Welcome to the Short Story Saturday story slot and the third story in this series. Because I have a 1,000-word limit on the Flash Fiction Fridays, I’ve decided (helped by first story contributor Jane Risdon) to add a story to the SSS slot, running roughly every other Saturday, in between the short story reviews, and here I’m delighted to share with you one of my favourite short stories (and one of the few I’ve given 10/10 to in the H.E. Bates Short Story Competition judging – this one once of the late-2011 entries – it had me hooked at the title!) by short story author Dan Purdue. The copyright remains with Dan.
Since he submitted this story, Dan’s told me that he’s submitted another for the late-2012 competition and one of the shortlisted (I only know the stories by the number our Competitions Secretary gives them and this year they all had the title / theme ‘A Walk at Midnight’ so it doesn’t help!) so I’ll get to meet him at the prize-giving next Friday 11th Jan (at Northampton’s Moulton Theatre, NN3 7RZ if you’re UK-based and free!). 🙂
The Bus Driver Who Stopped and Then Didn’t
Roland wasn’t built for running. Every flat-footed slap of his trainers onto the pavement shot a searing bolt of pain from his ankle to his hip. He was in poor shape, and right now he felt the weight of every excuse he’d ever made to skip the gym, every tube of Pringles he’d scoffed in front of the television. For a moment, Roland imagined his rippling flab, filmed and then played back in slow-motion, might have an imposing, monolithic quality, like a landslide or a chunk of ice breaking off a glacier. Then he caught sight of himself in a shop window. He looked like a giant blancmange bouncing down a metal staircase.
Roland’s lungs were filled with hot treacle. His throat was parched; his nose streamed. Sweat ran in greasy rivulets down the groove of his spine, soaking the waistband of his underpants.
A swarm of If-Onlys chased him, like a belligerent flock of birds dive-bombing without mercy. If only he hadn’t snapped a lace in the hurry to put his trainers on. If only he owned a decent travel bag, instead of having to cram everything into a decrepit rucksack. If only he hadn’t taken so long to work out what Hannah had been trying to say – that he had one last chance, providing he was sitting next to her on the plane when it left for Paris. If only he still had the car, if only he knew a shortcut, if only, if only…
So Roland ran. He ran like he’d never run before, like a man chasing down his last hope of happiness. The neighbourhood he’d lived in for years warped and changed around him. Streets stretched vindictively towards the horizon. Paving slabs reared up, determined to trip him, leaving him stilled on the pavement, a heartbroken bundle of frustration and chipped teeth. Every road he had to cross heaved with traffic, the sleepy suburb inexplicably transformed into a miniature Mumbai.
His one prayer, his mantra, was a simple one: Please, God, please let the bus be later than I am.
Maggie had only been driving the King’s Road route on her own for two weeks. It was long enough to be familiar with the journey, the timings, and the apparently permanent road works near Asda, but not long enough to be complacent. “I have to stay on my guard,” she explained to her husband over breakfast. “Let your mind wander for just a moment, and bang!” – she clapped her hands together – “you’re in a whole world of trouble.” Driving a bus, after all, was a very serious business. Her husband, never much of a talker, simply nodded and sipped his coffee.
So far that morning, Maggie had lost time stuck behind an old woman stubbornly blocking both lanes while trying to park right outside Boots. Then for a while it had seemed every traffic light in town was in on the conspiracy too. But now rush hour was dying down and Maggie was confident she’d be back on target within a couple of stops. Running late constituted a cardinal sin in Maggie’s imaginary book of bus-driving etiquette. Her passengers relied on her to chauffeur them to where they needed to be, at the exact time the bus company stated. She liked to think there were all sorts of important reasons for people to be in particular places at particular times. There was, of course, a chance that it would turn out to be something trivial, like picking up some stamps or taking a jumper that didn’t quite fit back to the shop, but Maggie didn’t like to underestimate anything.
