By William Baker
Frank Kendrick had no need to be standing at the bus stop, at the rear of the small queue that waited in silence for the 8:15. In fact, when the bus eventually reached the bus station in town, Frank would – as he always did – exit the bus, walk to the return stop, and wait for an hour to be taken back home. Only once had he ever diverted from his routine, when he tried a coffee in the station cafe, but the coffee was poor, and he never bothered again.
This bus used to be Frank’s commute, until he was made ‘voluntarily redundant’ by the bank. Then, when his wife died, unexpectedly, just as they were beginning to enjoy his forced retirement, Frank took to taking the bus again, thinking it would ground him in some sense of normality, and maybe help to stop the constant rocking motion that he’d begun to suffer from, but that no-one else seemed to notice. That interminable rocking motion; forwards, backwards, just like he had felt after their ‘retirement ‘ cruise was over, when he couldn’t find his landlubber’s legs for days. The motion sickness had lasted the whole two years following Jenny’s death.
The make up of the queue rarely changed, except that some members might disappear for a short while, and then return carrying a few more pounds in weight, and with darker complexions. From time to time, a stranger might join the queue, and be scrutinised though rarely spoken to, except perhaps by a nod of the head, in answer to the question ‘Is this the bus into town?’
In the absence of any personal knowledge of who his fellow travellers really were, Frank had invented, and pursued, an imaginary game for him and them to play. He devised names for them. He gave each player a life. Who would he pick today to play with, on their journey into town?
Would it be Patrick? Patrick, the University Lecturer, who Frank had named because of the man’s obvious obsession with a strange TV serial from the Sixties called ‘The Prisoner’ that very few, Frank included, had ever properly understood. Patrick only ever wore one jacket. It was a tight fitting, white trimmed black blazer, complete with an Official Replica Number 6 badge. Frank had checked this out. £149 it cost, and it was an officially recognised exact replica of that worn by Patrick McGoohan, Actor, the original Danger Man, Prisoner Number 6, and he of ‘I am not a number’ fame. The original jacket could still be found displayed in the Prisoner Shop in the Italianate Welsh village of Portmeirion, the backcloth to the serial.
Frank had made him University Professor of Literature, as Patrick always carried with him a dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky’s Demons. Now, Patrick would be a good choice today, because Frank had left him the previous day on the horns of something of a dilemma, and Frank had yet to decide which horn he would have him wrangle. Should Patrick accept the flattering invitation from the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia to accept their ‘Zasluzni Profesor’ in recognition of his extraordinary achievements in his field, or would that serve only to offend the Hollywood moguls who were sniffing at his latest historical tome, ‘Henry 8, and his First Husband.’ Yes, with such a quandary to solve, Patrick, the University Professor, was a definite possibility, but there was no great imperative to rush at a decision, as it seemed the bus was running late again.
Would it be Mercury? Mercury, the White Witch. Mercury was named, originally, because she was constantly either texting or phoning, and Frank knew that Mercury, the Planet, was, astrologically speaking, the Planet of Communications. Further weight was given to Frank’s choice for Mercury, because of the capricious and often volatile way she spoke, to men especially, on her telephone. Then one day, she came to the bus stop with a lightning grey streak through her electrified black hair, and immediately the picture was fully complete.
Frank had enjoyed many adventures with Mercury, and though he did not let on to the others, Mercury was a favourite. He could return to Mercury, and claim the prize she had offered up to him at the end of their previous game, when he had rescued her from the Dragon Fire Pit, after he had bested the Black Wizard of Firis Wolds. Images of heaving bosons, ripped bodices, fulfilled lusts, and heavy seas crashing onto deserted shores occupied him for a while. What has happened to the bus?
Would it be Dotty Dee? Dotty Dee, the Librarian. Nominated librarian because she was Frank’s epitome of what a Librarian should be. Petite. Demure. Thin pointed face, with very little make-up. Hair in a bun, with two chopsticks holding it up. Horn-rimmed spectacles at the end of her pretty button nose, with silver chain keeping them safe. Sober beige dress. Sensible shoes. Leather briefcase.
Named Dotty Dee simply for the light green sparkle of other-world mischief in her eyes. Frank wished that Dotty Dee would transfer to his library and replace the bearded, chunky-cardigan wearing, curry burping, stale-beer smelling oaf who worked there.
