In the Bus Queue

She sat down in the corner of the bus shelter.  The rain pinged off the roof and formed a curtain in front of her and to the side.  Passing cars swished and rumbled through the night, their headlights streaking in front; she didn’t step forward to see their departure, but remained perched on the thin, sloped bench.  Gradually, the bus-stop filled up with familiar faces, workers on their way home, teenagers on their way out, mostly people she’d seen every day for months, but never once spoken to.

She wondered what it would be like to chat.  Just something as simple as “Rough weather tonight!” could lead to so much more: exchanging names, detailing destinations, sitting together on the bus.  Probably not a good idea.  She smiled to herself, imagining the weird scenario of unsolicited contact – of conversation.  Two women had stood in front of her and were talking about Christmas; they were discussing their preparations or, to be more accurate, lack of preparations.

“It’s not even November yet.” Reminded one.

“It will be tomorrow!” Warned the other.

The bus seemed to be taking forever to come – probably because of the weather.  It wasn’t very reliable at the best of times; even though it was supposed to come every 15 minutes, they were sometimes there for as long as 40 or 45 minutes on a bad day.  Some people were starting to grumble and even more were shivering, since most of them had been soaked even before they’d made it into the shelter and the ones at the edges were still getting rained on, relentlessly.  In spite of this, nobody had sat on the bench apart from her.

A bus appeared in the distance, its bright window-eyes visible long before the rest of it.  The would-be passengers thronged forward, creating a squash along the pavement edge, passes and pounds in hands, scarves pulled tightly to block the torrent.  The bus swished past, depositing a dirty wave on the hopefuls at the very front.  An almost synchronised groan of annoyance rose and fell.  A Doppler of disappointment.

“Typical!”

“There were loads of empty seats!”

“I’m sending them the cleaning bill!”

“You’re lucky you were at the back!  Didn’t you want that bus?”

She looked up, shocked!

“Sorry?”

“Wasn’t that your bus?”

The woman had her head tilted as she asked the question.

“It’s just I noticed you didn’t move when it was coming and everybody else pushed forward.”

“I, I just … I was waiting until there was space.

“You’ll never get on that way.”  She smiled.  “People take advantage!”

“I don’t like standing at the front while the bus is moving.  It seems dangerous.”

“That’s true; I’ve heard of accidents happening because of people pushing to get on.  Not very nice.”

The woman sat down next to her.

“It’s very cold for October, isn’t it?  Feels more like January!  You don’t look like you’re dressed for this weather at all.  Aren’t you cold?”

“Not really.  I don’t feel it.”

“You’re lucky.  I’ve got four layers on and I’m still chilled right through.  Can’t wait to get in and soak in a hot bath.  If this damn bus ever comes, that is!”

The woman turned to look along the road.  There was no sign of a bus and the stream of headlights was beginning to dwindle as the rush-hour travellers would probably be home by now, leaving just the few unlucky stranded, like those in the sodden huddle at the bus-stop.

She was feeling a sense of unease.  Something she didn’t even realise was possible.  This was completely unprecedented.  In fact, it was so unexpected that she’d been convinced for several seconds that the woman hadn’t been talking to her, but she obviously had; it had been a proper conversation, making sense and everything.  She looked at the women from under her fringe.  She just looked normal, but she couldn’t be … maybe she was a ghost too.  No.  She’d said she was cold and in all the months she’d been dead, she’d never once felt any kind of cold or heat.  In fact, until she’d been shocked by the woman being able to see her, the only thing she’d really felt was the compulsion to come to the bus-stop and get onto the bus.  It even had to be the right one … the last one during rush-hour: the one that had killed her.

She realised that the bus had come, as she was inspecting the woman.  The passengers were filtering onto the bus in ones and twos and as the woman climbed aboard, she turned and asked her “Are you coming?”

She shook her head.  She didn’t want to be on a bus with somebody who could see her.

“Okay then” shrugged the woman “Happy Halloween”.

The girl.

The first time I remember seeing her, I was probably about four or five.  I was playing in the hallway, tracing the Greek key patterns of the carpet with my toes; I was so engrossed in this game that I didn’t even notice her until she was halfway up the stairs.  I thought she was my little sister.  She was small and her blonde hair was straight and long, just like my sister’s.  Much as I had been enjoying my obsessive pattern tracing, I liked the idea of playing with somebody else, so I followed her. 

She walked into the bedroom I shared with my younger sister and an older one; we weren’t rich and as we were still relatively small, two of us shared a bed, sleeping top to toe in surprising harmony.  I wasn’t far behind the girl so I entered the room a few seconds after she did.  She was gone.  Of course, thinking she was my little sister, I presumed she was hiding and began to search, calling her name in case she would do me a favour and come out.  My sister was great at hiding because she was really small; not just ‘young small’, she was ‘small small’.  With very little between us in age, I towered over her and she could fit into places I wouldn’t even attempt to get into.  One time, she hid behind a sewing machine and it took me ten minutes to find her – that’s how good she was … and how little.

But she wasn’t hiding, because two or three minutes into my exhaustive search, she came up the stairs and asked ‘What?’  She had heard me saying her name and come to find out what I wanted.  I told everybody about the girl: what she looked like, where I had seen her, how she had just vanished.  Mostly that!  How she’d just vanished. 

