The mini bus outside the airport was off white, its logo dun and faded from years in the sun. Tim helped me stow my brown leather suitcase in the boot.
“Hi Nancy, did you have a good flight?”
“It was fine, thanks. Sorry about the delay.”
Tim waved off the apology. He didn’t look at me as we exchanged pleasantries. I didn’t mind. I concentrated on the space my case was wedged in. This December would mark five years that I had owed Tim money. He closed the boot and slid open the passenger door and I made the usual awkward gawk around for an empty seat before climbing in. The reek of mingled perfumes assaulted me. Other than Tim and I, there were five other occupants, all over the age of sixty. Was this a bus or a Sunday church service? One plump old lady hulked in the doorway seat, a full leg cast and metal crutches barring my way to the open row of seats across from her. I clambered over her leg and crutches, and the predictably large brown handbag she had propped in the aisle for good measure, and slid into the seat next to the window, feeling annoyed and hot. She smiled apologetically at me as I sat down, and in a braying, Afrikaans accent, she said: “Ag, sorry for my leg, hay.”
I looked down at the offending limb, encased in a beige cast that blended with her thick stockings. My grandmother wore stockings like that to hide her varicose veins. In a moment my mannered upbringing caught up to me. I should ask her about what happened to her leg, and she would tell me she tripped over her dog or fence post or garden pot, and then as politeness dictated she would ask about why I was headed to the coastal town that was more retirement community than any place a twenty something girl would go, and I would have to tell her of my many failures and what I was going to do with my future, and if I had a boyfriend and all the time I would be smiling, smiling, talking and smiling, for the full two hour ride home.
So she apologised, and I nodded. I kept my sunglasses on.
Tim climbed into the driver’s seat and started the bus. A few minutes later it jolted as we braked for the airport boom and Crutches dropped the bottle of water she was holding. I placed my boot on it as it rolled towards me down the aisle, where I picked up the bottle and gave it back to her.
“Sjoe! Thank you so much!” She said.
“You know I’m useless with daai donderse leg…”
She slapped the ample haunch that ended in her cast, causing the mass of flesh to quiver. I smiled and made a non-committal noise. I started scrabbling in my handbag, surreptitiously dipping my nose inside to get a whiff of clean, unscented air. I was drowning in perfume; the cloying odours of caskets and doilies and musk roses and hairspray. They were smells I could only associate with church, old ladies, and well – their subsequent deaths. The twin sources of my discomfort sat directly in front of me in the ironic form of two fine-boned old ladies. I had no idea how close to death they were, but surely that amount of perfume could only be used to cover up the smell of decay. My mouth started to get that spongy feeling of impending nausea. The swaying motion of the bus didn’t help.
Crutches was looking at me curiously. I relinquished my hold on the bag and dug out the cell phone in my pocket. I logged into Facebook, scrolling through mindless posts to take my mind off my stomach and make myself as invisible as possible. I could have opened the window, but the aircon was on and the air outside was thick with humidity, they would have asked me to close it again. My cell phone beeped and I stowed it away. I’d need to save battery to call my mother to pick me up. Two hours. I thought about whether I could ask Tim to pull over, I’d throw up in the bushes or something… But then I’d have to ride home with people cooing reassuringly, old ladies fussing over me with the inevitable pharmacy they keep in their handbags, and all the while they’d be smelling the cotch on my breath. I leaned back against the head rest and closed my eyes, breathing deeply. That helped, and chatty passengers would assume I was napping.
Every now and then I would sneak a peek around me through my mirrored sunglasses. A few times Crutches had her hand on the seat next to me, close to my handbag. Each time, I watched her steady her balance out of the corner of my eye until I was satisfied that she was not a kleptomaniac ouma. I wasn’t going to let the last R200 to my name go without a fight. We stopped at a bus shelter and the old lady in the back row negotiated her way around the hulking sentry at the door and exited, knocking a crutch over as she did so. She passed it back, apologising. Crutches just smiled and propped the cane under a meaty palm. It seemed to steady her more than leaning on the seat had. I relaxed and stretched my legs.
