Departure, a short story by J M E Bell at
Rishiraj Parmar



written by: J M E Bell



Taking a departure from driving to work, Melody walked to the bus stop planning to relax on her journey, for a change.

On other days, the stop-start traffic of rush hour instills such awkwardness, and to Melody, it always feels as if she could be rear-ended at any time, she almost waits for that heavy jolt of a car ramming into her bumper. Even though it was a head-on which killed her husband two years ago, any kind of traffic bothers her, but unexpected flourishes in activity are the worst. She braved driving into the office quite soon into her mourning of Douglas, needing to face up to it as soon as possible, fearing that if she didn’t, she would never be able to get back to normality.

Despite the hardships of rush hour driving, Melody perseveres, though there are times when she wonders why, and on this day, she is trying a bus trip as part of a break from routine to avoid burnout, a tip from one of her self-help books.

Melody senses the tingling electricity in the thick air as she stands roadside by a towering Eucalyptus. A layer of sweat settles on her skin under her silk blouse and pinstripe skirt, and Melody stares up at the purple clouds moving overhead, wondering if the storm will strike during her journey to work and musing over the ethereal feeling she gets on days like these.

Doug was alive the last time she caught a bus into the office. She sighs, now is not the time to weep over her absent husband, Melody takes a deep breath through her sorrow, what she has named as the desolate permeation of her life, and imagines sweeping it up like sand, which helps her to brush her inconvenient sadness away. She thinks of work, there is something comforting about the repetition of accounts, the reliability of their calendar tasks.

‘That’s my number’. The driver pulls up the massive vehicle with a piercing screech of breaks. Feeling tiny, Melody takes in the full visage of the bus coming to a stop for her lonely figure. She makes the first big step in her heels, heels lower than when she was young, but, however, a difficult habit to break – she is always surprised how short she feels without them.

Melody’s foot catches the edge of the step, she trips and is about to make an uncomfortable landing only to lift her foot forward just in time to save herself, and she manages to balance. Pleased with her reflexes, Melody fumbles for change, and the damn $2-coin escapes from between her fingers and rolls, stopping against the driver’s cage, a voice in her head says, ‘A bad omen all of this.’ She gulps and picks up the wayward currency.

Ticket in hand, Melody glances towards available seating, ‘Ah, perhaps not. Perhaps I’m actually in luck.’

Rapidly making her way through the vehicle she gets the thrill of forward momentum and the bus angles into another lane, slipping between cars. She steps up and grabs a pole swinging in behind the glass partition of the front seat of the raised half of the bus. Nimble for her age, she muses, ‘It’s all the yoga.’ Melody smiles, happily settling in and ready to watch the world go by.

The air-conditioning does its trick, cooling and refreshing Melody’s skin as the houses coast past with a pace adequate for her to examine their gardens. Such a treat to sit high, able to view much more than in a car, and to watch at leisure. It’s a delight observing the organised planting of very well-trimmed topiary shrubs and a succulent garden with so much variety, giving Melody exciting new ideas.

At the first stop for Melody, an elderly man stomps on board and sneers at the driver as he shows him his pass. The old grump shuffles into a seat and to Melody’s horror aggressively whacks the seat back, the seat is occupied and the, no doubt stunned, passenger in front of him daren’t react. “Nasty”, says Melody staring at the man who is well enough ahead of her not to have heard.

The journey continues as if nothing happened, everyone resumes their private worlds, some perhaps silently worried about the old grump’s next move. Melody takes a good look at him, wearing an unusual peaked cap, not bought in Australia, she’d noticed his ample moustache as he boarded and his corduroy trousers and long-sleeved shirt despite the humidity. ‘Wonder where he’s going. Does he still work? Or is there a club he visits on the bus route?’ Imagining, from his appearance, guttural accent and behaviour that he’s had a rough life growing up in communist Eastern Europe. Like her imagination, her thoughts stray, ‘I should read about those times.’ She continues to evaluate the stranger, ‘there is more to him than his past, has to be mental illness, perhaps he is in need of medication. His anger trembles out of him, he’ll strike out again.’ Melody wipes her clammy palms on her skirt.

The bus pulls over and the vehicle’s beeping attracts Melody’s attention as a young woman dressed in cotton tracksuit pants and a t-shirt waits patiently on the pavement for the ramp to lower. She wheels her pram on board and Melody smiles as a sweet young man helps to stow the awkward encumbrance for the young mother who is prepared with her tiny, delicate bundle strapped across her front. As the mother moves with her precious baby, to Melody’s dismay, she chooses the spare seat next to the angry old man who grumbles under his breath, at which Melody tenses.

