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Lorna Hoey: The last bus to Belfast

November 13, 2010

Lorna Hoey: The last bus to Belfast

 

Many years ago, when my brothers and I were small children, something strange happened one dark winter evening. Our home in those days was a big old house that stood alone on a narrow path near a country road. There was nothing around it but fields and woods and at night the darkness was pitch-black, with only the occasional peep of light from a faraway hilltop farm. For some reason that night I couldn’t sleep, and I lay listening to the wind whine and moan in the telegraph wires.

I needed a drink of water. Steeling myself to place my bare feet on the icy lino, I slipped out of bed, wrapped an old coat around me and hurried downstairs. My mother was complaining to herself as she clattered around in the kitchen at the end of the passage. I heard something about the deep snow in the yard, and I knew she had just come in from checking on the hens in the hen-house.

I slipped past the sitting-room door, careful not to disturb my father as he dozed lightly in front of the blazing fire, his sock-soles stretched out to the warmth. In a corner the radio played softly. Soon my mother would bring in a tray of tea and toast and they would settle down to listen to the nine o’clock news.

All at once there was a heavy knock on the front door. And another. I dived back into the sitting-room, where my father was now fully awake. An unexpected visitor after half-seven on a winter night was unheard of.

‘Daddy! There’s somebody at the door!’

The knocking came again: three sharp, urgent, loud bangs.

‘Will I open it?’ My father was talking to himself more than to me. ‘Ah, maybe it’s only somebody wanting directions. You, stay here,’ and he fumbled for his slippers and shuffled out to answer the knock. I pressed my ear to the sitting-room door, but I heard only a few mumbled words before there was the clunk of the heavy outer door closing, and my father came back in to the fire. At the same moment my mother entered with the tray of tea and toast.

‘A man,’ he said, ‘asking the time of the next bus to Belfast.’

‘What? Who?’

‘The man at the door.’

‘Was there somebody at the door? I never heard a knock,’ she said.

‘You never heard it? Sure, how could you not hear that racket?’

‘I never heard a thing,’ she said, putting down the tray. ‘Well, he was lucky anyway. Only two buses a day here and the next one’s due just after nine o’clock…’she glanced at her watch ‘…in twenty minutes, in fact.’

My father nodded. ‘I told the man he’d need to hurry, as it’ll take him at least ten minutes to get up the hill to the bus-stop, with all this snow on the ground.’ And he sat down in front of the fire.

Almost immediately he sat up again. ‘He had an accent I couldn’t place,’ he said. ‘And, now I come to think of it, odd clothes. Not a coat exactly, more a kind of cloak. Long, down to the ground. It was dragging in the snow as he turned away. That’s another thing; he seemed to be shielding his face. He had a black hat, with a wide brim. All in black, he was.’

‘He wouldn’t be going to a funeral at this hour surely?’ My mother began pouring tea.

‘I hope he makes it to the bus,’ my father said, worried. ‘I wouldn’t want him to miss it on a freezing night like this. At least it hasn’t snowed since six.’

‘You gave him clear directions?’ My father nodded. ‘You’re sure you told him to turn left at the end of the path?’

‘I did. I’m sure I did. But…’ My father stood up, biting his lip anxiously. ‘A stranger might miss the bus-stop in the dark. Maybe I’ll just go up the road after him and check he gets the bus. It’s the last one after all.’

‘No,’ said my mother. ‘Don’t go. It’s too cold out there.’

‘And what if the driver doesn’t see him, and goes past?’  He went out to the hall and quickly pulled on his wellingtons and thick coat. My mother and I hurried after him.

‘Don’t go,’ she pleaded. ‘Please. Don’t go out. You’ll catch your death in that cold.’

‘Take a light, daddy,’ I said. ‘Take the hurricane-lamp.’ But my father had thrust his old torch into his coat pocket, and he closed the door behind him.

My mother stood for a moment, teapot poised, and then she spied me standing by the radio.

‘What are you doing down here?’ she said, ‘Bed, this minute. If I see you down here again, you’re for it.’

