The 42b

Dark journeys in Cardiff

The 42b bus crawls through the veins of Cardiff. It seeps around the city's landmarks, from the castle grounds to the mysterious Headquarters, and the throbbing market to the 'Drivers' District'. Its passengers are the usual suspects - old men, teenagers, wrestlers, adulterers, vigilantes, murderers, monsters...


Read an extract from the collection below. You can buy a copy of The 42b from here.

End

(Wentloog Avenue, 17.45)

With the sun setting behind him, Barry drove away from the city and towards the marshlands. He tried to forget about the letter he'd received a week ago, and instead imagined the faces of the passengers he'd carried around Cardiff all day, what they'd been wearing and where they'd be spending the evening. He tried, but in reality, he knew nothing would be the same again.

He passed the tip, where seagulls wheeled in the sky fighting for scraps. He remembered being a passenger on this route, bouncing excitedly along behind the driver's cabin as his Grandpa Matthew steered the bus along the pothole-strewn roads, completing his final circuit before returning to the depot, and back to the house in Canton where his Grandma would have tea waiting. He remembered the passengers, intriguing to his five year old mind - a collection of swishing coloured skirts, grey raincoats, black burkas, carbuncled noses and hair sprouting from ears. Some of the passengers knew him - he was a regular on Matthew's route, and his Grandad a popular driver: "Cheers, drive!" "Ta ra, lad!"

A rolled up newspaper would playfully tap him on his blond head - pap, pap! - as the passengers poured out into the busy streets.

Barry liked to remember these days. When the last passenger was gone, signified by the beep of the automatic cleaning system made as it started to sanitise the bus, he'd start singing, quietly, so that the cabin microphones couldn't pick it up for anyone listening in head office. The whirring of the brushes and squirts of steam would cover up his voice, tentatively singing echoes of words he had heard his Grandfather sing forty years ago.

The long, straight road leading out to the Drivers' District was now strung with buses, shining in the evening sun, with Barry's bus another link in the mechanical millipede. It slithered past the nameless zone where the tradeless people eked out a living between the road and the estuary. Smoke from plastic fires drifted above their shacks, and dogs barked and yanked at the limits of rusty chains. The white edifice of the drivers' hospital came into view, the sunlight picking out the chrome wheel on the front of the central tower.

Barry had been born there, and lived in the drivers' district all his life. He dimly remembered his Grandfather's house in Canton, and though most of the neighbours had also been drivers, of buses or taxis, he seemed to remember one or two - a doctor, a baker - who weren't. That was before what future historians would call the Great Rationalisation.

Like all great social shifts, the Great Rationalisation was not urged or lobbied for, nor petitioned against by opposing forces. It was the product of millions of tiny, subconscious decisions - what to have for tea, or where to go on holiday - stacked up next to each other and given weight by their shared direction. People had always lived amongst those with similar jobs, and once the government decided to encode this with the Rationalisation Act, in reality, very little changed. It merely reinforced what society had done to itself by subconscious choice, and had proved to be, for both government and the private sector, an efficient way of doing business.

The punishments for contravening the Act, for example, breeding outside your profession, may have been severe, but due to the unpalatable nature of the offences, rarely needed enforcing. And the complex forgery required to change professional class meant one or two high profile cases every year were enough to dissuade all but the most deviant to stay in the job birth had dictated.

The millipede slipped under the arch that marked the gateway to the drivers' compound, and splintered as each bus headed towards its driver's home. The tall chain-link fence that marked the compound's perimeter was largely symbolic, acting more as a physical reminder of the boundaries between professional classes than a practical deterrent to burglary.

When Barry parked the bus in the garage beneath his apartment building the cleaning cycle was all but complete. All that remained was for him to attach the exhaust pipe to the maintenance hose that hung from the garage's ceiling and he could finish work for the day, knowing that in the morning the bus would be ready: greased, fuelled and sickly-sweet with the smell of industrial air fresheners. A skeleton staff of maintenance workers lived in the compound, scuttling like spectres in oil-soaked rags to fix the occasional blocked hose, but other than that the buses reliably performed day-in-day out with little human interference.

