(Written and read for LitCrawl, Wgtn 2016)
By Carlington Black
Outside this theatre, just across the road, is the Courtenay Place bus stop. Stop number 5000.
If you are standing at that spot at 7:00pm on weekdays, keep an eye on the electronic bus timetable.
Watch closely. The sign will glitch, flicker and refresh: “Eastbourne 81 – due”.
This is strange because there is no 81 scheduled for 7pm. The last 81 bus leaves fifteen minutes earlier.
I have discovered there IS a 7.00pm 81 to Eastbourne.
It is a ghost bus.
The MetLink electronics sense its presence;
Its spectral signal trapped among the trolley wires,
among old copper telephone cables
trapped in tar and the macadam first laid when they built this damp city.
One night I unwittingly took that ghost bus to Eastbourne.
I was running late to get home after work.
At the bus stop I checked the electronic panel.
Right at the bottom glowed “Eastbourne 81”.
I knew that had to be wrong.
But the oddities of MetLink bus scheduling are legion.
So I waited.
I swiped through some phone stuff.
Soon the board insisted Eastbourne 81 was due.
But no 81 came.
I stepped onto the road, trying to make bus shapes in the distance out of the swelling gloom.
I was hit – buffeted – by a wave of bitter cold. Swayed with vertigo.
I pitched forward and went black.
A moment later I was lurching down the aisle of a bus.
“Steady there!” said a cheery voice.
One of the regular 81 bus drivers was at the wheel.
He said “Oh my, it’s you. Kowhai Street ain’t it?
“Yeah, that’s me.”
“You missed the last bus.”
“Oh sorry… what bus is this?”
“That’s what I want.”
“This ain’t the 81 you want mate.”
In the gloom I could make out that about a third of the seats were full.
“Where’s everyone going then?”
“The bus depot,” he said.
There’s a 1930s bus depot at the end of the route, which is also the end of the road that side of the harbour.
“That’s not far from my house,” I answered.
“Look mate, I really don’t think you should be on this bus,” he said.
“I need to get home. I’m not getting off.”
“Suit yo’self, but watch your step.”
I picked my way down the pitching aisle.
My shoes skidded; something like blood was smeared across the floor.
I found an empty seat.
The spot in front was occupied by a rag-clothed individual. They smelt like rotting dog food.
The single dirty ceiling light dulled a moment, the bus skipped a gear, and the front door coruscated.
The bus hadn’t stopped, but someone had got on. They shambled their way down the aisle.
A limp leg skidded about behind them through the patch of blood.
Every few seconds they sniffed deep, heavy and wet.
I looked out the window and gave a commuter’s prayer that they wouldn’t sit next to me.
When the figure reached my seat, some ghastly puissance compelled me to sneak a look at them.
To find they, or it, looking straight at me.
The face looked like rain sodden roadkill. Bone and skin had been split open and flattened.
From the fleshy cavity issued a mournful, despairing whimper.
I looked away in shock and embarrassment, and the figure tramped past.
I chastised myself – it was merely some pitiable wretch misfortuned by life.
But that was an intellectual pretence.
I have seen such things in my nightmares. I have seen them in The Walking Dead and Resident Evil.
Zombies – you might be thinking.
That would be too easy.
I became conscious that my ankles were bitterly chilled.
The floor at my feet bubbled with pustiluous creamy fluid running from rag-man in front.
Somewhere at the back of the bus a singularly distinctive cough cut the silence. It merged into a stuttering cack. Then into a weal, pealing awfully.
The dread alarm carried by synapse throughout my body transmitted the dark truth. This bus, these passengers, and me, belonged to Apollyon. The dark lord.
Nausea followed this realisation. But I resolved not to succumb. I pulled myself up, and walked to the driver.
“Okay, what is this bus?”
“It collects the lost souls of Wellington.
“You mean commuters?
“Yeh, commuters, groovers, movers, shakers…”
“There’s so many.
“That’s Wellington mate. Lots of good intentions paving the way to hell.
“Am I dead?
“I don’t think so. You haven’t got that mangled thing going.
“What happens at the end of the line?”
“I stop the bus and they leave. Vanish.
“What about you.”
“I just drive. It’s my community service. You know – give something back – pay it forward.
“What will happen to me?”
