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It’s his first day back and he knows it must go well; no mistakes, no loss of concentration. Next time it may not be an empty bus, and he may not walk away.
Sitting hunched on the side of the bed, like a patient waiting for a doctor, the Driver stares at yesterday’s socks on the faded Paisley carpet, then over Portree’s damp rooftops to Ben Tianavaig, or where he remembers it when it’s not draped in dust sheets of cloud.
Like many mornings on the Isle of Skye, the dawn rushes in only to be crushed by a ceiling of sheet steel with no gaps for days, or weeks, by which time people have forgotten there is a sky. In the summer the days are long but in the winter the energy slips away, like a child leaving home, and what remains is empty and seems to have no end. But today is the first day of spring, and the Bus Driver has decided this shift will be his last.
Of the three photos on his table, only his mother’s is upright. It was taken at a time before the reflections in her eyes were stolen from her. Now, when he thinks of her, she is sitting in her kitchen, hiding in routine with no interest in a future she had entrusted to her husband. He wonders if she ever talks of his father or admits that her son moved to Scotland after answering an advert for an island bus driver. He has been away two years now, one of those with Madeleine. When he calls his mother she asks few questions and he has little to tell her: he drives a bus, he lives above a shop, he drinks cheap wine, and he is now alone.
The Driver will start his route at Kyle of Lochalsh on the mainland, then back to Portree, the main town in the middle of the island, and then north to Uig and the ferries to the Outer Hebrides. Back and forth throughout the day, through corridors of green left by winter rain, he will clock off back in Kyle overlooking the bridge that connects the island to the rest of Scotland. It’s a bridge that needs no tickets or queues. It’s the bridge that took Madeleine away.
When he drives over it he thinks of her, or an image he now has of her like the photograph face down on the table. In it she is smiling, holding her violin as she was when he met her, rehearsing in the Old Parish Church. As she played, she smiled, a smile too heavy for her slight frame yet, without it, she would seem imbalanced. Her green eyes were the brightest thing on the island, framed in a collage of hair dyes that matched the patches on her dungarees, or at least seemed to. He watched her like a stray dog, not breaking his gaze in case she looked away. He was entranced, she was intrigued. He was new, and she jumped into his life and rummaged around with restless energy as if she already knew how their story would end.
She told him she liked his gentleness and that he looked lost in the north, taking a job that not many wanted. “You would be like one of those aid workers in a famine,” she said, her West Highland voice music in itself and so unlike accents he thought all Scots would have. She showed him the island and taught him some Gaelic so that he wouldn’t stand out; smoothing over the joins. She was an enthusiastic tutor in all things, which allowed him to listen and bathe in her attention. Quickly he fell into the rhythm of her life while she anchored him to this place he had drifted into. His frowns started to soften and he would find himself smiling even when looking in the mirror or facing a squall waiting for the Mallaig Ferry.
After a few weeks rarely apart she moved into his flat, and he felt for the first time that this was what people called a home. She practiced when he was out and at night would read to him with the excitement of someone paying a worrisome debt. She read a pile of novels about faraway places he had struggled with at school; Greene’s Havana, Hemmingway’s Spain, and Marquez’s Caribbean; hot, claustrophobic societies in linen dresses and stained shirts, while they lay in bed and the Atlantic threatened to rip off the roof.
The new bus arrived last week, smart as new shoes. At Kyle, the Driver checks the gauges, switches, and mirrors. He checks the wee hammers above the windows for use in emergencies and adjusts the seat belt the other drivers never use. But they have never been cut from wreckage or spent two nights in hospital and weeks recovering, and had countless nightmares and conversation in their heads.
The train, after a glorious five hours from Inverness, decants to the bus, and passengers swarm into the space between arriving and departing: a place with its own language. There’s a middle-aged woman with the look of the islands, he thinks; a ruddy, pebble-face eroded by Atlantic winds; backpackers looking at their tickets and the front of the bus; a girl wearing a sweatshirt with the face of Karl Marx, kicking this small world; a 20-something stabbing the keys of a laptop as he shows his ticket, wearing a light waterproof that won’t withstand the Atlantic. He must be from the Mainland, the Driver thinks, watching for eye contact that never comes, as proof. Then he pushes a button and the Italian diesel hums into life, like blood pulsing through his neck.
