Times Before Lockdown After Lockdown #7

The bus doors weren’t opening.

I was cold and wet. I had been waiting for fifteen minutes; and by now my navy blazer was blotted, my rucksack was sticking, and my feet were squelching in my shoes. But it was neither the cold nor the wet but rather my awkwardness, or the general terror with which I am greeted by the world most of the time, that was preventing me from doing the adult thing – taking some sort of action, pressing down hard on circle and triangle and performing the strong man’s rap-a-tap-tap.

I peered through the dark windows. A shadowy figure was crouched forwards in driver’s seat. He was rubbing his hands together in between sharp intervals of cupping them and breathing hard into them so that the hot air blew like bellows. He hadn’t noticed I was waiting.

I looked over my shoulder to see if a strong armed man had magically appeared to catch the bus for me, or if a little tin-roofed bus shelter hadn’t popped out of the earth like an elevator into which I could shrink. No such things. I sighed and looked down at the saggy wheels of the bus. Maybe it was their deflated selves, or else a premonition of the sheets of rain that were to come, that made me reach up and knock on the bus window.

The bus driver gave a start. Busily he opened the door and I stepped up into the warmth. He was a scrawny little man with twinkly eyes, hair sprouting from his ears, and he had a name tag pinned on his collar.

“Sorry about that. I forget the door gets stuck. In you come!”

“Thanks,” I said. The door hissed shut behind me. I looked down the length of the bus. It was empty.

“Where we going then?” the bus driver asked.

“Rutland Road, please.”

“Oh, are we? That will be £2 then.”

“Really? It’s usually £2.50, isn’t it?”

“Oh? Excellent. £2.50 then please.”

I didn’t see what was excellent about it. I wished I hadn’t said anything.

“Here’s your ticket. Now, is there anything else I can do for you?” he asked.

“No thanks,” I said, taking my ticket.

“Nothing at all?”

I thought very seriously. “No, I don’t think so,” I said.

“Very good. Give me a buzz if you need anything,” he said, scratching his collar. “They’re the little red ones on the poles.”

As we moved off I walked down to the back of the bus, to where the cool kids ruled the roost, but when I got there and came face-to-face with five free seats I was unable to decide which to take. But then the bus took a swing for six and I half-fell from the motion into the nearest seat, shuffled across the row, and rested my head on the window. The bus chugged along; bumping my head on the glass as the sheets of rainfall came down hard outside.

The bus slowed and came to a stop. The door opened promptly this time and up stepped a tall woman in welly-boots and big blue anorak. The woman said ‘hullo’ to the driver (the driver said ‘hullo’ back) and shook the water from her anorak (the spray got the bus driver very excited). Having bought her ticket, the woman made her way through the bus towards me.

“Hello. Can I sit here?” she asked, indicating to the seat across. The woman sat in it before I could answer. I glanced around blurrily at all the other empty seats. “How awful this rain is! My name’s Camille. You look like you’ve gotten so wet!”  Camille was a sizeable woman. She filled the bus and had large bulging eyes that made her look like a chameleon. She wore a skin-tight green coat with a fur hood and underneath the hood were a bunch of hair-curlers.

“That’s impossible,” I said, looking at the woman’s coat and discovering that I was speaking without filter. “I mean… you weren’t wearing that when you came in, were you?”

“Yes I was.”

“Really?” I said. “I thought you were wearing something else.”

“Well, yes, now that I think about it, I was probably wearing something else. Something blue. But what’s so impossible about changing your clothes from time to time?”


“Exactly,” said Camille. “Everyone changes their clothes.”

“But how did you change your clothes so fast?”

“It’s all in the wrist.”

I examined the woman to see if she had hidden her blue anorak somewhere.
“How though?” I burbled, before my confidence shriveled like a grape. “That’s impossible.”

This is impossible,” stated Camille, and she reached into her coat to bring out a very round goldfish bowl. She placed the bowl on her lap. “Look – a goldfish. Did you know that goldfish can read underwater? No? That’s because most of them can’t. This one can. Isn’t that amazing! Look at him.” Camille pointed at the goldfish. 

The goldfish, and really there is no other way of explaining it, was reading. The two-finned animal was hovering, with mute air bubbles escaping its mouth, and scanning a fish-sized folio that swirled in the water. Other such tiny pages were scattered across the bowl. A few of them were floating freely, some were caught in fake seaweed which rose up from the earth at the bottom, and a whole load more were trapped in a model cottage with two large windows and a door. 

“He’s read loads of stories. His favorite’s a really excellent one about a pirate with rolling pins for arms and a bad bedside attitude. It’s a famous story. If all fish could read, all the fish in the sea would know it. Oh look! He’s dropped the book cover. Can you see it? It’s the empty-looking brown thing that he had tucked up underneath his left fin. There it goes… down… down… down… What’s the point of a book cover if the pages won’t stay in? Happens to the best of us because the best of us keep the oldest books and the oldest books are the best. Needs a Kindle! Wouldn’t happen with a Kindle.”

“Could you get one small enough?”

“Don’t be silly,” said Camille sharply. “Electronics don’t work when they get wet like that.”

“I just thought…”

“What’s your name?”

For whatever reason I hesitated here, and in that second’s hesitation, as I broke eye-contact with this Camille woman, and as my eyes drove down towards where they would settle on my knees for shame, they locked with two round fisheyes in the goldfish bowl which perched on her knees; and as they did, and I really really cannot put it any other way, I saw the fish’s eyes widen, bulge, and communicate to me a warning that I should not tell her my name, that others had said their name and lived to regret it. And so, in an all-or-nothing heartbeat, I lied.

“Charlie,” I said. 

Camille smiled. “Can I leave him here with you for the minute, Charlie? I must go and speak to the driver about my choice of lipstick.” With a brilliant smile, Camille stood up, pressed the little red button above her on the side of the pole, placed the fishbowl on the vacant seat beside me, and walked down the moving bus in her ruby red high-heels. The bus sped up slightly, as if the driver wanted to escape from her but, like a dog, could only strain on its leash.


I snapped back to the goldish bowl. The goldfish was wiggling its way the surface and stuck its lips out of the water.

“Help!” the fish said, again, and in a more strangled voice.
 I stared at the fish.

“I’m in danger,” whispered the fish. 

“I’m in danger,” I repeated, gulping like a fish myself.

“Get me out of here. Put me in your pocket. Don’t say anything!”

“But… but… what do you mean?”

“She’s crazy. She thinks I can read!”

“But… you’re a fish? You need water to survive.”

“Nonsense! Hurry, before she comes back.”

“She’ll notice though.”

“Tell her I’ve gone into my house. She’s crazy. Hurry!”

I froze for a second. Then, I slipped my hand into the bowl, grasped the fish by the tail, and snuck him into my blazer front-pocket.


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