My murderer sits opposite, looking across at me for the twelfth time. Everyone knows that a stranger staring at you one to five times is acceptable, six to nine means rape, but double figures says murder. If looks could kill, they say. Is that the name of a film? It should be. I really didn’t think I’d die this way; by being stabbed, throttled – or by some other violent means. I always thought I’d die from some sort of plodding organ failure, in a four-poster bed in some grandiose candle-lit room with portraits, and a desk with a crystal inkwell, and my five children around me, snuffling back their tears as I utter my last words. I hope I’ll say something profound concerning the filigree of life, but in my delirium, it would probably be about kettles, or hydrangeas or something. Instead, I’m going to die on this bus without ever having children, or seeing Paddington 2, which is a waste of a ticket. I feel eminently stabbable in this thin coat. I should have worn my herringbone jacket, or chainmail. I just hope it’s not too messy. At least this N74 bus is already red. I really should think of some weighty final words now, in case my dying turns out to be a prolonged act.
I wonder if he has killed anyone before. Of course he has. That’s why he’s hiding his calloused stranglers hands wearing woollen gloves. Can you throttle someone while wearing gloves? They must hinder getting a good grip, but on the plus side, they wouldn’t leave fingerprints, and afterwards you could throw them in the fire or unravel them into a ball of wool and knit them into a scarf to disguise the evidence. He’ll probably kill me at Marble Arch. Then he can run off into Hyde Park and never be found, while my body continues dying onwards towards Oxford Circus. That means I’ve got ten bus stops of life left. Perhaps he wants to kill me as he think’s I’ve got items of value in my bag – tiaras, or stamps or something. Does that make him a cut-purse? I like the phrase ‘cut-purse’. It puts me in mind of Dickens, fog and the beach at Boscastle, with mermaid purses, all dried up and lying among the seaweed on the tide line. They look like they should give a satisfying ‘pop’ should you squeeze them, but I can’t remember if they do. It’s been a long time, and now I’ll never know, unless my life flashes before my eyes when I die, in which case I’ll make a point of checking when I get to that bit.
‘Killed for a copy of My Weekly.’ That’s what the papers will say when my bag is dredged from the Serpentine by frogmen. Maybe it’s god’s way of punishing me. After all, I used to like Jimmy Saville, or Saville, as we’ve all got to call him now. You can only use ‘Jimmy’ for Osmond, Tarbuck and Somerville.
My attacker looks over for the thirteenth time. Do his eyes narrow just for his victims? Surely he can’t see ceilings and floors like normal-eyed people without moving his head up and down. It’s no real handicap, and I guess allows him to focus on the job in hand without peripheral distraction. I narrow my eyes back at him. It feels odd, and he’s gone a bit out of focus. It’s sure to give him a wrinkled forehead when he’s older.
I can’t decide if I want a quick death, or a more lingering one to get used to the idea first. It’s a shame there’s no one who looks capable of tackling him when he charges over. He’d be my hero, and I’d be compelled to marry him and do his bidding. He’d keep the stiletto on the mantelpiece to make sure I never became blasé. If it was a woman who rescued me, I’d probably have to pretend to be a lesbian, perform unsightly acts for her and wear jodhpurs around the house. I never did like horses. They have such spindly legs. I wish I had spindly legs. Do horses find it twice as easy to walk with their two extra legs, or twice as difficult? Then there’s all that standing in fields waiting for strangers to give you apples. No, thank you.
We’re at Brompton Square now. I can tell that without even rubbing the condensation off the window. As I’m going to die anyway, I might rest my forehead against it and not worry about getting a dirty face, while feeling the vibration shudder through my head like a woodpecker whenever the bus stops in traffic, like I used to, until Mum told me to sit up straight. I’d still feel the cold on my skin for a few seconds after which meant I’d won. You stop doing things like this when your Mum dies, though it reminds you of her when you do them again.
