To The Tearooms | 451life

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To The Tearooms

A short story by Danielle McLaughlin

Ever since I turned left over Boland’s Bridge, Mrs Canty has been insisting that this is the wrong route. She’s been fidgeting with her headscarf – a green one today, with horses heads - knotting and unknotting it, a sure sign that she’s fretting. Now she is out of her seat, rattling the door of the bus, shouting through the glass at pedestrians. Her coat is so long that her shoes are barely visible: mannish lace-ups, worn out of shape and listing sideways. I tell her to sit down but I try not to sound too cross because, although she would test the patience of a saint, I am fond of Mrs Canty. Mrs Canty reminds me of my mother.

There is one other passenger on the bus: a fair haired, middle-aged man, short and squat – American, by his accent - with a map open on his knees. He’s wearing a white Aran jumper and I can tell it itches by the way he’s tugging at the neck. Each time he tugs it down, it springs back up to grab him by the throat. As Mrs Canty continues to rattle the door, I catch his eye in the rear view mirror and wink. He winks back, then gets up from his seat and, very gently, takes Mrs Canty by the arm. ‘Come along now, m’am’ he says, ‘we don’t want you coming to any harm. ’ He leads her back to her seat at the front of the bus and resumes his own seat, directly behind.

‘This is what happens,’ Mrs Canty says, ‘when they let women drive buses.’ I sigh, but hold my tongue. I’m good at that. I get a lot of practice in this job. And then of course, there was my mother...

Mrs Canty has come from the butchers, but looks like she might have been grave-robbing. She boarded the bus clutching a see-through plastic bag. Inside were brown squishy things like the kidneys of baby animals; rubbery giblets; shiny, purple livers. The bag is beside her on the seat, streaked and runny with blood, and I hope it is properly knotted.

Traffic is light this morning and already we have left the suburbs behind. We are at the edge of the city, driving past rows of industrial units and warehouses . The two-way radio crackles into life: it’s Margo, my boss, sounding tetchy. ‘Where are you headed?’ she says. ‘To the tea rooms,’ I say, and before she can say any more, I switch the radio off.

We are driving into countryside now, ditches thick with fern and foxglove.

‘Awesome,’ the American says, and I decide there and then to call him Benny. I like to invent names for my passengers and he is not a Raymond or a Quentin or a Sam, he is most definitely a Benny. Usually, when I have decided upon a name, I keep it to myself. Today, for some reason, I don’t. ‘You’re right, Benny,’ I say, ‘it is awesome.’

He is perplexed at my calling him ‘Benny’. He frowns, but doesn’t object. Instead he says: ‘It’s pretty deserted round here. I guess it’s the emigration, right?’

‘It’s because it’s the wrong route,’ Mrs Canty says.

Benny gives a knowing shake of his head. He and I exchange discreet smiles in the mirror. Mrs Canty sighs. As well as the bag of offal, she has her usual black handbag. She opens it, takes out knitting needles and a ball of wool, and begins to cast on.

I’m not supposed to be working today. Today is Friday, my day off. I wanted an earlier day off, I wanted Monday, but Margo said no. If she changed my day off, she’d have to change everybody’s day off and then where would we be?

‘What’s so special about Monday?’ she said. ‘You never have Mondays off.’

‘I want to take my mother to the tea rooms at Clody,’ I said. ‘It’s where she used to go with my father. She’s been asking me to take her for a while.’

‘You can take her on Friday,’ Margo said. ‘What difference will a few more days make?’ She looked at me and her look, though sharp, wasn’t unkind. I thought it might be a good time to tell her about my mother, about what the doctors had said, but then the shop steward came in so I didn’t.

Today is Friday, my day off, but I came to work anyway. There didn’t seem much point in staying at home.

I can hear the click, click, click of Mrs Canty’s knitting needles. ‘This happened before’, she is saying to Benny. ‘It was a young fellow last time, one of the trainee drivers. They set up a road block on the dual carriageway and he only got as far as Three Spires.’

Lately, Mrs Canty’s mind has begun to wander. My mother was the same towards the end. So it is hard to know what to make of her story about the road block. All the same, when I come to the junction, instead of turning right for the dual carriageway, I veer left and swing the bus down a grassy side-road. It is a narrow, winding road through a river valley. In the mirror, I catch Mrs Canty rolling her eyes, putting a finger to the side of her head, tapping it. There’s no need for that, I think. No need at all. And I drive faster until Mrs Canty takes her finger from her head and holds tight to the seat.

‘You sure this is the way to the Museum?’ Benny says.

Before I can reply, a rabbit darts in front of the bus and I brake hard. The bag of offal slides to the floor and bursts, blood and bits of internal organs splattering everywhere. Benny tumbles into the aisle.

