They'd only reached Victoria train station and the number 36 was already dragging her wheels. Outside, the monotonous rain beat the roof and gusts of March wind caused the aged double-decker to sway ominously on its wallowy suspension. The tone of the Evening Standard matched the moody Monday evening commute; economic woe and political unrest competing for space with Old Bailey acquittals and chronic council underfunding. Heavy-lidded eyes drifted down the celebrity page as Liam calculated that Camberwell Green was still an age away and his bed, a light year. His distended bladder reminded him of the huge amount of beer he'd drunk that afternoon; his head dropped with exhausted boredom against the misted window etched with running water droplets.
Why was this feeling so familiar? Surely it was just another day that would be memorable because he'd drunk so much? Tomorrow was going to be horrid.
The traffic lights were out at the Oval and the swollen traffic backed up around the featureless stadium. The one-handed conductor, with the brown leather glove for a prosthetic, shouldered his away along the upper deck. Oddly, he'd smiled at Liam when he checked his ticket; that man never smiled.
"Fares....anyone?" No-one replied to the grunted request. Turning quickly at the front of the deck as if trying to catch an evader slipping down the stairs, and using his flat-capped head to brace himself against the wallowing deck, Archie the clippie sent a stare over his half-moon specs to the upper deck passengers. He could tell; he would remember. Still no response - passengers either looked away in embarrassment at the stare or, like Liam, remained immune to the oft-repeated call as they slumbered their commute with passes still in their hands. Convinced that the upper deck numbers had swollen since his last visit, Archie tutted loudly and started back towards the stairs at the rear. Spying the face of a man two rows in front of Liam that he'd not seen before and whose eyes were closed shut, he stopped; leaning his left leg against the apparently sleeping man's seat as if to steady himself, Archie stood stock still and gazed apparently absently ahead. The man suddenly looked up and took a sharp, loud, intake of breath; his body stiffened in the seat; smug amusement for the regular number 36 passengers who knew of the conductor's methods and who buried their faces deeper into their papers. The steel casing of another prosthesis beneath the regulation London Transport trousers that supported Archie's left leg from the knee down, had squeezed the man's fingers tightly against the metal frame of the seat.
"Tickets!" the call was loud and clear and directed at the passenger with the throbbing fingers. A moments scrabbling in a trouser pocket produced the required fare which was rewarded with a ticket and knowing look of rebuke. Nothing was said. Archie carried on up the bus and down the stairs. The man stared behind at the vanishing conductor and looked hurtfully again at his fingers as if not understanding how the mere pressing of a leg could cause so much pain. The woman next to him with the high-collared coat and thick winter hat stared out of the window with patented commuter denial.
Working was one of the few positives of Liam's life; the studio gave him peace from the world; the silent, muffled world of knobs and dials and thespian tones from behind the glass reciting hour after hour of audio books. In his little bubble, Liam didn't care what they were saying or what they were spouting about; he just monitored the levels and queued them in and out - they liked to be queued; as if they were making an entrance to a non-existent audience who were waiting, breath baited, for the explicit enunciation of words whose meaning they rarely understood. Yes, work in the Chalk Farm studio was safe, predictable and warm. Challenging? Yes, that too; this was the premier studio for this work and his skills, for which he had worked hard to perfect, were in demand. He, Liam, knew how to bring a voice to work. He knew how to occupy the dull hours of readings with regular breaks and friendly, positive advice about projection and other such inane subjects which made actors feel needed and cuddled; that's all they needed, really.
"Where's Liam?" was the regular call in the morning as Julie met the voice of the day in the small reception area - as if they wouldn't be able to function without him behind the glass. His quiet, reassuring appearance usually settled the arrival who would always describe in detail how 'bad their voice was in the mornings'.
Today wasn't just another day. Today was Liam's birthday.
