…reads the numberless sign at the fore. It heralds the arrival of an old yellow school bus. Air brakes hiss as if sighing, side-doors concertina to reveal a grit-worn grey platform; a step that beckons me to hop up off this pavement.
The driver; a spirit of a wisp of a man, dead a couple of decades I’d guess—no joke—dead, I mean REALLY dead. This, his ghost, is present, yet locked in the echo of routine. I accept the scene without question or surprise. He holds out a translucent hand into which I drop the exact fare—for exactly where?…
I don’t yet know.
The money tinkles through ethereal fingers, to fall most conveniently into the cash trays below; these funnel the coins to the takings box. I’m validated, now a bona fide passenger, by the faintest acknowledgement from this being—the faintest of men. Not free yet though to take a seat, his eyes drill into mine with a repeat of the question—Where to Today…? I stare back, still I’m without an answer. Behind the stares we see each others’ prior worlds, and witness within them a commonality that binds us into friends. I smile, something’s occurred to me, and so I answer; it’s to be a stop: a bench several miles hence, you’ll know it when you see it, the one neath the oak tree on the apex of the bend.
He the ghost…and me the rider.
We are underway, a small jolt, a loll of the head as we run up to speed. The first road is a straight one, laser beam straight, named the Mile Road, yet in length it falls short by half of that. To both sides; flood plains that spend most of their lives either furrowed by plough or furred up with wheat. They go by this day in a state between the two; a motion blurred streak of green shoots and soil. Approaching the end of the straight we pass between pylons; I listen out for the electric buzz of the cables they prop, for the arcs I know they ooze their energy, but the bus’s engine noise and tin roof blot the sound. The driver, his form eroded by the interference, fades more-so for a second. He looks over his shoulder and casts me a message—it does that to me. It hurts.
The road’s uniformity is ruined by a T-junction that’s kinked like a wrecking bar. Our progress too is hindered by a red light, but then helped by an amber and a green. We trundle now, rather than speed, limited in our endeavour by a street sweeping vehicle we’ve caught up with. It’s maxed out at 20mph, I know this as I briefly see the bus’s dial through our driver. He’s jittery, his form emboldened by the agitation, he looks over his shoulder and casts another explanation—only when I’m angry am I like this. It hurts as well.
A ghost with road rage, I ponder what took him from this world: a crash, a stress related seizure? I stare into him and beam back—no worries, I’ve no deadline. My word choice could have been better; I shouldn’t have used the word dead, I pull from his gaze and turn a full one-eighty to look out through the back window. It’s fogged with dry dirt, but see-through enough to reveal the source of our driver’s unrest. A white sporty hatchback, up close and aggressively swerving. From my seat; beyond the rear pane, the dirt, and into its windscreen I stare. My eyes find and lock on to the motorist’s—back off! He’s awestruck by my transmission and respects my demand; out of bewilderment or fear of this ability, I’m unsure. The result is, he drops away.
Up ahead, the road sweeper peels off into a lay-by allowing us to pass. Much better etiquette from him, and a clear road for us from hereon. Our trundle is stirred up to a low whine as the bus’s engine spins more freely and we clunk up through the gears. 50mph, the whine’s no longer low. It would devour my thoughts if not for the panoramas—left and right, fed on fast-travel conveyors, they show us: fields that on Sundays host football, hedgerows of hawthorn frothed with white blossom, stables with lazy horses, a car park for weekend car boot sales, pylons, more pylons, and another lay-by that holds a battered burger van.
A page of a newspaper distracts me from the show, it has in some way been whipped up outside by a gust. Like a sting ray to the sea floor it sprawls on the windscreen; long enough only for me to read its headline: BY CHOICE OR BY FORCE? And have a flash of the accompanying image: A migrant boat on the sandy edges of North Africa, an overcrowded deck, yet still a fearful man is being shepherded up the gangplank to add to their number. The shepherd: a rag-tag policeman with arms as skinny as his raised baton. The period of ‘long enough’ expires; the paper is snatched by the air we plough. It rides up over the roof in the turbulence of our progression, lollops in the wake before a feather-like fall returns it to the road.
