As bus drivers, we slip in and out of other people's stories, lingering only long enough to take your change and offer up a word or two. We're the background to your centre-stage reality, to the importance of your shopping list or whether you'll be on time to your appointment (you will be – the last time my bus was late the road had flooded between the Jenkins orchard and town).
Our stories are made up of the patchwork pieces of your stories.
I've been driving the same route for twenty years. Most of the way is rural with narrow, winding roads and small stone cottages. The past jostles against the present here. The people who take my bus are the little old ladies from the farms tucked into the hills with their string shopping bags and coats older than my bus, the Mrs. Joneses and the Mrs. Davises of the world. Or the schoolkids dropping sweets wrappers behind the seats. Or the folks on their way from one metropolis to another, never pausing long enough to feel the out-of-time-ness here.
And the others. Others, with a capital 'O'. I wasn't born in these parts; I didn't grow up with the stories. I learned them later from my Nella. She always said there were places where the Otherworld overlaid our own like a fine patina of paint.
I know am only a small, fragmented part of their stories.
There's a lady of the lake who takes her hand-crafted fancy cheese to the local farmers' markets. Every lake in these parts has its own lady. They are usually tall and willowy and beautiful beyond any mortal. She's tall, certainly, but well past middle-age, with the long black hair she's famous among the farm folk for. Streaked with grey. My Nella said people still meet her walking about her lake with a milk-white fairy cow in tow. She's stopped and chatted with Nella's cousins on occasion and smiled a secret smile when they mention the story of the lady in the lake.
I've seen her secret smile, too. When she boards the bus she brings with her the scent of the cold lake depths. There's always a puddle around her wellies, rain or shine.
She once gave me a tincture in a tiny glass bottle for Nella when her heart first started to come over all queer. It worked a treat. Nella baked her a loaf of bread as thanks. Tears welled up in the lady's eyes when I handed it to her, still warm from our oven at home, and she held it close to her face.
“It has been so long since I've had proper bread,” she told me. “There are no ovens where I live.”
I haven't seen the lady much of late. They're planning to build a new development on her lake and I worry that means she won't be coming back. Where will she keep her fairy cattle? My Nella told me not to be silly, that her cousin's husband's brother had told her of a lady of the lake who still played with the children of the housing development that had paved over her lake.
“All worlds change eventually,” Nella told me in her philosophical way, “for better or for worse.”
There's a spot on my route that makes me shiver when I pass it. In the old days, I'm told, a path ran from the village to the little church through the lych gate. They called it a corpse road. It's where they used to bring those souls that had died. People still walk the path, not knowing that they are following in the footsteps of the dead. The bus route passes over the path just before it reaches the lych gate.
One of the old drivers, John Bills (he seemed ancient at the time, but I'm passed his age now) told me to keep watch out for the corpse candles. The pinprick of light that appears on the pathway shows the face of one about to die if you catch the light in a reflection.
I was young then and I didn't believe him. Later, I laughed about it to Nella. She turned to me from kneading dough, her dark eyes serious. My laughter stopped.
“My auntie used to take flowers to the church every evening along that path,” she said. “And one night, she came flying back down the path, flowers askew and her hair wild. In terror, she told her husband, my uncle Henry, that she'd seen him reflected in the mill pond holding a candle. That morning, poor uncle Henry dropped right down dead of a heart attack.”
I scoffed (please forgive me, I was young) and it was a subject that caused some strife between us.
But sure enough, three weeks later, I was driving down that stretch of road and ahead of me flickered a tiny light. I slowed the bus, thinking it was a torch or a lighter of someone wanting the bus. When I stopped, I could make out a dark shape beyond the glass. I paused. The hair on my arms was all standing on end. Something in my gut said, clear as day, do not open that door. There were many reasons to be cautious as a young woman in those days, even a burly one like me, and I usually trusted my instincts.
This time, I let the door crank open.
No one was there.
Then I saw it. Reflected in the glass of the bus door was John Bills, my fellow bus driver.
