Notes From a Night Bus – A Short Story (2009)

night-fox

1. 

The Abierto Agua is a “Five Star Luxury Hotel, of Spanish heritage,” according to Raphael Mulanovitch, its managing director. He told me this during my interview in his office, a smirk on his face and a glass of cognac in his hand. This is no lie.

The hotel has everything you’d expect from a five-star facility: six trattorias, three bars, a health and beauty salon, indoor swimming pools and tennis courts, a gym, a sauna, a bureau de change, a Catholic confession booth, and a dog parlour open 24 hours a day.
I can’t imagine someone’s French poodle demanding a pedicure at midnight, but it can be arranged if need be.
And when the hotel gets boring, guests can step outside and explore the City of London.

I hate my job at this hotel.
Working here is as pleasant as getting chilli in your eyes.
I’d sooner dance around a paper cup wearing a leotard, if it paid more than the hotel did.

Tonight I was in charge of sauces and cutlery in the restaurant.

Lienka, the Russian head waitress, stood at the condiments table with a hand resting on her emaciated hip. She gave me stern instructions.

“Leynard, now, I wunt yoo to fiel oll these ketchoop’s.
It’s virrry virry eemporrtunt. You understand?
No one must eat mit an empty ketchoop.”

“Yes, Lienka,” I replied, “Don’t worry about it.
I’ll make sure no one eats with an empty ketchoop.”

“You are making a joke at me?” she asked.

“No, no, not at all. Your accent is a honeycomb of sweet sounds.
I just liked the way you said ketchup.”

A moment of silence passed between us, like a month without rain.

“You tokk into yorr face,” Lienka finally announced.
“I can’t ever understand you. Why you tokk into yorr face?
Virry cute face, but you have tiny leetel voice,” she’d concluded before walking off.

Between the Italian, Polish, Russian, South African and Spanish staff at this hotel, hardly anyone understands one another. The kitchen is not unlike a children’s playground.

My shift ends at around two thirty in the morning.

“Leynard, you are crap waiter. Go home and rest. You be better tomorrow.
Else management will fire your crap ass. Customers never hear what tiny voice says!”
Lienka told me after work.
It’s been more than two months though, and I’m still here.

2.

I need to be at Great Portland Street Station by two thirty-five. Else it will be another hour before the next bus arrives. Like I’m never on time to arrive at work, I never make it on the first bus home.

It takes three night buses to get to my house. I go from Great Portland Street to Euston; from Euston to Putney; from Putney to North Sheen.

It is in these in-between hours that Central London lets its hair down.

Without thousands of people fussing over sidewalk space, the abandoned streets and buildings come to life.
Decorative spot-lights contrast with the countless alleyways suddenly as dark as the blink of an eye, and put the city’s architecture on display like fireworks in the sky.
The sidewalk stretches out for miles.
Churches, art galleries, office blocks and parks look magnificent as they hang in the balance between natural black and their luminous glow.

It would be pleasant and quiet in this bus shelter, if not for three belligerent teenagers making a scene close by. Two kids are pressuring the smallest of them into throwing stones at a fox. The nervous animal was sniffing a pile of rubbish bags outside a closed restaurant when those foul beasts struck.
The child manages to sail a pebble onto the fox’s noggin.
“Yeeeeeeah!” applaud the audience, waving their fists. They go after the poor animal again. The fox yelps and careens into the darkness.
The game is over. Kids can be so cruel.

I am reminded of an article I read in today’s Metro, about a killer fox on the loose in South West London. Apparently it’s slain a number of household pets in the last two months. Among the victims were four dogs, two cats, and a sheep named Julius.

I can understand this sort of aggression.
For decades, they’d been the sporting pleasure of pontsy men in ballooning trousers. And having escaped to London, they’ve fared little better.
Here, they eat out of dustbins, sleep in polluted parks, and now find themselves the sporting pleasure of kids up way past their bedtimes. I’d be pissed off, too.

***

“One cigarette?” someone asks me.

A grey and worn-out man, wearing a black beanie and skin tight peddle-pushers approaches me and asks for ‘One cigarette?’ again. He sounds Polish.
His teeth are smashed and there’s dry blood on his forehead.
He reeks of poison and misplaced hope.