He could return Dotty Dee to the battle she was having with her bosses who wanted to extend her library portfolio to include the likes of ‘Fifty Shades of Grey,’ ‘Leave me Breathless,’ ‘Over the Knee,’ ‘Shoe Leather,’ and many other titles in the same genre that Dotty Dee had been trying hard to resist. Would she win? Frank was certainly rooting for her, so she might. But, in the face of rising costs and budget cuts . . Not today, though. Frank was not looking for a fight today.
Would it be DJ? DJ, the DJ. Frank was still unsure that this one was going to prove a runner. DJ had been the most recent to join the queue, and Frank wondered if he had perhaps rushed to judge a little too quickly. He should have realised that, to make these characters work hard, required hard work itself, and DJ had been, in retrospect, far too easy. The gangly youth, the hoody, and always the music. The godawful tinny buzzing from his ears. He would not pick DJ today. Instead, he marked him down for a possible re-write, which he’d do as soon as DJ did something new to trigger Frank’s imagination.
Choices. Choices. Choices.
There he goes again, the dirty bugger, the Prisoner thought. Look at the way he’s ogling her all the time. And she doesn’t seem to mind, the cow. Completely blanked me when I tried to chat her up. Altered her hair just after that. What was she thinking of? That I wouldn’t recognise her, or something? Christ, where’s that fucking bus?
The Prisoner knew he must get to his mate’s gaff soon, pick up his guitar, amp, bedding and dog and claim the best spot before the other bastards beat him to it. He clenched his book close to his chest and chuckled at the idea that the coppers would ever think to look inside it for his stash. Nah, not much chance of being caught he thought. Half of the bleedin’ coppers had never heard of a book, and the other half that had, couldn’t read. It had taken him hours to dig out the hole out with a blunt Stanley knife.
Dotty Dee wondered who was up first today. It would probably be Mr Tomkinson, the manager who had replaced the Thinker, when he was sacked from the bank. Mr Tomlinson had told him a little abut what had happened, but she suspected he’d left out the really juicy bits. Hush, hush, and all that he’d told her. Had she put his special cream in her briefcase? Didn’t matter, she had spares at the ‘studio.’
While she waited for the bus, Dotty Dee reflected on how her life had changed so dramatically in the last two years. She reflected on those pivotal moments that had wrought the changes.
Like when Li first came into the chip shop in town where she worked part time.
Like when they had scraped enough money together for that incredible first, and only, boyfriend/girlfriend holiday in Bangkok.
Like when Li suggested what a laugh it would be to go visit a brothel in the Ratchadaphisek entertainment district in Bangkok.
Like when Li forced her to watch as this beautiful, wordless, tiny Thai woman undressed him and bathed him in fragrant oils and soaps, and then climbed, gracefully, on top of him and used her own tightly towelled body to brush his skin until he was dry.
Like when Li did not have to force her to watch as the woman then loosened the towelling from her body, letting it fall from the table to the floor, leaving Dotty Dee mesmerised, needing no compulsion to watch this expert perform her duties, with the finest of delicate dedication.
Like when Li decided that she would stay in Bangkok, alone, until she became as learned, as dedicated, as skilled as her teachers, and she would take that teaching back home with her and change her life.
The White Witch watched the Thinker, from the hooded corner of an eye. When is he going to find the courage to talk to me? He’s had enough time now, surely, to have mourned his wife’s passing? But, she quickly forgave him, because it was his adoration, a legend in the village, that had made her sell up her town flat and move to the village in the first place, so that she could be nearer to him, and for once a day, at least, be close to,him, in the queue for the 8:15 into town. She had followed him a few times from the station, but apart from one occasion he seemed to be taking the ride into town simply for the sake of the journey alone.
How she longed to help heal him. Yearned to end their loneliness. What would it take for him to notice her? Even the crazy streaks in her hair hadn’t generated the interest and the contact that she craved. And the ridicule, behind closed doors, that she knew she had suffered for it. And would suffer again in an instant to get what she wanted.
Today would at least go mercifully quickly for her, bringing tomorrow morning that much closer. The interviews for the Chief Inspector vacancy were scheduled to start at nine. It wouldn’t do for the Deputy Chief Constable to be late. Just enough time to pick up her freshly laundered dress uniform, and change out of her civvies. And as for that stupid little beggar in the hoody was concerned, did he not think that coppers had any sense of smell? Skunk. Yes. He smelled just like one. She’d send a patrol round town to sort him out.
The bus arrived.
DJ thought ‘Wish those two would get a room.’