BUSMAN’S HOLIDAY PART 1
It had not been the best of days. I am a bus driver and this morning had dawned cold and windy. There seemed to be passengers waiting for me at every stop, and every one a miserable sod. I’d never had such a busload of grumblers.
Old Maud was the only one who said nothing, even though she was blue with cold when I picked her up. Maud is an old dear who lives on her own. In the winter, to save money on heating bills, she uses her pensioner’s pass to ride round and round on the bus. Well, it’s warm and not as lonely as her house. She never talks; just sits huddled up in her seat, gazing out of the window. Her old threadbare coat can’t keep out much of the cold and as for her boots, well; even the uppers are about worn through so I dread to think what the soles are like. Poor old stick, she’s nothing but skin and bone; not even a penn’orth of fat to keep her warm.
I was pondering on Maud’s condition when this military type started tapping his watch and threatening to report me for being late.
‘Look,’ I said, trying to keep my temper, ‘I am exactly on time, in spite of having to pick up five times as many passengers as usual. The bus in front must have broken down or something.’ Under my breath, I cursed Bert, who was supposed to be driving the bus in front. It was pretty obvious that he had nipped off somewhere.
On my second run, I was just passing the end of Waldorf Street, when who should I see but good old Bert waiting to pull out. He tried to roll back out of sight, but was too late and I gave him a filthy look as I drove by. His face was as red as a beetroot. I guessed he’d sneaked into the old bus depot for a crafty kip. Nobody goes round that way much since it shut down all those years ago. Nobody that is, except skivers like Bert.
At the depot the next morning, I cornered my so-called mate. ‘What were you playing at yesterday, you sod?’ He tried to manoeuvre around me, but I grabbed his jacket. ‘Come on, answer me, I had to take all the flak when you didn’t turn up!’
‘Yes,’ he muttered, his face even redder close up, ‘sorry about that. Won’t happen again.’
‘Damn right it won’t! I’m reporting you right now.’
‘No, Fred, don’t do that, please, I’m already on a warning. If they hear about this, I’ll be out on my ear.’
‘You should have thought of that before!’
He licked his cracked lips nervously. ‘Listen, Fred, if I let you in on a secret, will you promise to say nothing? It’ll be well worth your while, I swear.’
‘Keep your secret,’ I snarled, ‘I’m not doing your work as well as my own, this is the third time this month. Enough’s enough.’ I looked at him suspiciously.
‘What’s happened to your face; got too near the gas fire?’
‘That’s what I’m trying to tell you,’ he said excitedly, ‘I’ve got a really - really big secret, but if I tell you, you’ve got to promise to keep it to yourself.’
‘What kind of secret blister’s your nose up?’
‘Promise. Promise you’ll keep stum.’
‘All right, I promise.’
He leaned close. I could almost hear the skin on his lips cracking. ‘I’ve found it, Fred. I’ve found the Busman’s Holiday.’ I knew at once what he was talking about. We often fantasised about a place on the bus route where we could pull up for five minutes and sit in the sun while all the passengers brought us drinks and generally waited on us hand and foot.
I shook my head pityingly. ‘You really have gone off your trolley, Bert. Take some sick leave and go and find your marbles.’
‘No, I swear. I found it the other week when I nipped in to the old depot for a bit of a rest. There was something wrong with the brakes and instead of pulling up outside the gates as I’d meant to, I went sailing straight through.’
‘So how come there’s been no damage reports? You couldn’t go through steel gates without a dent or two.’
‘That’s just it: I did go through - straight through, and out the other side! You wouldn’t believe it, Fred, palm trees, blue sky, sandy beaches and all in Waldorf Street Depot.’
‘You’re right,’ I said flatly, ‘I don’t believe it.’
‘Well, where else would I get this sunburn in twenty minutes? Straight up, Fred, you just drive straight at the gates and come out in another world.’
‘And what do the passengers think of that?’
Bert chuckled. ‘Unless one of us is stupid enough to take a loaded bus through, we’ll never know.’ Bert has always been a bit imaginative, but this was his best yet. I had to hand it to him, though, that sunburn did look pretty convincing and he was as pale as death yesterday. I had to find out more.
