Circus Subterraneous

This short story won third prize in the Wild Hunt Short Story Competition 2021.

Round and round, and round and round, and round and round we go.

Where we stop, nobody knows.

But I know because this is where we stop every day. Same route, same stop. It’s like a religion, this stopping. This pausing and waiting. A moment of meditation in the day. It’s a habitual act, like fingering the rosary or crossing oneself before the altar.

We pause, we reflect, we wait, we hope. Nothing happens.

Nobody gets on. Nobody gets off.

The bus driver is contractually required to stop and wait, if only for a few seconds, at every stop. But why here? We’re on the edge of a roundabout, it’s completely impractical.

Finsbury Circus.

It’s the only true Circus left in London. Oxford has become a fancy pedestrian crossing, Piccadilly a broken circle confused by cars. Cambridge is… Well, a little theatrical moment in the West End. Exit, pursued by tourists. The others have turned into concrete monstrosities feeding the polluting petrol beast: ring junctions, roundabouts, gyratories. Give me an old-fashioned Circus any day.   

The word comes from the Romans apparently. I looked that up one day when I overheard a little boy travelling with his mother ask her why there were no lions here. I told him there used to be lions roaming the streets of London, but now they keep them in the zoo, for safekeeping. She looked a bit annoyed at my interjection, but the young boy’s eyes lit up. I like it when there are children travelling the buses, we don’t get so many of them on this route. It’s mainly city types trying to look cool by ‘slumming it’ or poor people going to Moorfields Hospital. 

Circus Maximus the Romans called it. Their largest stadium, bigger than the Coliseum, for chariot-racing and lion-baiting and other fancy attractions. Finsbury must be Circus Minimus in comparison. I don’t know when the word was used to describe these round places in cities. Round squares effectively. I love the green space in Finsbury Circus, this is what makes it special. It’s got a bowling green in the middle too, an oasis of civilisation amongst all this urban pretension. And a lovely garden, although that’s all dug up now, for the building of yet another underground railroad. Waste of money if you ask me. All those billions of pounds and it will only shave 10 minutes off your journey.

My name’s Bill, by the way, I’m the bus conductor. The one that stands at the back then comes round to check the tickets. There aren’t many of us left, they got rid of most of them when those little plastic swipey cards came in. No need to pay the fare with cash and get a ticket anymore, you just swipe and go. No tickets – no need to inspect them. But there’s a few of us left. The oldies, who were not quite close enough to retirement, but not young enough to take voluntary redundancy and start a new career in a new town.

They keep us for show mainly, for the tourists. None of this jumping on and off the back any longer though, that’s a real shame. That was the main attraction to the job for me, and how I met my missus. She was trying to jump on the back of the number 38 when she stumbled. I caught her and pulled her up onto the back runner. Fell into my arms, she did. Just outside the Angel station. She was my angel in waiting, that’s what I told her.

We can’t do any of that now, it’s not allowed. Too dangerous apparently. Health and safety nonsense, it’s just an excuse to get rid of us, cut costs. I’ve only got another few years to go and then I can retire. The missus says she can’t wait that long to have a proper holiday abroad, so we’ve got to go now, whilst we still can, she says. She wants to go somewhere hot this year, so I’m taking on some extra shifts. This is why I’m doing the night shift, a bit of extra padding in my pay packet.

For this night shift, this particular night, that I’m telling you about, I got a new driver. I don’t know how new he is, but I’ve never seen him before, and as one of the oldies I reckon I’ve worked with all the drivers at my company. Most people assume that London buses are all run by the same company, but they’d be very wrong. There are dozens of them, all in charge of different routes. All in competition with each other for passengers and fares.   

Clarkson, he said his name was. I assumed this was his surname, but no, Clarkson is his first name. Funny names they give kids these days. Clarkson Wells Junior is how he introduced himself to me, with a little salute. I wasn’t sure if the salute was intended to be respectful or sarcastic. But if he starts calling me grandad, I’ll wallop him.

It’s a normal night shift. People get on, people get off. As usual it’s quiet at one end, busy in the middle and then a big blur of noise and beer in the centre. Everyone is so noisy these days, compared to when I started out, yelling into their phones. Several times I’ve had to clear up vomit and sticky red wine and broken glass.

We were on our way back from town, nearly at the end of my shift. It’s already just after midnight as we’d been delayed by some malfunctioning temporary traffic lights where they’re digging up the road round Farringdon. We’re nearly back at Liverpool Street where I end my night, when we stop at Finsbury Circus as usual.

We pause. As usual, nothing happens. Nobody gets on. Nobody gets off.