“Sorry man, I can’t help you,” I tell him.

“I, I, I, I, ask you for one cigarette?” He repeats. He probably didn’t hear me.
No one ever does. I don’t know what to say now, so I put my hands up.
It’s a learned response.

In South Africa, the most common way to tell a beggar you have nothing to give is by making a toilet face, shaking your head and lifting your hands. It’s a surrender of sorts.
I’ve spent a short lifetime saying sorry to the poor people back home in this way.

“No? I no smoke! Ha ha haha. It’s for friend! Ha ha ha!” the Polish man laughs.
He clearly finds something hilarious.

I’m still strapped for an answer.
There is no easy way of explaining that I have a full bag of tobacco from which he is welcome to roll a smoke. That’s too complex for pigeon sign-language.

The butchered man suddenly leans in close to me, almost touching my ear with his lips, and says, “I, I, I, I, I, I tourist. No? I, I, I, I ace. No?”

“Sorry, Bucko, I can’t make ends with what you’re saying.”
I know full well he doesn’t understand my sarcasm.

But the man is relentless.
“I, I, I, I, I aced. No? You know what is aced?”

“I don’t know what you mean, sir. It looks like whatever you’re talking about is bothering you.” I suddenly feel bad and try to be less of an arsehole.

“I, I, I, I, I am the Ace-SST. No? No sexy for me,” he says, making sex movements with his hands. His fingers are withered and calloused; it looks like they’ve been put through a meat grinder.

Does he mean Aids, I wonder?
People say that Aids and the clap are rife in London, resplendent in all their various and colourful forms.

I put my nags to rest, get out my pouch of tobacco, and roll him a smoke.
I roll one for myself, too.
They are a skew, sad-sack pair of cigarettes, because my hands are frozen stiff.
I light them for the two of us, and the Polish man who possibly has Aids says, “Tank oo!”

A bus to Hounslow arrives. It’s not my bus.
The old stranger reaches into his pockets, and produces a travel card and a loose condom out of its foil wrapper. We shake hands and bid one another farewell.
I manage to avoid touching the lifeless contraceptive.

He smiles and waves the condom at me from the back of the bus.
Where could his home be?
London is a lot of thing to many people, but it is home to only a few.

The streets are finally still when the old Polish man leaves, save for a few cars and the odd passing of a police siren. It’s funny how cops make me feel vulnerable and uneasy. Not safe.
The sound of these sirens always makes me think of the South African news reports, of people waiting an hour or more for police to arrive at the crime scene.
More often than not, the baddies have gotten away by the time you hear the blue-lighted wail.

To pass the minutes, I start rolling another cigarette. It’s hard on my lungs, but I’d rather be unhealthy than bored.

How does my friend, the broken Polish man, deal with this conundrum?
You can’t afford to get unhealthier when you’re H.I.V. positive.
And you can’t screw around for fun either.
But it’s not like I’ve had much time for the latter with this job.

polish-man

3.

I hear packets rustling. A leather-skinned man takes a seat beside me.
He is wearing dungarees and a Stetson, and holding as many bags as ten fingers will allow. Some are plastic and some paper, filled with random dingdongs.
A beard of snowy curls cascades down his front.
They are the kind I would like to grow when I am his age.

“Good evening,” this Caramel Cowboy says to me.

“Howdy?” I reply.

“I’m always well, thanks. Could be better this evening, but I’m never bad. How are you, young man?” he asks in return.

“Fine thanks. Tired. It’s been a long night,” I say, accidentally tearing the rizzla paper in my hands. It was no smoker’s triumph, anyways.

“Excuse me, young man. You must speak up a bit. You have a soft voice and I’m quite deaf,” the cowboy tells me – but he still hands over a Marlborough Light.
“Here,” he says, “it’s too cold to roll a cigarette outdoors.”
It is, indeed, I think, and make a note to try and speak up next time.

A thick steam cloud pours out our mouths when we exhale.
I take a beer from my backpack and offer one to him; I have six on standby.
He declines politely. I’m not sure why he’s being nice to me.
Strangers in London are not ones for random conversation.
He’ll be disappointed if money is what he’s after.