So instead she told herself every one of her passengers was heading to a job interview, or going on a first date with a future spouse, or visiting a housebound, elderly relative. Important things. Maggie was the self-appointed keeper of their promises, the guardian of their good intentions. She drove with the dedication and care that would be appropriate if her bus was filled with world leaders travelling to an international peace summit. She didn’t think this was over the top, no matter what her husband had insinuated with his raised eyebrow. “People need to be able to rely on the timetable,” she told him. “Sometimes it’s just a few seconds here or there that decide how the most important events in life turn out.”
Roland came barrelling around the corner, head down, afraid to look towards the bus stop some two hundred metres up the road. His thighs were on fire; his arms were useless bags of meat hanging from his shoulders. His lungs hurt most of all; a cannonball of agony had struck him in the chest and lodged there. He wiped his face with his sleeve and looked up. The sight that met his eyes lifted him clean off the ground.
There were people at the bus stop. People – waiting for a bus yet to arrive. He was going to make it!
At that precise moment, two things happened. Firstly, the bus overtook him. Distracted by this, Roland didn’t notice the second thing, which was a middle-aged man in a tweed jacket finishing his conversation and swinging the door of the telephone box open. The door slammed into Roland’s shoulder, spinning him around. Fighting his own momentum, Roland stumbled and fell, crashing onto the pavement and rolling over and over.
He was only dimly aware of the tweed man’s apologies and the hands helping him to his feet and dusting him down. His gaze was fixed farther up the street, to where the bus was pulling in at the stop, its doors opening to welcome its new passengers. Beyond that, in his mind’s eye, he saw Hannah standing at the check-in desk, maybe scowling at her watch or even glancing towards the entrance. He imagined her pursed lips and the little crease of her brow as she concluded he’d let her down for the very last time.
Galvanised by this thought, Roland let out an anguished howl and pushed aside the little crowd that had gathered around him. He sprinted towards the bus, onto which the last of the waiting passengers was now climbing. Pain thrummed deep in his knee, his grazed and swelling skin chafing inside his jeans. He’d lost a shoe, the one with the broken lace, and something was tickling his neck – the fall had crushed and split his rucksack and a cable, from his phone charger or maybe the earphones of his iPod, was poking out. No matter. The pain, the shoe, the disintegrating bag – they’d all have to wait. The bus was already indicating, ready to move off again.
Maggie spotted the running man in her left-hand mirror. Her attention was focused on the right-hand side, on the stream of traffic into which she was preparing to thread the bus, but she knew better than to leave any mirror unchecked before setting off. A quick assessment revealed that the man had none of the physique, attire, or technique of a habitual jogger. He was potentially, therefore, a latecomer hoping to get onboard. Maggie plunged into a dilemma, flicking her gaze from right mirror to left as a gap in the traffic approached considerably faster than the lumbering fatty. Her chance came and she seized the opportunity, noting with satisfaction that she’d pulled away from the stop bang on time.
“You know I’m not an unkind person,” Maggie told her husband later. “But I can’t give people outside the bus priority over the ones onboard. That really wouldn’t be fair, would it?” Her husband shrugged, shook his head in a non-committal way, and went back to his crossword.
Roland couldn’t believe it. The bus belched a gritty cloud of diesel smoke in his face and drew away from him. An almighty burst of adrenaline rocketed through his body and he surged forward, managing to get within an arm’s length of the bus. He hammered on the side with his fist three times before his legs finally gave out and he dropped to his knees.
The sudden noise surprised Maggie, who hadn’t expected the chubby fellow to cover the ground so quickly. In her mirror she saw him kneeling on the pavement, a figure of such abject hopelessness that she couldn’t help but feel for him. Shaking her head, she flicked the indicator back on and steered the bus towards the kerb.
The bus stopped! Roland scrambled to his feet and limped along the length of the vehicle. He floated in a warm fog of relief, the pain and exhaustion melting away as he searched his pockets for the fare. Still panting hard, he stretched an ingratiating smile across his face, ready to gush thankfulness at the bus driver.
