this morning. Lemon icing.”
The child had looked at her blankly and then back down at the pack of playing cards she’d been holding when she arrived.
“Let’s play Snap. Or, hm, maybe you’re too little.”
When Cassie had disappeared, she set in motion events that, if one wanted to trace them back, could hold her responsible for Emily’s death. That driver—he could probably present the stress of his job, or marital problems, or an abusive childhood as his reasons for drinking. What about the parents of the other girls? They’d been all too happy to have their daughters off their hands for a few hours.
But it was she who had roused at the girls for making so much noise. She who had sent them outside to rehearse. It was like a tangled mess of writhing snakes biting each other’s tails.
They’d played something with the cards, she and Emily, something without rules that taught the child the rudimentary moves of picking up, holding, and putting down a card. They’d cheered without any points being won at all.
Sue Brennan is an Australian writer living in Japan. Her short stories have been published in Australia in ACE - Contemporary Stories by Emerging Writers, Meniscus, Meanjin, Quadrant, Baby Teeth , Better Read Than Dead Anthology 2020, and further afield in Adelaide Literary Magazine, The Blue Nib, The Font, and The Peauxdunque Review.