Flash Fiction: Night Bus

After eleven I get on the night bus. I know all the routes by heart and which particular one doesn’t matter, only being in the dry. Often there’ll be a café at the end of the line, one of those workmen’s ones that open their doors at dawn. You might get a free tea. Egg and chips on the house if you’re lucky. But not always. Not by any means always.

It’s hard on the legs when you can’t lie down at night. Does your circulation in. Been carted off to hospital twice. Sally Army – they do that sort of stuff. I find a seat by a window, rest my head, close my eyes and sometimes drop off to sleep. Not always.

Sometimes I have dreams, but those special dreams you get when you’re neither asleep nor awake. Once I thought I was teaching in some posh private school. Up in front of the class, writing my stuff on the board with my back to the kids. But when I turned around the room was empty. And when I turned back what I had written was all, like, scribble. And why should that surprise me? All I could ever write was my name. What was I doing up there with my piece of chalk and my academic gown, me with the greasy dreadlocks and string-tied mac?

Nobody sits next to me, ever. I mean, why would they? It’s a mixed bunch: young and drunk after parties; shabby pensioners pretending they’re not just trying to save on the gas fire. You get those in libraries, too. Tonight there’s only me and the driver. He’s got his head in one of those free newspapers as I sneak past, tiptoeing to somewhere near the back. He often manages not to see me that way. ‘Course, if I was to start being disorderly he’d turf me off. Ditched in some East End thoroughfare, some hopped-up kid coming out of an alleyway, blade glinting in the streetlight. But I’m not disorderly. Always the quiet sort.

You don’t often get an angel in full regalia, but that’s what gets on next. I wonder if he’ll catch my eye and nod, but he doesn’t. Well, why would he? The lighting down this stretch isn’t too good, one streetlamp on, the next one off. Council economies. Driver slows us down, going gingerly. I am wide awake by now and watching as shadowy terraces slide by, broken factories, bits of waste ground. The angel has his nose in a big book, leather-bound with gold lettering, like they had in the olden days. He seems very taken with it.

On we trundle. Where might an angel be off to on a night bus, I wonder. Resting his wings for a bit maybe, like me. Next minute he snaps to attention. It’s as if he can see something or hear something that I can’t. He plucks a stray feather from one of his wings and bookmarks his book with it, lays the book down on the seat. He stands up and raises his arms. There’s a kind of swish, a roaring, kind of stars, kind of butterflies. I don’t know. I hang onto the rail in front as the bus shudders to a stop.

Whatthe…? This from the driver. It’s just bleedin’ stopped. The bus just bleedin’…

The angel and his book have disappeared. Well, why wouldn’t they? I get up and stumble down to the front where the driver is opening a metal compartment and groping around for a torch. We go outside together and shine it, and there is this monster hole in the road. We can neither of us see to the bottom of the hole, it’s just too deep and black. Nearer the surface, tangled cables, water pouring out of a severed drainage pipe. That hole would have swallowed this bus. Probably several buses.

Sink’ole, says the driver, that’s what it is. All that rain we been getting. Bloody bus did an emergency stop, all on its own. I never saw that ‘ole, mate, and I swear I never touched the brakes.

Nah, I say. It was the angel.

You saw one?

I nod. Sitting across the aisle from me, it was – wings, feathers, the works.

Bleedin’ell, mate! And we look back down the hole.

Things didn’t change much after that. Nobody came and put me into sheltered accommodation. I wasn’t learned to read or offered a job. I didn’t get clothed or washed or my hair cut short or converted to Jesus. I went on catching the night bus month after month, year after year, and sometimes there was teabag-tea or egg and chips at the end café.

Three things stayed with me, though. The driver let me on without a ticket, and when we were staring down that bus-sized hole he called me mate, spoke to me like a human, not a filthy tramp. And an angel put down his book to save our lives.

Talk To Me, Please

“Talk to me, please. I’m off to the War quite soon.”

