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The bus came to a groaning halt. Its electric-powered door swung open and I boarded it. After dropping some cash into the fare box, I edged my way towards the rear of the bus through a line of standing passengers. I grinned when I spotted an unoccupied seat beside a red-shirted Iban man.
Having ensconced myself in the seat, I decided to close my eyes for a short rest. But then, something smelly attacked my nostrils. Crinkling my nose, I looked sideways at my neighbour, who seemed to be captivated by the view of buildings whirring past the window.
How many days has he not taken a shower?
I suddenly found myself staring at the man eye-to-eye. My surprise turned to a shock when I realised that his face was mottled with bruises, scabs and open wounds. Before I could tear my eyes away, the man cracked a smile and said, “Hi, pulang ke rumah?”
I was stunned for a moment, not knowing how to answer. But nevertheless, I nodded.
“Does my face frighten you?” asked the man, looking at me with a penetrating gaze.
The question threw me off guard. I shook my head and stammered, “No.”
“It’s okay, don’t feel bad about it,” the man lifted his forefinger and waved it from side to side.
“May I know what happened to you?” I ventured, my embarrassment easing a little.
“Oh, muka saya?” he said in a calm voice, pointing at his wounded face. “I fell off my motorcycle four days ago. A car knocked me from behind.”
“Good grief!” I exclaimed.
“The motorcycle overturned and slid across the road before being run over by a truck,” he continued, his face impassive. “It was reduced to a total wreckage.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said.
“It’s okay. I’m glad that I’m alive,” replied the man.
“Ya, it was fortunate of you to have escaped death,” I said.
The bus was now driving around a sharp bend. We both lurched forward in our seats. The standing passengers tightened their grips on the overhead railing to steady themselves.
“Who took you to the hospital?” asked I.
“The driver who knocked me down,” he answered.
“Did he compensate you?”
“Ya, not much though.”
I decided not to ask how much the amount was. Instead, I asked, “When were you discharged from the hospital?”
I was baffled. He should have rested at home!
He seemed to be able to read my thought and said, “I returned to my workplace just now.”
Amazed, I asked him what had made him go back to work.
“I pleaded with my boss not to give me the boot. I had been fired on the day of the accident.”
“How inconsiderate of him!” I burst out.
“He insisted on firing me, saying that I had neglected my work.”
“But you had no choice.”
“He’s a typical boss, cold and insensitive. There was nothing I could do,” said the man. A pall of gloom descended upon his face.
The bus pulled over beside a school and picked up more passengers. The bus driver kept hollering to some standing passengers at the front to move to the back.
Seeing that his order had been complied with, he turned the ignition on and pulled the bus away from the stop. The presence of school pupils filled the bus with sweaty odours.
The Iban man interrupted my briefly-diverted attention by saying: “Things keep getting from bad to worse if you are doomed with bad luck.”
“Oh,” was all I could say. My heart was full of commiseration.
“After leaving that dratted workshop, I went back to the hospital asking for some anti-depressants. But the doctor did not want to give me any,” He curled his calloused fingers into a fist.
“Did you go to the psychiatric clinic?” I asked.
“Yes, my mood has been unstable after the accident!” he said with a perceptible spasm of indignance.
“Do you go there regularly?”
“Yes, I have been a regular outpatient since I came out of jail two years ago.”
I covered my mouth to stifle my gasp.
“You’re shocked, aren’t you?”
I did not say anything.
“You look down on me?” His voice wavered as he spoke.
“No, everyone has their ups and downs,” I gave him a tap on the shoulder.
The man ran his fingers through his mop of greasy, shoulder-length hair. He cleared his throat and said, “That doctor, Miss Ida Mustafa, insisted that I was all right and that I needed no anti-depressants. Stubborn woman,” He sighed.
Dr. Ida Mustafa? What a familiar name. The man couldn’t have been lying!
“What is the colour of your psychiatric outpatient card?” I said.
“It’s out of the ordinary, being pink in colour,” he replied.
I opened my knapsack and fished out a card of similar colour. He looked at it with dilated eyes.
“Why? You have the same card!”
“I never thought that we were the same kind of people!” he said.
“What do you mean?” I said, frowning.
“Orang Tak Siuman!”
Orang Tak Siuman?!
“I am not mentally imbalanced!” I remonstrated, “and neither are you!”
“Normal people always perceive all psychiatric patients that way,” he said.
“That is prejudice!”
“When did you start going to the psychiatrist?” asked the man.
“Last year,” I answered.
“Depression. What about yours?”
“I have a tendency for violence. My doctor told me that it was bi-bi…” The term was on the tip of the man’s tongue.
“Bipolar disorder,” I said flatly.
“Ya, that’s the term. How do you know?”
“My doctor diagnosed me as suffering from the same disorder,” I replied, inadvertently divulging more and more to him.
“Ha-ha, we are the same after all!” Laughed the man, his eyes narrowing into slits.
I shot him a reproachful glance.
“When my mind goes reeling round and round, I will be violent and unable to work. Is that familiar to you?”
I shook my head. But I remembered how bad my temper had been years ago. At one point, I had been unable to teach at school for weeks because of unsteady mood swings.
“I think yours is not as serious as mine.”
“No, not at all,” I said, rolling my eyes.
“Celaka!” cursed the man out of the blue, “Without anti-depressants, it’s difficult for me to sleep at night. The wounds on my body are giving me much sengsara.”
“How do you make yourself sleep?” I inquired.
“I booze till I am drunk,” was his reply.
“That is not good for health.”
“Do you think I have a choice?”
I fell quiet. I could not have imagined what I would have done had I been in his situation.
“Do you want to see the wounds on my body?” he asked, but quickly rolled up his shirt and showed me the ghastly wounds on his chest and stomach.
“There are some more on my back and legs,” he added.
Now I understood why he smelled so bad. It was not possible to take a shower with such a wound-laden body.
He went on, “How I wish I could return to my Kampung. But I don’t have enough money.”
“Don’t think of going back to your kampung now. Rest as much as you can,” I advised.
“The hell with my boss. How I wish I could punch his nose!” He said through clenched teeth, cracking his knuckles.
“Be patient,” was another piece of advice I gave him, as I felt increasingly uncomfortable in his presence.
“He will never understand my plight. I am practically broke,” he murmured in despair, his eyes glazing over.
I drew a deep breath.
Fretfully, I looked around and found the bus approaching a church. In a few minutes it would be reaching the vicinity of my house.
“Oh, I’m going to reach my house in a minute. I’ve to go now,” I rose and pressed the bell above me.
The man was not looking at me. He was holding his head with both hands in brooding silence. His face was contorted with emotion.
The bus lurched to a stop. I got off the bus as soon as I could.
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