“Stop!” yelled Stan, grabbing onto the handrail.
The driver stomped on the pedals while pulling the huge hand brake as the bus came to a crunching halt.
Stan deftly avoided the shifting beds as they slid towards the front of the bus, squealing wheels protesting at being locked in place.
“What is it? What’s the matter, Stan?” Ern asked, tufts of white hair bobbing beside his ears as he turned to gaze at Stan through his thick round lenses.
The drivers eyes narrowed from three times their normal size to narrow slits. “What do you mean nothing?”
“Just an emergency stop. My note from the gaffer tonight said I ‘ad to check your reactions. Now that you’re an ‘undred n twenny five.”
“I didn’t know they had to do that, you sure?”
Stan nodded, tapping a small black notepad in his breast pocket. “Yeah, it’s all in ‘ere. Me an the gaffer, we’re like that.” He crossed the fingers on his right hand, holding them up to the glass partition between him and Ern.
“When did I get to be a hundred and twenty five?”
“Blimey, Ern. Don’choo even remember your party? We only dun it last Sunday.”
Ern’s enormous eyes behind his glasses made him look very much like an owl. “But it’s Friday today?”
“So why did they wait until now to test my reactions?”
Stan blew a lengthy breath between closed lips, throwing his hand up. “Well, how should I bleedin’ know? They don’t tell me everyfink.”
“But I thought you just said you and the gaffer were—“
“Yeah, we are. But he obviously didn’t fink I needed to know why he chose tonight. Maybe they have to wait a week after your 125th birthday before they test yer?”
“But its only been five days—“
“Oh, I dunno, Ern. Wha’choo askin’ me for? It’s not my fault when they go testin’ people, is it?”
Ern pondered this for a moment then shrugged, tan cardigan wrinkling around his neck.
“Anyhow,” Stan said, staring out into the darkness. “Where are we?”
Ern squinted into the wing-mirror. “Next stop, Aberdeen.”
“Well, wha’choo waitin’ for? Let’s get a shuffle on. People have paid good sickles to get where they’re goin’ tonight.”
The handbrake clicked and clunked as Ern grasped it, shoving it forward. Then, with a stomp on the pedals, they lurched off at breakneck speed.
Stan watched the blur of intermittent street lights whizz past as the purple sheeted beds rolled towards the rear of the bus. He smiled as he followed them, his body stable on the rolling and jittering deck. It was like how sailors got their sea-legs though experience. He remembered his first time on the Knight Bus, almost throwing up with every sharp corner and the instant starts and stops sending him lurching up and down the length of the vehicle. The worst had been his descent from the third floor to the ground, head first down the circular stair. He still had the scar on the back of his head to remember that by. Well, that were a long time ago and he had his bus-legs now.
Two rings on the bell and Stan shouted, “Ab-er-deen,” as the purple triple-decker screeched to a juddering halt. Amidst the tinkles of the crystal chandelier, he could hear movement upstairs. Footsteps made a slow shuffle towards the stairwell.
Come on, come on, We aint got all night.
A pair of red pompoms on a white slipper dropped into sight on the stairs. After a few seconds it was met by the other foot, then the sloth like dance repeated. Left foot down to the next step, pause, right foot. This is goin’ to take forever. After the second step the slippers were followed by a red and white striped night shirt, a little stained here and there, and crumpled, but who was he to judge. He cast his eyes down to his purple conductors uniform, more grey now and full of creases. Well, it was the weekend tomorrow, he’d get it washed and ironed when he popped round to see Aunty Tilly on Sunday.
“Here you go, Professor McTavish,” he said, reaching out to support the frail old man’s arm down the last few steps. “You gunna be alright, sir?” He said as he helped the ageing wizard to the pavement.
“Ach, I’ll be fine, son. Just need to find my spectacles. I cannae see my hand before my face without them.”
“They’re on your ‘ed.”
The old man reached to his breast pocket and shook his head, wandering from there to his nightshirt pockets and back. “I could have sworn…”
“They’re on your ‘ed, sir,” Stan repeated a little louder.
The professor patted his legs through his nightgown. “I’m certain I had them when I left the bar.” He turned his attention back to Stan. “I went out for a wee dram tonight, but I seem to have misplaced my spectacles.”
By the red speckled blotches around his nose and face, Stan suspected this wasn’t the first “wee dram” the Professor had partaken of. “Your spectacles is on your ‘ed, Professor.”
“What’s that? Speak up, lad. It’s no use whispering.”
Gawd help me. “YOUR SPEC’S IS ON YOUR BLEEDIN’ ‘ED, MATE!”
The old man stared, his dark eyes appeared stunned where they poked out behind the thicket of white beard that hung to his chest. “Well, there’s no need to shout now, is there?”
He reached up to cover his ears, fingers alighting on the frames of his missing spectacles. “Ah, look. Here they are, the sneaky little blighters. Could you no see them?”
