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End of the Line

by: Marise Morse

            She steps onto the bus, pays her fare and, a little bewildered, sits down in one of the forward seats.  An imperceptible sigh escapes her.  The conductor’s words, ‘You’ll be wanting the last stop,’ continue to ring inside her head.  Yes, the last stop.  That should be easy enough.  There is no chance of missing it.  No fretting to know where she is, whether she’ll get off in time or miss the stop altogether.  She wants the last stop.  The strain of the noisy engine sounds loudly within her ears.
            ‘End o’ th’ line!  Last stop!’  The conductor announces.  She feels it like a slap in the face.  It’s dark.  She didn’t think about the dark skulking ahead to confront her on arrival.  It puts her off guard, the darkness.  She cannot see where she is, where to go.  Suddenly, the end of the line, easily apprehended from afar, becomes a huge unknown, unknowable world.  She should have asked Oscar to meet her.
            The doors open, front and back.  Passengers climb down.  She peers out, still in her seat and sees them scatter hurriedly.  Rain on the pavement smiles here and there in violet reds, and yellow too.  No-one seems to notice.  Are they rushing to something inviting?  Running from prospects not so inviting?  They scurry and bend beneath shawls and rumpled hats.
            The lights within the bus vanish.  ‘Last stop!  End o’ th’ line!  Shouts hustle.  People want to get home to supper.  Would Oscar think to come for her?
            Down one step, another, she hesitates, as if not knowing what to do.  She looks around for someone.  Some face that might linger, might seem familiar.  But no-one looks, or pauses.  They know where to go.  Away from here.  And since they know, she must know.  She must be one of them making the same countless trip.  There are no visitors here.  It’s not a place to visit.
            Meanwhile all this darkness.  Suffused by a single yellow light, tiny swimming particles, a lost umbrella shape.  No other clarity.  Houses seemingly betray her behind sealed bricks and blank windows.  Shops are clamped for the night.  Against the night, rather.  Against the lurking smiles on the wet pavement.  Against the cold that leans on the air.            
            Her coat, though is not against the chill.  Nor are the soles of her shoes against moisture.  She would rather not think of that now.  People disappear.  Dissolve through this gutter, that alley, or worse, the black cavity staring her in the face. 
            She must catch somebody, before there is nobody!  Don’t choose.  Stop someone, anyone.  There, her coming across the road. 
            ‘Excuse me...’   A young woman.  
            ‘My house...  Can you help me?’
            They walk together, following the road. 
            ‘It should be one of these streets leading off to the right.’
             Approaching the first side street, barely visible, they make out a faint glow of white letters on the sign post.  Reading...
            ‘That’s it!  This is it!  This is the street I’m looking for.’  The first one as it happens.
            So, this young girl is a student at the university.  She thinks back to her younger days.  Her flimsy shawl slips, revealing pale thinning hair parted over a small skull.   A memory rises, and, like a nocturnal bird releasing its song, an illusion of youth flicks across her eyes.  Her face, vaguely ethereal, remains subdued.  Its dry, white lines etched by sadness.
            There was a young man once, long ago.  He had made a sensational discovery and wanted to share it with her.  He was ardent, his fingers positively quivering as he placed a Charlie Parker record on the turntable.  Not just a Charlie Parker record.  Ornithology.  Bird, he grins...   And between the smiles, there were things.  But... she doesn’t remember what things.  Could they have been important?  The watery pavement pulls on her as if a curtain is being drawn.  The songbird within continues to sing, a little flustered.  What a wonderful time she had.  She knew some wonderful people.  Days filled with activities!  Like the time they all went kite flying.  By the time she arrived, there he was, her young man already flying one all by himself.  Someone, she remembers, hands her a cigarette, tells her conspiratorially, it’s to smoke whenever you want to.
            She giggles softly.  The pavement appears to smile as it curves and makes way for their damp feet.  They keep walking.  She feels as if they may be going in the wrong direction.  Is this the right road?  She must get her eyes checked.
            ‘The house number?’
             Their eyes look over rows, two rows of houses, on either side of the road.  One resembles the next.  They stop, fail to locate a number, move on to another.  This number is too high, back one.  Yes, this is it.  There, in front of me.
            ‘We’ve arrived!  Can you see we’ve arrived!  Yes, here we are.  This is where I live.  It’s remarkable how simple it is, really.  Thank you young lady, very kind of you.’ 
            Very kind indeed.   So helpful, so thoughtful.  How capable really.  She’ll go far, I’m sure of it.  How far they seem to go nowadays.
            The low gate moves aside.  She walks toward the red brick building.  The green doorway halts the dark.  Watches her fumbling fingers.  The key, in the latch and the door opens.  Evening enters.  The wet parts from the walkway which guides her inside.  She confronts a passageway, well worn, well traveled, cluttered with litter never found.  A pause where bits of disheveled human lives remain.  She no longer notices the baby carriage that has no wheels.  Disembodied doll’s eyes made of glass, stare at or is it through her as she passes.  Stacks of newspapers lie smothering under dust and debris, bits of wall and paper.  A rusted can, like a collection tin, corrodes in silence.
