The Bystander

[Extract from the book Erebus: Ten Stories by May-Han Thong and Yen-Kheng Lim,  Copyright 2016, Published by SRI Books. Visit the book’s webpage for more details on purchasing/download.]

Bus 19 was always late. Every morning I had to spend about fifteen to twenty minutes just waiting at the bus stop. Fifteen at least. For five days a week, that added up to seventy-five minutes spent just waiting at the bus stop.

That’s plenty of time to spend with a few strangers also waiting for Bus 19. So, even though I had never spoken a single word to any of them, it felt like I knew them extremely well.

The strangers didn’t seem like strangers anymore. They had become a familiar presence. There was a woman, probably in her late forties or early fifties, who carried a lot of stuff with her. She had shorthair and was always dressed in a blue polo T-shirt with some company logo above the pocket, clearly her work uniform. There was also an old man wearing thick glasses who only wore different variations of loose shirts and slacks. He carried nothing but a plastic bag that smelled of food. Occasionally the old man and the woman would casually talk to each other, but on most days they just sat in silence and kept to themselves, barely acknowledging the other’s presence. I guess those two people had been taking Bus 19 for years and exchanged kind pleasantries every now and then.

And then there was Logan. That was not his real name, but just a name I gave him because he looked like a ‘Logan’. The first time I saw him, he looked handsome and dapper in ridiculously formal clothes. To a single woman in her mid-twenties like me, people like Logan stood out, though he took no notice of me in my frumpy skirt and
cardigan. That day, he was clearly going for a job interview, since a few days later he started wearing slightly less formal work clothes and took Bus 19 regularly with the
rest of us.

He seemed like a kind and friendly person. Once he helped the woman with the blue polo-T carry her things. After the ice had been broken between them, the lady and Logan struck up a conversation. It was mostly idle chatter about the weather, traffic, and how that damn Bus 19 was always late. So, what I gathered about Logan at that time was that he was handsome, gentle and friendly. As a single woman in her mid-twenties, I took notice of that too.

At one point the woman asked him where he lived, and
he looked down the street and said, ‘Right there, second
house after the turn.’

I was so caught up eavesdropping on their conversation that I turned to look at where he was pointing and he noticed! He looked at me for half a second before resuming his conversation with the lady. I felt so embarrassed that I could feel my face turning hot as my stomach churned.

The days passed by, and everyone seemed to settle into their routines. The old man with his bag of food, the woman in her work uniform, and Logan, usually sitting at the side looking at his phone. I wished I had the courage to strike up a conversation with him, but I was too shy to do so.
When the bus eventually arrived, it was usually fairly crowded. He got off at a stop where all the tech start-ups and R&D companies were found. I guessed that he was either working as an entrepreneur or was a scientist of some sort. That meant he was smart too.
The street where he lived was between my house and the bus stop. So, I started walking by that street every morning on my way to the bus stop. His was a small but cosy single-storey house, and it looked clean and tidy. I caught a glimpse of exercise equipment through an open window. Sometimes he came out of his house just as I walked by, and ended up walking either behind or in front of me towards the stop. He always sat in the same spot at the bus stop, taking out his phone and looking at it until the bus arrived.
I noticed him staring at me one day, when the weather was hot and I was in a particularly revealing summer dress. We made eye contact and he smiled. I tried to smile back, but it probably ended up looking like I twitched my mouth, so I hurriedly looked away. He resumed looking at his phone. So, that’s what it takes for him to notice me? A few more days went by. He never talked to me, nor did I try to chat him up either.
One day, when the bus was especially late, he seemed different. I saw him smiling as he texted on his phone. I wondered to whom he could be texting to. It could only be
his girlfriend, or someone who was about to be, I thought with a slight tinge of jealousy. He was not married since there was no ring on his finger — I looked. By the next morning, it couldn’t be more obvious. He came to the bus stop with a woman, all laughing and giggling as they waited for the bus. Her hair looked slightly dishevelled as she kept trying to comb it between doses of breath spray sent into her mouth. Her blouse was wrinkled at places and needed ironing. It didn’t require a genius to conclude that she had spent the night at his place, and was now heading to work without much time to shower or freshen up.
When the bus came, Logan remained seated next to the
woman.

‘Your bus is here! Go!’ she said.

‘No. I’ll spend a few more minutes with you until your bus comes,’ he replied.

