The Green Bus
A journey too far
It was five thirty when Martin Fuller left his office on what seemed to be a normal Thursday evening in June. The weather was sunny and warm and, while walking the hundred yards or so to the bus stop, he took off his jacket and slung it over his shoulder. As it happened, he was pleased to get away from work, since the day had been particularly hectic, with two reports to be finished by the same five o’clock deadline. He had not slept too well the night before and was relieved to see the bus approaching after a wait of only a couple of minutes. It had become his habit to take the bus from his North London office to Gants Hill Station, towards the East, and then to board a Central Line train to Chigwell in Essex, from where a ten-minute walk took him home.
Martin was an economist by training and for the past five years he had worked in a successful consulting firm, specialising in forecasts for the European and Middle Eastern markets. He had recently been promoted to a supervisory position, which meant more money but also increased stress and longer hours. His working day started at half-past eight and, unless a client was being entertained, lunch had become a thing of the past, a sandwich at his desk usually having to suffice. On some days he had to stay until well after half-past five, but today, in spite of the deadlines, everything seemed under control and he decided to depart at the appointed time. He was looking forward to getting home, where he would see his wife Susan, a primary school teacher, and, traffic and tube services permitting, spend some time with their five-year old daughter Vanessa.
As he slumped into his seat on the bus, which was not all that crowded, it occurred to Martin that he felt, and probably looked, older than his thirty-five years. Glancing at the mirror that morning, he had noticed, for the first time, the appearance of a few flecks of grey in his receding hairline. Although he had a good salary, the mortgage payments on the house were crippling and his wife had already put Vanessa’s name down for an expensive private school. She also insisted that they needed two cars, while he thought that one was enough. Apart from occasional trips to the out-of-town stores on the commercial estate, he could not remember the last time he had driven alone. On top of all this, he and Susan were now officially ‘trying’ for a second baby, a process which had become so intense and time-consuming that he had actually begun to dread the sight of the bedroom door. At least he would be safe tonight, which had been designated as a television evening, and it was Susan’s turn to prepare dinner.
Something else was troubling him. Over the past few months, he had become convinced that his wife had formed an attachment to a neighbour named Rex. He was a bachelor who lived a little way down the street and, with his cravat and blazer, looked like something out of an Agatha Christie novel. Martin had only been into his house twice but on both occasions he had fully expected to find a body on the floor behind the living room sofa. It was not clear exactly what the nature of the ‘attachment’ was but recently Susan, when faced with almost any issue or problem, would respond by saying something like ‘Rex thinks..’ or ‘we should ask Rex’. Martin played squash every Tuesday with some friends and usually did not get home before ten-thirty. Susan already had an overloaded schedule and there was Vanessa to look after, so surely she would not have time to get up to anything, in spite of that cliché about asking a busy woman. The very thought of a liaison horrified Martin and he tried to put it out his mind. Nobody ever mentioned Rex’s surname; everyone called him Rex. Then, the other day, the postman had delivered a letter intended for him to the Fullers’ house by mistake. It was addressed to ‘Mr. R. Piddle’. No wonder he kept it to himself, thought Martin.
The bus was unusually quiet, and, as the traffic rumbled by, he closed his eyes. What happened next he would never understand. In fact, for a while he could not be sure if it was happening at all.
It began with someone prodding him in the back several times. Bleary-eyed as he awoke, he looked up and saw the bus driver, a gruff, bald man in an open-necked shirt and a peak cap, standing over him.
‘Come on, mate,’ he said, ‘this is the terminus. Time to get off.’
‘But I was only going to Gants Hill,’ replied Martin, still unsure what was going on.
‘We passed there a long time ago!’ exclaimed the driver. ‘This is Snettingsford.’
Martin looked out of the window and was confronted with a picture-book village containing a number of Tudor buildings. The bus was empty. He must have fallen asleep. Trying to come to grips with the situation, he began to panic a little.
‘I have to get back to Gants Hill!’ he cried. He looked at his watch; it was half-past seven. He had been on the bus for nearly two hours!
‘Are you going back on the same route?’ he asked.
‘Not me, mate,’ replied the driver. ‘I’m done for today. I’ll just park this bus safely and get off home. I only live just up the road.’
He looked pointedly at Martin, who was still sitting motionless in his seat.
