Summer 2011 #8
Yes, it’s a sequel!
“Ahh… sorry passengers” the gratuitously amplified voice of our bus driver boomed with an equally gratuitous announcement, “I didn’t realise this man wanted to get off at the bottom of Scarborough Road, so we are just going around the loop again. It won’t make us more than a few minutes late.”
I love the last bus of the day! The one that tempts fate; the one that surely has regrettable consequences if missed. It probably betrays the smallness of my world, but I get off on this mild thrill: performing without a net on the bus with no backup! (And – this is exciting – I love it when the days start to get shorter and colder, as soon they will, and the last bus will deliver me home well after dark, and I will have to travel with B4’s head and tail lights on! Such adventure!) The last bus, however, goes by a different route, and the bus drivers considerately make the smallest of detours so that I can disembark reasonably near our home. To achieve this end I had shown the driver another of my laminated cards:
And he had simply said, “No worries mate!” A good response one would have thought; no sign of The Padre, Simpleton, Marcel Marceau or even of the dreaded Madonna (with child).
At any rate; I now know exactly how many people were on the last bus, even though they were all sitting aft of the wheelchair bay, and even though I never once turned round to peek. There were 12. I know this because I could count each of the 23 eyeballs burning into the back of my skull*. Through that same skull paraded a dozen unfavourable opinions of ‘the man in the wheelchair’ as the bus crawled second by gruelling second back several winding blocks to find the Bottom of Scarborough Road. I am sure I was staring forward with a fixed, maniacal stare; humiliated to the core. Or maybe I was smiling? The driver had read my card, again, and all of us would soon be home.
One of the most enduring friendships of my life began more than forty years ago when I was the one at the back of the bus doing the staring. I can still summon the emotional mix of fear and voyeuristic lure I felt at the age of eight each time I saw the boy who I later came to know as Stephen. He always sat right up near the driver; a small, markedly disabled fellow several years older than me. Perhaps it is understandable in someone young, but I am still ashamed that it was many years before I first spoke to Stephen, and even then it was because I seemed unable to escape him. Everywhere I went, there was Stephen. Concerts, public transport, church events, always Stephen was somewhere around! He had a delightfully proximal sense of personal space, placing his five-foot-nothing-self just an inch away from my six-foot-seven. He wasn’t big on eye contact either, concentrating instead on a forefinger-jab to my stomach to punctuate his sparse sentences; each of which began in the falsetto range and cascaded to a basso full-stop – with jab! I discovered in recent years that Stephen has an intimate knowledge of the entire classical music repertoire, and that there isn’t a book on the history of Sydney that he hasn’t learned in detail; although I didn’t glean this from him.
To this day, decades on, Stephen and I still exchange a letter every few weeks, indeed one arrived this week. Barely thirty words in length, each letter is practically a carbon copy of the one before it, varying by a word or two at most; and yet there are few people who have ever spoken as strongly to my soul as Stephen. But that’s a story for another Sunday.
Who would have thought that one day I would take Stephen’s seat on the bus, feeling the stares that I once gave? It has taken me a lifetime to learn that the terrifying chasm that I felt as an eight year old doesn’t shelter monsters after all. Perhaps we have to walk in each other’s shoes to know beyond doubt that there is nothing to fear. And having learned that lesson, it finally becomes clear that fear, by definition, exists only in the imagination; that curious realm in which dwell also faith and hope. I sometimes give thanks that my world has turned upside down.
* A glass eye perhaps?