Halloween Tale - The Worst Bus Journey Ever!
Dinner with My New Boss & Hillary
I FELT - more than heard - the tyre blow. My car had lost its grip on the icy road at about the same rate as panic had gained its grip on me - fast! I fought to keep control of both the car, and myself, as it slid in to a curve and I started to yell. I lost control of the steering. The car and I, like fairground waltzers, began a long, slow turn.
All I could do was watch as the car veered towards a frost-covered verge. As the rear wheels bounced up the shallow brim my head hit the roof and I was thrown sideways. The car came to a juddering halt. I sat slumped in the drivers' seat, with my heart rapidly beating, until the creeping chill turned my breath to a vapour.
I needed the heater, but with the engine not running there was none. I turned the ignition key. The engine turned over lively enough, but it did not fire.
I tried again. No joy. By the sixth try I became worried that I would flood the carburettor. I decided that I would change the flat tyre and then try starting the car once the engine had settled.
The moment I opened the door the wind pounced. It threw back my jacket and my tie lashed against my face. My feet slipped, and I fell, cradling between the seat and the frost covered grass. I gently eased myself back on to the seat involuntarily laughing at my predicament.
Once upright I gingerly made my way to the boot. The freezing wind hurled about me, dashing any humour I had left. The thin material of my suit was of no protection from the ferocity of the wind.
This evening, I had been to dine with my new boss and his wife. To impress him, I dressed formally. The thin material of the suit was no protection for the severe weather, however. I wore no overcoat because I wanted to give the impression that harsh weather meant nothing to me. My new boss would think, “he must be fit, no overcoat in this weather”. Stupid really but, because he had invited me to his home after only a week in his employ I thought of it as my opportunity to make a good first impression; especially since he seemed to take a shine to me, always saying. “You're just the ticket, my boy, just the ticket.”
Anyway, my effort to look impressive went unnoticed, because when I arrived at his house, buried deep in the countryside, neither he nor his wife were on hand to greet me.
After ringing the bell several times without reply I realised that the front door was ajar. I entered, calling his name aloud and had already looked in two rooms before he had come bounding down the stairs. He came down with such a thunder that he gave me a fright. A bulky man and quite intimidating, I had the distinct feeling during the meal that he was mocking me, which made me feel quite uncomfortable. His wife too had about her an air of haughtiness that I found extremely annoying.
By the end of the meal I was eager to get away. My uncomfortable disposition went unnoticed by my hostess, however, who was by then well into her subject. Reincarnation is not a subject I know much about and have never taken an interest in. I thought it rather morbid for the occasion, but I sat stoically and she went on while her husband sat back smoking on a cigar. “The transference of a soul from one kind to another you know” she stated. No, I did not know, but I dutifully smiled and nodded. I must have nodded off to sleep for a moment, because I was jarred alert by the shock of a book thrown into my lap.
“Ah! What!” “Oh yes.” I said picking up the book and reading the title and author's byline. 'Transmutations' by Hillary Conduce.
Transference of the Soul
IT WAS HER, my hostess! She had written the dammed book. No wonder she was banging on about transference of the soul and all that bull. Poking at the air towards the book my boss said, “Read it my boy. Tear it off a strip.” 'I'd like to tear you off a strip', I thought, smiling and nodding and holding up the book as if it were a great discovery. Then with a barely suppressed yawn, Hillary Conduce said, “I think it's time we boarded the bus to Bedfordshire, my dear.”
My boss reached out for her and, grinning at me, said, “Yes, time to transport to other places.” He winked at me and I likewise replied, although I think I overdid my wink, sycophant that I am. Nevertheless, no man was happier than I to hear a door shut behind him. My comfort was grim, but I would have felt grimmer had I known the fate that lay before me.
I now looked at the bare fields. A thin frost covering the earth, the hedgerows sparkled, reflecting the icy moonlight, and the leafless trees hooked their branches at the cold, clear sky. A chill wind smacked my face as I opened the boot. My heart sunk. The spare wheel rack was empty! I cursed and, as if to taunt me, a shower of ice particles strafed my body.
I slammed the boot shut and made quickly back to the interior of the car. The welcome was minimal for the cold had lodged itself, but at least I was protected from the biting wind. What a predicament! I guessed I was miles from the nearest town.' Trust silly bollocks to take that short cut' I thought, blaming myself. Some short cut. Some intuition!
I should have stuck to the route that I came by. I looked round at the back seat. Probably freeze if I spent the night there. Then I thought, 'I can drive with a flat tyre - if I take it slow. Back to my boss' place? Why not? He wouldn't mind. Would he?' I turned the ignition key. The engine wheezed like a sixty cigarettes-a-day pensioner. I tried again. The wheeze became a death rattle as the car shook a little, then died. The naked click of the ignition key turning struck gloom in my heart.
I waited a bit then against hope I tried again. The engine rolled heavily. I felt like a man trying to roll a boulder out of a hole with a twig. The car rocked as the wind battered around it. A draft blew down my neck. I turned to check where it was coming from. I saw the book. I had slung it on the back shelf of the rear window. “Lot of bloody use you are!” I said turning to have another go at the ignition. The boulder was firmly in its hole. I slumped onto the steering wheel, my breath now dense vapour. My despair rose and I sat as immobilised as my car.
Suddenly something crashed against the windscreen. I snapped up. My heart locked. A tangled branch shook against the windscreen like some demented beast. It scratched up and down the glass as if struggling to attack me. I cowered. It seemed alive! Then it scraped along the side of the car, until the wind whipped it over the roof and it rolled away twisting and jerking like a witch drowning. I burst out laughing. What a relief!