‘I said that I’d like to get off home.’
‘Oh, yes,’ mumbled Martin, rising from his place by the window and stepping down from the vehicle. He had no idea that the bus to Gants Hill continued on so far into the countryside. Furthermore, he did not have the foggiest idea of where Snettingsford was. He noticed the driver climbing back into his cab.
‘How do I get back to Gants Hill?’ he asked, hopefully.
‘You need the green bus. It stops over there.’ He pointed to a grassy open space, which appeared to be the village green.
‘The green bus? What’s the number?’
‘It’s just the green bus. There’s no number. It has an advertisement for The Guardian on the back.’
‘One more question. Where is Snettingsford?’
The driver looked down at him impatiently.
‘Here!’ he declared.
‘No,’ said Martin, ‘I mean where is it near to? Which county are we in?’
‘It’s not near anywhere. I suppose it’s in Hertfordshire, or somewhere like that.’
‘But you live here! Don’t you know?’
‘Never gave it much thought, to tell you the truth. Now if you will excuse me, I’m off.’
The bus started up and moved forward about ten yards. All of a sudden, the driver stopped and put his head out of the cab window.
‘Take my advice. Make sure you get the green bus this evening. You don’t want to hang around here. Get out as soon as you can!’
With that, he revved the engine and disappeared out of sight.
What had the driver meant? Martin was still in a state of shock but he didn’t see any immediate danger. On the contrary, the place seemed very peaceful. Then, looking across the road, he saw a green bus about to depart in the direction he wanted to go.
‘Wait!’ he yelled, but it was too late. The bus moved off and a small boy stood at the back window, just above the Guardian advertisement, sticking his tongue out at him.
‘Hold on!’ cried Martin, breaking into a run. He followed the bus around the corner, towards what seemed to be the centre of the village. As the centre came into view, he noticed that the road narrowed dramatically and passed under a very low archway. Indeed, he was sure that he would have to bend his head to pass underneath it. Surely the bus could never get through. But it did.
The vehicle seemed to contract as it approached the archway. The effect was of a length of rope suddenly diminishing into a piece of thread and passing through the eye of a needle, before regaining its original form on the other side. Martin could only watch in amazement as the bus sped away into the distance, with the boy still gesturing in the back.
Martin strode down towards the arch, which was flanked by shops, now all closed, on each side. He could see that there was a pub a little way further down on the right. The street through the village was cobbled and the whole place had a rather ‘olde-worlde’ feel about it, like something out of a television costume drama. It occurred to Martin that there were no cars anywhere in sight; the whole place was almost deathly quiet.
He approached the arch and, sure enough, he had to lower his head to pass through it. With regard to its width, there was hardly room to extend his arms to the elbow on each side.
‘Impossible,’ he said to himself. ‘No bus could have gone through this.’ And yet he had just seen one do so, with his own eyes.
Beyond the arch, there was only one shop, a baker’s, on the left-hand side, and the pub, to which he was now close enough to read the sign outside. It said ‘The New World.’
In some desperation, he walked back to the bus stop near to the green, a distance of about two hundred yards. There was no timetable or any indication of bus numbers. He had no idea when the next bus would be or if there would be another one that evening. Looking around, Martin realised that, apart from the bus and its occupants, not only had he not seen a vehicle since arriving in Snettingsford, but also he had not seen another human being. He began to be concerned; he was not sure what was happening to him. He took out his phone with the intention of calling his wife and then checking the bus times. If all else failed, he could order a taxi to take him to the nearest town. But the phone was dead, as though the battery had been drained.
‘But I charged it before I left work,’ he thought. ‘It was full’.
It was now a quarter to eight. The late evening sun was still shining and he decided to walk back to the pub to see if there was anyone there.
As soon as he opened the door, he felt that he was indeed entering another world. The place was packed and the side doors opened out onto a beautiful garden where couples sat at benches and children were playing on swings. This was better, he thought. He was back in life as he knew it, in a typical, somewhat genteel English country pub with oak beams and pictures of rural life on the walls. On closer examination, he observed that the clientele was rather more mixed than he had first thought. In one corner, a man was sitting back in his chair, gently playing a classical guitar. In another, a game of snooker was in full swing, watched by a group of men who acted as though they were spectators at a boxing match. There was something unusual about the atmosphere of the place.