His apartment was the top half of a duplex, and was typical of those in the compound. Four buildings, each containing two apartments, were placed around a central courtyard, beneath which was an underground garage for the eight resident bus drivers. Though bereft of grass, the courtyard contained several nods suggesting aspirations as a communal garden: picnic furniture made from the same concrete as the surrounding buildings and courtyard itself, and the vague outline of forgotten children's games painted on the ground. This pattern was repeated over and over, providing within the compound accommodation for all the drivers in the Greater Cardiff area. When viewed from above these courtyards and apartments tessellated like the markings of some strange Stone Age creature's hide.

As Barry entered the apartment the air was sharp with the tang of his recently heated supper. His wife, Ceri, and son Matthew had already started eating and were sitting in the living room, enraptured by the images dancing on the floor-to-ceiling screens that lined the walls. Wordlessly Barry joined them, enjoying the warmth that filled his belly. On the screens, an oversized orange face implored him, with teeth bared in a smile that seemed to contain an unspoken threat, to buy a new brand of toothpaste.

He pushed his plate to one side: 'Right, I'm off down the garage. Think that maintenance hose was playing up'. Ceri and Matthew carried on staring and eating, arms feeding their mouths like the limbs of agricultural machines - 'If you need me'.

At one end of the garage were a set of cupboards used for storage by the maintenance orderlies. As Barry crept across the space to reach these cupboard doors, he quickly looked around the concrete interior, and the eight buses within it, to check he was alone. One of the cupboards had a lock subtly different in colour to those on the others, and it was to this door that Barry moved, while retrieving a silver key hanging from a chain around his neck. He glanced round again, perhaps unnecessarily, as the metal staircases leading from each corner of the garage would alert him to the approach of any interlopers.

He opened the cupboard. 'Alri' drive?' he said, beneath his breath, stepping inside. His breathing was sharp, and filled him with the heady, treacly aroma of various industrial unguents. Hanging in the corner of the cupboard, at some remove from the surrounding tools and cleaning products, was a uniform of the sort worn by drivers before Rationalisation. The yellow bulb in the cupboard ceiling, crackling beneath a wire case, cast the aquamarine material in a sickly, hospital light. Slowly, shaking, like a trainee priest putting on his vestments for the first time, he pulled on the polo shirt. In the half-light Barry's trembling fingers traced the familiar logo embroidered on the breast. He moved over to a seat in the other side of the cupboard, facing the wall.

'Where you stopping?' He paused for a response. 'Yeah, I'll shout out the name. It's just round from the station, opposite the flats. You can't miss it.' Behind Barry a cargo of ghosts thrummed and jiggled for his attention, more alive in his mind than the fractured images of strangers that held his family's gaze upstairs.

'It's your birthday, is it Mrs Davies? You kept that from me! 'appy birthday to you, 'appy birthday to you - come on you lot!' - he looked over his shoulder at the spectral throng assembled in the cupboard - 'It's Mrs Davies' birthday. She's off to the pub I bet!'
Quietly, he replied to himself: 'Cheers, drive'.

 

Barry gently pulled the bedroom door behind him, though there was little chance of waking Ceri. The dream she was watching whined like an electronic mosquito, and her eyes, following the images transmitted into her cortex by the small device attached to her right ear, stared vacantly at the ceiling, glistening like two tiny pools of moonlight. Barry, watching her pupils dilate and constrict, leant forward and kissed her on the forehead.

He retrieved an envelope from his desk drawer, sat on the bed next to Ceri, and read:

 

Dear Driver 71114LP,

As you will be aware, the trials conducted in Districts 18-25 in the previous quarter were deemed by the Council to be a success. We are pleased to announce that our initial view has since been affirmed by the findings of the independent Moore Commission (a copy of the summary findings of the Moore Report is enclosed for your information).