Fancy letting a stupid branch scare me like that. My amusement, hollow though it was, did lighten the grimness of my situation. And it was in that moment of brief relaxation that my memory thawed and I remembered the bus stop. I pulled the collar of my jacket tighter around my neck and looked back at the white shape of my car some four hundred yards off. Despite the cold I felt a little better at the prospect of getting a bus. I hoped that the bus stop that I'd passed was no further than I'd estimated. I felt sure it was just around that bend ahead.
If only it wasn't so cold. No matter how firmly I drew my jacket around myself the wind managed to corkscrew itself inside. For all the protection my suit gave me I might as well have been wearing a wet sheet. A constant shiver ran up and down my spine. I could not walk straight, because no matter how I tried, the wind was so strong it sent me zig zagging about like a drunk.
Friday Night in the Country
I STOPPED to look at my watch and held up my arm to catch the moonlight. Ten minutes to twelve. Was it too late to catch a bus? My heart began to sink but I managed to prop it up with a forced bout of optimism. There must be a late bus?
It was Friday night. Surely even out here in the countryside a late bus travelled between the towns. What choice did I have?
As long as I could get to a town, or a village even, I was sure that I could get somewhere to stay and then in the morning I would come back for the car. I had to go on. I puffed myself up with hope and staggered on. The bus stop would have a timetable. I crossed my fingers.
“Bloody typical!” I blurted looking at the broken glass. Only a bare steel plate remained where the timetable had been. I raised my fist as if to punch the plate. I was so angry. The bus stop sign above rattled loudly as if mocking my anger. “And bollocks to you too!” I shouted, feeling inept and futile. Gritting my teeth I looked up and down the deserted road. Something huge moved opposite me causing me to jump. It was a large bush billowing about like the head of a tormented elephant.
The light of the moon changed and the leaves turned into a thousand bats trapped and flaying. The sign above clattered, grating upon my nerves. Beyond the heavily swaying bush, dark, thickly wooded ground steeply rose forming a prominence that ran off on either side for about a hundred yards before the road disappeared around the massive hump. For a moment I felt that I was standing at the base of a sleeping giant. A giant that would at any moment awake. I shook myself to rid my mind of the morbid images. I looked at the sky.
No cloud, which meant, at least, no rain. The stars twinkled impassively as frost nipped at my nose and ears like a malicious imp. I stamped my feet and swung my arms in an effort to warm myself. I tried running on the spot. Within minutes I was breathless. The cold air struck my throat and chest and I felt as if I was being force fed ice cubes. I doubled over coughing and gasping.
“Bloody hell!” I spluttered, “I might as well go back to the car. At least I'll be out of this poxy wind.” I took another look at my watch. It was twelve fifteen. “I might as well face it, no bus is going to come along now. Not unless it's a ghost bus.” I started off for the car, treading the road carefully. The last thing I wanted to do now was fall and injure myself.
Upon reaching the bend, I took one last look back at the bus stop before it was out of sight. A bus was at the stop. The wind dropped and I could clearly hear the engine. “Typical!” The noise of the wind had probably prevented me from hearing the bus approach the stop. As if on cue the wind resumed its howl.
I took a few hesitant steps forward. I felt both confused and excited. What should I do? If I ran back it was sure to pull away before I reached the stop. Anyway I would probably slip over if I hurried. 'Oh, look at that lovely bus!' I thought, 'That lovely one-eyed Double Decker bus. A lovely warm bus.'
I could wave it down. Yes, the driver was sure to see me in this bright moonlight. He would stop, surely. He had to. Mind you, I could wait here, wave him down from here. He might not stop. The driver might be a stickler for the rules, the timetable, and refuse to pick me up. The bastard!' “Come on! Are you coming or not!” I said. The bus remained stationary; its engine idling. Perhaps it was early? Ahead of schedule? I decided to take a chance and go back to the stop.
I Shield My Eyes
THE wind seemed to blow me about in every direction instead of forwards. The road was slippery and I got about halfway to the bus when my foot slipped. My feet got to their optimum distance apart and I fell. I felt my trousers rip and my crotch scream.
“Ooh! Jesus!” I lay for a moment holding my crotch and catching my breath and looking at the bus through watery eyes. It had not moved. I eased myself up and set off again, half hopping, half trotting with my crotch burning.
As I drew near I noticed that, as far as I could see, the bus had no passengers. “No one daft enough to be out in such blasted weather”, I thought. I also noticed that there was neither a destination name on the front, nor a number. Strange. Nor advertisements as there usually are. In fact the bus was devoid of all embellishment.
It was just painted a plain dark brown. But my observations were subsidiary to the discomfort I felt. The anticipation of at last getting warm was uppermost in my mind; I would go straight to the front where the heater was. Suddenly the engine roared and the bus started to move.
I held up my hands to shield my eyes from the glare of the headlights as the bus came accelerating towards me. I waved to the driver as the nose of the bus drew past me; I could not see him behind the glass.
“Hold on!” I called, “Wait for me to get aboard!” The roar of the engine drowned the sound of my voice. I slapped the side panels and tried to grab the handrail, but the bus was going too fast. All I could do was watch as the vehicle drove away. Anger flared in me again and I unleashed a diatribe of abuse. I shook my fist as if by that gesture I could make the bus stop. The howl of the wind stifled my cries. I stood defeated and dejected.
