Bus Stop H and the Ghost

by George Pringle

Excerpt from “Steel & Industry”…

It is a dark night in Kennington, down in the Oval. When the lights in the local authority blocks are out, the park is closed and all that’s illuminated on the horizon is the Strata building with its motionless fans, silently razoring the night sky.

You know you’re closing late when even the chicken shop has thundered its shutters to the pavement. Straws and napkins swim with leaves lost since autumn and sweet wrappers from school children move like algae in the bottom of a tank. How do I know this? Because I have policed this strip, as a barmaid, protecting my door from outlaws and the many pieces of wanton trash, blown by busses like ticker tape in our solemn, southern parade.

The top end of Brixton Road is a peculiar place. I think of it as a Bermuda triangle. A space where lost souls convene, floundering in its temperate waters. If you are to head south, you will go all the way to Brixton, if you steer east, it will lead to Camberwell and Peckham. At Oval, people drift up or downstream, alive but sometimes, outright crazy.  Magnetically drawn up the Brixton Road towards darker and leafier Kennington. This route ends at Bedlam.

The bar is by a bus stop. Bus Stop H, next to the “Lucky Day” takeaway. Often I have watched passengers waiting here, as long as the day itself. From behind the coffee machine, whose steam creates mirages…beyond the plate glass, people purposefully stroll or they wamble with strange gaits, stopping to peer at you, in the gloom. Women fleetingly catch themselves in your mirror.  They pull their best face. A bus stop is a strange metaphysical place, not altogether real, with its apparitions.

The morning people come from the office block across the way. They wear expensive brogues, backpacks and glasses, like overgrown, Bauhaus children. They sip on artisanal coffee in rubbery, sustainable cups and flick with their thumbs on their phones. Little old ladies with shopping trollies squint, tearily into the wind.  And in the afternoon, at 4, teenagers leave school and go to the chicken shop next-door. They lean with their bags on the glass, they scuffle and shout, running back and forth from the frame.

Then the first drunk shakes his leg, to start his sparring with the shop owner, to our left.  The street is run by a Sri Lankan family.  They own multiple businesses.  Both chicken shop and corner shop are theirs.

Bus stop H heads uptown to Trafalgar Square and Marble Arch, apart from the 415 which heads across to the Elephant. There’s the 3 and the N3, the 133, the N133 and then, the N109. There’s the 159 and her younger sister, the 59. How funny it is, in London, these routes…similar but different.

Bus stop H captures a particularly strange period of my life. Back in 2014 I worked winter evenings here, alone. I sat in this dark, empty bar, on display, illuminated by candles.  Like a Medium, awaiting her spirit, often, it felt that way…like waiting for stray ghostly faces to wander in off the street.

These haunted evenings merge, demarcated only by subtly unnerving incidents that differ in tone and intensity.

October.

The bar is totally empty.  He comes in wearing a camel overcoat with large, dark and tormented eyes.  He puts his leather sports bag down on the ground and he stands there in a very upright way and asks for a glass of red. I pour it for him and sit by the till. I try to read my book.  When I look up, he’s standing there still.  I look to the many empty tables behind him and restrain a sigh.

I go down to the coffee machine and do a pantomime of shining it up.  I fiddle around with the jugs.  I look in the bucket under it, thick with curdled milk.  I march it down towards the sink and cast the liquid over the steel. I watch as the clumps of milk snag on the filter.  I rinse it out.  I walk back to the machine but I see he’s still staring.  I glance to his glass.

I walk back towards him because his eyes anticipate the next dose.  I pour for him and he smiles in a strange, slightly dark way but I don’t talk to him…in spite of this whole standing there business, the staring there business and this whole being in an upright way…attentive, like a puppet. I go and clear the floor. I feel him watching me sweeping.  My back has that feeling, as though someone is pushing with fingertips.

When I return behind the counter, I change the music. Opioid, Jazzy moaning switches to “Strangers in the Night” by Papetti.

Dramatic irony.

I look up and he’s there, staring at me.  His glass is empty.  He asks for another.  I fill it up, hastily taking his money.  And so this goes on, one time…then another.  Nobody else stops by.  Just he and I…alone in our beautiful bar.

Ultimately he throws in the towel.  He understands I’m too smart for all this. He’s a creep.  Silently we have this understanding.  I’m so grateful, I could kiss him. Yes, sir, I’m too smart.  Yessir, you’re a creep.  Thank you sir, for understanding me.  Thank you sir, for respecting me.  He picks up his bag and he leaves. “Have a nice evening!” I say.  Drunk but stunned by my insincerity he walks straight into a bus, which hydraulically judders to a holt.  The driver gestures, incredulous, but he seems unmoved by his near death experience.  He crosses the road, nimbly and walks in his upright way. Like a puppet. I watch him all the while ’til his overcoat vanishes.

 

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