I got to the bus stop three minutes before the bus arrived. There were two teens sitting on the bench, looking down at their phones. Their heads were bent like my granddaughter Clem’s dolls—soft, not budging. The boy glanced at me and the corner of his lips lifted. He looked like he was going to say something but he kept quiet. The neighbors’ kids were a puzzle to me.
Back in the Philippines, no one did the kind of things they did. Lisa told me that life in Australia was different.
She used a word—radical. When I watched the news for the first time, she kept repeating it. When a senator got elected after campaigning for birth control, she said, “Very radical of him.” When a kangaroo gave birth at someone’s backyard, she laughed and said, “So radical!” I thought then she meant great.
When I saw the bus, I stood up just like Albert, my son-in-law, told me to. At the hospital the night before, he walked me through the process. I held my Myki tightly, ready for the performance. Get in. Say hello to the driver. Tap the card. Sit at the row of chairs against the wall. He said those were meant for people like me.
I did not greet the driver. I settled on the blue chair. The boy in the pram across from me was making spit bubbles. He was old enough to walk, I thought. His mother was busy talking to an older man with a grey hat and large blue coat. He looked wise. He was saying something about microwaves, about how he could not imagine how people survived without it. I thought he was talking about me.
Albert told me it would be quite a long ride, that I should be patient, take something with me to entertain myself. He said the screen just above from where the driver was sitting would tell me where I was. Forty-six stops in all. I would know because people would be getting off at the shopping centre. Box Hill Central was the name. I have never been there before. Albert said I should be there at twelve noon so when I got tired of watching the screen change names, I took note of the time. I still had money left for the week so I decided to buy something for Clem. A dress, perhaps. Or ice cream. She loves ice cream. We haven’t talked much since I got here. She was always playing something on her iPad or watching some cartoons. I was mostly busy helping her mother. She asked me once if I was going to live with them forever. I said I don’t know. She was silent for a while. How about the tomatoes, she asked. But she did not wait for an answer.
Clem did not look happy when she saw me. She was with another girl who was a bit taller than her. She got her mother’s genes, my genes. She waved goodbye to her friend and walked towards me.
“Where’s Papa?” Her voice was nasal. Air passed in the space where her two front teeth were missing.
“Hospital.” I took her backpack and carried it on one shoulder, adjusting my own shoulder bag. I asked her if she wanted to know a secret. She looked up at me, waiting for the big reveal.
“Nanganak na ang mama mo kagabi,” I said.
She beamed at me and her mouth formed a cave. Her tonsils were in full view. Her tongue was yellow. She must have drunk the orange juice I packed for her that morning after all.
“Are you serious?” She asked. Her eyes looked like black pebbles. Lisa’s eyes, I thought. When Lisa announced her first pregnancy, I had always wondered if the baby would have blue eyes like Albert. Lisa corrected me during one phone call. It is cerulean, ‘Nay, she said. I did not know there were other words for “blue.”
Clem was supposed to know about her brother’s birth when we got home. Fifteen hours in labor and Lisa finally delivered a boy in the wee hours of the morning. They named him Darcy, from some book Lisa loved. He weighed no more than nine pounds and was hairy all over. Albert cried while driving me home. He said he did not cry like that when Clem was born.
Clem could not hide her excitement. She was skipping as we walked down the street. I decided against taking the bus back to the shopping center just so I could watch her. Her pale legs strained with every leap. At times her short skirt would rise up and I would worry. I reminded myself that we were alone. Her ponytail was swaying left and right as she moved, her hands were cutting through the air as she passed by. Five years ago, her mother sent me a photo of her through the mail. It was right after they cut her umbilical cord. She was in tears, I could tell, but her face looked peaceful. She looked like she was home.
At Box Hill Central I was so happy that I could not help myself. I thought I could buy some oranges for Lisa, so we went to Woolworths. The self check-out was one of my favorite things. Lisa showed me how to use it every time we went to buy our weekly groceries. I stood close to the machine and looked over my shoulder. The check-out lady was looking at me. My hands trembled. People were chatting everywhere. I thought the man beside me was speaking to me but Clem said he was not. She was getting impatient.
