David Tripp trudged to the bus stop with an even step at seven thirty, just as he did every morning. He liked getting up when the house was quiet and did his best not to wake the kids. He enjoyed the rare moments of peace that existed before eight am. The wind scuttled around the empty street and a few drops of rain fell on his still sleep crumpled face but this did not bother him much. It had been a bloody awful week so far for reasons a good deal more ghastly than the weather. On Monday morning, after four hours of restless sleep, he had received a call from his father informing him that his Grandmother was seriously ill. A stroke sometime in the early hours of that morning had left her in a coma and she had been pronounced dead by the time he reached work at nine am. He was shocked and upset but with a tinge of guilt he also found himself dreading the funeral. He was an introverted man who found formal occasions difficult.
“No ticket this morning mate?” the bus driver’s words jolted him from his thoughts.
“Sorry, I was miles away, it’s been one of those weeks,” he replied, groping for his season ticket.
“No worries, company rules or I wouldn’t bother. Can’t be all that bad can it? – its only Wednesday!”
“I’d tell you but you wouldn’t believe me,” David said, making his way towards a seat in the middle of the bus. It was half full now but he knew from experience that by the time they reached the city it would be packed to capacity.
He felt exhausted as he sank into his seat. Most of Sunday evening had been spent in casualty with his son, who had, for no reason except that he was five and a stranger to common sense, decided to snort a dry roasted peanut. It had ended up lodged somewhere between his nose and his throat. Just as it began to look as though he might need a minor operation to retrieve it, a matronly nurse in her forties took control of the situation. She disappeared briefly, only to return with a pepper grinder from the staff canteen, which facilitated the appearance of the offending object with a giant sneeze.
He reached into his bag and pulled out some funding applications that had to be completed by Friday. Compassionate leave was impossible until next week, he had three days including the day of the funeral to do his official grieving and that was that. He tried to concentrate on the papers in his lap but his eyes turned to the view outside the window. A couple of teenagers slouched towards the local high school seemingly oblivious to the threatening skies, laughing as their school bags bumped together companionably. An old man waiting at the next stop pushed a discarded cigarette packet and an old newspaper into the hedge with his stick. David closed his eyes momentarily and saw his gran, lying alone and frightened in her new bed, a recent purchase from America with a Tempur mattress which boasted ‘Nasa Technology’. For all the good it would do her now. He saw himself leaving the hospital at 2am, with Daniel’s sagging, sleepy body in his arms, his eyes aching and red, strip light patterns burnt across the inside of his lids.
“Do you need a hand with that love?” asked the driver, craning round to prompt one of the passengers. David stood up and moved to the front of the bus, hands outstretched to grab the folded buggy from a female passenger embarking, just as she managed to stow it in the luggage area herself. It was an awkward moment and he apologised for the sake of something to say and then felt immediately foolish as she refused to make eye contact with him. The driver said “cheers mate” as he examined her ticket, giving David a sheepish grin before they set off again. The woman sat the child on her hip on the seat next to the luggage area, then slid on to the seat behind her and plopped her bag down. He caught a glimpse of a very sharp, angular, exhausted face in its late thirties. The child, a little girl with dark hair and a yellow raincoat with a cheerful picture of ducks splashing on the front, immediately began kicking her legs against the seat. David smiled, thinking of his own sleeping children and the exuberance they displayed about bus and train journeys, their ability to make the everyday into a source of wonder.
“Sit still Emily, for christ’s sake,” the woman said, as though the child had been dancing on the seat. The legs stopped for a second and the child turned to look out the window, biting her lower lip and frowning.
“Emily, stop biting your lip like that, you’ll make it sore and it’ll be your own fault.” David looked away in irritation wishing he had sat at the back of the bus.
“Emily, I told you to keep your bloody legs still, keep still, face front, hands on your lap, now.” Jesus, the child couldn’t be any more than four, what the hell did she expect? David thought of the huge rucksack full of diversions he carted around for his own kids and wished he had some small toy with him now to give her. His hands made their way automatically to his pockets, but this was his work stuff, and they were empty apart from his keys and the inevitable fluff.
“Emily,” her hands squeezed the child’s shoulder, “I told you to keep your hands still: don’t make me have to tell you again.” David glanced round at the other passengers, who all seemed to be conveniently absorbed in the blurry view from the windows. After a few moments the bus pulled in to another stop and the little girl slid forward on her seat, grabbing the rail around the luggage compartment to steady herself. Her mother’s fleet, white hand slapped her legs. “Emily, will you just bloody sit still and stop mucking around.” The little girl’s shoulders hunched as she sat back in her seat but David could not see if she was crying. It was as if some part of himself that he did not yet know was controlling his mouth when he spoke; “Excuse me, is it necessary to smack, what has she actually done but behave like a child?”
“How dare you,” she turned on him furiously; “it’s none of your business. We have to make this bloody journey every day. I have two kids to organise and this one to get to childcare before I even start work. I don’t suppose you have any kids: if you do then clearly someone else does the hard work, maybe if you did, you’d understand.”
This touched a raw nerve and for a moment he was lost for words. He hated leaving his kids every day to go to work. He hated the fact that he had missed their first wobbly steps and first words. He had taken as much paternity leave as he could, woken up to help with night feeds, marvelled at their tiny fingers and toes, rushed home early if they were ill. Every weekend he took them swimming or to the library to choose books. He sat for hours building brick towers they could demolish or playing hide and seek and chase games until their faces were red. They were noisy and exhausting and expensive but he loved them. He loved them.
“Look, I do have kids and yes, their mum looks after them while I go to work,” his features softened as he saw for a moment his wife’s loving, tired face, “but the truth is, I’d rather be at home. Even though I know how hard it is when you’re exhausted and stressed and the chores never seem to end.”
“Well bully for you,” she replied, sneering at him.
He sighed. “It just seems to me that you’re making it harder than it needs to be, for you and for her. Just give her a colouring book or a toy to keep her occupied but for god’s sake, don’t let her grow up believing that it’s ok to hurt people when they don’t do what you want.”
“Who the hell do you think you are, you know nothing about me, look just…”
“No, you look…” He could see the other passengers fidgeting as his voice grew louder, afraid that he was just some nutter. “…bottom line, smacking a child is violence. Worse than that it’s misuse of power.” He leaned forward and looked right into her face, “You just don’t get it do you,” he nodded in the child’s direction, “you’re her world.”
There was no more to say. She was quiet now, her face contorted as though she might cry. He picked up his bag and stood at the front of the bus waiting for his stop. Walking the short distance to the office, blood thrumming in his ears, he heard the voice of his Grandmother, who had told him once: “It was silence that allowed the holocaust to happen.”