On The Bus

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Commercial Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
On The Bus, R J Dent's short story about intrigue and deception in the Australian outback - and a school trip that ends in disaster.

Submitted: April 10, 2016

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Submitted: April 10, 2016



On The Bus

by R J Dent



The twenty-six seater Ballard High School bus trundled north along Route 85.

Although none of the twenty-one occupants knew it – not the nineteen Year Ten Media students, not Mister Roger Loydell, their Form teacher and teacher of English and Media Studies at Ballard, and certainly not Miss Cassie Arbogast, the Media Studies teacher who'd arranged the visit to the Mount Squires Recording Studio, just as she did every year, and who was driving the bus – one of them was about to have a stroke.

It was a typically hot afternoon in May and the kids were fidgety. Loydell looked at his watch: 12.46. They'd been on the road for an hour. They were halfway there. He decided to let them keep themselves amused. He put the pile of media essays he'd been reading and marking down on the vacant seat next to him and got up. He leaned over Miss Arbogast's shoulder.

“I'm going to let the students play with their mobile phones, walkmans, computers, whatever,” he said over the rumble of the engine.

“Good idea,” Miss Arbogast said over-brightly. “They're starting to get on my nerves.” As an unnecessary afterthought, she added: “ETA Mount Squires - 13.45.”

Loydell knew this. She knew he knew it. She just had a habit of stating the obvious.

“It'll be good to get there,” he managed to say, before turning towards the seated students.

“Listen up, all of you,” he announced. When there was complete silence, he proceeded. “Those of you who have mobiles and so on with you – can, for the remainder of the bus trip to the studio, take them out and use them.”

There was a ragged, low-key cheer, followed by some frantic bag searching.

“Once we get there they go away again. Clear?”

There was a vague murmur of assent and some nods. Not enough. Some of them would try and claim they hadn't heard.

“Is that clear?” Loydell repeated.

“Yes, Sir,” the students responded en masse.

Loydell sat back down and picked up the essays, continuing to read the one he was halfway through.

“...The lucrative session work in the early sixties meant that he ended up playing the guitar on the following records: 'I Can't Explain' by The Who, 'You Really Got Me' by The Kinks, 'Gloria' and 'Baby Please Don't Go' by Them, 'With A Little Help From My Friends' by Joe Cocker, 'I'm Into Something Good' by Herman's Hermits, 'Down Town' by Petula Clark, and 'It's Not Unusual' by Tom Jones, amongst many others for which he remained uncredited.

“His earliest guitar was a Grazzioso, which was a Stratocaster copy. He soon bought himself a genuine Strat, followed by a Gretch Chet Atkins, which he quickly swapped for a black Gibson Les Paul Custom, a guitar that he used consistently until it was stolen from him in the mid-seventies whilst on tour in America. He also used a Vox twelve-string in his first group, and in his second group, he used primarily the Gibson, but also an old style Fender Telecaster, which can be heard on 'Babe, I'm Gonna Leave You' on the first album. On that same album, he used a Gibson J-200 for all of the acoustic numbers. Later in his career he began to use a Gibson SG double-neck...”

Loydell put the paper down and looked out of the window at the Gibson Desert as the bus went past the Macintosh Range. They had to be, without doubt, the most beautiful group of mountains in Western Australia. He corrected himself – in the whole of Australia.

He studied Saunders Point and Point Lillian carefully, knowing that the Range was the natural – and often the not-so-natural – home of some of the most spectacular birds ever seen. Flying around the top of Saunders Point was a cast of about twelve Crested Hawks. He watched their breath-taking aerobatics for a while, and then switched his attention to the two Letter-Winged Kites flying around the summit of Point Lillian. Like swans, the Letter-Wings always paired up. Sometimes they would flock together if there happened to be an abundant harvest of rodents, other than that they stayed in pairs.

The Macintosh Range was also the home of the Nankeen Kestrel or – as Loydell preferred it – the Windhover. The English teacher part of him was intrigued by the reference to one of his favourite Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems. The Wedge-Tailed Eagle had also been seen in the vicinity of the Range, although Loydell knew that sightings were pretty rare. Still, he looked carefully, and despite not seeing any, he enjoyed the grace and the beauty of the birds he did see. All too soon, the Range was left behind as the bus trundled on and Loydell picked up the essays again and focussed his attention back on the one he'd been reading.

“...Although firmly based within the framework of the British electric blues tradition – The Bluesbreakers, Cream, The Experience, et al – his distinctive playing style showed an eclecticism which drew upon many different musical styles: the blues – as in 'Since I've Been Loving You'; skiffle – as in 'Hats Off (To Roy Harper)'; folk music – as in 'Tangerine'; and Eastern scales – as in 'Kashmir'. He was – and still is – quite simply, a multi-talented musician, composer, producer – as well as a phenomenal guitarist who can confidently and unselfconsciously play an acoustic folk guitar in the middle of a hard rock live set...”

Loydell paused and thought about the essay.

