He normally got the N155 to Elephant back home, but on that night his feet were hurting more than usual, the drizzle lying hoary on his hair, turning him to grey. The N333 is sat in the bay as he approaches, indicators flashing and doors closing as it goes to pull away. Rory hammers with the side of his fist on the damp red flank of the bus and, luckily, the driver pauses to let him on.
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It is the older style of bus; the fabric on the seats is orange, shot through with geometrical shapes in a mustard yellow. The paint on the hold bar flecks off in his palm as he grabs the pole to steady himself as the bus jerks into the stream of traffic. They always bring out the old fleet of buses for this nothing period of the night, where the only people likely to be traveling are too drunk or too tired to care about the damp smell and abrasive seating.
Rory swings off the hold bar into a seat towards the back, where he can feel the rumbling of the left rear wheel under his feet. He is just settling himself, wedging his knees against the seat in front, when the bus eases into its next stop and a girl gets on.
She presses her Oystercard holder to the reader and then twists to slip it into her handbag as she moves down the aisle of the bus. He cannot see her face, but her hair is straight and blonde, her figure trim in a short black jacket and jeans. Her fingers are long and thin, pianist fingers, with chipped pale pink nail varnish. She tosses her damp hair over her shoulder as she swings her bag into a seat, and slides in after it.
Three rows ahead of him, she is hyper-real, each strand of hair haloed as the fluorescent tube bulb overhead picks up the droplets of rain clinging there. She fidgets – can she sense his eyes upon her? – and pulls her phone from her bag. The screen lights up as she flips the phone open and closed. No messages. She tosses her phone back into her bag and turns to face the window.
Her face thrown back by the dark window is what Rory expected; she is pale and strong featured. The rain on the outside of the glass gouges across the reflection of her face in streaks as the bus hits a straight road and moves up a gear. The two sit in silence as the bus trundles on through sleeping London. If she does sense his attention, she makes no sign of it.
The bus slows once more, but passes the next stop without pausing when the driver sees no passengers waiting there. The blonde girl pulls her phone from her bag again, distractedly. No messages. Who was she expecting a text from at this time of night, Rory wonders.
Another stop, this time to let off a passenger who had been sitting on the upstairs deck. The drunken woman lurches off into the night, and the driver hesitates at his wheel as he peers into the darkness after her, willing her home safely. The blonde girl shifts restlessly in her seat; she is eager to get home herself and there are only a few stops left to travel.
Slowly, slowly, the bus pulls away onto the road again. It is the darkest point of the night; moon and stars have set, but there is yet to be even the slightest chink of light in the eastern sky. The streetlights cast the world as orange and dull, reflecting hazily off of the wet humps of parked cars. The bus headlights shine straight, illuminating the rear of the night bus ahead.
The penultimate stop; the driver slows and carries on past when he sees that it too is empty. Rory knows that time is short now, minutes only. But he does nothing but watch the blonde girl as she checks her phone for a third time, and, once again, is disappointed. She places it back into her bag and zips it up.
Preparing for the short walk ahead of her, the girl pulls her hair back and rotates her shoulders as she inches towards the edge of her seat. A quick dash through the rain and she would be home; it had been a long day. Rory too, is preparing himself for leaving the close shelter of the bus, for braving the dark and the rain awaiting outside.
This bus terminates here. The blonde girl stands before the bus comes to a stop, clutching the pole by the exit doors as she adjusts the weight of her handbag on her shoulder. The doors slide open with a hiss and the blonde girl hops down. He hears the loose tarmac of the bus bay crunch under her feet as she lands somewhere in the darkness beyond the doors.
He is mere seconds behind her, but he knows now that however quickly he follows her, she is always gone by the time he reaches the doors. He is left with nothing but the shadows in the bus station. Behind him the bus gives a shudder and the lights die. The driver, shift half over, hops down from the front entrance. Giving Rory a perfunctory nod, collar up against the rain, he stalks off in search of a warm drink in a polystyrene cup to see him through till dawn.
Rory’s feet are aching again. He turns down a cobbled mews road, the shortcut home, out of habit more than anything. It only saves about three minutes. He stops suddenly; the streetlights refracting over the tops of the buildings are playing tricks on him, conjuring up the light of a pale face, of blonde hair tossed over a shoulder. She stalks ahead of him, leading the way home; surely it is just the pattering of the rain that is drowning out her heels clicking against the cobbles?
For the sake of three minutes; for the sake of an empty purse – Emma never trusted herself with cash; for the sake of a few extra hours sleep on his part, she was left like a rag doll there in these narrow mews, the blood soaked deep into the darkness of her jacket but oh so red against the paleness of her skin, of her hair, of the suede bag she clutched so fiercely to her chest, even in death.
Rory walks on, following the lights. He always picked her up from the bus station after she finished a night shift, but that night he had been irritable, tired. He’d needed the sleep. And so now, that sleep denies him is a justice that he welcomes. And so night after night he walks the rainy streets, following the sheen of her hair in the dark.
Erin’s work is collected in “The Last Train Home”, now available on Amazon.com
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