James Finnie had always loved the start of the journey home.
Whether he’d been at the football with his Dad, or shopping with his Mum, they’d head for Glasgow Central to catch the train to their local Southside station. James loved to look up at the departures board and read the names of the destinations, and below them, the list of station the trains would stop at on the way; strange place-poems that fired the enthusiasm of the curious or the adventurer. Yes, there were dreary local journeys to places like Barrhead and Neilston and East Kilbride, but some trains left for the harbours at Ardrossan or Stranraer with the promise of a short voyage over brimming blue seas at the terminus. And some trains promised journeys across the border to English cities like Manchester and London and Birmingham. There were even occasional trains to far Penzance; the stations on the way sounded like an incantation, a spell you could cast – Par, St Austell, Newton Abbot, Lostwithiel.
Lostwithiel! King Arthur should live there, or perhaps some mysterious race from a Tolkien story. James’ mind had often wandered back there, to Lostwithiel. ‘Away wi the fairies,’ his parents would say of him when his eyes grew dreamy, but the phrase gained a harder edge as he neared the end of secondary school and his exam results began to disappoint. His Mum had gone to the school and wondered whether there might be a trace of dyslexia or even mild autism. No, James’ teachers responded, there’s nothing wrong with him; he’s quite bright, just dreamy, easily distracted and – this seemed the most damning of all – imaginative.
James failed most of his Highers and was packed off to a college in a nearby new town in order to achieve university qualifications. The wait for the bus back to Glasgow after college mocked James’ early sense of wonder in Central Station; the buses called at a kind of pull-in deep below the town’s decaying 1960s shopping centre. Passengers were provided with a small waiting room, all peeling paint, unwashed windows and graffiti-carved wooden benches. Outside, at the stances where the buses drew up, the same thin, grey men in scuffed shoes and trousers baggy at the knees always seemed to hang about, talking aggressively to one another as they hurriedly smoked roll-ups. Occasionally, the automatic doors leading to the buses would randomly sweep open, wafting in clouds of their cigarette smoke. The only concession to modernity was an electronic screen that listed the bus departures. In between the expresses to Glasgow were regular services to local estates and towns and villages with dismal names like Carbrain and Kilsyth and Blackwood and Condorrat. There was no mystery there; the names had no music, they didn’t sing.
There was one exception, though. Occasionally, James would see on the screen a reference to the X100 for Carnshee.
He’d never actually noticed the X100 arriving or leaving, nor seen ‘Carnshee’ on the lighted headboard of any vehicle. For these reasons, if no others, Carnshee became the nearest this place could offer to a Lostwithiel, a mythical place laced with mystery and beauty and colour and magic.
He had no idea where Carnshee was and none of his classmates had heard of it either. None of them went home on the X100.
On Wednesdays James had no classes after lunchtime. It was his usual practice to have a quick burger in the student café with his classmates and then spend some time in the library working on things he’d neglected. But the next Wednesday he decided to forego lunch and explore; he would go to the bus stop, await the next X100, and travel to Carnshee.
This expedition, which built itself into some kind of Grail Quest in James’ mind, had an inauspicious beginning; he left the college and entered the town’s grim covered shopping centre, past fast food joints and empty shop units and along gloomy passageways until he reached the steps down to the bus stop. He sat on one of the wooden benches facing the electronic screen and waited.
In the middle of the day the waiting room was rarely busy except for a few students leaving college early (like James) and a few young mums with mewling infants in push-chairs. But then James felt himself drawn to his feet, drawn to move towards the electronic screen like a communicant approaching the table. For there it was;
13.55 – X100 – Carnshee – Stance X
‘How it gaun, Jim?’ came a voice behind him. He wheeled round – it was Duncan, a student from his course.
‘Er, I’m fine,’ he said, ‘Look, have to rush, see you after, right?
‘Aye, fine,’ said Duncan, and James ran off to find Stance X. He dodged between the few passengers milling about smoking on the platforms and ran past Stance A and B and C… he could not see a Stance X. He stepped out into the roadway but there was no sign of any X100 and he finally had to leap for the platform before an express bus for Glasgow could mow him down.
James returned to the waiting room and looked up at the screen; the X100 was no longer shown. Duncan was sitting on one of the benches stroking the screen of his phone. ‘Missed my bus,’ James said to him.
‘Did ye? Which one?’
‘The X100 to Carnshee.’
‘Och, that thing again? I bet it’s no real. I bet you just made it up.’
James tried to forget about Carnshee, tried to focus on college, on getting along with his classmates, pleasing his lecturers, trying to master the cold facts and techniques of the Highers chosen to enable him to qualify for the practical, vocational degree that his father coveted for him. But facts could seem so hard and frozen that they stung the hands, causing you to drop them; there was no mystique here, nothing to tease or beguile.
‘You’re really struggling with this, aren’t you?’ said his maths lecturer.
‘I… I suppose… I don’t know.’
‘It’s a puzzle, James. You’re good, you’re bright. But details, practical things, the things that are important – you just can’t seem to grasp them.’
James couldn’t think of anything to say. The lecturer had asked him to stay for a talk at the end of two hours of mathematics in which his head had swirled and he had become so disengaged that – well, he was away wi the fairies, essentially, his Mum would have said. His father would have said something else, something much angrier.
‘Oh, on you go, we’ll have to see what we can do,’ the lecturer had said, dismissing him with a wave of the hand. James crept out of the room, along the corridor, and into the main concourse of the college. Dance music, played on the college radio station, thudded out of speakers and he could hear talk and laughter spilling out of the café; but he could not face his classmates, not after that curt dismissal from his lecturer. He left by the revolving door and crossed to the shopping mall. He thought about sitting in a café for a while but instead decided to go home. James passed along the familiar passageways and down the dingy stairs and entered the waiting room. It was ten to two; there was a Glasgow express bus just before the hour – the one, indeed, that had nearly run him over the other week. He’d wait for that.
And then he looked up at the screen.
There it was again;
13.55 X100 – Carnshee – Stance X
But where was Stance X? He decided to try again and walked briskly through the automatic doors, past a few coughing smokers, past Stance A and Stance B and Stance C and… There! A right-angle in the wall led to an open area not visible from the waiting room or the other stances. A rusty sign read ‘Stance X’ and a bus revved gently in the bay. It was green in colour and carried no markings that James could see, but there was an illuminated headboard that read ‘X100 Carnshee’.
There was nothing to lose. Why not explore, do something new, go somewhere new? College he could do without for an afternoon. He could go back home in the evening and say nothing to Mum or Dad. Why did they need to know that he’d skipped an afternoon?
He fished his wallet out of his rucksack and shook it, so that some pound coins and small change sang into his hand. The door of the bus was closed, but, presumably because the driver saw him coming, it hissed open. James stepped into a dark, earth-smelling interior. Behind him, the door snapped shut like a mouth.
Later, a couple of the smokers were interviewed by the police. Yes, they had seen a tall, quiet student go past, but they hadn’t seen where he’d gone. Aye, round that corner there, but there’s nothing there, just loading bays for some of the shops. No, they hadn’t waited long, the bus for Kilsyth had come and they’d got on it. They’d been keen to get to the bookie’s before the next race.
There was an odd question he had to ask, something that emerged from what James’ fellow-students had said, but the policeman was almost embarrassed to raise it. ‘Do you know a bus that goes from here to somewhere called “Carnshee”?’
They all shook their heads. ‘Nae such place. Never heard of it.’
The policeman left them and returned to his car. Just another missing person, he thought.