A trip to the city

I live on a small island just offshore from a big city, and while that may sound like a sylvan dream, it requires regular escapes: excuses -like needing groceries which I cannot buy locally; like needing to immerse myself in crowds of people once in a while; and like needing, let’s face it, to get outta Dodge.

Leaving the island is an adventure because it is never the same -and that, I suspect, is a significant part of its appeal. The ferries are stochastic creatures: their arrivals and departures are predictable only in tables of random numbers. So are the people who stand around patiently like Estragon and Vladimir waiting for Beckett’s Godot. The locals are tolerant; it’s the tourists who complain -after all, they didn’t choose to live here.

Waiting successfully means learning to observe those who are also just standing around observing. The other day, for example, I could hear an older man talking behind me somewhere, and judging by the lilt of his words, I assumed he was addressing a young child.

“Now, here is the little ferry-stand (He said it like ‘faerie’s hand’ I think), so let’s look inside and see if grandma’s in there, shall we?” There was no answering voice that I could hear, so I assume consent had been signalled with a nod.

As the voice approached me, his voice became even more sing-song -like he was explaining the short walk over to the shelter on the dock to a very young child. Curious, I turned to see the enchanted couple approach, expecting a smiling elderly man holding hands with his little toddling grandchild on the way to show off grandma. Actually, it was a phone he was holding in his hand, and he was obviously showing whoever was at the other end his slow and purposeful amble along the wharf.

Sweet, I thought: a Grampa entertaining his little grandchild on a videocall while she waited for him on the mainland.

Fortunately, the ferry began to dock at that point, so I watched him show it on his phone, and then I boarded after the the arriving passengers had left. I supposed he was just another example of an elder like me adapting to the times, but his lilting sing-song voice had already begun to annoy me.

I settled in a seat in an almost empty corner of the boat, well away from the rush of people getting on and started reading the book I’d brought. Suddenly, the sing-song voice wafted across the passenger seats from the other side. This time, however, it seemed he was reading her a story, interspersing it with questions about the pictures he was evidently showing her in the children’s book he had brought with him. “Horses are big, animals, aren’t they Darcy?” he said, his voice traversing at least two octaves. “But, this isn’t a horse is it…?” He hesitated for effect. “What is it?” A pause as the child thought about it. “That’s right,” he suddenly said, obviously proud of the answer he heard. “It’s an Eh-le-fant,” he sang, breaking the word into what I’m sure he thought were melodic syllables. My god, was this guy for real?

He walked around the boat, obviously showing her the water, and probably the snack bar, then sat down again close by and read her another story. “What’s that?” he said, acting surprised. “Mommy says you have to go to bed now…?” His voice dropped an octave, and he lapsed into lullaby mode. “Yes, I guess it is pretty late where you live…”

Fortunately the ferry was docking at this point, and I could see freedom approaching.

“So, tell mommy, I’m just going to sing you a little song to help you go to sleep, okay?”

I was already on the way out before he really got going on the lullaby. I only heard shards of his falsetto rendering of Rockabye Baby; I had to hope he wasn’t taking the same bus as me…

Actually, as Fate would have it, I had two choices of bus: the Express bus to the city that travelled along the highway, or the slow bus that wound along the ocean front past quiet side roads, and even quieter properties. Another ferry had just arrived and the line-up for the Express was already long. Grampa was in the long line so my choice was obvious: a quiet bumbling bus along the tree and mansion-lined Marine Drive.

At first, I breathed a sigh of relief and settled into a window seat near the back, hoping to relax in tranquil silence. There was a gradual influx of passengers who had obviously deserted the long line as well, but nobody was singing, and nobody was talking about the size of horses or eh-le-fants, so I was happy. In fact, there was a soothing buzz of muted conversation and the bus was pleasantly warm, so I closed my eyes until it began to move. Suddenly I heard a woman talking in angry whispers in the seat behind me.

“Did you have to sing her a lullaby, George?”

There was some shuffling in the seat beside her before an all-too familiar voice replied. “You should have seen her eyes when her mom told her she had to turn off the light.” The voice had shifted from sing-song to whisper-pleading, as if it was used to having to excuse its behaviour.

“Reading to her is one thing, singing another!” Even without turning around, I could feel her embarrassment and then her loud, stertorous sigh. “And George,” she added as a scathing afterthought, “Were you wearing your hearing aid?”

“Battery must have been low, because the damned ear-thing kept squealing. So I turned it off, sweetheart,” he whispered apologetically.

Another sigh. “You just put new batteries in it this morning, George! The technician said you just have to position it better in your ear, remember?”

He didn’t say anything, but I could hear him moving -whether away from her finger that was heading for his ear, or to manage his device by himself, I couldn’t tell.

“You know how loud you talk when it’s not on, George… Everybody on the ferry must have heard you singing.”

“Oh Edna, you always exaggerate!” he said with a loud voice that turned several unhappy heads towards him, and suggested that the finger expedition to his hearing aid had proved unsuccessful.

I could hear her sigh as the reproving heads around her rolled their eyes.

It was just another trip to the city…


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