Friday, 2 January 2015

The Road Home

A short story from 1999 by my friend Rosie Kemp

The Road Home
It was Frank’s last trip of the day. He finished his cuppa and cigarette, left the canteen and got into his bus. Friday rush hour. People were pouring out of their workplaces.

Most of them headed for their cars, or to the nearby railway station. Many young office workers headed for pubs to meet their friends and colleagues to relax and talk about the past week.

A few walked to the “Northern Bus Station”, to catch a bus home. There was still something to be said for travelling this way, Frank believed. You could relax and watch the world going by, without the stress of driving, (although he obviously loved driving himself ) -or even read the paper and unwind after the day’s work.

Gradually Frank’s bus filled up with it’s variety of passengers- young mums with tired, fractious toddlers; pensioners with their shopping from the market; office workers with laden briefcases… They all exchanged cheerful banter and had time to discuss the latest news. Frank loved people, they in turn were drawn to his relaxed manner and the genuine warmth in his brown eyes.

One small hesitant figure was the last person to come on board. Frank had never seen this woman before, but there was something familiar about her, - he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. Something haunting about the tilt of her chin and the lop-sided smile when she asked for “Hunter Road please”.

“That’s my road”, he thought.” Funny, I don’t remember seeing her around here before..” Frank liked to think that after almost 30 years on the buses he knew where everyone lived and worked. It annoyed him a little if there was someone he couldn’t fit into his own mental map of the town.

Enough daydreaming now, it was time to leave.He started up and the bus chugged away from the depot. He lit up a cigarette when they stopped at the first set of traffic lights. He could almost hear his wife Rose nagging him about it. She nagged him a lot. He probably deserved it much of the time, but then cigarettes were one of his few pleasures these days….

He drove past the Town Hall, stopped at the bus stop by the old factory which had been converted into a large D.I.Y store. He’d worked in that factory back in the ‘fifties, - it was there that he had met his wife Rose. “Sweet and pretty as the flower itself”, that’s what Frank had called her back then. It had been love at first sight.

Time and circumstances had changed Rose over the years. She had become cooler and more distant from him with each year. Frank largely blamed himself for this, he had been so foolish and headstrong back then…flirtatious too. Rose’s mother had never approved of him.

He had proved Rose’s mother right by having a fling with one of his many female admirers. Then there had been the scandal. Frank and Rose had patched things up, mainly for the sake of their only son Stephen, now grown up. Things had never been the same when his son moved away from the town and left Frank and Rose with very little to say to one another. He wondered how Rose would cope with having him at home when he retired in a few weeks. She would probably spend even longer at her mother’s house. Rose was going there tonight, she had left a “ready-meal” for him and told him not to expect her home until late.

Frank was nearly at the last stop on the route, he glanced in his rear-view mirror, the mystery woman obviously didn’t realise that she was in Hunter Road. “Next stop, Hunter Road!”, he called out, to see her jump up quickly from her seat and stumble her way to the front of the bus.

The poor thing looked flustered, - he felt mean for making her jump, she had looked so deep in thought. With a polite “ thank-you”, (“posh accent”, he thought), she was down onto the pavement with one quick step and Frank felt an inexplicable sense of loss. It wasn’t that she was conventionally pretty, but there was something about her, an innocent quality, a gentleness and vulnerability that was rare in a lot of women these days.

Anyway, it was time to turn back to the depot, “clock out” and head for home. Dinner in front of the telly -( Rose would not have approved!), then browse through the old photograph albums, he felt in a nostalgic mood. Maybe it was his age - being 65 in two weeks probably had a lot do with it. He was more than content to mellow a little, and to take life at a slower pace.


Alison walked along the straight terraced road. She felt really nervous now and was beginning to doubt her sanity in deciding to come here. Well, she had to see the thing through, otherwise the rest of her life would be spent wondering, “What if?..” It had been a long journey, 2 hours on the train, then the last half hour on the bus, she felt exhausted. Her boots echoed along the smooth pavement, which was shining brightly from a recent shower. The air was cool and fresh with the smell of rain.

Something else in the air too, the smell of bacon frying! Up ahead was a little café, a bright painted sign proclaimed “Joe’s café” (“why were all café owners called either Sid or Joe?”) . On approaching the door she could see inside. Checked curtains, wooden chairs and tables, what a welcome sight! Somewhere to sit and gather her thoughts and drink a good strong cup of tea. The woman at the counter (Joe’s wife, presumably )eyed her with curiosity, rather like that bus driver had, but not quite in the same way. That bus driver had seemed familiar from somewhere…She couldn’t understand it. She sat and thoughtfully stirred her tea , then reached in her handbag for a large envelope. She would sit and wait here for a while.

Two cups of tea and a bacon roll later, Alison was beginning to work out a plan in her mind. It was important not to rush in too hastily. The man could be married, he could have a family of his own, she really didn’t want to cause anyone distress. But she had to see him . She must talk to him, even if that meant she could not reveal her real identity.

Once again she looked at the old photograph, the faded letters. The man looked so kind and still somehow familiar….She thought of her bus journey “Surely, it couldn’t be, could it?” Well there was no going back now.

A year ago, her mother had died leaving Alison alone in the world at the age of 30. Raised without a father and up to a month before her mother died, not even knowing his name. Then when her mother fell ill, she felt that she owed her daughter some sort of explanation. So she told Alison what she did know - that her father lived and worked in Lancashire and Joan had met him whilst visiting an aunt. It had been a mad, impulsive summer romance, but then Joan had returned to London, before either of them knew about the baby….She had been determined to keep her little girl and worked hard to bring her up well.

Alison appreciated how much her mother had done for her, Joan had worked all hours, taken in extra work in order to be able to send her daughter to college. Alison now had a good job working as a features writer for the local paper, back in London. She had an assignment to complete this week. Thinking about this gave her an idea….

It was 6.30 p.m., Frank was comfortably seated in his cosy front room, watching the evening news. He had finished eating his ready-meal ( shepherd’s pie, heated in the microwave)when there was a knock at the door. It was too early for Rose, perhaps she had changed her mind about going to her mother’s? However, the silhouette behind the frosted glass was slighter than Rose and when he opened the door he saw a nervous-looking young woman. It was the “mystery passenger” from his bus! “What on earth?…” Frank was lost for words.

Alison too was momentarily stunned, but then regained her composure, smiled that “lop-sided” smile and said “Good evening, sir, I hope I’m not disturbing you. I’m writing an article in the “National Echo”. It’s all about the old towns of Britain and how they’ve changed over the last 30 years. I wonder if you would care to make a contribution?” He gazed at the warm brown eyes that matched his own .

“Yes, I think there are a few things I can tell you about the past”, Frank replied and his eyes misted over. “I would be more than happy to talk to you” and their smiles happily mirrored one another.

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