He holds out his right hand. It smells sweetly of turmeric and cinnamon, with a hint of hay. I awkwardly shift my lager to the other hand, wiping the cold dew off on my jeans.

“I am El Cadejo, of Egypt. But you, my friend, may call me Ramadan,”
he announces in his caramel-rich tone.

I dip my head, attempting something akin to a courtly bow – but one that won’t spill my beer – and introduce myself as ‘Lennard Klaxton, of South Africa’. Typical.

“Ah, a fellow African! It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Klaxton.”
Unlike the suspicious Lienka, and more like my poor Polish man, Ramadan lets my customary sarcasm pass, unchecked.
I’m a prick, I think to myself.

“Likewise,” I respond.

“Why are you catching a bus at three fifteen in the morning?”

I tell him my shift at the hotel usually ends a little earlier, but that I always miss the first available 210 that comes every hour.

“I catch the same bus,” Ramadan shakes his head sympathetically.
“Where do you work?”

“Abierto Agua …uh, Hotel. It’s that Spanish hotel in Reagent’s Park.”

“Oh, goodness, that’s a nice hotel,” says Ramadan, sounding impressed.

I roll my eyes.

“Great place. Really. I’d love to be a guest there. It has an army of servants that will do anything shy of sexual favours to earn their 5 pounds fifty an hour,” I grumble.

“You are making a joke?” asks Ramadan, suddenly bearing down on me in a manner very similar to Lienka’s.

“Sort of. I just hate working there.”

“Why is that?”

“Well,” I answer, “my boss is a little twerp.”

It feels good to have an audience, so I go on.
“I’d like to urinate in the ice machine and run naked through the lobby…
For starters. Then I’d like to soil the manager’s desk drawers and get loaded on the expensive cognac he steals from the bar.”

“But it’s honest money?” Ramadan enquires, not acknowledging my rant.
I wonder if he chooses to do this, or if he simply didn’t hear me again.

“Ja, it’s honest, but it’s costing me a soul. The uniforms, the etiquette, the hours…
It’s the whole package. I don’t belong there,” I bleat.
“It’s supposed to be part-time, and they expect me to work every night until this ungodly hour.”

Ramadan refuses to humour me once again.
And this time, I know that he has heard every word.

“Nothing will ever cost your soul,” he intones seriously. “You must know that.
You can only damage your body; never your soul.
Why don’t you quit and find another job. Are you not educated?”

The caramel cowboy has called my bluff.
“Ja, I am. I have a degree. And I’m just full of shit.”
It is now my turn to show my hand.
“It’s not as bad as I make it out to be. I don’t blame the manager for getting frustrated.
I’m never on time.”

“Tardiness is a most annoying habit to work around. You understand this?”

Nodding, I admit, “I’ll be late for my own funeral one day.”

“But this job clearly bothers you, right?”
His genuine concern affects me.

“Yes. It does.”

But we both know there are no easy come-by’s in a city like London.
You’ve got to shove your way to the head of the line and make sure your bowl gets filled to the brim with chunky bits. And we also know that the late ones are almost always the ones to be turned away by a dinner lady making a toilet face, and pointing to the door with an empty ladle.

cowboy

4.

Bus number 210 pulls up to the sidewalk. Ramadan and I step aboard and present our travel cards to the driver. We take a seat in the aisle, me stumbling when the bus moves.

“You drink alone often?” Ramadan asks in the paternal manner of his I am slowly growing accustomed to.

“No, not really. Maybe four nights a week.” That’s no lie.
I drink with company on the remaining three nights of any week.

“The news about those miners in Johannesburg was terrible to hear.
What an awful thing to have happened,” Ramadan laments.

I have no fucking idea what he is talking about. It must be recent news.
Working these nocturnal hours can make one apathetic about current affairs.

“Ja, it was a super shit thing to have happened. Goddamn those yellow canaries, Harbingers of Doom. Mines are dangerous, man,” I try to sound informed.

