After the success of last post's members-only gambit, I'm going to have a go a putting the story within the body of the post so that you don't have to click over to my website to read it.
I hope you enjoy this one. I reckon it's got legs for a longer development some day. Anyway, it's about buses and has a reference to woodlice I particularly like.
An owl pulsed over a narrow country road in a narrow country place. It speared a field and came back with something small and wriggling in its claws.
Down below, Christian grunted. A rock had caught in his wheel arch. He was a single story bus, known to the city as the 63 - St Michael's to Broadside, the Church route – so called because it stopped at a lot of churches.
The owl flew across the fields to find a place to feast.
Christian drove down the road and the dark, his brothers and sisters in front and behind, to find a place to be. He had been built in the depths of the city, spent his whole life going no further than the ringroad. He didn't know the quiet of the suburbs, the sounds of the farms, the smells of the earth or grass at night.
The road had been lain but not recently. Cracks led to potholes which could in turn lead to collisions.
He breathed bravely and pushed ahead.
In a big shed or small hangar not too far away, somebody in overalls turned on the projector.
Motorbikes are intended for show, for heavy leather suits and war helmets, they are the lager of travel. Spin one out on a pothole and drop it untidily split in two in with the potatoes or barley, and it will fade from view. This motorbike was painted in shades of moss and woodlice. Rust below, mist and midnight above. The headlight faced the road.
It saw the people driving home from work or into the nightlife city. It saw tractors, and bicycles, and even a horse-box.
The headlight watched the road.
It saw a convoy.
Dozens of buses in slow single file. They were modern. They were spacious. Some silent power propelled more and more, on and on and on . The broken motorbike marvelled. It had left the city when buses were ogres who burped and farted in their lanes. Here were demi-gods. It flashed a prayer.
And then, they were gone.
The city central bus depot stood shut and locked. Mute. At this time, light should split from the windows and activity should pound every floor. But an accident in the main hall had prevented it from accommodating its residents that night.
In a building opposite, a team of controllers with sleeves rolled up and cigarettes perched in their lips sweated into telephones and carefully charted the progress of their flock. Hundreds of vehicles guided around the country in search of a place to stay for the night. They had spread out maps and assigned teams to chart the dozen or so convoys' progress.
Christian's convoy slowed and stopped. They had been doing so regularly across the countryside and on the outskirts of smaller cities, engines ticking over to save on fuel. Here, they had parked by a hangar. Brick, MDF, aluminium. A gravel and dust courtyard between limpid fields. In this hangar, market-town buses were looked after at night. Christian heard clanking, conversation, an argument ... then nothing. The countryside hissed. The engines ticked.
CRRRRRRRRNG the depot doors pulled back. Sour faced young workers were visible in the headlights. Christian was now at the lead, each stop had seen between one and three of the buses in front of him peel off. The doors were hooked to the wall. A light flickered inside. One of the workers whistled. Only once. Christian edged forward and shivered. The worker whistled again and the rest of the buses re-engaged their engines and faded into the road.
Christian's space at home in the city depot was walled in marble and brass with art deco windows that let in moonlight. There was always noise; night buses came and went and huge lift platforms rumbled up and down to house the buses vertically as well as at ground level.
And the chatter. City buses gossip.
The hangar was hot. There hangar was little. It creaked. Faded country buses nested haphazard. All were facing the front wall. More or less. The occasional growl of settling metal, the crinkle of rust. A couple of overalled teenagers walked between them. They sponged off the day's dirt and replaced it with the sponges' dirt.
One of the buses at the far end began coughing. The sound resonated through the structure until a long haired fifteen year old trudged over and gave the bus some water. The buses knew this teenager as Patricia or Geraldine or something like that.
“You, move, come on, move!,” said Geraldine or maybe her name was Roxanne, it was hard to tell with humans. A great grumble grew as inch by inch the groaning hangar locals moved closer and closer together until a space opened for the interloper.
The space was too narrow for Christian. He could see that. Nevertheless possibly-Roxanne coaxed him forward. He flattened his mirrors and held his breath, trying to ignore the scrrrrrrraping noise. His neighbours were dangerously low-riding. The spot narrowed (they were parked at an angle) and he could only drive halfway in. This proved just enough for his rear tyres to cross the hangar threshold. The doors slammed shut.
Light shimmered at one end of the building. Peaking between his neighbours who held a sulken silence, it hit Christian that the building's quiet was at least in part due to a film playing on the back wall. Black and white Spitfires swooped through the clouds. Something had happened to the projector to make green and purple superimpostitions of the image. There were no speakers.
The buses settled into a stupor. They half-watched the film, half dozed. Christian tried to make conversation with his new neighbours, to apologise for the scratched metal, but they wouldn't reply. He missed the chatter of his home, needed its warming lull to sleep. The hangar's half-silence was creepy.
Patricia or Natalie or whatever she was called stayed behind to operate the camera. The war film finished and she replaced it with something else chosen at random. On the far wall, the Pathé logo appeared. She cracked a Coke and closed her eyes.
The film told the story of a girl in the 1950s. There weren't any buses which, as far as the hangar regulars could register feeling in the heat and diesel, was disappointing.
Natalie-is-it? started awake. The buses were quiet. Some watching the wall. The air smelt heavy and hot. She felt sick. Possibly Alice or maybe Patricia?, that name really did ring a bell, stumbled out. She needed to clear her head and walking home and getting into bed would be an excellent way to do exactly that.
She did not notice how the projector cable had fallen looped around the handle. She shut the door and the picture snapped out just at a promising moment set on a pavement. The buses were used to this sort of thing and waited for it to be brought back.
The silence grew.
“Come on then,” came a voice from the throng.
“Is that it?”: another.
“Looks like it.”
In his mirror, Christian could see the cable held stiff in the wall, just slightly pulled out of the projector. He started his soft engine and adjusted his wheels.
“What are you doing now?” finally one his neighbours acknowledged him with a diesel growl.
“Sorry,” he mumbled but pushed on. Gently... gently... gently... until tic! He felt the projector against his rear window. He could see it in the mirror; an ungainly angle. He adjusted again ever so slightly to push it in another direction. Closer and closer to the projector cable. Easy... easy... another little adjustment... easy... easy... there!
The picture came back to life. Someone was drinking a juice. There was a low rumble of cheer among the buses. Christian grinned and revved with joy.
A noise behind him. Sssssssslunk! And another. Sssssssslunk! Sssssssssslunk! Again and again. He looked back. Brick after brick was dropping from its home out into the night. He hadn't disengaged reverse and as he edged back, the wall was giving way. He tried to move into first but the angle he'd adjusted to pulled out more bricks baf!baf! baf! baf! He adjusted again and crrrrrrrrbambadabambadabambadabam a section of wall toppled, bricks showering the ground.
The film cut out.
A breeze pierced the heat. Oxygen took the place of diesel.
Christian waited for the rain of remonstrance.
Then a voice, somewhere ahead.
Outside the depot, a couple of bicycles were chained to a tree, their wheels stolen. Their only entertainment: the orderly dawn releases and dusk round-ups of the country buses, or whoever else might drive past them. But tonight, a special performance was laid on. Bus after bus reversed into the gravel grounds and dust, turned to look at the road, turned the other way and plodded into the fields.
Some of them flopped on their sides. One rolled in the mud. But most slowly trundled away.
And that night, they breathed easy in grassy paddocks and fields of potatoes and Christian slept sound under a starlight quilt.