She was alone in the carriage with this young man, and she didn’t like it. It wasn’t really safe for a girl to be on a train alone nowadays, especially at night, in the blackout, but she hadn’t want to miss her first lesson. It was so important that she attend right from the start and not miss anything. Her sister Jean was supposed to have come with her, but she’d gone down with the flu. Since It happened – Grace had come to think of It always with a capital letter – they had treated her like glass, something breakable. Afraid to let her out on her own, just in case.

Just in case of what? She didn’t know; nobody seemed to know what exactly, just Something.

She wished he hadn’t taken it into his head to speak to her. What was he thinking, this boy in an ill-fitting uniform with dirt under his fingernails? Didn’t he know it would make a girl anxious, if he spoke to her? Why hadn’t she checked before she opened the door to the carriage – picked one with more people in it?

She gave him a faint smile, hoping that would be enough.

“Please talk to me, Miss. I might be dead soon. I just need someone to talk to, take my mind of it. Is that all right?”

She smiled again, hoping that would be OK and reading the strain in his eyes. He seemed close to tears. Funny, she would never have noticed such things as dirt under someone’s fingernails or a man’s unshed tears before. Now it seemed she noticed them all the time.

“I missed my train, you see. I was saying goodbye to the cows.”

Cows, she got that. A tiny thrill went through her. I got that, she thought. One lesson and I got it. Cows….

But surely not; why would he be telling her about cows? Was he a farmer? Why would he talk about cows?

“They understand, you see. It’s like the bees, you can tell them anything and you must tell them. They like to know. Good listeners, cows. My favourite is Milly. She’s a Frisian. We’ve got a mixed herd, Frisians and Guernseys.”

There is was again, she had seen it. Hooray, she had seen it. Cows.

“I’m scared, you see Miss. I couldn’t tell them that at home, but I’m in a real funk about it. I’m no soldier, Miss. I don’t want to kill people, and I don’t want to get killed. I really don’t want to get killed, Miss. But I couldn’t tell them.”

He was frightened, she could see. Sometimes you didn’t need words. She nodded, hoping if he was going to talk he would just keep talking and not decide to ask her a question.

“Had to put on a brave face, you see. My poor Mum. How are she and Dad going to manage on their own? Farming’s heavy work – well, I’m sure you know that, Miss – and she’s not strong. And Dad, he’s getting old now – too old to be called up. I’m not very bright, Miss. People say I’m three bricks short of a load, stuff like that – but I’m strong, I’m ever so strong, Miss. Look!”

He held up his clenched fist, trying to show her how, under the rough brown serge of his sleeve, the muscles fairly bulged.

She flinched. What was he doing? Did he mean to punch her? Had she misunderstood? How long to the next stop? She would get out at the next stop, even if this was the last train, even if she had to sit on a platform bench all night and catch the milk train home at daylight.

“Oh, sorry Miss. Please don’t be frightened. I won’t do that again. I just want to talk. I’m lonely, you see. I was meant to go up with the boys – the other boys from the village – but I missed the train that they were on.

“It’ll be all right, I’ll still get to the barracks on time. Plenty of time. They’ll all be there before me, that’s all. All my mates. Not that they are my mates, really. They call me The Daftie. They laugh behind my back. But I’m good enough to die, Miss, aren’t I?

“After all, I can die as easy as they can. And maybe when we get there I might save one of them. I might, mightn’t I Miss? I might turn out to be brave after all. I might run into the line of fire and pick up an injured village boy and carry him to safety on my back, like they do in films. They won’t call me Daftie then, will they? I’ll be a hero!”

Hero! Hero? It could be. Hero would go with the uniform. It was more likely than cows. She nodded again, beginning to relax a little. He just wanted to talk. It didn’t look like he would be asking her any questions. All she had to do was look as if she could hear him.

Her mind wandered back to her evening class at the Institute. It had been run by a lady with a dog, a specially trained dog thst did her hearing for her. Labrador, it was, very placid. Cream-coloured. She liked the cream-coloured ones.

