The man in the seat in front was picking his teeth with what looked like a straightened-out paper clip. Head bent forward over the green canvas bag on his knees, he appeared to be engrossed in this exercise, even obsessed by it.
Randall tapped him on his shoulder, hesitantly. The man turned, still picking, showing Randall a face much older than he first thought. “Yeah mate?”
“I’m sorry if I…can you tell me, is Hall Park Gardens the next stop?”
The man frowned, examining the end of his improvised toothpick for a result, and finding none. “Hall Park Gardens? Nah, don’t know no Hall Park Gardens. Wrong bus, mate.”
“Oh, no!” Randall pushed himself back into his seat. The bus banged over a pothole, jarring his spine. He remembered why he hated buses; the immediacy of human contact, the hard cushions, the noise, the wasted hours and inexplicable diversions through endless residential streets. Why had he allowed himself to be dissuaded from driving here?
“That’s a wicked place for parking, Take the train. It’s ever so simple! The Fifty-Nine bus stops right outside the station. It goes more or less straight to St. Mary Magdalene.”
More or less. More or less! Randall stared out at a strange street, at kebab shops, emporia for shoes, for vegetables, for fashions: a strange street in a strange city – strangers on the pavements, dashing or wandering, as lost as he.
“Smartly dressed. Funeral I’d say. I’m right, aren’t I?” The man in the seat in front had turned to face him again. Salt-and-pepper grey stubble on a sallow, smoke-dried face.
“Yes. Yes, that’s correct.”
“Thought so. White shirt, black tie. Thought so. Family?”
“No, no. A friend – an old friend.”
“Sad, very sad, that. What church?”
“What church is the funeral at? That’s where yer goin’ innit?”
“Oh. Oh, yes. St. Mary Magdalene. Yes, the funeral’s there.”
“Bleedin’ ‘ell, were you ever on the wrong bus! Lissen,” the man leaned a beige jacket-clad arm on the back of his seat. “Forget about Hall Park Gardens, dunno where that is, anyway. Lissen, I’m gettin’ off next stop, but you stay on for two more stops, yeah? Get off at The Broadway. Take the Number Twelve goin’ east. It’ll have ‘City Centre’ on the front. St. Mary’s is either the fourth or the fifth stop on that route, alright mate? Don’t take the Twelve B, that goes a diff’rent way, see?” Randall’s tooth picker reached for the stop button on the pillar at the gangway end of his seat. “Good luck, mate.”
Something about the man was familiar, reminded Randall of someone. He looked up to ask, but the man had gone.
The Broadway proved to be a wide avenue of larger dwellings, its pavements lined with tall plane trees beneath which a number of past residents had, in return for a plaque dedicated to their memory, provided those seats more commonly associated with city parks. Regaled by birdsong, Randall rested upon Allen Shopland’s memorial laths with peace of mind only faintly disturbed by the association in his memory between St. Mary Magdalene’s Church and Hall Park Gardens. Somehow he was sure the one was to be found at the end of the other, although whence that memory came was a mystery to him.
A bus arrived, putting an end to his disquiet. He flashed his travel card at the screen by the driver’s seat and contemplated asking its morose incumbent to tell him when he had reached his stop, but the driver’s demeanor was less than communicative so he held his peace. A church, after all, could scarcely be so inconspicuous as to be missed.
Wedging his knees behind yet another bus seat, Randall surrendered himself to the pitch and yaw of the different vehicle, trying to concentrate upon his memory of Michael; of their years serving together in the Middle East and the close bond between them that was broken by the end of their army careers. What on earth had brought his dear friend to live in this vast urban sprawl? What could possibly have possessed him to settle here? Michael was dead: after so few years it was inconceivable; was it illness, love for Belle who had strung him along so mercilessly, or was it this city that had killed him? The memory of Michael’s face, shining with the smile that was so uniquely his, filled Randall’s eyes and his heart, bringing tears as it always did. He was not so old he could not weep without shame.
“Close, were you dearie?” There was a woman sitting next to him. “Move over a bit, dear.”
Beyond the window, streets and houses flashed by. How many stops was that? He had lost count.
“We’re going too fast!” He cried.
“This driver, dear. He’s a bit of a psykiepath, if you asks me. Is this your stop then?”
“I don’t know. Is it St. Mary Magdalene?”
“Lord no! You’re going in the wrong direction, dearie. You wanted the one for the City Centre!”
Frantic now, Randall jabbed at the stop button, thrusting out into the gangway. “Stop! Stop!” He half-stumbled forward, swinging gibbon-like from rail to rail.
“Stay behind the line!” The psychopath commanded him, then checked in his interior mirror. “Oh, gawd!” The bus was drawn quickly to a halt, incurring a clamour of displeasure from nearby traffic, doors opening with a viperous hiss. “Go on, get off!”
