sex and tragedy on the bus

(The main character may or may not be me. Well. Ok. He is.)

In a black shirt whistling softly head down walking with some kind of bent purpose. He turns his head as a bird shadows the sun or his vision dims. He sees a man at the back of a church on a street down which he is walking. A man sitting on the steps at the back of the church reading something rocking slowly backwards and forwards and making small whimpering sounds like a trapped dog. He bends his head forwards again, staggers slightly but keeps the music
There’s a small shop on the corner that looks bright and blasted in the afternoon sun. The long weeds wave and shudder and all he can smell is them and his own sweat. He’s thirsty so he rattles the change in his pockets, rattles it again and then walks into the shop. He likes the cool darkness that is not very dark and the smell changes from tall weeds to ripe potatoes. He steps forward to the counter making sniffing motions his head darting backwards and forwards as he peers aggressively at a small fierce woman serving.
He leans toward her and clenches the cool wood under his hands saying in one full collected sentence, “I’d like a bottle of water and a big packet of Marlborough Lite cigarettes, please.” The woman’s birdlike hands move quickly and he stares curiously at her stiff curls. She gives him a big packet of cigarettes and a bottle of water and he gives her some money and she gives him back less. He sniffs some more and the woman looks at him oddly and he grins at her and walks out of the shop. He finds as he’s walking down the road that he can’t remember her face and he has to check his pockets to make sure that the cigarettes are still there and that he was ever in the shop.
He has to catch a bus. He doesn’t like buses very much but has to catch them anyway. He walks to the bus stop and stands rocking on his heels and then kicks some of the weeds growing out of the hot pavement. There is a girl at the bus stop and also an old woman. The old woman has a patterned bag clutched to her chest and glasses that are bent on the tip of her nose. He ignores her completely. He opens the packet of cigarettes annoyed at the complexity of wrapping, crumples the remains in his hands and then shoves them into his pocket. He quickly pulls out a cigarette and lights it then pushes cigarettes and lighter into his jeans pocket, which is too small for them both. It is an ungainly gesture and agitates him.
He puffs aggressively on his cigarette and moves his head side to side. He spins of his heel, inhales deeply and jumps to land cross-legged on the seat next to the girl. “Hello”, he says, “would you like a cigarette?” The girl looks at him.
“No”, she says.
“Oh.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes”, she says, “I’m quite sure. I don’t smoke. Are you going to start annoying me now?” she asks.
“I thought I’d already started. But I can keep going if you like, although the only other thing I have to offer you is this bottle of water, which I’m beginning to think should have been a cup of coffee or even,” he pauses, and flicks his cigarette into the middle of the road “, a can of beer.”"
“Oh”, she says. She stares into the middle of the road or perhaps at some of the waving weeds.
“Are you staring at the waving weeds or the middle of the road?” he enquires. "And would you happen to know when the bus is coming?
“Which one would you like me to answer first?”
“The former”.
“The weeds. "
“Cool. Hurm.” He changes positions several times and crosses and uncrosses his legs before settling cross legged in front of her on the ground squashing one of the weeds. He puts his thumbs beneath his jaw and so rests his head gazing directly into her eyes. She looks annoyed. “My first name is Robert”, he says “and my second name is Verbeeg. I have a slight flaw in my character.”
“And what would that be?” she asks.
“Wouldn’t you like to know.
“Hurm.
" I often talk of grey things but I am never grey. I have quite odd little toes. But oddness is a matter of context, don’t you think? I mean, look at my socks."
“But one of them is grey.”
“Yeah. It used to be white. Fuck.” He cocks his head to one side and realises that he is getting a cramp in one of his calves. “Ow,” he says.
“Sorry?”
“Nothing. Hurm.” He stretches his leg out and rubs it vigorously. "Sometimes I think that the world is made of giant ugly flowers that are invisible and press against my face in the night time. I think that I can feel them when I wake up in the dark, alone. I’m sure that they are there, can feel their enormous petals brushing with a sort of feathery touch against my cheek and I keep my eyes closed and reach out and try and grab them. Quickly. So that they can’t disappear. But they always do.