We came around Lion Rock, one harbour bend away from the depot. That seemed to set the passengers off. The wailing grew melodious, lulling.
We pulled alongside the depot, and the driver opened the front doors.
The things rose from their seats.
A seething collection of seeping awfulness. Mawing at festering wounds.
I was overwhelmed by their oppressive smell, their desecrated breath.
They muttered unfathomable incantations to the evil denizens they expected to embrace.
I was numb. Trance-like.
An unknown ode formed on my own dry lips.
‘Tis with joy I cease. The goddesses of destiny are come to fetch me.
The grotesque beings drew closer. I stood between them and the exit doors.
The driver grasped my shoulder and hauled me out of the aisle.
I was manhandled and wedged, stupefied, into the space behind his seat.
From there I watched the lost souls walk past, down the exit well, and out into the blackness. As each took the final step they flashed into nothingness. A wail on the breeze.
After the last soul departed, the driver pulled me to the door step.
I held back.
He clutched my hand, I closed my eyes, and we stepped from the bus into the night.
Onto firm dewy bitumen.
I turned a slow circle. There was no bus.
Harbour water washed over the pebbled beach.
Bush rustled in the hills.
The driver let go my hand.
I said to him “I forgot my briefcase.”
He said “Sorry mate, there’s no lost property office in hell.”
Wellingtonians, I ask a favour, if good intentions leave you a lost soul on the 7pm ghost bus to Eastbourne, please look out for my briefcase.
Mary Littletheaton sidled the car as close as she gambled against the wet bank of the narrow hillside road. Too close and she scraped the left hand side. Not close enough and a passing car scraped the right hand side.
She was already having a jolly debate with herself, as usual, between the fitness of taking the path, or the return on investment in using the cable car. As usual, the funicular had already won.
Mary turned right, taking the path to the funicular, and immediately felt an eerie apperception that something was different. A few steps more and she encountered a pathway dotted with a dozen notebooks-worth of hand-pencilled paper scraps.
A few steps more and she encountered the man responsible.
He was sitting in the entrance to the cable car; by a little wooden shelter which looked as if it had once lived many decades alongside a disused railway line.
He was about the size and shape of a post box, and more so as he was currently crouched on his haunches. He was clad only in a thule, a length of cotton wrapped around his waist and between his crotch. His bare body was begrimed. Purulent lesions dotted the loose cheeks of his exposed bottom.
“Hello.” Mary chirped with a smile. She was like that. Diminutive, but with relentlessly sunny disposition. Fazed by nothing.
The man turned his face to her. Frowning.
“Hello,” Mary repeated.
“Salaam,” said the man gravely.
“Are you in need of something?”
The man poked a stick at a small circle of smouldering notepad embers in front of him.
“Are you cold?” It was early spring, and a chilly southerly breeze kept lines of fire twisting through the black paper flakes.
“I am warmed by the faith of hajj.”
“Oh yes, I like a good evening walk as well. Only, tonight I was going to…” Mary pointed gingerly at the cable car rail. The cable car unit itself was at the other end of the line outside the house.
“Fellow pilgrim, you are welcome to share this humble shelter” the man said.
“I’m okay thanks. My, um, shelter, is up the hill.”
“Have you been waiting long?” the man asked the fire.
“Er, I’ve lived in my house for a while now, yes.”
“You are indeed a true believer. Come, join me. Tell me how you have fared.”
“Not right now, if that’s okay. Dinner won’t fix itself. Are you hungry?
“I hunger only for the truth, like you Madam.”
“I can bring you down a snack.”
“I am on a holy fast until the golden chariot appears.”
Mary thought of the funicular. She would have to step through the shelter to get to the button to call it down from the house. The man crouched in the middle of the shelter. A soft floppy sack and a roll of carpet lay opposite. Candles burned on the seats behind him. She decided to take the steep path instead. Fitness beckoned.
“Tell you what, you’re welcome here. I’ll walk tonight.”
The man didn’t answer. As she set off up the path, she heard him chanting softly.
The next morning, anticipating the man was still in the shelter, Mary used the path again on her way out. He was still there, only now sitting-legged, holding a flimsy sheet of crumpled paper between pressed palms, mumbling.
“Good morning,” Mary said.
