Lady Of The Half-Light

Lady of the Half-Light

4:10pm. Southbank Bus Station. The crowded platform was filled with an assortment of creatures, a veritable collection of human allsorts. Predictably, Route 230 was late. As the bus lumbered into the station, the hydraulic doors opened swiftly, and I boarded the congested carriage. Pungent smells of sweat, body odour and deodorant accosted my nostril. I saw a spare seat beckoning in the distance.

The prickly nylon upholstery scratched lazily against my arm. I released my grip on my belongings, unleashing a thunderous crash throughout the carriage. The utterly unremarkable woman next to me jumped.

"Sorry," I muttered, but she just smiled and returned her gaze to her phone.

I inhaled, and wafts of a rose-tipped perfume entered my nostril, overlaying older odours of perspiration and mint. She was just another oldish woman making her way home after another day.

I surveyed the intimate surroundings of my chair, checking the edges for chewing gum, or any other discarded human waste. No, all clear. I fumbled in my bag for my class novel, and began to relax into the swaying movements of the oversized automobile.

The journey home each afternoon echoed of an annual pass to Australia Zoo. Lined up in the confined space was a collection of creatures from recognisable kingdoms, their behaviours modified by years of imprinting. The boys from Terrace gathered at the back of the bus, iPods in their ears, zoned out, limiting the impact of their surrounds. Across from me sat a young guy in a cheap suit, his tired eyes restlessly skimming the headlines of today's paper. An overworked mother, her forehead creased and hair wild, sat patiently at the front of the busy, trying to tame the squirming child in her arms. I was the obligatory private schoolgirl exhibit, well-mannered and well-meaning. The people changed each day, but their behaviour didn't. We were lumped together just before feeding time, and were all doing our best to pretend that the others weren't there.

Seven or eight stops had passed before I was awoken by the unusual ringtone. The sound of a chicken clucking had disturbed the majority of travellers, but it was emanating from the woman next to me.

"Sorry, love," whispered my companion, "but it makes me smile."

I smiled feebly back at the woman and adjusted my position in the seat, my head tilted towards the screen of her phone, my eyes drawn to the intriguing message displayed on the screen.

"I'm 5'8", very slender and have blonde hair that drapes past my shoulders," it read.

I raised my eyebrows, and sized up the woman next to me. Her hair was more a mousy brown than blonde, chopped through from her chromatically toned part. As for slender – she looked as though she didn't often decline a piece of chocolate cake. Her height was more a lie than an exaggeration. I am 5'7" and she was definitely a good two inches shorter than me. A post-pubescent growth spurt seemed unlikely.

Curiosity killed the cat, or so my mother believed. My curiosity was more than a little aroused, but on the bus, the rules of engagement shrieked 'don't'. I busied myself with the view. Outside the window, rows of painted houses lined the streets, their symmetrical appearance echoing comfort, and conformity. I wondered whether the woman lived in one of them, or whether she was visiting her sister, or a friend. I imagined her living in one of the houses, be-slippered and dressing-gowned, released from the zoo of the 230 bus.

"Cluck, cluck," croaked the phone as another message landed in her mailbox. Ever so carefully, I returned my gaze towards the inside of the bus. For such an old duck, I wondered why she didn't get more annoyed with the Peggy-the-hen tone. Contemplating her world, I imagined a message about picking up an extra litre of milk, or stopping by for a cuppa. I couldn't resist looking at the text, and my mother was not here to watch my disregard for caution. Gingerly, I shifted my eyes to the right, catching her reply on the screen.

"I'm very reasonable. It's a standard fee, $200 per hour. Extras not included. No funny business."

Around me no one else had moved. They were oblivious to my discovery. My sharp intake of breath spluttered in my throat, like smouldering swigs struggling to ignite.

"Love, you okay?" the woman inquired.

"O yeah, yeah I'm fine. Thanks, sorry to bother you."

"O love, don't worry. You didn't," she murmured reassuringly, as she returned her gaze towards her phone.

There in the plastic seat next to me was a 'lady of the night', on her way to meet her new friend. She was a fake, nothing about her was real or truthful. She didn't belong to one of the little cottages, with their neat lawns and paved driveways. Words began to form at the back of my throat. I looked at the young man across from me, itching to ell him, or anyone, about the woman. But he was buried in his newspaper, shrouded from my discovery by black ink. Everyone on that bus sat caged in their own world, nursing their private secrets.

The bus began to approach my stop. I hurriedly grabbed my bags and made my way to the automatic doors, looking back at the woman as I progressed along the aisle. Her secret was a big one, and I mused that even those who loved her did not know it. But even little cosseted private school girls have secrets. Why should Bus 230 be any different to school, or life?

As I descended onto the pavement, I heard a scramble behind me. There she was, smiling benevolently at me.

"Love, you nearly left this on the bus."

She handed me my copy of 'The Great Gatsby', which I had been thumbing during my ride.

"I read that once," she continued. "It makes you remember that people aren't always what you think. Keep that thought in your head, love, and you can't go wrong."

I swallowed guiltily as she clambered back to her seat. Sure, she was a fake, but what would be the point of yelling it from the roof tops? Pretenders are everywhere, but suddenly, this woman seemed pretty authentic. This lade of the half-light probably knew about the secrets which lay sullied in the shadows, but she also knew that genuine and honest are not always the same thing. I hoisted my backpack onto my shoulder and headed home.

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