Clarkson lets the engine idle for a couple more seconds before putting it back into gear. There aren’t many of the diesel buses left now. Most of them have been replaced by the modern electric ones. Better for the environment I know, but they’re not the same. The buses on this route haven’t been replaced yet, and I hope I go before they do, because I’ll miss the sound of an idling bus engine. It’s the sound of anticipation and excitement, the sound of a journey about to begin and a whole new group of people to share that with. I like the fact that I get to be part of their lives for a short while, and I imagine what they’re doing, where they’re going. Who they are as people, not just passengers.

Just before the bus lurches forward into first gear, a large crowd of people get on. I didn’t see where they came from. They just streamed on from out of the shadows. They must have been waiting against the wall rather than standing at the stop itself. I wasn’t half surprised when they all tumbled on. They were all dressed similar, with long dark cloaks or heavy black jackets covering up whatever they were wearing underneath. It was quite a strange sight. Must be off to some sort of fancy-dress party, or perhaps some unusual city boy secret club. One doesn’t want to think about it, but I’ve seen that film by the clockwork guy.

What’s most odd, other than the fact that I’ve never seen anyone get on at this stop ever, is that the next stop is the last one. The bus terminates there. I start to tell them this as they climb on, but they just smile or laugh and say it doesn’t matter, they’re just along for the ride. I shrug and glance up the aisle to Clarkson, who I can see in his mirror watching all these people take their seats. He raises his eyebrows at me in return, and then sticks his thumb up, and off we go.

Round and round, and round and round, and round and round we go circumnavigating Finsbury Circus. Clarkson then takes a sharp right and cuts across the other lane suddenly. I stumble in the back, not expecting any route deviations and wonder what he’s up to. The bus then descends quickly and steeply onto a  narrow slip road that seems to be taking us underneath the gardens of the Circus. I’ve seen it before, but it’s not a proper road, just a small slipway to the building works that are currently going on underground.

I want to yell out for him to stop, but one never does that for fear of disturbing the passengers. One has to remain calm and orderly at all times, it’s part of our training. The last thing you want in a difficult situation or a traffic incident is a load of panicky passengers to deal with as well. I try to make my way to the front so I can speak to him, but the descent is too steep, and I have to grab onto the back of the seats beside me for fear of falling over.

He’s going too fast. He’s not going to make it. Has he forgotten he’s driving a bus? The height of the slipway entrance isn’t going to be tall enough. Christ, I hope there’s no one sitting at the front of the bus on the top deck. Flashing images of twisted metal, singed seating, the smell of burning rubber and burnt skin sear my mind. We all remember the bus bombing of 7/7. Number 30. It wasn’t my route, but I knew the driver. Poor George, he was a true hero. In my opinion this is exactly why we still need conductors. We can keep an eye out for suspicious-looking passengers, strange packages, nervous fumbling of overlarge rucksacks.

This all shoots through my mind as Clarkson shoots down the darkened slipway and onto a metal ramp. And then stops. Suddenly. I get thrown backwards onto the stairs. I don’t hit my head luckily, but it takes me a while to get my wind back and stand up. That dodgy hip takes a knock, and I reckon I’ll have a few bruises in the morning. Clarkson! I call out. But there’s no answer. I turn and see that the bus has emptied. Everyone has got off and disappeared as quickly as they got on. What the hell?

Maybe he’s driven us into hell, I wonder to myself as I walk towards the front of the bus and peer inside the driver’s cabin. But Clarkson has gone too.       

I step off the bus. And slowly walk around it, as if the problem is the bus itself rather than the fact that we seem to be parked in some sort of concrete underground cavern. It must be an old underground car park under Finsbury Circus Gardens. It’s dark and gloomy and it feels a bit spooky standing here on my own. Clarkson! I call out again. The word echoes around the cavernous concrete space.

Over here Bill, comes back the reply. I can’t make out from where, but then up ahead of me, about 50 metres away I see a huddled black mass of people, slowly moving. It must be the passengers. It’s all a bit dark, but I spot a wave and again the cry: Bill, over here, but be quick! It’s Clarkson’s voice, but it sounds strangely amplified and echoey in the large subterranean hall.

I start walking towards where his voice came from. It’s all very intriguing. But bloody annoying too as my shift is meant to have finished and I’d like to go home to my bed. The missus will have made cocoa and some toast, and I’d really like to get some sleep. But I have to admit, I’m curious. Maybe this is some underground rave, or an illegal drug den of some kind. A sex club? Oh, my word, that would be something to tell the lads about.

