Jethro’s at the bus stop. It’s Friday, same as always, and he’s searching for dreams. Searching for the right person. He doesn’t know who she is, yet, but he will when he sees her…
‘So then she says, ‘if you really loved me, you wouldn’t need the duck!’
The man beside me guffaws like he’s just told the funniest joke in the world. Luckily, he’s far too drunk to notice me sidling further up the tiny red bench away from him.
I smile and nod then raise my eyebrows and dig for my phone. As I read my imaginary text, I let out a sigh of relief as he turns to the two women the other side of him and begins to regale them with another tale of woe. I put on my best ‘don’t talk to me’ face and slip the phone back in my pocket.
There are fewer stranger places than the bus stop for the night bus. Here, the dregs and drunks of London’s nightlife collect, washed up like sticks on a beach. Just like with the sticks and seaweed, none of them fit together, or even belong together, yet still they lie, side by side, on the sand.
Waiting for the next wave. Or in this case, the N140 from central out west, through Notting Hill and Shepherd’s Bush, then Ealing, before ending up all the way out past the Hayes Bypass. There’s nothing romantic about this bus. There’s nothing romantic about the crowd of alcohol-soaked misfits that surround me. And yet, as I spend yet another Friday night perched on this narrowest of narrow benches, I can’t help but dream.
Dreams begin here. The girl the other side of me is nearly six feet tall. She has dreads that would do a rasta proud, and skin as pale as milk. Her eyes are huge, lambent I think you could call them, and she carries on her back a pack that must contain, if not the kitchen sink, then at least enough raw materials to construct one.
She sees me staring and smiles. It’s the sort of smile that invites conversation, though in a wary way. I know it from the mirror. But there’s no point being here if I don’t talk to anyone.
‘Hi?’ the word slips out, traitorous and sneaky, before I can catch it. She waits, maybe to see whether I’m joking or going to follow it up with anything else. I don’t have anything else. After years of research, I’ve found that ‘hi’ works just fine.
‘Hi.’ She keeps it simple, which I can appreciate just fine. I stick a hand out.
‘My folks were twisted. You can call me Jet, if you’d rather.’
She snorts and shakes her head. ‘Sorry, that’s worse than Jethro.’
‘So I’m not the only one with a weird name.’
‘Nope, my folks were hippies, though, instead of just sadistic.’
See, this is what I love about the bus stop for the night bus. There’s no social niceties, none of the hour of random bullshit before you get into anything like a proper conversation. I don’t know Valetta from Eve, but already she’s cussing my name and my parents. Normally, that takes weeks of friendship.
‘So, Valetta, have you had a good night?’
‘Define a good night.’
‘Have you laughed a lot? Have you smiled?’
‘Not until I heard your name.’
‘So not a good night, then?’
‘Not so much.’
‘Anything you want to talk about?’
‘What, to you?’
The night bus stop can be cruel as well, lulling you into a false sense of security before dashing it. However, I’ve been here before, many times, and I wouldn’t still be coming if I didn’t have the skills to deal with this sort of thing.
‘Yeah, why not?’ I toss it casually out there. ‘You don’t know me, so you don’t have to change any names or pretend stuff that makes no sense. I’m not going to judge you, because hey, I’m hanging out at the night bus stop, so, why not?’
‘You’re hanging out here?’
‘Maybe some girl with a hippy name and beautiful eyes needs someone to talk to and I just happened to be in the area.’ It might be too soon for going that strong, but the night’s young and you never know until you try. Also, she does have beautiful eyes. Normally, the dodgy strip light of the bus stop makes everyone look like they’ve been taking drugs, but her eyes are clear and sharp, the pale green of butterfly wings.
‘Yeah, suppose so.’
I tuck my grin out of sight and shift on the seat before remembering I’m never going to get comfortable. That’s part of the point.
‘Where should I begin?’
‘What’s the first important thing that happened?’
‘Well,’ she says, ‘it started with the phone call.’
‘What phone call?’ I grin now, and lean back, taking a deep breath as her voice begins to fill me.
‘It was Tim. We were supposed to be meeting in the Hippo Bar. You know it? Just off Charing Cross. Anyway, he called to say he couldn’t make it, that something had come up at work. I called him a wanker. He got pissy and told me I only cared about myself. I told him someone had to and he went all quiet.
‘Anyway. He wasn’t coming. Which meant it was just me and Charlotte, which wasn’t the end of the world, only Charlotte was only really coming cos Tim was. She fancies him something rotten. He doesn’t fancy her, not the least little bit, but she’s an optimist.’
She says optimist like I’d say nazi and I already feel sorry for Charlotte.
‘So I don’t tell her he can’t come. Maybe I should have, knowing why she was coming, but then she wouldn’t have come, you know? So we meet at the Hippo Bar. She was already pissed. Half a bottle of wine getting ready. And man was she ready. Hair all fancy and these new clothes on and I’d swear she had a fake tan. Nothing weirder than a fake tan on a girl from Scotland.’
‘Yeah, didn’t I just say that?’
