By Tracy Brighten
A story of the stresses of urban life and the need for respite in nature
The car won’t start. Flat battery. It looks like I’ll have to catch the bus. But I’ve not been on a bus for years. Anxiety charges through me.
I’ve psyched myself up and I’m ready to go, but it’s pouring with rain. The windows will be steamed up and I won’t see a thing. I’ll have to rub a circle to see out and hope that my breath doesn’t fill the space faster than I can take in the view of the hills. Then there’s the smell of damp raincoats. I loathe the smell of damp raincoats. The air will be thick with moisture – a sure way to catch flu, or SARS even. I’ll face away from people coughing, or hold my breath until the toxic germs have floated away. Before I leave, I check online to see how to pay – I don’t want any embarrassment. I’ve missed the 9.50am, so I’ll have to catch the 11.50am.
The downpour has been swept away with the clouds and the sun is out. I’m at the bus stop looking down the road. If I don’t put my arm out in time, the bus will whoosh past.
‘One return to the library please.’ The driver takes my money and dumps the change in the tray. I scrape around to collect it, all fingers and thumbs, people’s eyes burning holes in me. Why couldn’t he just hand it to me? Customers in the café slap their money on the counter. ‘Thank you,’ I say and he nods. Service without a smile. I wouldn’t get away with it.
I scan the bus for an empty window seat where I can sit in peace. I avoid the back of the bus – I’m not in the mood for teenage frivolity. I remember that the front of the bus is where you sit if you don’t know where to get off, or you can’t be bothered to walk. The middle is safe. I climb the step and sit in the first row of the raised seating. I slide across to the window, placing my bag on the seat beside me.
Being higher up, there’s no one directly in front, which is a relief. I’ll be spared the smell of unwashed hair. Behind me are two women, heavy with make-up and dyed blonde – who isn’t in this town? One has a pink theme with matching jacket, handbag and necklace, beads the size of gobstoppers. The other has a top cut so low there isn’t much I can’t see. It isn’t long before notes of sandalwood and syrup are stifling my sensory receptors. Never mind Thank you for not smoking. How about Thank you for not stinking.
Quite a few people are getting on at the next stop, which is surprising really because most people have a car around here. Maybe there’s a flat battery epidemic. There are plenty of spare seats, but people do like to cluster. On the beach they cluster near the access and in the mall car park their cars cluster near the entrance. I pretend to search my bag to avoid eye contact and “anyone sitting there?”
A girl clutching her iPod like an intravenous drip bag shuffles past, treading on the bottom of her jeans. They’re frayed. Her thighs struggle in the denim straightjacket that keeps them in check. I’m guessing she’s a student judging by the ring binder. Two Asian students, Korean perhaps, exchange words, but I can’t catch what they say because they’re softly spoken. The glossy-haired girl wears a scarf – the weather’s changing now – but no coat, and a short skirt with woollen tights. Her boyfriend is smartly dressed too. A middle-aged man in track pants plonks himself next to an elderly lady in a tweed suit, and the last passenger to get on sits near the front. I’m safe for now. The bus heads down the slipway to join the main route across the river into town.
The river is striking in all seasons. The water shimmers as sunbeams pick out ripples bouncing over the rocks near the bank. On wet or dull days there’s a melancholy that draws you in. You can walk or cycle along the riverside path all the way to the next town if you want to.
In the distance you can see the Ranges. The hills are a stunning setting for the wind turbines turning constantly, white sculptures against blue sky. You can drive up the winding road to the lookout and stand beneath the 70-metre giants. I used to admire the way they just keep going, until I discovered their dark side. Birds are felled by the enormous blades.
The main road into town is lined with motels, but there’s a large park on one side just beyond the bridge. The trees are changing colour now. Red, gold and bronze leaves to swish through when I walk through nature’s archways. Roses are wearing their autumn robes too – so long ‘Serendipity’ rose. The park is a gem in the otherwise lacklustre urban crown.
One dyed blonde gate-crashes my musings, ‘my personal trainer’s doing Crossfit classes at the Lido. She says it’s really popular in the U.S.’
‘Crossfit? Never heard of it. Is it like aerobics?’ the other dyed blonde replies. From her disinterested tone, I imagine her filing her nails.
‘It’s strength and conditioning, body weight stuff, hard workouts, you know.’
‘Are you gonna give it a go then?’
‘Yeh, thinking I might do. I’ll try anything to shift some of this weight. Tried all sorts you know. Atkins, Paleo, Weightwatchers. I lose weight, but when I stop dieting, back it comes. I’m not really an exercise person, but they say diet and exercise, don’t they?