All round the walls – grey-blue walls, the same colour they painted battleships – were posters – Careless Talk Costs Lives, Dig for Victory – and a big chart of all the mouth-shapes she was going to have to learn. She knew already that P and B were difficult because they looked so similar. You had to guess them from the context, the dog lady had said. ‘P’ she said, in her mind, trying to visualise the face to go with it. ‘B’.

They had broken for refreshments half way through. The canteen was in the basement, down a lot of steep, narrow steps and painted the same battleship grey; must have been a job lot of paint. They queued up for cups of tea in thick white china mugs. There was a lady with an urn behind a counter. She put a teabag in the mug and the mug underneath the spout, and pulled. Steam came out. Grace had never actually seen a tea-urn before. She had tried to imagine the hissing sound of the steam, superimpose it. She was still thinking like a hearing person.

There had been scones too. Cheese scones. A bit hard. They had sat at the same table in silence eating their scones and sipping their scalding tea. What else could they do? Perhaps it would get easier as the course went on. A group of strangers.

“Meningitis is a cruel disease,” the doctor had told her mother, “but Grace is lucky, it’s only her hearing she’s lost. She could easily have died.”

So that was all right then. She could have died but she hadn’t, so that was all right. Just found herself in a muffled, incomprehensible soundscape. She had always imagined deafness to be silence, but it wasn’t like that. It was random noise, it was a cacophony of whistles and bumps and blarings that didn’t make sense any more. She found herself scanning people’s faces, trying to interpret them. Even before tonight’s classes, she realised now, she had started to lip-read, and to read people as a whole – their whole face, their hand gestures, the way they were standing, their smiles and their frowns. Eventually it would begin to make sense again, just in a different way.

The boy was reaching up to retrieve his kitbag from the string rack overhead. That uniform really didn’t fit. His shirt was coming out at the back. She hoped his Sergeant Major, or whatever they had in the army, wouldn’t pick on him. He seemed a rather harum-scarum lad.

“Gotta go now,” he said. “My stop. Wish me luck, Miss?”

She didn’t know what he had said, but she reached out her hand, and he took it and shook it, quite delicately, like she was a lady and he wasn’t something to do with cows. His hand was hot and damp. He smiled at her and she smiled back and then he was away, slightly swaggering along the platform, his bag hoisted awkwardly upon his shoulder. He’s seen them doing that in films, she thought. He wants to act like a proper soldier in front of me.

The guard came along and slammed the carriage door shut, raising a silver whistle to his lips. The whistle sound sounded like something, but not a whistle. In the darkness it was difficult to see the man’s face, and billows of steam kept getting in the way.

 

Effort at Speech Between Two People: Muriel Rukeyser (1913-1980)

Speak to me.  Take my hand.  What are you now ?

I  will tell you all. I will conceal nothing.

When I was three, a little child read a story about a rabbit

who died, in the story, and I crawled under a chair :

a pink rabbit: it was my birthday, and a candle

burnt a sore spot on my finger, and I was told to be happy.

Oh, grow to know me,  I am not happy.  I will be open :

Now I am thinking of white sails against a sky like music,

like glad horns blowing, and birds tilting, and an arm about me.

There was one I loved, who wanted to live, sailing.

Speak to me. Take my hand. What are you now ?

When I was nine, I was fruitily sentimental,

fluid : and my widowed aunt played Chopin,

and I bent my head on the painted woodwork, and wept.

I want now to be close to you. I would

link the minutes of my days close, somehow, to your days.

I am not happy.  I will be open.

I have liked lamps in evening corners, and quiet poems.

There has been fear in my life.  Sometimes I speculate

On what a tragedy his life was, really.

Take my hand. Fist your mind in my hand.  What are you now?

When I was fourteen, I had dreams of suicide,

and I stood at a steep window, at sunset, hoping towards death :

if the light had not melted clouds and plains to beauty,

if light had not transformed that day, I would have leapt.

