Seven years ago, I moved to Charlesbourg: a suburb of Québec City. I've been in the same apartment all that time and I couldn't identify a single one of my neighbours if my life depended on it. My apartment has a private exit, so I don't share a hall with any of them, and I work evenings while, it seems, all of them work days.
I chat a bit with the cashiers at the corner store across the street but mostly just a quick "ca va?" as you do. My main community, as I've come to realize, is the 801 Metrobus. The Metrobus system is Québec City's rapid transit solution. Commuter traffic here is just too diffused and erratic to conform to something so inflexible as a subway or elevated rail system. In place of trains, Québec City has commissioned some very long bus routes between suburbs that are serviced frequently by double-length articulated buses.
The 801 Metrobus gets me from Charlesbourg to Vieux Québec in under thirty minutes or well into the suburb of St. Foy in just twenty minutes more. As a cook, I can always find a great job in Vieux Québec in the summer but I can find more stable jobs in St. Foy. I don't live in Vieux Québec because I like having an off street parking stall and I don't live in St. Foy because it's too expensive there.
I could live in the suburb of Beauport for about the same money and commute for similar times on the 800 Metrobus - but who the hell wants to live in Beauport anyway? Sorry, I'm all about Charlesbourg - go Orsainville!
I don't usually talk to anyone on the bus, unless I spot another cook, but I feel like I know them all. Petit Jeremy was a familiar face to me for almost four years before I found out he was Petit Jeremy. I should watch more television, I guess. Anyway, there's the crazy old guy who sags his pants while going commando in the underwear department. Fortunately he wears a long jacket so you just have to avert your eyes when he gets up or sits down. Don't make eye contact with him.
I have pet names for most of the regulars. The Wolfman looks a bit like Hugh Jackman. Teacher's Pet always gets on last at her stop and then stays at the front talking to the driver for at least four or five more stops. Chef Sparrow wears a kerchief on his head like a pirate and for some reason commutes to work in a chef's jacket.
Mary and her boys have been around for years now. I remember the first night I saw them on my way home from work. I used to sit at the back of the bus and as I made my way back there I saw her sitting on a side bench, one son on either side of her, her arms around them and one of her hands on a big plastic bag. I don't know why but I got the sense that their clothes and that bag were the only things they had in this world.
As chance would have it, they got off at my stop and made their way across the street to the church. I wondered if they had just suffered a tragedy or perhaps escaped a very abusive man. Over the next few weeks I saw them several times, and concluded they had only two sets of clothes each. That selection slowly increased but not a stitch of it new.
Usually the boys got on the bus ahead of her and sauntered along as though shopping for seats. I don't think they had ridden much transit before because they didn't have the vacant eyes of a seasoned commuter who feigns death to avoid conversation. They looked at people a little too long but everyone seemed patient with their slow adjustment.
Week after week, I would spot Mary with some new item she had acquired to rebuild their kitchen - or maybe with a laundry hamper. Again, not a new item in the lot. I got the sense that keeping her boys in fresh veggies and fruit was a priority. They were clean, healthy, and polite but very plain. I think even haircuts were strictly cost controlled.
They have remained in Charlesbourg, somewhere further up the line on the 801 than I. Over the years, the boys learned not to make so much eye contact. Mary learned the vacant gaze of the commuter but also began to show a shadow of a grin that resembled contentment. I never knew what they had been through, but I was glad to see their lives coming together.
A few nights ago, the youngest son sauntered on the bus, as usual, shopping for a seat. He had a bicycle helmet in his right hand. I heard the bicycle rack on the front of the bus drop and saw Mary loading up their bikes. Then she made a few quick dashes between the bus shelter and the bus to load up all their gear. There was a little back pack, a basket from a bicycle, and some kind of folding chair all wrapped up in plastic.
Once she loaded the cargo, she made her way to the back to find her boys. That's when I realized I didn't see the older one board the bus. I looked back and she had her arm around the younger and they didn't look good. I looked at the bicycle basket and saw two helmets in it. Then I looked closer at the folding chair all wrapped in plastic - the plastic was pierced in several places and I realized that inside there was a disassembled, damaged bicycle.
My heart sank. I've never said a word to Mary or her boys. That moment was not the time to start. I'm hoping that he was just held for observation because of a mild concussion or something like that. I hope to see both boys shopping for seats again soon.