The night bus, p.1
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       The Night Bus, p.1

           Ray Daley
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The Night Bus
The Night Bus

  Raymond Daley

  Copyright 4/5/12 by Raymond Daley

  Harry Burton had driven the number fifty-six for thirty five years.

  Never one day off sick, never late for work and always on time at every stop on his route. Harry was the very definition of reliable.

  Then came the little white slip in his pigeon hole that morning.

  In every pigeon hole that morning.

  Harry hadn't been singled out. Everyone had the same message.

  Please report for an eye test at your earliest convenience. Anyone not attending before the end of the month will have their contract terminated.

  Harry went during his lunch-break, many of the less job conscious drivers went before their route or after it. Some even during, throwing the schedules into complete chaos.

  Harry got to the eye chart segment.

  "Can you read the third line please?" asked the optician.

  Harry looked long and hard. No, that wasn't going to be possible.

  He couldn't see a third line. Or a second line.

  And the top letter was barely visible too.

  The test was concluded fairly quickly after he'd told the tester he couldn't see the third line. His test was stamped FAILED in red and he was told to report to the admin section.

  Harry knew what this meant, the old heave-ho.

  Harry presented himself and his form to the admin desk in the depot. The girl looked up at him and smiled, not something Harry had been expecting but it softened the forthcoming blow a little.

  "Report to Room 12 please Mr Burton." she said.

  The door of room 12 looked like all the other doors in the corridor - a lifeless lime green, Harry readied himself and knocked. "Come!" said a male voice from within so Harry let himself in, closing the door behind him.

  It was a cramped office, clearly none of the furniture or decorating had changed since the early 1970's. Harry wasn't exactly a connoisseur of style but this room looked, well, dated.

  "Mr Burton, nice of you to come! Take a seat here by the desk, dear chap!" said the voice that had invited him in. It belonged to Phillip Green, Harry knew this because he had a black metal nameplate sitting in front of him on the wooden G-plan desk. Harry took the proffered seat, covered in purple velour.

  Somewhere in Ikea, a designer was weeping into his green tea.

  Harry knew where this was going so decided he was going to do the driving. Why change the habit of a lifetime, after all?

  "Phillip is it?" asked Harry purely as a pleasantry, knowing full well it was. "Listen Phillip, I've been a bus driver my entire adult life. I've given this company nothing but good service. This eye test was a joke, sprung on us with no notice and the union are already making angry noises about it. I've never had any accidents, not even any close calls. I've even had passengers write to the depot to praise my good driving. So if this is me getting the push, get it over quickly?" Harry wasn't in the mood for a drawn out confrontation, if he was going, he wanted to be gone.

  Phillip seemed most taken aback at Harrys aggressive stance. "Mr Burton. Can I call you Harry? This isn't what you think. You aren't here to be fired. Far from it in fact," Phillip Green smiled as he paused "Consider this as something of a promotion."

  Harry was confused. A failed eye test meant the sack, everyone in the bus depot knew that, especially the drivers.

  "You've always driven the number fifty-six route? So you'd say you know it fairly well Harry?" the reason for Green's question wasn't completely clear to Harry.

  "Yeah, I could probably drive it in my sleep. Or with my eyes closed." replied Harry flippantly.

  The penny was starting to drop.

  "If your eyesight continued to get worse, do you think you could still drive that route at night Harry?" asked Green.

  "The Night Bus? Wasn't that service cancelled over thirty years ago?" Harry was extremely confused now. Here was Mr Green being as nice as pie and twice as sweet, not only not taking his job away from but offering him a different one, an easier one. But one he'd heard tell from his colleagues that didn't even exist any more.

  Harry had driven with many of the old timers in his younger days when he was just getting his start in the bus driving game. Many of them told tales of The Night Bus. It sounded more like fables or tall tales being told by drivers trying to outdo each other.

  It had been real enough but eventually the service had been cancelled, it had proved to be too expensive, no-one used it any more in these days of cheaper taxis and cars.

