My life is buses. I wait for them in fierce heat and monsoon rain, ears pricking at the sound of their arrival. I run after them, yelling and waving. I sit in the long seat at their rear, where I can stretch my achy legs and stare out the grimy window, or into the yellowing pages of whichever novel I have deemed hardy enough for the rigours of travel. The buses are pink and red and yellow and invariably wreathed in smoke. Sometimes I can tell that I’ve missed one by the fading sounds of an engine and a trail of swiftly vanishing white clouds.
Even now I feel a strange sense of belonging when I’m on a bus. The trains are oh so fast, the trams convenient enough, but put me on a bus and I am safe.
My so-called university is in the heart of the old city, still beating but ignored by the shinier, taller structures around it. Outside the Popular bookstore an old man sells rock candy, a family recipe that he tells me his daughter has no interest in learning. Further down are the stalls selling fake merchandise of every grade, from the lowest, where there are obvious spelling mistakes in brands even I know, to the highest, which probably fell off the back of a lorry somewhere near the Thai border. Then there are the restaurants, where the tow-truck operators sit in jovial circles around their walkie-talkies, and the gangsters sip weak tea and happily flit between Malay and Mandarin, Cantonese and Tamil, more languages than I and all my textbooks will ever know.
On one side of the building that claims to be my university there is a sundry shop, run by a worried-looking man with a great deal of children. On the other there is a bakery, suspiciously new and shiny, with a lot of chrome and glass and sugar. The block of buildings is old and uncomfortable in its dotage. Stairs squeak ominously under carpets that may have had a colour, once. I climb them and think of my friends, who are mostly overseas, returning with horizons freshly broadened and developing terribly exotic summer accents. The few left in the country study far away, an hour and a half on an irregular bus. I make that trip almost four days a week. Sometimes I miss the bus and I am stranded across town, and then I sleep on couches or pay for taxis and skip meals as a result. But the bus is usually there, waiting, the driver reluctant to move until it’s nicely full, the people on it narcoleptic or restless. I can’t remember anyone talking on the bus, but that’s probably because I was more interested in my book than in conversation.
My classmates seem terribly young in my recollections, but then I was terribly young too. I can’t remember any of their names. One was called Samantha, I think, or Sam, which means something completely different in her dialect. She was two years older than me and she looked good in white T-shirts. One time she asked me out. I thought she was joking, so I laughed and changed the subject. Years later I saw her selling perfume and let her spray me with something sweet and cloying that evaporated as quickly as my recollections.
We studied management and marketing and subjects that didn’t seem to have any practical application. Accounting did, and that’s probably why I was so bad at it. I had a good management teacher, who would smile at my idiocy from my seat right at the back of class, and an atrocious economics teacher, who made the subject interesting despite himself. I don’t think I have ever used anything I learned as an undergraduate in my working life.
Every day I walk past the shell of a building, inhabited only by junkies and memories, and the pet shop, with its bright colours and brighter stenches. There’s the arcade, where I play on the old Virtua Striker machine with the office workers in their too-new ties, and the food stalls, with their cakes and keropok and that chili sauce you really can’t get anywhere else. Just before the terminus there are the stalls selling snacks and sweets and cigarettes and the racks upon racks of magazines in every language but English, so many that I cannot countenance who could ever read them all. There are the lights, coming on at dusk just as the smog and neon coalesce into something harsh and beautiful. And there’s the bus, come to take me home.