A London Mystery - a story by Catherine Oliviero (one of Mike Mills’ former students.)

London, as famous for Big Ben as it is for the red double-decker buses, is the city I had chosen to come to for my first experience of life outside my native France. Yet never in my wildest dreams did I imagine just what an experience!

Having just left school in a village with a population of under 3,000, I was excited about the prospect of learning all about this huge city where I would be spending at least the next few years.

After the initial surprises and shocks about living in London - such as nearly getting killed by a black cab when I looked left instead of right whilst crossing Oxford Street, and being amazed at the variety of different cultures inhabiting the Capital - I began to feel more relaxed and was getting to know the area in the East End, where I lived, quite well.

I bought a monthly bus-pass, as this is a much cheaper way of travelling than by the hugely expensive Underground. However, there is a drawback to going everywhere by bus - traffic, and the buses' unreliability!

But very soon I found a rather easy Monday to Friday evening job in an office, and only about a 20 minute bus-ride away from my flat. I was employed to sort out and tidy up the files left all over the place by the 9-to-5 staff. I had to get to the office at 7pm and it usually took me about 4 hours before everything was back in its right place ready for the the following day's onslaught, and I could go back home.

However, I really disliked the journey to and from work, partly because it was November and the weather was dreary and usually wet, but mainly because my bus route, the Number 8, was so unreliable. I kept getting to the office late, and the boss was decidedly unimpressed - as he had to wait there every evening until I arrived! Things came to a head when he told me that if my punctuality did not improve he would have to search for someone else to take my place. Since the job paid quite well and was very easy, I determined to make a serious effort to get there on time from now on.

So the following evening, which was, as if I'll ever forget, Friday 16th November, I reached the bus-stop round the corner from my flat over 30 minutes earlier than usual, convinced that this would enable me to get to the office without any problem, and in plenty of time! Imagine, therefore, my seething anger when I was still waiting nearly 40 minutes later!

Then, without warning, a bus did appear! One second there had been no bus at all - then, when I looked up the Number 8 was there, just waiting for me to get on!

I quickly boarded and glanced at my watch, realising that if the bus made good time I could be at the office not more than a few minutes late. Although there were some empty seats downstairs, I decided to sit on the upper deck, and it was only as I was climbing the stairs that I noticed how old the bus was!

It's true that Transport for London does use some old-style buses on its routes, but this was ridiculous! The stairs were curved in a most peculiar manner, and the hand-rails were made of shiny brass! Upstairs I got exactly the same impression: even the adverts seemed to be selling things that were quite out-of-date!

It had begun to rain and everything was gloomy; the light-bulbs on the bus scarcely gave any light, so that everything was dim. I could make out the other passengers, but they were silent, and completely ignored me. There were few seats free, so I sat down next to an old man but he didn't even glance in my direction. He just sat there sniffing as if he had a cold, and stared blankly ahead.

It was then that I began to take stock of the other passengers and suffered a shock! No one at all was talking: they were all, like the old man next to me, just sitting staring straight ahead. It was weird, and I felt a bit uneasy! Even their clothes seemed totally inappropriate, particularly for this weather. And there were no brightly coloured anoraks or waterproofs, just thick, heavy coats and scarves! There were even two men in army uniform, something I had never seen before in London.

It was while I was musing about this that I suddenly realised that the bus, which had been travelling fast, almost dangerously fast in fact, and swerving all over the place as if the driver were drunk, had reached my bus-stop, and I quickly hurried downstairs, thankful to be escaping from this depressing surreal atmosphere!

Probably because of my nervousness, I didn't realise that the bus was still moving fairly fast and stupidly I jumped off, slipped, and fell heavily to the pavement. I wasn't seriously hurt but did feel very dizzy. The conductor must have been aware of what had happened, and I expected him to come to my aid, or at least to check if I was OK. I vaguely remember looking up to see why he had done neither of these things. It was then I discovered the reason - the bus was nowhere in sight - it had simply disappeared!

Not only had the bus disappeared - the street was, to my horror, absolutely deserted - usually the street was full of traffic, but now there was no traffic at all!

I began to try to get to my feet, but had a dizzy spell and stumbled against the wall, hitting my head. As I did so, I read the words on a blue metal plaque screwed to the brickwork. Then I passed out.

The plaque had read: "In Memory of the Passengers and Crew of the Number 8 bus which, on the evening of Friday 16th November 1951, inexplicably skidded on the wet surface and crashed into this wall, killing everyone on board."

Exactly 50 years ago to the day!

Footnote:

I was admitted to hospital with concussion and had to stay there under observation for 4 days.

A few days after I had been discharged I returned to the bus-stop to read the plaque again. No plaque was to be seen. I asked the old man who owned the newspaper shop nearby if he had seen it. He told me that there had indeed been a plaque on the original wall, but that wall had been demolished 10 years earlier and he had an idea that I would find the plaque in the London Transport Museum.

I went there to search for it, but in vain.

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