Bus 864F by Irma Gold
Irma Gold is an award-winning writer and editor. Her short fiction has been widely published in literary journals, including Meanjin, Island, Review of Australian Fiction and Going Down Swinging, and in anthologies, most recently in Australian Love Stories, edited by Cate Kennedy. Her critically acclaimed debut collection of short fiction, Two Steps Forward, was shortlisted for SPN’s inaugural Most Underrated Book Award and won her a Canberra Critics Circle Award for Literature. Irma is also the author of three children’s picture books, and the editor of a number of anthologies, including The Invisible Thread, an official publication of the National Year of Reading 2012 and the Centenary of Canberra 2013. Irma is Convener of Editing at the University of Canberra. She recently received a special one-off award for Outstanding Service to Writing and Publishing in the ACT and Region.
When Celia got on at Currie Street, he was already there. She didn’t notice him at first, but then he wasn’t swearing right off the bat.
Before the bus filled up, she quickly ate the salad she hadn’t finished on her lunchbreak. Just mushrooms and rocket. All that had been left in the crisper. She’d forgotten dressing. It tasted awful. But she felt guilty about the Flake she’d crammed in at the bus stop.
Celia opened the novel she was reading. She liked to read in bed at night but she needed daylight for this book or she’d have nightmares. By Pultney Street all the seats were taken, except for one next to a man in his sixties who sat on the aisle. He wore a gold watch so yellow it was clearly a fake, and he kept checking it. As the bus lurched away from the kerb he began muttering, loud enough to be heard just above the engine. ‘Fucking shitting cunt of a world. Fucking shitting cunt.’
It was the C word that made Celia look up from her novel. She wasn’t sure at first which mouth it had come from. But he was still going, his face expressionless. ‘Fucking shitting cunt of a world.’ He looked straight ahead. His arms were folded tightly across his chest, his legs opened wide.
Celia was sitting diagonally behind him, up against the window. She noticed the ingrained dirt on his denim jeans, the long grey hairs on the back of his neck. He ran on like a soundtrack. Two teenage boys smirked.
Celia tried to concentrate on her novel but she kept treading over the same sentences.
‘Shut up, Mister,’ one of the boys said eventually. ‘Seriously.’
The man paused, looked at his watch, pulled out a bus timetable.
The boy flicked a wave of hair, turned to his mate. ‘So, you know sugar sachets, right?’ he was saying. ‘This guy that invented them spent, like, forever, working out how to make it so that you could, like, bend it in the middle and, you know, open it that way.’
The man folded his arms across his chest again and took up his mantra. ‘Fucking shitting cunt of a world.’
‘Seriously, Mister,’ the boy said. ‘Give it a rest.’
Celia wanted to tell the cocky boy to shut up himself. What if this man had a gun? What if the boy pushed him over the edge and he turned it on the passengers? Celia wondered if she’d have time to get on the floor. Maybe if he shot the woman next to her first, her dead body would fall on Celia and Celia could just wait it out, until it was safe. The woman was small but wide with a large handbag in her lap. Celia wondered how long she could take the weight.
The man kept going and the boy rolled his eyes at his friend. ‘Anyways,’ he continued. ‘In the end the guy – this inventor dude – topped himself. Cause no one appreciated his genius.’
‘For real?’ Celia heard the friend say.
People were pretending not to hear the man. ‘Fucking shitting cunt.’ Celia kept sneaking sideways glances. If something happened and they needed to put together a profile for the police she’d need to remember every detail. His eyebrows were blowsy and his cheeks were covered in red patches, old scars. His nails were neatly trimmed. He had a small paunch. His grey polo T-shirt was buttoned up to the throat. She’d heard that it was remarkable how accurate artists’ depictions could be from description alone. That sometimes seeing their pencilled perpetrator made victims cry.
At Aldgate the teenagers got off. As the bus pulled away they turned to wave slowly at the man, provocatively. He saw them. The expression on his face was unbending. Idiots, Celia thought. They were marked now.
