This bus is a TARDIS

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Saturday 4.50pm. On Melbourne's Punt Rd, bus brakes squeal and huff. The 246 hits a standstill at the Bridge Rd corner. There's a momentary pall of silence on board — only the indicator click-clacks. The bus rests low on its suspension and seems to sigh. I slide across to the window side of my seat and brace myself. I expect noise, heat, irritation. I'd forgotten about the train lines closing for works.

Chris Johnston cartoon shows a woman on a bus crowded with friendly Doctor Who characters. Looking down the hill, every lane is gridlocked. Cars inch out of the MCG driveways, footy fans crowd the footpaths and line the bus stops. It's hard to tell where the queues begin or end, people are huddling five-deep. The bus doors hiss open.

A family climbs on board with a pram, a baby and a young boy. They line themselves along the side-on seats at the front of the bus. The boy sits across his father's knees with his back to the driver and gazes at the passengers already on board. His wide brown eyes are fringed by black lashes, his dark olive skin and shiny black hair match his father's. The child's face relaxes as his father speaks quietly to him.

During the minutes that follow, the temperature rises and I peel my coat off, twisting away from the close-by seat companion who has come to join me. As I pull my arms out of my sleeves he tells me the good thing about a bus this packed is that it will probably express past the other stops.

The driver stands and faces the back of the bus. He raises his voice only slightly. Ten minutes ago we'd been on a routine bus ride, he'd welcomed us on board. There's no edge in his voice. 'Please keep moving,' he says. 'Keep moving please, right down to the back.' He watches steadily, repeats the request.

There's a pattern in the way this moment often plays out — a bus or tram driver speaks, their voice might be amplified, usually it's disembodied. The instruction will ricochet from the driver's seat, people will begrudgingly shuffle, fail to notice there is indeed more space, then shrug and stay put. Along with the driver we will resign ourselves to the hopelessness of humans following a simple request.

But today we have the kindly and calm Bus Driver. He wants the bus to do its job, to move as many people as possible on this afternoon when there is only one train line open, where the street is thick with footy crowds. It wouldn't take much for an accident to happen, for things to fall apart.

 

"While we are breathing in to make a bit more space for others, at the same time we've expanded."

 

They don't fall apart. People give each other a nudge or a nod and keep moving to the back of the bus. The child, watching from the front, is a beacon of cheerful curiosity. His father keeps up a quiet commentary, answering the boy's questions. The mother's posture is composed. She holds the baby close but outwards so it can see what's going on.

Leaning forward, she rests her face near the baby's cheek. Almost in concert they lift their heads. In profile, the mother's face carries traces of pleasure and anticipation, the baby rocks a little on her lap. Quite possibly new to Australia, the family at the front exude their own sunshine, they are pleased to be here. There is no trace of cynicism that begrudges the space in the cramped conditions on the bus, their faces are open in a way that echoes the enthusiasm of their shining boy.

The bus nudges forward then stops. The driver stands up again and turns toward us. 'We have a person in a wheelchair coming on board, make a space please.' People get it quickly this time. When the man wheels himself on board no hustling is needed. His place is assured. No big palaver. My seat neighbour and I remark on this smooth execution of what is often an awkward other-ing moment.

I spend over an hour on the 246 bus on a trip that would normally take 30 minutes. Instead of resenting it I find myself meeting the mood at the front. I am awake to the privilege of public transport, the gift of being ferried as safely and as reliably as possible in a difficult situation. There are major site-works being undertaken, people are doing their best.

A couple of nights later my friend texts me from the queues of people waiting for buses near Princes Bridge: 'It's unbelievable, yet the driver greeted each person as they got on the bus.'

There are too many stories that differ from these, most of us have brushed up against them. But the 246 is a TARDIS, the driver a good Doctor. While we are breathing in to make a bit more space for others, at the same time we've expanded. We are different to what we thought we were — better, gladder, less impatient.

When I get to St Kilda Botanical Gardens I am late for my meet-up, I've missed the chance I'd planned for walking and reading. But I don't mind a bit, I've been on board the TARDIS.

 

 

Julie PerrinJulie Perrin is a Melbourne writer, oral storyteller and associate teacher at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity. Her first book Tender: Stories that lean into kindness will be published by MediaCom in May.

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The power of one. Beautifully told. Thank you
Patricia Taylor | 31 May 2019


What a wonderful story of Melbourne's public transport. I too have been the very grateful recipient of the kindness of Melbourne public transport users. Once a kindly gentleman told me that the flashing change on the railway board was to be ignored. He had checked where I wanted to go as I had hopped on and off the train according to the sign. I was so grateful as the train pulled out a few moments later and I was off to my destination. Now I use public transport when in Melbourne, I always find the passengers, kind and helpful.
Gabrielle | 31 May 2019


I believe I have encountered the same bus driver in Melbourne, on a trip to Caulfield when that line was closed. He did not raise his voice, nor sound angry, but did change the atmosphere in the bus. Similarly, some train drivers use the PA system to make helpful announcements or apologies for delays etc. Others say them in a rushed or garbled way, or say nothing at all, when something goes wrong. These things are measures of the civility of our society, and when done well, make a real difference.
Rodney Wetherell | 31 May 2019


Julie you have given us a great gift. Your attentiveness to the gentle humanity in other people has blessed us as readers. Hidden blessings are all around us if we have eyes that see and the heart to receive them.
Rod Horsfield | 31 May 2019


Thank you Julie for sharing this story! It lifted my heart and my spirits as I read it. There is so much goodness and kindness in the world if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.
Denise Hill | 04 June 2019


Lovely story I just wish most people took the time to enjoy the people around them by doing what you did observe making no judgment..
Phoebe | 04 June 2019


A beautiful story of grace. Just browsing, I came across it, and was swamped by the notion of a group of people as one travelling as one
Trisha | 04 June 2019


I appreciate how you noticed the kindness and humanity and entered into the experience with your fellow travelers. It seems that as you narrate it that I do the same and I am encouraged towards openness and making more space for others.
WG | 05 June 2019


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