“Your driver must be blind!” I blurted, “He must have seen me.” I watched as the bus reached the curve in the road. It would be gone in a moment. Then the bus slowed and stopped. Hope stirred, and I took a few steps forward.
Perhaps the conductor had seen me and rung the bell to stop the bus? I walked on. The bus idled as if it were waiting. “It must be waiting for me.” I thought, “Perhaps the driver had not seen me. If you're not expecting to see someone on a lonely road?
What can I lose, I'm heading towards the car anyway”. I quickened my pace as much as the icy road would allow. The lights of the bus looked so inviting. As I approached I saw an arm reach out of the drivers window and beckon. I waved back excitedly. As I neared the boarding platform the engine rumbled into life and the bus started to move. My heart jumped. I ran the last few steps, grabbed the handrail, and jumped onto the platform. I thought that the driver could have waited those last few steps, he must have a grim sense of humour. But I was on now and that was all that mattered.
I could not see the conductor, nor was I worried. I made my way to the front seat next to the heater. I rubbed my hands. The interior seemed to be as cold as outside. I felt the heater. It was blowing cold air!
The Heat Is On
THE lever on the side of the heater grill was positioned on “Hot”. I pushed the lever up and down a few times, but the temperature of the rushing air did not change. I started to get angry again. I looked at the driver's window. Behind it hung a concertina blind that prevented the interior lights reflecting on the inside windshield and obscuring the driver's view of the road.
Even the small rectangular flap on the blind that allowed the driver a view of the passengers was closed. I assumed that the driver had access to the heater's main control. All I had to do was make him aware that the heater was not working and he would switch it on. I made to rap on the window. I hesitated. I thought “what if he had deliberately left me at the stop? If he did, he must be a mean bastard. I don't want to upset him. But then again, he did wait for me”.
My knuckles wavered at the glass. “Things were not that bad”, I thought, “At least I was out of the wind, and on my way to a town. Best I leave things as they are. Anyway the conductor will be down any minute. I'll ask him about the heater”. I lowered my hand, shifted back to my seat and turned my attention to the road. I hunched over the front window and cupped my hands to the glass.
The vibration of the rushing bus made it difficult to keep my hands steady, but I could see out. A few seconds past and I saw my car. I gasped at what I saw. A man was standing over the open boot of my car! The bus hit a bump and I rebounded off the glass and fell back onto the seat. A shock of blackness hit me as the interior lights went out. Then the lights flickered and came on again.
Confused, I stood, but a sudden burst of nausea made me reel and I sat back down. I held tightly onto the handrail as the bus bound along. “Just my luck.” I thought, “a thief breaking into my car I don't need. He'd have a job driving it away if that's his intention.” I did not want to think; my head hurt too much. There was nothing I could do anyway. I sighed and sat back. I did not fancy being stuck out in the cold dealing with a car thief.
I felt relieved of that unpleasant responsibility. Sometimes fate unshackles one from responsibility; no need to choose, just ride along on fates rollercoaster. I searched through my pockets for some change to pay my fare. “Where was the conductor anyway? He should have come down by now? Unless he's having a sleep.” I had no change. I remembered that I had spent the money that I had to fill the car with petrol. What was I to do now? I decided to explain my misfortune to the conductor. He would understand and forego the fare for now. If we hit a town before he appeared it would not matter anyway. As a last resort I could jump off without paying. I shivered, drew my feet up onto the seat, and closed my eyes. I dozed.
Sleep does funny things with time. One can never be sure how much time has passed. What seems like only a few minutes can be an hour and an hour a minute. From time to time my eyes opened, but that we were not yet at a town must have registered on my sleepy mind and I dozed again. A sharp bump jerked me awake. I uncurled my stiff joints and slowly sat up. I looked at my watch. Twelve thirty. “It can't be!” I said leaning to the window and cupping my hands against the glass.
No Conductor About
ALL I could see was swirling mist. Of sky and fields I could see neither; nothing save a patch of road lit by the headlights. I judged that the bus was travelling at about five miles an hour. I felt a little relief that the driver was sensible enough to slow down in the mist. It did not surprise me that we had not reached a town, travelling at such a slow speed.
Out of the corner of my eye I thought I saw cigarette smoke. Had the conductor come down? I did not want to turn quickly, which move might indicate guilt, so I pretended to tie my shoelace and slyly looked along the aisle. There was no conductor. Mist had swirled onto the deck. It curled about the seats like snakes. A chill ran up my spine; but it was not the mist that made me stiffen. The sound of footsteps came from the upper deck!
I followed the heavy tread with my eyes. The footsteps reached the top of the stairs and stopped. I felt absurdly nervous. My heart began to pound. “Surely once I explained he would allow me to pay my fare some other time?” I thought anxiously, “It was not as though I was taking up needed room. There were no other passengers.” That thought made me curious. Had we stopped while I had dozed? Had other people boarded and gone upstairs?
I stood still waiting for the conductor. I strained my ears, but besides the low moan of the engine I could hear no movement. I decided to go and look up the stairs to see if I could see the conductor. I might as well get my explanations over with; besides I wanted to talk to someone, to tell them of my misfortune and probably laugh about it now.
The mist crawled like rats around my legs as I made my way to the stairs. Upon reaching the bench seats next to the boarding platform I stopped to listen. I heard nothing except the steady groan of the engine. I sat down on one of the bench seats. Perhaps I had been mistaken about hearing footsteps? I was very tired and a tired mind plays tricks. I was reluctant to call. The silence seemed to have a comfort in it. Nevertheless, I stepped down onto the boarding platform and peered up the stairs.