I watched out for her for ages and didn’t see her, but my bedroom didn’t feel like a good place to be in anymore and I couldn’t get to sleep if I faced the wall.  I would read for hours using the light from the landing to avoid the darkness of closed eyes.  My reading improved in leaps and bounds; my ability to sleep soundly was destroyed permanently.

Yet there had been nothing sinister about the little girl, other than the mysterious vanishing act.  If I hadn’t followed her, I probably would always have assumed she was my sister and just forgotten seeing her go up the stairs.  As it is, I know I’ll never forget her.

Years later, perhaps when I was 10 or 11, I was sleeping in a different room, with two different sisters.  One night we heard the unmistakeable sound of a ball bouncing against the wall.  It was the adjoining wall to our new neighbours, who had a young boy and girl.  They were younger than me by a little and didn’t play out.  Certainly not with us, at any rate.  The noise kept us awake for ages and sounded really loud, with the hollow of the chimney breast magnifying every bounce and we grumbled about the terrible mother who couldn’t get her children to go to bed and sleep when they were of no age at all.  We had no room to talk, since we were more likely to read or secretly listen to a tiny portable radio that one of my big sisters had smuggled into the bedroom than we were to go to sleep at a reasonable hour.  Still!  At least we weren’t actually out of bed playing ball.

The bouncing went on for days and seemed louder than ever.  Our parents heard it and also grumbled about the new kids next door, right up until the day they were leaving the house for work at the same time as the woman next door had come out to do the school run.  She asked my mum if she could have a word with us, because the ball games were keeping her awake.  The bouncing sound was actually coming from our room.  To bounce a ball against that wall, someone would have to be standing at the end of the bed, just next to where my head would be.

The bouncing didn’t stop, but it didn’t happen all the time and sometimes it came from different places in the house but always upstairs. 

Still, I didn’t see the girl again until one night when I was about 15.  Only me and my little sister were in the house.  She was watching the telly and I was in another room, drawing.  The door to the hallway was open and something made me look up, just in time to see the girl walk past, as though she were heading for the stairs or for the room where my sister was laughing at some comedy programme.  She still looked like my sister, but she had aged.  I didn’t know what to do.  I actually felt too scared to look where she had gone; I couldn’t even get out of my seat.  She was just a girl, who’d never so much as looked at me or said a word.  Maybe she’d kept me awake with her ball games, maybe not.  Eventually I got up the courage to look out of the room and was very relieved to see nobody.  I went and spent the rest of the evening in the same room as my sister, leaving every light lit up and casting little glances to the hall every couple of minutes.

I saw her one more time.  I was an adult, with three children and fast asleep in my bed.  The insomnia she had caused had continued to plague me, but I’d had a busy day, visiting my sick brother amongst other things, and had fallen into bed, exhausted.  A single word woke me up.  Just my name in a voice that sounded like family, but I knew I’d never heard it before.  I knew it was her even before I saw her.  Still blonde, still looking as though she could be my sister, but grown up.  She didn’t say another word, but I knew that she had come to bring me bad news about my brother and she had.  The news came by phone in the morning, but it was just confirmation.  I don’t know how she told me, but she did.

I think I’ll see her again.  I don’t know when or where and I don’t look out for her, but I know it will happen.  One day … and I wonder if she’ll still be blonde or will she be grey, like I am, like my sister is.  I’m not afraid any more, but I am curious.  I just want to know who she is.

Ghost song

So, all the ghosts line up to sing the song

And I am swayed by their determined tune.

I know their thoughts are only shades of mine,

Undone too soon.

They step so lightly they might not be there

But for the cold that takes the place of breath.

Unseeing eyes have served no use at all

Since meeting death.

The soul can find what perfect sight cannot

But fails to hold it so it slips away.

Why ghosts demand a chance to hunt it down

I cannot say.

In life we dance between the broken lines

Of waking life and silent, dreaming pain.

To seek the hidden place where these two meet

Is less than sane.

But sanity is not a treasure dear

When holding it must block the chance of sight.

The ghosts regret the follies that they shunned

To keep the light.

So all the ghosts line up to sing the song

My voice rings out although my lips are still.

I hope this tune will be the last they chant.

I doubt it will.

The voice in the dark

I thought I heard a call from far away.

But now I think the sound was in my head.

I never hear that voice when it is day,

I only hear it lying in my bed.

I can’t quite tell you what it tried to say.

I’ll tell you how it made me feel instead.

It made me feel I should unfreeze my mind,

And once again return to my own kind.

 

It came to bring a message long ago.

But only managed then to say my name.

It took with it some things I used to know

And left me just a copy of the same.

And now I lie and listen ‘til the glow

Of day comes round, the voice cannot be tame,

Or else I could just summon it with thought

And then its sullen lesson could be taught.

Dance of the Dead

There’s nothing left to say, it’s all been said.

It’s time I lined my hands up with the dead,

Whose eyes can’t see the misery they cause.

They understand their own pain, never yours.

And there we’ll sit in solitude. Unfound.

Without a hint of warmth, without a sound,

Until the day the author wanders in

And then the solemn dancing will begin.

Around, around we’ll weave our sorry tale

Of bleak regret.  Of how we came to fail.

Our efforts gouging pieces from our lives

As though they were the frozen ghosts of knives.

The dead will cease their dance, will lose the fight.

But I will dance until I find the light.