There is sweat on the steering wheel as the doors close and the bright yellow bus, still smelling of a distant factory, leaves its harbour of parked cars and heads north through the flat lands between broken mountains and rocky myths. The beautiful rhythm of the new engine is interrupted by the laptop keyboard. In the mirror he sees the perpetrator, focused on his work and not the place they are in; ‘Probably salmon farms. A bloody graduate!’
The Driver’s school friends – not that he would call them friends – graduated last year. He didn’t want to go to university, to turn into his father. There had been a time when he worshipped him, and his mother listened to his father like she still had a crush; the time when he made all the decisions for the family and planned holidays like military exercises. They were big, restless adventures touring America, or Canada with its forests and mountains where everything was wider, brighter and greener than their Surrey home and the clouds so high up that the sun shone under them.
Then there was the coach in Alaska. And everything changed.
They had been dropped off to see black bears at a shrinking glacier. Two cubs became aware of cameras and smiling faces, and, sensing their distress, the mother came growling through the forest. A Park Ranger ushered everyone back to the car park. “We are taking you back to Juneau, if the bears don’t eat us.”
His father didn’t see the funny side. “These are dangerous places,” he said, confused, like suddenly he had doubts, and not just about this trip; that he was now vulnerable. He stared in disbelief at his shaking hands, while his head tremor left him out of focus.
Waving at black bears in the trees, the young Driver wished he could stay on the bus and not go back to a home that had become volatile, like they were waiting for a flood. Here he felt safe, surrounded by metal on all six sides. Back home he thought about those bears and how they didn’t frighten him as much as his father who withdrew to his garden and started to regard his son with suspicion, as though he had fulfilled the adoption contract and there was no need for an extension.
The following summer, the Driver failed his school exams. His father seemed resigned to his only child’s limitations as he was his own, suffering demotions and time off work. While his father’s troubles were not a secret, they became public when he decided there was a solution. It was the Driver who found him, hanging in the garage one Sunday morning as he went to collect his bike, his mother sitting at the kitchen table drinking cold tea from a pot, her hair combed and the radio on. The Driver had never seen his mother cry, and she didn’t that day or any of the days that followed. There was no funeral and no grave. It was as if it never happened; that his father had never existed or had been left behind at the glacier to be eaten by bears. He watched her lose focus, lose colour and fade away leaving only footprints on the carpet and rustling behind her bedroom door. When he returned from school each day, she looked surprised to see him.
Over the bridge the bus slows immediately at Kyleakin, the first stop on the island. A few passengers get off and start walking to hotels and hills. He knows he will see them again, like old friends whose names he has forgotten. Onwards to Dunan over the shooshing of a wet road that looks like a damp carpet of green and brown wool ripped by the bus; exposing tarmac behind. Then to Sconser, where the graduate leaves for the fish farms with his laptop and his thoughts, like he was a sole passenger.
Up ahead, the shapes of the mountains blur in the mist then vanish as others rise up to then also disappear, leaving only the Driver’s reflection in the windscreen. Then that too is gone as a dark haar drifts in like a rock face, and the headlights come on to cut through and leave a long yellow tunnel behind. After two stops the mainland is a distant memory.
In a few miles of driving through a patchwork of greys, the bus stops at Sligachan; a small bus shelter at the side of the road and a short walk to the hotel and camp site. A few walkers get off and look for directions for the hills, then see the old stone bridge and the view of the Cuillins beyond. Bindweed creeps over the verge, couch grass pushes through the narrow pavement. A discarded map lies in a puddle. “Somewhere,” the Driver thinks, “someone is very, very lost,” and the bus wheel flattens the folds.
On empty days he stops here and sits on the grass to look across the narrows to tiny Scalpay, like a continent just a hundred metres away. He wonders what it would be like to live there – a stone cottage, fishing nets and lobster pots, and a sturdy rowing boat like the ones he used to hire with Madeleine until her affair with the barman from The Plough.
