Bus Rides to If and When by Jay Merill

One

We get off the bus at the botanical gardens. There’s a gateway each side of the road. We look at one, go in the other. The one where we do not go shows a glimpse of wild. The one where we do is tidy, decorative. I like the wild side but my mother tells me we are going to this one because there is a cafeteria. She wants to have a sit down, asks me, would I like to have a doughnut. I say Yes.

I eat the crisp brown sugary part, suck out the jam. Leave the pudgy dough. My mother says it’s not a good thing to do; that you should eat it all together. She sips her coffee, I mop up the remaining sugar from my plate. She buys me a glass of orange-juice to wash it down. I drink a bit of it then the straw seals up.

That’s what happens when you bite the end, my mother goes. She says I’ll have to drink the rest from the glass.

I don’t much care for the feel of the glass on my lips. It is cold, hard, unyielding. I bring my teeth tight against it, there’s a clicking sound.

Be careful or the glass will break, she snaps.

If the orange were fizzy you would not need to have a straw and you could drink it straight from the can. My mother wouldn’t like me doing that because she has standards. She’d just say you could cut your mouth on the rim of the metal but her nose would twitch because she disapproved in any case.

We walk to the ornamental pond. At the centre is an upright statue of a fishlike creature with an open mouth from which water spurts. I don’t like the statue’s greenish look. As though it’s covered in scabs which have gone bad. I wonder if the water that pours out of it is poisoned but I like the swishing sound it makes as it hits the pool.

A lady is sitting on the stone edge. She talks to my mother, says her name is Ala and her husband is held prisoner in a desert-land. I imagine drifts of yellow sand which stretch on forever, the wind blowing, making wavy lines. The lady starts to cry. My mother searches for a hanky, pats the lady’s arm. In the desert your feet would sink into the sandy dryness. You’d hardly be able to move. Anyway, you’d be seen if you tried to run away because there’d be nothing for you to hide behind.

Ala has a little girl who is running up and down along the parapet.

My mother says, Mind she doesn’t fall in.

The girl’s name is Mori. She is five years younger than I am. I’m eleven now. My mother tells me to play with her. We have a race on the grass next to the flowerbeds. I experiment with being an older sister, set the rules of the game.

Before we leave the botanical gardens my mother writes down our address, says would Ala and Mori like to come to ours – to a tea party. They both say, Yes, Yes, they’d love to come. Ala presses my mother’s hand.

On Sunday I stand by the window as my mother lays out plates and knives and napkins on the table, slices up a chocolate cake. I wait and wait but there’s still no sign of them.

‘I had the feeling they wouldn’t come,’ my mother says. Her eyes look wistful, sad. Then she shrugs, says most probably they got lost. They are from another country and don’t know their way around.

I picture Ala and Mori adrift in a plain of sandy yellow, picture them going round and round in circles seeking a way out all in vain.

My mother gives me a slice of the cake – she calls it gateau.

‘Eat up,’ she says. ‘The party’s over. It’s getting late.’

The gateau has chocolate icing and two layers of dark brown sponge separated by whipped up cream. I quickly pull the two halves apart, swallow down the cream and icing which are moist and melty. Leave what my mother refers to as the best of it, which is floury dry against my tongue.

*

Two

I see myself standing in a high tower. I do not wish to descend to earth. Or to see too clearly what is occurring there. What I think back to is the tall high cliff and the tall high cafe and me on a tall high stool and me drinking from a tall high glass. This took place in Budleigh Salterton. I had gone there on the cliff bus with my mother. It was all tall and steep and high. And frightening because I felt I might topple over. But as it happens, fear kept me bobbing, kept me buoyant, never sinking. As we went along we looked down at a sea of wavy green.

This narrative is composed of facts joined together. We did this and then we did that. And so…. on. In our set location; at our set time. But what is the source of this story, what is to be its end?

A girl and her mother took a bus to Budleigh Salterton. The bus went along the coast road. The road was winding. It went higher and higher. So did the bus. When they got to the very-top they got off. Got off quickly. They were the only ones leaving the bus. Up there; up there.

It was windy. The girl’s hair blew around her head and face in a gust. The mother was wearing a hat which she had to hold tight to her head. At the summit of the cliff was a cafe. A tall high cafe. They went in the door and there was a tall high counter with tall high stools on which they sat. They were so near the door the girl who was me was afraid she might fall off the stool which had silver-shiny legs and looked as though they could tip her off easily. She had a drink in a tall ribbed glass. Her mother called it ice-cream soda. Inside the fizzy liquid was a ball of ice-cream and she dipped in the long handled spoon to try and jab at a bit of it. It was bobbing around in the fizzy liquid, never settling. She tried to capture the ice-cream with the tip of the spoon. It started to melt whitely into the fizz.

I was up there with the silver spoon and the tall glass with its fizzing contents. And next to the tall stool with the four chrome legs was the doorway. The door was open and there was the line of the cliff. And I held up the spoon above the tall glass. Saw its long silver handle and below this, the long tall glass on the narrow counter, and below this, me sitting on the tall stool on the bit of floor right next to the open door. Saw a section of the tall cliff through the narrow doorway. And then I had to get down off the stool and go out of the door with my mother to get the bus back to wherever we had come from. There came the bus up the road as we got to the bus stop and it stopped on the top of the cliff in the wind and we got on again. My hair blowing again and my mother’s hat having to be held again.

What are the bounds of this narrative? Has this experience turned the girl into someone who dreads the thought of yet longs for the presence of steep and narrow places that are so high above the earth that she can’t see clearly what is happening at lower levels? Is it an invisible chain connecting her as she was in that moment, to how she is in this? Or is this memory an arbitrary selection? Or did it never exist at all but has been made up by me to substantiate the story of now? Or of an imagined future? Or, really, do I know the answer to any of this? Or do I know but am not saying?

The bus, the high cliff, the cafe door, the cafe, the counter, the small narrowness. The stool, the glass and spoon. And my mother in her hat and me with my blowing hair. As we stepped off and onto the bus. This then and no other then. This now that is all in. All.

Jay Merill is a 2017 Pushcart Prize nominee and the winner of the Salt Prize. Her latest stories are forthcoming in Thrice Fiction, Trafika Europe and Unthology. She has two short story collections published by Salt, ‘God of the Pigeons’ and ‘Astral Bodies’ and is Writer in Residence at Women in Publishing.

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