To change the subject and veer towards neutral ground, I ask Ramadan about his job.
He hands me a card:
‘Abdullah’s-Lebanese Restaurant’.

“Radical. Lebanese food. I’ve never eaten Lebanese. What’s it like?”

“Mr. Klaxton, the cuisine at my restaurant is like magic on your tongue.
If you go there any night of the week, ask for Ramadan.
We Africans must support each other,” is the man’s ceremonial reply.

“Thanks, that’s really nice of you.
Uh, I wish I could offer you the same thing, but my boss would probably punch me in the throat for inviting a buddy to work.”
It feels blissful to be called African, twice in one night.

Ramadan’s majesty and mighty smile draw me in.
I regret initially thinking he could be a pickpocket.
It’s just that nice people have robbed me in the past.

A green packet on Ramadan’s lap splits at the bottom. Its contents spill onto the floor. Amongst a pile of paper napkins is a copy of The Tao of Pooh, a rosary, a miniature Bible, and a television guide.

I lean forward to help him pick them up.
The T.V. guide has fallen open onto a page where the Eastenders repeats have been circled in red pen.
Quite a combination.
It is then that Ramadan asks me, candidly, if I am a religious man.

“Not in the least, Ramadan. I see you carry all the holy books though. What’s that about?” Inside I smirk, knowing that Ramadan is an Eastenders addict like everyone else.

“I’m always open to learning.” He takes a philosopher’s pause.
“Why, Mr Klaxton, are you not a religious man?”

“Just a personal choice,” I tell him.

“You choose to believe in nothing?”

“Ja, maybe. Churches make me feel sad.
I don’t like being told that my friends and I are going to hell.”

“At least you’ll be in good company.”
The caramel cowboy smiles at me, revealing a sense of humour.
That’s funny. I dig his vibe.

5.

The bus makes a scheduled stop outside a 24 hour off-license/kebab shop.
Four men, wearing dress suits and designer shoes leap out of the shop and attack the bus with handfuls of fast food. A plate of chips and jalapenos explodes against the window my head is resting on.

“Crazy bastards!” yells the driver, pulling off without opening the buses doors.

“That was sweet,” I remark, pulling out another can of Red Stripe Lager.

“So, Lennard Klaxton of South Africa, God is not for you, and it appears that London is not either?” asks Ramadan. He removes his Stetson and looks straight at me.

“I don’t know. It might be, but I’m not sure yet.
I can’t enjoy myself while I’m doing slave labour… I want a real job,” I say.

Ramadan shakes his head, scratching at his snow-white beard.
“Lennard, my friend, you’re doing a real job. And poorly at that.
There are worse things to do than hotel work, you know.”

“What?” I demand.
“A minimum wage job and a two hour journey home?”

Ramadan looks at me with pity in his clear eyes. I don’t like this.
But the pity gives way to a stern reprimand. I like this even less.

“It’s money for food on the table. And there are those who grab it with grateful hands, feeling less at home here than you do.
As an African, Lennard, you should understand this.”

No one likes to disappoint people.
And I certainly don’t like being called an African this time.

We arrive in Euston and part ways.
We shake hands, and then Ramadan hugs me.
I’m drunk and confused and more than a little ashamed, but sure that I’ve made a friend in this Egyptian Prince.

As the bus pulls off again, I see Ramadan walking down the side street of an unknown area, into the darkness beyond.
It welcomes him, and leaves me feeling very much alone again.

From an empty night bus in the middle of London, I sit watching the lights and street animals sweeping by, my cold fingers clutching my can of Red Stripe.

6.

The ground is frozen when I arrive in Sheen. The anorexic trees sway slightly in the breeze.
Sienna-toned leaves are all that is left of summer; they rattle across the ground and do circles in the air. My shoes slide out on the pavement. After a hundred meters or so, I start pretending to ice skate.
I attempt a flamboyant pirouette, but stumble and twist my ankle.
No one hears me swear.

Feeling foolish and sorry for myself at the same time, I decide to nurse my wounds in the children’s playground. I’ve still got two Red Stripes left which my housemate will finish unless I do. So I take a seat on the roundabout in the centre of the playground, swinging my legs. It is then that a sound, crisp, and blatant against the four a.m. silence, catches me unawares. I drop my beer.
It foams at the mouth, spilling its frothy, hops guts on the ground below.
I stoop to salvage it, and curse my jitters.

