Occasionally I indulge myself by writing fiction. Below is a short story I wrote last year. It was chosen as ‘Story of the Year’ on a UK writing website.
The Late Bus
It was about 3.37pm when I noticed mum was dead.
I say ‘about’. I can’t be more precise than that. I hadn’t looked at my watch for a full five minutes, and when I’d glanced at it last it said 3.31pm. There is five minutes and 35 seconds between the end of Penwortham Lane, where I know I looked at my watch, and the bus stop by the Post Office along Old Queen’s Road. We’d definitely passed the stop when mum’s head slumped on my shoulder and she let out a groan, like a bagpipe deflating. How far past we were I don’t know – the weight of mum’s body against me temporarily trapped my wrist – but it wasn’t far.
So I’m saying 3.36 and 45 seconds as estimated time of death. As I’ve mentioned, I can’t be more precise than that. After all, she was dead. I had other things to think about.
We’d been on the weekly trip to Lancaster. Mum liked the castle. She said the vibrations around it gave her energy. I know it was the caffeine in the tea she’d had from the flask on the way up and I said so, but she ignored me.
“They come up from the witch’s dungeon!” she said, cackling. “Can’t you feel them, David?”
No, I couldn’t. Not once, ever. I looked up at the high, soot-blackened stone walls and down to the green in front of the castle. There was a slight breeze, accompanied by the rumble of the 10.47am Virgin WestCoast pulling out of Lancaster en route to London Euston, via Preston, Wigan North Western, Warrington Bank Quay, Crewe and Birmingham New Street, but that was it. Mum was disappointed.
“Oh you. No imagination. Always the same. Where’s your sense of fun? They’re magic, those vibrations. I can feel them. I’m sensitive.”
We usually caught the 9.10am bus from Wigan Station as it’s the more direct route. That was my idea. Mum preferred to take the slower bus – “round the houses,” she said – because she liked to look into people’s gardens. I don’t like to look in people’s gardens. I don’t see the point, as we have a garden of our own. Mum said other people’s gardens gave her ideas. If I can, I do something as we walk to the bus station – stop in a shop or use the public toilet in Market Street – so we slow down and miss the 8.53am indirect route to Lancaster.
“Typical!” she said, when she discovered we were late again, “spoiling my fun. Your head always busy with the details. Let go and enjoy yourself for once!”
As usual, I was pushing her in the chair. She grumbled a bit about the bus, but I didn’t notice. Once the chair was stowed at the front of the bus we moved down the vehicle and into our usual seat. A woman wearing a tartan jacket got on and sat in front of us. I stared at the patterns on her coat, watching the way the yellows tramlined across the reds and blues and greens and how they all converged and diverged at different points. If the jacket’s material was polyester it would’ve made the junctions of colour more symmetrical. As it was, it was constructed from some blend of heavy wool that didn’t quite lend itself to perfect parallels. That annoyed me. After a while I gave up and looked at something else. Finally, after a lot of fussing from mum about the flask’s screw-top, we were at Lancaster Bus Station.
It’s changed over the years. I preferred the old station. The buses came close to you as you waited in line. Now you queue behind a glass door, which only opens when the driver is ready to let you on. I used to enjoy smelling the engine fumes as it ticked over while the driver went to fetch a cup of coffee or tea from the machine. Now all you can smell is other people, which isn’t as nice as diesel.
Truth be told, it’s the only part of Lancaster I do like. My nurses at Ridge Lea, the assessment unit on the edge of the town, were nice enough, but they couldn’t understand why I was there, and nor could I. “What’s 5,750 times 27, David?” they’d ask.
“One hundred and fifty-five thousand, two hundred and fifty,” I’d reply, quick as a flash, and they’d all laugh.
“He’s a genius, in’t he? Not like the rest of the dafties in here, are you David?”
They’d go back to their tea, or to manhandling some screaming old patient, his white hair wild all over his head and his false teeth in pieces on the ward floor. I’d sit there, wondering what was so funny. 5,750 times 27 is 155,250. Wouldn’t you know that?
This went on for years. I’d spent a few weeks at Ridge Lea (to give my parents a rest) then go home. I’d walk from the hospital down into Lancaster and catch the bus. The smell of Dettol and cold dinners stayed in my nostrils and everyone in Lancaster looked like a Ridge Lea patient or a nurse. Or both. That’s why I don’t like it.
Mum and Dad did, though. They’d visit me, then go for tea and shopping in the town. They came to love the place, especially mum. One day she went into a shop that sold crystals – I think she was looking for a paperweight – and the shopkeeper told her that Lancaster was a very special place, full of mystery and ‘energies’. Mum bought a book on ‘energies’ and from then on, began to feel energies under her feet, especially in Lancaster. She also started wearing purple, but only after Dad died.
Anyway, on this particular day Mum felt energies coming from the castle. Happy at that, we went for tea and shopping. I annoyed her because I took time choosing a cake. Carrot is nice, but it felt wrong to eat savoury again after the main course. Lemon is too tart, Eccles cakes have dead flies in them and chocolate gives me headaches.
“You give me a bloody headache, David,” Mum grumbled. “You’re 57 years old. Just pick one before you reach your old age pension.” Then she stuck a fork into a slice of Black Forest gateau and pushed it into her mouth. Crumbs stuck to the whiskers under her chin. I decided to go without cake.
