Waking after three, Damien knew that he was deeply cold before he could recollect who or where he was. He flapped about ineffectively in his thin bed sheets, trying to wrap his body around a grain of warmth that was not there. A sun as pale and as cold as the moon, alone in an empty sky, would set in under an hour. He had better get up. He had promised to have supper with his girlfriend, Ana, before his shift.
He quaffed a shot of bison grass vodka, as violent as a sneeze, and smoked a cigarette over the kitchen stove. Impetuously, he gulped more vodka straight from the bottle, making his eyes stream.
Under the shower, he lost himself in the soothing roar of the water. He next shaved the scum off his huge jaw, and combed his colourless blond hair into a random configuration. Gazing at himself steadily in the mirror unnerved him – he grew so vivid that he seemed to eclipse himself. He wanted to dress up for no reason, into something fresh and colourful, and he found an Armani suit lately back from the cleaners in the living room, smelling as luscious as a rose.
He and Ana dined by candlelight on Thistle Street, in a little fish restaurant which seemed to have been fitted inside a shoe. He drank white wine until eight, whereupon he turned to coffee. He relished the feeling of the wakefulness spreading through his body down to the fingertips.
“You’re driving the 22 this evening?” Ana asked. She would look out for him as that Lamborghini Jota, as sleek as a fin, veered back to the docks.
Ana was picking through her salad as if she was carefully searching it for a pearl. “You’ve never driven that one before?”
Damien grunted. “I was suddenly allocated. I can’t say why.”
Outside the restaurant, Damien manoeuvred Ana into the darkness of an alleyway for a formal kiss. They were both suddenly exhilarated at being plunged into the darkness and the deep rich stench from the restaurant’s bins. Damien was always surprised by Ana’s passion. Whenever he saw her in the light, it seemed unlikely that she could have been capable of it.
Damien bade goodnight to Ana and he then walked over to the depot on Annandale Street. The number 16 was waiting for him in the dark. After signing for the keys, he had ten minutes remaining until departure. A thought struck him, and he rummaged about in the cabin of the bus for the incident book. It was not there. Intrigued, he ventured into the offices in search of the commander.
“What gives Kasia?” he asked the receptionist.
She turned huge, tentative eyes on him. “Me,” she moaned, “if you’d only give me an ounce of encouragement.”
He smiled happily. “Is the commander about?”
“Number 16 is here, sir.” Kasia radioed through.
Damien’s heart sank as he greeted the commander. This sprightly old man was usually game for mischief, but he wore a grim face tonight, as if he had taken the wrong pill before leaving for the office. Yes, he had been meaning to buy a new incident book for the 16. Under communism, you could bribe somebody and these things would get done. He must remember to send Kasia down to WH Smith once it opened. Well, time was getting on and Damien would be late for his bus…
Unsatisfied, Damien cornered the mechanic Kew by the vending machines. And like a doctor reporting the prospects for your tumour, blandly but surely, Kew told him the truth.
No driver had stayed on that bus for more than three nights. Weird things happened. They never spoke about what they saw. Drivers now called in sick and the Union was beginning to take an interest. Finally, the last night’s driver had finished his shift at seven in the morning, he had walked across the city to collect an ancient handgun from his grandfather’s garden shed, and he had then approached the playground of his local primary school, firing steadily at the children. He had killed two and injured many more before the dinnerladies overpowered him. He had later died in police custody, apparently from some sort of aneurism.
Damien was now late and so he roared off, the 16 groaning with pain under the speed. He picked up a handful of surly and sniggering teenagers outside Waverley station, depositing them five minutes later on the Lothian road. They had left some empty beer cans upstairs and Damien was irritated by the noise of them rolling about, like lonely balls lost within a huge bagatelle board. The streets were murky and silent, an aquarium in which all the fish had died and floated to the surface. Damien jumped a red light and only God could know.