I am unhappy.  I am lonely.  Speak to me.

muriel

I will be open.  I think he never loved me :

he loved the bright beaches, the little lips of foam

that ride small waves, he loved the veer of gulls :

he said with a gay mouth: I love you.  Grow to know me.

What are you now?  If we could touch one another,

if these our separate entities could come to grips,

clenched like a Chinese puzzle … yesterday

I stood in a crowded street that was live with people,

and no one spoke a word, and the morning shone.

Everyone silent, moving … Take my hand.  Speak to me.

Because the Night

THE PAPERMOUSE

 This mouse is pale as paper, doesn’t eat. Lost, but it doesn’t try to find it’s way into the light.

Instead, at night, unseeing and unseen, it dips its feet into the poisoned ink, and in its agony begins to caper, to conjure up a wizard or a queen.

mouse3

 A CONVERSATION

 The Mouse sits on my shoulder through the night. Again, I sharpen my quills and drag my books into the light. But oh, the hours are long and I grow old.

Magic’s not wanted now, I whisper, spells will be mocked and songs are out of season.

All the more need for you, my Wizardess – all the more reason.

 

(A brace of night-mouse-magic-type-poems brought to mind by a Daily Post prompt: Because the Night)

 

THE DARKNESS OF THE MUSIC OF THE NIGHT

When I moved here I thought – well, this is the middle of nowhere, the end of the earth, but at least I’ll be able to get a good night’s sleep.

It was not exactly the area I would have chosen, but it was the nearest I could afford to move to my ailing mother. This week I have been wondering how much longer I will be here. A few days back I was visiting her at home with a lady social worker and Mum airily referred to me as my friend over there. She was never much of a one for verbal flourishes, but could she have meant it in an elliptical, literary sort of way? Or had she, for that moment, forgotten my name and how we were related? These lapses are only brief; another time she will know me, but for how much longer? Not too long I suspect before it doesn’t really matter where I am; I’ll just need to turn up to visit every couple of weeks and remind her I was once her daughter.

When that time does come maybe I will up sticks and go back to where I once belonged; or go somewhere else new, where I have never belonged. Maybe at that point I’ll discover that what’s left of my gypsy spirit has trickled away and I just can’t face all over again packing my life into cardboard boxes; amassing two great lever-arch files of legal paperwork, one labelled Sale and one labelled Purchase; booking cattery places on an industrial scale and being fawned over by two separate sets of estate agents. Oh for a crystal ball and a magic wand.

Well, it certainly is dark here. We did have a street-light. It gave off a faint orange light, most of the time. The lamp-post is still here, right opposite my house, listing drunkenly to port, but the orange light no longer lights up. Opposite my house is where lorries and delivery vans are obliged to reverse, so being reversed into was something of a foregone conclusion for that poor, solitary lamp-post, but that wasn’t what stopped it working. That was the local Council on one of its economy drives. Since we lived in the middle of nowhere they didn’t think we would miss it.

Almost every night the current custodian of the famous, beautiful and psychic Felix (see FELIX BROUGHT ME A MOUSE) stumbles up and down our unmade road in pitch darkness with a torch in search of him. We have all memorised the potholes and it is possible to avoid them, even in the dark, but you have to concentrate. Firstly Neighbour whistles that anxious, repetitive cat-summoning whistle that cats automatically disregard, then he starts with the calling:

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

Felix quite often lurks in my back garden but I refuse to reveal his secrets. Felix and I have a bond.

I know what’s going to happen next. After ten minutes or so the whistling and calling resumes in my back garden. I am not supposed to notice. I am assumed to be asleep.

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

This does rather annoy me. How come I am the only person in the street whose back garden can be entered by anyone who pleases? Just like I was the only person who could be left sitting around in a waiting room at the eye hospital with both eyes full of atropine drops, unable to read a magazine or even see the time on the clock without help, until the drops wore off and had to be put in again because a lot of more important people came in.