The bus started up again, turning a corner and heading out onto the open road from the city centre. The two old ladies in front of me had struck up a conversation. It turned out they hadn’t been travelling together, as I had thought. I chanced a look at the back of their seats. Two grey meringues of hair swirled above the head rests. The lady in the aisle seat put up a hand to fluff her coif and I caught a glimpse of an expensive sterling silver watch and smooth, tanned skin. A corner of pink cardigan showed, a crocheted fabric silkier than regular wool. Both ladies had matching haircuts and pearl earrings, though the lady in the window seat had a slightly larger pair. At this, of course, I dubbed them Watch and Pearls. Watch had whiter hair, bouffant at the top, whereas Pearls had iron grey hair, layered with mousse to emphasize her natural curliness. They both seemed the type to book a salon date at exact six week intervals. Woe and split ends to those who miss a day. Watch was speaking:
“Yes, I was at Rhodes then too, I would have been in my last year when you were just starting…”
“That sounds about right, if you graduated then did you know a girl called Meredith Becker? We were great friends, lived right around the corner from each other in Rhodesia…”
University graduates. I was surprised. I thought old ladies only had basic schooling. My gran herself left school at fourteen to work. I hadn’t finished my degree. I thought of my lecturers. Teaching had never really appealed to me, but maybe teaching adults would be rewarding. Maybe that was a career I could get into… But not just the average unsung-hero stuff. I’d want to be a teacher like in that Michelle Pfeiffer movie… I can’t remember the name. The first time I heard ‘Gangster’s Paradise’ was in that movie and I stayed to the very end of the credits just to see who the artist was. In the movie, Michelle Pfeiffer is one of those iconic teachers who helps gang members and ADHD students. But then one of the kids gets a gun and goes to kill someone and Pfeiffer gets really broken up over losing him… Or something like that. It was a long time ago and I don’t remember the plot all too well. I can kind of see myself in her role though: handing out papers, joking with the kids. I’d matter to them. They’d grow up to be senators and graduates and doctors. And I’d be able to stay at the same job for years because I loved it, and the principals would be good and understanding, and it wouldn’t just be cubicle work where they suck out your soul, and it wouldn’t just be lazing around doing nothing, waiting for life to start at the ripe old age of twenty-five. I could pay back the bus money I owed Tim, the 3K that he’s too passive aggressive to ask me about. I’d drop it off anonymously though, telling him would be hellishly awkward.
A sharp noise echoed in the bus, disrupting my reverie. Cats meowing Jingle Bells or something. I heard the crutch scrape. I could imagine Crutches sitting forward in her ill-matching black skirt and paisley T-shirt, cell phone in her paw.
Watch chuckled. “Oh that’s darling,”
“So cute!”Pearls said, “That’s really a cat’s chorus!”
“They won’t allow me to have another cat.”
A brief pause. “I beg your pardon?”
“In my flat. They won’t allow me to have another cat since my last one died.” Crutches intoned, “My friends sent me this because I like things like this…”
“Oh, where do you live?”
“Central Park.” The only Central Park I knew was in America. Crutches had no trace of an American accent, only a decidedly Afrikaans one. Maybe a retirement village called Central Park? I cringed inwardly.
Oh lady, don’t try to be cool…
“Oh.” Watch said. The tone was starched. Her seat creaked as she turned back to Pearls, who said, “Oh! You must see this.” I heard the distinct sounds of Pearls rummaging in her bag, and that annoying water droplets sound effect people don’t turn off when they’re trying to negotiate the touch screen on their iPads. Laughter came out of the phone. I don’t know what the video was but the sound of laughter echoed from the speaker. It was building to a crescendo, like that of a cartoon. Maybe someone was chasing something. The audio came from Watch’s seat now, Pearls must have passed over the phone. The two began chuckling. After a moment, Crutches started laughing too, almost at the same tempo as the old ducks. As the video ended, I caught a whiff of high school. In my mind’s eye I saw the two share a look. Watch said to Crutches, “Did you see it?”
Crutches paused, uncertain, “A bit.”
“Here,” Watch passed the phone to Crutches. The mechanical laughter started up again, and the old woman’s laugh followed along. It was a horrible duet. On the cell phone the cackling reached its maniacal pitch. The old woman had a wheezing chug of a laugh, like bellows. The two old ducks in the front sat stony quiet.
A tinny, “Ha ha ha hahahaha…” echoed from the phone’s speakers.
Crutches bellowed along, “Huh-huh-huh-huh-huh…”
She laughed alone this time, the chug grew fainter.
I kept my eyes closed. Rearranged myself in the seat.
