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A rough ride

A rough ride

It started as just a normal, cheerful day for Vinnie, with all the familiar faces of his passengers. But then he caught sight of the blonde woman and her son in the queue – and he felt a heaviness in his heart.

A rough ride

Vinnie pulled up at the Kingston shops and saw that he was three minutes late.

He hummed an old Beatles song as he opened the door to let his passengers file in. Many of them smiled and gave him a cheery greeting. Not quite old friends, but certainly a few faces he’d known for years. He could even remember one or two of them as children, sitting on their mothers’ laps and pressing the button with glee – now grown up, unchaperoned and uninterested in the daily commute.

He closed the door and waited for the last person to sit down before setting off.

It was a beautiful, crisp morning that belied the fact it was winter. The sun’s glow against the deep-blue sky gave the impression of warmth, at odds with the sight of heavy coats and rosy cheeks.

Vinnie was always cheered by the first section of his regular route, high up on the ridge: fleeting glimpses of Newtown’s villas and townhouses down below and, if he turned his head just a fraction to the right, he could see the mountains rising majestically above Eastbourne and Pencarrow Head, offering up almost every shade of a painter’s palette, depending on the weather.

On the return trip, heading south, the Cook Strait would be peeping through the gaps between the houses. These moments were enough to make anyone feel happy to be alive. Vinnie loved this city. He always had, from the moment he and Kathy had first set foot in it all those years ago.

The usual huddle of parents was waiting at the stop by the school and he gave a friendly nod to China Girl as she got on. Kathy used to love his little nicknames and she’d sometimes tease him about them. “China Girl might not actually be from China,” she had once said. It was true, he knew, and China Girl certainly wasn’t a girl either. She had two children who went to the school. One Christmas several years ago, when she was heavily pregnant, she’d handed him a little box of chocolates with a note that read, ‘To the kindest bus driver in all of Wellington’. Kathy had always wanted to hear about her after that.

They would sit at the dinner table with the news playing in the background, and Vinnie would entertain Kathy with snippets and anecdotes about all sorts of things. And while he was never unkind about people, he would sometimes add his own embellishments for her amusement. He loved to see the wrinkles around her eyes as she smiled, and to hear the joy of her laugh. She really was beautiful.

He was smiling to himself now as the bus rounded the corner and he saw the familiar bulk of Mr Wolf waiting at the next stop. As always, he had one hand gripped around a coffee cup while the other hand fumbled in his pocket for his Snapper card.

Behind him, among the others waiting, stood a mother and child. Vinnie didn’t recall seeing them before, but his eyes were drawn to them now because the woman looked a lot like Claire. She had the same stature and messy blonde hair, and the sight of her set off an instant reaction in Vinnie. His mouth felt dry, and his heart was suddenly weighing him down and anchoring him to the floor. He did his best to ignore the feeling and nodded as passengers got on.

Vinnie couldn’t make eye contact with the blonde woman as she boarded the bus, but he noticed that she held the little boy’s hand tightly as he skipped and hopped along beside her. The bus was pretty near full, but Vinnie waited as passengers jostled around to find the mother and child a seat. At last, he pulled the bus back onto the road.

As he continued out of Brooklyn Village, he tried to shake the discomfort. Kathy would have told him to think happy thoughts. He tried to focus his mind on the sun up at Kingston and the chorus of birdsong that had greeted him at his front door a few hours earlier, but the heaviness remained.

He glanced up at the mirror. He’d normally chuckle at the sea of heads all bent forward at the same angle, engrossed in mobile phones, but the chuckle evaded him now. Even Mr Wolf bopping away to his headphones, eyes closed and silently raving, couldn’t erase the darkness in Vinnie’s mind.

His eyes now firmly fixed on the road, Vinnie’s thoughts turned to Claire.

Claire, whose eyes had been puffy from crying the last time he’d seen her. Claire, who had accused him of being unfeeling and not having a clue. And she had been half right. He didn’t understand and he hadn’t known what to say. Kathy would have had the right words, but he was stunned at what Claire was telling him that day in her kitchen, filled with the aroma of fancy coffee. He hadn’t been raised to hear these intimate details. He had never discussed these things even with Kathy.

As Claire described her troubles, he had felt waves of sympathy. He had wanted to wrap his arms around his little girl and kiss her worries away, as he had done countless times all those years earlier. How easy it had been back then to comfort a grazed knee or a bumped head. But now Glen was hovering awkwardly in the background, looking as embarrassed as Vinnie was feeling, and his little girl was instead a grown woman revealing details of her body and her most personal anguish, and Vinnie didn’t feel he could cope. He couldn’t follow all of the medical terms and he was finding it difficult to take it all in, let alone know how to respond.

