It took her a few moments to notice how quiet it was, the child had stopped screaming, was making his low humming noise, the sound that in her world passed for silence, but then it dawned on her that the rest of the bus was soundless too.
She remembered night buses from that brief window between childhood and motherhood when she and her friends would go into town, her memories were of noise, movement, but this bus was still, the lights were dimmer than she remembered and when she finally summoned up enough surplus energy to lift her head to look around, what she saw was not like any night bus she had ever travelled on.
There were 5 maybe 6 passengers, all older, all wearing dark shapeless jackets, raincoats, navy, brown, black and all of them, these elderly people were looking directly at her, smiling and she knew she ought to feel worried, spider inner city senses ought to be tingling, but she was so, so tired and then a gentle voice, with just a burr of West Country, spoke from the seat behind her
“Have a rest, I’ll watch the baby, it’ll be fine”
She turned and saw a woman, hair in a loose messy bun, face creased but clean, wholesome and a smile that lit up the dimness and she knew that she should stand up,get of the bus, but her body refused to move and almost without thinking her head fell back and she slept.
She woke up, confused, unsure of where she was, panic stricken, but there was a hand resting on her shoulder, she spun round to see a tiny Japanese woman smiling at her
“Look” said the woman
“We have come full circle, you can get off here, the little boy is fine”
She pulled herself together, looked down at the child, he was dozing, eyes almost closed, clutching a little velvet cat in his soft round hands.
She didn’t remember getting of the bus, staggering, still half asleep down the steps to find herself a bare 5 minutes walk from the tiny flat, but as she began the trudge home, she realised that she wasn’t trudging, her body wasn’t weighed down with exhaustion and the child still dozed, his eyelids flickering in some incomprehensible dream state.
The energy stayed with her all day, she felt re-born and even dared a tiny trip to the park where the child stared at the ducks, but didn’t scream or writhe in horror in the buggy.
That night, she dared to stroke his hand
“Round and round the garden, like a teddy bear” and although he showed no real reaction to the touch, it was the nearest they had come to any contact that was not functional for months.
Later, he reached out and touched the velvet toy cat and although he didn’t sleep, he is calmer, quieter.
The energy and calm stayed with them over the next few days, they made trips to the swings, the big supermarket. She found herself lifting her eyes above the level of the buggy, noticed that summer had come, even to this grimy corner of the city.
Of course it didn’t last, 2 weeks later her eyes were back on the level of the pavement and her life had shrunk back to counting down to Wednesday and Friday mornings and the child had retreated to wherever felt like home to him.
Finally, on a wet Tuesday night when he had screamed and shrieked for hours and hours, she gathered him up and set off down the road
“It will help him sleep” she said to herself, denying the longing she had to find the bus again, to rest her head on the cool glass and to sleep.
She re-traced her steps to the bus stop and waited and waited, found herself repeating a little mantra of need
“Please let the bus come, please let it come” and when she had almost given up hope, was about to start the walk home, with the child still screeching, with her head bowed over the pushchair, she heard the rumble of a bus and looked up as the dimly lit night bus moved down the road towards her.
This time she was more aware, looked at the driver, fumbled in her purse for change, he, so dark skinned that he semed to gleam in the half light, shook his head, his loose dreadlocks rippled with the movement and he waved an expansive hand, ushering her on board.
The bus was exactly as she remembered, half a dozen soberly clad elders and she sank into the nearest seat.
The child had stopped screaming and was peering around the corner of the buggy.
A quiet voice behind her spoke
“Go to sleep now, we will watch the child” and almost child-like herself, she nodded obediently, rested her forehead against the window and slept.
Again, she woke, but this time there was no confusion, just that luxurious moment of comfort between true waking and sleep and again, she left the bus feeling as if a weight had left her shoulders.
Weeks and months went by, sometimes she found the night bus, sometimes she returned home, white faced, exhausted. She began to realise that she only met the bus when she was truly at the end of her tether, so started to ration her night time wandering to when she was desperate.
The child became a little easier, still screamed but the screams had lost their edge of despair. The respite carers noted that he had begun to make a little eye contact, would show an interest in a profffered toy
“He loves his little cat” said one of the nurses, bouncing the now shabby velvet kitten on his tummy while he grabbed and missed.
She had a little more energy, they went for day time walks, became regulars at the duck pond, where on a good day he would make his happy humming noise while she threw the end of loaves to the massed ranks of city ducks.
She touched him more and he objected less, very occasionally he would allow her to wrap her arms around him and she would sing whatever tune she head heard on Radio 1 that day
“I should be so lucky, lucky, lucky, I should be so lucky in love”
Autumn came , the nights got longer, colder.
The child still cried, sleept little, but she found in herself a reserve of energy, thought about the night bus less and less, but on Bonfire night, the noise unsettled her son. His screams reached a
crescendo and the bangs on the walls became more and more strident, angrier. Finally, although she knew it was far too cold, too late, she bundled the shrieking child into blankets and set off.
The streets were empty, just the smell of damp bonfires,dead fireworks and still her son screamed and for once she wanted to join him, wanted to scream out her anger and her sadness, but instead, she shivered inside her too thin jacket and pushed the buggy towards the night bus stop.
And inside the bus stop, out of the wind and the rain, with the drops beating down on the plastic roof, it felt cosy, safe, almost warm and she relaxed, felt her shoulders drop and she peered down the road, waiting for the lights of the bus she was sure would come.
Her son started to make a new noise, one so surprising that it brought her up sharp and she bet towards him to hear better
“Bu” he says
“Bu, Bu, Bu ”
She leaned her face close to his, this was the first sound that he had ever made that bore any relationship to speech and then she heard it, quite clearly
“Bus, Bus, Bus”
And together, they waited in the rain and the cold for the night bus to appear.