The Last Bus Home
by Leanne Fitzpatrick
The number 13 bus pulled into the lay-by and shuddered to a halt. A gust of air swooshed around the ankles of the young woman standing waiting as the pistons released and lowered the chassis of the bus in line with the curb.
The door clunked as it opened and the driver peered out into the badly lit gloom at her.
“Evening, Miss,” he said cheerily as she stepped aboard. “Where can I take you?”
“I- How far do you go?”
“Right to the end of the line, Miss. Solomon Bay.”
“Are there any other stops?”
“Not usually, not this time of night. This is the last bus miss.”
She nodded, reaching into her purse and pulling out a crumpled wad of notes.
“I don’t know how much it is,” she said at last, “but a single, to the end of the line.”
He looked her up and down, from the old shoes to the worn clothes.
“Right you are miss,” he said, ringing it in. “One single to Solomon Bay. That’s twenty-seven fifty.”
She counted out the money. It was practically everything she had, but she paid without complaint, not looking at him when he pressed the change into her hand.
“Just me and thee then love,” he said with a smile, hitting the button for the door. “I don’t usually have company on the last bus back. Be a nice change.”
She gave him a quick smile and sat in the first available seat. When she glanced up he was watching her in the rear view mirror. She nodded and he looked away to the road, the indicator clicking monotonously as he pulled out into the dual carriageway.
They travelled in silence for a while. The traffic was almost non-existent aside from the lorries taking advantage of the clear roads. Occasionally a car passed them in the opposite direction, or overtook them and zoomed off into the distance.
“Never understood the mentality of some people,” the driver said as the third car of the night zoomed past, rear lights shrinking in the distance. “It’s not like you get there any faster. More likely to end up in the bollards to be honest.”
It was the sort of statement that invited comment. She ignored it, nodding in agreement but not engaging.
She felt him watching her, but stared out of the window.
“You running from someone, duck?” he asked with complete disregard for the ‘Do not disturb the driver’ sign.
She stared down at her lap, a cavalcade of emotion welling up in her throat.
“No,” she said at last, unable to keep it to herself any more. “Yes. No. I don’t exactly know.”
She heard him snort.
“I was like that at your age. Got myself involved with a girl and moved across the country for her.”
“It worked out well?”
“No. She was having it off with the next door neighbours son the whole time and didn’t expect me to actually come to her. Just about broke my heart.”
“What did you do?”
“Went to the pub, got in a fight. Spent the night in lock-up. Sarge was old guard though. Let me sober up and tossed me out in the morning. Joined the navy that day too. Couldn’t go home- burned a few too many bridges before I left.”
“I don’t think the navy would have me,” she said quietly.
More silence as he navigated the island and took the exit towards the coast.
“I reckon its something in my family,” he said. “I got seven kids, youngest is only twelve. Eldest four are spread all around the country and two are off in foreign parts at university.”
“They leave on good terms?”
“Mostly. There’s always a bit of grit in the tracks of life.”
“I didn’t leave on good terms.”
“That why you’re running off to the coast?”
“No… It was the coast I left before. I’m running back to what I ran away from to get away from something I shouldn’t have gone to in the first place.”
The indicator ticked in the silence and they waited for a stream of traffic to filter past before turning up onto the mountain road.
“Everything just got so complicated,” she sighed… “When I look back on it all, every mistake is so obvious. If I’d just listened-”
“No kid listens to their parents,” he cut in. “And every parent knows that even as they’re wasting their breath. Kids have the arrogance of youth, they think they know better- and every parent has to let them go through it otherwise what’s the point of the lesson.”
“I said horrible things…”
“To your parents?”
“To my father.”
“Ah. That’s always the hardest. A good dad can sometimes be a little too over protective. What;’s made you want to go back?”
“Loneliness, homesickness. I miss my family… I miss the ocean. I don’t belong on land.”
“I’m like that too. After being at sea for so long… I was always more comfortable being on ship, rather than on land… And when I was inland… let me tell you, it got worse every time. That’s why, when I met my wife, there was an understanding from the get go. I wouldn’t live in a city or more than five miles from the coast. The sea… it gets in your blood.”
“So you became a bus driver?”
“Funny thing, after the navy…” he smiled, glancing at her in the rear view mirror. “Lucky for me, the missus had her fill of inland life by the time I was discharged, and we both wanted a simple life where the kids could be kids. Can’t get that in a city, not any more. So we bought a little house on the sea front, and I bought a little boat and I was a fisherman for a time, until my back couldn’t take it. That were about three years ago. Been on the buses ever since.”
“And you wife?”
“Oh she’s at home, she stays up waiting for me when I’m on the late night. She’ll have the kettle on and a big bowl of hot soup. Crackin’ cook, my wife. Makes a seafood chowder that’d have all them hoity-toity Michelin Star chefs takin’ their hats off.”
“Sounds like you love her a lot.”
“Aye, I do lass. Wouldn’t know what to do with myself without her. She’s always been the brains of the operation.”
“I wish I had a partner like that.”
“You will. I was in my forties when I met her. There’s plenty of time for that.”
