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Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Bill Griffiths: Ghost Story 3: MIDNIGHT EXPRESS

As we approach the year's Midnight, here's the third of Mr Griffiths' tales of mystery and local government


The bus station at Seaville – late at night – is not a pleasant site. The toilets are locked, but the mix of hormonal relicts and disinfectant pervades the concrete court. The decorative crowds of travellers back from work have long gone; the shy gangs of youngsters, with bikes to practice on, or girls to sit with, or slogans and graffiti to create, are gone likewise. Long since to bed, or whatever. The sky has darkened and the single bulb or two that provides company shows a tendency to blink – then blanks out. Shivery winds roll round the exposed bays and alleys, empty of their buses. What a place to be. But you dare not turn up late or even on time: what if you missed the last bus – the connection to the night coach at Sundercity – the only way out to London – the escape to civilisation, company and the real. It’s worth turning up early, and suffering the cold – was that a flick of snow? – and the isolation, just to know that you cannot miss the bus.

Not that there are any signs of regular travellers. I begin to doubt that there will be a late bus after all. The timetable is illegible, even supposing there was light to make something of the tiny figures. Are they am/pm or 24-hour? No way of telling. Of course, I checked up at home, before I set out – but come to think of it, it was rather an old brochure I grabbed to give me info. Yes, 23.23 – easy to remember – or is that what worries me? Perhaps I wanted to believe it – that I could get from tiny Seaville to the big Sundercity even at virtual middle-night – much better than mere and mortal accuracy. If you didn’t mind standing about in the darkness, the chill, the isolation.

Maybe it’s not so lonely, after all. Someone is turning out from a late-drinking pub somewhere – I can hear them singing – or humming – or whatever. Not a cheerful sound. Perhaps they will avoid the bus station. No. They are on their way. I can hear them getting closer, but I can’t see them quite. It’s too dark, and they are keeping back near the wall where it isn’t so exposed to the wind. I can make out shapes – people – a group – but that’s it. They don’t approach. They don’t say hello. They just have a melody or two to keep them warm. Blessings. At least it means the late bus must run, doesn’t it?

Yes, they have timed it to a T. Decrepit enough, an old bus that is all the company cares to risk at this time of night, coins the corner, and with an almost antique throb, comes to a stop – and just at my bay! No doubt about it, this is the 49 to Sundercity. I can’t make out the lettering on the front – there is no proper illumination – but the number seems as near as right – I check with the driver – 49? – a sort of solemn neutrality as I show my pass. After me the choristers get on. As I supposed, they are hugely old, and not easy on their feet. Must be a good pub, theirs. They sit way behind me at the back of the coach. I do not feel inclined to turn round and notice them. Not a friendly bunch, I’d guess. Probably known each other for years and don’t need to speak to strangers. Not typical of Seaville, mind.

I don’t care. I’m on my way. My faith in the bus company vindicated. The snow and the piercing wind, the dark and the loneliness behind me. More or less. It’s now warm, here, on board. Not cheerful, exactly. The driver doesn’t speak. The group at the back are singing a hymn now – it rings a bell – isn’t that the one at the Cup Final? – that’s it: Abide With Me. I almost join in.

Fast falls the eventide…
Fast falls the eventide…

Well, what else is there to do in a chilly bus on its way to a dark city late at night? Maybe they come from a pub with hymns on its jukebox. I turn to show my appreciation, but somehow they have blended into the dark shadows around the back seats – I can hardly make them out. I leave them alone after that. I’m on my way. I don’t need them.

We peter along – Sunnyside Up – the estates outside Seaville – round onto the old main road – average time – no spectacular racer this – but no rush either. There is a patch of country-like darkness, then we start to find our way towards the satellites of Sundercity. Suddenly – for no one has hailed the bus since we got on a Seaville – there is a stop. The antique brakes pull on, and the stiff doors fold open like an aged screen of zigzagging moth-cloth. Ah, this is where the old folk dismount. I can hear them moving forward. I see them clearly now, as they move past, silent, slow, slightly wobbly-coggly, like old folk who need sticks and a supporting hand. I do not offer. They will soon be gone, with their wheezy hymns and dark presence, and then we will be on our way! Sundercity! Hurrah!

The bus, however, disagrees. There is no move to shut the doors. There is no response from the driver. Does he know I am here? Is he too far in advance of the schedule? Unlikely, the slow rate we’ve been moving. Perhaps he’s had an attack and slumped in his seat, a martyr to late shifts. Well, it’s getting embarrassing, so I move forward to check. They don’t like being goaded, but a friendly enquiry…

How, man! We’re bound for Sundercity, are we? (No reply.) Must be time to gan, eh? (Nothing.) Drive, can you? (Humour.) (No response.) Aw, come on, it’s getting ower-late. I want to get to Sundercity. Nummer 49… Sundercity…

It seems useless. There is no response, but the driver seems upright and alert, in his way. Eventually he turns a head towards me, slow and gaunt, like a tortoise might. I wait, apprehensive somehow. I mean, how old can a timetable be? ‘We can go no further,’ he seems to be saying. Well, I know the regulations – you have to go to the terminus – the destination on the front of the bus – but then, did I check? Maybe the last bus stops short now. The old folk seemed to expect it. They all got out. ‘Sundercity?’ I query, in a last attempt to get him moving. But the engine has stopped now. The driver is adamant. Nothing is going to move. I have to get off.

How far to Sundercity I wonder, as I step down. Outside. Not nice. A musty smell. Stones and strange carved caprices over the wall. Great… A graveyard. Must be the cemetery at Grunge. No sign of the others. No hymn-singing now. The only sound is the bus doors creaking shut behind me.

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