The bus passed a sloping hill full of alpacas and thundered along towards Hahndorf, so fast she thought of the movie Speed. If the bus veered off on the corner and ended up on its nose, would she survive? She was near the back so perhaps all the bodies in front would give her a soft landing. Or perhaps the sheer force of propulsion would hurtle her over them all and into glass. Best not to think about it.
The soundtrack had stopped. This was almost more unsettling. They were already at stop 44 and the man still hadn’t got off. She didn’t want to get off before him. What if he followed her? What if he beat her to death with a rock? On the weekend she had been reading Raymond Carver.
But then a pretty young thing with red hair and tiny diamonds in her ears got on and Celia felt a terrible kind of relief. The man looked at the girl as she settled into a seat, assessed her, Celia felt. For once Celia was grateful for her mid-forties invisibility.
The man looked at his watch again, and then again only seconds later. Celia had abandoned all pretence of her novel.
In Hahndorf he pressed the button and instead of getting off at the door closest to him he walked to the front. Celia thought, Is this when he pulls out the gun? But then she heard him complain to the driver. They were ninety seconds behind schedule, he said. He would be taking this matter up with Adelaide Metro, he said. His words were crisp.
As the bus pulled away the man stood in front of a popular hotel, all fake old-fashioned brick and grape vines. And Celia thought, Perhaps he’s tourist hunting.
He had foolishly left his timetable behind. She took it. It would have his fingerprints on it.
‘There was a man on the bus yesterday.’
Keith had the paper open to the crossword, a Saturday ritual. ‘Not that guy from the hills? The one that stinks?’
‘Cause apparently he’s some genius artist. Real famous. Or that’s what Susie reckons anyway. But honestly, I don’t think the guy’s ever washed. He sat next to me the other day and I had to breathe through my mouth.’
Celia picked up a vase from the table. A browned petal stuck to its rim. She thought about cleaning it, then put it back down.
‘If that’s genius I don’t want a bar of it.’ Keith looked at her over the rim of his glasses, his pencil hovering. ‘So who then?’
‘No one in particular. He was unwell.’
‘Didn’t vomit, did he?’
‘Nothing like that,’ she said. Keith turned back to his crossword.
‘Another word for chimera? Five letters?’
‘He wasn’t quite right in the head. I thought he might be psychotic. You know, the kind that kills young girls.’
Keith snorted. ‘How’d you figure that?’
‘Dream,’ she said.
‘So it is.’ Keith pencilled it in.
‘Where’s the rest of the paper?’ she said. ‘You haven’t binned it already?’
‘Over there,’ he thumbed. ‘Maybe your psycho’s in it.’
Celia half expected Keith to be right, but there were no local rapes or murders. Or none that had been reported anyway.
It was nine days before she saw him again, after work on the homeward bound route. For a moment her heart stood still.
He sat on the aisle again, checking his watch every few minutes. His knee joggled up and down. She hadn’t noticed that last time, perhaps he had been doing it but she hadn’t noticed. She put her book aside to focus better. In case her testimony was needed. She was reading Rankin now and it made her realise that people just didn’t pay attention to what was happening around them. Meanwhile these girls were disappearing, being murdered. What if this man was a Rankin imitator, right here on Bus 864F, and she was the only one to notice him, really notice him. She’d heard there were such things. In an interview the author had admitted as much.
He wasn’t swearing this time. His lips were moving but there was no sound. He was wearing a pale blue polo T-shirt, the colour of a starling’s egg, also buttoned up to the throat. She considered repeating this phrase to a police officer. While she sat in a room empty but for a desk, framed by a single spotlight. It was the colour of a starling’s egg, she would say, folding her hands neatly in her lap. They would record her, of course. And when the case reached the courts her words would be read back to the jury. Or perhaps she would have to testify. She saw herself in a sleek maroon two-piece suit, the pencil skirt falling to just below the knee. She would wear her glasses, even though she only needed them for reading.
He stood and Celia realised with a jolt that she had not been monitoring him at all. He swayed and stumbled against the movement of the bus, grabbed onto a rail. For a moment he looked just like any frail elderly man.
He got off at stop 24A this time, just after the freeway. She couldn’t work out why.
