David R Ewens

The Decency Debt

12th February 2009

Some girls, when they’ve had a few Bacardi Breezers, snakebites, or whatever it is that counts as a favourite drink, get giggly and happy. They want to snog the nearest bloke. They totter along linking arms with their mates, screeching and cackling. Elllie, her mate, was like that. It was only now that it was the end of the evening and they’d run out of dosh that she’d got quiet and calmed down a bit. Simone was different. The more she drank, the angrier she got – with bar staff, with bouncers, and with blokes in general – the whole sorry lot of them. She was angry enough when she was sober. She was a raging beast after a few drinks. And the angrier she was, her friends noticed, the harder and faster she chewed the gum that was always in her mouth.

She was drunk now. All their other mates had gone in different directions. The two of them huddled together in the bus shelter, stamping their feet to keep warm (inasmuch as you can stamp your feet with heels on).

‘How are we going to get home?’ Ellie said in a subdued voice.

‘For goodness’ sake, we’ll just say ‘Pentecost Lane’, give the driver the money we’ve got and then stay on till Witney Park.’

Ellie got on her nerves. She could be so prissy when the partying stopped.

Simone was just preparing a salvo of abuse for the bus driver when the bus finally appeared – only five minutes late. The destination flashed in cheerful amber dots on the front display panel.

‘Two singles to Pentecost Lane,’ she demanded.

She noticed the faded dagger tattoo on one of the bus driver’s hairy forearms. He rubbed an eye. It was the end of the evening. He’d been going up and down on this shift since six o’clock. It was clear that he’d had enough of driving a bus for the evening. There was barely anyone else aboard. A couple of blokes. A woman with a shopping trolley. They all looked old. To Simone, anyone over thirty was ancient. The bus smelt stale from all the passengers to the city centre and back from early that morning. On the seat opposite were two crumpled up crisp packets and an empty bottle of Pepsi. Unseen objects clanked and clattered round the floor with the movement of the bus. Pages of the daily free sheet were stuffed in corners. All the casual detritus got on Simone’s nerves. She chewed her gum hard. Her brow furrowed.

The bus rattled on. She could feel Ellie getting tenser as the end of their legal journey got closer.

‘Pentecost Drive’, called out the driver. The bus stopped. Nobody moved. Simone put her hand firmly on Ellie’s arm. She wasn’t going to walk the one and a half miles home.

‘Pentecost Drive’, said the driver again. ‘It’s your stop, you girls’. There was something in his tone. Challenge, obstinacy – maybe even insolence.

‘Nah’, shouted Simone from the back of the bus. ‘We’re getting out at Witney Park.’

‘No, you ain’t’, said the driver, ‘not unless you pay the extra fare.’

That was it. That was effing well it. Simone’s rage completely tore loose. She launched herself down the bus, eyes blazing, jaws grinding furiously, a torrent of angry words pouring from her mouth. Ellie cowered.

‘You effing bastard. We only want to go a few more stops. What harm are we doing this time of night? The whole bleeding bus is empty.’

The driver folded his arms. He seemed to fancy a rumble to liven up his evening. He was sick of fare-dodging too, and for once he had little to lose. After the row had been surging back and forth for a short while, one of the men, the small one with no hair and a pale face – except for little broken veins running like purple tributaries from the bridge of his nose to his cheeks – butted in.

‘Either pay the bloody fare or get off the bloody bus. I want to get home.’ Simone rounded on him. ‘Keep your nose out of it, you paedo’.

Stalemate. Simone and Ellie wouldn’t get off the bus. The driver wouldn’t drive. The shouting got louder and more abusive. Simone’s chewing was frantic. She saw the other man get up and move down the bus.

He had a full head of white hair and wore his greatcoat Mourinho-style circa 2006, collar upturned. His voice was soft, but his blue eyes had a firm gaze.

‘Can I please ask how much the tickets are from here to Witney Park?’

‘Three pounds.’ The driver’s voice was surly. Was he being deprived of his entertainment? Simone looked suspicious, but her chewing slackened.

‘Two tickets then please,’ said the man, producing three one pound coins.

He handed the tickets to Simone, his gaze still steady.

‘Perhaps you could pay me back when you have the money,’ he said with the faintest trace of a smile. ‘Maybe buy a little less chewing gum!’

With the tickets he produced an embossed business card. Simone gloated at the driver. It felt as if her anger had been rewarded.

‘Your funeral, mate.’ The driver shrugged.

After Simone, Ellie and the white-haired man had got off the bus together, Ellie broke the silence.

‘Thanks for doing that for us, mister.’

Simone frowned and her jaws began working a little more quickly. So effing prissy…

‘Hmm,’ said the man. ‘Actually, I’m hoping that repayment will confirm for me humanity’s basic decency, if that doesn’t sound too pompous.’

‘Yeah, right,’ muttered Simone under her breath. ‘Prat’. But strangely, she could not shake off the sentiment.

*

Three months later, Jenny Smith walked into her boss’s office.

‘Isn’t this the last day of your driving ban? No more buses for a while.’ He’d been in a reasonable mood all day and she had just realised why.

‘Anyway, this came for you through letterbox just now. Looks a bit mysterious.’

Her boss nodded, examining the envelope and its girlish scrawl: James Braithwaite, Solicitor, Commissioner of Oaths. He tipped the contents onto the blotter: three pound coins and a stick of chewing gum still wrapped in its silver foil – and on the foil, printed boldly, one word: INTEREST. His face creased into a huge smile.

David R Ewens

 

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