It was a few days before I got my chance. It was a quiet day and I was ahead of schedule. I’d had hardly any passengers all day and when I checked in my interior mirror, all I could see was empty seats. On an impulse, I pulled into Waldorf Street. The gates stood across the end of the street as they always had, a little shabby, but solid and impregnable. I had not really believed Bert’s story, but could not help being a little disappointed. I shifted into reverse, glancing once more at the gates. They seemed to shimmer. I looked again. yes, they were shimmering. Slamming into first gear, I knew I just had to go for it. The bus shot forward, straight at the steel bars. Bracing myself for the impact, I found myself shutting my eyes. The impact never came. I opened my eyes just in time to slam on the brakes before the bus careered into a large tree - a large palm tree!
It was a minute or two before I could gather my wits. It isn’t every day you slide into a fantasy. There was a white stuccoed building about fifty yards down the road to my left. It looked a bit like a small hotel - or a Mexican hacienda. As I stared, I became aware of a shuffling sound behind me. Glancing again at the interior mirror, I was surprised to see that Old Maud was just easing herself out of the seat immediately behind the driver’s cab. She must have been there for ages. I had picked up no passengers at all in the hour before I had taken the decision to go for the gate. Maud looked a little dazed as she shuffled toward the door.
‘Maud!’ My voice came out in a strangled wail. ‘Maud, I never realised you were there. Sit down and I’ll take you back.’ I reached out to catch Maud’s arm and in my panic, must have knocked the door release button. At any rate, the door swung open with it’s usual rumble and Maud tottered out into the brilliant sunshine. My legs were like treacle and by the time I’d caught up with her, she was opening the door of the building.
We were greeted by a man, erect and slightly balding. He looked for all the world like an old English butler dressed immaculately in pinstripe trousers, snow white shirt with one of those stiff starched collars they used to wear years ago and black tailcoat with little shiny strips where the lapel buttonholes should be. His shoes shone like mirrors and there wasn’t so much as a speck of dust on the coat.
He gave a little bow. ‘Your room is being prepared, Madam. If you would care to take a seat in the lobby, all your needs will be attended to.’ Then he bowed again, to me this time. ‘Your room is in readiness for you, sir, and I have take the liberty of preparing your refreshment. Mister Perking was good enough to inform me of your preference for well-chilled light ale. I trust it will be satisfactory.’ His face was unreadable. I was not sure whether to take him seriously or not. Would Bert really order me a light ale on the off chance that I’d believe him and actually find my way here? The butler type was speaking again. Those strips on his lapels reminded me of something, but I couldn’t think what. ‘If you would come in, sir, I shall have your motor conveyance removed to the garage for cleaning and maintenance.’
Beyond surprise now, I bumbled into the white building. The heat from the sun had made me dizzy and breathless. My heavy winter uniform was suffocating and I was beginning to sweat heavily. Inside, there were marble floors, potted palms and cane tables and chairs. Exactly opposite the door through which we had entered was a large archway leading out onto a patio. From where I stood, I could just see the blue of a swimming pool. and beyond, a sandy beach and sparkling green sea. Maud was sitting in a corner of the room, sipping on some fancy cocktail decorated with fruit and little umbrellas. She was still dressed in her shabby winter coat and furry boots, but her expression was one of absolute joy. Smiling, she raised her glass to me. On a nearby table stood a glass of beer so cold, there was condensation on the side of the glass. I downed it in a couple of gulps, by which time the butler was at my elbow.
‘Would you care for another glass of ale sir, before I show you to your room?’
‘I’ve only got a minute,’ I mumbled, ‘You’d best tell me where the bus is so I can get back, Mister, er ....’
‘Hornby, sir. You will find you have ample opportunity for recreation before returning. Time runs somewhat differently here. I take it, Mister Perking did not fully explain?’
‘Well, no. To be honest, I thought he was having me on when he told me about this place. I don’t even know what possessed me to drive through the gates. For all I know, this might all be a dream.’
‘Permit me to explain. You have passed through a time and space displacement field. If you would care to consult your wristwatch, you will find that the second hand is moving somewhat slowly.’ I glanced at my watch and sure enough, the second hand was hardly moving. I held it to my ear and could hear a rhythmic, but very slow tick. Hornby’s expressionless face showed a faint smile. ‘Your wristwatch will keep you informed of what is to you, normal time. In the meantime, I have laid out your clothes. Your present suit is no doubt a little warm.’
‘But I haven’t got any clothes here.’
‘Mister Perking gave instructions. I hope all will meet with your satisfaction. Mister Perking neglected to inform me about Madam, so I am afraid Madam has found us a little unprepared. Her room is being made ready and cooler garments will be furnished shortly.’
