The Country Bus - A short story
Updated: Jan 9
Tom Binnie ©2020
That first week at the new school, his first week, how many times had he done this? Scotland this time, well that was new, three, four hundred miles further north than he had ever been. ‘Scotland is shit…and cold,’ his sole mate had said when he told him the news. Sole not soul, he had not yet known a soul that was not his own. Still that was John’s life, and he was used to it now. Keep your head down, stand back, just keep watching, sort the groups, stay away from the needy and the geeks, at first anyway, avoid the thugs and the angry. Don’t be clever but don’t be stupid either. Don’t talk too much, especially up here, not with that accent. Listen though, try to understand what was said - not always easy - then work out what was meant. Anyway, his first impressions, Scotland did not seem shit at all, not this bit of it anyhow, bloody cold though.
A long grey-brown stone town, the usual market shops, clean, well kept, an attraction in summer. A couple of caffs, one an Italian espresso, the other homely, afternoon tea with fancies that sort of thing, plus a mock baronial hotel and a small 30’s deco cinema – a lifesaver. He reckoned he could walk there, at least for the afternoon show, maybe need to get a bike, or a horse. And the school had seemed fine so far, it was not big. As for the kids, he’d noticed nothing extreme, quiet if anything, in his experience.
Their farmhouse was good, warm and dry, large for a tenancy, built solid in a dark red sandstone. His own room was generous, bay windowed with its own fire, not that he had been allowed to light it. His dad, Frank, said the land was fertile, some low areas partially waterlogged, but he seemed happier this time; it was early days, mostly sheep, mainly on the high moorland. Frank was tasked to introduce a cow herd, heffers, on the low pasture and seed two fields of oats - that will challenge him - and there was other land to spare. Frank had been given a freer hand than before, at their last place.
At the back of the farm there was moorland, hillocks, clumps of tall pine and fir, water - a lochan, and a few rocks. The slope increased upwards, larger rocks, crags, an escarpment, a gurgling silver stream threading down to the water by the farmhouse. Behind that, the land rose quickly, and from the top you could see over the town and the whole valley to the pale purple mountains beyond. It certainly ain’t Dorset, but that is not this story.
His first week then, maybe the Wednesday, early November, nearly the end of the fifties. The four o’clock bell and John is on his way home, dark, early and heavily overcast, he reached the school bus promptly and did not wait to board, avoiding having to make the choice of who to sit next to. They can decide. Two thirds of the way back on the near side – his usual spot, hah! his usual seat, it was his third day, and as usual no-one had sat next to him.
He was on a short bus, painted green and cream with a Bluebird on the side, red leatherette seats, the horsehair stuffing falling out of his. An old London bus, he had thought, engine at the front, gearbox in the cabin, and it smelled like one, damp wool, Woodbine ash, and Castrol X. One for a quiet route, the other busses, the double-deckers, were pupil packed, Comrie, Muthill, Auchterarder. His bus shook in reluctance it seemed, as the driver started the engine. Two or three groups came on his bus, mostly younger, then a fluster of girls. Were they in his class? he hadn’t been sure. And then, and this is the bit, one girl, fair, taller, upright, not skinny, a single flash from an iridescent floodlight outside the bus window caught her hair. She was smartly dressed, more so than the others, the same uniform, just, just, well it was uncreased, and it fitted. His head had been down, but he had could not help but notice her.
John did not really know girls though his impish young stepsister was beginning to shed some light. With girls of his own age, he played their game of mutual ignoring, but at his previous school, during those last languid days of a Dorset summer, sun, coves, rockpools, beaches, the salted spray of the sea on fine-haired light-brown limbs, he had found himself looking and thinking and, in nightly discomfort, not sleeping.
He had known not to think of this girl, the one on the bus, like that and an overly humid summer beach at the same time, and forced himself to rub at the condensation on the window, to peer out into the blackening countryside, raindrops following another’s tracks latterly across the dirty window as the bus sped up. She, the girl, had sat popular among the girl’s group nearer the front. It had been all chat, giggles and intrigue. They had seemed a bright, happy bunch. A boy his own age, moved up from the back to join them. Was he in his class?
