*

The Last Bus

posted Sunday, 23 December 2007

He stopped to buy a packet of blue Rizla and an ounce of Three Castles at a local tobacconist.

Alfred thought that he had plenty of time before his last bus arrived. However, upon entering the welcome shelter – from the driving weather outside – he saw that he had not predicted the unusual length of the queue … especially bearing in mind such a late hour. The shopkeeper himself – Mr Hubbins – looked impatient at so many customers; he was eager to push back his awning into the roof’s slot and rattle down his metal shutters (a rough area this, and not just the weather).

Mr Hubbins indeed looked askance at the unseasonable crowd of folk all evidently out last thing at night to buy a packet of blue Rizla and an ounce of Three Castles. All bearded men in mackintoshes and, no doubt, masks indecipherable from faces or vice versa given the quality of clarity in this unsafe haven…

Alfred himself was at the rear of this irregular queue of look-a-likes, bouncing from foot to foot, upon imagining the last bus home arriving at the stop around the corner and then leaving without them.

Ting Ting! As the conductor spooled out ribbons of ticket to any unsuspecting passenger who was out last thing at night. The silver bar of the entry-platform glinted in some moonlight – except the moon wasn’t out, so it must have been something else that made it glint: a power that permeated from within solid metal? The engine’s throaty, stuttering roar made the gears squeal upon near-stalling. The young lady in tight jeans swayed beside the huge arc of steering-wheel – flirting with the dark shape that twirled it in gloved hands, flirting at high octane horse-power as all such bus-driver groupies seemed regularly to do for unfathomable reasons.

Unfathomable, at least, to dyed-in-the-wool Alfred.

At last, the said Alfred reached Mr Hubbins’ counter. The other customers had all retreated into the darkness beyond the shop window’s catchment area of light – no doubt intent upon their own particular last buses home. He quickly snatched the packet of blue Rizla and ounce of Three Castles from Mr Hubbins’ hand, after throwing loose change upon the formica counter in the hope that he was not paying too little and certainly not paying too much.

He then rushed through the shop door eager to see the welcoming headboard of his last bus: 6A for Old Heath Post Office. Behind him he heard the rattling of metal shutters and the slowly withdrawing wooden stanchions of Mr Hubbins’ awning. Instead of a bus’s headboard, though, he spotted the back of it vanishing between the wide hips of night – the top deck (for smokers and spitters) full of dark shapes slowly settling into single-minded silhouettes with choking clouds of something not unlike shadow above the rims of their heads.

Alfred felt resigned. He felt philosophical. No point in worrying. He took out his purchase from a pocket. He shrugged. Not even the right Three Castles tobacco, and no Rizla cigarette-paper at all … but still he didn’t need to roll any new ones amid the gathering swerves of weather; the tobacco he had been given for his money was already packeted as ready-made smokes, unsophisticatedly unslim and uncork-tipped.

The packet contained ten mis-shaped Strand cigarettes. He wasn’t alone. He smiled as he recalled the old TV advert.

He lit one with a single match he found in the packet – left in it by a thoughtful Mr Hubbins? But the cellophane hadn’t been opened till now. He shrugged again, like a shape flinching in and out of existence. What you don’t ask for, you don’t get. Except, last thing at night. He was set to sit out the next bus…

The wind eventually stuttered and fell to a squeal of rubber on rind.

Looming shadows betokened other human strollers in the vicinity, but, if they tried to see it at all, they would only be able to see a single tip of smouldering red at ground-level – and they’d probably pass it off as a one-eyed critter.

[unpublished]

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