Martin approached the bar. A tall, fair-haired man was standing behind it.
‘Excuse me,’ said Martin. ‘Do you know when the next bus going to London leaves?’
‘You’re not local,’ replied the barman.
‘Well, no, I’m not local. But, you see, I need to take a bus tonight. There’s no timetable and I can’t get any information on my phone because it has gone flat.’
‘That’ll be the green bus,’ said a kindly-looking man sitting on a bar stool next to Martin. ‘I reckon there’s one at twenty past nine, but don’t miss it, it’s the last one today.’
‘Thanks,’ replied Martin, feeling rather relieved. ‘I suppose I’ll just have to wait. Can I buy you a drink?’
‘No, you can’t,’ came a voice from behind him. ‘He’s my mate. I’ll buy him one.’
It was the bus driver.
‘Oh, hello again,’ said Martin. ‘I’m quite prepared to buy him one. He was very kind to me just now. I will buy you both a drink if you like.’
‘No, you won’t. That’s not the way that we do things here.’
The kindly man looked embarrassed. The bus driver stared at Martin, examining him closely.
‘Am I supposed to know you?’ he asked. ‘You seemed very familiar when you addressed me.’
‘Well, yes. You drove the bus that brought me here this evening. You remember; you had to wake me up at the terminus.’
‘Don’t know what you’re talking about. I retired from driving buses five years ago.’
Martin was taken aback by this reply. He imagined that the driver was pulling his leg.
‘Perhaps you have a twin brother,’ he retorted, semi-seriously.
‘No. There’s only me.’
‘Or a double?’
‘Of course not. What’s the matter with you?’ He waved his hand dismissively and started to walk away.
Martin’s best course of action would have been to do nothing and kill time until the bus came. But he had become exasperated with the driver’s surly, unhelpful manner, now made worse by his deliberate lying. He moved from the bar and pursued him.
‘You drove my bus this evening!’ he shouted. ‘You know perfectly well that you did. Why are you lying? What is this place? Where am I?’
There was no response. In his excitement, Martin grabbed the driver by the collar and shook him. In the melee, the bus driver fell to the floor. Two other customers pulled Martin away.
When the bus driver got up, he fixed Martin with a menacing stare and walked past him out of the front door.
‘I told you that it’s best to get out of here,’ he mumbled.
Martin looked around the pub. Everyone had stopped what they were doing, had put down their drinks and were staring at him. The noises of people enjoying themselves in the garden had stopped. It was not a pleasant situation. Some of the men around the snooker table began to advance towards him, slowly but perceptibly. The barman, who had come out from behind the bar, tapped him on the shoulder.
‘I should make a run for it,’ he muttered. ‘I’ll do what I can to delay them.’
But it seemed to be too late. Two of the men were now covering the door; another blocked the entrance to the garden. The whole place had gone silent. A couple hurriedly ushered their two small children outside. The barman began to back-pedal, returning to behind the beer pumps. Several more of the men blocked Martin’s way, standing with their substantial arms folded. By now he was visibly trembling with fear; he felt sick in his stomach. Cornered, he thought that the best thing to do was to explain himself.
‘I don’t know what I’m supposed to have done,’ he pleaded, looking around at the ranks of grumpy locals. He displayed a nervous grin, which did not appear to have gone down well.
‘It’s not what you’ve done,’ replied a particularly burly man near the door. ‘It’s who you are; it’s what you represent.’
‘And what do I represent?’
‘You’re from down the line, from the green bus route. You’re an infiltrator and we don’t like your sort roughing up locals. It ain’t nice.’
‘Well, I’m sorry I grabbed him and that he fell. I apologise, but you have to understand that he lied to me. He said he never drove the bus that I was on, but he did. I saw him; I spoke to him.’
He immediately regretted saying this. The group advanced towards him.
‘They’re not welcome, these accusations,’ growled the burly man. ‘We all know Ted. He’s never told a lie in his life.’
‘All right,’ replied Martin, now panicking and raising his hands in front of him. He looked round for help to the barman but he had disappeared. ‘I withdraw that. I never meant to accuse him of lying.’
‘Too late now,’ said an older, bald man wearing a red bandana. ‘It seems that we have no choice. We’ll have to teach you a lesson.’