The bus passed through several small villages, each aglow in sodium light, stopping to let a few alight before re-entering the darkening void. More giggles and byes from the girls each time their number diminished. And the bus incrementally emptied. It was a quantised transition he’d learned that day in physics. He’d liked it. What is the unit for a quanta of bus girls? hah, avoid the geeks…, he’d thought, …start with yourself! John looked out the widow, totally dark now, heavier rain, fewer passing lights or lights passing. Which was it? Who’s moving? The Bus at the Centre the Universe! He’d have to write that one up. Stop looking up, he chided himself, but stop after stop, village after village, she was still there. She hadn’t been there on the Monday or the Tuesday mornings, nor the afternoons.
Just him now, and the girl, and a gaggle of younger boys and girls on the long backseat – the Hendersons, all of them, he was to learn later. Now the tricky bit. He’d overshot on the first afternoon and had to walk miles back. Then undershot just as much on the next day. The driver noticed him at the time and asked where he was going. ‘Home Farm,’ he had said, but the driver did not know it. He could see nothing out the window, he couldn’t even apply successive approximation. Must be getting there, surely.
She stood up, checked she had her things, no, she was looking to find her umbrella? very small, no, it’s not, it’s a torch. No decision to be made, this afternoon, this was his stop. Was it creepy to follow her off? It did occur to him it might be, but it must be near to his farm. Where was she going? There were no other houses close to his farm, as far as he knew.
‘Horrible night Miss.’ said the driver, ‘Sorry I can’t get you closer.’
‘It’s only rain, I’m well used to it.’
John held back to let her get-off and the driver had to prompt him to move to the door. She was ten yards away by the time the bus door closed behind him. He walked in her direction. The bus drove on. Stupid really, he could have asked her, presumably she would know where his farm was, he could have just asked. But what if it was five miles back the other way. He might even have got on the wrong bus which would account for his lack of recognition. That would be round the school the next day.
Collar up, hunched against the sheets of rain, she had looked over her shoulder at him, but he kept his head down. After about a hundred yards, there was a road, a track really, off to the right. He still hung back. Turning on her torch, she turned to walk up the track. A working torch, there’s a thing. Last time he had an undead battery was Christmas past. As he passed the track end, he looked up to see that she had stopped as if waiting for him to continue on the road or follow up the track. He looked but made to walk on.
‘Are you going to the farm?’ she called out. Her voice clear, her accent was not strong, but he struggled to hear her in the wind.
‘Y, Y, Yes, Home Farm.’
‘You can come this way, it’s….’
‘I can’t hear,’ he cupped his ear.
They edged toward each other.
Still a few yards apart, she tried again, ‘You can come this way, it’s much quicker.’
He hesitated, ‘I don’t know the way.’
‘I’ll show you. It’s a simple track.’
They walked a little way hearing only the wind, the rain and the trees. They passed a sign, ‘It says private.’
‘Come on,’ she said looking quizzically across at him.
They walked in silence, but it didn’t feel awkward to him.
‘The gamekeeper carries an old twelve bore, as long as you run quick enough, you’ll just end up with a spotty back…it’s not lethal.’
It to a few steps for him to realise she was teasing and, walking further, he struggled to find a suitable reply…
‘But what about bear traps?’
‘Ok, you might lose a leg, only one though.’
They stopped in the dark, sodden, hair flat and dripping, their woollen blazers now absorbing the rain. He turned to see her watching for his reaction. He took to one leg, holding the other up behind him, and hopped, splashing, and they both laughed in a burst, and in that moment, for both of them, there was no cold, no rain, no dark, only the soft glow of the beam from her torch, like the thin beckoning light from a far-off star.
‘So, your father, Brooking is it? has just taken over the farm?’
‘Then we are neighbours, I live at Grange House. My name is Juliana.’
‘Oh, J, J, Just John.’
‘No…John, John Brooking.’
Swapping the torch hand, she offered her hand in a mocking overly formal manner, ‘Nice to meet you, John Brooking.’
‘Hello,’ he said shaking her wet hand gently and briefly in response.
‘You take the torch. I can find my way. If you go along that path, there is water on the left and woods to the right, at the end of it you will find the hay barn at the side of your farm.’
‘And can you give me back the torch tomorrow in maths, please.’
‘You’re in my maths class?’
‘Yes, I wasn’t on Monday, but I will be tomorrow.’
‘But then how did you know...’
‘You are a new face in a small school.’