Why had the previous drivers suffered so horribly? Damien was so completely and coldly sane that the prospect of madness seemed as inexplicable as being homosexual, or a member of parliament, or indeed anything other than himself. He would never be poisoned by insanity because he would have never taken a sip of it in the first place.
A young woman tucked up in a huge dark overcoat got on before Holy Corner. Damien observed the watery blue of a nurse’s uniform below her collar. Perhaps she had been making a home call. They were rich enough in Bruntsfield to hire private nurses. She had probably just popped in to give some old biddy a spoonful of cough medicine.
He was deep in Morningside when it happened.
From somewhere in the heart of the bus he heard the nurse gasp and then cry out in a shaky voice for help. Damien pulled over and climbed down from his cabin.
“Are you okay?” he called. It was a brief opportunity to enjoy standing upright.
When he found her, sitting upstairs and at the back, she was no longer breathing. She sat bolt upright in her seat, her head a ferocious purple as if a wicked witch had turned it into some monstrous vegetable.
Damien was not overly disconcerted by this, but when he found that his radio would no longer respond, and that the thing was dead in his hands, it began to dawn on him that this was going to be hard work.
Even though he had not radioed for an ambulance, he began to administer CPR, laying the nurse on the floor and working with the patient determination of a man inflating a bicycle tyre. He could not manually pump the blood around her body forever. Unless his radio recovered, the nurse would die.
Stupidly, and with a complete absence of surprise, Damien became aware that the number 16 was moving again. It built up speed and the topmost branches of trees raced past the windows, tapping on the panes. Still pumping the nurse’s chest, Damien glanced over his shoulder for the CCTV screen at the front of the bus. They had installed these screens so that passengers could watch themselves being assaulted.
It showed nothing. “Hello! Who’s there?” Damien shouted down the well of the bus.
The bus rolled on. Whoever was at the wheel was not stopping to pick up passengers. At Annandale Street, they would realise that the bus had gone awol. They would send a van to retrieve it.
He must concentrate on the nurse. She was dead, he decided flatly, and he was keeping her in a fake, simulated life, like an abandoned church being used for yoga classes. He was not sure what colour her face was now, but she was no longer a human being. He was beating at a senseless object, with no identity and individuality, just a network of tubes and wires and pumps with no engine.
The bus plunged into darkness, as if the city had been extinguished like a candle, and it was now climbing, leaning at a preposterous angle. For a brief, silly moment, Damien rose to his feet to see where they were, but he then cursed himself and dropped down to renew work on reanimating the corpse.
They would not blame him. He had a cosy feeling of security and assurance. Everybody would sympathise and roundly declare how well he had coped with the situation. The relatives would insist on paying tribute to him. Other drivers would have given up by now or thrown a tantrum, resolving to sue somebody.
His blood seemed to run pure when it dawned on him that the number 16 was now in the Pentland Hills. The bus was shaking and rattling, as if in the teeth of some mad animal, because it was being skillfully driven cross country, over the endlessly bumpy terrain. The headlights were already out, but Damien’s despair became complete when the internal lights shot into a tiny invisible point, leaving him in blackness.
The bus had stopped but it was still shaking. Damien tried in vain to conclude that it was the wind that was pounding on the sides of the bus, until the Perspex windows downstairs shattered with a twang and dropped out of their frames. The bus stood alone on the landscape like a shepherd’s cottage, and a great sucking noise, as frenzied and tangled as a flock of furious birds, descended on to this darkened waiting shell.
And then the corpse at his feet grabbed his arm with a massive power, breaking it instantly. Damien flinched at the sharp undeniable crack. His remaining arm spun around furiously, like a deranged windmill, but he had nothing to punch. He was being pinned to the floor of the bus, and he then seemed to be groping on sliding knees in desperate aimless circles, his head full of the suffocating fumes of bile and shit. All that he could do was wait. Something finally bit into his head and held on, and when it tore away Damien went completely with it.
[Tychy previously wrote about Lothian buses in “The Face of Lothian Buses.” Ed.]