She denied it at first, even when they went to the pub and Dave would look down her blouse with two narrowed eyes and tease her. He would lean forward, his fuelled belly leaning on the counter, his bass voice used to shouting at rooms full of people. She would laugh in a way that she never did: baring her teeth, pushing her hair back, slowly building a contempt for others around her as she burned up an excess of energy the Driver had seen build up for weeks.
“You don’t have to put up with him.”
“Och, he’s harmless, like a teddy bear,” she would say, but the Driver had seen bears and had read about a hiker in Alaska who was killed by a bear and remembered the description of her body being found. In the bar, he also remembered his father’s words at the glacier.
When the affair started, Madeleine stopped telling the Driver what she did when he was driving. She stayed out late, took phone calls in the other room, and sometimes returned in the morning as though that should be alright with him, like he was invisible or it was not necessary to see him.
They stopped eating together, and, when they spoke, he asked her about Dave. She would laugh or get angry like he was to blame. Like his father, she had dragged him into a deal she would not honour. This was not the Madeleine in the photo.
Sometimes she would come back in the middle of the night, and he would stand shamefully at the curtains then pretend to be asleep in a cold bed as her shadow passed over him. Lying still, his head played a record of her affair with possibilities he didn’t want to hear. Then silence, like the calls to his mother.
He would spend nights drinking at Scorrybreac Hill or down at Black Rock with the briny ripples round his feet, having conversations with Madeleine in his head about how they would marry and how the children would have her cheek bones and his hair.
Thoughts of the old Madeleine, as he started to think of her, displaced the truth. He would plan time with his thoughts, and they became the most important parts of his day; reliving good times they had, saying to her things he hadn’t before, and examining the dialogue he invented. If he didn’t like it, he would relive it again to give himself hope. He came up with a fantasy that the old Madeleine had been kidnapped. His happiness was Madeleine as a missing person.
So he drank to wash her away, from one to three bottles a night. He thought he could drive drunk by reflex using the wind and the water like ancient mariners. But he passes the barn at Broadford still with a yellow bruise from the impact, while his own are hidden.
The night before the crash he had a nightmare. There were bears on the bus, looking out of the window for a forest or a river with salmon, but there were none on his route. His father sat on the bus surrounded by bears, looking for his son to help.
“You’re too young to be driving the bus. These are dangerous places!” And the bears laughed and looked for a river they wouldn’t cross. “You should have checked for the wee hammers,” plead his father, crying blue glacial tears, and the Driver woke up holding his breath.
The last time he saw Madeleine, she mocked him. Perhaps she never cared. Perhaps he was gullible to her charm. Perhaps she needed a roof to sleep under. Rapidly she undid the seamless joins she had tried to make for his life, angry that she hadn’t done a better job.
“Can’t you just get angry?” she said.
“What good would that do?”
“Well at least we would know that your mother was not alone.”
Then he was alone. She left in a hurry after packing up her life and her hunger that he had relied on but now reminded him of his father near the end. She left a case in the hallway. He often wonders what’s inside; clothes with her smell, books she read him, or memories of their time together she no longer wanted. And he wonders if his father thought of him at the end.
That evening he saw Dave with another woman as the last bus left for Armadale. Two weeks later he crashed.
He still can’t remember leaving Portree or stopping anywhere; just crashing. He had often spent whole shifts and had no recollection until he got to Kyle of Lochalsh and found himself facing the bridge back to Skye and became anxious in fear the bridge would collapse and he would be trapped on the Mainland. Some days when he left his flat it was as if his soul left his body and he would pick it up again when he was in the Co-Op buying wine, unsure if he had been to Uig, Armadale or Kyle, or nowhere at all, and would look down to see if he was wearing his badge.
At the mouth of Portree the bus passes familiar grey stone houses with dark, vacant windows and spartan gardens. Grasses stand tall, brushed with the colour of summer growth to come. At the main bus station, three small lanes at the corner of Somerled Square, there is an exchange of tourists for islanders who will head north to little Uig. From there most will take a boat to the Outer Hebrides, like they have seen the end of the earth and go willingly sailing towards it.
