It was almost time for the buses to arrive.
I watched from across the road as the girl emerged from the stairs leading down to the toilets, holding a mop and bucket. She looked towards the western end of the highway for a moment, then went inside the shop.
The boy was sitting in a corner in front of the fruit stand, reading a yellow paperback whose cover was slightly torn. He must have read that book about two dozen times from front to back, by my estimates. It did not look like a book that can be read even half a dozen times without going mad, but then for me that’s true of all books. He startled, like he did whenever the woman shouted at him, cocked his ears towards the kitchen, closed the book and got up. As he did, he met my gaze and stared at me, like he had done intermittently over the past month. I wondered if he suspected anything. He then hobbled inside the shop.
The man came into my view. It looked like every other week he added a chin to his pudgy neck. He pointed out a few tables to the boy, who nodded and took uneven steps towards them. The man was generally not unkind, unlike the woman.
On his way to the tables, the boy met the gaze of the girl. She did not seem to focus on him, however, looking somewhere far away. His shoulders indicated a mild sigh and then he hobbled on.
A number of things had to be done to welcome the visitors of each bus. The tables had to be cleaned, any bugs had to be thrown away and any roosters had to be locked away in case they tried to peck the customers. They, the chickens I mean, seemed to hold some special grudge against city-dwellers prominently, ignoring the village folk who ignored them back, and inspecting curiously at a distance any foreigners who inspected them curiously. The man was now bringing out the heated chickpeas and pigeon peas out of the kitchen. They were most likely cooked yesterday morning. Out came also the white noodles and the onion fritters. The man straightened the dishes and walked back to his station behind the counter.
The first bus came into view. It was a large yellow thing, moving at its own pace in an empty road, not in a hurry to end its journey; a kind of temporal luxury permitted by abundance of options and opportunities. As it neared the shop, the three characters tensed, like a wound-up coil. But the bus did not stop there, and the tension deflated.
Moments later, a microbus came blazing down the same path, cornered without slowing and parked. The door slid open and the conductor, a scrawny looking fellow, jumped out and stretched his arms. The passengers ambled out slowly, like bears arising from a long, long winter. Then two other buses arrived too, and soon it was a full house. Of course, half of the crowd, especially most of those from the latter tourist bus, went to the fancy restaurant nearly adjacent to the shop. It was a two-storeyed building, and what went on in there I could not see. It was very likely the people going in there also ate.
The people rushed to the toilets, and for a while the crowd was gone. Then they were back. Predictably, the earliest event that took place after was the smokers taking out their packs, or going to the counter and asking for smokes. They all meandered near the parking while the other people went inside the shops except a few that went inside the buses again, having had enough of the outside world. The smokers shared a companionable silence, although most probably did not know each other, and would never get the chance. But they all acted like multiples of a single organism, maintaining a distance of a few feet, moving a few paces a minute, like members of some long lost order now forced to integrate into modern society.
Inside the shop, the man was busy taking and exchanging notes, and pointing above him to every customer, none of whom seemed to have the ability to look thirty degrees above the counter at the menu. Perhaps they thought such a place would not have a menu, so even if they caught sight of it, their brains erased it from thought. The menu was made by the boy a month back, on a piece of wood he had doused with varnish that the man had helped put up. After the menu was up, they looked at it with pride, the man with his hand on his hips and the boy with his hands inside his pockets, until the woman had come out of the kitchen and pointed fingers and opened her mouth at them.
Most of the crowd settled by now, some with plates while others clutching glass bottles of orange or black liquid. To a side sat the drivers, rough looking men with bellies, and the conductors, thin boys who did not seemed to be aware of the idea of belts, their pants on the precipice of suffering a fall. I had not witnessed one ever falling, though. Their tables had plates laden with greasy food and green glass bottles they kept ordering mroe of. These were men in motion, fundamentally opposite from the hosts here. They cared about small pleasures and pains, and would talk animatedly while pointing to parts in their vehicles. But compared to the people of the shop, they had a kind of lightness, like dogs basking in the sun, unaware of the despair of tomorrow. A few drivers came up to the counter and talked with the man, sometimes shook hands. Some of the wrinkly drivers talked to him and slapped him in the back like old friends.
The boy, it seemed, was even better at talking to people. The drivers and conductors all laughed when he gestured wildly with his hands in front of them, and some women passengers seemed to pity him and hand him notes. He looked at the money forlornly, however. Three weeks ago he had received a thrashing from the woman with a broom when she had found him counting his money. The man had seen this, started towards the conflict, then looked down and backed away. The boy had not counted any notes, at least in my sight, since then. One driver introduced the boy to a man in smart clothes with sharp eyes. A round of conversation seemed to be taking place after which the smartly-dressed man put a hand on the boy’s shoulders and made a sweeping gesture with his hands. The boy seemed to contemplate for a moment. Then he shook his head and hobbled away.
The girl was manning the fruit stand. Cucumbers always seemed to be selling, with middle-aged women buying a bunch for their families. Flies kept on swarming, which the girl had to chase away. When the stand started to get empty, younger drivers nonchalantly arrived. They did not seemed to be the sort to enjoy fruits or cucumbers particularly, but they always bought some and hovered in front of the girl. She smiled at them and nodded when they were talking.
The woman came out of the kitchen then, looking simultaneously like a tall hag and a regal aristocrat. She swiftly moved out of the shop in front of the fruit stand. The woman pointed at the girl and then at the kitchen. The girl looked down, then hurried inside. The sheepish driver put a hand on his head, then went away. The woman staffed the fruit stand. No more cucumbers were sold that day.
A few reddish-looking people, foreigners, pointed at me. Three of them crossed the road and approached me. Taking turns, they pointed a black rectangle, two of them on each side of me each time. The two crowded near the one holding the rectangle and they nodded their heads and gave short laughs. Then they went back. Even I found foreigners unsettling.
Suddenly, the ears of all the people pricked up in unison, like they were hearing the call of a pterodactyl or the bellowing of a war horn. Then everyone resumed what they were doing, but now in haste. The eaters shoved food into their mouths. Some ran toward the toilets. The drivers had gone already, while the conductors were gesturing at the remaining passengers. The girl rushed out of the kitchen, holding more cut cucumbers. Even the smokers sped up their inhaling slightly. Within a few minutes the crowd had disappeared into their buses and the girl had sold a few more cucumbers.
The buses vibrated, and like some sunrises, seemed to move ever so slowly at the beginning, but before any time had passed they had gained quite some momentum and were rushing away. The girl kept staring at the eastern front of the highway, at the departures. When the last one had turned the corner, she turned her eyes and started fiddling with the net covering the fruit.
The boy came out of the shop, holding a pair of black glasses. They were common sitting atop the heads of the tourists, of course, but he looked at them with a sort of awe now that they were in his hands. Now they seemed to be a part of the real world for him, not just the transient one marked by the buses. He tried them on, but perhaps they did not fit his skull. Because next he hobbled in front of the fruit stand and handed them to the girl.
The girl looked up and focused at him for a moment. Then, out of a reverie, she took the glasses. She murmured and shot a smile. He shrugged. He opened his mouth again, froze for a moment, then walked away. Her gaze oscillated between the glasses and the boy’s receding back for quite a while.
Everything stood still. Waiting, until it was time again for the buses to arrive.