Half a dozen of them descended on Martin, lifting him off his feet and carrying him out of the door towards the green. A large crowd, comprising equally of men and women, began to follow. To the tune of ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow’, they all sang a song which began:
‘We’ll teach him a bloody good lesson’
‘We’ll leave him to rot on the green.’
Martin, looking back at the crowd, noticed that almost everyone was rather quaintly dressed, like villagers out of a rustic period drama. Many of the women had scarves wrapped around their heads, while men wore braces and some of them were smoking pipes.
‘Of course,’ thought Martin. ‘That was what was unusual, the smoke. We’re not used to it anymore, not since it was banned.’
He also noticed that everyone in the crowd, which was getting bigger by the minute, was white. It was not like anything he had ever seen in modern Britain. The whole experience was disturbing but it was not violent. He was being taken somewhere against his will, but it did not feel like a lynching, at least not yet. In fact, most of the people, including the men who had abducted him, seemed quite jovial.
‘You comfortable, are you?’ asked a younger man who was holding Martin’s left side. ‘Nice view from up there, I reckon.’
‘What are you going to do with me?’
‘Depends on the squire,’ said the man with the red bandana.
At that moment, they arrived at the green. Martin noticed that stocks had been erected in the middle. He was sure that they had not been there earlier. As the group carried him towards the wooden contraption, he became genuinely alarmed and began to struggle.
‘What the hell are you doing?’ he cried. ‘This isn’t the Middle Ages. Put me down! We are in the twenty-first century.’
‘Some of us may not want to be,’ declared the burly man, who had appeared on his right and pulled his neck quite roughly. Martin winced in pain.
‘Serves you right, young man. Your sort aren’t wanted around here. You should have thought of that before you came.’
‘But I didn’t choose to come here, I just arrived by accident. You must believe me.’
‘Not our problem,’ laughed the younger man, as they lowered him and began lifting open the stocks.
The mood of the crowd became more threatening. Its number seemed to have swelled even further. They began chanting:
‘In with his head, in with his hands, in with his feet!’
Martin could hear much laughter from behind him as his head, arms and feet were lowered into position. He caught a glimpse of his watch and saw that it was twenty past eight.
‘What about the bus?’ he asked, in desperation. He had noticed the kindly man from the pub standing nearby. ‘It is due in one hour; I have to be on it.’
‘Looks like that’ll be difficult!’ replied the burly man, to the continued mirth of the crowd.
‘Time to lock him in!’ announced the man with the red bandana, eliciting another throaty cheer and much applause from all around.
Martin felt the upper part of the wooden stocks close over him. He felt helpless, friendless, without hope. He could not look up and was forced to stare at the patchy grass in front of his nose. Then, all at once, he noticed that, in place of the general hubbub around him, silence had taken over. Suddenly, there was not even a whisper in the air. Then, a man’s voice, softer spoken and more educated than the ones he had so far encountered in the village, could be heard.
‘Let him go, please.’
Without hesitation, several of the men released Martin. Rather shakily, he got up and came face to face with a gaunt-looking man of about sixty. He had thinning hair and was wearing a shooting waistcoat.
‘I will take care of this gentleman,’ he declared. ‘I think it would be better if you all dispersed and went home.’
Martin sensed rumblings of discontent. Then, standing next to his saviour, he saw the bus driver.
‘They don’t like it,’ he said, looking rather wary. ‘How about we give them Derek, your lordship?’
The bus driver summoned two of the men, who then went over to the kindly man from the pub and bundled him into the stocks. A muffled cheer arose from the scattering crowd and people hurried back to witness the spectacle.
‘No!’ cried Martin. ‘He hasn’t done anything. He was very nice to me.’ Then, looking at all the grim faces nearby, he realised that this was probably the motivation for choosing him.
‘Bloody cowards, Bloody savages!’ he thought, but managed to keep his views to himself.
‘Come on,’ said the bus driver. ‘Go with the squire. It’s a good job I found him; they’re in a hungry mood tonight.’
The squire beckoned Martin.
‘Let’s go,’ he said. ‘You’ll be safe with us.’
As they departed from the green, Martin heard more cheers erupt. The kindly man was being pelted with tomatoes and what looked like whips were being handed out to people in the crowd. The bus driver had stayed behind and seemed to be joining in the fun.