I glanced over at Maud. She had finished her drink and was now making her way towards the pool, fumbling with her coat buttons as she went. Evidently, she managed them, because it slid from her skinny shoulders and landed on the floor, closely followed by the gloves and scarf. By the time she reached the archway, her woolly jumper and skirt had come off too, and she stood at the side of the pool clad only in her liberty bodice, knee length bloomers, furry boots and woolly hat.
Hornby did not seem to find anything unusual in this. He seemed far more interested in me. ‘If you would care to follow me, sir, I will show you to your room.’
‘What about Maud? I can’t leave her like that.’
‘Madam appears to be quite comfortable, sir. Your room is this way.’ He led me up the sweeping staircase to a well lit landing lined with doors in varying shades of yellow. The first was a deep, almost orange shade. He touched the doorknob and it swung silently open to reveal a room bathed in sunlight. The bed, the biggest I have ever seen, had a pure white coverlet. Shorts and summer shirt were laid out on it. On the floor nearby were a pair of comfortable looking sandals. Hornby gave me another of his little bows. ‘I trust that everything will be satisfactory, sir, Mister Perking was most specific about size and style, but if anything is not agreeable ..?’
‘Oh, no, they look fine, thank you.’
‘Then I shall go and attend to Madam.’ As soon as he had gone, I threw off my jacket and trousers and set about exploring the room. By the time I’d found the shower and washed off the sweat and changed, I reckoned at least half an hour had passed, yet when I checked my watch, the hands had moved on less than thirty seconds. This time displacement thing had a very obvious up side and explained how Bert had managed to get so sunburned in such a short time.
Well, the bus had been ten minutes ahead of schedule, so that gave me around nine more hours. I hurried back down to the lobby. Maud was already outside. She had on a pair of bright orange Bermuda shorts and a vivid green top with orange zigzag lines across the middle. The pattern hurt my eyes, and the shorts seemed to hang loosely on her spindly legs, but she seemed happy. She was sitting in a deck chair beside the pool clutching another of those fruit filled drinks and was singing quietly to herself. From time to time she would look up and shake her head. Well, I was having difficulty in believing it all, so God alone knew what she was thinking. I went out and sat down beside her. ‘Watch you don’t burn, Maud,’ I advised, ‘You’ve not done much sun bathing lately, remember.’
Maud turned to me and peered intently at my face, then she smiled broadly. ‘Silly lad.’ She touched the collar of my new shirt. ‘That’s a bit of good stuff, that is. See as you look after it.’ Then she chuckled. ‘Listen to me! As if it’s going to wear out here! Oh, if only I’d known dying was going to be like this I’d have gone years ago.’
‘Maud, this isn’t heaven. It’s,’ I struggled to recall the words Hornby had used, ‘it’s like another world. We’ve passed through into another dimension, somehow. Time goes a lot slower here, so we’ve got a few hours, but then we’ll have to go back. D’you understand? We can’t stay.’
The old dear’s mouth puckered stubbornly. ‘You might think you want to go back, but I’m quite happy to stay dead, thank you very much!’
‘No, love, you don’t understand. You’re not dead - we’ve just crossed some sort of barrier. If I leave you here, I’ll be done for kidnapping you, or worse. Look,’ I glanced at my watch, ‘there’s over seven hours to go, so let’s just enjoy it. Have you seen your room yet?’
‘Oh, yes, it’s lovely. Just over there, look, ground floor ’cause of my poor old legs.’
The sound of slow measured footsteps heralded the arrival of our host. He coughed quietly to make sure he had our attention and did his little bow. ‘Luncheon will be served presently.’ Then he turned to me. ‘Would you care for an aperitif, sir?’
I could really get used to this. I nodded. ‘Another light ale would go down a treat, thanks.’ In no time, I was supping my second pint of the day. I decided I’d better make it my last. The sun was beginning to get uncomfortably hot, so I slipped off my shirt and sandals and sat on the edge of the pool, gingerly dipping my toes into the water. It was pleasantly cool, but not cold. I wondered whether I should swim in the shorts. They were ‘good stuff’, as Maud had pointed out and the water might just ruin them. Hornby had my dilemma sized up in an instant. ‘You will find swimwear in the changing room to your left, sir. Towels will be waiting for you when you leave the pool.’
Well, that decided it. Seeing me in the water, Maud’s face lit up and she hopped straight in without hesitating. ‘Oh, lad, I used to love a swim. I’ll never be able to thank you enough for having that accident.’
As promised, the towels were indeed waiting for us. Maud squelched off to get changed and came to the dining room in a powder blue creation, all sequins and frou-frou lace. She would have looked OK, except for her winter boots and the woolly hat, which still sat on her head. It was sodden now, and hanging over one ear as the water dripped down off it onto the dress, flattening the lace.