Crutches handed back the phone and I swear I heard an audible click, as if a Plexiglas window had slid shut between Crutches and the duo in front. The old ducks picked up their conversation. Life stories, where they lived in the country, people they had known when they went to university and what had become of them, their grandchildren. They were animated. Watch waited a little impatiently for her turn to talk, tossing out the occasional interruption. I imagined Pearls would be speaking with her hands, sending out gusts of rose perfume. Crutches would be leaning forward, catching their words with her butterfly net heart. A little like I was, I realized with a start. The thought made me uncomfortable. I sat back, hazarding a glance out the window at the flat terrain.
The bus had long since driven through the industrial area, but the farty stink of factories lingered in the cab. We came to a turn off: ‘Nanaga Farm Stall’. I rubbed my finger against a kernel of black eye shadow above my tear duct, flicked it away; shifted my bangles so the sweat beneath them could dry. The aircon was soothing. I’d grown more used to the syrupy perfume, but watching the miles of uninterrupted farmland caused the nausea to return. I concentrated on slowing my breathing and closed my eyes once more.
“Do you remember old Masterson? He lived in that quaint little cottage in Durban Road.”
“Oh he went on to teach French at St Johns, I think he married Enid Lottering…”
The old women continued nattering. Pearls told Watch her itinerary for the next few days.
“I’m actually down for a funeral on Friday, but tonight I’m staying at my cousin’s farm. It was an old friend of ours that died.”
“Oh how awful. Close friend?”
“Well he was an old classmate of mine actually, but he knew my parents, we went to the same school—”
Lovers, I thought.
“—in Grahamstown. He was such a nice man.”
“Oh shame, so the whole family’s going through?”
“No, my parents have died, but it’s myself and my cousin, and my one sister who stays in Somerset West, the other has a bad back so she won’t come through…”
Watch moaned in sympathy. In my mind I could see Crutches staring out the window.
“…Horrible story actually. His farm was attacked; six black men came in and killed him with an axe.”
The ‘black’ was barely audible. I guess it’s not racist if you say it softly. The rest of the sentence was loud enough to echo throughout the bus.
“Oh yes, one of those farm attacks. I can’t imagine the anger his family must be feeling. And his poor wife…”
Pearls built the story, brick by gruesome brick. How the attackers had jimmied through the window bars and woken the farmer in the middle of the night, how his wife had been visiting their daughter and taking care of their newly born grandchild, how she’d walked in to find her husband’s bloodied body on the kitchen floor. By the time she’d finished, Pearls’ voice had grown quite husky with the retelling.
“So the service is on Friday, no, Saturday. Definitely Saturday, and we’re travelling to Colchester from Alexandria by bakkie tomorrow. We should get to the farm tomorrow night.”
“Are you staying long?”
“Just till next Monday I think, I’d like to go down to the farmer’s market on Sunday and shop for some knick-knacks but the potholes are so bad in these small towns…”
The talk turned to roads and infrastructure and municipal oafishness, continuing even as we stopped by a Jehovah’s Witness school in Alexandria and Tim got out to open the bus door. An older man in the back that I hadn’t paid much attention to climbed out. I moved my bag a few inches right and kept my eyes closed and my head angled towards the window. By the sound of her voice, a teenage girl climbed in, talking on her cell phone. She got into the newly empty back seat. As she passed Crutches moved her cast aside in silence, and I found myself waiting for her to apologise for her leg again. But she didn’t, and the girl said bye to her boyfriend and hung up within a minute. Tim started the bus and did a three-point-turn.
I wondered about Crutches. Her paisley blue-and-white shirt stretched over pendulous breasts, her calf-length black skirt, her control tights that hid the varicose veins in her legs. I wondered if she had cut the foot off the tights on her right leg and pulled it over the lip of the cast so her aging skin wouldn’t have to be displayed. I wondered if there was a place called Central Park in South Africa that would explain her Afrikaans accent, that her reference wasn’t just a lie, that she wasn’t just a crazy old lady, alone in the world but for a cat ringtone to replace her beloved animal and a letter stating she couldn’t get another cat in her flat. Maybe a friend had sent her that jingle. Maybe she had just found it online. I felt a little guilty. I didn’t like the way the duo in front had excluded her, but I hadn’t done anything to draw her out either.