She’d stopped talking and was looking at him sadly, expectantly. Somewhere in the fog of his mind, Vinnie knew he was on familiar, dangerous ground. Claire had always been sensitive, but her eyes were pleading with him for reassurance and he said the first thing that came to him that might give her some comfort.

“You know, having children is bloody hard work,” he had offered. “You’re better off without them.”

Had he known these words would unleash the torrent that they did, he would never have uttered them. Claire’s face changed and he immediately wished he could take it back. She was now yelling and screaming, her blue eyes wide and intense. She glared at him with anger and hurt, while shouting loudly about the last straw.

Glen jumped forward and started consoling Claire, cradling her and kissing her forehead. Vinnie backed out of the room and stood in the hallway for a long while, wondering if the situation were salvageable.

It was several minutes before Claire came out of the kitchen and told him to leave. Vinnie got into his car and then left, wondering how he had got it so wrong. He’d only been trying to find the silver lining and say something positive. He drove home, bewildered. And he hadn’t seen her since.

He’d sent Christmas cards and birthday cards, he’d rung up from time to time and left Claire messages, but she hadn’t responded. Not once. On occasion, he had driven the hour to her house, hoping she might be out in the garden feeding the birds as she often did, and then he could at least see that she was okay. But he was never lucky enough to catch even a fleeting glance of her.

It was Mrs Evans who had told him about the birth of his grandson just a few weeks ago. Vinnie had bumped into her at the Sunday market and she had beamed at him and gushed about what a bonnie wee lad Claire and Glen had.

Pride had prevented Vinnie from admitting the truth even to one of his oldest acquaintances and so he had found himself agreeing with her. “Yes, very bonnie,” he heard himself say. “I’m very proud.”

“He looks so much like you,” Mrs Evans had added, as she waved him goodbye.

A sudden jolt forward brought his mind back to the number 7. The trolley poles had become detached from the overhead line, bringing the vehicle to a halt halfway down the hill.

Most of his passengers barely looked up from their phones, so common was this annoyance. But as Vinnie grabbed his high-vis jacket and headed out of the door, he caught sight of the blonde woman comforting her little boy. He must have got a fright. Quickly, he set the poles back on the line and continued down Brooklyn Hill. ‘I won’t have to do this again when they bring in the new buses,’ he thought.

As he approached the city centre, passengers started to file out onto the busy streets, gradually emptying out the bus. The tall office buildings blocked out the morning sun and filled Willis Street and Lambton Quay with cold shadows.

Arriving at the railway station, the last of his passengers gathered up their belongings and prepared to leave. The blonde woman brought her son to the front door, ready to depart. The little boy looked up at Vinnie. He must have been about three, Vinnie reckoned, with a chubby face and his mother’s hair.

“Fank-oo,” the toddler announced with a grin.

Vinnie nodded and gave a little wave as mother and son alighted and headed towards the station entrance. He looked at his watch and saw that he had seven minutes before departing again. He closed the doors, pulled the bus over into one of the empty bays and looked out into the distance. It was a couple of minutes before he felt ready.

Slowly, he pulled out his phone and dialled Claire’s number. He was expecting it to go to voicemail, but after only a few rings he heard a click and Claire’s weary voice: “Hello?”

“Hello, Claire,” he said. “It’s Dad here.”

Silence.

Claire didn’t respond, but she didn’t hang up either, so Vinnie carried on.

“I hear congratulations are in order. I couldn’t be happier for you, love. I really mean it.”

There was a very long pause that made Vinnie start to wonder if he’d got it wrong again. He waited in silence until, at last, it was broken by the sound of a stifled sob. “Oh, Dad …” It was barely even a whisper.

“I’d like to come and see you and the baby,” he continued, “if you’ll let me.”

There were a lot of pauses and words both spoken and not, but within a few short minutes, Vinnie had arranged to see Claire and the baby on his next day off. It felt like a miracle.

Still in the driver’s cab, Vinnie sat back in his seat and opened the window beside him to get some air. He breathed deeply. Slowly, he realised that the heaviness in his chest was leaving him and, instead, it seemed to him as though his torso were opening itself up to release the heavy, dark bird that had been its prisoner. In
his mind’s eye he watched the bird, unfettered, as it flew out of the window, chirping, and danced up to the sky towards the bright morning sun. And it was beautiful.

Carefully, he closed the window and pulled the bus out of the bay and round towards the line of people waiting to start their next journey.

Vinnie smiled as he set the bus down in front of them. He had always loved this city.

Author Samantha Oakley

Samantha was born in England and taught English in Japan in her twenties. She now lives in New Zealand with her husband and two children. Samantha has always loved creative writing but only this year decided to take it up seriously – alongside her job in public policy and raising a family. This is her first published story.

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