  There were always the horror stories, like the ghostly elderly lady passenger who got on a certain stop asking the driver for help to get on and never got off. Drivers would do their check at the terminus expecting to find one passenger still on board only to discover the bus was completely empty. Or the road where the little girl ran out into the single track lane after her ball and when drivers stopped, thinking they'd run her down they would find there was no trace of any girl or ball. Just the long tyre marks of hard braking and yet another mystery.

  "The choice is yours Harry. The Night Bus. Or the other option." Green left the other option unexplained, Harry didn't need it to be either. Harry didn't see that he had really had a choice.


  "Phillip? I'll take the job." And with that Harry Burton stepped out of room 12 into an uncertain future. Instructions appeared in Harry's pigeon hole before he reached it after that meeting.

  Driver is to report to the depot tomorrow at 10.50pm sharp.

  Harry was there the following night having been given the remainder of the day off to rest up for an overnight drive. There at the door of the depot waiting for him was Martin Wilson, one of the last remaining old timers on the service.

  "Martin! I thought you'd taken retirement?" Harry was pleased to see his longtime friend.

  "Far from it, youngster." Martin had a bad habit of calling anyone younger than him youngster, regardless of their age. Harry had been 18 when they'd first met. Even now at 58, Martin was still calling him youngster. Harry didn't mind so much now, he found it to be a harmless foible of the old-timer. Harry wasn't sure exactly how old Martin was, he must be well into his mid 70's now, at a low guess.

  Martin took a key from his pocket and held it out. Harry wasn't really sure why at first, then he moved closer to Martin to take the key from his hand. Both of Martins eyes were milky white with cataracts. He was either completely blind or saw almost nothing yet as they walked away from the door of the bus depot he moved confidently with purpose, fully aware of both his surroundings and destination stepping up onto approaching curbs as though he could see them clearly.

  As they walked through the empty bus terminus together they rounded a series of stops and Martin came to a halt. "There she is Harry. Number fifty-six N, Night Service" said Martin proudly.

  The bus that stood in front of them was a museum piece, as old if not older than Harry himself. It was painted in a livery style Harry hadn't seen outside of old photographs.

  "Fueled and ready to go Harry." said Martin.

  He reached into a jacket pocket and passed Harry a folded piece of paper. Harry didn't need Martin to say what it was but he told him anyway.

  "Route map, stops, times and terminus. Just remember one thing - nothing you see can hurt you. All you are picking up is passengers. Go by the old rule, it doesn't matter what they look like, as long as they pay the fare and travel in peace - our only job is to get them there safely. Okay?"

  Martin left him with one final thought, no matter who got on, it was a good idea not to ask them any questions, just to take fares, issues tickets and drive the route.

  Harry nodded and gave the map a good going over
. He was lucky, he had a photographic memory. He only really needed to see the map once and put it away. It was all in his head now. It no longer mattered how well he could physically see the route, it was now in the one place he would always be able to see it perfectly, no matter what.

  Harry got in, started the old girl up and pulled out of the bus depot as the driver of fifty-six N for the first time ever.

  11:00pm on the dot, service on time.

  No traffic ran along these roads at this time of night, it was the quietest part of the city, far out into the sticks. Harry didn't mind being so far out, he had always liked this route during the day. The beauty of the country lanes and the changing of the seasons made for a different view every day even on the same roads.

  Harry realised he was approaching his first stop, this wasn't like a regular daytime service where you only stopped if you saw passengers at the stand. This was a special, stopping at every point, regardless whether anyone was waiting or not. You pulled up, waited the allotted time then pulled out and moved on to the next step repeating the same routine at each scheduled stop until reaching the terminus.

  The stop itself was a fairly regular old covered wooden panelled bus stop, and Harry pulled up along side it and opened the doors. Harry had been told by the optician that his close up vision wasn't good and was degrading quickly. His distance vision was passable but not really good enough to still be holding a driving licence, let alone be carrying passengers.