They have a different concept of privacy round here. It’s a cultural difference. At one point I found several children clustered round my side door, laboriously reading aloud a note I had taped to it for the delivery man. My next door neighbour at that time was an Irish lady with a red jumper. She’d never knock, just somehow be outside my side door now and again. I’d pass the side door and either catch her clambering stiffly over the low garden wall that separated our two houses or she’d just be there, silently waiting for me to pass my side door on the inside, catch sight of a scarlet woolly cloud behind the glass and open up. It could have been an hour since I last passed the door.  Had she been there all that time?

Felix? Felix? Where are you, boy?

If the worst comes to the worst Neighbour knocks on my door, wringing his hands in the darkness, distressed, pathetic, imploring, and I have to put on my fluffy slippers and go out into my own rain-soaked garden, with my own torch, in my dressing gown, to search for his cat. Felix, wherever he is, now realises the game is up; Neighbour will almost certainly have disappeared into his own house, a svelte black and white bundle under his arm, long before I get back to my living room, muddy, cross and even less likely to sleep.

Then there are the shift-workers coming home. This tends to be about 2.30 a.m. if they’re on 7 to 2. Their headlights sweep past my window, gravel swishes, rainwater exits deep potholes with a splosh, car radio gets turned off in mid-thump, car door opens, car door is slammed shut. Sometimes they give each other lifts and then there has to be the lengthy goodbye-see-you-tomorrow-all-right-mate conversation.

Then there are the doggy conversations echoing all round the hillside. These have got louder and more frequent since the coming of a giant black dog, Ayesha (Ajska) who was rescued by my next-door neighbour from another, far less kindly, neighbour. Ayesha is actually a lady of Polish origins; she has a Polish passport, even. She also has the deepest, loudest bark imaginable and is an early riser. Four o’clock in the morning:

Wooooooof!!! (It’s ME!!!)

At once a doggy dawn chorus starts up, answering her, answering one another:

Here I am! Me too!! Are you there? No, I’m here! Who are you? Are you her? No, I’m me! Who’s me? Me! You know me! Me down here. You’re down there? I’m up here! He’s over there!

Occasionally there is a party and dance music will drift up to me from open windows. That isn’t too bad – it’s free music after all, and sometimes I sing along. It’s the way the partygoers tend to get drunker and drunker and louder and louder that’s the problem. Then come the arguments and then the bottle-throwing. Everything seems to echo round here. Thunderstorms; parties; Saturday night Karaoke in the social club down the road; police car sirens; ambulance sirens; after-pub staggering home conversations, the boys cajoling, the girls shrieking in response. Once in a terrible while a girl will scream and not stop screaming. Occasionally gangs of caravan site people bump into gangs of locals on the beach and stab one other. Drowning would be a quieter, and the sea is conveniently close, but knives seem to be favourite. Shortly thereafter, the sirens. But that’s only on the worst nights.

There are pleasanter noises. Bats for instance: strictly speaking you don’t hear bats, their cries being ultrasonic, but you do kind of sense them drawing near. Somewhere around nine or nine-thirty, that’s their time. You’ll see them if you are patient: watch for a bird not moving like a bird, something black and winged that dips and swoops, abruptly changing direction. At around the same time the hedgehog is on the move. On moonlit nights, look for a patch of lawn appearing to move; a small, round, scuttling segment of darkness. At around midnight he’ll come closer in search of food. I leave a bowl of cat food out for him; sometimes Felix nabs it first but if there’s any left the hotchi-pig has it. And I always know which one of them it was. Cats will pick from the bowl, and always leave some; hedgehogs stand in the bowl, tip it up, empty it out and clatter it around with their little pointy snouts; and in the morning there is nothing left.

I once went out to change the bowl of cat food. In the darkness, I groped around for the bowl in its usual place and found the hedgehog instead. Hedgehog hearing isn’t good; my hand accidentally brushed the top of his spines. Instantly, a great clattering and scrabbling as he jumped forward and rolled himself into a ball. Sorry, I whispered, putting the new food down and creeping indoors to bed.