The polo-T woman, the old man, and I got on Bus 19,
while he stayed behind with his girlfriend.

For the next few days, she was with him at the bus stop. Though on some days neither of them was there. Presumably, that’s when Logan was at her place. When I came back from work at night, I could see them walking together near his house.

Within two months, they had settled into a new routine. She had moved in with him and every morning they came to the bus stop together. She took bus 42, which usually came before Bus 19. They kissed each other goodbye as she got on 42, then he returned to his usual spot and took out his phone.

‘It’s okay, you don’t need to work,’ he said one morning to his girlfriend, ‘I make enough to support both of us.’

‘That’s nice, but I need something to do. I can’t just stay at home the whole day,’ she protested.

‘You can do whatever you want,’ he said, ‘you could work on your sculpting. Make stuff. Or, you said you like cooking, right? I love your cooking!’

‘You’re just trying to convince me to stay at home and cook you dinner every day.’

He laughed, gave her a kiss, and said, ‘Baby, you can do whatever you want.’

I figured that the woman had quit her job since she no longer took her own bus to work anymore. At most, she accompanied Logan to the bus stop, wearing comfortable tank or spaghetti tops with sweatpants. She wasn’t dressed for work. They waited for Bus 19 together, and she saw him off when we got on the bus. She waved him goodbye
as the bus drove away with the rest of us on board.

One rainy morning, I noticed that they were arguing, though they were trying not to shout and attract attention to themselves. They probably thought we couldn’t hear them, since they were at the far corner of the bus stop, away from the rest of us. But it was clearly a heated argument.

‘I didn’t want to go in the first place,’ she said.

‘Yeah, you didn’t. Until you went and found a bunch of guys to throw yourself at.’

‘“Throw myself”? I was just talking. They were your friends.’

‘Yeah. My friends. So why were you talking to them?’

‘Since when do you decide who I get to talk to?’

‘Since you became my girlfriend.’

‘No,’ she said, ‘That’s not how it works. I get to talk to
whoever —’

He grabbed both of her arms tightly.

‘Do you know what the guys will think of me, Clara? My girlfriend getting drunk and flirting with guys!’

‘Let go, Jason,’ she said, ‘your bus is here.’

That was the point when the rain seemed to also fall on the picture I had painted in my head; the water dissolving the image of a handsome, friendly, kind, athletic, attractive man, slowly revealing the reality underneath.

Weeks and months passed by. Jason and Clara swung between the two extremes of being happy and sweet to each other at the bus stop, to quarrelling and saying horrible things to each other. But most commonly, they just stood quietly at the bus stop, not saying much. Sometimes, the swings occurred within the same day, arriving at the bus stop happily laughing, but becoming quiet, with dark faces by the time our bus arrived. The first couple of times I saw an argument break out, she left the bus stop and headed home. Later, she just stayed there with him even after they had an argument, quietly waiting until the bus
arrived, then silently waving him goodbye as we got on the bus.

I could never tell what caused their rapid mood swings, though Clara’s reactions suggested that she thought she had said something wrong. One day I noticed Jason ignoring her and refusing to look away from his phone, with Clara standing behind him looking like a sad puppy. A few times she touched his arm, trying to get his attention, but he just ignored her as if she was invisible. Then I saw her taking out a phone to send a text. An instant later Jason put away his phone but continued to ignore her.

During one of the days when Clara and Jason were just sitting quietly at the bus stop, I noticed something different. They were fighting again, but Clara seemed to be acting a bit strange. I noticed that she kept tilting her head to one side, letting her hair fall over the side of her face, so I couldn’t see it. My stomach tightened as I realised why. She had let her hair down so that she could cover a bruise just under her left eye.

I felt a surge of adrenaline run through my body, and my pulse quickened. Even though everyone was standing or waiting uneventfully at the bus stop, the weight of seeing the bruise on her eye came crashing down and ignited a state of alarm in my body. Suddenly I felt terrified and worried that Jason might have realised that I noticed the bruise on Clara. I tried not to move and pretended to stare absently down the street.

I took a deep breath to calm myself down and tried to think. Maybe I was over-thinking things. Maybe the bruise was due to an accident, like she fell while climbing a ladder or something. Wasn’t Jason a nice and charming person who had been kind to the polo-T lady? Even I was attracted to him once, wasn’t I? It was impossible that someone like him would do that to Clara. Eventually, I managed to push the thought away.