She observed that the man’s eyes were half closed, with only whites showing. He continued the repetitive mumble, rocking slightly forward and back.
Mary shrugged and continued on her way out.
When she returned later that day, the postbox man had been joined by another. A straw of a man, his ribs showing through his bare chest. He wore Bermuda shorts and roman sandals. Mary noticed that the sandals looked ancient. They had thin cork soles and thin strips of wound leather.
Both men sat cross-legged on carpets. The strawman had brought with him a battered doctor’s satchel. In one corner of the shelter a photo had been propped on the wall. Stacked against it was a thumbed-sized carved wooden figure, and a stuffed black bird.
Dirt had been smeared on the walls, alongside circles a foreign script drawn in charcoal.
“Hollow” the strawman said.
“Are you here for the chariot?” Mary enquired.
“Yos, yos. Thot’s us. Thot’s us indod. ‘ave yow sewn it?”
“Yos, er yes. It’s up there.” She pointed up the hill, where the cable car’s steel rails disappeared into the trees.
The strawman started trembling with excitement. “In the Heavons. Yos, of course. Please, but has it evor descended?”
“Yes. Quite regularly actually. You see, you just push…” but the strawman eagerly cut her off.
“Have you ridden the chariot?
“The cable car? Yes, many times.”
“She is Elijah’s sister!” Strawman exclaimed to Postbox.
“No, I don’t know Elijah. You’ve me mixed up with someone.”
“Is the chariot like a heavonly whirlwind?” Strawman asked.
“No, it’s a Threadneedle and Son Model 2.”
Strawman pondered for a moment. “The Threadneedle Whirlwind! A Chariot of the Gods! A Chariot of fire!” His eyelids flicked quickly in ecstasy. He lifted his chin to the evening sky. His bony throat started warbling a wobbly high tone. He fell to his knees.
Postbox bowed his head at Mary and slumped alongside Strawman to cojoin his mumble with the warbling hum.
Mary giggled and set off up the path to reach her house.
She decided to walk down the path again the next morning. In a shaded section, she lost her balance for a heart-bumbling moment.
“Hi boys” she chirruped at the group of three figures now filling the shelter. She wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the third. It was covered in sack cloth, singing in a dry cough, and hunched at its own offering bowl, which contained a mixture that appeared meaty and wet. Around it was a circle of tiny bones, and skulls of what looked like birds and mice. Mixed in with them were dried husks of insects.
She dressed herself in a nonchalant smile. “Hello again.”
The three ignored her, carrying out their liturgies.
“Any sign of the chariot?”
Sackcloth man rose slowly. From under the hood a rasping voice spoke. “We await a sign. Are you a sign?”
“I don’t think so.”
The sackcloth man took a step closer.
“We need a sign.”
Mary’s nose twisted at the acrid smell the sack emanated. In fact, the entire shelter and surrounds had quickly become quite feculent. It now dawned on her to wonder where they toileted.
She pondered that all day at work.
She returned home as daylight clicked shut its divine doors. She stood watching the three shadows. They had been busy all day. Candles dotted the shelter and the path. The area was strewn with things corraded. Effigies built hastily from sticks lay about the sides of the path. Strange scents wafted up from burning piles of wood chip.
The sackcloth man knelt perfectly still, facing the barred alighting point to the cable car. His back was to Mary, who could only see that his sack shroud was now pulled from his head. On the very top of his bald head, pinches of black soot burned gently. His scalp was littered with jieba scars.
Postbox was now totally naked, sitting hunched in a furry foetal position. He had rolled in what Mary hoped was wet soil.
Strawman was standing, sprinkling water over Postbox from a dog bowl. Strawman looked up at her approach.
“Mary, con you assost us?”
Mary took a little step back. “You know my name?”
“Heltipon here” – he pointed to sackcloth man – “had a vosion towday. He said Mary would call down the chariot to heavon.”
“You are Mary”
“Thon, we beseech you. Call down the chariot.”
Mary looked about the little white walled shelter. She was getting tired of walking up the path. Her writers group would be coming over tomorrow night. What would they make of this mess?
“Look, I’m sorry for your trouble, I really am. You’ve made quite an effort haven’t you?
“We have come a long way Mary.”
“But this is just a cable car that goes to my house.
“Thon lives in heavon?”