The girl with the sweatshirt is met by her mother, they hug at a distance. Some Chinese tourists look out for a city they thought bigger than this. Hebrideans stay seated, impatient to move on to Uig and back home. A young woman gets on, fumbling tickets and phones carrying her bag like it is a stranger’s. The Driver notices her eyes are deep and dark, retreating into her thoughts, yet she makes eye contact. She attempts a smile. But it’s not like Madeleine’s smile. He smiles back.
In the past week, he has had a crescendo of conversations with Madeleine in his head.
“I saw a girl at Breakish today with a case like yours.”
“You came here to escape, didn’t you. I gave you some sort of hope,” she says.
“I used to wonder where people came from, what was their story, but now I wonder why they are here, on the island. Some days they all look the same. Then on other days it’s as if I can read their lives. That girl got off the bus like she was walking into a monsoon. Maybe it was you.”
“Maybe that girl couldn’t find what she wanted. Maybe there was nothing to find. You know I always took what I wanted.”
“Maybe I need to….”
“You need to stop being scared. ‘I’m checking for the wee hammers.’ Always ready to escape. Maybe one day you will.”
“I remember a Ranger in Canada saying bears move in a direction that feels right to them, they can smell the wind ten miles away.”
“But you have to be in the river to catch salmon, not the bloody Co-op. You are so hell bent on not ending up like your father you have ended up being your mother. But so what if it didn’t work out between us. Maybe you will see me again and I will have changed, you will have changed. There will be other Madeleines or you will find the Madeleine you believe exists, but when you find her she will be different, and she may not play the violin. Anyhow, you hated that music.”
And she stops arguing, but smiles again like a picture of a missing person he needs to save: 5’4’’, strawberry blond hair, slightly built, green eyes – were they blue? Perhaps it’s a black and white picture. Maybe they were green.
Passengers are waiting to have tickets checked. The new diesel engine drowns out his voices, like tinnitus. Then the bus leaves the streets of Portree, passed vans and campervans, and holiday makers in anoraks and hats.
“Uig. Last stop.” The PA closes with a soft click.
The Driver parks the bus at the little harbour in little Uig, cradled by rock and grass and a few scattered houses. The ferry for Harris is preparing to leave; grey fumes shimmering from the funnel while excited cars drum over the decks to nestle on-board. Exhausted, after just 40 minutes, his nerves cauterized, his touch and smell in stasis, he breathes in gallons of borrowed oxygen. He rubs sweat into his face. Passengers grab bags and disappear like they have been blown away by the Gulf winds. The brief relationship with the Driver, and for some the island, is over. The Driver has seen a lot of people come to the island. And he has seen even more leave.
He leaves his badge and keys on the seat and picks up a small case: the case Madeleine left behind. He stands on the quay and looks at a view he has never really seen before. Not like this. A haze of tiny, water particles levitate above the foam, shielding the earth from the sky. Wind breathes through wires draped between telegraph poles like loose violin strings. He feels inebriated, not from alcohol, but a new feeling in his limbs. His shoulders fall under the weight of his arms like his muscles have forgotten how to support him. His insides push on his ribs and the ground fights against his feet. He can feel the pebbles, the gravel, the mud, and the cracks in the concrete.
He walks to the foot passenger desk and a young woman, no more than a teen, smiles, and charges him for a ticket, glancing at his bus company uniform; “Is it just for yourself, today?” He smiles at the music in her voice.
“Yes, it’s just me.”
“Och, you’re English. I hope you have enjoyed your stay.”
On deck, the milky fog that threatened retreats and the vibrations from the engines drown all other sounds. There are no sounds, no voices. He is in a place between departing and arriving where he doesn’t need to look back, where he owes no one anything, where he is not running away but looking for something, and he has all the time in the world to find it and it’s a big world.
He tries to remember if he dreamed last night. But those memories are gone, like the fog. Maybe he left them on the bus; abandoned with its doors open, its lights on and 24 confused passengers inside.
As the ferry drifts passed fishing boats and buoys in the light breeze from the southwest, halyards slap masts and waves get trapped between boats. There is a smell of sea, strong today, acrid and salty. He can see Harris, ragged, like no one has combed its hair, sitting on folds of light sea water that meets a sky of just clouds, and the island is a small, careless brush stroke on a wet canvas. Though he has never been there, he knows it will never be home.