Bus by Chris Green
The bus isn’t supposed to go this way. What is happening? Where is it taking me?
‘You’re going the wrong way,’ I call out to the driver.
She takes no notice. Perhaps she cannot hear me over the noise of the engine. I try again.
‘I have an appointment and I’m going to be late,’ I add.
Still no response. I walk up the aisle to the front the bus to tell her she has made a mistake, and needs to turn back. Otherwise, I will miss my meeting.
There is no driver. She is no longer there. I look around to see where she can have gone. Not only is she missing, but the other passengers have disappeared. I am now the only one aboard. Suddenly, there is no bus. Instead, I am walking along the road. A featureless straight track that stretches into the distance. I don’t recognise where I am. Darkness is descending. I feel panic setting in. I need to turn around and go back and somehow retrace my steps. Now there is no road at all. And I am no longer walking. I appear to have changed state. I have no physical form. To all intents and purposes, I no longer exist.
I would normally expect to wake up around about now. But I don’t wake up. I cannot wake up. Is this it?
When you are accustomed to physical existence, non-existence comes as something of a shock, I can tell you. I start to think of all the things I will no longer be able to do. I will not be able to play the saxophone. Or the clarinet. I won’t be able to hug my badger. No, that can’t be right. I don’t imagine I have a badger. I must mean my cat. Wait! I don’t have a cat either. It’s Kat. That’s it. I won’t be able to hug Kat. I will never get to find out what happens in the final episode of Revenge of the Tulpas. There will be no-one to let the dogs out. The parrot will starve.
I hear my phone ringing. It is the ringtone I assigned to Kat last month to make sure I took her calls. But I don’t know how this can be happening, or what I can do about the call now that I am inchoate. It’s not as if I can even see my phone, let alone answer it.
Once again, I imagine I should be waking up about now. But I am not asleep. I am something else, somewhere else. Neither asleep nor awake. I am in a state of limbo. Insubstantial and distant.
‘You appear to be lost,’ a man’s voice says. It has an echo which makes it sound both far away and close. Where can it be coming from? Can he actually see me or is he using a different method to detect my presence? If he can see me, why can’t I see him or see myself? Does this suggest that, however tenuous, I still have contact with the real-world? Or is this how things happen in the afterlife?
The tall figure slowly materialises. Like an old newspaper photo made up of dots, his grainy presence hovers before me against the otherwise featureless backdrop. He is within twenty feet of me. I’m desperately hoping he doesn’t come closer.
‘What we call the beginning is often the end,’ he says, cryptically. ‘And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.’
His intonation is a curious combination of Thor, RP, and automated telephone voice. The effect is otherworldly. I want to ask him what he means, but I am unable to speak. Whatever state it is I am in has very limited functionality, but somehow I’m hanging in there.
‘I see that you are confused,’ he continues, ‘Maybe it will become clear to you later.’
It seems he wants to keep me in suspense, as with this, his presence slowly fades. Nothingness once more. Silence pervades. A prolonged silence. Minutes pass and then hours. Perhaps days. Time has lost its meaning. Isolation training could not prepare you for this lack of stimulation. The pandemic lockdown offered nothingness and silence. But there was rationality about what was taking place. You had an idea of its boundaries and you knew it would end. There is nothing rational about this situation. I feel as if I am inhabiting a Samuel Beckett story. I am reminded of the one where the narrator is chained to a leaking boat with his life slowly draining away. Or the one told by a nameless man lying in darkness and mud, unable to move. Scared doesn’t cover what I am feeling. I am terrified.
I resign myself to my grisly fate. But out of the blue, I hear the faint sound of a brass band in the distance. They are playing a Sousa marching tune, but with a jazz arrangement. My brass tutor, Hari, used to be in a jazz band. I don’t imagine there’s any connection, but it is heartening to hear something familiar breaking through at last. Blown on the wind, the music fades in and out. I begin to hear the hum of traffic coming from somewhere. It grows louder. I can hear one distinct engine rising above the rest. The sound of a bus. Better still, I am aboard the bus. It seems like the same bus I was on earlier. Whenever earlier was. The other passengers on board seem familiar.
I am having a conversation with the driver. Her name is Maya. Maya is an avid reader, and we are talking about books. I tell her I like Haruki Murakami. You never know what to expect in his books. He is full of surprises. Magical realism, weird worlds with deep wells and talking cats. Jazz arrangements colour his prose. She hasn’t read him, but to my surprise, she likes Jorge Luis Borges. His characters are cast adrift in unfamiliar alien worlds, she says. She adds that a friend lent her a collection of Samuel Beckett stories, but she didn’t get on with those. All those protagonists who are devoid of hope.
‘A little horror is OK,’ she says. ‘So long as it’s well written. Stephen King or H. P. Lovecraft are my favourites. I like Daphne du Maurier too. Her stories haunt you long after you’ve finished them.’
I ask her if she has read Phillip C Dark. She says she has not heard of him. I do not tell her it is one of my pseudonyms.
She tells me she has written a few short stories
‘I’ve been plotting one in my head today, as it happens,’ she says. I woke up feeling creative and thought I would drive the bus a different way to see what came to mind. This then could form the basis of the story.’
‘How’s that going,’ I ask?
‘The story I’ve come up with is about how we are so used to our routines that the slightest deviation can cause panic. I thought the action might as well take place on a bus. It’s simpler that way. One passenger, in particular, freaks out when the bus driver takes a wrong turning. Perhaps it is going to make him late for an appointment or something. He becomes deranged. In his paranoia, he sees himself as a victim of some diabolic force, and imagines all kinds of crazy scenarios. He descends further into his nightmare until he’s no longer sure who he is, or whether he will survive. ……. You could play the part if you like. You could be that passenger. You could bring in ideas from some of those writers we’ve been talking about. What do you think?’
‘It’s good,’ I say. ‘I suggest you don’t reveal that this is what is happening until the last moment. The disclosure of the writing process could provide the twist.’
‘I think I see,’ she says. ‘You mean the end would then be the beginning.’
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved