A bus would be a good place to be a spy or something. You never know what you’re going to hear –or in what language. A few days ago on the way into town, the only English I heard for minutes at a time, was the bus GPS voice mispronouncing the upcoming stops. It was wonderful –not the pretend-voice, the mélange of voices all around me, laughing and gossiping with gay abandon (if I’m still allowed to use that expression…).
I’d taken the ferry across from my island redoubt and woven myself into a long line of backpacks, suitcases, and glances at phones or wrists. Apart from a few whispers and the occasional nervous laugh, the line was quiet for the most part. Even the obvious couples shuffled in their spots, and stared at their feet, worried and tense. Children fussed crankily at the hands that restrained them, while their parents exchanged impatient, barely disguised frowns and rechecked their phones to make sure they hadn’t missed the bus.
They were off another ferry, I assume –another world, really –and I didn’t know a soul. It must have arrived late, because there’s not usually a lineup like this on weekday mornings when mine gets in. And the queue was on edge. Anxious. It had connections to make, no doubt, whereas I merely had to get into town to shop. And yet I was picking up the stress, and found myself surrendering again and again to my mirror neurons and sneaking glances at my watch. I suppose it’s an atavism, but I suspect it was evolutionarily retained because it allows us to fit in.
After my third or fourth thrust at the watch on my sleeve, an elderly lady behind me wearing an inordinate amount of brightly coloured, carelessly-applied lipstick and some Gary Larson glasses tapped me on the arm and asked me what I was worried about. “The bus will come,” she reassured me. “It always does…” Having imparted this necessary piece of advice, she checked her purse for something and a suspicious frown appeared, followed by a smile. “But I have a plane to catch… I’m going to my granddaughter’s wedding in Toronto,” she added, as if I was about to grill her on the details while she checked her purse again. “It’s her third… no, fourth, so they’ll probably be fighting even before I leave… But anyway, it’s an opportunity for me to get out of Powell River.”
She suddenly chuckled and stared at me. “I should talk about marriages, though –I’ve had three… Oh wait, there was another one who died just before we had the ceremony –I never know whether I should count him…”
I tried to look amused at her attempt at humour, but I suspect my face came out more like apprehensive. I think she was just about to explain how he died, when we heard a burst of cheering ripple through the line as a bus pulled up. She smiled at me, suddenly closing her mouth as she busied herself with rechecking her purse once more -presumably to find her fare this time- and then faded like a dream into the shuffling gestalt.
We were quite far back in the queue, though, and by the time we entered the bus, it was already full so everybody was ordered to move further back to make more room. She must have been offered a seat somewhere, because when I turned to inquire about whether her other husbands had survived, she was nowhere to be seen. So, I contented myself with elbows I did not know, and snatches of conversations in which I was not included.
But, after a few minutes of marking our territories on the crowded floor and stabilizing ourselves with the hanging straps, we all began to look around. Near me –very near me, in fact- was a young woman with a rather heavy looking pack whose angular contents she was struggling to keep from trespass. A middle-aged man seated beside her, his suitcase jammed between his knees, offered to hold it on what was left of his lap. She smiled, obviously embarrassed that she might have poked him, then thanked him in hesitant English with a heavy French flavour. He immediately switched into fluent French and as her face relaxed, people nearby dipped into the same water in various Quebecois accents.
One darker skinned man, dressed in a suit and tie who had been standing beside me until the bus lurched, smiled as he listened to them and then switched into what sounded like Farsi to translate for a woman who was watching him intently. There is a larger Persian than Francophone community in Vancouver, so the sounds were not unfamiliar to me, although with the heavily elided argot of the Quebecoise French I had no idea what the now-packless woman had been saying either.
But other people were talking together now that we were on the bus. The two older women dressed in saris that were sitting beside me began to flex their Hindi (I guess) and seemed to be having a great time laughing and nodding as they huddled together. At first, I thought they were talking about their granddaughters for some reason, but it was more probably their husbands, because they kept rolling their eyes and tut-tutting.
There was clearly a Chinese component represented as well, because every so often, the distinctive sounds of Mandarin rattled through the air from somewhere. This was becoming a spot-the-speaker game for me as the bus lurched from stop to stop, but I couldn’t find anyone who looked like they would speak Mandarin. After one particularly notable corner when everybody but those who were seated, swung to the left, I finally identified the Spanish contingent whose rolling ‘R’s’ had been leaking through the melee –a family with three children, a calm looking woman holding one of them by the hand between her knees, while sitting beside man with two of the kids squirming on his lap. But I saw nobody remotely Oriental-appearing on that side of the bus at least. I needed another rapid corner to check the rest.
Suddenly I felt something crawling on my face –something that was tapping on it for my attention. There was nothing there, of course –we all had our staked-out territories by now, and nobody would infringe on another space unless by accident. But the feeling was insistent while at the same time a bit unnerving and it kept urging me to look several rows of seats ahead when the bus swerved again.
And then with the next sway, I found it –or rather they found me. Two assertive eyes perched above a brightly painted mouth stared at me through some truly unflattering glasses. The lipstick, now noticeably in disarray, smiled at me. And in the millisecond of time before centripetal force righted us again, I thought it mouthed ‘heart attack’ -silently and purposively, just as it disappeared. A message, if we never met again, to reassure me that it was not her fault.
I’m glad I saw that, you know -otherwise I would always have been nervous about anybody who was standing behind me in a queue quietly checking their purse.