fiction: the bus up the hill

On the weekend the buses ran once an hour. Nobody waited for the bus: people knew when it was scheduled. They arrived on time, or just before, as if for a matinee. The bus drivers had heard of supply and demand, and thought of themselves as a rare commodity. They put on airs, expected things from you. They always made an effort to stop just ahead or just behind the people waiting, so that everybody would have to walk an extra five or ten feet. There weren’t many bus drivers, and so you just had to put up with it. There weren’t many passengers either. The main arterials were always quiet. Down towards the motorway, down the flat plains, very few people got on. A couple of mothers, maybe a shop assistant. The hill was where the buses saw service. Nobody wanted to climb the hill. Some occasionally ventured to walk down it – slide down it, more like – but nobody wanted to climb. Too impractical. Too long. Arguably a fun exertion for the first ten minutes, but after that it was a chore. It wound up and on, curling around a grassy outcrop that served as a lookout over the city’s flat basin, and on and on, as colonial houses turned draughty subdivided apartments gave way to green fields and lonely, leafy trees. Further up, the route was menaced by what imagined itself to be nature’s untamed edge. Tall, thin blades of grass thought of themselves as thick ears of corn, rustling in the wind, waiting for a harvester to scythe them down and shrink-wrap them for the supermarket. Rusting hulks of abandoned vehicles – mostly cars, some tractors – were dozing bulls, best not woken. One rotting bus carcass served as something of a landmark, at about the hill’s halfway point. To the bus drivers, it was a memento mori, a reminder and a warning. They crossed themselves and kissed the wheel every time they passed it. To the passengers, to the locals, it was more of a logistical head-scratcher. It was up the top of a bank, but the bank faced onto somebody’s back yard. The bus wouldn’t have fit between the houses – so how did it get up there? As we passed the bus carcass slash lighthouse, I mentally saluted. A toddler further down pointed out the landmark to his mother – ‘Look!’ Agreeable cooing in return. An older gentleman shifted his weight in his seat, and two sulky teenagers acknowledged it not at all, intensifying their slack-eyed stare with a conscious effort of will. It was like watching a ripple run down the length of the bus. It happened every time. Three more stops. That was my marker. First the house with the green and white roof, and the yard hidden behind a two-meter fence. It was a defensive, hunched little place; if you could see the yard, you’d steal their joy. Second stop, the dairy with no customers, splayed out on the curb like an angel hurled from heaven by Kurt Vonnegut, and still somehow open. The third stop was me. The toddler burbled a load of nonsense as I got off. A good sign, I thought.

The family home was mostly how I’d left it. There were changes, but they burned themselves into my psyche in such a way as to suggest that they’d always been there. They were new, and then very shortly after they weren’t, and I couldn’t remember it having been any different. The home had sold in my parents’ divorce. Casualty of war. The tractor tire, the base for our makeshift sandpit, had been removed, and they’d cleaned up the garden. The brittle rose bushes had been torn out and replaced by inoffensive rows of freshly dug soil and some little sprouting shoots. I knocked on the door. A young family, they’d said. Nobody answered. That was probably for the best. I hadn’t planned what to say if they were home. I still had a back door key, and I didn’t imagine they would have changed the locks. I decided to see if the basement door was still loose. It had an old lock, a bolt, and it was forever slipping out of place. When I couldn’t sleep at night, I would check the basement door, and it would never be properly locked. That must be why I couldn’t sleep, I would muse. I would lock it, and traipse back across the garage, and walk up six stairs into my basement bedroom. There was a sliding door between my room and the garage, but it only had a latch. That was loose too. You could slip your fingers between the door and the wall and push that latch up, and then you’d be in. It was part of a recurring nightmare. I would wake, and there would be singing, or screaming. The sliding door would start to open. I must not have checked the bolt. I must not have latched it. I would fly or run or ski towards the door, and the singing screaming would get louder, and my heart would rattle up into my throat as I came face to face with – wakefulness. I tried the basement door. It wasn’t locked. I stepped into the garage, and tried not to take in the surroundings. I walked up the stairs, through my old bedroom (don’t take it in), up the stairs again into the main house, and turned on the gas. I burned it all down. Like James Bond in Hot Fuzz. Like Steve Buscemi in Boardwalk Empire. I stepped into the garage and rediscovered the hollow under where my bedroom used to be. I crouched down and crawled under – the junk had been cleared in the sale – but unfortunately I clipped my head on a beam and fell awkwardly onto a stone and died. I stepped into the garage and I was confronted by all my friends and family. This is an intervention, they said, pulling out a chair. Please sit. I stepped past the garage, away from the basement door and back towards the street. I dropped my key down the drain in the gutter. Enough, I said, walking away from the house with my boom box and giant cue cards like Mark in Love Actually. Enough now.

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