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.