The meal was the best I’ve eaten anywhere and Maud tucked in like she’d not seen food for a week. I tried not to look at the hat. Afterwards, we went back outside and sat on the terrace gazing at the sea. Maud’s hat was steaming slightly as the heat of the sun evaporated the water in it and her hair was drying into yellowy white rats tails. She smoothed the organza skirt of her dress, picking odd crumbs from between the sequins and dabbing at a soup stain with her hanky. ‘Fancy a walk?’ she asked suddenly, ‘That beach looks so lovely.’ I glanced at my watch. Only a couple of hours left and yet the sun was as bright as when we had arrived.
Maud was like a child when we got to the beach. She kicked off her boots and started racing the waves. Before I knew where I was, I was doing it as well. We built a superb sandcastle and then I had to do the tough thing.
‘Time to go.’ I tried to sound as cheerful as a man could at the prospect of leaving paradise to go back to wintry Basford Thirkettle.
She looked at me quizzically. ‘Time to go where?’
‘Back. I told you, Maudie, we’ve got to go back where we came from. I’ll bring you again, I promise, but we must leave in the next few minutes and we’ll need to change our clothes first.’
She shook her head emphatically. ‘I told you, I’m staying. You can kid yourself that you’re alive, but I know heaven when I see it.’
‘Maud, this is a fantastic place, but it isn’t heaven. A mate of mine told me about it and he’s not dead either. Please, come back with me. You’re sure to be missed if you don’t.’
‘By who? Nobody gives a damn about me. I’m staying and nothing’s going to change my mind, so you can just save your breath.’
I shrugged. ‘Well, don’t stay out too long. My friend got badly burnt when he came.’ And that’s where I left her, on the beach, the sun sparkling off the sequins in her ball gown.
The rest of the day in the ‘real world’ was pretty unpleasant. I kept expecting one of the boys in blue to get on the bus and ask me what I’d done with the old lady. By the time my shift ended, I was really nervous. I just couldn’t leave her there.
It was pitch dark by the time I’d driven my old Cortina round to Waldorf street. I wasn’t sure whether I could get back, but I just had to try and drove straight at the gates before I could change my mind. Once again I went straight through, but the place looked different. The sky was pitch black now, the only light came from my headlamps. I fumbled in the glove compartment for the little torch I always keep there; then I switched off my engine and went in search of Maud.
Hornby seemed to have gone off duty and there wasn’t a light in the place. I wondered what time it was here. Maud was probably asleep. I felt bad about waking her, but she had to come back. Her room was easy enough to find, but the door was locked. I knocked on it lightly, calling her name. At first there was no answer. Then, suddenly, the door flew open and I was dragged inside. The door slammed and I heard the key rattle in the lock. I flashed the light on Maud, who was now clad in a pair of fluffy pyjamas. The expression on her face was rather less than joyful. I was going to have to drag her back, kicking and screaming. 'Did you see it?’ she hissed. She seemed nervous.
‘See what? It’s pitch black. I couldn’t see a thing’
‘You were lucky you weren’t swallowed whole! It’s been sniffing around my door. My god, lad, I don’t know how you got through.’
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, love, but I’ve come to get you. I know you want to stay, but I’m on pins waiting for the flying squad to arrest me.’
‘Want to stay? Whatever gave you that idea? I’ll just check the coast is clear and then we’ll be off.’ She opened the door a crack, then shut it with a slam, locking it again. ‘It’s back. We’re trapped here for the time being. Have you got any food on you? I’ve not eaten in ages. Seems like days, except of course there won’t be any day for a long time yet. I’ll have starved to death by then.’
‘How d’you mean? Where’s Hornby; and what are you so afraid of?’
‘If you look through the window, you’ll see. Keep your eyes pointed in that direction; I want to change in to my old clothes.'
Obediently I looked outside. My eyes had adjusted to the darkness, but even so, I could only make out the shadowy outline of a creature as huge as the bus I drive. Its mouth was wide open and vicious teeth the size of carving knives were jaggedly outlined against the white of the wall behind it. ‘My eyes must be playing tricks on me. It looks like some hideous fish.’
‘That’s what it is. It seems to be able to swim through the air, I don’t know how, but it wants me for dinner, that I do know.’
‘But, where’s Hornby?’ I asked again.