‘For God’s sake!’ exclaimed Martin, looking at the squire. ‘Do we just stand here and watch? That man is totally innocent. Anyway, what is this? Is it 2016 or what?’
‘It’s best to let them get on with it,’ came the reply. ‘He won’t come to any harm. A few bruises, certainly, but nothing serious. There’s the humiliation, of course, but we’ve all known that. I’ve gone through it once or twice, at the annual fair. It’s a sort of safety valve really. They seem to need it, like a dog needs red meat from time to time.’
‘I have to get the green bus at nine twenty.’
‘I should forget about that if I were you. In any event, there is no bus, not tonight. They will be at it until late. My name’s Gareth, by the way.’
‘Well, I’m Martin and, to be honest, I don’t have any idea of what is happening to me at the moment. I don’t even know where I am.’
The squire smiled in a genial way, as though Martin’s situation was perfectly normal.
‘You’re in Snettingsford,’ he replied, putting his arm reassuringly around his guest’s shoulders. ‘It’s a nice enough place.’
Martin refused to be placated and pushed him away.
‘It doesn’t seem nice to me! Not nice at all. I’ve only just escaped from being put in the stocks and attacked by a mob, for no reason. And where is Snettingsford? I mean, where is it really? No one will tell me. I haven’t seen a car, or any sort of road sign. The bus driver said it was in Hertfordshire. Is that true?’
‘Don’t get so worked up about things.’ The squire obviously had no intention of answering the question. ‘We will be at my house soon; it’s about ten minutes’ walk up the hill.’
Martin, resigned to being denied an explanation, followed Gareth up to his house. The evening sky had clouded over and the light was fading as they walked through the imposing wrought iron gates and down the hundred yards of drive which led to the front door. The squire rapped loudly on one of the brass knockers.
‘Don’t you have a key?’ enquired Martin, genuinely puzzled.
The squire’s affable exterior was pierced by this question.
‘I do not carry keys,’ he replied, haughtily. ‘In the same way that Royals do not carry money. I employ servants to open doors.’
‘Do you carry money?’ For some reason, Martin suddenly found the whole situation hilarious. The squire did not reply.
At that moment, the front door was opened by a slim, red-haired woman who was clearly not a servant.
‘This is my wife, Helena,’ said the squire, rather sadly. He nodded at Martin and strode into the house, leaving his visitor on the steps. Helena reached out to Martin and led him into the hallway.
‘It’s true, I am his wife. As you must have noticed, I am much younger than he is and, quite frankly, he’s a bit past it these days, if you get my meaning. Still…….’
In a well-practised gesture, she stepped forward and ran her hand down the front of his shirt.
‘You look a lot more fun.’
‘I’m sorry,’ said Martin, trying to sound authoritative. ‘I am here against my will. I’ve no intention of staying.’
But Helena was clearly not interested. She began to climb the staircase, then stopped and turned.
‘It’s the second bedroom on the right. The one with the blue door.’ Her gaze was icy and very purposeful. ‘Take your time, have a look around. There’s no hurry.’
‘Why won’t anyone listen to me?’ screamed Martin, looking up the stairs at the imposing ceiling. But Helena had gone. Then, turning towards a side window, he saw a green bus approaching on the road leading down to the village.
‘The bus! I must get it.’
Martin threw open the front door and ran down the steps. But he could proceed no further. The villagers had massed in the drive and on both sides of the lawn, covering all the exits. On the road to the left Martin could see the bus approaching, very slowly. If he ran, he could still get to the village green in time. He took off at full speed down the drive with the intention of breaking his way through.
It didn’t work. He collided with the human wall formed by the villagers and bounced back off it, as if he were a tennis ball. He charged again and this time was pushed roughly to the ground.
‘The bus,’ he shouted. ‘I have to get the bus!’
‘There will be no bus.’ It was the burly man who came forward to speak.
‘Anyhow, I don’t see why you need it.’ It was the man with the red bandana. ‘There’s plenty to keep you entertained here.’
‘Time for you to go and do your duty!’ declared the bus driver, who was standing nearby. ‘It’s a lot more fun than being in the stocks, like poor old Derek.’ The whole crowd laughed and saluted.
By now, Martin could see the lights of the bus, shining brightly through the dusk, as it made its way into the village. He knew that it would be too late to catch it now and he knew that he would never succeed in breaking through the serried ranks of the villagers. Reluctantly, he turned and headed back to the Manor House in the gathering gloom.
