The 771: Manchester and the North – Part Four.

By Jay St John Knight.

The final part in a series of posts from my third year creative writing portfolio produced for my dissertation. This portfolio was comprised of a series of short stories from a variety of narrative points of view leading up to, and surrounding, a fixed event to provide a puzzle-like fragmented narrative on an ill-fated coach journey upcountry.

The Man on the Bridge – 3

…The flyover was a two minute walk from the car park; he’d driven passed it on the way. When he got there he remembered being six, stood on the bridge at Clearbrooke with his father throwing sticks into the river and racing to the other side to see which one emerged first. He smiled and dropped his phone over the edge, half expecting it to be swept away in the urban river below and not smashed to pieces under relentless tyres of the cars flowing beneath…

Theo Harley.

Theo grabbed his ticket out of his wallet and made sure he had picked up all his bags. His mum’s voiced echoed in his head, telling him to make sure he had everything with him and to keep his coach ticket safe. She was always a nag, and an annoying one at that, but it was only because she was always right. That’s the annoying thing about mums thought Theo, they’re always right at the end of the day. He stepped onto the coach and climbed the steps to the driver. He was an old man in comparison to Theo’s measly seventeen years, at least in his fifties, and he had a horribly disgruntled look about him. His eyes had that slight glaze that you see when people are either sick, drunk or worried about something and his complexion seemed to shift from being pallid to flushed. Theo thrust out his ticket to the driver who took it from him bluntly and stamped it, before thanking him and strolling down the aisle to find a seat. He was on his way to Manchester to see his dad for the weekend. He hadn’t seen his dad for the best part of a month now and he was surprised at how much he actually missed him, ever since his parents had split he still harboured a bitter resentment towards his dad for abandoning him and his mum but even that was starting to fade. Theo put it down to growing up, maturing; he was seventeen now and pretty much a man he thought. He couldn’t bear grudges for that long and the clichéd line ‘You can pick your friends but you can’t pick your family’ seemed to revolve around inside his head like some sort of catchy advert jingle for happy domestic families.

Theo sat himself down next to the window in the middle of the coach on his own and got out his headphones. It was a long journey to Manchester and he was hoping to doze off for most of it to try and avoid the inevitable travel sickness. The last passenger got on the coach and it pulled out into the stream of traffic that was crawling towards the fringes of the city and beyond. People, cars and houses all slipped passed Theo’s window as he stared out at the hustle and bustle of urban life. He loved watching people from the anonymous confines of public transport; buses and coaches were the best for it but even on the train it was fun to observe the passengers sat about on benches at various stations waiting for their trains. He liked fabricating stories about what they were doing, going off on fantastical tangents and creating in-depth fictitious bios about their salubrious lives as ex-mafia dons or secret service agents.

Theo must have dozed off for a while because he opened his eyes and they were about to pull out onto the motorway. The blue road signs that flanked the motorway on all sides pointed them in the direction of the north and the coach was making steady progress up the slip road. From his seat he could hear a woman somewhere behind him talking to another passenger. It was one of those boring conversations you always hear on public transport when one eager and friendly passenger strikes up conversation with another who you can tell isn’t as enthusiastic and is merely politely entertaining them. Theo smiled and turned around to spy on the two through the gap in the seats. Sat three rows back a middle aged woman who was carefully cradling a bouquet of spindly looking red flowers was talking to a suited up city type sat across the aisle from her. The expression on the man’s face confirmed Theo’s suspicions as he was struggling to mask his annoyance with an unnaturally wide smile and overly enthusiastic nodding at the appropriate points in conversation. Theo took out his headphones to hear them better.

“…I haven’t been to Manchester since I was in my twenties. A big group of us used to go up there when we were studying to browse the galleries and book shops in the day and then go out in the evening to this lovely little bar that was tucked away in this tiny side street. It was a lovely Parisian styled place, closed down years ago though.” The lady seemed to just be talking for the sake of talking, as though she didn’t even care if he was listening and was just enjoying her nostalgic tangent. She was lost in her own memories and he was just in the unfortunate position of being the closest person to her, her anonymous soundboard.

“I’ve only ever been to Manchester for conferences I’m afraid but that does sound lovely.” Theo smiled, this person was well trained in the etiquette of public transport, nodding and smiling in all the right places but occasionally staring out of the window with a look of desperation that made him seem like he was considering smashing it and jumping out of the coach to escape.

“My friend Michelle has been living there for years, she got married to a playwright years back when…”

“Shit!” A voice from the driver’s seat shouted and the entire coach veered left across the lanes.

Theo was thrown violently towards the window, smashing his head against the thick glass pane as the coach lost control and hurtled back towards the central reservation at a frightening pace. Luggage flew from the overhead storage spaces and out from under seats and screams of resounded up and down the coach in the fraction of a second before it hit the metal divide. Theo’s face hit the seat in front with such force that a shower of blood sprayed from his nose. Everything slowed to a crawling speed as the coach collided with the central reservation in a shriek of torn metal and lifted, nose down, into the air. The groans of warping metal sounded like the dying breaths of a great leviathan as people were thrown about like rag dolls inside the giant metal coffin. Gravity disappeared and time stopped. Each passenger floating amongst luggage and bottles of water. A final snapshot in time, expressions frozen and contorted. Then, as if by a switch, time roared back again as the whole coach crashed upside down onto the concrete floor of the motorway with a deafening crunch. The upholstered ceiling crumpled inwards like tinfoil and Theo closed his eyes, remembering his mum at the doorstep waving him goodbye.

The Man on the Bridge – 4

…He swung his legs over the railings and sat a while. It was this or incarceration, an incarceration that would be followed by infamy and guilt, rejection and repulsion. There was no other way. He grabbed the rails firmly with both hands and took a deep breath, taking in the sun and the cool breeze on his face. He was calm. He felt relief. Up ahead a coach had just turned the bend and was fast approaching. 771 Manchester and the North. If the fall didn’t somehow do it the coach would make sure of it. He waited, and then, with his final act, pushed himself off into the river below, to be swept away forever.

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