(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.
Alone for a moment with the horizontal harbour. A vertical train, small wheeling me up the hill. A visit. Sun high. A glancing blow. My eyes. Mesmerised.
The golden city that side. Mystical. Pours from the hills, spills down the valleys, fills across the fore. Shore soft routed roman ogee.
Keruru crash. Wing flacking hard, horizontal past me.
Pare back my eyes. This side, crackling dry bush frames the golden city. This side, the funicular rundles the rails, lifting me to the house where the bush closes in.
I’m not alone now. She lies with me, half across my trousered lap.
Her face bathed in sun and the golden city.
Her head side, nestled into the small of my elbow.
She’s warm. She’s heavy. She’s breathing deeply. I don’t know her.
An eighties cut, clipped hard on the up side. Clipped soft on the sleeping side. A vigorous fringe. It shines. Tussled but holding shape over her curling ears.
An upturned nose, worn high. Aloofness, an allure. The even-toned golden cheek I can see, short-nicked at the smile line, is not so sure.
Makeup applied only to her pouting lips, assertive, almost brown. They glisten.
She drools, wetting my shirt sleeve.
And the funicular lifts us higher.
Her right hand lies on my knee. Fingers thick and strong. Hangnail forefinger. Indian ink rings on the tips. A scar drying across the knuckles. Feeding from a singular long vein. A muscle pulses in the lee of her wrist; there is no refuge. She struggles and lifts it momentarily, drops and snuggles deeper.
And the funicular lifts us higher.
She’s dressed to travel. Coated in a scuffed black jacket. Wrapped in dark trousers. Tiny grey buttons march thin down outside the seam. Her ankle boots are purple. The leather is new but the toe tips are scuffed.
And the funicular lifts us higher.
That side, the golden city glowers. Nothing keeps to its place. Everything crosses over. Sun-heated neutrinos travel. Warm organic aerosol arrives. Transition to caress my eyelids. They are brushed shut.
The funicular jolts and stops.
The electric motor spins down. Friction-heated metal cools and creaks.
I stand, alone, shaky like a rustled sheep.
Fingers feel braille-like for the latch on the exit gate.
Robyn answers her door, opening it carefully before me. Crossing the first threshold, I wander in.
I stand, arrived, in the middle of the lounge.
Robyn says “Is it raining?”
and brushes at the damp patch on my shirt sleeve.