            The ghost of a staircase descends into the oblong well of the hall.  Behind the stairs in the wall she enters a cavern-like room, small and cramped.  It is filled with heaps scattered recklessly throughout the room, an assortment of papers, books, magazines. Clothing too, some to be mended, some to be ironed, drapes the furniture stored around the room taking up much of the breathing space.  The word refuse appears like a momentary blip on her conscious mind.
            The television, electrifies the room with a luminous green.  At long intervals blackened lines zig zag across the screen.  Reception is blurred, and she can just make out flashes of women with guns, while a solemn voice announces, ‘A drama about women and their dreams.’ 
            The big box sits centrally.  It commands attention from the occupant sitting on a couch of large proportions.  A small plate of crumbs balances on the shabby, overstuffed armrest, a bottle of beer and its twisted bottle cap within reach on the floor. 
            She looks over the scene.  This is my husband, she thinks.
            There is a saucer of milk for the cat that climbs about, in, out, won’t sit still.  It looks, sniffs, pokes its head and looks again.
              ‘Oscar dear, where’s the map?  Please find me the map.  Get the map, dear.  The cat.  It’s sitting on the map.’ 
            Glum, without surprise or comment he hands her the street atlas.  His little finger is missing.  She places the atlas in her bag.  She has a suspicion it may not altogether safeguard her from getting lost.  There seems to be a little cloud of confusion that floats about her temples at times.  It follows her inexplicably.  No, she is not entirely certain the map will keep her from getting lost.
            ‘You sit there, dear and warm yourself.  Can I offer you something to drink?  Would you like a nice cup of tea?  Some warm milk, perhaps?  Just make yourself comfortable.  Just there where you are is fine.  Push those things aside and I’ll be right with you.  I’ll be taking off my coat now, start...  let’s see.  I’ll start the tea.  Just push those things aside if they’re in your way.  I think most of those clothes are clean.  They just need a bit of ironing.  Time for all that later.’ 
            She walks into the minute kitchen.  Sits on the short stool.  She had woken up later than she meant to this morning.  The rain.  That’s why, because of the rain and the darkness it brings.  Yesterday morning, the sun, a little brighter than usual, cleared the sleep from her eyes.  Today, she felt less sure.  As if a little blue grey cloud appeared, and hovered there by her temples.  No, she did not have a good sleep last night.  She wondered if she had any pills left. 
            ‘I’ve got to get more.’ 
            She remembers her dreams again.  Dreams of meeting a father and son.  She had met them before, she is sure.  She asked the father about his wife.  He was two men in the same face.  She couldn’t tell them apart.  Was it a dream?  Never mind.  I’ll think on it later.  Slipped my mind for the moment.  Just for the moment.  She feels tired, not very well.  
            ‘Where are those pills?‘     
            She stands up to wash the dishes.  The silverware clatters around the sink.  Pots bang against one another.  She feels a disturbance swirling in and out of her head.  Her hands hurt.  There are pains in her neck, her shoulders, and her heart.  She cries briefly.
            Let’s see now where is it?  She opens the tiny drawer next to the sink.  Loose spools of thread, an old champagne cork, nails rattling around, a wrench, she holds up the wrench, her wrist bending with its weight.  She puts the wrench back.  She finds what she is looking for and closes the drawer.  Its loose hinges still hold, but barely.
            Feeling stifled, she steps out of the cramped little kitchen. 
            ‘Oscar dear, just stepping out. I’ll just be a moment.’ 
            She picks her way through the unrelenting closeness of the living room.  Drab.  Is this room drab?  Yes, I suppose it is.  I must do something about that.  I must put the clothes away.  She looks at the wan curtains, the edging of frayed lace.  Perhaps the curtains could do with a wash.
            Gingerly, she makes her way back through the corridor.  The ceiling light is broken.  It’s been broken for years.  A streetlight peers grimly through slats above the entrance.  She steps out into the cold evening.  As the door closes a chill nudges her body.  It had rained all morning with winds splitting the rest of the day into iron-grays.  The smell of wet grass from the tiny, unkempt garden rises to her nostrils.  She can smell the worms, and other things.  Things that have to do with memories. 
            She is wearing her favorite dress.  The light blue one with white flowers sprinkled throughout, and her favorite part about this dress, the pale yellow buds nestled within each flower.  The hem of her dress flutters around her frail shins.  It tingles.  She enjoys the sensation. 
            She pulls out a cigarette from the pocket of her cardigan, lights it and takes a deep breath.  She takes in the quiet, admires the lamp posts in their absolute stillness. It’s pleasantly cold, she thinks.  Not a sound issues from the dimmed lights.
              She imagines walking out past the gate.  Back down the same street where she felt she had walked and walked earlier in the evening with no end in sight.  It really was very kind of the young lady.  In her mind, she walks with lighter, quicker steps than she can manage in reality.  Back to where she first descended from the bus.  Just a few moments ago it seemed such an enormous distance.  As if it might require hours of walking and searching.  All this time, the bus stop, the crescent asphalt where public buses turn into their final destination point, was right there, not seventy-five paces away.  And after all, it’s not so dark.  One light illuminates the emptiness.  Too weak to extend very far.

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