In Kind

Driving wind herds huddled clouds. Some, ragged, hang low as if broken or discarded, spitting bitter squalls.

Overladen boughs hang, helpless, dripping on cold roofs. Rubbish quivers on grey pavements damp and dull.

There’s a figure ahead, stationary, slim, black boots and just a bit of grey tights showing under a dark coat. From far away I thought she was older. Closer, she looks my age. A pale face, roundish, a pointed chin and thin lips.

I turn away my gaze. I’m … well, almost everyone finds me intimidating at first glance. The stuff I’m wearing doesn’t help. As if all that isn’t enough, there’s a dressing on the side of my head and grazes down a cheek. She wouldn’t want someone like me eyeing her, especially when alone, at a bus stop – in a deserted street.

But she faces me, direct gaze demanding attention: confident. “Everything’s like treacle magic, thick with it.”

I slow down. What did she just say? The girl adds, “Snarily snaring: it sticks us.”

I stop and turn. Her playful tone unsettles me; it doesn’t fit with talking to a stranger … neither do her words. Something feels weird, not right at all, like this is a film and I’m acting but don’t know what to say or do. Did her words cause that?

“Back to front; inside out; upside-down. Don’t talk. A spell on you.” She takes a step towards me and puts a finger on my lips. “Not a single word: like a prawn.”

I’m more annoyed than anything. This is not what I need after three days of tedious travel and a whole hell before. She’s like screeching discord in a strident symphony. Tilting her head she says, “I speak: not you. Not sparkling, the shadows on deep water played tricks.”

I hadn’t noticed a bus arriving until its brakes grind and the doors crash. The girl steps past me, onto the bus, and says to the driver, “To the bitter end, please. Two adults and my hair.” Two? She must expect me to follow.

The driver nods and says to her, “We’re going to keep an eye on you. You might pass out at any moment.”

Now I’m suspicious and intrigued. Two people talking nonsense has to be preplanned, a conspiracy. They’re trying to unsettle or confuse me but I won’t back off. I can deal with danger – it’s my job. This is new, fascinating, and I’m tempted to show them I can’t be rattled: pure ego. The girl looks at me, jerks her head – indicating the aisle, and walks, boots clicking. She turns and points to a seat. “Swirling currents, blackness, silent, secret.” On her neck there’s a tattoo, a tiny woman with wings.

I swing into the seat and the girl sits beside me. A bar of harsh sunlight makes everything outside flash like shining steel, brutal. A man in front rips open a letter and scans it. Pointing to a stick figure drawn upside-down, he turns to the girl, and says, “Tracy dear, this is all messed up.”

This is odd too, the bus is unusually quiet. I can see people talking but only hear those speaking to the girl.

The bus lurches and almost instantly someone presses a bell. A stop-start journey … and we’re going to go right past my flat. Oh, right – I got on because of this peculiar woman. She grinds her boot heel on the floor, leans forward and appears to catch a cigarette butt bouncing up. Putting it to her lips she takes a puff and winks at me. “Up a twisting waterfall, bang bang bang!”

The sun brightens. There’s a hole in clouds, a bastion of nimbus rising to unimaginable heights. I feel dizzy and sick.

Gears grind and the bus rocks around a corner. Across from our seats, an elderly woman struggles to stand. Thin wrist, thin fingers slipping on the bar, bags tangling, something spilling. The girl rises and helps. She’s strong and kind, spontaneous. I could do with some of that. It’s getting so hot I open my smock. I’m only just off the plane and didn’t bother going to barracks and changing into civvies.

The old woman, her voice feeble, says, “You need this more than you could believe.”

The girl lifts a packet from the floor, and chuckles. “Oh, you saw the Digestives were on offer too. I got some as well.”

A man also stands, putting his little dog on the floor. He says to my weird companion, “You’ve been heroic, mister, and kind – kindness noticed.”

Someone calls from the back, “Kindness noticed, bravery noted.”

The girl slips beside me again, lithe and quick. She sucks her cigarette; it’s longer now. Looking at me, her eyes widen in fun and she grins, cheeky, playful. “The pixies are plotting and we can’t stop them.” She sighs and stares at the ceiling. “Between the giant trees it can all go wrong: badness, sadness, driving you madness. Crack crack, bullets hard and sudden. Like full stops, really full stops for some.”

I look away in shock, cringing inside. She can’t possibly know what happened five days ago – on the other side of the world. Only six of us were there and it’s all top secret. Only four came out alive. Why’s she saying this stuff? Swirling? Waterfall? Trees? No: I’m making connections out of nothing. It’s all coincidence and I’m so tired, so empty and alone … and … and everything she says is nonsense messing up my head. But … bullets?

I close my eyes and feel the force of sunlight pressing. Someone thumps my shoulder. I look; the girl has risen and jerks her head – meaning me to go with her. She seems to light her cigarette, put it in the packet and that goes into a pocket.

As I stand, the man nudges his dog aside for us. He smiles at the girl and says, “You’re burned out. Take care or next time it will be you.”

A mother looks up from her baby. “It’s a lucky whirlpool. Let yourself fall.”

My companion replies, sing-song, “Talking through me. This is pixie magic.”

I walk forward. The bus is too noisy, too crowded, too small. I’m light-headed and faint, gripping the rails tight but my arms aren’t normal; they’re floppy elastic bands: useless. The people standing keep me steady, their bodies pressing.

Doors roar open and the girl pulls me out. How did the pavements dry so fast? The sunlight makes her clothes different, brighter, blue and turquoise. The wind has warmed and lifted flower scents. Holding my shoulders she peers into my eyes. “You OK, mate?”

“This is the same stop! I thought I’d got on a bus. What … what happened?”

“You bumped into me. Where are you going?”

“Oh, home.” I point, “Just there up … no … up there.”

“Are you bollocks. I’m calling a taxi and taking you straight to the barracks and medics. You’re just back from a tour?”

“Yes.”

“How are you doing?”

“Fucking crap,” there’s a sob in my voice. “We…” I shake my head.

“I’m Tracy,” she says. “Relax, I’m taking over. You’re losing it. Head injury, whatever. You need sorting, mate. It sometimes goes bad after you’ve been cleared.”

That was all hallucination? Somehow I’m relieved. “Can’t we just go for a drink?” I try to sound light hearted and alert.

“Medics, boyo, then we’ll think about that.”

“Thank God you were here.”

“Nah, thank the fairies.” She grins and pulls a phone from her pocket. “But I don’t suppose you’ll remember me saying that. Just let everything go, mister. I’ve got you.”

©Gary Bonn, 2019

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