It took twenty minutes to get around the Oval stadium and Liam was feeling decidedly sleepy; the lights of the tube station gently hove to view through the rain lashed glass; Liam was fighting his lids. This was a big stop; lots of people got off and even more tried to alight the rear platform of the forty-year old monolithic red relic of a previous era; the time when conductors called people 'sir' and 'madam' and passengers stood for the elderly and infirm. They would have all stood for Archie in years gone by. Now he was as much a relic as his bus. The 1960's re-occupation of the Crater district in Aden in the Middle East with 'Mad Mitch' and the other Highlanders had made him both an heroic soldier, and a crippled civilian; a one-handed, one-footed basket-case; a sad lonely Scotsman from Peckham with prosthetics and attitude.
"That's it - no more!" A scuffle had started between an ageing Jamaican woman and a student girl - quickly and settled by the strong hand of Archie who received a mouthful of spit from the Jamaican and a cold unthankful stare from the student. "Yes love? You can walk too if you want!" When accompanied by a menacing stare, Glaswegian was a still a powerful tool in moments of heightened tensions; it had worked for the 'bunch of Glasgow thugs' in Aden and it still worked in Lambeth in 1998.
Liam heard nothing of the scuffle downstairs but guessed that the empty seat beside him was likely to be occupied soon; he was mildly pleased to see it was a young girl who smelled decidedly rained-on, yet fresh and young; far worse people could alight at the Oval. With his renewed interest in staying awake, his lids gave up their struggle, and a furtive sideways glance rewarded him with the pretty rosy-cheeked face of student Britain who instantly turned and gave him a great big beaming smile.
"I hope you're having a lovely day?" she said.
"Er...yes, thanks." Why did she say that? Is she mad or stoned?
Her large woollen jumper still glistened with rain and a large bag resting on a long purple cotton skirt which went down to long doc marten boots. She was pretty, lovely even; but the doc martens were too shiny; she had to be a fresher.
Archie shouldered his away along the upper deck for the fiftieth time that day.
"Fares....anyone?" Repeating his earlier dramatic turn at the front of the bus, his eyes peered across the half-moons which now eerily reflected the glowing light bulbs in the roof and gave his face a ghostly appearance; they surveyed the new upper deck vista. The student dropped her head and shut her eyes. Liam was watching her. Archie spotted her a mile off. The walk of truth (as Liam had come to call it) had begun, and, unseen by Archie, he moved his hand to cover hers and he placed his pass into it. Her eyes opened wide and she stared at his hand. He squeezed it gently and nodded without looking. One quick glance up and she knew.
"Tickets?" Thankfully her other hand was safely away from the seat edge - although she became acutely aware that the conductor's leg was pushed hard against her thigh and transmitted a sensation of coldness she hadn't expected. She lazily held the ticket up for examination. Archie wasn't in the mood for inspection. He walked on.
It took Mary a moment to say anything. She didn't know how to speak to the stranger next to her. She always got away with travelling for free at this time. How did he know the conductor was going to notice her? He hadn't seen the altercation downstairs.
"No worries - he misses nothing."
"Oh. Thanks anyway."
"So how did you know?" It was some minutes later that she spoke again.
"Well, that he'd check?"
"I've seen him before on this bus." The smell of rain-soaked wool was overwhelming; it was overlaid with a mustiness that only a student could invent; he knew she'd only been out of bed only a few hours - he could smell that too.
"I was really worried for a moment when you gave me the ticket. I know you're having a good day, but why did you do that?" Mary had taken her own peek at Liam after the ticket incident and decided he didn't know about the balloon.
"Don't know really. I just want an easy life."
"You're cool, thanks."
"No worries." Their eyes hadn't actually met. Liam didn't want to engage the girl; well, anyone really - he felt too tired; too drunk. Like all of them she'd only be trouble. Pretty, yes, but trouble. Friends, family, life - she'd have all her own issues and he wasn't interested. Women had never featured much in Liam's life
"Just tired - long day."
"I can tell."
