After You

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic

The ultimate game of dare, aboard a 1980s bus on a rainy Monday morning

The door looked locked, but never was. I’d tried it often enough. An ascent up a flight of stairs and I was on the roof. I braced against the night wind as I peered down onto Great Portland Street. The pavement was choked with commuters, the road busy with buses and taxis. Everyone hurrying home of a Friday evening. Nobody looking up. Only fair on them to wait a while.

The buses looked rammed; they were turning people away. I hate riding on buses, haven’t done it in years. “Anyone seen in a bus over the age of thirty has been a failure in life,” runs the quote, often attributed to Margaret Thatcher. It actually originates from Lady Lindsay of Dowhill – whoever she was. But that isn’t the reason why. My life was ruined during a bus ride, more than thirty years ago now.

It was a bus to school, through morning rain. The number 43, a boxy double decker, daubed military green, recently privatized (thanks Maggie). Just flash your plastic-walleted bus flash with its pasted-on photo to the driver. At this time of morning, kids from school occupied the top deck. Where you sat depended on who you were. Smart kids at the front, total Bill Stickers at the back, and the rest in-between. Me, Ian and Nathan sat two thirds of the way back.

Me, propped along one seat, Ian behind, Nathan behind him – as usual. Ian was smart, actually, a total boffin if he’d wanted to be. Nathan was sporty, on the football team. But we were our own thing, always had been, from the first day of first school to Third Form of St. Cedds. We mucked around, made jokes – made ourselves laugh at least.

Though I wondered how much longer that would last, at the time. Things were changing, naturally enough. Nathan was spending more time with the sporty types, getting glances from girls. I would wander over to the lunchtime computer club, rather than stay standing around in the playground. Ian had no patience for programming the battered BBC Micros, other than typing this whenever I turned my back:

10 PRINT ‘BOLLOCKS’

20 GOTO 10

Which was really only first the first two hundred times or so.

He was a joker. We all were, which was what had kept us together. We started up hums in the middle of Maths (poor Mr Prince could never ever tell where it came from, and ended up taking early retirement). We set the classroom clock forward so Chemistry ended fifteen minutes early. We unscrewed the salt shaker on the bullies’ table at lunch, shot rubber bands at Mrs Noble’s nose in the dark of History lesson video screenings. You name it, we did it. We dared each other on.

Or at least we had. I think in retrospect – and there’s been plenty of that, believe me – we were running out of steam. That morning the bus rattled on we sat in silence, watching raindrops dribble down the smeared windows. Nathan and me were both growing up and away. Which left Ian. I don’t what else he had waiting for him. Sometimes there were dark bruises under his shirt, visible under the polyester and cotton. Nothing he would ever talk about. We could never bring ourselves to joke about them. I suspect today that we were the last thing in the world for him. Surely for him too it would have seemed like our tight little trio was nearing its end – though there would still be time for one last game.

The bus lurched to a halt beside a shut-down betting shop. St Cedds was just around the corner. Kids stood up to pile down the stairs. The football kids eyed Nathan as they shuffled past, wondering why he was sitting with losers like us. At which point Ian looked up, grinning as wide as I’d ever seen him and drawling in a mock-posh voice: ‘After you…’

This was an old game, from the time we first arrived at secondary school. It was a simple enough game of dare, really: you couldn’t be the last person to leave. Playtime at St Cedds was a dour experience. At little school there’s been a rich repertoire of playground games: British Bulldog, London Bridge, Chain-Up, even Kiss Chase. Now we just stood in a chain-linked tarmacked enclosure, like the exercise scenes in a prison movie, gawping at the football lads pounding an immense leather ball at each other – or at your face, if they didn’t like the look of you.

But the anticipation of After You added spice to that dull experience. Ian had invented it. Once the bell rang for class we had to loiter in the playground for as long as possible rather than go into the building like everyone else. The winner was the last to give in and go. Even as teachers bellowed out of the windows to hurry up to had to pretend to drop something, do up your laces – desperately stalling for another thirty seconds. You had to be the last one to break into pressure, to turn tail and head to class.

We finally gave up on the After You craze after a few nuclear-strength detentions, and threats to bring our parents in. Now Ian had just launched a mobile variant.