As he entered, he could see Helena at the top of the staircase. She had changed into a short pink dressing gown.
‘There’s no point trying to resist, Martin,’ she said. ‘They all try to, but it never works. You will not be any different. You know where I am.’ She strode enticingly back to her room. Without realising it, Martin was craning his neck to get one last glimpse of her opening the door. The next moment, he heard a familiar voice from his right-hand side. It was that of a young child; it was his daughter, Vanessa.
She was carrying a colouring book and showed him into the room where she had been working on it. It was a small bedroom and on the desk there was a story book with pictures, which Martin recognised.
Overwhelmed by this turn of events, he picked up his daughter and hugged her.
‘Vanessa! My darling! How did you get here? Who brought you?’
‘Mummy brought me, Daddy. I think she’s next door with Uncle Rex.’
‘With Uncle …?’ Martin recoiled at this point and almost dropped the little girl.
‘You mean Rex from our street, across the road?’
‘Yes, that one. He comes over a lot, especially on Tuesday’s, when you play squash. He’s very nice, he bought me some chocolate.’
Martin settled Vanessa down in bed and went to look next door. He thought he could hear voices through the wall and feared the worst. Opening the wood-panelled door, he found himself inside an ultra-modern, white-tiled bathroom. The place was hot and steamy. In the far corner, there was a very spacious shower compartment and behind the glass door he could see the outlines of two people. He could hear a woman giggling excitedly.
‘Oh, Rex!’ came her voice, ‘You are naughty, naughty, naughty.’ The last word faded away as she was pulled into an embrace. He knew that it was Susan’s voice and he knew who she was with. He turned round and left the bathroom. As he closed the door, he saw that Helena was standing in front of him.
‘I told you,’ she purred. ‘There’s no point. I’ll take care of you now.’ She put her arms around him, almost comfortingly.
‘I don’t understand,’ spluttered Martin, leaning on her shoulder. ‘I don’t understand what is happening.’
‘Never mind,’ said Helena, staring into his eyes. ‘It doesn’t matter. Nothing matters now, except us. Just give me a moment.’
They were both the same height and, being so close to her, he was having to make a real effort to keep his distance.
Helena made her way into the living room on the left-hand side of the hall. Her dressing gown seemed to be getting shorter all the time.
‘Darling,’ she shouted, over the strains of Elgar’s first symphony, ‘I’m going to show Martin around. Goodnight.’
‘Goodnight,’ replied a faint voice.
‘He loves that,’ she whispered, playfully. ‘Sometimes he listens to it three times in the same day.’
Suddenly, there was a squeal from behind the bathroom door. Martin looked round. Helena clasped his hand.
‘Come on,’ she said, ‘let’s take your mind off all this.’
When Martin awoke the next morning, the sun was already shining and had pierced a couple of tiny gaps in the curtains. For a few minutes, he stretched out on the mattress and felt at ease with the world. Then, looking at the clock and seeing that it was twenty-past eight, he began to panic.
‘I should be at work in ten minutes,’ he thought, and sat bolt upright in the bed. At that moment, he realised where he was. He had hoped it might be a dream, but no, he was still here, wherever it might be.
He was alone in the bed and the room. He could not deny that he had spent an enjoyable night with Helena but, in spite of that, he was angry. She had a warm, soft body but there had been no love, no feeling. How could there be? He had just given himself, as a reaction to the shock of seeing Rex and Susan together. What were they doing here? And who was looking after Vanessa?
As he started to get dressed, there was a knock on the door. It half opened and the squire put his head in. He was wearing a sports jacket and a spotted cravat and appeared decidedly cheerful. It occurred to Martin that an outfit that looked absurd on Rex suited Gareth down to the ground.
‘Feeling alright, Martin? I trust that my wife looked after you well. We are all in the breakfast room. See you down there, old man.’
You know perfectly well what your wife was doing, Martin said to himself, but presumably you don’t care. Just as you never answer my questions. Just as no one answers my questions.
He had to call work, but his phone was dead. There was a phone in the bedroom but there was no sign of a signal. He would have to go downstairs.