‘You look gorgeous Shell. What’s the point in starving and sweating? We can’t all look like Rachel Hunter you know.’
I’ve never understood the idea of a personal trainer or rigid diets. Walk or run in the fresh air, rain or shine, eat a wholefood diet, drink water, and balance calories in with calories out. The health and fitness industry’s over complicated with food fads, supplements, and promise-all workouts.
The tinny sound of the iPod beats in time with Shuffler’s jerking head. If I couldn’t see her earphones, I’d think she was having some kind of fit. The man who got on after the Asian couple pulls a handkerchief from his pocket, shakes it out and folds it in half. He places it between his teeth and begins flossing. I’m thankful I’m not sitting next to him. Then he clears his throat as if he’s going to say something to the tweed lady next to him, but she turns away. I saw a woman brushing her hair in the café the other day. There used to be such a thing as socially appropriate behaviour, but anything goes now. Maybe the café has skewed my view on humanity.
Flosser hoists himself up by the seat back and gets off by the hotel. Maybe he’s got a date – it might explain the urgency of his personal hygiene. If only she knew.
Thirty-something Mum, another dyed blonde, gets on with two young boys. As she pays, the boys bound up the back of the bus like two mongrels off the lead. I can’t resist turning round. I’m lucky my daughter isn’t with me – ‘You’re so embarrassing Mum,’ she’d whisper. Thirty-something Mum’s a wide load with ‘Farmers’ shopping bags in each hand. They must be having a sale. It’s bedlam when they have a sale, even though it’s every fortnight. The mongrels jump on the bench seat and clamber to the window, wet noses pressed against the glass, tongues licking and leaving trails of slime that delight them. There must be billions of germs on that window. Thirty-something Mum sits like some kind of Buddha, feet on the seat.
‘It’s my side. It’s my window. Go away. Mu-um,’ whines the eldest.
‘My turn. Let me see.’
‘No! It’s my window. Mu-um…tell him.’ Then there was a yelp that would shred the toughest of nerves. ‘He hit me,’ whimpers eldest, digging for sympathy.
Thirty-something Mum’s phone blares out – an electronic cacophony.
‘Quiet you two. It’s your Dad,’ she snaps. ‘Hi, how are you? I’m on the bus at the mo. Been shopping with the boys… That’d be great. Let me know when you want them over. I can’t do Tuesday though, or Friday… How did you get on with the agent? … I thought you weren’t going to lower the price… Bloody hell Gary. Look I’ve told you before. I’m not coming out of this with less than three hundred grand… I see… Well you can piss off then… Jayden. Hunter. Sit still or you’ll get no lollies.’
The ferals run past, but youngest falls as he loses his balance on the step. Face-planting, there’s a short silence. Time enough to suck air into the lungs to power the scream. Thirty-something Mum stomps to the scene and yanks the snotty tot to his feet by one arm. How it didn’t dislocate, I don’t know. ‘What did I tell you? Now you’re for it, you little buggers. Showing me up like this.’ She scoops him up by his waist and as she passes by, he kicks out in my direction with his grubby shoeless feet.
‘Can’t you control your bloody kids?’ Someone has stood up to confront the woman. ‘If you can’t control them in public, then do us all a favour and keep them on a lead. Or take them to the park. Maybe they just need some proper attention.’
I couldn’t have said it better myself, but I never have the courage to speak my mind. I often bite my lip in the café when mums are chatting to friends or fiddling with iPhones, seemingly oblivious to their kids jumping on seats, chewing menus and tearing sugar sachets.
Then I realise the outburst was mine. I feel agitated, thoughts colliding like molecules in boiling liquid. I don’t want to listen to other people’s conversations and witness their self-interest and squabbles. I don’t want to see over-indulgence and children running riot. I don’t want to be force fed materialism. I press the bell hard. The bus stops. The doors open and I jump off.
I’m standing in the square in the town centre – a grassy open space, a lung in the hubbub. I’m a couple of stops from the library, but I don’t care. I’ll return the books and then sit here by the pond for a while, listening to the patter of the fountains and watching the ducks. I’m not taking the bus back. I’ll walk home through the park, resplendent with trees and birds. Their song lifts me with the lightest touch. I’ll soak up the tranquillity in the rose garden. I’m in no hurry.
It’s a beautiful day for respite in nature.
Image credit: Autumn in the park by David Brighten