I knew when I got on. It was one of those buses. I thanked a deity because it felt like someone should be thanked. The driver had broad hands on the steering wheel but her legs were blurred – unsettled between limbs and tail. She didn’t speak as I held my ticket against the reader.
It said Eastbourne on the front of the bus but we weren’t going there. There was no way we were going to the Arndale Centre – not us. I went upstairs – we were all upstairs. It’s where you need to be.
I sat next to a man with a book on his lap but I didn’t recognise it. The old woman behind us was holding a bag of apples and a photograph of two girls in 1970s tank tops and hair bobbles. At the back of the bus there was a teenage boy. I wondered. I wanted to check. Are you sure, Sunshine? But who the hell am I to judge? And she pulled away and we were roaring past the bays and crescents of Kemp Town – only a little bit faster than we should – but passing the perplexed with their arms stretched at the bus stops. Goodbye Rock Gardens. Faster now.
The sun setting over the sea is a path. It’s the only moment when I’m sure Jesus was real. Because someone should be able to walk it. Barefoot. But we’re not walkers. We’ve made ourselves heavy. We’ve put ourselves in her hands and she turns the wheel, slow, gentle, swinging the bus like a pencil point in a pair of compasses. Across the road, faster, through the fence and out. Wild parabola of people in a bus.
And we go further than we should. Great, wingless bird. A beakless entry to the water. Bob and lurch. The man with the book hit the floor very hard but he gets up, blood on his nose. He takes the seat beside me now and I hold his hand. Moby Dick. For Heaven’s Sake. The old lady is holding the boy. The announcement, of course – recorded just for us. ‘The next stop is Sea Bed.’ The water is in the workings now, a bubble in the words. And water is streaming through the mouths of the windows – rocking up the curve of the stairs and then broken by her sudden head – our driver.
She has the cropped hair and nose ring I expect from a bus driver in this city. No long hair to comb as she sings sailors to their doom. But she’s a mermaid nonetheless. As the water reaches our knees, she coasts the length of the bus, flicking her silver tail.
‘Stay calm, everyone. I’ll guide you through it.’
The old lady looks younger as she says,
‘I’ve told him it will be ok. It will, won’t it?’
The teenage lad is shaking all over – his shoulders lurching and legs bucking. The driver lifts herself from the water with strong arms – like a paraplegic swimmer – to sit beside the boy.
‘It will be cold, it will hurt – a sort of burning, ripping pain – and then it will stop hurting and it will be ok. And these people will be here with you.’
She sweeps her arms around the decreasing pocket of air. The water is at my neck, kissing and kissing at the intercostal arch as I tell myself, out loud, not to panic. The driver raises her voice against the sound of rushing water.
‘As the water reaches your nose, open your mouth and let it in. Your body will fight and you will be very scared. Let the water follow the path it needs to find in you. It will be cold, overwhelming. When it hits your lungs you’ll feel it in there. Let it fill them. Look into the eyes of another passenger if you need to.’
Moby Dick Man is pushing the book into his shirt. He’s very skinny – his chest concave between small pink nipples. Then he takes both my hands in his and we face each other as the water replaces air.
I knew from before that it would hurt. I knew the urge to let the blackness swallow my consciousness would tempt and tempt and I mustn’t give in. So I don’t. I hear a single shout of panic from the lad at the back and turn to see the driver cover his mouth with her own – hold his flailing arms against his body.
Then the water is over my eyes and I’m under, with Moby Dick Man – our mouths wide like carp gulping, our hair lifted and fine. Salt water is burning the inside of my nose, back of my throat, my eyes. Water is pouring into my lungs and they balloon in my chest – heavy against my ribcage. The pure pain is a relief. I see that in my companion too – his face slackens, releasing tension as agony wins. I blink once and when I open my eyes again everything is clear, the roaring my ears has gone. It’s silent and green and I’m breathing – tiny sips, it’s true, but my body is functioning again.
The old lady’s skirt has lifted like a lampshade around stockinged legs. She drifts towards me, smiling. The driver and the old lady and the boy are in a chain, hand to hand. The boy still looks very shocked.
‘If you’ll follow me,’ the driver speaks in my mind, ‘I’ll show you off the bus.’
So I take the hand of the boy, and Moby Dick Man takes mine, and we curve and wriggle down the flooded stairs, through the open door of the bus, out into the green. Above there is light, below us, just here, a brown and gold shingle bed as comforting as a beach. But not far off, not far from where our bus is birthed, the sea bed drops away into darkness.
The old lady is off. She kicks away in a lop-sided breaststroke, losing her headscarf, letting go of the bag of apples, which parts and opens and sends its cargo up, up like rockets to the surface. The framed photograph of the 1970s girls is gripped in her right fist as she goes. The teenage boy lets himself drift, opening his arms wide, closing his eyes. He knocks against a shoal of small fish and they split around him. Moby Dick Man takes his book from inside his shirt. It’s a solid block. He wrenches it apart and rubs at the paper. It disintegrates in clouds of papier mache.
I do what I’d always intended. I curl. I imagine my shell, a striped nautilus, push out my fingers like tentacles. Feel every current and wait.
The engine startles me but I know she has to go. A churning of water and shingle makes everything a haze. And when it clears the bus is gone. I know she’ll have passengers waiting on the prom. There’s no end of us. The teenage boy has opened his eyes. He’s watching to see what I’ll do next, I think. I wave. I point inland. I point out at the deep waters, sending their colder currents around our legs. Then I shrug and curl again. He hesitates, turns a somersault in the water, then settles on the shingle. He’s sifting through the stones for seaglass. By the time I leave, he has a treasure horde of green, brown, frosted white, scooped into the front of his t-shirt.
Moby Dick Man has gone. He’s dropped the cardboard cover of his dismantled book. I pick it up from the patch of fine sand that is threatening to swallow it. I swim with it in my two hands – outstretched like a float. I swim away.