‘Well...goodbye then John the Just. You will have to live up to your name now.’
‘I will mete out favour and punishment to all in my domain!’
She laughed and waved as she walked further up the track to her house and John shone the torch westward and took the stony path towards the edge of the wood.
‘How was it love?’
‘It was good Mary. I had a good day.’ He said smiling at his stepmother. He could not call her mother though he liked her well enough. Not just for the change she had brought to his father, she was a good person, straight, no violent tempers nor tantrums, no shouting. And she had brought the twins who had since become a part of him. They had adopted him, as the young do, sensing their own need in growing, a big brother. No choice was made by him on this. Frank was out most days, Mary busy with the poultry and the house so John had become the guiding, or perhaps not so guiding, adult.
‘Gaud, you are soaking. Straight up stairs and get those things off. There’s no water for a bath, you can have a hot soak in the tin by the fire.’ Her slow southern drawl a calming contrast to the harsher, high-pitched voices he had been hearing all day.
‘Mary! I’m fifteen.’
‘Oh, shy we are, well dry yourself properly now, and come down to sit in the warm.’
The torch changed hands in maths first thing. Juliana smiled warmly for him then and a couple of more times as they crossed in corridors throughout the day. She was only in his maths class not the other subjects. Her friends did not gaze nor whisper, no words had been said. John did not admit it to himself, but he became increasingly fidgety waiting for the four o’clock bell.
On board early, he sat making himself not look at the open bus door and glanced up only as it started to move away from the school stop. She was not there. Dry and clear that day, the moon’s light made misty grey silhouettes of the landscapes between the villages. As the passengers thinned and the journey neared its end, he gazed out of the window hoping to spot the track to her house and charged to the front of the bus when he saw it pass by more quickly than he would have liked.
The next school day brought many imagined glimpses of girls with fair hair. He saw her a dozen times; he didn’t see her at all. Heisenberg’s uncertainty had a lot to answer for. And on the Friday, he even felt Pauli’s exclusion was acting against him, unable to coincide in space and time. Somehow, he managed to concentrate on his quantum physics. A few boys spoke to him. Where are you from? Did he play football? that sort of thing. He thought about joining the smokers so as not to appear alone at break time, but he was in no hurry.
Forty-eight hours diminished her importance in his mind, until, that was, she entranced his Friday bus. She looked up and smiled at him immediately and nodded to show she was going to sit with the girls. Fewer of them today. It was earlier, half-past three, and lighter outside. There were no Hendersons and when the others had left the bus, Juliana walked to the driver first, then walked back to sit beside him.
‘And what punishments have you dispensed today, Just John?’
He was ready this time. ‘Just a sorry first year in the stocks.’
‘Oh, not serious then, what crime?’
‘Failure to pay his chocolate tax.’
‘You are too lenient, Sir.’
‘You think? I’ve just ordered a ducking stool,’ and she broke first and laughed out.
‘You’re nuts,’ she smiled.
‘What did you say to the driver?’
‘I told him to drop us at the next junction. When the Hendersons are not here,’ she pointed to the back, ‘he has to continue along the road for about five miles to no purpose before he can turn. If we get off sooner, he can return more easily. We’ll have to walk a bit further. I hope you don’t mind.’
‘As long as you pay your chocolate tax, you will be spared.’
Juliana pulled out a piece of paper from a notebook in her bag, then wrote something he couldn’t see. They chatted intermittently on the bus and more so when they had got off walked along the road together.
‘Tell me somethings but don’t tell me too much,’ she instructed before he started to reply to her questioning, and she responded by telling him parts of her life. As they reached the spot where the path to the farm left the track, they stopped.
‘If you are not busy tomorrow in the afternoon you can come up for tea and see the horses, if you like.’
‘I’d like that.’
‘Any time after two,’ and she handed him the piece of paper. John scrunched it up and put it in his pocket.
He waited until much later that evening. After helping his father with the sheep and after supper, he went to his room and sat on the high bed to unravel the paper which had now acquired some tup dung.
John unfolded and read the note,
I promise to pay the bearer on demand,
one bar of milk chocolate.
And in that moment he became conscious of the weight he had been bearing: another school, the new house, a new town, the new family, the burden of his own sense of isolation and estrangement; it was lighter: There was a promise from someone who just might share the load.