It was a lucidly-written piece, with plenty of research in evidence, but its major weak point was that it didn't refer enough to the person it was about. The subject's name was missing from the essay in a number of quite important places. Admittedly, it did mention it in the title and – once – at the very start of the essay, but after that it was always 'he', 'him', or 'his'. Also, the writer, Chris Charles, hadn't included the group names either, simply writing 'his first group' and 'his second group'. Not good enough. Research was about showing you'd assimilated the factual information and that you could disseminate it clearly and informatively. Chris's approach was to assume the reader would know the names of Jimmy Page's first and second group. Not everyone did. If Loydell hadn't been reasonably knowledgeable about Page's career, he wouldn't have known the groups Chris was referring to. He wrote NAMES! in large italicized block capitals across the bottom of page one, then beneath it added: Add the name of the subject at the beginning of each paragraph and group names where necessary. This will then help this essay achieve an A grade. Do the same in all essays from now on!

If that's not incentive, then I don't know what is, Loydell reflected, before continuing to read the essay.

It was at this point that Miss Arbogast had her stroke.

It wasn't dramatic at all. One minute she was driving the bus north towards the Mount Squires Recording Studio, the next, she wasn't. There was no screeching of tyres, no veering off the road, no flipping over onto one side, no crashing into anything – nothing untoward at all. The only way that Loydell had known something was wrong was the strange keening noise that suddenly came out of Miss Arbogast's mouth.

He got up and stood next to her, suddenly very concerned. He saw her flickering eyelids and knew instantly that it was serious. He sat down next to her, pushing her over in the seat, and took the wheel. Using his left foot, Loydell edged Miss Arbogast's foot off the accelerator and kept his own on it, decreasing speed slowly, so as not to alarm the students. He stopped the bus by the side of the road, got up and opened the doors.

“Okay, everyone, listen up! Two minutes to stretch your legs, then we're back on the road. Get a move on.”

The students surged off the bus. Some stayed on.

Loydell lifted Miss Arbogast out of the driver's seat and stretched her out on the double seat behind it. Two of the students, Amy Ridpath and Paul Molloy, goggled at him, waiting for him to explain. Ignoring them, he picked up Miss Arbogast's mobile phone and dialled the school number. After two rings, Jo, the school receptionist, answered.

“Ballard High Sch-”

“Jo! It's Roger. I'm halfway between the school and the recording studio and Miss Arbogast has had a heart attack or a stroke. She's still alive, but it looks grim. Do I come back, or go on to the studio?”

“Hang on,” Jo said. There was a short pause - she was clearly conferring with someone in the background. She came back on quickly. “Roger! Go on to the recording studio. We'll get a flying medic to meet you on the way.”

“Okay,” Loydell answered. “I'm on my way now.”

He switched the phone off and stood in the bus doorway.

“Okay everyone, we've got to move it! Back on the bus - Fast!”

The students made their way onto the bus and back into their seats. Once everyone was seated, Loydell quickly explained to the curious students what had happened. He then picked two of them to sit near to Miss Arbogast and asked them to keep an eye on her until the medic arrived. Then he got behind the wheel of the bus, started the engine and set off at a furious pace. He knew that by breaking the speed limit he was putting the students at risk, but not doing so put Miss Arbogast at risk. Besides, the road was empty – and even if he got pulled, the police wouldn't prosecute – they'd make sure he got an escort and that Miss Arbogast got medical help. So he pressed his foot to the floor and the bus raced towards Mount Squires.

The flying medic met them just over a kilometre away from the studio. The Vampire swooped over them, and then landed on the road, turning to face the direction the slowing bus was coming from. Loydell braked and switched the engine off. The snub-nosed plane taxied to a halt a few metres from the bus.

Two medics got on board the bus and Loydell quickly explained what had happened. The medics carried Miss Arbogast into the Vampire and the small, but powerful Goblin engine started up with a soft roar. The plane taxied down the road and the nose rose fractionally. Then the plane took off, climbing gently into the bright blue sky.

The remainder of the trip was without incident. The school party arrived at the Mount Squires Recording Studio fifteen minutes later than Miss Arbogast's ETA.

Pretty damn good time keeping, all things considered, thought Loydell, as he pulled the bus into the parking lot. As he switched the engine off, a stocky, middle-aged man came out of the studio and walked towards the bus.

“I expect perfect behaviour,” Loydell told his students, as he opened the doors and let them file off. At the studio door they waited quietly as Loydell got off the bus and introduced himself to the man.

“Roger Loydell. Good to meet you. Sorry we're late, but we had an emergency.”

“Trevor Bolder,” the man said, sticking his hand out. “A few minutes here or there's not a problem. What was it? Flat tyre, I bet. Or overheating.”

“Stroke, I think,” Loydell said, shaking the proffered hand.

Bolder laughed. “Stroke. Not bad. Okay, shall we go in?”

Loydell nodded and followed Bolder into the studio.

The interior was cool and clean, but odd.

Loydell had been into a number of recording studios over the years and knew the general layouts, but this particular one was definitely in a class of its own regarding utility. Everything was there – mixing desk, computer, sound room, instruments, amplifiers, intercoms, the whole works, but there was something about it – something slightly out of kilter that made Loydell start to take stock very carefully. It took him a while.

