They weren’t sitting together on the bus on the way back from the bread factory. Tim was sitting next to Alice, the girl who lived at the end of the street. Laura didn’t care. She sat content with her bag of rolls wondering whether her mum would be there waiting to take her home. Sometimes she swapped with Tim’s mum who would send one of Tim’s big brothers. Paul was kind but Neil scared her.
The last time she had been on a bus was with her mum on the way to visit nan. A lady on the bus was wearing plastic curlers in her black hair. They were pinned closely to her head with metal clips and a purple scarf was wrapped around them.
“Why do people wear rollers on the bus mum?” she’d asked
“Sh!” said her mum, “Don’t point”
She still wondered about the rollers. There was no-one on the bus with rollers today, just other children and Mrs Wright. The seats were the same green colour and there was a metal bit to hold onto in front.
The bus pulled to a halt outside the white picket fence. She stood up and walked down the bus behind the others. Tim and Alice were ahead. She felt a bit nervous going down the steps and held on tightly to the rail.
“Come on Laura,” said Mrs Wright, “Don’t dawdle.”
She couldn’t see her mother anywhere. She followed the others into the locker room and dropped her bag of rolls next to her sleeping mat. Then she was shooed outside. She climbed the ladder up to the playhouse but Alice was there and she didn’t know how to talk to Alice so she hurried through and took the long slide down to the sandpit below. She picked up a shovel and started digging. She looked up and saw Tim run over to the fence. Neil was leaning over it chatting to him.
It had happened. He had come to take them home. There was something about him that made her tighten up on the inside and gave her butterflies. He had dark hair and spoke too quickly and softly. She couldn’t be with him all the way up the big hill. There was only one choice. She knew what to do. She dropped the spade and climbed out of the sand pit. She walked over towards the fence. Tim was facing away from her and couldn’t see her. Neil didn’t notice her at all. She wandered down towards the gate. It was very slightly open; the catch hadn’t quite clicked when they filed back in from the bus. She pushed it and it squeaked loudly and swung open. No-one noticed. She walked through it onto the grassy path that led up the hill. Then she started running. She passed Tim and the back of his brother without being seen. The school house looked down the hill and she was running up it. She had escaped from Neil and she felt an exhilarating sense of freedom as she ran higher and higher. She ran past daisies and bull ants, driveways and parked cars tall pines and neatly mown front yards with pig face, hedges, garden gnomes and white swans. She passed a blue house, a white house, a khaki house and a yellow brick house. Then she got the stitch and slowed to a walk. She turned for a moment and looked back down the hill. The river was glistening blue grey below. The swans that swam on it were black. The school house looked very small all the way down there now. No-one was standing at the fence anymore and Neil wasn’t anywhere in sight. Maybe he had gone in to get the bags. She had better hurry in case he caught up. The most important thing was working out how to get across the road at the top of the hill. She was fairly sure she could do it. She started walking along the roadside but there was no footpath and it wasn’t the way that her mum went. When she got to a spot she strongly thought was the right spot Laura ran. The black bitumen expanded before her. Halfway across she remembered that you shouldn’t run across the road, so she slowed to a hurry. She reached the other side and was on familiar ground.
This was where they walked when Tim had told her that the male snails were poisonous. You could tell the males because of the dark rings on their shells he had said. She was very scared of snails now as she didn’t want to be poisoned. She walked past the two Dutch houses, the pink house and the small green house with the fly wire door which was next door to her home. She walked down the rockery path, past the camellias and up the front steps where the white rhododendron bloomed and knocked on the pale blue front door.
“Laura, what are you doing here?” asked her mum in surprise, “Did someone bring you home?” She looked around for a car or a teacher but there wasn’t one.
“Neil came and I thought he was bringing us home, so I had to run away” Laura said.
“You know you’re not allowed to cross the road by yourself? Promise me you’ll never do that again.”
Laura nodded gravely, a tear formed in her eye.
“Now darling” said her mum, sweeping her up into a big hug. “It’s not the end of preschool yet. It’s not even lunch time. I was coming today. Come inside and have a milkshake.”
Laura dried her eyes. She was home with her mum. There was nothing else like it.