After tea and shopping it was time for home. ‘You looked puffed out,’ I told Mum. She didn’t reply. Like her skirt and top, she was a funny purple colour. I pushed her quickly down Penny Street to the bus station. I didn’t want to miss the 2.52pm via Preston. Again, it’s direct, and it stops in Preston for just four minutes, as opposed to the 3.01 which stays there 20 minutes. I like to be back in Wigan for around 4.45pm, as I know it’s easier to push Mum across the bypass before drivers start leaving work in their cars. Otherwise we’re stuck on the pavement for ages and people say things and ask me if I’m alright. Of course I’m alright. I just need to wait until 20 cars have gone past before it’s safe to cross. If 20 do go past and the 21st is close behind the 20th, I have to wait until 20 more go past again. If there’s a break in the traffic then, we can cross. If not – we wait. It drives Mum mad.
Then Mum went and died on the bus. It was 3.36pm and 45 seconds. Her head flopped on to my shoulder and she squashed me against the window. ‘What are you doing, Mum?” I said, because I’d been counting bus stops between Lancaster and Preston and now she’d put me off. It could have been 46 or 47, I can’t remember.
I took her hand. It felt cold. There was a blue look around her lips. She’d been quiet on the way back, but I think she knew I was counting and didn’t want to put me off. But she did, by dying.
By now, the bus was well past the Post Office on Old Queen’s Road. I wondered how I’d ask someone if they knew about dead people, and what to do next. But I was afraid that it would somehow delay the bus and I wouldn’t be able to get across the bypass before the people driving home from work began to use it. Still, Mum’d been dead about 14 minutes and 39 seconds and something needed to be done. Gently, I reached out and touched the back-to-back people on a man’s jacket called Kappa. I hoped he’d turn round and see Mum’s blue lips and know what to do, but he just shuffled a bit and carried on looking at his phone.
We waited at Preston for four minutes, which turned into six because the driver ran into Greggs, just by the main door, and came back with what looked like a sausage roll, or a bacon twist. It was hard to tell from the middle of the bus. I expect was a sausage roll. Bacon twists are more of a breakfast thing and was afternoon by then. Most of the passengers got off and only seven got on for Burnley, including a man and a woman who could’ve be married.
“Are you alright, love?” said the woman as she walked past.
I was expecting this.
“Yes,” I said. “I am.”
“Right….” said the woman.
She looked at me and I looked at her. Then I stared out of the window.
“And how about the lady next to you?”
“That’s my mum.”
“Yes, your mum. Is she alright too?”
“No,” I said, “she’s dead.”
The woman gives me a funny look, like she’s heard something rude.
“Right. I was only asking. There’s no need to take the mickey.”
“My mum’s dead,” I repeated. “She’s just died on the bus. Can you help me?”
The woman looked at her husband, or boyfriend. He’d already sat down.
“Take no notice, love,” he said. Then he looked at me.
“If you scare anyone else on this bus, dickhead, I’ll come over there and rip your lungs out,” he said.
He was a big man with a bald head, and I could see he might have the power to lean over and do what he said. I didn’t like to catch his eye. To be honest I don’t really know what that means – something about staring at someone – but I still didn’t want it to happen. I didn’t want him to catch my eye either. I pictured it flying out of my head, looking round at everything swooshing past, and him catching it and putting it straight in his mouth. I shuddered, and faced the front of the bus.
As we approached Wigan the number of people on the bus became fewer. The angry bald man and his wife left just before the roundabout at Church Lane. He looked at me and I turned away. His wife seemed worried, but he grabbed her hand, almost dragging her to the door. There was an old black man at the back and a couple of teenagers at the front. They had earphones in and weren’t interested in anything else.
The bus stopped at Wigan. Now I had a problem. Mum’s wheelchair was stowed at the front of the bus. We were in the middle of the bus. Somehow I had to get mum into the chair and off the bus. We needed to get home, then I could decide what to do. Jean, our next door neighbour, is quite good and she’d be able to arrange something. Her husband, Len, likes to play dominoes with me. Sometimes we go to the local pub, other times we stay at home. Len doesn’t win very often. He says I have a ‘lucky hand’. I let him think that. It’s nice to win sometimes. Other times it’s nice to let the other person win. You stay friends with people that way.
“Are you a bit stuck there?”
The old man was probably a West Indian. He was small and wiry.
“And your mama’s asleep, right? You don’ wanna disturb her.”
I shook my head. She was asleep, sort of. It wasn’t a lie.
“Well then, let’s bring the chair to her,” he said, “and slide her on. She’ll be none the wiser.”
The old man strode down the bus, picked up the chair and carried it back. It didn’t seem heavy for him.
“I work with engines 30 years,” he said, winking, “at Leyland Motors. This is nothing.”
He assembled the chair and between us, pushing and pulling, we slid mum on to it. The old man looked at her, then at me, then looks at her again, but didn’t say anything.
Mum flopped around a bit and she looked a funny colour, but otherwise she was doing well. Playing at being alive, I mean. Her purple hat fell off and the old man put it back gently.
“Hush now baby, don’t you cry,” he sang softly, then smiled at me. He pushed the chair to the door then got off and beckoned me to help him lift it down. Between us, we lifted mum on to the concourse and through the doors.
“You’re OK now, son,” said the old man. “Take care of yourself. Be good to your mama.” Then he left, whistling the tune he was singing on the bus.
Now I’m standing with my hands on the back of the wheelchair. Mum looks cold. The light is fading and people are starting to arrive at the station having left work. We must get to the bypass now, before the cars drive by in numbers and I have to keep counting to 20, 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12-13-14-15-16-17-18-19-20, again and again, before we can cross. I know how many steps it takes to get home once we’ve crossed – 2,176. Plus 10 more to get to Jean’s house. She’ll know what to do. Maybe Len will fancy a game of dominoes, once it’s all over?
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six…………………………………..