The bus doors weren’t opening.
It was the right night bus, so that was good, although normally the number 8 was a double-decker. And the number 8 doors would surely open soon, so that was also good, but they were meant to have already, and that, I supposed, could be bad. I was cold and wet. I had been waiting in the cold for fifteen minutes; so by now my navy blazer was blotted from the rain, my rucksack was sticking to my back, and my feet were starting to squelch in my shoes. But it was not the cold nor the wet but my awkwardness, or more specifically the general terror with which I am greeted by the world most of the time, that prevented me from doing the adult thing here – take some sort of action, press circle and triangle together and perform the strong man’s rap-a-tap-tap.
I peered through the dark windows. A shadowy figure of a man was there – crouched forwards in driver’s seat, rubbing his hands together, cupping them and breathing into them so that hot air blowed back into his face. 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 back into which I could shrink. No such things. I sighed and looked down at the saggy wheels of the bus. They surely seemed to have sighed their last sighs, and maybe it was their deflated selves, or else a premonition of sheets of rain, that made me reach up without looking up and knock on the bus window.
The driver gave a start. Busily he organized himself before opening the door. I stepped up into the warmth of the bus, and paid what turned out to be a scrawny little bus driver with twinkly eyes and he hair which sprouted from his ears. He had a name tag pinned to the left side of 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 and 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 about what he could mean here but couldn’t think of anything. “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 everyone knew the cool kids ruled the roost, but when I got there and came face-to-face with five free seats – I found myself unable to decide which to take. But then the bus took a swing for six and I moved with the motion and fell steadily 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 now 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). She bought her ticket, and made her way through the bus towards myself.
“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 wet as well!” Camille was a sizeable woman with large bulging eyes that made her look a bit 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?” said Nur. “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,” said Camille, and she reached into her coat and brought 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 there really is no other way of explaining it, was reading. The small two-finned thing was hovering, with mute air bubbles escaping its mouth, as it scanned a fish-sized folio which was moving in a circle in the water. Similarly other such tiny pages were scattered across the bowl. A fair 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 of them 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 of 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. Doesn’t happen with kindles.”
“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 from whatever the source, perhaps the same of both that had made me enter the bus, I hesitated now where once I had acted. And in that second’s hesitation, as I broke eye-contact with this Camille character, 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 cannot put it any other way than this, the fish eyes widened, they bulged and communicated a warning to me that I should not same my name, that others perhaps had said their name and lived to regret it. And so, all in nothing of a heartbeat, I lied.
“Charlie,” I said.
Camille smiled. “Can I leave him here with you for the minute then, 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 now on the vacant seat beside me, and walked off through the moving bus in 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 now.
“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, despite being scared, I put my hand into the bowl, grasped the fish by the tail, and snuck him inside my blazer front-pocket.