“Paano nga ito?” I said, without really speaking to anyone. Now that I was in front of it, I could not remember how it worked. My cheeks felt hot. The voice kept asking me if I wanted to continue shopping.
“Sandali lang.” My voice was higher, annoyed at some recording that could not answer me back. I slammed the oranges on top of it. The machine scanned the fruits without a sign of glitch, I pressed the “Pay” button and inserted a ten-dollar note in it. It churned the money and coughed out the change. When I looked at the lady again, she was smiling.
After putting the fruits in the bag, I asked Clem if she wanted to look around. I thought it was a bad idea to carry our things while we shopped. I asked Clem to translate some words for me.
“But you already know this, Lola. You talk to Dad in English.”
I wanted to tell her it didn’t matter that I knew some words; I didn’t know how to say them to someone better than me. I practiced for five minutes until I felt ready enough to approach the lady at the Services counter.
“Hi, can you keep this? One hour, please,” I said, raising the bag of oranges.
Her gaze moved from the bag to me to Clem. She raised her eyebrow and her mouth was slightly opened.
“You want me to keep your oranges?”
“We’re not liable for your things if they get lost, I’m sorry,” she said. I apologized and thanked her. I ordered Clem to follow me and quickly got her an ice cream from the shop where I just pointed at the flavor that she wanted. I kept my mouth shut. I just kept walking, past the crowded food court, up the escalator, and to the same bay where the bus dropped me off. We got on the first bus that arrived and sat at the same place where Albert told me to sit.
“Are you okay, Lola?” Clem asked.
I just nodded and put our bags down.
It had been over an hour when it dawned on me that we might be lost. The bus did not pass by the same places it passed by that morning. I could not recognize any of the names on the screen. There were a lot of students. I could not tell Clem what was happening. What would she think of me? I asked Clem to sit still, then I made my way to the driver.
“Hello. Burrawong?” I asked.
“Sorry?” The driver just gave me a quick look. He had a turban on and his accent was thick. He looked serious behind the wheel. “Careful, we’re moving.”
“Bur-ra-wong,” I repeated.
“I can’t understand you,” he said. “Do you mean Burwood? This bus goes to Burwood Highway.”
Some students were watching this exchange. I went back to my seat and started rummaging through my bag. Clem was clutching my arms.
“What are you doing, Lola?” She asked. “Where are we?”
I told her it’s okay, that I’d get us home. So I took out my pocket dictionary and at the back of it were the words I had written down a month before I moved here. I made my way back to the driver. By this time the students stopped their chit-chats, waiting for what would happen next. Clem looked like she wanted to cry. I read what I wrote.
“Hi, my name is Trinidad,” I started. “I am seventy years old. I live at 3 Burrawong Court, Ferntree Gully. I have a daughter. Her name is Lisa. I have a granddaughter. Her name is Clementine. I love the two of them.” My voice broke. I knew what the words meant. I learned it while I was still in San Isidro, back in our small hollow-blocked house where I lived alone after my husband passed away. When Lisa called me to say she was taking me to another country, I bought a dictionary a day later.
The driver had not moved from the last stop. He was looking at me like I was crazy but after making a call with his radio in a language that was not English, he got out of his seat and asked for my dictionary. He was studying it for a while as he was pressing on his phone keys. Clem looked tinier in her seat, her hair in a disarray and her hands were locked, stiff on her lap. All of the passengers were waiting.
“I’ll drop you off at the next station and you can take the train back,” the driver finally said. “This is the wrong way. Do you understand?” He scratched his head through his turban, I could almost feel his finger going deep against the fabric.
I only knew the words “station” and “train” but I nodded at him. “Thank you,” I whispered.
“Is that Clementine?” He asked. He looked exasperated at me but he turned to Clem before I could answer. “Do you speak English?”
“Sagot, Clem.” I urged her to speak up.