I stop walking. I’m going to have to ring this in, of course I am. This is all completely against the rules. Bus drivers can’t go making up their own routes and heading off onto uncharted roads. I dig out my phone. I’ve got to do my job. This is the key role of the conductor, you’re not just there to check tickets but to oversee the conduct of the bus and its passengers. You don’t normally need to keep such a close eye on the driver mind you, but times change.

But there’s no reception down there of course, and from where I’m standing in the dark, I can’t even work out where the bus drove in from, in order to walk back up the slipway into the outside air.

Bill! comes another cry from down the corridor. I scurry along. I don’t want to be left alone in the dark. Maybe this is some sort of candid camera, and I’ll look a bit of a muppet if I don’t play along.

I almost run down the corridor, as far as my hip will allow, and get to the end where there’s nothing but a closed metal door. Maybe I’ve missed them or gone the wrong way. I knock on the door. I don’t know why, it seemed polite. It opens a crack. A disembodied voice, which sounds like a woman, but it’s hard to tell these days, asks:

Performer or Watcher?

What? I reply. Where’s Clarkson? What’s going on?

Performer or Watcher? She repeats, with some impatience. Come on, you’re late, we’ve got to get started.

Look, I don’t know, I just got here on the bus.

Passenger or conductor then? She asks with mounting frustration.

Oh, conductor, of course.

I hold up my little company-issued bag for taking money, tickets and the special notepad for issuing fines. She opens the door, not fully, but enough for me to see that she is indeed a woman. She’s wearing a long black cloak draped around her shoulders with a brightly coloured leotard on underneath.

This way please.

She directs me to the right, down another corridor.

And hurry up please. It’s about to start.

What is? I turn to ask her, but she’s gone.

I walk down the corridor, which gets lighter and lighter as I go. I can also hear some noise, a low rumbling sound, like machinery. That would make sense. I figure that the hollowed-out cavern Clarkson has driven us into must be part of the Crossrail building work going on. An extension to Liverpool Street station for the new tube line built underneath near Finsbury Circus. Maybe this is some sort of event, a celebration for the Crossrail team and we’ve been invited along. I guess these things have to be kept a bit secret which is why Clarkson didn’t tell me in advance.

But no, it’s not machinery. As I get closer it sounds like feet tapping. Feet stomping and hands clapping. I come out of the corridor into a wide arena with rows and rows of seats around the outside. In the centre a single spotlight cuts through the surrounding darkness. There are hundreds of people sitting on wooden benches.

I stand there in the entrance, scratching my head, trying to work out whether this is real or I’m dreaming. Then there’s a low thundering drum roll, and the lights shine on a small band who strike up a merry tune. Then an announcement over the loudspeakers:             

Ladles and Jellyspoons, clowns, townies and other creatures, roll up roll up! Welcome to our annual celebration of the original amphitheatre of playtime and pantomime, of fun, frolics and bearded ladies. The world exclusive Finsbury Night Circus. Admission is free, please pay at the door.   

I’m still standing there like an idiot, wondering what to make of the spectacle in front of me when someone grabs me from the side and shoves me down in a seat.

Bill, sit down for God’s sake man.

Clarkson! For it is he, my errant driver. What’s going on?

It’s the circus, Bill. Can’t you see? Now shut up and enjoy the show, its only on once a year.

How come? Why here?

It’s the 31st May, innit?

He grins at me, his teeth shining in the flashes of light pinging off the mirror ball which has just descended from the ceiling into the middle of the arena in front of us.

We celebrate the death of Joey the clown, old Grimaldi, the original circus clown. His first stage performance was just up the road here at Sadler’s Wells.

How do you know all this?

I’m the Chair of the Tram Operators Circus Appreciation Society.

Trams? There’s no such thing anymore.

Well, it’s an old society, we had trams on London streets before buses, Bill.

Yeah of course, I know that.

Just look at us all.

And then I saw what he meant, as the lights came up and the performers started to come on: the ringmaster in his top hat, a kerfuffle of clowns, two trapeze artists swinging from the steel girders that made up the ceiling, and a troupe of tumbling acrobats. And all around me, sitting and watching intently, were the other night shift bus drivers and conductors, current and retired.

This area of London is circus central. We’ve been celebrating like this for hundreds of years.

But why all the bus drivers?

It’s tradition, innit? From the days when trams first traversed the streets and Finsbury Circus was built, there’s been free rides for circus performers. How else could they afford to get to their shows?   

They have horses, too? Even underground?

Of course, they have horses Bill. It’s not a circus without horse riding tricks.

And off they went, acrobats turning somersaults on the backs of horses, underneath Finsbury Circus, in the middle of the night.

Round and round, and round and round, and round and round they go.

Published by

JP Seabright

wayward word wrangler

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