Bus 19 finally arrived, and Clara kissed Jason goodbye. Just before we got on, a weak, old man got his walker stuck against the bus door as he tried to alight. Jason was the first to rush forward to help him.

The old man thanked Jason profusely.

A few days went by, and I noticed that Clara began to dress differently. She started wearing long-sleeved sweaters and cardigans out at the bus stop with Jason, even when the weather was hot. What happened to her tank tops? I started to think about her bruise again. It had since cleared up and there wasn’t anything unusual on her face. They weren’t talking much, and it started to hit me how different they were from the first day I saw them.

One day, I happened to be the one wearing a sleeveless tank top. The fabric was thin and it hugged my body, showing off my figure. Not that I thought I had a good figure, but Jason was so obviously ogling me that it made me uncomfortable. It was impossible for Clara not to notice. I tried to look away and pretended not to notice anything, but I couldn’t help but look at Clara’s sleeves.

As I got on Bus 19, I sat as far away from Jason as I could. Then I made a plan to tell my boss that I wouldn’t be coming to work the next day.

My boss was fine with me taking the day off. I woke up earlier that morning and, instead of going to the bus stop, I sat on the bench at the park on the opposite side of the road. There were some trees in the way, but I had a view of the bus stop. I could see the polo-T lady and the old man, along with Clara and Jason, as usual. I watched them as they waited for the bus, and I waited along.

Bus 19 eventually came and temporarily blocked my view of them. Through the windows, I could see the polo-T lady and the old man get on. So did Jason. The bus rolled away, leaving Clara alone at the bus stop. She stood there motionless for at least a minute or two, her face deadpan. Then she adjusted her sleeves and walked down the street, but not towards Jason’s house. I stood up and followed her. She went to a coffee shop nearby. I watched a while from across the street. She ordered a coffee and a croissant before sitting down alone.

I felt nervous, a small adrenaline high hitting my body as I took a deep breath and crossed the street to enter the coffee shop. I tried to be as cheerful as possible and pretended to be surprised to see her.

‘Hi! You’re the one who’s always at the bus stop in the
morning.’

‘Hello,’ she said, giving me a small, perfunctory smile.

I knew I wasn’t going to be invited to sit with her. So, I asked if she minded if I joined her. It wasn’t something I normally did when I ran into people in public, but this time I had to. For her sake — or so I told myself. She nodded, and I sat down.

‘I’m Niki,’ I said.

‘Clara,’ she said, while adjusting her sleeves, barely making eye contact with me.
Then we were silent, as neither of us knew what to say next. I realised that I should have thought through my plan a little better. If I was going to help her in any way, I
needed to be friends with her first. And to be friendly with her, I needed to start a conversation with her. But the only thing I knew about her was that she waited with Jason at the bus stop, which was a problem because I needed to be ‘Clara’s friend’, and not be ‘Clara and Jason’s friend.’ I wanted to avoid mentioning Jason at all cost.

I managed to blurt out, ‘Where are you from?’

‘Malacca,’ she said, ‘how about you?’

‘I grew up here in Singapore, never went anywhere,’ I said, ‘and probably never will. I’m a shop assistant at Brickfields.’

As she raised her cup of coffee for a sip, her sleeve slipped up her arm a little, and I saw what I had suspected. There was a bruise on the middle of her arm. I only managed to catch a glimpse of it before she pulled down her sleeves again.

Despite the awkward start, we did talk for about half an hour. She said she was a graphic designer who first came to Singapore to work under a temporary contract. That was when she met Jason. In her words, they ‘fell madly in love’ with each other, and she stayed on in Singapore and eventually moved in with him. Her contract had ended and she was currently unemployed.

Our conversation was interrupted when she received a call from Jason on her phone. Without mentioning me at all, she said she was ‘still at the coffee shop, and was just
leaving.’

Just before we split up to go our separate ways, she
said, ‘I’m sorry, but can you please do me a favour?’

‘Sure, what is it?’

She hesitated, as if trying to find the right words. Finally, she said, ‘Next time we see each other at the bus stop, can we pretend that this never happened?’

‘“This”? You mean meeting here at the coffee shop?’

‘Yes. See, Jason and I are going through a rough time now. He might get jealous if he knew I was talking to people at coffee shops while he was at work.’

‘Jealous? But I’m a woman!’