The moment I saw the conductor's legs I quickly drew back. He was standing still, a few steps down from the top of the stairs. At first I thought that he might be attending to the destination sign; but he was not winding the roll, he was just standing there doing nothing. He was doing nothing wrong, but I thought it odd that he should just stand there, neither coming down, nor going up. I thought it weird.
A gust of wind blew a cloud of mist on board; it billowed and drifted round me like a shroud. “Trust my luck to get a weird conductor.' I thought sullenly. I moved back and sat on the lip of a bench seat. I waited for a minute and then when he still did not come down I decided to speak.
“Excuse me” I said, leaning forward to look up the stairs, “Excuse me, do you know when we'll get to the next town?” My question was met with silence. “The thing is, I've had an accident with my car - a puncture - and I want to get somewhere to stay for the night. Unfortunately I don't seem to have any money on me, although I do have a credit card. I'm glad that you came along otherwise I'd have been stranded.”
I stepped down to the boarding platform again. I could see up the stairs far enough to see the conductors waist, around which he had a ticket machine strapped, but I could not see his face. I began to get annoyed by his silence. “I nearly missed your bus.” I said brightly, “The driver probably didn't see me.”
What's Wrong Driver
I TOLD myself to stop behaving like a worm and be assertive. Not wanting to upset the conductor was one thing, but he was making no effort at all to communicate. “To tell you the truth, your driver almost knocked me down. Yes… I'm sorry to say that, but he did. And I'm not the sort of man to put up with that sort of thing. Do you hear me? It ran through my head to report him.”
Still no response. “Anyway what's wrong with the bloody heater! What's wrong with you and your driver? You two a couple of dickheads or something!” I had to smile. I was letting off steam and beginning to enjoy myself. The conductor was obviously a wimp. “Well! Are you going to do something about the heater or not?” As I finished speaking I happened to glance back at the driver's window. I did a double take. There was a face at the window!
The small flap was open and framed in the rectangle was a horrible face staring at me. My heart hammered and I rushed back to sit on the beach seat. The face was like a miniature portrait painted from an artist's nightmare. It was the driver of course, but his eyes were small and black like an animal, and they shone with the alertness of a predator; his nose was wide and upturned, blatantly exposing two large nostrils below which was too long a gap between nose and mouth. His thin lips were pulled back from his teeth in a terrible snarl.
The face that glared out at me looked more like the face of a beast than a man. It seemed to hover in the rectangle as if the head were not attached to a neck. The visage filled me with dread, yet I could not tear my eyes away from the bestial countenance. It had taken just a few seconds to take in the impression and in that short time my boldness had turned to fear.
“Had he heard? I thought furiously, “Had he heard me threaten to report him? No, no, he couldn't have, not with the noise of the engine”. Now I realised that the bus had stopped and the engine was quietly idling. “But, whatever I said, that was no reason to look at me so terribly. He looks as if he wants to kill me! I didn't really mean to report him. Why didn't I keep my bloody mouth shut.” I tried to smile, to reassure him that I meant no harm; but my lips just quivered. I felt my skin prickle. His glare pressed my feeble smile from my face like a hot iron presses a crease from a white sheet.
I swallowed hard, struggling to hide my fear. Suddenly his hideous face drew back and he was gone, leaving the rectangle black and empty. I felt my ridged body drain with relief. I felt as if I had received a minor, but prolonged electric shock; and now, although the current had been turned off, it was as if I were still wired up and could at any moment receive another jolt. I slumped forward and covered my face with my hands. “My God” I whispered “ I thought he was going to smash through the glass.”
An image of the driver crashing through the window sprang violently into my mind. I pressed my hands tightly to my face in an effort to suppress the terrifying image. It froze and telescoped away until it became a tiny dot of light. A gap so small that I could hardly see through. Only if I slightly opened the gap could I see. My nerves jolted! The current was on again!
The conductor was standing in front of me! I could see his legs through my fingers. He must have come down the stairs the moment I covered my eyes. He must have moved quickly and silently and - deliberately. I held my breath not knowing what to do except continue peering at his legs through my fingers. He stood there silent. My mind raced.
Pretend You Hadn't Noticed
“SAY something to him! Just lower your hands and speak. You coward! Pretend that you haven't noticed him. Don't let him see that you're scared. He'll like you to be scared. Why should he? God, what's happening! He only wants your fare”. Then, as if they had a will of their own, my hands lowered. I kept staring at his legs as I gained control of my hands and placed them on my knees. A movement that must have seemed affected.
Again an image of the driver's face came into my mind, and I realised that I did not want to look at the conductor's face. But I had to look up! I lifted my eyes a little and caught sight of my bowed reflection in the metal ticket dispenser strapped around his waist. A distorted image. His hands were placed on the dispenser. They were large hands, hairy with long fingers. My mind raced, trying to think of something to say. Something ordinary, something normal, just to open up a conversation and break the awful silence.
An impulse to giggle bubbled up inside me. I repressed this insane impulse but could not stop a grin spreading across my face like a worm across a clean sheet. I looked up. My grin melted like hot wax. For a moment I thought that the driver had left his cab to confront me, but at the very moment I looked at the conductor the engine ignited and the bus began to move. Yet the conductor looked so much like the driver that he could have been his double; both had the same horrible simian features. That they were twins I had no doubt.