By the time we reached Pearls’ destination my thoughts had switched tacks and I was thinking about the leftover calamari wrap I had eaten for breakfast. It seemed a very long time ago now. My sister called and I told her I was an hour away from home. By the time she hung up, Tim had stopped the bus and opened the passenger door. A wave of soupy air crashed into the cool interior as Pearls said her goodbyes and pleased-to-meet-you’s. Watch turned and apologised laughingly to the bus’ occupants for their gossip and the retelling of their life histories. Pearls exited with the fanfare of a queen. An elderly friend of her cousin’s she introduced as Sam had driven up to fetch her, and he now held onto her elbow and cautioned her about stepping too close to the electric gate behind them as Tim offloaded the bags.
Lovers, I thought.
We drove off the shoulder of the road and back onto the tar, tires kicking up a cloud of dust, aircon driving the vestiges of rose perfume from the car. With my eyes closed I could sense Watch stirring like a ferret in the front seat. Though Pearls had gone, Watch was still chatty. I could imagine her ticking off the occupants of the cab mentally. Three of the six original passengers had already left. An older lady had disembarked at a bus stop in PE, the gentleman at a school in Alexandria, and Pearls had gone, of course, just outside Alex. The only addition to our party, a solemn teenager, had plugged in her ear phones – I could hear the faint tickle of R&B in the back. I, of course, was ‘sleeping’. The logical choice for companionship was Crutches. Watch hesitated a minute, then said:
“Tim, you know we used to own property here?”
“Here?” Tim said
“Ja. Bought it in the eighties for a song. Well, my husband bought it from a wealthy banker who came from East London. Wanted to grow cabbages there but I think there might have been a problem with irrigation.”
“Ja. We ended up selling it a couple of years ago for sixty.”
Thousand? I wondered. That didn’t sound like a lot. Million?
Tim grunted. I waited for the masterful stroke that would tie her random statement into a question that would keep the conversation flowing, but she seemed surprised at his disinterest. They lapsed into a long silence.
“Tim, I spoke to Charlotte on the phone at your office, is that your wife?
“No, Charlotte just does bookings.”
“‘Cause the first time I called I spoke to Anne—”
“—That’s my wife.”
“Oh! It’s none of my business, I was just…”
Curious, I finished in my head. She had trailed off. She was sounding unsure of herself now.
Tim grunted again. A longer silence followed. Ten minutes later,
No one answered. I didn’t open my eyes, though I imagined her glancing around out of the corner of her eye, thinking: Someone will look. I found myself wondering if Watch was appealing to Crutches. The direction of her voice suggested it. Maybe Crutches was still staring out of the window, ignoring the posh old lady with the silver watch and the pink Woolies cardigan. Was she thinking, It’s my turn to ignore you?
No one took the bait. I yawned. High school, all over again. I didn’t want to be a teacher. I didn’t want to grow up, either.
The rest of the trip was relatively silent. I opened my eyes as we pulled into Kenton, saw Watch get off and greet an equally elderly lady with a pinched face and very few wrinkles. Her body was shaped like a skittle. They said something about being old friends, stood with their arms tucked around each other as if posing for a photograph. Watch thanked Tim for the ride.
“How much do I owe you?”
“I thought it was R300?”
“Depends where you’re coming from, I go further than PE sometimes.”
The old ladies embraced, Watch’s arm slung casually around her shorter friend’s shoulders.
“How long has it been?”
“You’ve kept me waiting for eight years or so!” Her friend said loudly.
Definitely lovers. I thought, and my lip quirked into a smile.
That cynical part of me thought the whole reunion might be delivered for our benefit. They waved us off as Tim pulled away from the kerb. I hazarded a glance at Crutches. She was looking ahead, eyes focused on the horizon, fingers ticking off a rhythm on the arm of her crutch. Maybe the cat jingle.
The silence extended. Tim switched on the radio.
Half an hour later, the bus pulled into my home town. It was the last stop on the route, and it had never looked less like Central Park. I was the first one out, grabbing my bag and hurrying to my mom’s car. I kept my head down, so I still don’t know if any cars had pulled up for Crutches or if anyone was there to welcome her. I still don’t know if the only support she had was a pair of metal tubes, shaped to fit the reach of her arms.
I took my bag and strode to the car and didn’t look back. In truth I was afraid to.
Gina Kukard is an aspiring novelist, travel writer and editor. She has written news articles for the Sunshine Escape and short stories for a variety of online magazines. Her sci fi short story, “Death and Sandwiches,” took second place at the South African Writers College Short Story Competition in 2014, and her kishotenketsu horror piece, “Afterwards,” was considered for a CBAY Books anthology. When she is not writing, she curbs her restlessness by travelling the country and experimenting with hippie fads.