(This story was a finalist in the Newcastle Short Story Award 2017. It was published in the anthology available here)
All that Mr Briggs has left is a five dollar note tucked inside his pocket and a handkerchief long overdue for a wash. He arrives at the bus stop seven minutes early and slumps himself onto the bench seat, waiting. He hates waiting. He watches the second hand tick its way around his watch face and counts down the seconds until the bus is due to arrive. It is one minute and eleven seconds late.
As luck would have it, the ticketing machine on the bus is broken. Mr Briggs doesn’t have a fancy plastic card to tap on the device but the bus driver waves everyone on regardless. He clutches the five dollar note in his pocket as he makes his way to his seat, amazed to still have it. It seems like a sign. He only needed it to get him on the bus and it had taken him considerable time to acquire it. He still isn’t sure if it would have been enough to get him into the city, but he still has it. It must be a lucky omen.
It is part of his plan to sit exactly half-way up the bus, on the right-hand side. He makes his way there now, thankful that the seat is vacant. He isn’t sure what he would have done if it was taken. The seat gives him an ample vantage point over the entire bus, a place where he can see all of the passengers, including the driver, and they can see him. It is the perfect spot to carry out his plan.
His grey tracksuit pants rustle as he settles into position and he clutches the seat in front of him much tighter than is necessary. He catches his reflection in the bus window. A thin film of sweat gives his forehead a subtle sheen, reminding him of the polished stair balustrades at The Home. He pulls his hankerchief from his pocket, careful not to dislodge the five dollar note, and wipes it roughly across his brow. It does little to remove the sweat but it gives him a moment of reprieve. Now that he is on the bus he is beginning to have second thoughts. Fear has gripped him and so he grips tighter to the seat in front of him. He must calm down if he is going to do what needs to be done.
He hasn’t been outside of the house for months, years even. Mr Briggs does not have a good sense of time. He had to sneak out of The Home in order to get here. Mrs Welshman had finally dozed in her armchair after Mr Briggs had spiked her tea with sleeping pills and he was able to slip out the front door. It took considerable planning and coordination for him to manage even that part of the plan, his fingers as fat as sausages as he poured the tea. All he needed now was enough time to get this thing done. Just one single bus ride and it would all be over. If they realise he is missing they will try to stop him, lock him away in a room even smaller than the one he is already living in. He can’t stand the thought.
He finally takes a moment to look around the bus and take in his surroundings. It is mid-morning so the bus is almost empty, everyone having already started their day. The only people riding the bus at this hour are the unemployed and the elderly. And Mr Briggs. He doesn’t usually ride the bus at all. He usually sits in armchair at The Home, staring at the television and dreaming about escape.
There are six young people on the bus, university students probably. He notices them right away. They carry backpacks and textbooks, their faces buried in their smart phones and their ears plugged with earphones that allow music to escape and drift through the bus. Too loud. Mr Briggs scowls at them from his seat but they don’t look up. He needs their smart phones with their camera bits. He just hopes that they will hear him when the time comes. He needs their full attention.
He has caught the bus only a few times before, either when he was young or before the Incident. The edges of the memory are blurred. The humming of the bus’s engine gives him a sense of calm, reminding him of some forgotten memory or faraway place from long ago. He wipes a thin line of drool that has escaped from the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand. Anger fills him.
Mr Briggs has a plan. He has been working on it for some time now. Each night for months on end he has tucked away in his bed and scrawled plans in his notebook under torchlight. He has a vague memory from childhood of doing the same thing in a tent or in a tiny bed, scratching his thoughts into some kind of book of which he held dear. He can’t remember. His memories are scrambled. This plan is something different. He is filled with malice as he scrawls at the pages, his hands no longer moving the way they should, the way he wants them to. Everything requires an effort greater than the task itself and it fills Mr Briggs with rage.
Mr Briggs rages inside the shell of his body, so broken and tired and lonely. He is a ghost inside that house, too, fed and watered on schedule and left without visitor or companion. The Incident has taken everyone away. It has taken everything away. He looks like some kind of monster, his words falling from his lips in the wrong order in low guttural tones, his limbs dragged around behind him like limp noodles. Speaking is difficult for him, the words flying around his head and falling from his lips in the wrong order. They all treat him like he is worthless and he will make them pay. The Incident has changed his future, everything before it is a blur. He has a feeling that he was once strong and brave but he can’t remember it.