Their dining table was red laminex, a gift from the previous renters. Celia loathed it, but nothing in the house was hers. Sometimes she stabbed the underside of the table with her fork. It made her feel better.
Tonight it was Keith’s turn to make dinner and he’d prepared one of his five standards, bangers and mash. Celia hated bangers and mash, especially his bangers and mash. The sausages were always overcooked, black and crusty. And the mash was from a packet, pasty reconstituted stuff.
‘Could you pass the salt?’ she asked. She didn’t need the salt. Sometimes she spoke just to pierce the silence.
Keith managed to pick up the shaker and pass it to her without his eyes leaving his book. Another biography, he was always reading biographies. She had hoped for a word, a brief moment of eye contact at the very least.
With her fingers she scraped together a mound of mash, watching to see if Keith would notice. She rolled it into a perfect golf ball, held it poised in the air.
Keith turned a page. Celia pressed the ball onto the underside of the table.
‘You done with the salt?’ Keith said. He looked up and Celia smiled.
‘What?’ he said.
‘Nothing.’ She wiped her hand on her skirt and passed him the salt.
She considered telling him about her most recent encounter, asking Keith for his thoughts on why the man had got off at 24A. But she decided against it, he wouldn’t give the issue due consideration. Everything rested on her.
On her lunchbreak Celia bought a spiral notebook with a hard plastic cover. She recorded all the facts, folded the timetable and tucked it in the back. During staff meetings she spent her time thinking about the man. Actually, she spent most of her time at work thinking about him. Processing applications for provider numbers wasn’t exactly mentally challenging. She took receipt of the scanned form, entered the data, printed off a copy, put it in the delegate’s in-tray, and repeated the process until knock-off time. It was so mundane that one of her work mates had taken to watching old episodes of Black Books while he worked. He was up to season three.
She had to wait a week before the man boarded the 864F again. It was a Tuesday, 5.47 pm. Everyone had that work-weary look, the knowledge that there were still three more days of drudgery and commuting ahead. And then suddenly there he was, up the front of the bus, too far away. He was wearing a business shirt this time. She would describe it as ivory. She recorded these facts in her notebook.
A ninety per cent chance of rain had been predicted. Nothing yet, but the bus was headed towards a bank of swollen clouds, their undersides bruised purple.
They entered a tunnel. The man looked over his shoulder, straight at her, Celia was sure. The faint orange light accentuated brutal features. Celia shrank in her seat. Was he onto her? He looked away. No, he couldn’t be. She’d been so careful.
Out the other side of the tunnel it began to rain in fat spatters. Within minutes the bus sounded like a killing field. At Crafters a passenger behind the man got off and Celia crept up the aisle to take her seat. Now she could hear anything he said above the noise. Examining him she immediately observed something of concern and congratulated herself on moving closer. She wrote in her notebook, carefully shielding it with her left hand should he turn around: 6.18 pm, long scratch on the back of neck commensurate with a fingernail. Possible sign of struggle.
A breathless woman climbed aboard and made to sit in the empty seat beside the man. He held up his palm. ‘It’s taken,’ he said. ‘You can’t sit there.’
The woman stood suspended for a moment, damp curls at her forehead, too many shopping bags clutched against her waist. Then she shrugged, moved up the aisle and braced herself against a pole. Celia thought about standing for the woman, but they were about the same age. And anyway, Celia was on duty. A minute later he pressed the button. He was getting off at stop 25, different again. What was he playing at?
The bus pulled sharply up to the curb and he rose to disembark. In a moment of clarity Celia thrust the notebook into her pocket, grabbed her bag and followed him off the bus. The rain was falling in greasy sheets but Celia paid it no heed. He walked quickly, head down, not looking back once. Celia kept pace.
Dusk was descending quickly. Up ahead a thin milky fog crept onto the road. Celia pushed her hands into her pockets, ran her thumbnail along the spine of her notebook. She kept just the right distance, her heart hammering. He turned a corner, and when she turned it herself, the space between them had narrowed. Suddenly he stopped. She would have him soon.