“John, what on earth are you doing out here?” I asked and then shook my head to clear it, for there was no sign of my fellow driver or that light.
I arrived at the station, shaken and unnerved, to the news - John Bills had been hit by a car that evening and had died in the hospital.
I never doubted my Nella's stories after that.
It's mornings when the mist is tinged with a strange green that I'll sometimes pick up a few of the Good Folk near the old earthworks. They step out onto the lane through the crumbling archway of a long-vanished home, dressed all in green. There's always one of them with a fiddle in hand. I guess when you're one of the Good Folk you don't need to bother with a case.
They never touch anything except the seats, they always pay in gold coin, and they always depart at the Jenkins Orchard. Someone told me that the Jenkins Orchard has the ripest, sweetest apples in the world. That may be exaggeration, but I've tasted one. It was honey-sweet with a crispness that burst on my tongue and lingered in my memory long after the apple was gone. You don't talk about the Good Folk's help or they leave, so I've never learned the story there.
But I do know about the Good Folk and gold coin. It didn't take my Nella's warning to test it with iron. Their gold never reverts.
“Don't you say a word to them, now,” my Nella would caution me. “And don't you look them in the eye.”
I forgot once and offered up my usual cheery, “Good morning.”
“Good morrow,” came the reply, in a voice redolent with all the hollows of the world, or the whisper of unknown footsteps behind you in the dark.
I never spoke to them again.
Since they started riding, the bus has never broken down and it uses less petrol than those fancy electric cars they have on the roads these days. Sometimes they leave me ripe red berries and moist, delicious-smelling cakes. I have never eaten them. In my dreams, the berries burst ripeness on my tongue and the sticky juice runs down my chin. I sink my teeth in the golden cakes and then the most intoxicating, enticing fiddle music beckons me through the hedgerows.
I always wake before I find the musician, with sweetness lingering on my tongue.
I first saw the hitchhiker by the old oak in the third year of driving my route. There are no official stops in the country. People just flag my bus down as they need.
I saw the arm, stopped the bus, and the girl got on. Fashion not being my strongest suit (I was what they call a tomboy in my youth) it took me some time to realise her clothes were out of style, the kind of clothes I remembered from my teen years.
“Good evening,” I told her.
“I'm just going to the next village,” she said, her voice barely above a whisper, and dropped exact change onto the tray.
Her red jacket caught my eye and she walked to the back of the bus with my gaze on her. I don't know that anyone else noticed her, but in our brief interaction I'd been almost overwhelmed with deep sadness. She seemed so young, so lost. I try to keep my eye out for the young ones in trouble – help them with a bit of money, or a kind word.
I don't know when the hitchhiker vanished. I do know that one moment she was sitting in the last seat and gazing out the window and the next she was gone. I checked the whole bus when we got to the station, but there was no sign she'd ever been, except that one pound fifty.
When I told my Nella, she said ever-so-casually, “Oh, that's Bethan Jones. Went missing, oh, years back now. No sign of the poor girl except her red jacket. Found right along your route. She was my sister's dear friend. Such a tragedy. We never did find out what happened.”
Bethan appears every six months or so, usually around the full moon. I am always kind to her. I suspect her body's hidden somewhere near the oak tree where I pick her up.
And, of course, you can't forget the local witch. She gets on the bus most Saturdays, hurrying out from her ramshackle stone cottage. The cottage looks like no one's lived there for years, covered in ivy and moss with the roof half caving in.
People leave when she stumps on, fumbling in her old man's tweed jacket for change and glaring at anyone who looks at her funny. They say David Jones the postman, coming back from some wild drunken route, hit a silver hare with his car one night and ever since then the witch has walked with a limp.
Two days later, David Jones' house burned down.
“She's always in trouble with the local council,” my Nella told me, “always letting her sheep and goats run amuck in her neighbours' gardens. They tried to force her off her land back in the '80s. My auntie Elin, bless her soul, spoke out for her and Old Rose had a soft spot for her after – bringing her home brewed beer and cheese from her goats.”