It seemed bizarre that the bus should be staffed with twins, but not impossible. But twins who were so ugly! I felt the blood drain from my face. I had called his brother a 'dickhead'. His eyes held mine. He looked at me with, not an expression of anger as I had expected, but with an expression of insolence. A smirk sat on his face like an imp on a bed rail. I tried to meet his expression with a look of confidence, but his gaze so disconcerted me that all I could manage was a cowardly half smile. I noticed that there was something wrong with the way his eyes met mine.
Unlike the driver, the conductors left eye slanted inward so that he was both looking into my eyes and over my shoulder. “A cross-eyed ape!” The thought popped into my mind and laughter rose up inside my chest like a bubbles through a funnel. I fought to plug the rush. I could not laugh in his face! He would go berserk! I began to shake. Then with an effort I bottled my laughter and said, “Listen, I'm very sorry to be such a nuisance, but, as I have already said, my car broke down and I was left stranded and I had to get transport and I didn't realise that I had no money and so I hope you will, um, see your way…”
I burst out laughing. I doubled over and fought to smother the laughter by pretending that it was a cough. I coughed hysterically. I gradually calmed. Wiping my tears I tried to think of an excuse for my outburst. “It's the cold. This freezing weather is getting to me.” “Fares please.” “What?” I said, surprised. “Fares please.” He spoke as if nothing had happened. “Yes, of course”, I said, “But that is just the problem. I don't have any money.” “Fares please!” he screamed.
My Pounding Heart Was About To Burst
I MUST have gone white because he smiled as if he had achieved something. My heart pounded as I thought 'He must be crazy. To scream like that. I'd better watch myself. Try to be passive and pacify him'. I took a deep breath and said, “There's no need to shout, mate. I'm not deaf. I can hear you. There's no need to get upset. I didn't mean what I said about your brother. He is your brother isn't he, the driver?” He did not reply, but just kept looking at me.
I went on, “I was a bit upset that's all. I'm not going to report him. I had no intention to do that, no.” “Fares please”, he said in a normal tone, as if it were the first time he had spoken. 'Perhaps he'd been joking', I thought, 'Having a joke at my expense. After all there's not much to do on this route. Yes, that's it, he just gets bored. Best to be friendly.' I smiled and said, “The mist came down a bit sharpish didn't it”.
A ticket rolled out of his dispenser. It just rolled out on its own. He did nothing, turn a handle, press a button - nothing. How? Perhaps a secret switch. Maybe he liked to fool the passengers with the trick. A real joker. I laughed and pointed at the dispenser. I thought it best that I went along with the joke. He sneered. My smile drained, but before I said anything I noticed something else. The ticket had no printing on it. “Looks like your dispenser needs a refill of ink.” I said.
The bus jerked violently. I fell sideways off my seat and my head struck a handrail. I collapsed into the aisle. Twisting to sit up I put my hand to my head and felt blood. I sat dazed on the trembling floor looking at the blood on my hand. The bus swiftly accelerated. I heaved myself onto a seat and sat gingerly touching my wound trying to think what had happened. The diver had pumped his breaks sharply, deliberately? Or, perhaps, to avoid something in the road. That seemed somehow unlikely.
I looked up and saw the conductor moving slowly towards me; a predatory movement that made my flesh creep. It was obvious that he had not fallen. I screwed back on the seat. He must have known, expected the brakes to be slammed on. Now he was at my seat and his expression changed from one of menace to one of concern, as if he felt sorry for my injury. He held out his hand, I hesitated, but relieved by the sympathetic gesture I reached up. As I touched his hand he snatched it away, then spread his fingers and put his thumb to his nose. Anger charged through me.
“You nasty bastard!” I shouted. “Can't you see that I'm injured. He did it on purpose didn't he, the driver? He slammed the brakes on purpose! You stupid pair of ape faced shits!” He replied by spreading his hands and raising his shoulders. “You stupid monkey!” I raged. I was on the verge of tears with exasperation at my bad luck. I pulled myself to my feet. Blood ran into my eye and my head reeled.
I pulled out my shirt from my trousers and wiped the blood from my eye. My anger sapped. I was sick of confrontations. All I wanted to do was to get this dammed journey over with and get back to normality. Suddenly one of the naked electric light bulbs that ran either side of the deck exploded! Tiny fragments of glass showered over me and I raised my arms to shield my face. A faint smell of burning filled the deck. The shock of the explosion left me with an intense bout of the shakes. I looked up and caught my refection in the darkened window opposite. I looked haggard, my hair was matted and my forehead was smeared with blood. “What a mess.” I said, lowering my face.
Exploding Light Bulbs
ANOTHER BULB suddenly exploded, then another, until one after another the bulbs exploded around the deck like a chain reaction. I waited until I heard the last tingle of falling glass before I uncurled to look around. “Fares please.” He blocked my seat. I looked up at him in disbelief. A trickle of blood passed over his hairline and down his forehead. 'He must have hurt himself too'; I thought and felt a pang of sympathy for him. “You cut too?” I said stating the obvious. “No.”, he replied with the shadow of a grin on his thin lips. “But the blood?”
He held out his fingers. They glistened with blood. Then he pointed to my head. At first I was puzzled; then I realised what he had done. “You touched me! That's my blood on your fingers!” the thought made me feel sick, “How dare you!” Once again I became enraged at his audacity. I had not felt him touch me, and somehow that made things worse. By the look of contempt on his face he was not at all concerned. I sat aghast as he raised his blooded fingers to his lips and began licking the blood. I squeezed away, repelled by the act. Suddenly he reached for me and grabbed my lapel.