To quote from the Report:

"The trial in Districts 18-25 showed a net saving to the Council of £837,000 over the course of the quarter. Punctuality targets were exceeded (98 per cent achieved, compared to an operational service-wide target of 95 per cent), and recorded feedback showed no user preference for the previous model of operation."

As such, the Council will instigate full automation in Districts 18-25 as of Monday 17 December. Drivers serving Districts 18-25 should report to the Central Welfare Office in the Drivers' District at 9.00am on the Morning of 17 December, where Council welfare officers will be on hand to advise on the re-purposing process (which will operate as per Council policy 87, Re-purposing of Redundant Officers). All other drivers should continue operations as per the standard rota.

The Council thanks all drivers for their cooperation and understanding during this period, and looks forward to working with the drivers who served Districts 18-25 in their new tasks.

Regards,
The Transport Service Directorate

Since he had received the letter six days ago, the words had suffused his every waking moment. Though, in truth, it had been some time since he had actually enjoyed watching the evening entertainments with Ceri and Matthew, he now found they provoked something far beyond boredom: the billions of flashing pixels that formed a cosmetically-enhanced face or perma-tanned limb seemed to bore into his eye sockets like tiny electric drills. By day, the ghosts were permanent companions on his route. Every stop would see the boarding and alighting of another group of shuffling spectres, hugging themselves against the cold and hanging umbrellas to drip dry on non-existent rails, piping their babble of pleasantries and gossip through the enclosed steel walls of his driving cabin.

Unlatching the window, he opened it wide against the broken catch, and climbed through into the warm night air. Crouching down on the flat roof of the apartment below, he looked out across the district, and beyond to central Cardiff. The regularity of the district's security lights enmeshed him, like a fly in a spider's web. To the south, the nameless zone was pockmarked with campfires. As Barry breathed deeply he could pick out their acrid smell, which he rolled over the back of his throat, savouring it like whisky. In Canton, where his Grandad had lived, the lights were brightest: it had been subsumed many years ago into the financial district, and the lit windows of deserted offices rose, storey upon storey, into the night.

The next morning, after breakfast, Barry went down to the garage slightly later than usual. The ghosts were waiting for him. 'Morning Abdul mate, hungry today is it?' He grinned at a bare breeze-block wall. 'Yeah, go on. Milk, nah, I'm not sweet enough, two sugars.' He unlocked the cupboard, walked in and pulled the old polo shirt on. 'Bethan, how's your Mum, love? What, over by the Heath? My old man too. It's alright. Tell you what, he can take her down the Bingo, tell her she's got nothing to worry about at his age!'

He unplugged the maintenance hoses, which dangled limply, dripping water on the painted concrete floor.

Returning to the cupboard he dragged out several heavy canisters, and next to these he placed some of the lightweight plastic barrels used by the maintenance orderlies for carrying water. Barry's movements were frantic, and as he decanted the liquid from the canisters to the barrels he slipped, splashing his feet without noticing. 'Same shit, Abdul, same shit. Still, we've booked two weeks in Crete now, and my missus says I needs all the overtime I can get.' He placed two filled barrels in the boot. The petrol fumes made him light-headed, and as he carried two more to the driver's cabin he slipped, barely catching himself on the doorframe. The cabin was cramped with barrels, the air sickly-sweet.

The bus rolled out of the garage, Barry gripping the wheel with cold hands. His humming formed a dissonant harmony with the reverberating engine. He felt like an extension of the steering column, unthinkingly guiding the vehicle and its cargo along a predestined path.

On the roof of the hospital, two figures with binoculars observed the bus's progress as is it drove past the nameless zone and on towards the city centre. The taller of the two was wearing a long brown trench coat, which flapped about him in the wind. 'Well, we knew he was our man, but who'd have thought it would have happened so quickly? Should make our job a bit easier, these things always are with popular sentiment on your side.'

His partner, a small, shrew-like man who observed the world coldly from beneath heavy-framed spectacles, turned to the taller man and said:

'Indeed. All that business in the garage! Quite funny if it wasn't always going to end like this. And to think his Grandfather had been such an excellent bus driver!'