“I’m kind of a big deal,” he says, running his hand over his receding hairline. The bright neon lights of the bus make the white shirt under his suit grey and ghostly. Above his shiny nametag is a blue strip reading “Metro Transport.” Below that is “call me”, and then in thick black capitals “Robert”. Across the bottom in a loopy font reads “How can I help you?” Below that, Bob’s paunch rests atop his thighs.
“It’s the little things that keep the machine running,” he says with practiced ease. “My department may be small, but we’re the nerve centre of the entire north-eastern public transport network.” He coughs. “For buses. It’s just so hard to get a competent team together, though. Don’t you agree?”
“Mmm.” The woman next to him is gazing out the grimy window at the streetlamps.
Bob nods, encouraged. “All my colleagues suggest over and over again that we give handouts to those too lazy to pay for their own passage. I don’t mean to boast, but I think I’ve weeded out most of the bleeding-hearts from my people. What do you do?”
“Hmm? Oh, I’m a waitress.” She stares at her fingernails for a long moment as Bob composes his next conversational sally.
From the back of the bus a voice calls out. “Hey!”
Bob stares at his tie.
“Hey, mate!” Louder this time. “You work for the buses, mate?”
The woman is staring at Bob now. Mustering his courage, Bob hoists himself to look over the back of his chair. The speaker is sitting with a group up the back of the bus, all overalls and grubby workboots. “Yeah, you. You work for the buses?”
“Um. I just organise the timetables.”
“You the one who swung those free tickets on weekends for tradies like us?”
“Ah,” Bob responds.
Other voices chime in, rough as the first. “Yeah, mate? Cheers for that!”
Bob doesn’t look at the woman. “Yes, that was me.”
The bus fills with laughter and one of the tradies leans down and offers Bob an enormous hand.
“We were just talking about those bastards in suits running the bloody country into the ground. It’s nice to know there’s still a few good blokes around willing to do the right thing by us.”
“Hey, no problem,” says Bob. “Mate.” The man claps him on the shoulder with another warm hand.
The woman is looking at Bob with disgust. “Hypocrite.”
Bob stiffens. The man behind him leans over to defend his new friend.
“What’s the matter, love? Don’t like us working gentlemen?”
The others join in. “Yeah, looks too classy for people like us. Needs to loosen up, maybe.”
She turns to face the window, and the man leans further over to tap her on the shoulder.
“Too good to talk to us, are ya?” She shrugs his hand off.
“Aw, baby, don’t be like that.” “We could show you a real good time.” The man does something with his hand that Bob doesn’t see.
Knuckles white, she whirls and slaps him. Bob knows what to do now. Drawing his hand back, he hits the woman in the mouth. The bus is silent a moment as the man’s cheek turns red and the woman’s hand darts to her face. Bob’s hand feels sore.
Rough hands pat Bob on the back while the woman pushes past him to flee the bus.
“Nice work, mate.” “You’re a good bloke.”
Some Bloke was originally published in Above Water (August 2010)