“Get off me!” I screamed kicking at him. He grabbed my ankle and sharply twisted it. I cried out in pain and tried to kick him with my other foot. He was too quick. He struck my thigh with his foot and trapped my leg. “Stop it!” I pleaded, “You're hurting me”. He took no notice of my plea and twisted my ankle to the horizontal rail on the back of the seat. Then he tried to push my foot through the four-inch gap between the rail and the seat.
I redoubled my efforts to pull free, but he was too strong and continued to push my foot between the gap. In panic I grabbed the ticket dispenser at his waist and yanked, trying to pull him off balance but the strap snapped. The dispenser slipped from my grasp and fell clattering under the seats. A loud thud came from the upper deck. The conductor's head snapped up. His eyes lit like a man who had suddenly remembered something delightful.
“Fare!” He said the word as would a ravenous man say the word 'food' at the smell of it. Letting go of me he swiftly turned, ran down the aisle and bounded up the stairs. My ankle throbbed. I was shocked and afraid to move. The bus vibrated and shook as it pounded through the mist. Breath broke from my mouth in short bursts of vapour. The freezing night had entrenched itself within the bus. Loud banging came from above as if a terrible fight had broken out, or furniture was being thrown about.
I listened intently. I could hear something else, something that sounded like the agonised grunts of a beast - or a man! I looked around at the gap in the blind. It was black and, to my relief, empty. I closed my eyes and tried to slow the thumping of my heart. The mist outside lent the interior an eerie glow as if the deck were lit by dim green neon. I looked at my watch. Surely we must have reached a town by now? We must have been travelling for an hour at least. I could hardly see my watch in the awful gloom. I could just about make out the hands.
Twelve thirty! That was impossible! Then I noticed that the glass on my watch was broken. I must have smashed it when I fell. In that case, what was the time? Something slid along the floor. I looked under the seat and saw the ticket dispenser. I reached under and pick it up. The ticket was still attached to it. The ticket looked strange. The material was too thick to be paper. I rolled the ticket between my fingers. Curious. It had a pliable feel, limber, and it did not crease when I folded it. Beneath the surface of my consciousness a blurred image slithered. As I tried to resolve the image I gazed absently at the gap in the blind.
Amazed We Hadn't Crashed
THE driver's face did not appear suddenly, as it would have done had he sharply turned. Instead it gently floated into view as if it were slowly emerging from water. My first thought was that I had imagined the effect. The bus would have had to be stationary for the driver to approach the glass at the angle he did. He would have had to take his foot off the throttle and turn his whole body, but he could not have; the bus was still rushing along. I moved forward a little just to make sure that I was not seeing things. No. There was the face - in all its malignancy! I went ridged.
I felt as if my body was packed with barbed wire and that if I moved the barbs would pop through my skin. The face looked at me with an expression of complete enmity, and I felt that only if I remained perfectly still would I be safe. I was amazed at how he could look at me for so long with his eyes off the road and not crash. I just wished he would turn away his awful gaze. But an impact did not come and I somehow knew that it would not. I at last knew that there was something unnatural about this bus. Tension grew in me to the point that I wanted to rush up to that horrid face and scream at it. I had had enough!
I wanted to take my so-called fate by the scruff of the neck and shake it silly. I moved forward unsteadily. I felt determined. I told myself that he was only a bus driver, only a man. An ugly, horrid man. Despite my trembling I forced myself to draw near the glass until his face was only a few inches from mine. Regardless of my determination, what happened next made me feel nauseous. I knew that it was impossible, because our faces were separated by glass, but I could smell his rancid breath. The filthy odour spilled into my nostrils. The glass did not mist as he breathed. He pulled back his thin lips over his teeth in a terrible snarl. Every discoloured tooth had in it a small hole.
Not a natural hole made by decay, but perfectly round as if deliberately drilled. Something moved at the edge of one of the holes. I drew back as a maggots head slithered out twisting frantically as if to escape something worse below. It found no escape. The hideous driver slid out his tongue and licked the maggot away. I covered my mouth as bile jumped from my throat.
The face drew away. It did not turn, but drew away as if submerging in black water. Before the face had gone completely the glass turned black, losing it's transparency, until all that I could see was the dark refection of my own haggard face where his had been. I could not even see the concertina blind behind the glass. Panic squirmed inside me like a snake inside a sack. I scrambled to the other front window and cupped my trembling hands on the vibrating glass. I gasped with relief!
Moonlight shone brightly off the frost that covered the passing fields and the naked trees swayed in the cold wind. The mist had cleared! I almost burst into laughter so powerful was my relief. I felt as if I had suddenly awakened from a nightmare into the comforting arms of normality. The bus's headlights shone into the distance. I could not take my eyes off the road. Perhaps for fear that if I turned and looked at the deck the nightmare would begin again. But in the reflection on the glass I saw that all the light bulbs were on again as if they had never burst. I turned from the reflection.
“I must have been dreaming.” I said, with half disbelief and half conviction. The deck looked almost serene with all the bulbs intact and shining brightly. Nervously I looked at the driver's window. I could see the blind. It flapped normally to the regular rumble of the bus. I relaxed thinking that it must have been something I ate to give me so vivid dreams. I tried to think back to the dinner that I had had with my boss and his wife. It was just a normal meal with nothing fancy that I could remember, except for the mushrooms.