Randall had no idea where he was. He only knew Michael’s funeral was timed for two-thirty that afternoon, an appointment that he would now be pressed to make. Why, oh why had he elected not to drive himself here? Why, knowing he had not ridden on a bus for thirty years, hadn’t he ignored advice and taken a taxi from the station rank? So many whys, so much self-reproach; hadn’t Michael always teased him for his inflexible nature? It was the reason he had not risen in the army as his parents expected he would, the reason his marriage to Kate had stuttered and struggled for years before finally breaking down.
He must be calm. He must take stock.
Buses, clearly, were not to be trusted. He decided to walk.
This could become a military exercise; Michael would appreciate that. Like those days of the advance, yomping across stony desert terrain with a full pack – a sort of half run, rhythmic and persistent, eating up the miles regardless of pain or blazing heat.
The military mind kicked in. First, he needed to know his present location, and identify the route to St. Mary Magdalene. The bus had dropped him off near a crossroads, on the corner of which stood a general store.
“Do you have a town map?” Randall asked. Then, when he had made the purchase, “Can you show me where we are now, and the whereabouts of St. Mary Magdalene?”
“You are wanting a church?” The shopkeeper seemed a little vague and took care to keep a separation between Randall and himself, but he supplied the answers he thought Randall wanted.
“Thank you!” Said Randall. Clarity at last!
Back on the pavement with his directions securely in his head, Randall set off at the peculiar dog-trot his army training had taught. People stepped aside to allow him through and some passed comments but he neither noticed nor cared; he had a map in his hand and three miles to cover before he reached the church. Street upon street, feet hurting, heart pounding, sweat pouring, set upon accomplishing his mission, just like the old days – the good days. He would arrive there in time!
Yet the streets were sometimes roads, the roads lanes or alleys; none of which complied with his map. So many roads were unnamed in these days, their signs never replaced when the walls that bore them changed, or stolen by enterprising kids with an eye to the car boot sales, or for their personal collections. He struggled with the map – its print was so small, his eyes grown weaker with the years; nevertheless, on he went in his odd, stumbling run, stride unbroken, up streets and down roads none of which had meaning, with the old panic rising and rising in his heart and the old pain growing at the very centre of his being.
Then suddenly he knew where he was. Without warning the road where his map had failed to lead him was there, stretched out before him, wide and straight! The familiarity of the place burned into his eyes, every feature of it memorable and dazzlingly real. At its distant end, the road terminated before a proud grey church around which the first mourners were gathering. Randall, his heart uplifted, mustered the last of his energy and began his journey up that final road. His appointment with Michael would be honoured, the love between them that had always remained unexpressed could be avowed before his friend, his dear, dear friend passed through the gates into eternity.
Why, suddenly, could he go no further? How did it happen? What was a road had become a lake, wide, probably deep, certainly beyond his ability to cross. There was an island in the centre of the lake, standing high above the water, garlanded with layer upon layer of rhododendrons, pink and red. The church stood at the water’s opposite shore, doors opened wide in invitation, its congregation gathered and elevated in song, yet there was no way to reach it, for the lake was all of a mile to either side of him and almost half as much across.
Defeated, Randall fell to his knees, compelled as he believed to make his last goodbyes from a distance, to utter a prayer unheard by the man he loved. It was then the boat found him, it was then.
“Let’s go across, then, old man, shall we? Let’s go and tell him what you’ve kept hidden all these years.”
Everything had changed. He was sitting on an unyielding wooden seat, and Michael stood before him, wearing a dog collar that identified him as a priest.
A feminine hand clasped his, and a warm familiar voice melted into his ear. “Dad, it’s Rosie – I’m here now. This is Father Clemence, Dad. He’s not Michael. I’m sorry Father; he sees people, you know? From his past, and that.”
“I’m afraid he’s in a bit of a state,” Father Clemence said, “We lack facilities you see. The police wanted to take him to the Care Centre but Randall was so insistent upon coming here – something about a funeral? He seemed to believe the police car was a boat, for some reason. He kept talking about crossing a lake. I wish I had a better understanding of these things.”
“His best friend was called Michael – he knew him from his army days. Michael was drowned in a boating accident on Hall Park Garden Lake; in Torrenton, you know?”
Randall’s voice was unsteady. “He keeps telling me Michael was drunk. He never drank, never!”
“Don’t upset yourself, Dad. Who keeps saying that?”
“The toothpick man. Him!” Randall stabbed at the priest with a wavering finger. “That’s him! He was on the bus!”
“This is Father Clemence.” Rosie soothed. “It was after they was demobbed, Father. Michael couldn’t cope with civvy life, could he, Dad? He was drinking really heavy the night he died.”
“Is that Rosie? When is Michael’s funeral? I was told two-thirty at St. Mary Magdalene’s; am I late?”
“Only by about twenty years, Dad. Michael died a long time ago. You were right about the date, though, and the time of the funeral; you always seem to manage that. We’ve been worried sick about you, you know? Come on, let’s get you home.”
“It’s a long way. I came on the train.”
“No, Dad, it’s about twenty minutes. I don’t know how you got here, but it wasn’t by train.”
“I loved Michael.”
“I know, Dad, I know.”
© Frederick Anderson 2021. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.