I always ask Rose about her knee and her livestock and she tells me how the weather's going to be for the week. She's never wrong. Once she brought me some of her famous beer and that night my Nella and I drank ourselves sick.
The Good Folk won't get on when Rose is there. I reckon there's a story in all that.
Two tortoiseshell cats take my bus every few months. I almost ran one of them over the first time they appeared. It was sitting in the middle of the road and I didn't see it until the last minute. I slammed on my brakes and the whole bus screeched to a stop only a few feet from the cat. It was unperturbed. While I sat there, willing my thundering heart rate to return to normal, the second cat approached the door and put her paws on the glass.
Still stunned, I opened the door and she got on, closely followed by the first tortoiseshell. They stalked to the seats right behind me and settled themselves and I drove on.
The bell rings for their stop though I have never seen them touch the cord. Sometimes they get off at the Jenkins Orchard, sometimes at the witch's house, or the earthworks, and sometimes they get off at the old lych gate.
They pay me in seeds. Nella and I had such a lovely garden. On my days off we pottered among the dirt, planting the seeds the cats gave me, making guesses as to what would grow. We've had roses and juniper bushes, rosemary and lavender, and a whole variety of herbs. Whenever Nella used them in her baking, we both had such strange dreams.
The second time I saw a corpse light, it was late in December, just before Christmas. My Nella had taken a turn for the worse and was in hospital. We were hoping she'd be better by Christmas when all her children and their families were making the trip down to visit. In all the hustle and bustle of preparations, no one mentioned that the reason they were all coming was that it was most likely Nella's last Christmas.
It's hard to feel gloom amidst the warm buttery smell of baking biscuits and cheery music (not that awful modern nonsense; the old carols), but sadness hung heavy on me all the same. I hated being away from my Nella, hated thinking of her in that sterile hospital room. Every day I brought her flowers and her favourite chocolates.
I shouldn't have been working that night. One of my fellow drivers called in sick with the flu.
“Don't be silly, Joan dear,” Nella said me, taking my hand; her palm was papery soft, “I'll be well looked after.”
I traced the delicate bones on the back of her hand and kissed her forehead. Then I left.
It was a dark night. No rain, but overcast and cold. Very few travellers. On my final drive back to town with an empty bus, I realised I was approaching the place where the old corpse road crossed the modern road. Without thinking, I slowed down.
A tiny pinprick of light flickered ahead. A little light dancing in the darkness.
With foreboding cold in my belly, I stopped beside the light and cranked the doors open. A gust of biting wind blew into the bus. The corpse candle guttered and died, but not quickly enough. I had already seen the face reflected in the glass.
It was my Nella.
I would swear she smiled at me before vanishing.
At the hospital, they told me she passed quietly in her sleep. We had been together for forty-three years. It comforts me to know that in that moment of death she found me one last time.
I still drive the same route I have driven for twenty years. I still drift in and out of other people's stories. I drive whoever needs it, whether they are of this world or not. I let on the Mrs. Joneses and Davises with their string shopping bags and the farmers and the passers-through and the children with their sweets wrappers and the Good Folk with their gold and the crows who drop shiny coins in my tray and the tortoiseshell cats that come out of the hedgerows and go back to the hedgerows and the ghosts and the witches and the ladies from their lakes. I see them pass without comment.
But I know, one day, I'll stop my bus at the old lych gate and the candle waiting there will reflect my face.
When Helen Edwards was twelve she made her mother read her very first full-length novel. It was a rip-off of Tolkien, which her mother gently pointed out. That didn't stop her (Helen wrote at least three more Tolkien "inspired" stories before she found her own voice). She's still caught by folklore, by stories about women, stories of witches and monsters, and people who are unusual protagonists. Over time, she's lived with a storyteller in a house that used to be a stable, roamed ancient byways with Welsh folk musicians, faced off bears and grad school and her own health, and filled up with stories. You can find more of her stories and paintings at www.changelingstories.com.