“But then I wake up properly and decide that I’m wrong about the flowers and maybe that they are puppy’s ears or the fingers of a woman that I once loved so much that it hurt to see her. Or maybe her breath or the pieces of a balloon that has burst itself on the cornice of my ceiling. Or some bright thing from the garden like those fire bugs or glow worms that I’ve read about and that there will be enough light for me to see by and I open my eyes and it’s dark.”
“Uh-huh.” She is looking at him now, though he has stopped looking at her and has his face turned away from her.
He turns and realises that he has frightened her in the bright sunlight and amongst the waving weeds. He pulls out another cigarette from where they are squashed into the pocket of his jeans. It is bent and he peers at it, watching his fingers straighten and push.
“What’s your name?”
“Mary-Rose Claire Hatwood.”
“Hatwood?”
“Yes. Hatwood.”
“As in, like, wood with a hat on it?”
“Yes, exactly like that.”
He purses his lips and smiles happily, “Fantastic,” he says. “Hurm.” He looks at his cigarette and tries to work out how much he wants to smoke it, aware that he has only just finished smoking one.
He hopes that he hasn’t set any weeds on fire with the last one that he threw away. He lights his cigarette while he is thinking about burning weeds and checking for smoke up and down the road. He realises that he has lit his cigarette, and also that he really did want to smoke another one. He puffs plumes of dissatisfyingly thin smoke into the hot air.
The noise of a bus or a truck is soon proved to be that of a bus and him, the old woman and Mary-Rose watch as it resolves through the haze of heat bending the air.
“So who’s going to wave?” he asks, paying his first attention to the old woman as his gaze flicks between her and the girl.
“Signal? If I had a flag we could make it semaphore. That would be cool. Then I’d volunteer.”
The girl has her arm up.
“I was, you know. Going to volunteer. Any second there. You did not give me the chance.”
The bus slows loudly and hisses as the doors open.
“This always happens,” he says as he carefully butts his cigarette on the heel of his boot and places it back in his pocket. “It’s like a rule that isn’t really a rule. If you light a cigarette, the bus will come.” He steps up the steps behind the girl, “But only if you aren’t doing it so that the bus will come. Like Orr in Catch-22.”
He gives the bus driver the correct change without looking at his face. He notices that the man’s ankles are swollen and purplish.
“Can I sit next to you?” He asks the girl. The woman has made her way to her seat and heaves her bags towards her with a deep sigh.
“No.” She frowns and stares at him from under her eyebrows.
“Are you sure? You can’t tell me that you don’t sit because I can see that you are already.” He is standing, holding onto the seat in which she is sitting. He rocks uncomfortably as the bus accelerates.
“I have my bag next to me.” She points. “If you want to talk to me, you can sit across the aisle.”
“Oh. Across the isle.” His eyes glaze over. He has always wanted to live on an archipelago.
“Yes.”
“Oh. Across the aisle. Okay.” He sits down. He pushes the hair away from his eyes and then makes two little horns with his fringe and half-heartedly butts the seat in front of him. He looks across at the girl but she is not smiling but reaching into her bag. She pulls out a magazine.
“It seems you have a magazine.”
“Yes. "
“Are there any quizzes in it? I love magazine quizzes. You can find out just what kind of person you are. Or what the star-sign of your perfect match is. You can. I’ve done it before. Mine is a Taurus. Isn’t that a type of car?”
“I think that it’s a van.”
“Hurm.”
“I can’t find any quizzes in the index.”
“They don’t really do them that much anymore. Whenever I go to the doctor’s surgery I sit on the floor and spread all the magazines out around me and do all the quizzes at once. Sometimes I put the answers for one into the boxes for another. But only sometimes. It is getting harder and harder to find them though. Obviously magazine editors just aren’t as much fun as we all hoped that they would be.” The bus shakes and judders as it goes over a bump.
Marie-Rose opens the window. As she leans across he can see the light fall oddly on the arch of her cheek and he thinks that he has never seen anything so beautiful. She sits back down and starts flicking through the pages. He watches her fingers, pale and adept in the warm light.