As Loydell assimilated, Bolder showed the students around.

“Feel free to touch things,” he said. “It's all quite robust.”

Given free rein, the students descended on the equipment and the inevitable barrage of questions began.

“Sir, how do you switch this on?” Keith Miller asked.

“What famous groups have been here?” Julie Kershaw wanted to know.

“Can this do overdubs, Sir?” Alan MacQuade asked.

“Can we make a record?” Lee Pettit demanded hopefully.

“Is this the on switch?” Sinead Jackson said, pointing to a red button.

“Where are the drumsticks?” Michael Barton asked, looking around.

Loydell walked around the studio, watching his students as they began to familiarise themselves with the equipment. It was then that he realised what it was about the studio.

It wasn't used for recording any more! The equipment was far too old!

Looking at the antique mixing desk, he was certain of it. Oh, it had all of the controls in the right place and he was sure it still worked properly, but the way it just sat there in the centre of the room, no cables for mikes, guitars, keyboards, or any other instruments running into it, and none running from it to the computer, made him think that the studio had actually ceased to be a working studio a long time ago.

Loydell made his way over to Bolder, who was showing five students how to damp down a drum sound.

“Do you have many school visits?” he asked.

“Not enough really,” Bolder answered. “I'd do a few more, but we're a bit out of the way here. There's hardly-” He stopped talking abruptly and turned back to the drum machine.

“By the way, how much is this visit going to cost us?” Loydell asked. He hadn't had time to ask Miss Arbogast about expenses.

“Come to my office,” Bolder said. “We'll talk finances there.”

Loydell nodded and followed Bolder into a small metal cubicle. There was a chair, desk and filing cabinet – and that was all. Bolder stood behind the desk.

“I'm surprised you have to ask me about the price,” Bolder said. “Didn't Cassie Arbogast tell you? It's the same as always. And how come she didn't come on this trip? She never normally misses one.”

Loydell stared at Trevor Bolder.

“You don't know, do you? No one's bothered to tell you, have they? That's why I said stroke. On the way here she had a stroke or a heart attack and the medics took her to the hospital, probably the one in Kalgorlie Boulder – I think that's the nearest one to here.”

“Cassie had a stroke – jeezus,” Bolder exclaimed, his face whitening.

As Loydell watched, Bolder seemed to crumple. He sat down abruptly in the chair and put his face in his hands. Loydell suddenly realised that there were a lot of things about Miss Arbogast that he didn't know.

“Are you all right?” he asked pointlessly. Of course the man wasn't all right. “What is it?” he continued. “Were... Are you and Cassie – close?”

“She's my sister,” Bolder said suddenly.

Suddenly the jigsaw that Loydell had been puzzling over fitted together perfectly. Cassie Arbogast and Trevor Bolder – of no apparent connection, were in fact brother and sister. Sister organised once-a-year school-funded media trips to a recording studio, run by brother. Studio was running at a loss, due to stupid outback location. No family business sense. Money generated from school by sister organising school visits kept it open at least once a year. Money went towards keeping brother in lifestyle to which he was accustomed. Once a year he had to have studio up and running for school visitors. The studio existed for school visits only. It had no other function! Now sister was in hospital. Brother was devastated. Would she get better in time for next year's school visit?

Loydell was suddenly sick of the whole thing. “Is it insured?” he asked.


“This studio.”

“Of course it is,” Bolder said indignantly. “There's some very valuable–”

“No!” Loydell said, with a hint of steel in his voice. “Is it insured?

Bolder paused, looked into Loydell's eyes, then shook his head.

“No. It's not worth insuring. Most of the stuff was left here by the previous owners. The computer's mine, but that's all.”

“What happens after we've gone?”

Bolder shrugged. “I close the place up.”

“As a scam, it's not a very good one.” Loydell said pointedly.

“I have other businesses as well,” Bolder stated grandly. “Thanks to Cassie, I do all right. I make more a year than you do. We all get what we want. Everyone's happy. No need for anyone to rock the boat.”

Loydell turned abruptly and walked out of the office. He crossed the studio and went outside into the sunlight.

“You're either on the bus or off the bus,” he quoted, as he took a few deep breaths of clear afternoon air.

He then walked over to the bus, climbed in and started the engine. He put it in gear and slowly turned the bus in a huge circle, driving around and around furiously. Finally, he turned the wheel and pressed down on the accelerator.

The bus shot forward across the lot. It hit the side of the recording studio and ploughed through the flimsy breezeblock and plywood wall. It ran into the studio, crushing antique equipment and battered furniture. Students dived out of the way of the roaring machine. The bus careened through the building and hit the far wall. It smashed through it easily.

Loydell suddenly found himself bouncing up and down in his seat as the bus raced across the hot desert. He looked at the fuel gauge. Enough for fifty kilometres.

He drove towards the sun.




On The Bus (2958 words)

Copyright © R J Dent (2016)


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