‘Ian, don’t be stupid,’ I said. We had double maths the first two periods. Mrs Whitaker would take note of any lateness, then there were the exams next term.

‘After you…’ Ian repeated, holding out his palm like some schoolboy gent in a comic. Well I could hardly get up after that. Nathan couldn’t either. We waited, smiling at each other, until the bus started up again and rumbled on. Other than us three, the upstairs was deserted now. I glimpsed the flat roof of the school receding beyond blocks of flats.

The next stop was three minutes later, right in the middle of bandit country – St Marks’ zone of influence. Those savages would pound us, if they caught us here. But what other choice did we have?

‘Nathan, we should get off here,’ I said. ‘If we run, we might still make the register.’

Nathan nodded earnestly, then smiled just like Ian, as if it were catching. ‘After you…’

He was into it too. A dare to liven up another boring Monday morning. And with a dare there had to be consequences. That was the whole point. Each new fresh turn of the bus’s wheels we would have to make up on foot later: our bus passes only worked until nine in the morning. But no-one had broken yet.

Another stop – the hospital. Another stop – the playing fields. Another stop – the big cemetery. I sat rigid on my chair, gripping the seat in front with white knuckles. I felt pressure growing on my chest. At this rate we’d be an hour getting back to school on foot, if not longer. We were heading right out of town, up the hill.

The whole untidy settlement sank into view behind us, with the harbor and the sea beyond. Ian and Nathan meanwhile, were still playing in insanely cool, with raised eyebrows and poker faces. ‘After you…’ was all they were saying to each other.

‘This is stupid!’ I told them. They only smiled back and gestured me towards the stairway down.

I finally rushed off at the very top of the hill, blinking back tears in the rain. I don’t remember what I said exactly; about how much trouble we’d be in, and what a ridiculous, childish game this was. It doesn’t matter. The pair only smirked at my outburst. I was already out, as far as they were concerned. They repeated to each other now, rather than me: ‘After you…’

I got off and the bus trunbled on, sinking over the other side of the hill.

Sure enough I was in trouble when I got back to school. Then a lot more trouble later: nobody ever saw Ian and Nathan again.

In an age shortly before CCTV, nobody knows what happened. The bus driver said there were a couple of kids still aboard at the end of his run, not getting off. He told them to get off unless they wanted to ride all the way back to town again. They smiled at each other, shook their heads, and got off there and then.

Later on – after all the police interviews, newspaper articles and witness appeals – I rode the bus to that final stop. It was slap bang in the middle of Europe’s largest council estate, breeze block houses and litter strewn streets, with bleak countryside beyond. The bus’s engines turned over for five minutes before turning around again, back to town.

Ian and Nathan had not stayed on our bus to come back. The game had continued somehow, in some impossible way. I tried to imagine them choosing which way to continue, daring each other to go further out, into the unknown. How long had the game continued, how elaborately? Until they fell prey to molesters or murderers, dead in a ditch somewhere – that was the general theory. Their distraught families held on for a time, then lost hope, moved away.

I never believed that. Compulsively I always looked out for the pair, scanning each and every face in every crowd. Although all those years later. Would I even recognise them? I skimmed through social media, checking on friends of friends of friends of friends of friends…

I never actually worried about Ian and Nathan however. I had faith they were doing alright, or better than alright, wherever their shared dare had brought them. They must have still been playing. Otherwise they would have come back.

It was me I worried about. Thirty years later there was no denying it: I’d made the wrong choice that day. In leaving them, I’d let them down, and myself. I should have gone on playing, until one of the others had broken instead – if they ever would. And if they didn’t, well, then I’d be in the same place they were now. Instead of this.

Below me the foot traffic had thinned out considerably. I was clear to do it now. Should I jump off, or simply step forwards? I’d thought about in general terms, but never focused on the practicalities. I closed my eyes and screwed up my fists, imagining a straightforward topple. It would be brief.

The wind died around me. It was as though the dark air was settling about me, drawing in to watch me do it. My skin prickled with a sense of something coming near, close in beside me. Is this how it feels when you’re about to die?

Then I heard the whispering, quiet but insistent, in both ears: ‘After you…’

 


Submitted: May 09, 2020

© Copyright 2021 UnionJackJackson. All rights reserved.

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