I hurried back to the bedroom, the glass of water forgotten. I wrapped myself in my bed-cover and made my way to the top step of the stairs. I couldn’t wait to find out more about the man in the cloak who hid his face. It seemed like an eternity before my father came back, but the minute he stepped into the hall my mother was by his side.

‘Well?’

I leaned over the banister to listen.

He had walked, he said, out of the house, down the path to the gate, and turned left up the hill towards the bus-stop. He could walk fast as he knew the road, and the torch had helped. He was sure he’d overtake the man at any moment. At every third or fourth step he shouted out ‘Hello!’ but there was no answering call.

The bus-stop was deserted. A sudden moan startled him, and he swung the torch about, but then realised it was only the wind in the old beech-tree that bore the sign ‘Bus Stop’. He walked back to our gate, up the road the other way, then back to the bus-stop again, stamping his feet in the freezing cold.

At length the brightly-lit bus heaved into sight, grinding its way up the hill. Seeing my father at the stop, it clanked to a halt. My father urgently asked the driver if he’d seen a man on the road wearing a long cloak, but the driver only laughed and shook his head.

He was sure now that the man had missed his way, or had fallen and was lying in a snowy ditch somewhere. Trudging carefully home, he checked the hedges on either side of the road. Here and there a dark shape loomed up at him; but it was always nothing but a shadow. Once he heard the unmistakable sound of breathing, a gentle huff-huff. He hurried forward, sure he’d found the man, but it was three sheep, sheltering under the hawthorns.

At the bottom of the road the torch battery died, and at that moment a curious feeling came over him. He began to think there was someone behind him. He swung round but there was no-one there. He was sure he heard the sound of someone shuffling through the snow. He shouted ‘Hello!’ but there was no reply. He began to hurry towards the gate. Now it seemed that someone was walking beside him. ‘Are you there?’ he shouted, but his words only echoed up the empty road.

In the darkness he nearly missed the gate, no doubt cursing the heavy shutters on our windows that allowed no light to escape. Once on the path the faint yellow glimmer of the porch light welcomed him back, and he relaxed. Sure, the dark played tricks with the imagination. Then, as he stood on the steps knocking the snow off his boots and looking back down the path towards the road, he noticed something strange.

‘What was it?’ whispered my mother.

There was only one set of footprints, his own distinctive wellington-boot treads. He checked carefully. His own, down the path. His own, back again.

My parents stood in the hall, looking at each other. Then,

‘At least you’re back safely,’ said my mother. ‘Come in to the fire. You look frozen.’

‘Yes,’ my father sighed. ‘My feet are numb,’ and when he had pulled off his boots they went into the sitting-room. I had to hear more, so I hopped down the stairs and followed them in.

‘I need a drink of water,’ I said. My mother looked at me and sighed.

And then came a knock at the door, followed by another.

‘It’s him!’ my father cried, relief in his voice. ‘He’s back. I knew he’d got lost.’ My mother leapt across the room and grasped his arm.

‘Don’t answer it.’

The knocks came again: three loud knocks, bang, bang, bang.

‘Why the heck not?’ He shook off her hand but –

‘Michael!’ she said, grabbing him by his elbows and pulling him away from the door. ‘Think! One set of footprints?’

He glared at her, incredulous, and then I saw the first flicker of fear in his eyes. He sat down abruptly, and I noticed that his hands were shaking.

I turned and ran upstairs to the landing window which overlooked our front path. I undid the heavy brass clasp and wrenched aside the tall, stiff shutter. As it swung back, a sudden terror shook me, and I screwed up my eyes tight shut. I couldn’t look. I leaned towards the cold glass, counted to three and opened my eyes. The faint glow of the porch light shone on the front steps, the path and right down to the gate. There was nobody there.

Copyright Lorna E. Hoey November 2010

 

 

 

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One Comment leave one →
  1. November 13, 2010 3:44 pm

    What a fantastic story, Lorna – just right for a cold winter’s night when you’re nice and warm indoors but you know there are shadows lurking in odd places where no shadows should be … Loved it.

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