Alice had used the same bus route to work every weekday morning for ten years.
She climbed aboard and paid her fare at the bus stop a hundred yards from the front door of her small house on the outskirts of town.
The route took her from open countryside and through leafy suburbs that contained tree-lined avenues, populated by middle-class families and successful business-folk.
From the suburbs, her journey continued through a council estate that seemed as though it had been designed by the architect of the Berlin Wall. One side of the road contained houses and gardens with well-kept gardens, shiny, new cars parked on tarmac drives and satellite dishes in abundance, while the opposite side had identical houses, but with unkempt gardens, privet hedges thrusting green fingers towards the sky, dilapidated fences and gates and equally dilapidated cars, vans and motorcycles. Satellite dishes were equally, if not more, in abundance.
Leaving the council estate behind, the bus entered the officially-recognised town centre (a grimy, faded sign told her so) and semi-detached houses were replaced with manufacturing and business units and shops, hemmed in by rows of terraced housing, red-brick reminders of the town’s industrial roots.
It was within one of the manufacturing units that Alice worked as a payroll supervisor. In the old days, she would have said that she was employed in a factory, but these days they were called industrial premises. She had no idea why the name had changed, but she was certain some person earning more money than she had earned in her life had thought it up.
Before entering the station, a short walk from work, her bus had to wind its way through a heavily built-up area with old, five-story edifices on either side, interrupted by long, rubbish-strewn alleyways. Most of the buildings were derelict, windows smashed and inky black.
She hated this part of the journey. Even though it only lasted a minute or so, she felt that it went on forever. Filthy, dark windows beckoned to her, but she resolutely refused to stare through them, afraid of what she might see in the pervading gloom beyond. Even the alleys filled her with fear. She imagined unspeakable crimes being carried out among those long, mysterious passages, despite the brilliant sunshine that illuminated their lengths.
She knew, though, that soon they would be past this section of town and she would soon be relaxing in her office with a hot cup of tea and a digestive biscuit.
Then the bus stopped with a great shudder and a tremendous sound of metal renting against metal.
It had never stopped here before! she thought, not even thinking that the problem might be mechanical.
Craning her neck she could see no traffic in front that may have caused the driver to hit the brakes. There were ten other passengers also curious as to what had happened and a low murmur had begun as they started discussing what may be the source of the problem.
After much puffing and sighing, the driver finally admitted defeat and emerged from behind the wheel.
“Sorry, folks,” he shrugged. “I think it’s given up the ghost. I’ll have to run across to the station and sort out a breakdown truck.”
Alice felt panic rise as she realised what he was about to say next.
“I’ll have to let you all off now. The station was the last stop, so you don’t have far to go.”
Despite the fact that only a couple of minutes might have been added to their journeys, many of the passengers grumbled as they filed from the bus, casting rebuking glances at the driver, as though it were his fault that the bus had broken down.
Alice waited as long as she could and finally stood up.
“You okay, love?” asked the driver.
“Yes,” she squeaked, lying.
She was terrified because she knew that to get to work on time, she would have to cut down one of those dreaded alleys - the same alleys about which she had imagined so much horror.
Stepping down from the bus, she paused at the end of the long, dirty ginnel and considered taking an alternative route around the blocks of old factories. She estimated that this would make her ten minutes late for work and her boss would not accept any excuses. She had been late only once in ten years and had almost been sacked that time. She hated her boss, but loved her work. The alley it was then.
One tentative step after another, she walked as quietly as she could, not wishing to disturb anybody or anything that might lurk beyond the high, rickety, wooden gates that punctuated the alley’s filthy, brick walls.
There were terraced houses on one side of this particular passage and the left-hand side consisted of a hundred yards of sheer brick, rising a hundred feet above her, the towering walls of one of the defunct factories. Alice could almost feel the walls closing in on her and she quickened her pace.
Unfortunately, in her haste, she failed to see the broken paving stone. The ground came rushing up at her and she thrust out both hands to break her fall. Alice cried out in pain as the broken bottle pierced her left hand. She winced and pushed herself to her knees, tears streaming down her face.
“You all right, love?” The deep, rough voice came from one of the gates and she looked up to see a barrel-chested man in a grimy vest and Bermuda shorts staring down at her.
Oh God! she shrieked mentally. This is it. I’m going to get murdered or raped in this alley. My fears are coming true.
The man kneeled down beside her and took her trembling hands in his.
“Ooh, that looks nasty, flower, but I think we’d better go inside and I can have a proper look at it.” He gestured towards the open gate.
Again, panic rose from the pit of Alice’s stomach. She was going to be killed in this stranger’s house. Images of baths of acid and chest freezers filled with dismembered body parts flooded her addled mind.
Despite being absolutely petrified, she allowed herself to be lifted from the ground and did not struggle as the man carried her from the alley and through his gate. He set her down on a small sofa in the front room of his two-up/two-down and quietly left her to her thoughts.
Should she run? Her hand was throbbing and blood was dripping onto the man’s freshly-vacuumed carpet. She took a deep breath, smelling pot pourri, and took a moment to examine her surroundings.
A large, widescreen television dominated one corner of the room and shelves full of videos and DVDs took up the opposite wall. The sofa upon which she was sitting looked new. Even the fire safety label was still hanging from the back (she saw this when looking behind the settee for chainsaws, baseball bats or axes, but finding only a box full of children’s toys).
The man reappeared. He had changed his vest for a clean, pressed shirt and held a large, green holdall with the words ‘PARAMEDIC’ emblazoned on the side.
Within minutes he had cleaned and dressed her wound (the cut was not as bad as it had originally seemed and no glass had become embedded in the wound), made her a mug of tea and phoned her boss to explain why she was going to be late, giving details of his job being a paramedic for the Local Health Authority.
Alice was lucky that today had been his day off. He had heard her cry out from the alley and instinctively gone to her aid.
His name was Barry and he and Alice quickly became close friends. He had recently separated from his wife and the children’s’ toys were for his three-year old daughter when she visited at weekends. It turned out that they had a great deal in common (Alice was also recently separated, but in her case, it was from her recently-deceased mother, for whom she had cared all her life) and both were finding it difficult to get back into the social scene.
Six months later, Alice and Barry were living together in her mother’s old house. Her new ‘daughter’ loved her to bits and she reciprocated in kind, her weekly visits being the highlight in Alice’s life.
She still worked at the same place and caught the same bus to work every morning, but now when they passed those dirty, old alleys, Alice smiled.
© Steven Johnson 2004
Updated 11th March 2012