She glares at me and I realise this isn’t one of those chatty stories. This is just a shut up and listen to me story. I shut up and listen.
‘So she prances up in these heels and I’m already wondering why I didn’t tell her Tim wasn’t coming. I mean, I could happily have come on my own and got drunk in a corner. Maybe had a chance at picking up one of the bar girls or something.’
She glares at me, like she’s challenging me to doubt her sexuality. I nod and smile. The eyes comment can’t have had much impact, though, not unless she’s bi.
‘Instead, we find a table so she can shout at me for an hour, telling me all about her troubles.’
Troubles is another word she spits out. I’m already confident that what Valetta considers troubles are somewhat more serious than what Charlotte might. Of the two of them, I find myself rooting for Charlotte more and more every second.
‘So after an hour I’m going mad, so I head outside for a cigarette.’ Another glare. ‘Yeah, fine, I don’t smoke, but for all Charlotte notices, I could be a heroin addict. So I’m standing outside and I turn around and see Tim. He’s walking arm in arm with this girl. He doesn’t see me, but she turns round and sees me just fine. Her eyes go all wide, then she smiles at me. And…’
I wait. Nothing. ‘And?’
‘She’s got fangs. I know, it’s bullshit, right? But she had fangs, proper, Nosferatu, down past her bloody chin fangs. I’m about to shout for Tim when they step into an alley and disappear. I’m off like a shot, racing into the darkness, but they aren’t there. Just… gone.’ She makes a poof shape with her hand, then stares at her fingers. It’s the first time I notice the shaking. The first moment I know.
She glares a while, no doubt waiting for me to laugh or call her on it. I don’t, of course, because I’ve spent enough time at the night bus stop to learn when laughing’s a really bad idea. Instead I just nod and wait.
‘So that was it, really. I go back into the Hippo, but Charlotte’s already chatting to this guy. They aren’t stuck to one another yet, but they soon will be. So I bug out whilst I still can and find an offy that’s still serving. Get my bottle of wine and wander down to Leicester Square.’
She catches my sigh because she stops and cocks her head to one side. ‘You wanna add anything to the story?’
‘Sorry, I’m not keen on Leicester Square.’
‘Oh, what’s wrong with it?’
‘Too many lights. But hey, it’s your story, please, continue.’
There’s the longest pause, during which I wait for her to ask about the lights. She doesn’t.
‘So yeah, I was there for, like, hours, just pissing about really. Getting pretty pissed as well.’ She chuckles. ‘Funny how girls can get drunk whenever they want, but as soon as you’re six foot and got dreads, people wanna start something.’
She clenches her fists and they’re both shaking, now.
‘I was sitting on a bench, not doing much of anything, when these three guys came up and sat down. Talking to start with, not to me. Then one of them puts his arm over my shoulder and starts saying all this shit about allowing shemales into the square and shit.’
I wince and she nods.
‘Yeah, that kind of shit. I get up and stomp off, but they decide to follow me. Dicks. I know enough to stay in the light areas, you know, but I can’t get rid of them. They’ve got nothing better to do and I’m such an easy target.’ She grins, lips tight like something’s holding them in place.
‘I got turned around. I’d drunk enough. Stupid, still, though. Ended up down one of the alleyways, just dark enough for no one to notice when one of them grabbed my arm. Next thing, he slams me against a wall and I get this hand between my legs.
‘I was ready, of course. Pissed and angry, but not that stupid. So he gets a spray of mace in his face and it’s enough to shake him off. I run, though I know that’s stupid as well, but it works this time. I burst out of the alley, turn left, and stop.
‘Tim. He’s with the same girl, but something’s different. You don’t know Tim. Obviously, you don’t know him, but he’s the nicest, quietest guy you’ve ever met. Really, um… unassuming. That’s the word. Unassuming.
‘Now he’s swaggering along, one hand round the girl’s shoulder, the other one holding a bottle. In all the years I’ve known him, I’ve only ever seen him drink out of a bottle once, and that was a beer at a barbecue. And he was very drunk.
‘He doesn’t look drunk. He’s swaggering, but it’s not a drunken swagger. They’re filling the pavement and everyone else it getting out of their way.’
She shakes her head, talking to herself, now, I realise.
‘I totally forgot about the three guys. Completely. Weird. So I followed Tim and the mystery girl. I kept waiting for her to turn round and spot me, but she didn’t. They swaggered all the way down to the river without stopping. They didn’t stop to look at anything, or kiss, or anything. They just walked.
‘There’s this underpass near Embankment. It’s got these boutiquey shops in and cobble stones, very quaint olde England. One of the reasons I came here, I suppose.’
‘You came here for an underpass?’ I can’t help interjecting.
She laughs and shakes her head. ‘The cobbles and the olde England look.’
‘Where are you from?’
I nod. I knew I knew the accent, but I couldn’t place it. She’s been here a while.
‘So they stop there, looking through the window of one of the shops. I stroll past, like, behind them, then glance sideways at the last moment and see their faces in the reflection.
‘I stopped walking.’ She puts her head down, staring at her hands, and swallows. ‘I stopped walking. I should have kept walking. But I couldn’t help it. Tim was grinning, like, big cheesy grin, and I could see his teeth.’