The unremarkable landscape and its sideshows subside; we break into the sprawl of a glamourless housing estate, of the social sort, pebble-dashed grey, every third garden unkempt, and a woman or two pavement-side towing two kids off to school, whilst each has a younger sibling who gets to ride out in a pushed pram. Our driver slows for a lollipop man whose armour of fluorescent yellow, and moral boundary of silhoutted kids on a disc on a stick is staked in the tarmac. Our slowing is converted to a stop. A child being ushered over the crossing looks at the driver as she passes. And with that vision goes as wide-eyed as an owl. She tugs her mother’s coat to get her to share the spectacle and hopefully supply answers. Her mother’s too occupied though with not occupying the road and takes a hand off her pram to tug the bemused girl onward.
Another small jolt and a loll of the head as we again break into movement. We shift up through three gears and I settle into the sense that the next phase of the journey, four miles at a guess, will be without interruption. Verdant green offers to end the estate grey, but it’s approach is stymied by the bus’s slowing—we are with interruption. Down through three gears. A bus stop. Company. Lots of it too, a good cluster, twenty I’d estimate, all elderly. I read the faces and some of the thoughts of those that eye me. Sadness, such sadness. All of them here together, answering some calling, but each of them alone. They all share the situation of having no-one. A gathering of the lonely. I mask my empathy, adopt a smiling façade and secretly broadcast—Awayday today folks; away to the island. No reply. I know not how, but I know they know we’re heading there anyway.
Onward. Aside from initial glances, I do what all others do when sharing space with strangers; look in every direction but at them. It is only rarely, but twice, that I lower my sight lines and by accident observe a man three rows ahead. His gaze encapsulates the verdant green we’ve now at last, rolled alongside. As he admires the countryside; I delight in the face his life has given him. His profile, side on, illuminated by the still low sun is the tanned orange of a well off retiree. Too many toes on the crows feet tell me he frequents the Algarve or Spain or similar, and that he’s spent a life with many a smile. I want him to turn my way just a few degrees, to catch his glabella. I see a lot in what’s between someone’s eyes and can differentiate twixt frown, anger, consternation and concentration. My curiosity has me cast—suntanned man, look this way.
He looks; the corrugated folds by brows shout ‘thinker’ and ‘squinter’. The latter coming from being blue-eyed and dwelling in bright climes; such places, I’ve observed, have such a man react to light this way. And the thinking, because…well because I know him. A man from my past is hemmed behind that roadmap of time. David Watts, unseen for thirty years. They said he’d gone to Bolivia to pan for gold. Yes, it’s definitely him and I’m right, he was a thinker. Not someone deep though, his forehead would fold up at the simplest of statements, which was a constant source of our circle’s amusement. I never wished I could be like him…damn, I thought that out loud. He’s looking me in the eye and weaponising that frown. Then it melts and we both laugh; he’s sage enough now to know his limitations and sense too there’s no malice in me.
I rise from my seat to join David for an impromptu catch up; a hand up on the yellow rail helps me negotiate the unsteady aisle. As I arrive though, there’s the familiar winding down of the gears and I feel my weight wanting to carry on forward. We’re stopping, I’m gripping the rail tight.—This bus terminates here—casts the driver, a new skill I note, it came through the back of that transparent head of his. Everyone rises. It’s then I go dizzy with the dawning that every occupant in this coach is a person from my past.
Too many. The people and the memories that accompany each of them—if listed they’d fill a scroll taller than ten of me, and be so disordered they’d render the scenes I’ve detailed this last hour most sane and sensible. And all at once they come. I’m by the driver hanging on to the rail, twenty plus pairs of eyes eye me; David Watts’ pair lead the charge—no frown on him though, and no frown on any of them. Draped from the stares are faces half-scrunched, half-smiles from my friends of old. A life spent people-watching tells me the faces are telling me of their appreciation. Coyness comes to meet my confusion, I look to my feet and prepare myself to faint on the very spot they cover.—Thank you for coming, sincerely thank you…
A hand, a translucent hand, is pushed in the way of my downward gaze. Its fingers click to snap me from the woozy, woolly-headedness. An awakening of sorts, which itself is snapped away by a hiss and the sight of the side doors that again concertina to reveal this time; a grit-grey pavement, a step that beckons me to hop down off this bus.
An island of green ringed by kerbstones, implanted with an oak of considerable size and a lichen-covered bench strung with wood, of equal age, that blends with it naturally. I stagger there to sit down and clock the situation from at least a small distance. This coming together, I get it, it’s a send off. The sun is behind me, it warms the space between collar and hair, I want to sleep in these rays; a last look up at twenty plus now smiling faces on applauding bodies.
A look down, my footwear is now chequered slippers.