Light Was Fading Fast
“THEY TASTED a bit funny.” I thought. “What with them and the cold and the mist. Wait. There wasn't any mist. That was part of the dream.” I turned and looked at the scene ahead. The normality of the moonlight and shadows gave me comfort. I saw something ahead. It appeared suddenly at the edge of the headlights' beam. I cupped my hands to the window again. It was a car, a white car.
“My car is white”, I thought absently. The man standing at the rear of the car appeared to be raising something out of the boot. He had something in his hands, but I could not see what it was. The moonlight was quickly fading. The scene started to go black. The glass was going black! I felt something trickle down my forehead. The light bulbs exploded! Minutes later I sat with blood oozing down my cheek gazing blankly at mist that was thickly back swirling about the boarding platform. The light shining down from the upper deck ghostly lighted the vapour. I was too far back, slummed in the dark for the ghostly light to touch me. Hidden in the dark like a fugitive, bleeding and haunted by insanity, or hallucination. Had I damaged my brain when I fell?
Could I really hear again the muffled thuds and grunts coming from the deck above? I did not want to move, but anything was better than sitting in the dark plagued by thoughts of my own sanity. I eased myself to my feet. Glass crunched under me as I walked unsteadily to the stairs. I reached the platform, stopped and listened. I thought that I could hear moaning, but it was like trying to hear through a wall. Whatever was going on upstairs I knew for certain that I did not want to be part of it. All I wanted to do was get off the bus. I did not care anymore, even if I had to sleep in the fields. That would be better than the fate which awaited me if I climbed those stairs, of that I, was certain. But how could I get off?
At the speed the bus was now travelling if I jumped I would be killed. My head ached. If I stood on the platform I could wait my chance, and then if the bus slowed I could jump. I heard a sharp movement behind me. I turned and looked into the darkness. The drivers monkey face loomed towards me. It floated bodiless, like a devil mask. I was about to yell when the mask crumbled into motes. I blinked and rubbed my eyes. The mask was gone. Exhaustion must have caused the illusion. I scrambled onto a bench seat to rest for a moment. The sounds from above stopped. The drone of the engine seemed far away and silence hung in the air like a noose. I thought about the car and the man I had seen.
“Had the car been mine? If it had been mine, then the bus must be going around in circles. Who was the man? A thief? An opportunist? Someone who just happened to have been driving by? I had not seen another car? What could he steal? There was nothing of value in the car. The book. He was welcome to that. If we were going in circles that meant that we had to come to the bend again. The bus would have to slow. Perhaps I could jump off there?” The thought gave me a little consolation. “But how would I know when we were at the bend? The mist was too thick to see”. I looked at the mist surging past the platform. It reminded me of the clouds below an aeroplane, when all one could see was cloud, no earth, as if the earth did not exist. A wave of nausea passed over me. I knew that I must do something; anything was better than the helplessness that numbed me.
I GOT up and stepped onto the platform. Only the bitter cold kept me from falling into unconsciousness. Bile rose in my throat. I swallowed hard. I could hear the tyres rushing over the road, but I could not see the road, only the swirling mist. The platform bounced and trembled and the mist danced around me like spirits. With one hand I held the vibrating handrail and thrust my other hand into the rushing blanket of mist. It as if I had put my hand into a freezer. As the onrush of air forced back my arm I chanced a look forward into the mist.
All I could see was the glow from the upper deck lights. Suddenly something sprang out of the mist! The object struck the side of the bus and span towards me. I snapped back my head as the book, its pages fanning wildly, flew past me and hit the back handrail. The force of the wind kept it propped against the handrail for a moment. The pages flapped. Then the book snapped shut with a loud clap and flew off into the mist. I was shocked not only by the sudden impact of the book, but also by what I had seen on its cover.
The book had hung suspended for no longer than two seconds, but that was time enough for me to read its title. “Transmutations”! I staggered back, my head spinning. It was the book about reincarnation that my boss's wife had given me. 'How had it…?' I did not want to think. My mind felt terrible tired. Fatigue swept through me and I felt deeply weary. I did not care anymore. I did not care what happened to me. I just wanted to sleep. I twisted away from the mist and found the conductor standing behind me!
After my initial shock I thought how easily he could have pushed me off the bus. I realised that even he was not stupid enough to commit murder. Yet, I still had to be careful. He was volatile. I had to humour him, Despite my fatigue I also realised that I wanted to survive. If only my head would stop throbbing perhaps I could handle things a bit better. “You haven't got an aspirin have you?” I spoke without thinking. He smiled, looking almost friendly. His nostrils flared eagerly. If I had not been so tired I would have been suspicious of that eagerness. He indicated to the stairs. He wanted me to go up.
“No, no thank you. I'll rest on the seat here for a while thank you”, I said. “Warm.”, he said pointing up. I wondered if he was being friendly at last. 'Perhaps that was what all that the banging was about. He was arranging the seat cushions so that I could lie down'. I knew that was stupid, but I was so tired that I wanted it to be true. What if it was warm up there? I wanted so much to be warm. His smile grew broader and he gestured to the stairs again. I thought that it could do no harm to go up. If he started anything I would be better able to defend myself in the light. He gestured again. 'What about the moaning I had heard? Was there another passenger up there; someone else he had bullied? Two of us would stand a better chance against him'.
He took my arm and I let him steer me to the stairs. I did not resist. The hook of hope was embedded in my heart. I started to climb. I was just over half way up when I noticed that the temperature, instead of getting warmer, got colder. I stopped, my heart alert. Something was more than wrong! I sensed it like a deer might sense the hunter. I could see just over the top step. I did not want to go on. I wanted to go back. Something horrible lay ahead - something hideous!