‘Fangs?’ I ask.
She nods. ‘Fangs. I’m not making this up. The girl spots me and spins round, faster than you can imagine. I try to start walking again, but my legs won’t work. None of me works. Tim turns more slowly, but when he sees me, his eyes light up. He comes over, really fast, and takes my arms.
‘Val, so nice to see you?’
‘What happened with work?’
‘Oh, it wasn’t really a thing, in the end. Then Leyla here asked me to go for a drink and, well… sorry.’ He doesn’t sound sorry. He sounds excited. But he’s apologising, so the least I could do was accept it. Except, I can’t help staring at his teeth.
‘He tries to introduce me to Leyla and I try to say hi, but I’m still not working properly. He pats my hand, like he knows I’m not working properly. Then he takes me by the hand and leads me away from the underpass.
‘We walk down the river together. They’re chatting, but too quietly for me to hear. I couldn’t be more of a fifth wheel if I tried. I’m just a little bit ahead, trying to match their pace so I don’t fall back beside them. And I’m thinking, what the hell am I doing here? Why did I let Tim drag me along when he blatantly doesn’t want me here?
‘Their chatting fades but I walk a little further before turning round. I look back down Embankment, expecting to see them, but they’re gone. Disappeared. Just like that.’
Her eyes are still clear, but they’ve tightened, now, tiny lines appearing in the smooth place between her eyebrows. There’s so much I want to say to her. I want to tell her I know how she feels. I want to tell her it gets better, though it won’t. I want to tell her she doesn’t have to tell me the rest, but I don’t. Because she needs to.
‘So I turn back to the river. I like the river at night. It feels like home.’ Her speech has slowed, like she’s trying to avoid getting to the end. ‘And just as I turn, something hits me in the back. I don’t know what it is. For a second, I think I’ve been shot, it’s so intense. Then something sharp bites into my neck and a hand wraps around my mouth.’
She puts a hand to her neck. She’s got a scarf on, though I doubt she knows why. I’ve seen this too many times to count. She’s looking at me. Maybe she sees something in my eyes. Maybe she just thinks she does.
‘I don’t remember much after that. Everything went dark. Not unconscious or anything, just like the lights had been turned down. I think I fell or something, because I remember someone asking if I was alright. So I got up and got away. Then I found myself here.’
‘You want me to take a look at your neck?’
‘What are you, a doctor?’
‘Of a sort.’
‘Oh.’ She takes her hand away from her neck. ‘Okay, then.’
I gently peel the scarf away, taking it over her head. I’m careful not to touch her, to not let my scent get on her. It won’t take much, not during this part of the process. The scarf reveals the tiny marks. They’re barely red anymore. She’s been out at least a week.
I wrap the scarf back round her neck and smile. ‘Looks fine.’
‘Right. Thanks. How about you, good night?’
The bus comes, saving me from having to make something up. I don’t like lying and I do it most of the time, so you can imagine the kind of incongruence I live with, but I really hate doing it straight after someone’s opened up to me.
She stands and looks down at me. I don’t want to board, but I can’t let her go. I take her hand. ‘Hey, you wanna grab a drink?’
For a moment, I think she’s going to say no. But I’ve made contact now. Her skin is open to me and the first prickles of appetite are starting to claw at her stomach. She smiles and nods.
‘Sure, that’d be nice.’ She grins and I see them. I know why she was so hesitant to mention them. They look so… unreal. So fantastical. I wish.
I stand and lead her away from the bus stop. I don’t know which of us leads the other towards the darkness of the nearby alleyway, but she’s soon pulling me along. I can imagine how her body feels, rushing after a week of nothing. She’s eager, suddenly, desperate.
We leave the light of the street lamps and she turns to me, then shoves me against the wall. Her strength is already rising, growing in her like a fire. It’s beautiful to watch. Beautiful and terrifying.
‘I…’ she starts, then stops. She doesn’t know what to say. The part of her that understands what’s happening is sorely lacking compared to the animal instincts. They always come first. So I help her out.
‘You’re hungry. You’re so thirsty you feel like you’re burning up. You’re going to bite my neck and suck my blood from me until you feel alive again. But you’ll only feel alive for a few precious minutes before it goes away. It will, if you’ll pardon the pun, really suck. Because before you know it, you’ll be thirsty again.’
‘Who are you? Who am I?’
‘My name is Jethro. And you’re dead.’ My stake encounters a little resistance. Even though her turn is almost complete, without her first kill, her skin retains a little of her human strength. But not enough. She dusts before my eyes but I stay leaning against the wall a while longer.
Valetta went for a drink with Charlotte a week ago and died a couple of hours later. I wonder if Charlotte, or the police, or anyone for that matter, are searching for her. Tim certainly won’t be.
I shiver, tuck my stake inside my jacket, and amble back into the street. Back to the bus stop. It’ll be quiet for the next few minutes, since the last one went, but it won’t be for long. It’s never quiet for long. Dreams begin here. Nightmares too.