“We’ve given him something for the pain.”
He was on the bus, going to the High School for the first time. Rain spots dribbled down the window, distorting his view. He watched them running freely, following each one until they reached oblivion at the bottom of the glass. The previous evening he and his dad had watched an old American detective film on the T.V. The rain had lashed down has if it came from a hose, bouncing off the road like bullets and making the hero’s trilby glisten. Later he had sat on his bed and watched the ineffectual English rain spatter against the window, doing everything that he could to put off the moment of going to sleep and waking up in this day.
When he was an adult he would live in America and write films. Then he would be happy but now he had to get through this part of his life. He had climbed to the top deck for once, his mother having warned him that the bottom would get crowded and a schoolboy would be made to stand.
When they went on the bus together his mother always travelled on the bottom deck, because of her legs. She never travelled in rush hour. But, up here, the bus swayed alarmingly as it turned sharply onto the main road, churning the Weetabix and haliborange in his stomach. Every moment was taking him further and further away from his mother.
The bus stopped suddenly and then swayed gently as more passengers got on. Someone plonked himself unceremoniously in the seat beside him, squashing him up against the cold metal of the side of the bus.
He looked at the houses on the other side of the road, made almost abstract by the rain blotched window. Inside there were people going about their normal life unaware of the horror he was facing.
“Hearing is the last sense to go. You can try saying something to him.”
He almost cried, thinking of the lost summer. His mother had taken him on day trips because his father was too busy working. They had gone to Stratford and both been embarrassed by the multiplicity of cutlery on the table of the restaurant where they had lunch. After that he had bought a book of etiquette and would know what to do in future.
They had gone to Llanthony Abbey. His mother had asked him what the “Fitz” had meant in the founder’s surname. Was it German? No, he had said, it meant that the knight’s parents were not married. His mother humphed and had been silent for some time after that.
All that was now a long time ago. He tried praying. Please God, please, let this day pass quickly. Yet he was grateful that the bus was held up by the traffic lights, postponing the time when he would have to arrive.
The man next to him lit a cigarette. He had always liked going shopping with his mother. He always got something, but then the shop windows had filled with signs, “Back to School”, making him feel sick every time he saw one. From then on he had insisted on staying home, watching television or reading, when his mother went shopping.
But his mother had made him come into town to be fitted for his new uniform. The shirt was scratchy, the long trousers were unwieldly and he felt swamped by the blazer that the shop assistant said he would grow into. He knew that the man was laughing at him. What was a poor and ignorant boy like you doing going to the High School?
His mother had insisted on him putting the uniform on and taking a photograph of him when they got home, a photograph that, for quite a few years afterwards, would be brought out to show any visitors, making him both embarrassed and proud.
The man beside him was looking at him or was he only trying to look out of the window? He wished the man would get off. The bus was making him feel sick. He had been able to walk to his primary school. Now there was all this hustle and bustle to cope with. The man turned away and blew smoke out of his nose.
They were going over the bridge above the river. Being on the top deck, it almost looked as if they were flying over it, the stone obscured by the side of the bus. Brought suddenly back to reality he had a momentary attack of vertigo that made him jump and clutch the new satchel on his lap. The man beside him gave him a hard look. Blushing, he made himself smaller against the side of the bus and concentrated on the shiny motorcycles in the windows of the first shop after the bridge.
The bus stopped again and, this time, more people got off than got on. He had felt hemmed in. Now the people scurrying off and the empty places they left behind made him feel exposed. He saw that there was a boy sitting right at the front wearing the same cap that he wore. Would he have to walk with him when they came to their final destination?
He clenched his fist and dug his fingernails into his palm. Now the bus swayed wildly as it tried to negotiate the sharp bends of the town. The man was thrown against him and he almost cried out in shock. The man re-settled himself without apologising.
The cathedral lay ahead of them. His mother had once taken him to a Christmas service there. It had seemed a dark and gloomy place and he turned away to stop looking at it.
“Can you hear me? Can I get you anything?”
Another sharp bend and another stop. Now there were more empty seats than full ones but still the man beside him made no effort to get up. The dreadful thought came to him that he might have to ask the man to get up when he wanted to get off. That was too cruel, on this day of all days. Would he have time to wait until it was the man’s stop and get off when he did and walk back? He had no idea what time it was. He had been given a wrist watch for passing to the High School but his mother said it was too precious to wear to school. The thought of being late on his first day and the punishments that would bring were too frightening.
Some bank clerks, who had been lounging against the wall of their bank, now stood straight and nodded deferentially as the manager arrived and fumbled momentarily in his briefcase for the keys. Outside that bank was the bus stop where he had been told he could catch the bus home. He wished he could do that now.
The bus tried to move off but there was a crunching of gears and it came to a sudden halt, throwing everybody forward. He only just stopped himself in time before knocking his front teeth out on the metal rail of the seat in front.
How warm his bed had been that morning when his mother had called up that it was time to get up. Would he survive to get back to it that evening? In her own nervousness she had called him much too early, so there had been much fussing and clucking around him while he toyed with his breakfast.
The driver managed to find the gear and the bus moved off again. Someone at the back gave a malicious cheer. Another sharp turn and they were in the old part of the city, with narrow streets. It seemed that the walls of the shops would scrape against the side of the bus. He moved away from the window as a sign, projecting out of a wall, looked as if it was about to come crashing in. The man beside him pushed back, refusing to be displaced.
“Has he got a favourite book? Or you could just read the paper to him. That can be comforting.”
Another sharp turn and they were coming up to the market, where his mother had told him he should get off. Although the bus had veered to a crazy angle, people were standing up and clawing their way to the stairs. With relief he saw the man next to him take advantage of a gap to jump up. But he would have no time to enjoy having the seat to himself. The boy in the same cap was also on his feet.
He did not look at him as he went past. He did not recognise him, they must have gone to different schools. He was glad, because otherwise they would have sat together and he would have had to talk and the time would have gone by too quickly.
The bus stopped and he waited for the queue to pass so that he could struggle out of his seat. He was last and it struck him that, having waited such a long time at this stop, the conductor and driver might take it into their heads to set off before he had negotiated the stairs, so near were they to the terminus and a cup of tea. In his hurry he almost missed a step and had to hang onto the handrail to stop himself falling down the stairs.
The conductor, waiting in the well of the bus, laughed at him. “Slow down lad. It’ll still be there waiting for you.”
Then he was out into the fresh air. That was better. The other boy was now well ahead of him and walking fast. There was no way that he would have to talk to him now. It struck him as odd that the boy was so keen on getting to school whereas he was hanging back, wanting to put off the event for as long as possible.
“These things can sometimes take a bit of time. Can I get you a coffee or anything?”
Why was he doing this? He could just turn around and he could just go home. He could tell his mother that he was not feeling well. She would understand. He tried to turn around but then he became aware of the number of people behind him, making it impossible.
He tried to call out but no sound came out of his mouth. The people behind him were somehow misty, indistinct, but the force of them carried him on, around the corner and into the street at the end of which lurked his new school. He could see the metal gates, like a mouth, behind them orange brick shone like a tongue. Suddenly he felt calm, relaxed. Ahead of him the other boy was well in front. It looked as if he was being sucked into the gates rather than walking towards them. The pressure of the people around him made it feel that he was almost flying as well.
Momentarily he leant back, trying to halt his rush but it did no good. It was easier to let himself be carried forward. If he ignored the panic it was not unpleasant. He had stopped breathing.
There was a loud humming, a medical machine flat lining. Now everyone about him was rushing. It was getting dark, the sky was black. The only thing he could see was the school gates, opening to let him in and then.