A couple of minutes later, he entered the breakfast room. The breakfast was served in a buffet form and everyone was sitting at a long table. Helena sat at the far end, wearing her pink dressing gown. At the near end was the squire, apparently writing a diary. On the left side sat Vanessa, still colouring her book of stories. With their backs to Martin, and both wearing full-length bath robes, were Susan and Rex.
Martin, who had not eaten since the previous day’s lunch break, helped himself to toast and cornflakes but was reluctant to sit down.
‘I need to phone,’ he announced. ‘I have to call my office. At once.’
There was no reply; no one at the table even looked up. Martin approached the squire.
‘Look,’ he said, trying to stay calm. ‘Gareth, I have to call my office and tell them that I will be late today. Could you show me where there is a phone, or just show me where I can charge mine?’
The squire’s bland expression did not change. He hardly bothered to look up. Martin was becoming annoyed by his evasive manner and raised his voice a little.
‘I have to make that call. You must realise that. It took me years to get to my present position and I am not going to put it at risk. My family depends on this job.’
The whole table remained silent. Martin turned to his wife, who was hunched over her breakfast with her head buried in the bath robe. He took her by the shoulders and turned her round.
‘Susan! Tell him! I need that job! We all……’
But it was not Susan’s face he saw. The hair was the same but the face was the wrinkled face of an old woman with several blackened teeth. Her companion, whom he had thought, from behind, to be Rex, revealed himself as a prune-faced old retainer.
‘We had better go and get changed,’ cackled the woman.
‘Our servants,’ said the squire. ‘They have been here for generations.’
‘But Vanessa, she is…’ Then Martin noticed that his daughter was not there either. A completely different little girl lifted her head, smiled and got up to leave the table.
‘Go and ask your grandparents where you can play, Chloe,’ said Helena. She looked at Martin. ‘She’s lovely, isn’t she?’
With this, Helena got up and took Martin by the hand, leading him to a chair.
‘You see, Martin,’ said the squire, gently, ‘none of this matters. Phones don’t matter, work doesn’t matter, your family doesn’t matter, you don’t matter. In fact, nothing matters now, except Helena, myself and everyone here. You have to concentrate on us now.’
‘We’re on your side, Martin,’ added Helena.
Martin looked out of the French windows leading to the garden and saw that the villagers were all standing outside, their faces pressed up against the glass. They were all smiling, in a rather inane fashion. He could see the burly man, the man with the red bandana, and even Derek, the kindly man, gamely grinning through his bumps and bruises. The whole effect was terrifying. Martin had never felt so alone, or so vulnerable. The squire got up and waved his hand.
‘Well done, everybody. Now back to work with you.’
The crowd duly dispersed. Martin noticed that the bus driver was not there.
Half an hour later, at about twenty past nine, Martin was still sitting at the table, finishing his breakfast. The squire had left the room but Helena was still there; she was becoming more and more impatient.
‘Come on, Martin,’ she giggled. ‘Time to go back upstairs.’
Martin felt desperate.
‘This is a dream,’ he kept telling himself. ‘It’s a bad dream, but none of it has really happened. I will wake up, I will wake up.’
He looked out of the French windows, from where he could see the road leading into the village. In the distance he could see the green bus. In an instant, he sprung out of his chair and grabbed and pulled at the window handles. They were open, and he found himself running, across the garden, down the drive, out of the front gates and down to the centre of the village.
Martin expected to hear shouting from behind him and to be chased by the villagers. But nothing happened. He saw the burly man cutting a hedge and was greeted by a smile and a cheery wave. When he reached the green, Snettingsford seemed like a normal village. People were going about their daily business, just like anywhere else. A few were carrying bags of shopping, while others were sitting on benches, passing the time of day. It was with a growing sense of relief that he saw the green bus, manned by the same driver who had brought him here the previous day, pull up at the stop. As he climbed aboard, he noticed that there were no other passengers.
‘Am I glad to see you!’ he exclaimed, showing his pass to the bus driver.
‘That’s not valid!’ snapped the driver in response.
‘What do you mean? I’ve used it for years.’
‘It’s no good round here,’ said the driver. ‘You’ll have to get off.’
‘I’m not getting off!’ Martin was sensing trouble. He noticed that some of the villagers were gathering nearby.
‘You don’t have any choice. This is the terminus.’
‘It can’t be. I have to go to Gants Hill, on the way to London.’