Stan fumed, struggling with the urge to kick the old duffer in the backside, but he maintained an air of dignified calm, or so he hoped. “At least the mystery is solved, sir. Now if there’s nuffink else, we’ll be off?”
“Well,” McTavish started.
Ding, ding, rang the bell under Stan’s finger, and the Knight Bus rocketed into motion again.
Oh my giddy aunt. The fings I have to put up with. Stan had thought Ern was decrepit, but that was nothing compared to some of their passengers.
The Knight Bus served the infirm and the young. Any wizard or witch in need of transport could just throw out their wand arm and they would arrive almost immediately to offer them a lift.
But by Merlin’s beard, some of them were so far gone it was hard work just to keep civil sometimes. Maybe “You know ‘oo” was right. Perhaps the world would be a better place if the unclean and the infirm were to come to an end. Surely, it was a mercy to end their sufferin’ rather than lingerin’ on, blockin’ the route for those younger, and more able, to advance. And as for the muggles, ha. They were just stupid. Didn’t see anyfink, couldn’t do anyfink useful. All they did was scurry about like ants, oblivious to everyfink around ‘em. They might as well be obliviated.
“Stan, what you up to?” Ern called from the front.
“Nuffink,” he replied, heading towards the driver. The candles fluttered in the wall sconces as he past them. Why couldn’t they get somefink newer? How difficult could it to to perpetuate a Lumos spell, get rid of the dim conditions they forced him to work under?
He sighed in relief as the ceiling opened up at the midsection, revealing the grand chandelier hanging from the top floor. These at least reflected constant light, spreading tiny rainbows around the bus interior. Stan slumped onto the bed nearest the drivers seat which creaked as if ready to break.
“Don’choo ever get fed up, Ern?”
“What do you mean?” The older man turned his head from the onrushing traffic and blurred passing colours of the city lights.
Stan had panicked, the first time it had happened, screaming for Ern to get his eyes back on the road. But as the old man calmly explained the bus looked out for itself. It had a powerful Imperturbable Charm which meant things moved out of the way as it passed by, somehow bending around it and back to their original positions.
“Just that it’s so mundane. We don’t get to use any magic ourselves, everyfink is done for us. You don’t drive, the bus does it all. You just press stop or go, don’choo?”
“Well, it’s a little more involved than that, but I suppose you could see it that way.”
Stan took a deep breath, then his shoulder slumped. “I just thought I’d be doing more than dolin’ out tickets on a bus and repeatin’ the same speach to everyone gettin’ on board. It’s dull, a waste of my talents.”
“You may well think that, Stan. But, when you get to my age, it’s nice to have a working routine, feels like I’m still useful.”
Lights flashed on the dashboard and Ern turned his attention back to the bus.
“What is it?”
“Nothing to worry about. Just another pickup.”
Stan pushed himself to his feet, wobbling down the bus in perfect unison with its shakes and rumbles to his position at the rear entrance.
With a bang, the Knight Bus broke from the blur of passing light appearing on an unlit street. It glided to a stop beside a children’s play area, breeze whistling through the nearby trees.
Stan reached into his pocket, retrieving a crumpled piece of paper and with his usual enthusiasm, read the spidery writing he’d scribbled there.
“Welcome to the Knight Bus, emergency transport for the stranded witch or wizard. Just stick out your wand ‘and, step on board and we can take you anywhere you wanna go. My name is Stan Shunpike, and I will be your conductor this eve–“
Stan stopped as he realised there was nobody there until he looked down. A teenage boy sprawled on the ground, reaching to snatch up his wand as he scrambled to his feet. His mop of unruly black hair bounced as he stood and adjusted a pair of round-rimmed glasses, like Ern’s, but not as thick.
“Wha’choo you doin’ down there?” said Stan, dropping his professional manner.
“Wha’choo fell over for?”
“I didn’t do it on purpose,” replied the boy, annoyed. One of the knees in his jeans was torn, and his right hand was bleeding.
“Well, come on then,” Stan said. “Let’s not wait for the grass to grow.”
As if remembering where he was, the boy poked his head around the rear of the bus staring at something.
“Wha’choo lookin’ at?” said Stan, peering at the wooden bench in front of an overgrown hedge.
“Well come on then. In.” Stan gesticulated with his thumb towards the bus, but instead of stepping onto the bus, the boy headed for his case. “No, no, no. I’ll get this. You get in,” Stan said, struggling to lift the leather-bound trunk. The damned thing weighed a fortune. He persisted, straining until he’d got its corner onto the step and slid it aboard.
Stan stretched his aching back as he stood, watching the teenager dawdle forward between the beds as if they had all the time in the world. Oh, he thought, It’s gonna be one of them nights!
A Knight to Remember was placed 2nd in the Short Story category
of the 2020 Presidents competition.