The woman looks as though hot meals have been scarce of late. She climbs aboard the NBus at Annesbrook and is soon disputing the fare to Stoke. We're talking small change, which I guess is not small if you are on the bones of your bum.
The driver explains that this is a mid-section stop, kicking the fare up. The woman becomes agitated, and moves to get off.
“Don't be stupid,” says the driver with a smile, and they quickly work out a compromise. By Stoke they are the best of pals.
I've found that holy grail, the perfect commute. Well, almost perfect - I'm still a paid-up member of the Nelson Hair-Shirt Society (motto “Every silver lining has a cloud”).
Near-perfection starts with a bike ride from the Brook into town, then hop on the NBus, chauffeured to Richmond, and after work, a ride home for the exercise.
The 8.15 takes the scenic route, around Rocks Rd, with cascading hues of blue across Tasman Bay to a Mt Arthur range iced with fresh snow. Scenery you want to eat.
I open my old tartan Thermos for a cuppa. Appearances must be kept up by the president/secretary and, well, sole member of the Nelson Retro Thermos Collectors Club (motto: “Sad but styley”).
Tea is the holy water to christen each new day. Who among us doesn't let out a long sigh after that first swallow? And it's the reliable panacea for distress. There's nothing much you can't heal with a hat-trick of cuppa, hot shower and a long sleep.
Funny what you notice from a high seat. The number of properties with a few chickens in the front yard, or a caravan tucked round the back, for instance. And can you tell me where Cartwheel Cottage is? You've passed it a hundred times. Ebenezer Garden is also an intriguing find. Not a name you expect to find this side of a Dickens novel. Then again, I might argue that this trip has a Dickensian quality to it as we assemble our usual cast of colourful characters: boisterous students, young mums, oddballs . . .
A young guy not long out of school himself is offering the Waimea College kids down the back some unique geological insight: “That tsunami in Japan, right, it was the whales, man. They're hacked off about the Japanese whaling and stuff, so they spot this crack in the ocean floor, right, and they go down and hammer at it with their sonic pulses. For years, man, and finally, boom!”
I'm getting to know the drivers individually, and they are worth the fare alone. Unfailingly courteous, chatty, swift to help with prams and bikes, and mostly patient in the face of the ultimate provocation - larking schoolkids who would make Gandhi smack a few head together.
One driver told me her bus had been pelted with stones by three teenage boys up a tree who were firing at anything that moved. And, of course, a few months back we had the notorious arrow incident. It hit the window right beside the driver's head. My informant conceded that it was probably a stray missile from some dopey kid practising archery on the school fields behind shrubbery.
The students on this bus are okay - boisterous, but okay - though I quickly conclude that if you took the word “like” out of schoolgirls' vocabulary, the college hallways would fall silent. And they all talk as if their jaws are wired together. (A fair number of their jaws are wired together, which keeps the orthodontists in clover.)
Out of nowhere, one boy quells the jabber by whistling birdsong, pitch-perfect. I have tui and bellbirds for companionship as we glide into Stoke.
Snippy Ritchie, the barber, didn't bother to take his Christmas greeting off the window, so now he is early for the next one, rather than late for the last. From my regal heights I realise I have been unkind to Stoke in the past. It is a quasi-religious centre of sorts, as home to Supercheap Auto and Saxton Field. Add in the Turf and you have the Kiwi trinity.
The seismology expert is warming to an audience: “Hey, riding the bus is awesome. You talk to strangers and stuff. I took this girl for a bus ride once on a date. It was the free yellow bus in Christchurch before the earthquakes, and we toured round and saw the Cathedral and stuff. It was awesome. She turned out to be a lesbian, but it was still a good date.”
At Viridian Glass, a man with a squeegee on a long pole cleans a massive wall of the product. He could be auditioning for a reshoot of the famous flag-raising at Iwo Jima photo.
As we approach Waimea College, repeated yanks on the buzzer break the driver's sang froid. “The sign says ‘Bus Stopping', and we will be stopping,” she declares firmly as we pause at the crossing. Yet within a few minutes she is farewelling each of those students with a warmth that earns respect.
Mutual respect - the very best form of discipline. I wonder if I am a character in their daily story, as they are in mine.
“Mum, the weird old guy was on the bus again. And I'm like, ‘Eeuuw, I hope we don't have to sit near him'. He smells of cabbage. Gross. And he always carries this funny container. I texted Rachel, who was sitting beside me, and she's like, ‘It could be a bomb'. And I'm like ‘No way', and she's like, ‘Way'. He scribbles in a notebook too. Rach says he's scoping out targets. Next time she's totally going to call the cops on her iPhone. I so need an iPhone 5. What's for dinner?”
We pull into Sundial Square, past the sundial, in the middle of the square - which is more an oblong, if we are being prosaic - and I unload my bike.
“Lovely day for a ride,” says the driver, alighting for a stretch. “It's a lovely day to do anything.”
Amen. If it's possible to have a skip in a pedal stroke, I've got one in mine while heading for work. From the office I keep an eye on the steam stacks at the MDF plant, hoping for a southerly to push me home. This week has been a pearler: cool and coasting.
Almost perfect. Back home, the mutt is resisting efforts to train her to put the jug on when she hears me coming through the gate. She actually hears me turn the corner at the bottom of the street, so there's no excuse really.
Footnote: I've compressed many rides into one “driver” for ease of storytelling, but every incident is true. This week I asked the driver in the first case how much that lady was short, and she couldn't remember. “I never put anyone off,” she said. “I have a little bag with money in it to make up the difference.” Other drivers do the same, apparently.
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