Overall, I don’t want to die; there are chops in the fridge, and if I don’t collect my dress from the dry cleaners by Thursday they will probably give it to charity – and it’s not a look that will go down well in Africa, where they like more flamboyant colours.
How to escape death… My weapons are: one rolled up magazine, one compact mirror, one set of door keys with one Boscastle fob. One pen, one picture of Mum in Boscastle (2005), and three cards: debit, National Insurance and Nectar.
(1) I could gouge him simultaneously in the eyes with pen and keys. This would require coordination and accuracy. Chance of success: 25%, but then I’m squeamish about eyes since I went on that school trip to see the Bayeux Tapestry. Better make it 20%.
(2) Dazzle him with the mirror and hope for some Gorgon-style turning to stone: 4%.
(3) Slash his cheeks with one card then make him swallow the others: 2%.
(4) Entrust that a policeman/policewoman/bodybuilder/bodybuilderess will enter the bus and sit next to me for the remaining stops: 15%.
It’s not good. Chance is my best option, and I’m not a lucky person. Ask any overflying bird.
Hey, I know what might just allow me to live. My murderer mustn’t know I’ve worked out a plan, so I have to shut my eyes in case my pupils give me away. Now I’ve got to choose one of the moments when his homicidal gaze drops to look at his shoes, to check that the blade that springs from the front of his sole when he clicks his heels has not accidentally engaged. He’s done it seven times so far. It’s hard to watch for this with my eyes shut, but my life and those of my future children depends on his not looking when I take action, so I must rely on my other senses to tell me the exact moment for action.
It feels like days, but is actually just three stops, then thank you, senses; my nose sends my brain an imagined sniff of dry-cleaned gabardine. I now have one second to open one eye, jerk forward, press the red bell on the chrome pole in front of me then return to my pre-pressing posture, reshutting my eye before his head can raise his narrow gaze upwards to he can detect me…
I make it! That ‘ding’ tells me that the LED ‘BUS STOPPING’ sign will have illuminated. I mustn’t look at it or he will realise what I’ve done. I wish my heart would stop thrashing to escape from my sweater, as if trying to betray me and get nearer to the plunge of his knife. I stare at his shoes – brown, probably Clarks – so hard that he has to stare at them too. I can see he has a tiny splatter of mud on his left turn-up, but not if he has a hand on the dagger inside his jacket.
The bus keeps stopping and starting in the traffic. I want to put my head against the window for comfort every time the shudders come, but I daren’t. We lurch another ten yards. I think that’s approximately the same as ten metres, but it’s hard to be precise when you are tensed as a carriage clock spring and a quarter-turn from snapping. He’s uncrossing his legs to adopt the pouncing position. I can’t tell where we are for fear of looking up. I must continue my shoe stare. His laces are tied evenly and well. There’s less than 1% chance of his tripping on them in the attack.
The bus lurches to another halt and there’s the hish-parriss of the doors opening, one whole stop before Marble Arch. My escape stop. No one moves. Not even me. Cold wind hurls itself inside. Now I must count. My life depends on my estimation that the doors will be open for nine seconds. To reach them and be through them to safety on the vital ninth second, I must dive out on the sixth.
I count, using the parachutists trick to ensure I don’t count too quickly in my panic:
Then, with adrenaline flooding my body, it hits me – is it elephants I should be counting, or heffalumps? Suddenly, my counting is lost and it’s do-or-die, or do-and-die more likely, as I surge for the door, fast as a Saab 93, now completely unaware of whether I’m at second six or seven. I dash faster than I have ever dashed, running faster than when that horse leant over the hedge to bite me at Boscastle.
The doors fire shut to concertina me between the shoulders; trapping 55% of me outside of the bus, 40% inside, with 5% pincered between their rubberized edges. The air in my lungs is forced out into the night air. In my breathless state, I sense the man leap up behind me and feel his gloved hand grab my coat. The 40% available to him is more than sufficient for him to apply his blade.
I shut my eyes.
I prepare for mermaids purses.