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Passenger Talk*

By Desmond Thomas

Guyana Journal, September 2011

The bus itself was not full on this trip, allowing us considerable freedom to choose where to sit. We had made our way to the back, Peter, Duncan and I taking seats on one side of the aisle while Salvador had stretched out on the long back seat with his haversack for a pillow. The rest of the passengers, numbering about a dozen, were comfortably spread out, mostly toward the front.

Travellers are a curious lot, come to think of it. Still, one cannot help wondering about travellers, where they are coming from, where they are going, what for. To travel is in our nature, and yet nobody picks up and goes on a journey without a reason. And, make no mistake, where they are coming from can be complicated – not just a place, but a history.

I found myself wondering, what we would say if someone asked where we were going. That we were on a journey to this place deep in the jungle with an exotic, you might say even mythical, name that was famous for who knows what? That we had only some vague ideas about how to get there and few implements, but were confident of reaching because we were clever? That we knew that it was possible to get there because others had done so? That we were going just for the fun of it and had no idea what we would do when we got there? Somehow, I didn't think our story was very convincing. I hoped no one asked. In fact, thinking of this question seriously just multiplied the doubts in my mind. Surely, all the other passengers must have more reasonable reasons to be on this bus this fore-day morning. But, you could never tell.

Across the aisle slept a tall, young man of about twenty-one. Arriving at the bus station just before departure, he had coiled up on a seat and gone to sleep instantaneously. He had managed to curl his long arms and legs uncomfortably (it seemed!) so that he fit his whole frame onto the seat. His head was cocked backwards and his mouth hung wide open as if he was paying a visit to the dentist, or perhaps setting a trap for insects, I surmised. A few rows ahead of him sat a laconic, elderly couple, their eyes seemingly fixed on the same object in front of the bus, clutching bags in their laps. The woman occasionally averted her stare to turn and say something briefly to the man who mostly replied with slight nods. These economical gestures must have conveyed much substance for she seemed to understand and be satisfied.

A constant flow of conversation over the drone of the bus engine came from a man in his mid-thirties who sat up front across from the driver and assailed him with his opinions on everything that crossed his mind, from the condition of the roads and the lack of adequate rainfall recently to the relative claims of Kanhai and Sobers as the greatest batsmen in the world. He spoke animatedly, sitting in a forward posture, pulling his cap off at frequent intervals to flick his hair back from his forehead, without a pause in conversation. He had a high-pitched voice, the kind that insisted on being heard, even to the point of being irritating. He must have been a regular passenger as the driver seemed to know him, referring to him familiarly as Jeed.

The driver was a thick-set man of about fifty with curly hair and small beady eyes, whose contribution to the conversation was mostly a lingering smile as he bit on a matchstick. It was clear from the way he handled – caressed rather – the steering wheel that this bus was dear to him, that he took personal pride in HIS bus and, I suspected, woe was he who would dare dirty or damage it in any way.

"Wha' you think about tha' story wha' happen to tha' radio announcer?" Jeed queried.

The driver appeared to be concentrating on his driving for a few moments. After a while he said, "Radio announcer? Wha' story you talking 'bout?"

"You ain' know wha' I talking 'bout, man? Tha' man with the dreadlocks. You ain' hear how they knock he off because he refuse to wear shoes and socks to work? But everybody know tha' man don' like fo' wear shoes! Only sandals and he dashiki all the time."

"But he brave bad," the driver replied. "I hear tha' man got toes looking like old cassava that the rats bite up. If I had toes like he, I wouldn'a take off my shoes even to go to bed!" He ended his remarks with a laugh, amused by his own joke.

"Wha' difference it mek? The man is a radio announcer. Who care wha' he foot look like? To tell you the truth, I know wha' he sound like but I never see he yet in person. Neither he face nor he foot." Hat off, hair flicked back, hat back on, all in one fluid motion. "In this new spirit of Independence, the man got a right to wear whatever he want, once he ain' exposing heself."

"But you sure you hear the whole story?" the driver went on. He slowed the bus to negotiate another sharp turn at Providence with a big army three-ton truck going in the opposite direction, taking over the middle of the road. "What I hear is that the big boys at the radio station knock he off because he give information to the press without permission."

Jeed let out a loud laugh. "Don' mek joke!" he said. "Which ole higue you hear that from?"

"Ole higue? I read that in the papers, self."

"Oh War!" Jeed seemed genuinely amused. "The media informing 'pon the press! But I thought was all one thing. Tha' is not they job, I mean, fo' inform people?"

"Like you never hear 'bout 'corporate secrets'?" The driver slowed the bus and carefully manoeuvered past some cows that rested nonchalantly on one half of the road. "Not everything make fo' talk about."

Jeed laughed. "Look, Ulric, don' make me laugh," he said, eventually. "Corporate secrets! Tha' is wha'? You mean like when you step on one of the big boys toes! Secret is secret. The media supposed to inform, not keep information from people. We in a independent country now. That ain' mean that things suppose to be different?"

"A'right, Man, I just telling you as I hear it," the driver said. "All I know is I got fo' mind me own business and keep me eye on the road. Me ain' have no calling in them 'big-shot' business."

"Big shot? Is who money you think they playing big with? Is you and me money they playing with," Jeed said.

"What you mean?" the driver enquired.

"Big-shot business today is you business tomorrow, watch and you goin' see," Jeed said, sliding the window next to him to let in more of the morning breeze.

*An excerpt from the manuscript of a forthcoming novel entitled: Rockstone Road by the writer.

Desmond Thomas is an economist and former Lecturer at The University of the West Indies, now working at the Inter-American Development Bank. He grew up in La Penitence, Georgetown, and attended St. Stanislaus College. He is married and the father of three sons.