“I don’t know… Most of the boys back home…”
“Will have grown up and changed a lot when you go back. I should know. Solomon Bay’s been my home for more’n twenty years.”
“Aye. And I know all the old stories too.”
He watched her for a moment. She turned away, cheeks burning. Ahead the bus lights lit up a roadside.
‘Welcome to Solomon Bay’ it exclaimed in big, cursive letters. Underneath in smaller block text it read ‘Twinned with Hallow’.
In her lap her hands twisted, shredding a piece of tissue into tiny scraps in her skirt.
“Home sweet home,” the driver murmured.
In the cast light of the bus lamps she saw sheep dotting the mountainside, huddled together and still grazing despite the lateness of the hour.
As they drove through the mountain forest pass and the land sloped away she saw cows sharing fields with wild ponies and the odd light in the farmers houses so far away from the main road.
The town itself lay in the basin before the sea. It was lit up with street lights, and even though they were still more than a couple miles away, she could see the bright and colourful lights of the pier.
She sucked in a deep breath.
“I guess there’s no going back now,” she said quietly.
“It’s not that bad. You can’t have said anything too bad that you wouldn’t be welcomed home.”
“I don’t know. I hurt a lot of people.”
“That’s what life is. So’s forgiveness.”
They descended into the town proper and and she tried to keep her breathing steady.
“I was a terrible person,” she said at last.
“And you’ve worked that out so you can change it.”
“I nearly destroyed everything-”
“Did you start a war?”
“Almost,” she breathed out. “I was supposed to marry someone- but neither of us wanted to.”
“Arranged marriage? Barbaric practice anyway and the towns still standing, so it couldn’t have been that bad.”
“What I did though, it’s unforgivable.”
“In my experience, most things that seem unforgivable really aren’t.” He pulled up to a small stop on the sea front and pulled the handbrake. “Here we are,” he said, turning to look at her.
“End of the line,” she murmured.
“End of the line,” he echoed. “Good luck to you lass. I hope it works out well for you.”
“I think it’s too late for that. My father is a proud man. He doesn’t forget or forgive.” She paused. “And I’ve probably left it far too late.”
“Well, I can’t say anything to that, miss… I’m just an old man driving a bus.”
She nodded, looking down at the shredded tissue in her lap.
“But,” he said quietly, “as an old man with my own little princess sleeping not five hundred yards up the road from here, I can tell you this: Any father worth his salt would welcome back his little girl no matter how many years it’s been, or what she did. We’re a soft lot, once you get past the gruff exterior.”
“He’s not like most men.”
“No, but every dad I’ve ever met is exactly the same. He might get angry, and there might be questions and shouting, but it’d be worse if he didn’t react. If there’s no emotion that means he doesn’t care.”
She nodded, still staring at the tissue and then, with a fortifying breath, gathered up all the little shreds and stood.
“She nodded to the driver and faced the ocean.
The bus doors hissed open and the sound of lapping waves hit their ears, bringing with it the sticky tang of brine and seaweed. The fractured light of the moon glittered on the ripples as the tide turned and began to cover the rocky outcrops this side of the sand bar.
“One more thing,” the driver said, reaching through his hatch and loosely grasping her wrist. She tuned to look at him. He gave her a small, encouraging smile. “If you do find he isn’t worth his salt, you come find me. King of a lost empire or not, I’ll give him what-for.”
“How do you know-”
“I told you lass, been here twenty years. I know all the old stories. They’re everywhere in this town, if you know where to look.”
She hesitated, relaxed, smiled, and finally leaned forward to kiss his cheek.
“Thank you,” she murmured as she pulled back. “You are a good man.”
He patted her hand and leaned back in in his chair. She hopped off the bus, walked the short distance to the sea wall and disappeared from view as she jumped down onto the sandy beach.
He waited, and a few moments later was rewarded by the sight of her silhouette heading out to the waves.
He watched her stride through the water until she was up to her waist and then she turned and raised her arm high in salute. He raised his hand with a nod and a smile and watched her disappear under the waves.
He waited, but she didn’t reappear.
As he was about to close the bus door and head to the station to clock off for the night a shadow detached itself from the silhouette of the bandstand, walking across the beach.
He watched as it bent down, gathering something. When it reached the promenade he relaxed, recognising the figure.
“A good night,” it said, said, walking up the slipway towards him.
“About time we had one. A little late for you isn’t it?”
She smiled and shook her head, glancing down at the folds of fabric in her hand.
“It’s surprising what you find on the beach, even in the wee hours of the morning.”
There was a clatter on the paving and he glanced down to see a tiny patchwork pig plop itself down and roll over, wriggling as it scratched it’s back.
“Thing’s are changing,” he murmured to himself as he stared at the pig.
“Things are always changing. They’re all coming home, in one form or another.”
He looked up and smiled.
“Here’s to lost souls coming home,” he said at last. “May they all find their way back one day.”
She nodded, and gave him a smile.
“Good night, Keeper.”
She stepped away from the bus and he pressed the button to close the door. With a rattle the bus set off up the road. When he looked in the rear-view mirror both she and the pig were gone. He sighed and rubbed his face. Things were changing, he thought again. He hoped it was for the better this time.