This was my son's third Christmas. And, as his dad, I came up with unquestionably the best gift ever.
On December 25, my son was overwhelmed with presents from loving relatives. But none from me. I'm no fan of Christmas. Over the years, I've seen it become an increasingly commercial holiday. But Christmas is for kids. So my gift was to take my son on his first bus ride.
The allure of the long vehicular monster that snakes its way through suburbia looms large when you're a kid. My son eagerly points out every bus he sees. They sing songs about buses at day care. My son destroys his toy buses with unbridled enthusiasm. And yet, he'd never actually been on a bus.
Hand-in-hand, we walk excitedly to the bus stop. Despite the day being warm and dry, my son has insisted he wear his favourite shoes: red gumboots. As with most Christmases, the streets are quiet. Two kids on bikes ride past: "Merry Christmas!" they proclaim like Dickensian urchins. "Merry Kissmas!" my son calls back in his beautifully underdeveloped pronunciation.
After several agonising minutes waiting, the bus arrives. The driver offers her own festive wishes; she's wearing a Santa hat. My son flashes a joyous smile of precious new teeth. Feeling the full force of his charm, the driver returns the favour. This cute little guy just made working Christmas Day slightly more bearable.
The bus fills with passengers as we approach the city. A group of Asian students boards with laughter, staring into each other's phones. A painfully thin junkie rattling with nervous energy takes a seat at the back. An elderly man reeking of alcohol stumbles on, wearing his own Santa hat and ruddy Rudolph nose. But I don't see any other kids. Hmm. Maybe this gift is a little odd after all.
And yet, my son's eyes are everywhere. He's admiring the large bus windows and colourful seat patterns while the diesel engine rumbles behind his dangling gumboots. He watches people press the bell to disembark. Now he wants to press the bell more than anything. I let him as we approach our final destination.
It's a short stop. We stretch our legs and immediately reboard for the return journey. The Christmas Day service is a special loop that runs hourly.
Riding home, I savour familiar sights of streets I once walked to high school. We pass by the homes of old classmates to whom I no longer speak or of whose whereabouts I don't even know. I see the house of my teenage crush, and remember all the times I rode past on my Malvern Star, hoping to catch a glimpse of her reading a book on the verandah. But I never did.
I pull my son close. He nestles in, comfortable and safe. The day will come when a bus ride will be just a bus ride. Anxious journeys to school, mind-numbing commutes to work, and tiresome shuttles to the airport. Until then, I drink in such moments.
We return home. As expected, my son takes some convincing to get off at our stop. I promise him we'll ride the bus again. And yes, before next Christmas. For even though this was ostensibly a present for him, it was secretly also a gift for me: of a priceless new memory that I'll carry with me always.
Peter Papathanasiou is a writer who divides his time between Australia, London and Greece.