SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: Freedom Pass by Jacqueline Green
Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers' Hub
It is late, later than normal.
I pull at the cuffs of my jumper and try to cover my hands. This country is wet. I lower my head to avoid the stinging rain.
The lamplight stretches my shadow across the Tarmac. I look taller than my big brother, Tarek. The rain throws bombs of water that splinter into silvery spheres. I flatten myself against the back wall of the bus shelter.
Maybe I’ve missed the bus? Important men were meeting upstairs, so they made me stay late. I was told to hide, wait until the kitchen boys had finished before I was allowed to fetch my mop and start cleaning.
I stamp my trainers and feel the water squelch inside. Tarek stole my socks. He had a date tonight so wanted to look nice for his rich English girl. I clench my teeth. The pain in my toes sharpen. They feel cold enough to snap right off.
I see a line of lights appear over the bridge and hold my breath as they turn towards me. God is good. I will have forty minutes to dry out.
I can feel the bus’s warm breath as it pulls up, the brakes hiss and the doors blow open, spitting more rain over my trousers.
The coins slide out of my fingers, on a trickle of water, into the driver’s money tube. I snatch the ticket from the jaws of the machine, desperate to reach the warmer air at the back. The vehicle lurches forward and I sink into the dry bristly seats, dragging my wet hands across the material.
I look around. Many people are nodding with eyes closed. Two men are whispering, heads together near the front and a scruffy white man is pulling stuff out of carrier bags on the long seat. He isn’t clean. He is shouting. He speaks English, so why is he collecting rubbish?
At the next stop an old woman climbs on. ‘You’re out late tonight, Mary?’ the driver says. ‘Getting the most from your Freedom Pass, then.’
He waves her through and her wrinkled lips break into a grin as she collapses into the seat, tugging at her thick coat.
Could I get a pass like that?
I look down at my trousers. They appear to be sewn together, the bottom half, dripping black and the top a dirty grey. Tarek promised me some new ones before I got this job but he bought himself a shirt instead.
‘Got to look good,’ he said, ‘If you want to stay, you need a woman.’
He is handsome. Back in our village all the girls hung on to him when they heard he was leaving. But no-one was watching, when they grabbed our hands and pulled us into the back of the lorry.
We had to lie still while they hammered the false floor into place and we heard them swear as they dragged the boxes across.
I have a good job, cleaning. Tarek made a deal. I can only work at night and am not allowed to speak but my brother is generous.
He gives me enough money to get the bus, so I don’t have to walk, following the river back to the flat.
It is cramped but the older boys work in the daylight so most times I have a bed. One day I will get a job like Tarek, loading the containers in the warehouse.
The landlord takes most of his pay but my brother is clever, he gets money from his boss. He knows about engines and can fix anything.
He has enough money now to take a girl out. I want to be just like him.
The bus swerves violently, grinding metal against metal. It lurches and twists. Splinters of glass fly towards me as I slam against the seat in front and slump to the floor.
The air thickens with dust. There is silence. Everything stops. I feel a vacuum surround me like the ocean. I can’t see but hear muffled screams. A warm trickle of blood slides down my neck.
I force my eyes open to a world upside down. I can see the old man hanging across the middle seat, he looks like a rag doll. I can hear a young man, crying like a woman: ‘Help me?’
I am trapped and can feel pressure on my leg. Then sirens, a lot of sirens, and blue lights bounce off the windows.
‘Okay, lad, don’t worry we’ve got you now, you’ll be in the hospital soon.’
‘What’s your name?’
I don’t answer. Tarek told me never give your name. Do not speak.
‘Let’s get this boy in quick. Not sure he speaks English but he’s losing blood.’
White lights. Corridors. Nice clean sheets. Tarek is wrong, these people are kind.
The lady holds my hand like a mother. She strokes my fingers. She has generous eyes. I wonder if Tarek’s girl has the same eyes.
I see a policeman who tries to talk to me but I look away. I remember what the angry men in the lorry said. Do not speak to uniforms. I know that from home, uniforms are bad.
The lady is back. She smiles. My head feels drowsy but she stays with me, perhaps she will be my woman. The one that will like me, the one who will let me stay.
Jackie Green retired and moved to Southsea for a change of lifestyle and to finish her first novel. As one of a team of local writers involved in the Writing Edward King project, she recently recited a short story at the New Theatre Royal, which she had based on a painting currently exhibited at Portsmouth City Museum.
Send your short story to the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub via e-mail at [email protected] For more information check out the Portsmouth Writers’ Hub on Facebook.