Ride with me
Sabrina F Ahmad
Large suitcases splattered with tags nest cosily next to flashily coloured travelling bags on the back of the crowded bus. Up in the front, heads are bobbing to private rhythms fed to the ears through the wires of sleek mp3 players. She turns to the window to watch the roads run away from home.
The bus shuddered, rumbled, and rattled to a start. Judging by the condition of the roads and the traffic that clogged the highway junctions like cholesterol in a human artery, it would be a long ride.
Ruby sighed and shifted in her seat, trying to get comfortable. It was hard to get legroom inside this cramped space. Kicking off her scuffed, much-abused sneakers, she slumped against the window, and stretched her legs out on the empty seat next to her.
With a single shouted warning from the bus conductor, the vehicle rolled and screeched to a halt. This was the last pick-up point, which meant that someone would shortly come to reclaim the extra seat. Grumbling inaudibly, she shifted to a sitting position.
The smell of the cologne hit her before he reached her. Even before she registered what this meant, she instinctively knew to expect the long limbs, the narrow frame, the slightly hunched posture, the light stubble over the strong jaw, and the spiked hair.
Tarik paused in the act of stashing his bag in the overhead compartment and looked at his co-passenger. And there she was, staring up at him, lips parted, eyes wide open, and eyebrows hitting the ceiling in an expression of astonishment that he always found so disarming.
"Well I'll be damned."
The bus lurched forward, throwing him off, and he dropped into his seat. She shied away, and he craned his neck for a quick glance around to see if there were any other seats available. No such luck.
"Of all the seats, in all the buses, in all the city services, I get one next to yours."
"Ah, so you finally watched Casablanca."
She shrugged in a way that was typically Ruby. He sighed and settled into his seat, remembering...
The fresh plates are stacked by the hotpots, gleaming in anticipation, right next to the hotpots steaming with the mixed aromas of pulao rice, chicken curry and mixed vegetables. Knives and forks clash in a merry cacophony as piles of food are decimated. Outside, in the freezing cold, the starving dog waits for scraps.
Tarik pushed his plate away, the contents untouched. He was in no mood to eat after the events of the morning. What was supposed to have been a simple donation delivery mission at the children's hospital had quickly turned into a tragedy when one of the premature babies in the non-paying ward stopped breathing. He had watched, with a kind of horrified detachment, as a team of medics rushed in with pumps and attempted to resuscitate the little thing, hardly bigger than his hand. Using a miniature suction pump, they attempted to clean the tiny nostrils, while a small hand-held pump was pressed to force air into those newly formed lungs. Suddenly, there was a click and flash, and he looked up in disbelief to see a camera lens pointed at the tableau. Ruby.
Suddenly, the doctor in charge raised a hand, and the team backed off. Tarik tensed, as the young mother, barely in her teens, hopefully approached the bed.
The rest of the consolatory words were drowned out, as, with a keening wail, the girl flung herself at the corpse of her baby. Tarik felt his insides turn cold, as he belatedly realised that the baby had died.
Ruby brushed past him and made for the bed. Stopping for a few words with the doctor, she made for the mother. She whispered a few words to the girl's mother, and handed her a small bundle of money. Resting her hand on the sobbing girl's head for a second, she hoisted the bag of gift packs onto her shoulder and made for the next bed. Already, she was smiling at the patient, handing her a packet.
Stepping outside now, he found her sitting on the steps, feeding scraps to a flea-bitten mutt. The dog had attached itself to her since the first time she fed it, on their first night here, and had been following her around since. He watched, disgusted, as she scratched it behind the ears, laughing as it leaned into the caress. Suddenly, all the anger and resentment he'd been feeling since morning exploded inside him. Striding forward, he kicked the dog as hard as he could, sending the creature flying with a yelp. She was on her feet in a flash.
"Riko! What's your problem?"
"My problem? I'll tell you what my problem is. How could you stand there and shoot pictures and laugh with the other patients? My God! The girl had just lost her baby!"
She straightened her back and her eyes grew flinty.
"Those other patients had problems enough of their own, and didn't need to deal with a wet-eyed volunteer who can't hold it together. What the hell was I supposed to do? Bawl my eyes out? Would it bring the baby...."
The words remained unspoken as a hand came crashing against her face. The force of the blow made her head snap back, and she stumbled backwards, but caught herself just in time. He stood there, shocked his own loss of control as she raised a hand to her cheek, where a large palm print was already beginning to form.
"Ruby, I'm sorry..."
But she was already walking away. Rich purples and dark blues bleed into one another in the sky. The sun is a fiery disc, speeding towards slumber. Inside the bus, the lights come on, illuminating the passengers.
"I never got to tell you how sorry I was for hitting you that day, or even thinking you didn't care."
She dismissed it with yet another shrug.
"You did care, though, didn't you. I saw your article."
"Why didn't you call?"
"I was scared. I didn't know what to tell you"
She smiled. Gingerly, he reached out, and took her hand. She curled her fingers around his. Up in the front, the bleary-eyed driver failed to notice the roads were slick from a recent downpour. As the wheels began to skid, he suddenly snapped to attention, panicked, and hit the brakes. Losing traction, the bus skidded off and spun around thrice, before wrapping itself around an ancient banyan tree.
As the vehicle began to spin, and Ruby and Riko clung to each other for support, flashes of their shared experiences exploded into their memories.
The first time they met, on another bus ride, a year ago.
The first walk through the countryside, over the moonlit path, unhindered by electric lighting.
The first time their fingers touched and tangled, under the table during a briefing session.
When the rescue team pulled the bodies out of the bus, they were still holding hands.
(R) thedailystar.net 2008