Brightly Coloured Death Machines

Everywhere I went, people used to stare. In the market, they would follow us, saying nothing. Occasionally, a hand would reach out from the crowd and fingers would pinch my skin or touch my blonde hair. I don’t think I ever got used to it.

This was a long time ago, back in the ‘70’s when flares were still cool and my dad sported the kind of moustache you’d only expect to see on a porn star now. I was six years old and our family had uprooted to live in Sumatra. This was before the internet and the kind of communications we’re accustomed to today, and there were some people out there who’d never seen a white person; never seen blonde hair.

One of my earliest memories of that time was the company car breaking down on the way from Medan airport. We were on our way to the plantation and the car stopped close to a small village. Word went round that there was a car full of white people and within minutes we were surrounded. Blank faces pressed to the windows, staring silently like the undead. I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a little creepy. And when the car was working again, we were back onto the open road, weaving in and out of motorbikes, bicycles laden with firewood, trucks that pumped black exhaust fumes into the warm air. And buses. Oh, I remember the buses.

Brightly coloured death machines, painted and pimped. Boxes and belongings spilled from towering roofracks – sacks, carpets, baskets filled with chickens, lengths of lumber. People, too. When there was no more room inside the bus, the passengers sat on the roof, clung to the back or even hooked their fingers into the windows and hung on to the side of the bus. You can imagine for yourself the mess when one of them crashed. Mum and Dad used to tell us to turn away when we passed an accident, but my brother and I would sneak a look and see the broken bodies and limbs left on the road.

I remember once being in the plantation hospital when the victims of a bus accident were brought in. Some were awash with blood, moaning, while others were silent, sheets pulled high over their faces. They didn’t need medical attention; they were on their way to the coldest room in the hospital. On one or two occasions, western travellers would be caught up in the disaster, and Mum and Dad would offer to help. Those young people were lucky to have been close to the plantation; a place with the facilities to look after them and where there was someone who spoke their language. But what about those people who weren’t so fortunate? What happened to those young travellers?

That, I suppose, is why my new novel DARK HORIZONS begins with a bus crash. It’s a most terrible thing to embark on the adventure of a lifetime, only to have it cut short by catastrophe –  and to then be left alone in a foreign place where no one cares and with no one to turn to.

So maybe the adventure is what comes afterwards . . . provided you survive.

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4 thoughts on “Brightly Coloured Death Machines

  1. You’ve just reminded me of the bus ride from the beach in Malta. Do you remember? They were also brightly coloured, with Catholic iconography, usually in the form of a Madonna in a shrine behind the driver. The four of us were somewhat puzzled by the preponderance of locals getting onto the bus and then immediately crossing themselves in silent prayer. I’m sure we smirked at each other, observing this. Those smirks were soon wiped off our smug young faces though. One afternoon, on the bus back from the beach to the town we were staying in, I remember the driver’s shock as the steering wheel of the old Leyland single decker came off in his hands. And you remember how winding those roads were? We were damned lucky that day. One side of the road was a shallow gutter and then the wall of the hillside, the other side was a vertical drop of about 50 feet. When the wheel came off in the driver’s hands, it just happened to be on a bend in the road which curved towards the hillside, and the bus trundled into the gutter and crashed against the side. I guess it was a 50-50 chance, the alternative being inconceivable.

    It was a little shocking, but I think our youth kept us somewhat blasé about the whole episode, that and the fact that no-one was seriously hurt. I can still hear the shouts and cries in the aftermath. Oh, and Simon saying “I hope we get our 7 cents back?” as we climb out of the bus.

    • I’m smiling to myself as I’m reading that comment. I’d forgotten about that, but now see it very clearly. We were coming back from the beach. The look on the driver’s face as he held up the steering wheel was one of complete shock and ‘what the fuck’! We were very lucky the bus didn’t veer the other way, or else we might not be talking about this – we’d have been splattered on the rocks below. I also remember the brief, stunned slilence after the impact, then the panic when someone voiced their fear that the bus was going to blow up! We played it very cool, shaking our heads as the other passengers forged to the back of the bus, throwing open the rear emergency doors. Truth was, I reckon we were all a bit shocked at how close we’d come to a sticky end, but the worst thing about it was that we had to walk the rest of the way home in the raging sun. Ah, happy days.

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