‘Yes, but Jason knows I’m bisexual, so it’s still a problem. He said he would die if I ever left him for a woman. It’s worse than me leaving him for another man, which would be bad enough.’

‘Okay, fine,’ I said, ‘I’m not interested in you in that way, don’t worry about that. But let me give you my number. I suppose you could use a friend since you’re new to Singapore and all.’

For the next few days, I headed out to work as usual. Just as I had promised Clara, I pretended that I didn’t know her, and ignored them when they arrived at the bus stop. She didn’t call or text me.

In the following week, I took another day off to meet Clara at the coffee shop. I met her four or five times like this, and it seemed like we were gradually feeling comfortable with each other to consider ourselves as genuine friends. I tried not to talk to her about Jason, but rather we chatted about each other’s past relationships, our childhood, and our work. Mostly I told her my own stories, about this crush I once had on a guy who came to Brickfields, how my last relationship had ended badly, among other things.

I knew I couldn’t keep meeting her like this, especially since I was running out of leave days, and I would lose my job if I kept missing work. During my last leave day of that year, I finally asked her about the bruises I had seen on her arm and face.

I was worried that she might withdraw and not say anything, but it was my last chance. I was surprised when she said that sometimes her arguments with Jason got out of control. She was quiet for a moment before she continued, ‘I know you gave me your number, and I do enjoy talking and having coffee with you here. But I couldn’t call you because Jason saw your name on my phone and started asking questions. I had to delete your number to make him happy.’ I could see her tremble slightly, and tears began to roll down her eyes.

‘He had no right to do that,’ I protested, ‘how can he decide who you’re friends with?’

‘Well, he loves me, and is afraid of losing me.’ Even though they came from Clara’s mouth, I could tell that those were Jason’s words, not hers.

‘Does he not understand that women can have friendships that are platonic?’ I protested but immediately realised that I should not have approached the subject that
way, as she seemed like she was about to shut down.

‘He shouldn’t do this to you, in any case,’ I said, ‘how bad does it get?’

‘We have good and bad days. When he’s good, he’s really good, like Mr. Perfect, he treats me like a queen, keeps giving me gifts and compliments. But when he’s in a
bad mood he calls me names and insults me all the time. He even compared me to you once.’

‘Me?’

‘Yeah, you’re “that girl at the bus stop”. During sex, he took off my shirt and said he wished that my “tits were as big as that girl’s at the bus stop”. I got mad, and tried to leave the bedroom. But he wouldn’t let me go, and he hit me until I agreed to sleep with him.’

Not that it should make a difference, but now I felt violated and felt I had a more personal stake in getting Clara out of the relationship. So, it was that day that we decided that we should make a safety plan for Clara. We went out to buy a disposable pre-paid phone. I told her to hide it somewhere safe where Jason wouldn’t find it. She should use it to call me or the police if there were an emergency. We also bought a small duffel bag in which she kept some clothes and toiletries if she needed to leave the house in a hurry.

It would have been bad if I stopped meeting her immediately after she had told me her story. I needed to show her that I was there for her, whatever happened. So, despite running out of leave days, I continued meeting Clara at the coffee shop at least once a week. The weekdays were the only time for me to meet Clara without Jason around, so I had no choice but to skip work.

One night, around two in the morning, Clara called me from her pre-paid phone. She asked if she could stay at my place for a few days. They had gotten into another fight
again, and Jason was throwing things at her, and threatening to beat and kill her. I lived in a rented apartment, so legally speaking I couldn’t let her stay with me. But the
landlord was hardly ever around, and I was sure I could sneak Clara in around him. So, of course, I agreed.

On Clara’s third day staying in my room with me, I got a knock on the room door. I felt as if my heart stopped when I opened it to find Jason standing next to my landlord! Clara was in there with me, and her face turned pale with shock and fear.

‘Niki, Mr. Lee here says that you’ve been letting this woman live with you in this apartment?’ ‘It’s only temporary, she needed a place to stay —’

‘She does have a place to stay. She lives with me,’ Jason interjected.

The landlord turned to Jason and said, ‘Are you sure you still want her to stay with you after what she did?’

‘Wait,’ I said, ‘what did he say she did?’

‘She stole his money and ran away,’ my landlord replied.

‘I didn’t,’ Clara said weakly.

‘He beats her.’ I said, getting heated, ‘That’s what she’s running away from!’