“Yes.” Her voice was as little as ever.
“You have to ride the train back home. Can you tell your granma that?” The driver asked. He apologized to me as he went back to his seat and started the engine. He was running behind schedule.
Clem and I sat on our chairs, waiting for something, anything. I held the dictionary in my hand, stared at its spine as if there was a map there. It did not make sense because I could not read a map, anyway. She said she needed to use the loo. I told her to wait just a little bit more, we were getting close to home.
The train station, according to the driver, was a ten-minute walk from the bus stop. Clem was complaining about her shoes. I offered to carry her but she did not want me to. I’m a big girl now, she said. She meant to say she was heavy but she was not. I asked if she was hungry but she shook her head. She also refused to sit on the pavement to rest. There was no helping her. She was walking so quickly ahead of me that I could not keep up. My legs were shaking from all the walking. The bags were heavy on my back and I wished I did not buy so many oranges. I pretended I was back home, harvesting tomatoes at our small farm in the middle of summer. Around my waist would be a basket of the ripe ones, weighing at least fifteen kilos. There would be a table under a big guava tree just a few meters away from the end of the field. The flies would be swarming around the sacks of tomatoes that were waiting to be picked up. It was easy to carry heavy things back home because they were familiar.
“I need to pee, Lola,” Clem said, almost in tears.
We walked through the path at the park and I told her I would watch for passers-by. There was no one around except for a man who was strolling with his dog on a leash. Moments later, a scream pierced through the silence. I immediately went to where Clem was taking a leak behind a bushy part of the park when she ran to my arms, crying. She pointed back to the bush. “I think the magpie’s dead.”
Dead. I have read it the first time in our local newspaper when there was a report on my husband. LOCAL FARMER DEAD AT THE MILL. The boss said it was an accident. The machine was supposed to be broken so my husband checked on it. The boss was sobbing on the local television as he was giving his account. He said there was so much blood. The grain came out all bloodied that they could not even sell it. They lost five hundred thousand pesos worth of grain. My husband lost his arm. And then his life.
When I looked over to see what Clem was talking about, I saw a black and white bird almost as big as Clem’s bag. Its chest was heaving, its beak open, gasping for air. There was an open wound on its leg, and the blood tarnished its wings as well. It was not dead yet but it might as well be.
“What should we do?” Clem asked. “What happened to it?”
I was blankly staring at it. It was making an eerie noise as if there was someone cutting through a thin sheet of steel beside us. Clem started crying again. She was begging me to make it stop. I did not know what to do. I could smell both her pee and the bird’s blood on the grass. I was pretty sure Clem soiled her underwear.
The bird’s eyes looked drowsy, bloodshot; I did not know birds sleep like that. It was quiet for a moment, and then it started that sharp noise again, only it was louder. Its chest rose and dipped, more violently this time, as if it was running, or flying, or both. Its wings were struggling to flap; its body was shivering on the soil. I could not look at it any longer. Clem’s hands were covering both of her eyes. So I picked up a large rock, twice the size of my hand, sharp on its edges. I asked Clem to turn around. And then with a swift, heavy motion, I slammed the rock on the magpie. Its cry was cut abruptly like someone pulled its plug. I could still see its wings, the white feathers peeking from under the rock, its legs lying motionless on the dirt. Fresh blood flowed through the cracks. There was no further resistance from it. It asked for an end, and I delivered.
I led Clem out of the park after tidying her up. We saw the train station. I rang Albert and asked him to take us home.
Anneliz Marie A. Erese recently completed her master’s degree in Writing and Literature. Her work has been published in Verandah Journal and she has received a Special Mention from Fabula Press in the Aestas Short Story Competition 2017. Erese was also a class member of Express Media’s Toolkits: Fiction Program last year. She is the founding editor of ALPAS Journal, a digital publication for Filipino creatives. Presently, she resides in Australia where she interns at Melbourne Writers Festival and Melbourne University Publishing imprint, Meanjin Quarterly.