The Bus On Thursday

Shirley Barrett

The following is an exclusive excerpt from The Bus on Thursday, a darkly humorous new mystery from Australian writer and filmmaker Shirley Barrett. In the following passage, a pond conceals a grotesque surprise.

So then I do this very strange thing. I open the door of the Charger, and I get out. I take a few steps forward into the mist till I can feel the water beginning to slush around my ankles, and then I start to wade into the Pondage.

Okay, so I admit I have always been one for dramatic attention-seeking behavior in a crisis. Ever since I was a kid. If I got in trouble or anything, I would hold my breath—and I am extremely good at holding my breath, I can actually do it till I pass out. It used to scare my parents half to death. Also, it used to drive Josh mad. And once when we went on a cruise to New Caledonia, and we’d had a few too many mojitos in the Starfish Lounge and inevitably started fighting, I climbed over the railing of this fucking great ocean liner and threatened to jump, which was a very dangerous, insane thing to do, because I was standing on a very slippery perch about one inch wide, and with the slightest roll of the ship, I would have fallen hundreds of feet to certain death in the Pacific Ocean. Josh was furious, as were the Sea Princess security people, who threatened to put me off in Noumea and make me fly home, but I cried so much they finally agreed to let me stay. So what I’m saying is, I guess I was engaging in this kind of typical Eleanor dramatic gesture by walking into the Pondage. I think my plan, if you could call it a plan, was to walk right in and then hold my breath underwater for a very long time, basically just to scare him so he’d feel really bad about what he’d just said to me.

So I’m wading in through the mist, and I’m suddenly remembering that the sirens went off last night, which means they released water from the Reservoir, which must be why it’s so unbelievably frigging cold—it’s so cold, the muscles in my calves seize up almost instantly with cramp. It’s agony. I reach down to try to massage my cramping legs, and as I do, my hand brushes against something slimy lurking in the water, which for some reason, maybe the texture of it, makes me involuntarily recoil. And I look down, thinking, What is that? And right there in the misty dawn light, I see it.

It’s a hand.

A human hand, just below the surface of the water. A human hand attached to an arm. Which is attached to a body. All quite decomposed, but definitely recognizable as human.

A human hand, just below the surface of the water. A human hand attached to an arm. Which is attached to a body. All quite decomposed, but definitely recognizable as human. And the hand is open, palm up, what’s left of the fingers slightly curled, and the motion of the disturbed water makes it look like—I know this sounds crazy—but almost like this hand is beckoning me in. And because I have bumped it free of whatever it’s been entangled in, the other hand rises up to the surface now too, and this hand is clutching a clump of long stalks. By which I mean a loose clump of stalks, like it’s pulled them out of the ground, because they still have their roots attached. And then, horribly, the hand rises up.

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And I know, I just know instantaneously, that this is Miss Barker.

Well, I scream—I mean, the sound that comes out of my mouth is barely even human— and I scramble the fuck out of there just as fast as I can. And I’m like, “Oh my God, it’s Miss Barker!” And now Gregory gets out of the car too. “Miss Barker?” he says. “That’s bullshit.” So very casual, very nonchalant, he wades in to have a look. And seeing her, he changes his tune completely. He cries out: “Oh God. Oh God. Oh God. Oh God.” And then he throws up really violently, like practically projectile.

I mean, I am shocked, of course, at the sight of the body, but Gregory is completely beside himself. He keeps lurching around, groaning and throwing up and clutching his belly. I mean, even though it is admittedly a very shocking and unsettling thing to see, his reaction seems a touch excessive. And meanwhile, I’m thinking, What do I do, what do I do, I better do the right thing for once in my life, I better go get the police. So while Gregory is staggering around and vomiting and carrying on, I start running off in the direction of the police station. And Gregory calls out, “Where are you going?” So I’m like, “I’m going to get the police!” And he goes, “No! Wait! Come back!”

And I know, I just know instantaneously, that this is Miss Barker.

So now it starts to get really weird.

He wades back into the water and, right before my very eyes, he grabs the hand that’s clutching the clump of stalks and he is trying to pull the stalks out of the hand. I’m like, What are you doing??? But this dead hand has a ferocious grip and it’s not letting go of these stalks, not for anything. And I’m screaming at him, “You can’t do that! That’s evidence! You can’t touch the body!” And he’s struggling like crazy, grunting with the effort of trying to open up this hand and release the stalks, and suddenly there’s this sickening almighty cracking sound, and the hand actually breaks off the arm and he screams like a girl, I kid you not, and flings the hand into the water.

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“Oh God!” he cries, and he stands there gasping for a moment. Then, next thing, he suddenly dives under the water, and he remains below for a tremendously long time. I mean, I thought I could hold my breath, but this guy is like a free diver. Five solid minutes pass by and I’m starting to wonder if he’s ever going to come up. And finally he does come up and he’s all panicky. “I can’t find it, I can’t find her stupid hand!”

And he dives under again, and this time he stays under for what feels like ten minutes. He stays under so long, I’m actually convinced he’s drowned. I’m just standing there, whimpering and fretting and wondering what I should do, and finally I wade back in, which I really don’t want to do because of Miss Barker, and I’m calling, “Gregory! Gregory!” And suddenly I hear a rippling noise, and Gregory emerges from the water right next to me. He’s dripping mud and slime and pondweed, and he’s furious. The word apoplectic comes to mind. He’s all red-faced and crazy-looking and the veins in his neck are bulging out, presumably from holding his breath all that time. I’m like, “Did you find it?”—very meekly, because he’s scaring me—and he’s like, “No, I didn’t fucking find it.” Then he strides out of the Pondage, gets back into the Charger, starts it up, and just reverses the fuck out of there. It’s actually almost comical because at first he doesn’t realize that the passenger door is still open, and it’s snagging and scraping amid the long grass, so now he has to stop the car and try to pull it shut but he can’t reach it from inside, so he has to get out of the car and walk around to the passenger side and slam the door, which he does very forcefully to make a point, because of course he blames me for leaving it open in the first place. Then he gets back in the Charger and drives off at speed toward the highway, with a big gurgly blast of “Dixie” as a final fuck-you. Leaving me standing in the Pondage with what remains of Miss Barker.

So that was my Thursday morning.

Well, no, actually; that was just the beginning of my Thursday morning.


From THE BUS ON THURSDAY. Used with the permission of the publisher, MCD/FSG. Copyright © 2018 by Shirley Barrett.

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