Noticing the woman’s messy hair piled up on her head, Melody thinks how hassled her morning must have been, but the horrid old man won’t care about that. Melody continues her assessment, ‘The young mother must be single with no help at home.’

Passengers flood on at the next stop and Melody gets a seating companion, a middle-aged man who nods at her smile for him, and produces a book from his briefcase in which he buries his head.

By now most of the passengers have to stand, holding on to seat back handles or to overhead handgrips as the vehicle moves away. Some stagger occasionally, keeping their footing when the bus’s gearbox jerks them around.

Amongst the latest commuters, Melody notices a tall, fit, capable looking man very polished in his suit and decides that he must be in charge somewhere, fancying that he is rather handsome. She imagines him chatting to the young mother, who’s actually very pretty, Melody notices her beautiful profile, they’d make a fine-looking couple. Imagining the two attractive people sharing a clever quip, and, over several bus journeys striking up a relationship. Melody is sure that the handsome young man would be very supportive as a husband just like her Doug was, his memory gives Melody such warmth, sharing laughter and adventures together.
Melody dreams on whereby the young couple laugh together, brightening each other’s lives, she sighs, ‘Life can be such a challenge.’ But those two will face the world together, and on the weekends, he will drive his new family to the beach where they will bask in the sun near the refreshing water and enjoy the little one’s naive little sand creations.

The bus pulls across, changing lanes and causing everyone to list to the left. The momentum pushes the woman holding her baby against the grumpy old man, he shoves her away, hard.

Wincing, she hugs baby close while handsome man speaks with disdain, “Leave her alone. Mate.” He looks at the mother, tenderly, “You both ok?”. She nods.

“She pushed me.”

“No, she didn’t, the bus moved, we all leaned.”


“We’ve seen enough of your unacceptable behaviour. There’s no excuse to take out your problems on other people.”

All around, passengers’ muscles palpably tense as everyone becomes smaller, shrinking into their seats or leaning away. It’s all too close for comfort, crammed on a bus next to strangers, it’s so personal even tenuous, let alone unpredictable. Everyone must be patient with each other, after all, they need to get somewhere, and no one wants to increase the discomfort of their journey by spreading aggravation.

The old man sneers and motions towards the mother as if he’s about to do something, he spits out thick words, “You don’t know anything, you, you have no ideas about life.” Melody’s sure that he spat but in an Australian accent, he’s not from Europe after all.

The men stare each other down, hard, while the young woman stares straight ahead. Melody shuffles in her seat and her palms perspire, she forgets to breathe. The two men remain poised for an eternity. Poised for what? Melody, and no doubt the young mother, dare not contemplate.

Old man grunts, turning to studiously look out of the window, defied. And the two attractive young people ignore each other as if they can’t read Melody’s mind and their destiny.

The passengers take a, barely discernible, inward sigh.

It’s quiet on board, for a while, Melody enjoys the view as the bus takes a joyful route over the river where the water is calm, dark, and mysterious. They drive through the park with its wonderful mix of mature trees and deep green grass and enter the edges of the city.

Examining the standing passengers as they sway and stagger in motion with the bus, Melody notices a twitching. It’s coming from an edgy man wearing nylon track pants, its jacket tied around his waist. She imagines he’s high on something, drugs or alcohol, she can’t know, but she thinks that if she saw his chest, there would be a gold chain dangling there. Maybe he’s a gangster, she wonders how far up in the organisation he is, low-level dealer, a runner of a gang of youths, perhaps in charge of operations dishing out crewel retributions, beatings, threatening families. Melody notices a man behind him dressed the same, an associate perhaps, she shakes her head, this thought stream is too unsavoury, not fun at all.

Other tracksuit man shifts his hands on the seat back, holding himself steady, and gradually a very young, thin man wearing a suit and engrossed in a book, absentmindedly leans against second gangster man. Melody wonders, ‘Does he know that’s a person and not a seat or a pole?’ The young man’s leaning stance, though a lightweight himself, drifts to a weightier affair and tracksuit man grimaces, shifting his footing. Melody thinks that the young man is probably very green, excited to have finished university and finally earning decent money, and in the city where he can enjoy the pubs and clubs after work, probably gets drunk and annoys young women. Rethinking that; he’s sweet-faced, probably inexperienced, and nervous around women.

