There was a bus full of people.
Mary was stood in a crowd on the bus’s lower deck.
Eliza had a seat on the top deck.
A great deal of rainwater carried on boots and trouser-legs had accumulated on the floor of the bus, so it was only natural that someone should slip. Except the man didn’t slip, Mary saw and was certain of it; he collapsed, folded. Like something imploding. She leant forward to catch his arm and noticed that his eyes were half-closed, that his lips moved slightly. His whole body had lost the ability to hold itself up and now its full weight dragged at her arm and nearly pulled her down with it. She had to hold him with both arms, placing them beneath his armpits.
‘Watch out.’ A voice from the thick crowd. Another taking the sentiment up like a chorus: ‘It’s all this rainwater, bound to make someone slip’, and another, or perhaps the first, ‘Is he alright? His eyes are closed’, and another (perhaps the second again), ‘He must’ve hit his head when he fell’, and she thinking: no, his head never touched anything, he hasn’t slipped, he’s collapsed, but she, not saying anything, focusing entirely on trying to stop him from falling all the way to the ground, – ‘Here, darling,’ talking to her now, one of the voices from the crowd, ‘let me help you get him off the bus’ – she realizing that the crowd thinks she knows him, though in fact she’d never seen him before this exact moment. ‘He’ll be alright’ (reassuringly to her) and now the others, taking up that line: ‘Don’t worry darling, get him out of this crowd, sit him down, I’m sure he’s fine.’ Care in their voices, now he was her responsibility and an extension of her, and she thinking: stop calling me fucking darling you cunts – ‘Get him out of the crowd darling’ – now it was clear that, in the mind of the crowd, she and he were intimate acquaintances, lovers, a married couple.
The bus stopped. Her arms still beneath his armpits, she guided him out of the door and into the rain. A sudden rush of new bodies charged forward and she had to fight her way to the bus shelter.
She placed him on the bench and he seemed to regain his strength. For the first time he looked up at her, his eyes open, his mouth closed and still. He looked directly into her eyes. She, returning his gaze, saw something like recognition. The very edges of his mouth curved upward a little: the slightest hint of a smile. Then his eyes snapped shut, his neck and shoulders went slack, his body nearly toppled from the bench. She took her phone from her coat pocket and called an ambulance.
From the top deck of the bus, Eliza had only a slight notion of what had happened below. She was half asleep on the window, one eye just open to watch the wall of rainwater crash against it, to make lazy bets on the races of raindrops as they sped down the windowpane. Part of her registered sirens some way behind the bus, and flashes of blue and red light.
The familiar image of her roadsign pulled her back from sleep just in time for her stop.
‘You know you sing in your sleep, yeah?’, she heard the girl next to her say as she left.
Eliza’s phone began to vibrate as she crossed the road. James on the other end of the line, barely audible – ‘I don’t know when I’ll be home. They had to stop the train. A, um, a tree fell on the line or something. The wind here is crazy.’ She heard shouting in his distance. He started laughing. ‘A sale sign just flew across the platform,’ he said. He laughed some more. ‘Guess what it said?’ She didn’t say anything, just listened to the crazy wind on his end. ‘Everything must go!’ he said, and laughed again.
Mary helped the man into the ambulance, her arms beneath his. He felt stupidly light, like an artist’s manikin.
‘Did he slip?’ the paramedic asked her as they sat him in the back of the ambulance. ‘He slipped in the rain, right?’
She was about to explain when she felt a strong, confident grip on her arm. She looked down and saw his hand closing around her wrist. She looked at his face. His eyes were not completely closed; from the sliver beneath the lowered eyelid she saw he was looking directly at her. His teeth and lips barely parted and as he exhaled his tongue pushed up onto his pallet emitting a quick faint sound that she understood as an instruction for silence. Then his head dropped forward. Just gravity acting on its weight, but she knew it was a nod. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘He slipped in the rain.’
She felt his hand move skillfully over hers. She felt a small shape of cold metal sliding over one of her fingers.
‘Are you – ‘ the paramedic started to say.
‘I’m his wife,’ she said, lifting her hands and adjusting the gold wedding ring he had just given her.
Eliza turned the TV on as soon as she got home. It was an anti-loneliness instinct, the need to hear voices in the living room while she made tea in the kitchen. An advert for a diet supplement was just finishing up. From the kitchen she heard children and dogs playing in a sunny meadow. It felt like an age since she’d seen sunshine, as if rain was all she could remember. The noise of the kettle boiling drowned out the news coming on. She poured hot water into the cup as a voice in the other room said ‘…the aircraft, believed to be a biplane…’ Her hand shook; for a moment she missed the cup, pouring a few drops onto the kitchen table.
She came back into the living room and changed the channel. A panel of comedians talked about nothing, reminding her somehow of the raindrops she’d watched falling in random patterns down the bus window. An American comedian spoke now: ‘They warned me about you guys – when I first came over. I was warned –’
She lowered the volume and called James.
‘Hey.’ Again the wind roaring in the background, made metallic by the phoneline, threatened to drown anything he said. ‘Any news about this train then?’
‘Yeah, um – ‘ burst of wind and distant shouting – ‘replacement buses – ‘.