“No, I… oh, dear.”
“Take us to heavon on a whirlwind.”
Mary chuckled. “You just push the green button there.”
The strawman unfolded himself to inspect where Mary was pointing. “Whot? Thot botton?”
“Yos. I mean, yes. Push it and the cable car – the chariot – comes down.
All three prostrated themselves in front of the switchbox, heads pressed into the concrete.
Mary picked her way over and around the bodies and pushed the button. Somewhere about them an engine started up, bringing tiny plaintive cries from the prostrate pilgrims. At the top of the rails, a whir and a shudder and then a slow scraping begun.
“Is ut descending Mary?”
“Yes, it will be here in a minute.”
The three began jabbering excitedly, and scritching about the shelter gathering important things.
They spotted the cable car appearing through the trees and out of the night gloom.
“The chariot! It comes! It comes!” strawman screeched.
“Look, it’s just going to take you to my house.”
“Heavon!” they cried.
Mary chuckled. “Well, some have said that. But no, not your heavon.”
The three seemed bewildered.
Postman suddenly shouted in alarm. “Sheol. She intends to send us to the grave!”.
“No, no. My home. I’ve got a lovely new lounge suite.” She looked at their faces distorted in a fear and anger. She saw for the first time that sackcloth’s face was a lumpen mass of boils.
The steel-framed cable car rattled alongside the shelter and clicked to a stop.
“Look, it’s up there. See for yourself. If you like, we can have a cup of tea before you go home.”
The two looked to strawman for a decision. He looked at Mary. “Our vision was that Mary would send us to heavon. You are Mary?”
“Yes. Please, just get on, go to the top and see for yourself.” She lifted a green guard arm and bade them alight.
Strawman nodded, and the three stepped carefully onto the cable car, which quivered. They grasped at handholds. Mary lowered the arm and pressed the green button. The cable car stuttered and began ascending.
“When you get to the top, open the gate and wait outside my front door. But close the gate and press the green button up there to send the chariot back down for me.
“We understand Mary. It is good.” They all waved to her, somewhat apprehensively.
Mary watched as the cable car clacked, steel runners on steel rails, up the slope. The three had knelt on the floor and started preying. They slowly disappeared into the gloom.
She waited for the sound of the motor and wheels to stop, as they had reached the top. Sometimes the damned thing seemed to take ages.
She waited a bit longer. The whirring continued.
Mary started to doubt.
The motor continued to hum and humble. A high note of stress appeared in among its whirring.
It should have stopped by now.
The motor was now rattling slightly, it’s electric coil clacking between the magnetic current.
Mary strained to listen above the noise, for the sound of the unit at the top of the rails.
She could just make humanish sound coming from above her – from above the hilltops. Panicked babble.
She bent out of the shelter, looking into the gloaming. The night sky had gone dark blue. The trees lining the funicular rails had the wild flails of things not born by humans. The soft moon was absent. Razor lines of cloud slashed about the stars and about a tiny black rectangle vibrating in the sky.
The babble from the ether was now a faint, multi-frequency shriek. Or was it the southerly wind among the trees?
Mary peered into the sky. The rectangle could not be discerned. The human sound was silenced.
Mary looked around the little shelter. She tutted to herself and began tidying. She picked up little bronze and stone icons and placed them in a plastic bag. The numerous scraps of hand-scribbled prayers were stacked. Bits of rags and clothing were gingerly placed in a pile. She’d sweep up the burnt offerings later.
As she worked, from the sky came a sound like someone shushing in a theatre. Mary looked up. In the black a polite but angry hush of air was ahead of something falling. She waited. A thick thud hit the funicular rails a few metres above her.
Another thud, like the thing had bounced. She thought of old grapefruit falling from trees. Then the swashing as ma ny small clothy things skated down the rails.
Thuck. Thuck. Thuck. Small clothy bundles splottered about the shelter, hitting the roof, the walls, and the pavement.
A bloodied bundle rolled one up to Mary’s feet. She knelt down, and tightened her eyes at what she saw. It was someone’s hand, wrenched messily at the wrist. The hand was tied into a fist by thin leather shoes lace. Leaving the hand on the concrete she delicately untied the knots. She peeled the dirty red fingers back. Carved hastily and deeply into the flesh of the palm was a word: Help.