He produces a pen from his back pocket. The end is chewed. He leans over Marie-Rose, close enough so that he can smell the cleanness of her clothes, her hair and her skin. He writes on the magazine page, covering his work with his hand before revealing it with a flourish.
“This is my stop.” He says.
He has written stop on the magazine page.
“I see.” Says Marie-Rose, but she is smiling. They are after all on a bus. She has smelled him too and he proved to smell far cleaner than she had anticipated, though his hair is still twisted into horns and she can’t work out why.
“Okay, Robert. Since we are on a bus and you are nearly sitting next to me. What do you do?”
“Oh. THAT question. Um, I iron stuff for people. And I do topiary for a woman who has a plant shop. It’s called Haughty Culture. Cool, huh? You know those big topiary pieces outside parliament house?”
“Oh, did you do them?”
“No. I sat in one for a while once though. It was cool. A little green world, apart from those damned prickles. I study now and then.”
“What do you mean, now and then?”
“Well, at the beginning of the year I go through the courses and they all look really cool and interesting so I enroll in some of them. And then I start going to the classes and being with the other students who seem to be all getting taller all the time and then I get some assignments done and then there are some more and I can’t fill in the forms properly and people always want their stuff ironed at exactly the wrong times. So I get confused and stress out and defer. In deference to the deference system for the definitively indifferent. I don’t manage that very well though. I wish that I could.”
“Manage what exactly?” Marie-Rose looks confused and has her sweet face screwed up.
“Indifference. Apathy. I can’t do it. I really want to, but I feel guilty.”
“Yeah. Me too. I wish there was a guilt pill that you could swallow and you would be okay about your parents spending all their money on the best piano lessons when you can’t even look at a piano.”
“Yes! A guilt pill! Fantastic! Why is society spending so much money on all these – "he gestures wildly around the bus almost cuffing Marie-Rose on the ear – “roads and you know hospitals – when there could be a guilt pill! We could all be feeling remorseless, changed to chagrin cheaters, protected from penitence!”
He beams around him at the idea. Marie-Rose has sunk back in her seat because of the sudden loudness of Robert’s voice. She looks wary and a little embarrassed. She is.
Robert leans right in close to her and peers into her eyes. He forgot that he can smell her at that distance and leans back in order to remember what he was going to say. He sucks a breath of non – Marie-Rose scented air, wishing he could smoke on a bus.
“Is it far?”
“To where?”
“To wherever it is that you are going. I thought that I might come with you.”
“Oh…
“Um, Robert. I don’t really know you.”
“Yes I know. I thought we could change that do you like miniature golf?”
“What I mean is-”
“I found out about it through a friend of mine. His name is Robert too, but he doesn’t really look like me. We used to go all the time, you know, till I worked out all the little statue people were staring at me. And that the “Windmill Challenge” section is physiologically impossible. All a farce!" He bangs his hand emphatically on the seat next to him. “Miniature yes! Possible? Well I don’t think so.”
“I never actually played miniature golf.”
“Of course you haven’t! You’ve probably heard about that damned windmill!”
“But Robert…”
“I mean I must have spent a fortune, adjusting my swing…”
“Ah…”
“Not to mention those Greg Norman videos. Such an attractive man though. And those pants.”
The woman, unseen by Robert, stretches her arm up and rings the bell.
Robert is startled by the sound and his head snaps around to determine its origin. He sees the bus driver’s side mostly hanging over his small driving chair. Robert narrows his eyes dramatically in suspicion.
“Oh, man, it’s always something. What the hell was I talking about?” His head snaps around to Marie-Rose as the bus slows.
She notices that Robert is gripping the arm seat of the bus seat and his knuckles are white, even against his pale skin. His cheeks are hollow, his lips full and almost girlish. “Golf. Greg Norman. His pants, that sort of thing.” She breathes in deeply and out slowly looking out the window for a moment.
They are passing a billboard with an old man eating yoghurt. “Now everyone can have taste and culture!” Is printed in bright letters across it.
“Oh. Yeah. Fucking impossible windmills…” The bus comes gently to a stop and the old woman breathes nasally as she lifts her bag and steps loudly past them to the steps. Robert notices that her elbows are swollen and purplish.