‘Never heard of it.’
Martin knew that he had to take action. This could be his last chance to get out of this nightmare. Using strength he did not know he had, he seized the bus driver, pulled him out of his seat and hurled him onto the pavement. He then shut the doors. Easing himself into the driver’s place, he saw that the villagers had surrounded the bus, but could not afford to worry about this.
He had quite a bit of driving experience and was able to start the engine and move forward. As the few people in front of the bus scattered, he began to gather speed and headed for the centre of the village. This was the only way out, as the road behind him had now been blocked off. As he turned into the main street, he felt calmer, safe inside his sealed vehicle. In front of him, perhaps a hundred yards down the road, he spotted the low archway that he had seen the bus pass through the day before.
‘I will get through this,’ he shouted to himself. ‘I saw the bus get through yesterday. There is no reason why I can’t do the same. It’s just a matter of belief.’ Checking the mirror, he saw that the crowd was gaining on him. He pushed down the accelerator and began to speed up. People standing outside shops ran back inside or disappeared down a side street. The bus was drawing closer to the arch and yet the arch seemed to be shrinking, almost to the size of a toy replica.
‘I can do this!’ he cried. ‘The eye of a needle, that’s all I need. I know I can do it.’
He increased speed and the bus began to vibrate as it hit some cobbles in the street. Instinctively, he ducked his head below the steering wheel as the arch approached.
‘Faster, faster! Must go faster! Just one more…’
He was now just yards away. All of a sudden, he realised that everything had gone quiet. There was no noise from the engine, no more vibration from the cobbles. He could see customers inside the shops shouting and pointing at what lay ahead of him. Raising his head, he realised that the bus was still speeding along but that now the arch had closed. There was no gap at all. The whole thing was bricked up and he was heading straight for it.
He did not sense any impact. Everything just seemed to stop and go dark. He tried to move but, although he did not feel any discomfort, he could not; it was as though he was wedged into a tunnel. He waited, motionless, for what seemed like hours, but may have just been a few minutes, or a few days. There were no clocks, no watches, no phones. Time just seemed to stand still.
Eventually, he heard some voices behind him and could see some torches outside. Someone appeared in front of the bus in a yellow jacket and motioned that he should open the window. Since it was within reach, he did so immediately. The face of Gareth, the squire, appeared next to the window. Helena was beside him.
‘Don’t worry, old man,’ said the squire. ‘You’re going to be all right.’
‘Where am I?’ asked Martin.
‘You don’t need to know that,’ replied Helena.
‘Why won’t you answer my question?’ yelled Martin. He could sense himself becoming angry but before he could continue he felt an intense pain coursing through his whole body and he slumped back into the seat.
‘Take it easy,’ said the squire. ‘You will have to learn that there is no point in asking questions here, unless they are ones that we want to answer.’
‘I need to call my office!’ exclaimed Martin, weakly. ‘I need to call my wife. I want to see my daughter. I have a right to.’
‘There are no rights here,’ replied the squire, in a matter of fact way. ‘Here, there are obligations. To us, to everyone who lives here, as I told you. In return, you have peace of mind, certainty. You will be looked after, all your wants will be satisfied. What more can you ask?’
‘I want to leave,’ croaked Martin.
‘There’s no need. How can anywhere be better than Snettingsford? You did a silly thing but we will forgive you, this time.’
‘You will learn to love the place,’ said Helena, reassuringly, as she reached through the window and stroked his hair.
‘We’re on your side,’ she whispered.
Perhaps they are, thought Martin. Perhaps they are.
The pain subsided and he sat up in the seat again.
‘I must wake up!’ he yelled. ‘I must wake up!’
‘It must have been a difficult Christmas for you, Mrs Fuller.’ The sympathetic police sergeant sipped her coffee, as she spoke to Susan on a cold, dark Wednesday morning the following January. The decorations were still up in the house and the Christmas tree was lit. Vanessa was seated in the corner, looking at a book of puzzles.
Susan Fuller put down her cup and stared into space.
‘Yes,’ she sighed. ‘It was. But Rex has been such a help and a comfort.’
‘I’m so glad. It’s important to have support at a time like this.’
Little did either of them know, but at that moment Rex Piddle, the helpful, supportive and entirely blameless neighbour, lay dead behind the sofa in his living room.