Somehow – despite everything – he still had a shot at getting to the airport in time.
The latecomer reached the doors. Maggie hesitated, her finger poised over the ‘open’ button. She stared at him through the glass, taking in the sweat, the reddened cheeks, and the rucksack.
“There was just, I don’t know, something about him,” she explained to her husband that night, suspecting he was only pretending to be asleep. “He had this creepy, manic grin, you know? And he was so worked up, so – what’s the word? Anxious. Yes, a bit too eager to get onboard. And that rucksack, well, you just don’t know, do you? I saw wires sticking out of it. Wires. He didn’t look like, you know… but how is anyone supposed to know for sure, these days?”
Maggie looked at the man on the other side of the door. She thought about all the lost minutes she’d worked so hard to win back and was now losing once again. She thought about her busload of world leaders. She shuddered. Picking up the agitated straggler suddenly seemed a very, very bad idea indeed.
The doors remained resolutely shut. Roland watched the small, nervous-looking woman at the wheel turn away from him and slip the bus into gear. He banged the palm of his hand against the glass as the engine note deepened and the bus began to move.
“Hey!” he shouted. “What are you doing? Open the door! Stop! Please, stop!”
But it was no use. The bus pulled out and accelerated away, leaving Roland standing, his shoeless foot in the road, watching the vehicle climb the hill. As the last glimpse of it was swallowed up by the horizon, the cannonball jammed in his ribcage detonated. The full blast of his failure squashed his lungs and cut his legs from beneath him. He staggered to a bench and sank his face into his hands.
Tears singed his eyes. His throat knotted so tightly air wouldn’t go in or out properly. His entire body quaked with muffled sobs.
Just as he was thinking nothing else could go wrong, Roland felt somebody sit down beside him. He shuffled to the end of the bench, striving to occupy as little room as possible. He curled up, ashamed of his bulk, the heat radiating from his body, the rank smell of his sweat. But the stranger moved closer. Roland drew breath and looked up, ready to tell whoever it was to get lost.
It was Hannah. She sat with her hands in her lap, swinging her legs like a child. She looked so pretty, sitting there in the dappled sunshine, Roland couldn’t be sure it wasn’t a dream. “You,” he squeaked, his voice full of helium. He cleared his throat. “You’re supposed to be at the airport…”
Hannah smiled at him. “Yeah, well,” she said. She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “I missed the bus.”
Thank you Dan for letting me share your story.
Dan Purdue lives and writes near Birmingham in the UK. His short fiction has been published in many places online and in print, including Writers’ Forum magazine, MicroHorror.com, Defenestration, Every Day Fiction, The View From Here, and The Waterhouse Review. His stories have won prizes in the 2010 Chapter One International Short Story Competition, Flash500.com, and the Seán Ó Faoláin Prize. He was also shortlisted for the 2010 James White Award and The Guardian’s 2009 Summer Short Story competition.
“Somewhere to Start From”, an anthology featuring many of his published and prizewinning stories, is available in print and as an ebook. He blogs at http://Lies-ink.blogspot.com and tweets as @DanPurdue.
You can find his book at:
- Amazon: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Somewhere-Start-Dan-Purdue/dp/1447676963 (print)
- Smashwords: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/262944 (eBook)
- plus the iTunes Bookstore and other retailers.
Up next (in a couple of hours) is my author spotlight of non-fiction author Kathryn Vercillo, then the blog interviews will return as normal tomorrow with multi-genre author Rebeccah Giltrow – the six hundred and fourth of my blog interviews with novelists, poets, short story authors, bloggers, biographers, agents, publishers and more. A list of interviewees (blogged and scheduled) can be found here. If you like what you read, please do go and investigate further. And I enjoy hearing from readers of my blog; do either leave a comment on the relevant interview (the interviewees love to hear from you too!) and / or email me.
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