“Maybe the bus driver and that lady should get it together.”
The doors hiss open. The old woman waves to the bus driver and his eyes become visible in the rear view mirror for an instant.
The bus churns back onto the street and Robert and Marie-Rose stare at each other and then turn to their respective windows.
“Awkward pause?” he says cupping his hands and twisting his elbows to make awkward paws.
A snort of laughter involuntarily escapes Marie-Rose.
“There are also dramatic paws -”Robert abruptly stands and flings his arms up, “and the less popular hesitant paws,” he makes timid motions with his hands.
“So where was it you were going?”
“I didn’t tell you.” She looks at him and sighs, her eyebrows arching prettily. “I’m going into the city.”
“Ah. So you are. So am I. That means that we’ve got the whole bus trip together. Will you hold my hand when we go over the train tracks?
“Can we meet by the fountain in the park? Can we dance under a street light and pretend it’s a full moon? Is there a wishing well somewhere? Or some arches? A bridge at least, or, like, a diner that we could get a milkshake in? With two straws and an umbrella. No, hang on, that’s what they have on cocktails. I guess we could have both…”
“Ye-es.”
“I don’t like cities that much, though I can appreciate the idea. I read this story once where this guy falls asleep on the train and he wakes up and he’s in the dream of the city. And if the city dreams, then that means that it’s sleeping, and if it’s sleeping it will eventually wake up. What happens then? The story didn’t say. I love implied malice in stories. It works better than real malice. So, a game of miniature golf then?”
“I don’t really want to play miniature golf, Robert.”
“Oh. Really?” Robert looks at his red shoes and scratches his head, feeling momentarily sheepish as he notices that his hair is still twisted into horns. He rubs his head energetically, revivifying his spikes.
“Ah, well. Such is life. Did you know that Ned Kelly said that as they were about to hang him? No? No, I don’t care either. It’s at times like this that I get the urge to talk about myself in the third person.”
“Sorry?”
“You know: “Robert was deeply disheartened and was contemplating asking Marie-Rose somewhere else.” But I resist, oh, how I resist. Fight it, Robert, fight it. Uh. Oh, shit, we’re nearly at the train tracks."
Robert reaches out his hand towards her across the aisle. In a moment that stretches and stretches, Marie-Rose lifts her arm and extends her hand to him, fingers splayed, palm downwards.
As their fingers are about to touch her eyes flick from Robert’s eyes to his outstretched hand and she sees that it is covered in a network of fine knotted scars, continuing up under the cuff of his black shirt.
She recoils momentarily and as she does the bus bounces over the train tracks and her magazine falls to the floor.
Robert slowly lowers his arm.
“Albatross. Get your albatross.” He says quietly.
Marie-Rose is bending to get her magazine. “Did you say something?”
“Just quoting Monty-python.”
“Oh. Yeah.”
She smiles at him and glances out of the window again, adjusting the magazine on her lap.
Robert looks all around him, his eyes flicking about the bus. Finally, he stares at the ceiling.
""Bring me a bottle of bourbon and a six foot pencil. I want to get drunk and draw on the ceiling." Sorry, quoting again. So. Do you believe in god?" He settles back in his seat and examines the air vents above him.
“Um, yeah. I suppose. We all have to come from somewhere, don’t we?”
“So you’re a creationist then. May I take this moment to point out,” he flings his arms up again to make more dramatic paws, “dinosaurs?”
“No, I’m not a creationist. Evolution makes a lot of sense.”
“Damn, and I had my rant all ready.” Robert is aware that they are approaching the city, though he isn’t ready to admit it to himself yet. The buildings are getting bigger and closer together.
Marie-Rose is turning the pages of her magazine distractedly, “I haven’t really thought about it all that much. It’s hard to know what to believe. All this complexity,” she gestures around her, long white fingers, “it’s too much to be just random. So I believe in something.”
“Some kind of vague creator-type being.” Robert is trying hard to keep staring at the ceiling, which he feels is appropriate, when he really wants to look at Marie-Rose.