The line cut off.
‘They said,’ said the comedian on the TV, ‘I’d need to talk about the weather to get a laugh.’ The invisible audience laughed on cue.
‘Check his breathing.’ The paramedics were busying themselves around the man’s body. Their movements didn’t have a real meaning for Mary. They faded into the background like ballboys on a tennis court.
The second paramedic undid the man’s shirt. The skin on his chest was dark and hairless. Her eyes wandered downwards, quietly registering the fact that he had no navel.
‘Hey,’ sharply from the first paramedic as he noticed the man’s eyes opening.
‘Um. Hello,’ said the man. ‘Where am I?”
The paramedics answered but Mary didn’t care what they said. Their words were meaningless too; she heard only a protocol of noises, part human and part machine. It reminded her of something. Her father reciting to her when she was a child, in the ICU after surgery, messy with wires and pegs – like a tangled puppet – saying in between the beeps ‘No human spark is left, nor glimpse divine.’ Her mother saying ‘Don’t be so bloody morbid’. He, enjoying pissing her mother off, continuing: ‘Light dies before thy uncreated word… universal darkness buries all.’
Eliza slid forward on the couch, knocking the remote on to the floor, switching the channel back to the news report: an image of a man in Wellington boots, standing in a flooded street, orange lamplight streaked in ribbons on the water’s surface, digitally frozen. Distorted audio buzzing from his motionless mouth. ‘…a few men and women here who say they saw the aircraft in question and–’ ‘John, I’m afraid there’s a bad connection here. It’s this weather! Well, we’ve lost John, we’ll get our technical people on that – ’ back in the studio, a woman in a suit smiled with calmed concern, saying ‘…and see if we can come back to John later. With me here in the studio is – ’ and the shot cut to a man in military uniform, paternal and grey-haired. ‘Hello Cynthia, thank you for giving me a chance to speak today. Yes, we’re concerned there’s an unidentified aircraft moving over the Southwest, of course it’s probably just someone who’s been blown off course.’ ‘What kind of aircraft are we talking about? Because people are saying, on the ground, that they’ve seen a small biplane’ – Eliza shifted suddenly on the couch – ‘Well the one thing we can be sure of,’ the uniformed man said, ‘is that it’s much bigger than that.’ ‘How do you explain, then–’ and Eliza switched the set off.
What was it about the word biplane that made her shiver each time they said it? She traced its shape in her head. Two perfectly straight lines encasing, at their centrepoint, a perfect circle.
She sat up.
‘That’s not a biplane,’ she said aloud. ‘That’s – something geometrical’, but even as she spoke she saw the shape again in her minds eye. That’s the biplane, she thought. Not a biplane. The biplane.
‘The biplane,’ she said aloud. Like a magic spell to summon this perfect shape. She switched on the TV again.
‘…and it looks like we can now go back to John. Hello John!’
The man standing in the water again, no longer frozen. ‘Thank you Cynthia, sorry about that.’ An old couple stood by John, also wearing Wellingtons. ‘Now, you both saw a plane earlier this evening. Can you describe what you saw?’ He placed the microphone a hands-width from the old woman’s chin.
‘Oh yes,’ she said, grinning. ‘It was… perfect.’
Eliza smiled back at the woman on the screen, feeling that she understood completely. She felt her eyelids closing and noticed that she was singing, faintly, beneath her breath.
The paramedics let the man go and Mary, not knowing what else to do, took him home with her in a taxi and, in the back of the taxi, she kissed him.
‘Listen,’ she said. ‘I have a feeling that – well, people aren’t really talking about it, but it’s obvious. Things are changing. I mean, it’s been raining for ages. People are just kind of – you know. Going through the motions of living.’
‘No human spark is left, nor glimpse divine,’ she quoted. She touched the gold ring on her finger.
‘I don’t think things like this mean anything anymore’ she said.
‘If,’ she said, ‘they ever did.’
‘You might as well be my husband,’ she said. ‘I don’t think the distinction between truth and lying matters anymore. I think the big lie is in not saying. Not saying the rain is never going to stop. Not saying things as we know them are, um, drawing to a close. That light dies. That universal darkness covers all.’ She kissed him again. ‘Be my husband for now. Then. We’ll make a plan.’ She slid her hand over his unblemished belly. ‘I guess you’re new here,’ she said.
They went straight upstairs, kissing rather than talking. She wasn’t surprised to find that his body was completely hairless, apart from his head and eyebrows. ‘Completely new,’ she said.
Her arms stretched outward to either side of the bed; his, directly above hers, clasped her hands; their heads, mouths interlocked in kissing, rotated slowly. A biplane, she thought. We’ve become a biplane.
Who could say how much time passed before she felt hot sunlight and realised that she’d risen above the cloud layer, that rain was no longer part of her reality?
‘Is it over?’ she said, with something other than a voice; the air-chopping propeller burst.
‘No,’ she said with a smile that stretched far off into the distance, ‘It’s finally going to start.’
Ben Osborn is a writer, songwriter, librettist and composer. He is the musical director of Fellswoop Theatre, whose production of Toshiki Okada’s apocalyptic play Current Location is playing in various venues around the UK this year.