‘You ok, Benny?’ I say.

He picks himself up and dusts off his jumper.

‘You don’t mind me calling you ‘Benny’ do you?’

‘Best humour her’, Mrs Canty says. She has abandoned her knitting and has taken out a rosary beads.

‘Benny is good’, Benny says. ‘Benny is real good. I had an Uncle Benny, from Utah, on my mother’s side. He farmed sheep in Sanpete County.’

‘My late husband drove a juggernaut from Utah to Missouri once,’ Mrs Canty says.

I turn to stare. It is always a wonder to me, how little we know about each other. I want to ask Mrs Canty about her husband and Utah but the bus is going too fast and wobbles on a corner. Benny is suddenly beside me, at my shoulder. He grabs the steering wheel, but I elbow him hard, really hard, in the stomach and he doubles over. ‘Sit down, Benny,’ I say. And he does.

The road has become a lane, more of a dirt track. This would have been easier if I had gone the dual carriageway. But no matter: I see the tea rooms in the distance, glittering in morning sunshine across the river. I am going to have to cut through the fields so I point the bus at a gate.

‘I need to call my wife,’ Benny says, tears running down his face.

‘Why?’ Mrs Canty says, ‘where is she?’

‘Back home in California.’

‘Much use she is there,’ Mrs Canty says.

‘I need to talk to her,’ he says, ‘to tell her stuff.’

Benny takes a phone from his pocket.

‘I doubt you’ll get coverage out here,’ Mrs Canty says. ‘They’re lucky to have electricity.’

He puts the phone to his ear, even though Mrs Canty is right: there is no coverage out here. He begins to speak anyway and as I rev the engine and aim for the gate, I catch the occasional stray word like ‘love’ and ‘precious’ and ‘sorry’. I hear a lot of ‘sorry’. And I think: what a waste. What a waste of all those beautiful words. I had high hopes for my mother’s last words. I sat by her bedside in those final hours and waited for the coming of angels. But at the very end, she sat bolt upright in bed and said, ‘Any chance of a cigarette?’

I press the accelerator and the bus leaps forward. It flattens the gate like it is the gate of a toy farm and then we are off, rolling and bumping downhill towards the river. Mrs Canty’s rosary beads are discarded on the seat beside her. A peculiar serenity has descended on her and she has gone back to her knitting.

‘If you’re not using those...’ Benny says, reaching for the beads, and Mrs Canty nods and knits on.

The field is steeply sloped and the bus gathers momentum. Rocks rip the undercarriage and I hear a ‘pop’ as the fuel tank punctures. On the other side of the river, someone is arranging tables and chairs outside the tea rooms. There is a domed white pavilion beside a copse of beech and beyond that, a hillside of purple heather. It’s easy to see why my mother loved it.

It’s quiet on the bus now. Not a sound from Benny or Mrs Canty, only the stutter of the engine, hurting, choking, and the spin of tyres on wet grass. And here all of a sudden is the water rushing up to meet us as the bus plunges headlong into the river. The steering wheel strikes me in the stomach, winds me. Things fall and crash and slide. Benny and Mrs Canty are thrown from their seats.

The water level is low, the mud of the riverbed thick and heavy. The bus rolls sideways like Mrs Canty’s shoes, rights itself again before settling into silt. I scramble to the door, struggle with it, water and mud pushing against me. I edge it open and squeeze out and then I am wading across the river, water up to my waist.

On the opposite bank, cars line the roadside: people have begun to arrive at the tea rooms. How lovely, I think. How lovely on a morning like this to drink tea at such a beautiful – no, awesome – place. Then I notice that two of the cars are squad cars and one is an ambulance.

People on the bank are calling my name. I look behind me and I see Benny. He is carrying Mrs Canty in his arms, holding her high above the water, only the end of her coat trailing in the river. She has lost her headscarf and one of her shoes, but she has a tight grip of her knitting. Sunshine is glinting on Benny’s fair hair, his Aran jumper is dazzlingly white. He ploughs through the water like some sort of god, mighty and victorious, Mrs Canty in his arms. As I look at the set of his jaw, I think of his wife back home in California and I say to myself: I wish she could see this, I really wish Benny’s wife could see all this. And I wish my mother could see it too, but my mother died on Tuesday.

Two men in high viz jackets are coming towards me through the water. A crowd has gathered on the bank and there at the front is Margo, my boss, although I almost didn’t recognise her, because she is crying and smoking a cigarette. My mother was always a martyr to the cigarettes. But in the ten years that Margo has been my boss, I have never seen her cry or smoke. And as the men reach me and take me by the arms, I wonder again at how little we know about each other, how very, very little.

Danielle McLaughlin's short story collection Dinosaurs on Other Planets is published by John Murray.