The Bus Driver’s Wife
Not only are these stories written in English, they’re set outside Indonesia, the first in London, then Brisbane, and Melbourne.
Gets rid of one problem: something that sometimes Laksmi Pamuntjak (say) struggles with in her English poems/short-stories. Like I’ve written and pointed out so many times here. I’m sick of it myself, if you write in English about Hotel Grand Menteng, would you say it’s a ‘love-motel’, as Laksmi does, taking a run-o-the mill Ameringlish idiom to describe something Indonesian, or use a term like ‘check-in place’ since that’s what we Indonesians call it? Not idiomatic English perhaps, but isn’t it more real? What is real? What use is real in fiction?
The first story is actually nowhere near as horrendous as the title suggests—the infamous Guns N’ Roses operock video, though like the song, the story is also about unrequited love. At one page nowhere near as epic of course.
A woman sitting in a room in ‘depressing London weather in November, the unfriendly humid air poisoning my oily skin’ (depressing London weather is a bit of a tautology, but the real problem/the problem of the real in this sentence is ‘the humid air’, how could it be humid in London, in early winter? Is it the cheap Tesco heater that makes your hands and feet all clammy? Problem of verisimilitude. But why is this problematic? Or is it? I guess if this were a sci-fi short set in post-apocalyptic global-scorched London then I wouldn’t have batted an eyelid on ‘humid London November’, but as we shall see, this story is basically a realist vignette, and in a slice-of-life I guess it’s reasonable that we expect the life to be as we know it.), ‘wrapped in a dirty bath towel, chain smoking’, staring at ‘a bottle of painkillers’ on (probably) top of the sink.
So the woman is depressed. But she was ‘too wound up to care.’ Then it turns out that she’s too wound up because she cares too much. For ‘the motionless body next to me. A man’s body.’ They’d fucked two hours ago after he turned up on her doorstep and he: ‘I need you’, and she: ‘You need a place to stay.’ Funny. Then she: ‘I love you,’ then he: ‘Thank you.’ A bit more standard dark humour, but believable.
Then the answers for all the dark humour, the painkillers, the depressing London scene: ‘Will your wife come looking for you? Will you say goodbye and never come back?’ Like Axl said, nothing lasts forever / in the cold November rain, but perhaps, some things do, like a sob story set in grey London.
The second story, perhaps the most interesting, begins with the simple, short, sentence ‘The bus driver is my best friend.’ Which somehow sounds kinda depressing. Bus driver? What about a stripper? And it gets worse, ‘He is an old man nearing his sixties, … a Russian-Australian, … his Australian accent is very thick since he spends most of his life in Brisbane, … with a nametag that says Steve.’ Perhaps the most depressing thing is that nametag, what’s wrong with Stefanovich, why would you try so hard to fit in to Brisbane, land of tight stubbies and Bir Bintang singlets, why would you move to Brisbane at all?
They’d become friends because when the narrator, a girl, moved to Australia, she was ‘dominated by fear and loneliness’ (in Brisbane, wouldn’t blame ya girl), and Steve likes to chat about his sad bus-driving life, bad pay, unhappy wife, the usual sob story. But the narrator thought Steve was ‘very different. … unlike the other grumpy bus drivers who shout at foreigners.’ Aha! Maybe because Steve was a foreigner himself! A depressed diaspora just like the narrator!
Misery loves company especially when it’s a young probably pretty Asian international student. Or a granddad who happily listens to a pretty Asian international student’s stories of her ‘need to get away from a very bad breakup’ and her subsequent loneliness (girl on the rebound!). Then one night Steve told rebounding girl he was gonna quit his job, wife was leaving him because he was, yes, a total loser, and he might just as well pack his bags and move back to Russia.
Nyet! thought rebound girl.
‘I’m just an old man, what do I have except a rusty bag and a passport?’
‘You have love.’
‘No, dear. We have memories.’
And as if the thought of soldiering on in life in snowy Ukraine with a bag full of memories of hot summer afternoons in Brisbane verandahs was way too depressing, this story ends with Steve’s wife getting on the bus at the last stop as narrator girl gets off. Reconciliation.
‘What am I to know all about love? I do not even have love. My ex boyfriend is an emotional abuser and I have given up on love a long time ago.’ (Narrator girl’s monologue, all in her head.) But girl, from the ending you’ve given us, looks like you really haven’t.
The third story, ‘Five Minutes’, about a man who, accompanied by a kid, observes and bitches about people in a park ‘in the heart of Melbourne’, and the kid turns out to be the man’s imaginary friend and the man turns out to be a geriatric granddad suffering either from Alzheimer or multiple sclerosis that has left him ‘unable to speak and move, all I can do is feel,’ (some people have all the luck) I thought must’ve been written by the same author who wrote ‘In the Cold November Rain’ since both titles were accompanied with the date of writing ‘January 2007.’ Not only that, in ‘Five Minutes’ the author wrote that ‘people scurry through… to get to the tube station.’ But the tube is in London, in Melbourne it’s the train. (Or the tram if you wanna be all romantic and olde-worlde.)
That problem of verisimilitude again. Perhaps the author mixed up his/her memories of London and Melbourne and the two cities merge into one. (After all, Melbourne is the one city in Australia with European pretensions, though it’s Paris they aim for, what with the parks, the sidewalk cafés et al., and it rains there the whole time too.) But I imagine a Melburnian would object to see his ordinary train station be written as ‘the tube’, and this brings me back to Laksmi Pamuntjak: so why shouldn’t I complain that she calls Hotel Grand Menteng (say) with the pissweak appellation ‘love motel’? We’ve already got ‘check-in place’, why not use it? What is wrong with the more real?
The imaginary kid disappears and the story ends. Which makes me think: these are all depressing stories, but I like them much more than the sugar-coated inspirational stories millions of people bought in Andrea Hirata’s Edensor. (About his student days in Paris dan sekitarnya.)
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