Peeking into the shadows, I notice something shoot into a hedge. Determined not to be so easily unnerved, my curiosity summons an investigation. I want to know what this animal is doing.
As I get closer to the indistinct source, the purpose of me standing there seems a little silly. I take a swig of my half-empty Red Stripe, and return to the roundabout. My wasted mind is playing tricks on me. Suddenly, a bone-chilling wail pierces through the bushes, sounding alarm bells in my head. I spring from the roundabout and start sprinting across the park.
I make for a telephone booth in the distance, hoping that it can hold off anything missing an opposable thumb, and praying that this includes killer foxes.

The fox – no smaller than a colt – leaps through the foliage.
He gallops towards me with foaming jowls.
“Heeeeelp!” I call out into the night. “Fuck! Help, heeeeeeelp!”
I have never screamed so loud. Or so hard. In my entire life.
My lungs and stomach are burning.
It stops a meter away from me, and takes a moment to ascertain the worth of this predawn meal, begging for its life. In slow, but intentionally light footsteps, the animal pads back and forth.
Its green eyes are fixed on me, like he’s telling me to be still while he makes up his mind. The brute’s reddened coat glistens regally under the full moon’s light.

But reflection cast aside, the beast is on my back.
He bites my neck, claiming a mouthful of flesh, and tears and gnaws at my kneecaps. The crunching sound is overwhelming. It is not so much excruciating, as it is heartbreaking. I punch the animal’s solid head.
A futile exercise; my fists are like jelly in the vice-grip of his teeth.
I lose a toe in the fox’s mouth and start to cry.

“God help me!” is all I can think of pleading into the night, to a force I do not believe in.

A snow-white tail flickers before the dark consumes.
He has left me. Limp, torn and undone.

7.

The nurse tells me it’s a good thing I shouted so loudly. If someone hadn’t come to my aid, I would surely have bled to death, she assures.
My saviour had found me, strewn like confetti on the roundabout, knuckles still white from my terrified stronghold. Besides my tattered clothes, baptised in blood and Jamaican lager, a Stetson was all I’d come with.
She tells me this, fitting the hat on my head with a flirtatious wink.

“But this isn’t mine.”
My throat feels bruised and strained.
And it is a voice that sounds like mine, but different.

The nurse just smiles and puts a finger to her lips.
“Mr Klaxton, there are people resting in this ward.”

And it is then that I realise that my voice is mine. Only louder.

***

Lienka and the good people at the hotel have sent me a card, saying my job is still available when I get better. I find this quite funny.
I’d be the shittest of waiters now with half a leg, but at least customers would hear me.

8.

A kindly, old man holds my crutches while I take a seat at the front of the bus.
Cellphone wedged between neck and collarbone, a well-dressed woman scowls at me as she beelines past. She is frantically apologising to an employer.

This woman tells this person on the other end that she will be at Regent’s Park in the next twenty minutes.
I tip the Stetson that is not mine but borrowed, and the woman rolls her eyes and turns to face the other side. It will take her a good forty five minutes to Regent’s Park.
By then she will have worked on something to say to her boss.

My bags are heavy but this is okay.
I have given myself plenty of time in making the journey to the airport.
The bus stops for a moment in Euston and I am sad not to find the Egyptian Prince.
For a moment, I imagine he is taking a seat next to me. A pang shoots through my ghost foot, there only in memory.
I remove the Stetson and hold it in my lap. His caramel-rich tone rings through.

“Our joys and sorrows are written in the soil. Does this not make sense to you,
Mr Klaxton?”

I think I understand this, or at least I am trying. And this is not all I am trying.
I will do my best to speak up, Ramadan of Egypt.
I will try to be on time, at least most of the time.
And next time, I will tread more gently around those animals I do not understand.

*

This story was first published in the collection, Notes From A Night Bus and Other Stories (Attic Door Publishers) in 2009. All illustrations by Steven Carter (www.joffsart.com).