Maud tutted impatiently. ‘What good is a solar powered robot in the dark?’ she snapped. ‘Right, you can look now. When it goes away again, leg it for the door. Where is your bus?’
‘I brought my car this time. It’s just outside the main entrance.’
‘Right, you’ll have to lead me to it. Now, be still until it goes.’
After an eternity of watching, the creature gliding to and fro in front of the window, it finally moved off. Maud gently turned the key while I kept watch at the window. Then we were off, running hell for leather past the pool and through the lobby. At the outer door, we paused to check that the path to the car was clear. The creature must have been waiting for us, because as I turned the handle, the door was knocked with a terrific force, toppling me backwards onto the floor. The huge nose pushed its way in and I let out a scream. Something was hanging from its jaws. I could see, oh my god, I could see an arm. Without thinking, I shone the torch at the gaping mouth. There, in front of me was what was left of my pal Bert. His head was speared through by one of the teeth and one of his legs was gone completely. He must have come back as well, probably thought he’d have a month’s holiday overnight. The creature bumped again at the doorway, but the opening was too small for it and thankfully the wall seemed sturdy enough to withstand the blow. Then it retreated shaking Bert like a rag doll as it ingested him. My car was five yards from the door, but it might just as well have been five miles. Maud was hurrying towards the door to the kitchen.
‘Where are you going?’ I called, ‘We’ve got to get out of here!’
‘And I’ve got to eat. This time thing is a right pain. The day lasted for a fortnight and it’s been night for days now, if you follow me. I’m famished. Anyway, I’ve had an idea. Come and help.’
When your back’s against the wall, you don’t ignore any chance, so I followed her. ‘Did you ever wonder how this place came to be here?’ she asked as she scurried along, ‘It was built by this fellow called Cossington. He was an amateur scientist but he built houses for a living. This was his little palace.
When he discovered this time distortion field, he set about creating his own perfect world. Came and spent a month here every day, just building. There’s something odd about this place. It clears your mind, it might even make you more intelligent. It seemed to work on Cossington, because he made Hornby to help with the building and invented solar batteries, but never thought to patent his idea, so somebody else got the credit. When all this was finished Cossington programmed Hornby to looked after his every whim. That’s why he’s so obliging. Cossington would spend every day here and then go home at night. I suppose that’s why Hornby only had to run on sunshine. He wasn’t needed in the dark.’ She hunted through the larder cupboards and refrigerators, munching as she went. ‘Get a big bowl, or bin. Fill it with any meat you can find. As much as you can.’
I searched with Maud, ‘Where is this inventor chap now?’
‘According to Hornby, he died of old age when he was forty-five. That’s the other disadvantage with staying here too long. Shortens your life.’
I thought of Bert. This place had certainly shortened his life. Together we collected steaks and chops, joints and fowl. We topped it off with a string of stale smelling sausages and lugged it out to the front door. The creature had finished munching on Bert and was swimming up and down between the building and my car.
‘Right,’ said Maud, ‘get this over to the window, and then creep back to the door quiet as you can. When I say, run for your car and get the door open for me.’ I did as she said, waiting by the door for her command. Suddenly she flung open the window and threw out one end of the string of sausages. ‘Come on, you beggar, feed your face on this lot!’ I could see the huge jaws entering the window. Maud made for the door. ‘Go! Quick!’
I sprinted for the car with Maud close at my heels. We slammed the doors shut and locked them just in time. The creature, unable to get far enough into the room to feed, had turned its attention back to us. ‘Come on, lad, stop fumbling in your pockets and start her up!’
I looked at Maud helplessly. ‘I can’t find my keys. They must have dropped out somewhere.’
Maud slammed her fists down on the dashboard. ‘What are you like! Sit back a bit.’ She fumbled about under the steering wheel and suddenly, magically the engine roared into life.
‘How?’ I asked.
‘I told you, this place does something to your brain. I can do all sorts of things I’d never have thought of before I came here. Now lets get out of here and back to reality!’
‘What about Bert? That fish ate him. What do I say?’
‘What should you say? You had nothing to do with him being here, did you?’
‘There you are, then. Let tomorrow look after itself. Just let’s get out of here before that thing decides to come after us again!’
Bert’s disappearance did not cause the expected stir. It turned out he’d written a note to his family before he left saying he was going away and would never be back and not to come searching for him. His marriage had never been too good and had been going through a shaky spell, so little more was ever said. As for me and Maud; we pop back now and again, when I’m ahead of schedule. But always in daylight.
Copyright 1998 Susan M. Phillips
No part of this work may be copied without the consent of the author