“Yeah. Otherwise why be here at all?” She leans toward him, hands folded in her lap, and Robert gives up and turns to face her.
“Good point.”
Marie-Rose nods and leans back again.
Robert feels like his desire will suck him hollow, will cripple him. The bus is making its way through the traffic towards the centre of the city as his open mouth dries.
“It wasn’t that good a point.”
“Sorry.” Robert looks down and closes his mouth. He realises how much he wants a cigarette and suddenly feels marginally better about getting off the bus.
“Boiling out there. I mean boiling. Sweet with tension and light. Glowing with it. It’s not just the sun, I can see the sun, I understand that that is where the light comes from. Most of it. Baleful. Sometimes.” He is looking at his hands, curled in front of him. His brow creases. "But it works the other way for me. “All this.”’ He gestures around him in imitation of Marie-Rose. “Because it’s so complex, liquid and febrile, that it must mean nothing. It has to. Also I’m in love with atrophy.”
“Atrophy?”
“Yes, atrophy.”
“I see.”
“I thought you might. I like decay and change. As long as it’s not in the kitchen. All my stuff just degrades.
My sheets have worn thin and translucent, my valance’s ruffles are no longer crisp -”
“You own a valance?”
“Yes I own a valance.”
Marie-rose looks impressed.
“Its ruffles aren’t what they used to be. My car stopped working years ago. Also my favourite pen. It stopped working recently.” He looks distressed. “It was blue.” He’d always liked blue.
“Maybe it’s just that you own a lot of crap.”
“Yeah.
“Yeah, that’s probably it. But if everything degrades into its component parts, which appeals to me, then there can’t be a greater plan for each part. And the lack of evidence. Christians jumping up and down with their eyes closed going “I think it’s true I think it’s true I think it’s true.”’ The bus passes under an over-pass and the light is suddenly sodden tungsten.
Robert looks up and then slowly presses his palm against the glass.
They are passing a sign with a picture of a barbecue on it and the caption “Grillers in our midst.”
Robert turns to Marie-Rose. “We’re almost at the bus station.”
“Yes.” He pauses, this time without any miming
“And this would signify our mutual departure. I suppose I do have to buy those garden shears. "
“Oh, that’s right. I had forgotten that you were a topiarist.”
“Yes. Did you know that the Australian peppercorn has a close cousin that grows in Madagascar and there supports whole colonies of Lemurs?”
“No, I did not know that Robert.”
“That’s alright. I just made it up. It’s bullshit.”
“I see.”
“Good.”
“Yes, yes. Yes, that is good. Did you know that the Northumbrian Lemming is closely related to the Queensland Fruit Bat and that this is why we see odd suicidal behavior in these bats?”
“No, I didn’t know that, Marie-Rose.” He says her name softly, under his breath like a prayer. He is looking at her wide-eyed.
“That’s really alright, too, Robert, because I just made it up. It was bullshit, Robert. I don’t even really know where Lemmings come from, either. I’m sure it’s not North Umbria. I wish that I did know.”
“Me too.” They have moved slightly closer together. "’Cause then, if you ever met someone from there, you could say ‘AHA! I guess you’d know all about lemmings then!’ And call them ‘Lemming-boy’ or ‘Girl of the Lemmings.’ Or “Our Lady Lemming.”
“Exactly.”
“And you could find out if they kept them as pets, and if there were special precautions taken, like keeping them away from high places and, um, sharp objects and firearms. They probably couldn’t tie knots so you’d be okay with strings and shoelaces and that sort of thing. Though you never know, I mean they are making the ultimate existential choice as a GROUP. I imagine that if you lived in an apartment building, you’d be constantly stressing and checking that the windows were shut and Lemming-proof. And if you gave them a water bowl, you’d have to make sure it was REALLY SHALLOW!”
“I hadn’t thought of that Robert, I -”
The bus was pulling into the city station.
“Shit.” Marie rose gathers her magazine to her and makes self-organising motions that entrance Robert. A lock of her hair has fallen across her face and the desire to reach across the small distance between them and brush it with breathless hesitation and shaking fingers and smooth it into her perfect hair floods his mind and hurts him.