Camberwell New Road was the first time for nearly an hour that the bus had reached over thirty miles an hour - and even this was a struggle; the heavily laden workhorse had beaten this path for decades with barely a day off. Regular servicing by the boys at the garage had kept the bearings rolling and a genuine affection from drivers and cleaners had kept the flanks true and the wheels rolling; over seven hundred thousand miles across London's traffic in four decades. But whilst the heart was still willing, the body and the ancillaries were groaning. 707 DLT was struggling; she wanted to stop, to retire, to rest. The bus stop opposite Flodden Road proved a turning point. The new Scania engine from 1996 was never the perfect solution for the ageing fleet. It was too big, too strong, too powerful. Broken transmissions had been reported in early changes but 707 was supposed to have been able to cope; however, that moment when she tried to pull away into the traffic the coupling at the back of the 'box sheared. It was a sickening noise and allowed the unrestrained six cylinder diesel to rev well over its designed maximum, stripping shards of aluminium from the sides of the number four cylinder. Engineering catastrophe was seconds in the making. One of the last remaining red zeppelins from the AEC Works in Southall went silent.
"Dam! - I'm going to get wet." It came out louder than he intended.
"Hmm - I think we all are."
"Where are you going?"
"Dinner? - no, sorry I meant, where? I'm in Camberwell near the Green so it's a bit of a walk from here."
"Me too - I'll walk with you if that is OK." She'd decided that the man with the balloon might be a little bit worse for drink but he would safe enough to walk along the street with.
"Oh." Liam was a little lost. This girl was very confident.
People started to rise.
"Everyone off!" Archie's unmistakeable voice billowed up the stairs.
"Hi Liam - happy birthday."
Looking across at the queue of passengers waiting to go downstairs, Liam's eyes settled on the woman who'd just spoken to him. The woman with the raised collar and the big hat. Jemima Kudross!
"Hi." The two turned away from each other; both surprised at seeing the other but both happy to forget the moment. Liam thought he'd detected another familiar smell a little earlier.
The previous week had been particularly hard at work. The children's award winning book, The Twenty-One Balloons, had been read in the studio by BAFTA winning actress, Jemima. She'd been having trouble with things; husband Dennis' photograph had been printed in all the red tops with a young 'aspiring model' and her own early morning starts at the studio had been thrown into doubt by the 'upset'. Her agent had worked his butt off to get her there and Liam had spent many hours cajoling and coaxing her into the studio for the required word count. It was to be her last job for months. The audio, though, was in the can. He'd done his bit and was still feeling the exhaustion. The smell was Jemima's - a lifelong obsession with an overbearing perfume from her youth had been her trademark to insiders. Her admirers and fans knew nothing of it because, of course, they only ever saw her on the screen. Liam knew knew that Jemima loved her anonymity - she'd become almost a recluse after the recent events. Seeing her on a bus seemed right; who would ever expect to see her on a bus? How did she know it was his birthday? He didn't remember saying anything when she was at the studio.
For Liam, her voice was as intoxicating as her perfume;
'weather clear - at twelve noon, sighted strange wreckage in the distance. Approached it with caution. Found it to be a mass of broken wooden beams to which were attached twenty ascension balloons in various stages of deflation.'
Every word was as clear a glass and the text came to life. It was one of the few recordings that Liam ever listened to again.
"Do you know who that is?" The whispered hiss from the still rosy-cheeked Mary was filled with both mystery and disbelief.
"Not really, she's just someone I see on the bus sometimes."
"That's...." Liam disappeared down the stairs hanging grimly to the rails for balance.
Liam and Mary walked along in silence along Camberwell New Road; the driving rain had soaked them both cold by the time they reached the Green. Mary had recognised the glamorous lady and guessed that Liam knew her more than he was letting on. Why did he turn away from her so quickly? She was beginning to like 'Liam' even though she only knew his name from the woman on the bus.
"Good night Liam - and thank you for walking me - I'm glad you enjoyed your birthday - Oh yes, my name is Mary?" She leaned forward and kissed him on the cheek. He was cold and still quite drunk and he didn't move.
"What?" How could she have possibly known that it was his birthday?
"Behind you?" Liam looked behind but there was nothing there. He did feel something brush his head however. He put his hand behind his head. A piece of string? Pulling it revealed a large silver helium balloon attached to the back of his jacket emblazoned with the words 'Be nice to me it's my birthday - 21 today!'
He turned back as Mary was disappearing up the steps to a house and blowing him a kiss.