‘Mr. Lee told me she would make that excuse. Anyway, you’re violating our contract. She can’t stay here. And we need to stay out of their business.’

‘It’s alright, just get your things, Clara,’ Jason said. Then he turned to the landlord and said, ‘do you mind if I use your bathroom while she gets her things? We’ll get out of your hair soon enough.’

The landlord nodded. There was nothing I could do. In the end, Clara told me not to worry as she gathered her stuff to leave. As she packed her things, I noticed that she
had left her house keys on my dresser. On a whim, I picked up Clara’s jacket and slipped in my phone before passing the jacket to her, desperately hoping that I had left my phone in silent mode. I knew Clara would be punished badly as soon as Jason got the chance.

As they left, I took out my laptop and logged into the FindMyPhone website. I let out a sigh of relief to see that the GPS on my phone was properly activated and I could see the blip moving slowly away from my apartment on the map. I got dressed and took Clara’s house keys. I knew Clara left them there for me because she knew she would
get beaten that night, and hoped that I was smart enough to pick up on that and could go over to stop him.

That was how I had the thought that I needed to know where Clara was at all times, especially tonight. I kept my eyes on the blip as it crossed the streets and headed towards the general direction of Jason’s house.

But as the blip passed through the neighbourhood park, it stopped moving. I felt my stomach twist into knots as I tried to think of reasons why they had possibly stopped in the middle of the park beside a lake. Did the phone drop out of Clara’s jacket? Could he have found the phone? Or, could he be doing something to her there? I realised in horror that the park was completely deserted at this time of the night. There wouldn’t be any ‘witnesses’ if something happened there.

I wrote down the GPS coordinates on a piece of paper and ran downstairs to call the police from the nearest payphone — thank God they still had one of those near my
place. As quickly and calmly as I could, I gave the coordinates and the location to the operator who answered my call, saying that a woman might be in danger. Then I hung
up and ran towards the lake.

When I reached the lake, I found Jason sitting on top of Clara, who was lying face down. He was pushing her face into the ground.

‘So, you want to leave me for that dyke huh?’ he said, ‘I’ll show you what a real man feels like. You’re gonna regret even looking at that bitch.’

Shit, I thought, I should have brought some kind of weapon with me. All I could do was to approach him and say, ‘Jason, let her go.’

‘Stay out of this,’ he said, as he calmly turned to face me. With a smile, he continued, ‘I’m telling the police that both of you are trying to steal my money to run away. You’re the one who’s going to jail.’

‘They’re not going to believe you.’

‘They will. After they search your apartment and find ten thousand dollars in your apartment.’

‘Why would anyone find ten… oh shit. You went to the bathroom.’

‘Yes, and it’s in a plastic bag inside the cistern,’ he said.

My brain went into overdrive, and an idea came to me, ‘Well, thanks for saying that. I got it all recorded now.’

His face changed. ‘You’re lying!’ he said as he stood up from Clara and began to approach me.

Despite my whole body shivering with fear, I made a show of putting my hand into my jacket pocket, made a fist and pulled it out. My hand was shaking badly. But it was dark, so I hoped that he wouldn’t notice that it was just my fist holding nothing. In my mind, I was trying to will the police into existence, hoping that they would arrive soon.

‘You’re lying,’ he said again, and continued to approach. I put my fist back into my jacket. For a moment, I thought about running away, but I wasn’t sure if he’d chase me. I couldn’t leave Clara alone. I stood rooted but shaking as he got closer. When he reached, he pushed me to the ground and sat astride me. His movements were quick and efficient, like it was something he was very familiar with. I kept my fist balled up in my jacket pocket as he tried to pull it out.

As I struggled with him, a bright light suddenly flashed onto both of our faces.
‘Sir, step away from the woman!’ an authoritative voice called out.

Jason stopped moving and got off me.

In the darkness, I could just barely make out the image of a police officer pulling Jason away. ‘Get on your knees and put your hands behind your back,’ the voice ordered.

‘Danny, help the other woman,’ the officer told his partner as he handcuffed Jason.

I turned to see the other officer helping Clara up. My body was shaking too much for me to stand up on my own, and they had to come over to help me up too.

‘It’s alright, ladies,’ said the officer, ‘you’re alright. It’s over now.’

Not really.

Things like these aren’t ‘over’ easily. But at least Clara was safe for now.

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