He likes to believe that he used to command the attention of rooms when he entered them. It might once have been true but not anymore. His life is now determined for him by people in crisply pressed uniforms and scowls permanently implanted on their faces. His mind is unable to untangle the memories and words and people and so he has no choice, locked into the home with the other ghosts. Mr Briggs is not a ghost. He is still there, goddam it. He is still alive. He will make them pay. No, see. He will make them see. One of those sentences is true but he is no longer sure which one.
He is disappointed by the small amount of passengers that alight the bus, even though he knew that this would be the case at this hour. He had been hoping for more. He briefly regrets his decision not to catch a peak hour service but he knows that he would never have got away with it then. Somebody would’ve noticed him. They would have blocked him from view or tackled him to the ground before he even began. He wouldn’t have made it.
He wants to wait until the last moment; until he can have the largest impact with the biggest audience possible. But Mr Briggs is running out of time. He must begin soon. He can’t wait too long. The timing is important. His watch keeps it for him.
Mr Briggs is a shell of a man but he is about to show them all that he is strong. That he can still make an impact. That he means something.
He waits until the bus pulls away from the kerb, its doors firmly closed and the passengers all seated. He has five minutes before the next stop or thereabouts. He has calculated the distance between stops using an old map and a ruler so he isn’t entirely sure that his calculations are accurate or if the bus route is still the same. He certainly didn’t account for traffic. So he is hoping that at the very least he has five minutes. That is all it will take.
He will blow them to smithereens.
He stands up, his resolve firm, and clears his throat. Nobody looks up so he does it again, louder this time. His knees shake as he stands, sweat beading on his forehead.
All of the heads turn sharply towards Mr Briggs as he stands, wobbling, in the middle of the bus. There are fifteen heads. All thirty of their beady eyes land on him, impatiently waiting to see what his problem is. He had wanted to say something at this moment, introduce himself, but he is no longer confident he will be able to get the words out clearly. He doesn’t want them to confuse him for a drunk. He wipes the spit from the corner of his mouth and scowls at his fellow passengers, impatiently waiting for their full attention.
Mr Briggs takes in a large gulp of fresh air and make his decision. He is going to do it. He isn’t sorry.
He places his hands inside his empty pockets and opens his mouth wide, his eyes full of fire and resolve. He parts his trembling lips.
“And now, the end is near,” he sings. “And so I face the final curtain. My friend, I’ll say it clear, I’ll state my case, of which I’m certain.”
The sound of his voice echoes through the moving bus, crisp and clear. He didn’t know if he could do it, if the words would come when he summonsed them but he is doing it. With Frank Sinatra’s song!
“Woo!” says one of the university students, thrusting their fist into the air. Mr Briggs smiles wide and sings louder.
“I’ve lived a life that’s full. I’ve travelled each and every highway. And more, much more than this, I did it my way!”
The idea had lodged inside of his head some time ago, the idea that he could still sing. He didn’t know if it was true, he hadn’t tried it, but he is doing it now. He feels the air move in and out of his expanding lungs as the words crash down around him and he is filled with strength and joy. All thirty eyes have remained on him, nobody looks away and they begin to record him on their phone cameras. That is all he wanted.
He sings louder, stronger. He fills his diaphragm to capacity and his voice carries over the rumbling engine of the bus and the passing traffic. Tears begin to stream down Mr Briggs face as his sings. He can’t hold them in.
He prepares himself for a big finish as the bus pulls into its final stop. “For what is a man, what has he got? If not himself, then he has naught. To say the things he truly feels; And not the words of one who kneels. The record shows I took the blows – And did it my way! Yes, it was my way.” He has timed it perfectly.
There is a moment of silence, long enough for Mr Briggs to doubt himself and then the bus erupts into thunderous applause. He smiles wide, tears streaming down his face. Without another word he walks from the bus to the sound of their applause. “That was incredible!” A small, elderly lady clutching her purse cries as he walks past. He doesn’t stop but keeps moving out of the bus and into the bustling mess of the city.
He doesn’t know where he is going but his heart his full and he still has a five dollar note tucked inside his pocket.