HE STOOD behind me, too close. Debility seeped through me and I felt that a slap would cause me to crumble. A cold quiver ran up my legs. His hands were on my calves! His palms ran up the back of my thighs and cupped my buttocks. He pushed me up one more step. I wanted to resist, to defy the arrogance that touched me so intimately.
I felt as if my body were drugged, that it was not my own. Yet, still I had the strength to feel an utter loathing for my captor. I resisted the idea that he was my captor and felt defiance rising inside me. The seat cushions were scattered over the deck; but that was not what struck my attention as I climbed the last step. Halfway along the aisle one of the handrails had been wrenched free and bent into a loop. Crushed between the loop was a human leg!
I could see the naked lower back of a body hanging upside down. Skin had been flayed from the body and hung in thin strips over a seat handrail. The skin hung in narrow strips like wet bandage. I had seen meat in butchers shops hanging on hooks, slapped on trays, chopped and cut into tiny pieces, but now to see human skin neatly place beside the victim caused me to choke with horror. Suddenly blind strength galvanised by instinct caused me to lash out at the monster behind me. I struck his face with my forearm. Confused with terror my blows were ill directed.
I over-reached, lost my balance and stumbled. The conductor seemed totally unaffected and continued to climb the stairs. I had the advantage of being slightly above him and kicked him hard in the stomach. He made no effort to grab me, or pull away; he did not even flinch. Then with all the force my new found strength could muster I kicked him between the legs. He ought to have doubled over, but again he took the blow as if it were no more than a slap. I fell back and he climbed the last step.
He looked at me as though I were no more to him than an insect. I was amazed at his strength. He blocked the stairs like a wedge; there was no way that I could get past him. A short whirring sound made me look at the new ticket dispenser he had around his waist. I had not noticed it before. A 'ticket' rolled out. It glistened. Small beads trickled down its curled length like saliva, as if it were a lolling tongue.
It wavered, almost trembled, and another 'ticket' rolled out. It came out not in a smooth roll, but forced, as if it were being squashed out by something in the dispenser. The attached tickets looked as if they were a too-long tongue freed from a too tight mouth. They hung and seemed to deliberately curl, as if they were alive. I was both horrified and mesmerised by the sight. Then the conductor took the 'tickets' in his fist and squeezed them, like a man might squeeze a bandage freshly drawn from a wound.
A thick red liquid oozed between his fingers. I looked round at the flayed body with its exposed sinews and muscle dripping with blood. I looked at the narrow strips of skin lolling over the handrails. I vomited. I heaved until I thought my chest would implode. I could hardly see. My eyes were running with tears. I coughed until my throat was raw. I had fallen onto the last but one seat beside the stairs. Leaning over the back of the seat I wiped the tears from my eyes. I was facing down onto the rear seat. The cushion of the seat had been removed leaving only the trunk-shaped bottom.
At first I thought that the trunk was full of water. My face was near the surface and I thought that I could see my refection in the water. Then, aghast, I realised that the bloated face staring back at me was not mine. The head lay squashed between a tangle of wet clothes and a severed arm. Next to that was another head, face down. It lay on a half-submerged pile of internal organs. Paralysed with horror, a scream locked in my throat, and full comprehension came to me. Human parts were pulped together in the 'trunk', like butcher's meat in a sink. A rib cage protruded out of the mess and arched over the trunk like a skeletal hood. I flung myself away from the sickening brew of dismembered cadavers. I staggered and collapsed; and darkness fell upon me like a guillotine blade.
Look Of Surprise
I AWOKE with the wind howling against the car. I tried to move, but something bound me. I struggled to untangle myself from the twisted rug and sat up sweating. I sat staring at the dashboard unable to calm my trembling body. Only when my trembling turned to shivering did I come out of my trance. Slowly I put my hand to the window and rubbed away some of the condensation. I looked out. The icy moon shone like a disembodied eye. I pulled on the door lever. The wind sluiced against me, like cold surf. I climbed out.
I tried to look at my watch, but the moon froze behind thick cloud. I needed light to see the time. I searched under the dashboard for a torch. My hands found nothing. The moon still hid as I stumbled to the boot and opened it. My fumbling found nothing save a few loose screws, a spanner and, something else. I could not see the object in the darkness, nor could I recognise it by its shape as I felt it with my hands. What could it be? Then I knew and my heart stopped. The moon slid from behind a cloud and I looked at the ticket dispenser. A ticket rolled out.
I did not turn when I heard the bus. I saw it coming clearly enough in my minds eye. I saw the young man with his hands cupped at the front window. I saw the look of surprise on his face. I even knew what he was thinking. He was thinking that I was a thief. As the blazing lights of the bus rushed by, beads of sweat trickled down my face. No, not beads of sweat, but beads of blood oozing from the thin slits in my skin. The blood dripped off my chin and fell onto the dispenser. Something in the dispenser moved and another ticket rolled out, glistening in the moonlight. I stood waiting.
Waiting, as the skin on my face peeled in thin strips. Waiting, as the moon looked down on my new face - my ape face. I heard the bus draw up behind me. A new bus. I strapped the dispenser to my waist, turned and walked toward the bus - My Bus.
© John Cord
Modern Gent, 145 Snargate Street, Dover, Kent CT17 9BZ, UK – Telephone +44 (0)1304 208358