Letters and Numbers
By Amanda Liddell
The air was crisp as Alana found a space in front of the skate ramp and hurried through the car park avoiding deep, dark puddles whilst moving toward the shelter. Several people were already waiting which came as a relief knowing that she had not missed the 11:37 bus to the city. Alana tried to breathe slowly, consciously relaxing her shoulders and ignoring the heavy thumping in her chest. She had made the trip down from the house with only a little time to spare. It was vital that she was not late.
She just could not miss the bus.
The text had read “Mum on the L90 mona to wynyad 1137 love you”. There was nothing more. This was a crumb of information and it saw Alana desperately change from her gardening pants, worn and comfortable, into soft jeans and a ribbed jumper before driving down the hill to Mona Vale. Alana’s thin frame shivered from both the cold breeze blowing across the road and with the anticipation, on what was predicted to be the windiest day in Sydney for many years.
The rear seats of the bus appeared full as Alana tucked an escaping curl behind her ear and made her way along the aisle. She was careful not to sit in the area where she may need to move for an elderly or disabled person. Alana wanted to be able to observe the passengers discreetly. She had quickly scanned her eye across the people occupying the back seats. They all appeared to be to tradies wearing overalls. This was not who she was looking for.
Two young Islanders were sitting close by and they wore heavy black fleeces with a younger person’s face printed across the front. Alana tried not to stare but their beautiful features drew her attention. Dark thick hair fell into the eyes of the teenage girl, and her shoulders hunched as she listened to the private sound of her iPod and glanced across at the middle aged woman and smiled shyly. Alana shifted uncomfortably on the cold seat concerned that just her presence betrayed her story. The boy appeared older and shuffled his backside onto the seat close to the young woman presenting a protective huddle. The bus lurched forward after an elderly lady sat across the aisle. She organized her heavily pleated, mauve, woollen skirt around her stockinged legs and pulled a book from a deep leather satchel. Her tight grey curls bobbed forward as she lost herself in the story. Alana watched as the driver waited patiently for the frail frame to be seated before leaving the curb. Alana had heard the Driver’s soft, thick accent when she paid her fare. She had noticed his very blue eyes. Passengers swayed gently in their seats as they were moved along Pittwater Road.
Alana’s heart jumped when she noticed a group of young girls waiting at the next stop. Three girls. Their long legs leapt onto the bus and Alana stared anxiously hoping to recognise a face. Blondes all of them. “She’s dyed her hair.” Alana told herself but as the girls walked slowly past her and toward the back she observed their features, and their innocence overwhelmed her.
Alana shifted her eyes and was distracted by the three yellow figures stencilled onto the window. The sign read something about standing up for these people. With an emotion that sat in her mouth like bile she recognised the person without a limb and the frail figure carrying a stick.
She wondered for the next few minutes about the last character. Did you have to stand for a larger person or was the figure pregnant? The absurdness of her thoughts pulled a tight smile across her lips. Her mind chatter was senseless and only occupied space in her thoughts for a brief moment before the bus halted again. A group boarded bringing noise, and a measure of chaos. Alana felt overwhelmed as they congaed past the ticket machine, with the clunking sound of paper being stamped both mesmerising and distracting. Faces blurred as her eyes tried to focus. The first three new passengers were boys in school uniforms. They were young and wore youth well, with shirts plucked out over low slung, grey trousers. Their hair was tousled and covered their eyes.
She knew that she was staring again but even in disguise there was no possibility of any of these school kids being her daughter.
Arriving behind the boys an older man slung his large bag heavily onto the seat in front of Alana muttering away before throwing himself down to claim the area as his own. He leant back in the seat and his frame filled the space beside his bag. His head was large and a thick mop of dark hair scattered a dusting of dandruff across his back. Alana watched his shoulders as the bus moved forward again, lurching her clumsily in her seat. A suited man, tall and wiry now occupied the space beside her. She shifted closer to the window and lent her head against the cool smooth glass.
The message had arrived as a promise. She was supposed to be on the bus. As the bus moved toward Brookvale Alana noticed that the two hoodie clad islanders were standing after giving their seats up for an elderly couple. She shifted in her seat and lifted her head to read the writing across their back. “R.I.P.” in large letters with a name she could not pronounce. Alana thought it must be Maori and two dates were printed underneath. These showed that the young person they were remembering was only twenty years old when they died five days ago.
She didn’t want to stare but the name and dates felt important, almost tribal. She recognised the grief the couple who were now standing in the aisle were experiencing. Alana looked away quickly when the young man took the girl’s hand and lifted it to his lips. He kissed her hand gently, just brushing his mouth over the dusky skin and entwined their fingers. It was a tender moment on a bus moving along Pittwater Road toward the Spit Bridge.
The bus jerked and she wondered if dates were significant in telling a story of the loss of a young person. Had anyone else noticed the dates and the grief that they were sharing with each other and in honour of their friend or family member?
Alana wondered about this as she looked down at her hands in her lap.
She held her phone and went back into the message. Nothing had changed as she read again, “ Mum on the L90 mona to wynyad 1137 love you”. What did the message really mean? The grammar was typical of the texts sent these days. No capital letters, no structure, bad spelling.
Why did it matter? This was a line of letters and numbers forming a message.
Alana pulled her thoughts from these questions and the heaviness fell over her body like a thick cold blanket. She was in a public place she couldn’t cry, or howl . The sun glinting on the water under the Spit Bridge shattered her private thoughts as she realised the bus had not stopped for a while, or hadn’t she noticed? Had she missed a stop?
Her feet in suede flats felt numb. She glanced at the man next to her and saw that he was the same. The bus had not made a stop unnoticed.
The couple in mourning were there, and the elderly lady with her mauve wool skirt was still reading. The man with the dusting of dandruff had not shifted but Alana knew something was different.
The difference was herself. She was beginning to feel dread and the pain of the past six months was in the weave of the heaviness that was trying to wrap itself completely around her limbs and body. She wrote frantically while her fingers still worked. “I’m on the L90. Where are you?”
As the bus pulled into the stop on Military Road the dandruff man, called, “Hurry up and get off the bus.” His voice was rough and loud and came as a surprise, jolting Alana from her deep thoughts. The couple still with entwined hands shuffled their bodies without moving anywhere and smiled gently at each other.
A phone rang close to Alana , shattering all her thoughts with its’ harsh tone. Snow man coughed loudly before speaking. He yelled a few instructions at the caller and hung up. Alana was feeling raw and exposed as they pulled into the last stop before crossing the Harbour Bridge. She looked at her phone again and rolled it in her hands. No response. As they moved across the bridge and toward the city she thought about the message her daughter had sent. She wanted it to be real. Not a payphone hoax.
The jolt of the bus pulling off the bridge and into York Street seemed almost electric as Alana closed her eyes and imagined finding her at the Wynyard stop. Waiting, smiling.
The pain was heavy when the thin pale Mother stepped off the bus. The girl was not waiting.
Three months later the Police called.