  It was a few moments before a dark figure stepped out of the bus shelter and walked slowly towards the bus, hesitating for a moment as it boarded. "New driver?" asked the voice of the first passenger with a foreign accent Harry couldn't quite place and he'd heard most of them during his time as a bus driver.

  "Yes indeed sir." replied Harry, the voice sounded fairly masculine so he hoped he wasn't starting off badly by guessing this travellers gender incorrectly. "Where to?"

  The dark figure reached out an arm and dropped 80 pence into the machine. "End of the line please" the voice said. It appeared Harry had guessed right.

  "Right you are sir, take your ticket from the machine and please retain it until the end of your journey." Harry kicked into automatic and the figure took his ticket and sat down.

  "Don't see too good then?" asked the dark figure from a seat not far behind Harrys head.

  "No sir, eye sight failing quickly. But I know the route, I'll get you there. I promise." Regardless of who or what the dark figure was, Harry truly meant what he said and the assurance was there in the tone of his response.

  A few minutes passed as the bus idled at the first stop with its doors open. One of the things Harry had noticed when he first sat in the drivers seat was one thing very much out of place in such an old bus, a large electronic clock with a countdown in one corner. Harry had noticed the countdown running as he had pulled up at this first stop and it was rapidly approaching zero.

  As it reached zero a small electronic chime sounded. "I guess that's us done for this stop." said Harry and closed the doors as he pulled away into the night.

  The next few stops proved to be empty but Harry stopped and waited at each of them for exactly as long as the schedule demanded.

  "Quiet tonight." Harry remarked, more to himself than his lone passenger.

  "Don't worry, it picks up from here." replied the dark figure.

  The next stop proved the dark figure to be right, no sooner had Harry opened the door than a very young looking blonde girl carrying a small yellow ball climbed aboard and paid to go to the end of the line. Harry was more than a little concerned that a child this young was travelling alone so late at night.

  "Isn't there a grown-up with you?" Harry asked.

  "No questions driver." said the dark figure.

  "It's OK Mr Parsons," said the little girl. "I'm going to visit my mummy now, she's expecting me." She smiled sweetly at Harry for showing concern, took her ticket from the machine and sat down next to the dark figure she'd called Mr Parsons.

  Then from the darkness of the shelter an elderly lady appeared pushing a large heavy looking four wheeled shopping trolley. "Hello young man," she said to Harry "could you be an angel and help me get this aboard?"

  Harry let himself out of the cab and helped the lady pull the very heavy shopping trolley aboard the bus. Harry eyed the luggage rack then the elderly lady. Before he asked, he hoped the answer was going to be no. "Do you want that up here?"

  Fortunately for Harry the lady shook her head and sat directly behind the luggage rack with the trolley partially in the aisle in front of her. Harry hovered around her seat for a few moments before it became clear he'd have to nudge her about the fare.

  "Where to madam?" he asked her, hoping she'd then get up so he could process her a ticket.

  "End of the line please. I guess you need to see my pass too?" she held out a yellowing plastic cover which Harry vaguely recognised as one of the earliest types of free bus pass.

  He couldn't really see the details on it very clearly so had no idea if it was in date or not. He decided to himself that this nice old lady didn't look like much like a typical fare dodger so he went back to the cab and processed one OAP, full journey. The machine processed the input but didn't print a ticket out, exactly as it was supposed to.

  Just as Harry closed the cab door again another passenger got on board.

  Harry might not have been able to see him very clearly but he was certainly hairier than your average person.

  "End of the line please mate." said a fairly subdued voice that didn't really fit such a large individual who was carefully dropping his money into the machine.

  "Ticket from the machine sir, please retain it until the end of your journey" said Harry, on automatic again.

  The passenger took his ticket and moved toward the very back of the bus.

  A few more minutes passed and the electronic clock reached zero once more and chimed again, Harry closed the doors and pulled away into the night.