The bus stops and Robert falls entirely from his seat.
“Crap! Ow! Oh man.” He gets up, pushing his fingers to his eyes.
“Are you ok?” Marie-rose is standing over him with her bag clutched to her chest and her feet pigeon-toed, her long neck arching her head toward him and he sees her, really sees her.
Breathtaking cramping beauty – her complexion too pale and flawed, her shoulders hunched from a lifetime of insecurity, of breasts hidden. Her knees pressed together, her blouse white sensible frayed at the cuffs; real shadows under her eyes nails bitten down and the ends of her perfect fingers chewed, and her skin, her skin. Her skin is like alabaster injected with charcoal, like bloodied milk like marble powdered with rust; fine blue veins almost invisible in her hands a flush of blood from the heat across her neck bottom lip red blue and swollen from continual bites.
Her jaw line a piece of sculpted glass.
“Yeah. I’m ok. I think I found a pencil!”
Robert squats quickly and snaps out his arm retrieving the stub of a pencil covered in dust, in bite marks, the lead worn but unbroken.
“Score.”
Marie-rose has walked to the front of the bus and is thanking the bus driver as she steps to the street.
Robert wants to follow her but is afraid of seeing the bus driver now so he goes out the middle door, leaping the three steps and twisting his ankle a bit.
He hurries to catch up with her, intimately aware that he is doing so. Limping.
She turns to him and he is staggered by her face one more time.
“It was nice to meet you Robert.”
“Oh. Yeah. Yes. It was nice. I liked it. Yes nice. OK.”
“Yes. You are an interesting person.”
“Ah.”
“I am late Robert, I am so sorry but I have to go right now.” She turns her head, towards the city, then down, then back to Robert.
“Ok. I gotta ask you something.” Marie -rose has started walking towards the heart of the city. The sun is so bright from her white blouse and for a moment Robert can’t see at all.
“I will preface it with something else though.”
Marie-rose looks to the city and then back to Robert. Her face is so sweet and she wears a kind sadness that Robert has seen before.
“Uh. I am a mature and responsible man. I own a valance! Today I got a table cloth! It is Maroon! Also with the tablecloth came yellow placemats! These I am not as keen on! I was given a set of towels for the first time today too! And I mean they go with the blue in my bathroom that I was formerly unaware of!
“I have a head full of light, I mean I need small acts of kindness, I mean um I am on the cusp, a breath, a stroke away from something some care some weight “each one a curled ankle an epic plan a gift, a laughing sickness – a gaseous truth” (quotes sorry they infect me) and it can’t hold me close it hangs me from sticky painty threads can I have your phone number?"
They stand in the street in the bright light facing each other.
“No, Robert, I’m sorry, but I won’t give you my phone number.”
“Oh ok I will give you mine here remember I found that pencil serendipity Christ I hate that word hijacked by hippies as it has inevitably become.”
“I have to go I am late!!”
Robert is going through his pockets and his face is white with fear and desire.
“Here, the pencil um hang on.” He reaches into his wallet and looks startled by the ease of its appearance in his hands. He finds some paper – a receipt from a chemist.
He clasps the pencil ungainly in his shaking fingers. Marie-rose waits.
He writes the first three numbers and stops. They are smeared. He writes them again.
“I – I can’t – I can’t remember. I can’t. Remember the numbers. Oh.
“I can’t remember them. I can’t – "
Supersaturated light across her profile. Across her gentleness. Across her hands.
“I have to go Robert. I am sorry.” She reaches across and touches the side of his face softly, softly. He does not flinch.
She turns and walks quickly away.

PAUL D ROBERTSON. www.pauldrobertson.com
pauldrobertson@hotmail.com

sex and tragedy on the bus

pauldrobertson

Perth, Australia

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Artist's Description

TAKE THE TIME… i beg the moments from you. i have received more passionate responses than i believed possible for this story and it has won an award and been produced as an amateur play. it makes people laugh LOUD, and it makes many cry. I believe I am more proud of having written this story than of having produced any one of my paintings.
i think

it
rules. paul.

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