The question came from a tall thin gentleman in his late fifties, on the 373 bus. He was holding up his ticket and looking directly at me. The tickets here have big red arrows on them, indicating which way they should be inserted into the stamping machine. And I had a big red face on me, that should have indicated that I'm not from around these here parts, and so shouldn't be relied on for local information (or much else, for that matter).
I was confused by the question. I knew the answer alright, but I was still having trouble dealing with the fact that he had decided that I was the authority on that subject. In fact given the bloody great red arrow, I was having trouble dealing with the fact that the question was posed at all.
When I nodded in the affirmative (though in a wrinkle-browed, open-mouthed kind of way - I must have looked like a Barrystown pony boy) my new ticket-wielding friend looked very pleased with himself and went off to stamp it. When he came back, he saaid "Not bad eh? It's been 6 weeks since I rode a Sydney bus. The ol' memory hasn't let me down eh?"
Now when it comes to poor memory, I'm in no position to be casting first stones. But I have yet to find myself getting excited about remembering how buses work, or which way arrows point. There's time of course - as I mentioned, the gentleman had a good 20-year lead on me. But in the meantime, I reserve the right to be confused and slightly disturbed by this kind of misplaced triumhalism.
I just couldn't get my head around this conversation and it must have shown. I think at this point, the veil of stupidity that I sometime wear must have fallen suddenly and heavily over my features, and prompted the gentleman to explain further.
"I'm from the Bush", he said and sat back smiling, as if everything should now be clear.
It wasn't of course. I was now moving from general confusion on the content of this conversation, and how I might appropriately respond, to the more specific question about why anyone would describe themselves - much less excuse themselves - in these terms. "The Bush", as I understand it, means pretty much anywhere that isn't city, and correlates pretty closely with "down the country" - a phrase that Dubliners use when referring to any place in Ireland, at whatever compass bearing, that isn't Dublin. I can't imagine apologising for example, for not having exact change on a Dublin Bus by pleading "Sorry boy - mucksavage. Only up for the day."
As I sat there, teetering on the brink of this new confusion and unable to reply, he struck again.
"Canberra" he said.
I didn't know if he was elaborating on the previous answer, offering me an alternative one, or starting a whole new conversation. But I knew one thing for sure. If I didn't say something quick, he'd just keep going, and I'd have to do something that I'd never done before - ignore a perfect stranger attempting to strike up a conversation on a bus. If my mother ever found out, I wouldn't be able to come back home. I had to act.
"Canberra!" I shouted, with completely inappropriate enthusiasm. "We're thinking of going there!"
This, as it happens, is true. But I was in verbal defense mode, desperately aiming for a draw, and keeping one eye on the clock. I was capable of saying anything. Canberra - my uncle played silly mid quarterback half stop for the local cricket team between the wars. Or Canberra! Great town. I was born there - no no not in this life of course. But I resisted the rising panic.
"You must drop in!" he parried, without adding any further useful detail like an address, or for that matter, a motive.
I fumbled terrbily now. My bus stop was approaching. I gathered together my grocery bags, mumbled "Er, right" and headed for the exit. I may, or may not, have waved and shouted back "See you there" just before getting off the bus.
Sorry Mam - I tried.