  The final few stops proved to be empty but Harry was a thorough person and stopped at each one as the schedule demanded, none of the passengers already aboard passed any comment at having to wait at empty stops, clearly these folks were old hands on this route.

  Harry became aware he could see the outline of the terminus looming towards him. Harry slowed down through the gears and pulled up at the end of the line, opening the doors. The long dark shelter for the terminus stood empty, the only light was from the bus headlights.

  "End of the line folks, everybody off." Harry said.

  The excessively hairy man was first off, he vanished out of sight as soon as he walked behind the bus shelter.

  Next off pushing past the little girl was the dark figure she'd called Mr Parsons. Harry could see his outline reach a stone wall that was about twenty feet away, that was the perimeter boundary of the terminus destination.

  Harry was aware from his daytime trips here that there was a large wooden gate set in the wall, not quite visible from the bus as it was offset behind the stand somewhere. Harry had never gotten off here before, he'd never had any need to.

  The elderly lady pushed her trolley to the open door of the bus and Harry got out of the cab to help her manoeuvre it down onto the ground. It certainly hadn't gotten any lighter during the journey Harry thought to himself.

  Harry was now aware it was just him and the little blonde girl who she'd said was being met here by her mother. Harry looked out into the night, he couldn't see anyone out there, not the passengers who'd already gotten off and certainly no other adults. Harry didn't feel happy leaving this young little girl out there alone, especially not at midnight.

  Harry reached into the cab and turned his lights onto high beam, suddenly a lot more of the outside world was visible. He was aware of the building a good way off in the distance as well as some of the markers in the grounds around it, the main gate was just visible now and surely firmly locked and bolted shut at this ti
me of night.

  The little girl got up and moved to the door but Harry put his arm in front of her.

  "There's no-one out there love, I don't feel right leaving you here alone but the rules demand I clear the bus for the transition. Why don't you go into the stand while I turn around and then I'll take you back to where you got on, no charge."

  He knew he'd probably catch some flak from the money men at the depot for issuing a free fare but he knew it wasn't right to leave this girl here all on her own.

  She looked up at him. "It's ok," she smiled. "Mum's waiting inside, I'll be fine." She got off and skipped her way towards what little of the main gate Harry could make out behind the shelter. Harry got back into the cab and closed the door of the bus then turned around, his lights still on high beam. The girl was gone, the gate still firmly closed.

  Harry knew he had five minutes here before he had to go back to the depot again. That was the odd thing about this service, it only served stops in one direction. To this terminus only. The route he'd been given showed no stops on the way back, just a time to return to the bus depot.

  Harry opened the bus doors and got out of the bus. He was breaking all kinds of rules and regulations leaving the bus alone here but he was concerned about the little girls safety. Rules be damned, he wasn't going to let a passengers well-being be called into question just because of the rules. Harry walked behind the shelter towards the gates in the same direction he had seen the little girl go. With the buses lights on high beam the area was well lit and Harry could see the wall for a good thirty feet in both directions.

  It was too high to climb, deliberately so. Harry approached the gate and sure enough when he got much closer to it he could see it was firmly locked and chained closed. He was worried now, where had she gone?

  As if reading his mind her voice came from the darkness, too far inside the interior to be seen, "Thanks for the ride Mister!", closely followed by an older womans voice also saying thank you. Harry assumed that was Mum, meeting her just as promised then. Harry rushed back to the bus knowing he was close to pull-out time, hoping not to hear the chimes before he got back aboard.

  Fortunately Harrys perfect record was maintained as he took his seat in the cab with mere seconds to spare. The chime sounded and Harry closed the door of the bus and drove back to the depot exactly as the route instructions stated. No stops on the way back.

  With the stops and waits the journey out had taken exactly an hour. The journey back took slightly less than twenty minutes, with Harry parking in the depot garage at the other end.

  And thus ended the first day of driving the night bus.

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