‘Young suit’, she calls him, he takes a mental repose from his book with his eyes shifting to realise that he’s leaning against a person and not a bit of the bus. Full of surprise he apologises to gangster guy who nods coolly, apparently unperturbed, or at least affecting that impression. And then gangster guy smiles a very charming, open smile. ‘Oh, gangster man is actually quite sweet-faced as well, perhaps those two will make friends.’

‘Phew’, breathes Melody, she doesn’t want any more aggression during this morning’s journey.

Daydreaming out of the window towards a background of buildings, Melody’s only a few more stops away from her stop, the stop where most passengers alight. A hard jolt brings Melody’s reflexes into action as her hand hits the glass in front of her, while the staggering footsteps of fellow passengers sound out on the hollow floor. Everyone rights themselves to secure their positions and Melody gulps, taking a guarded look ahead through the front window, at vehicles vying for their place on the road, she can’t make out what happened. ‘Someone must have braked in front of us.’ Grim memories of a crushed car and injured husband intrude and her heart thumps hard, the man next to her continues to read in a calm state which assists to calm Melody’s mind.

Focusing on the passengers, she thinks she heard a moan as if one of them is injured, perhaps they hit themselves against a seat. Probably more than one person took a whack from that jolt; a few people appear to be nursing sore body parts, but nobody’s bleeding or complaining out loud, no doubt keeping dignified to avoid unescapable commotion in such close quarters.

A few more, deep, calming breaths and Melody stares out at the beautiful architecturally designed buildings, so well balanced in their proportions. What is that design following called?

She hears tapping, it’s ‘edgy tracksuit man’ getting even more edgy, tap, tap, tapping his foot like he has ‘the shakes’. Melody watches him carefully as if keeping an eye on him might prevent any trouble. ‘Are those beads of sweat glinting on his brow? What’s this urgency about, did his last deal not go well?’

The bus lurches and a loud thump of foot landing on floor distracts her, it’s a man getting out of his seat, shoving people aside in his internal panic, probably missed his stop and is now late. She hadn’t noticed him, he looks pretty ordinary, casually dressed in jeans and t-shirt but tidy. Probably a FIFO worker used to early mornings with a day of shopping ahead, meeting friends, going to a cultural event, and he wants a decent morning coffee for a change. He’s ready for that coffee that’s for certain.

Standing and shouting unintelligible words with neck muscles taut like posts and salivating, he’s turned into a fright of a man. Unexpected behaviour, so shocking Melody’s mouth gapes and the passengers’ bodies stiffen anxiously, afraid to look anywhere.

Melody assesses his words as mumbles. Oh, no! There’s a woman in his way, she’s listening to music and she’s not moving, so he lunges, and to Melody’s horror, wraps his arm around her neck.

Wearing a soft silk blouse, the woman’s very feminine and vulnerable, with her hair tied up which makes her look even more fragile. She stares ahead, motionless in her headlock, must be in shock, shaking inside, wishing it to not be real.

Where is that confident man from earlier? The knight in shining armour. Melody ardently searches for him, examining each grey suit. ‘He must have gotten off already’, she laments. Silently she implores the other passengers, ‘Don’t keep ignoring him’, someone must be capable of challenging him. What if he has a knife, she realises that must be something occurring to the other passengers and notices the fear on their faces. Eyes almost popping out of the sweet young man from earlier.

The heavy purple clouds loom, intense, blanketing above like a dark sinister vail draping over their world.

Tingling all over, Melody swallows, ‘He could strangle her to death!’ A strange force tugs at Melody, an urge to move forward and do something, though she doesn’t know what someone like her could do.

“Keep back”, he yells.

‘I’m sure he said, keep back.’ But no one can move very far, they’re stuck, sandwiched together.

The bus prematurely makes its way across the lane, the driver appears to be pulling over, taking action.

Melody ponders the crazy man, ‘What got him so mentally unbalanced.’

Without warning, he releases his hostage, shoves people aside and leaps out of the bus, disappearing into the night as if what he’d just done was imagined.

In these extenuating circumstances, it’s more than appropriate for reserved passengers, in fact, it is necessary, for those around the former hostage to offer words of comfort. While the victim is comforted, one woman, possibly a doctor, examines her neck.

The people slump as one, shuddering, and the bus itself sighs with relief over the sudden calm. Then Melody remembers that it’s daylight hours, her mind clears, and the sun forces through causing an ominous glow from behind clouds refusing to thunder, and she feels that, with her elevated stress, it is doubtful that this break from routine has contributed to alleviating burnout.

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