My novel, The Grave Digger’s Boy, starts on a country bus and comes back to that setting multiple times. In fact, the book was largely inspired by two separate experiences on buses.
The first took place outside in Devon where I heard a stranger telling fairy tales of violence on the upper deck.
It was outside Okehampton on a country road in the rain. The chassis was shaking and wet branches kept booming against the steamed-up windows.
The young man was wearing grey tracksuit bottoms. He gripped a plain black holdall in one hand and a tiny mobile phone in the other, which was pressed against his ear.
His voice was loud – he wanted the other passengers to hear the news, that he’d just got out of prison, that he’d nearly killed somebody in a fight, that he never paid for bus tickets because the drivers were too scared to make him, that he was nearly home and ready to get drunk, stoned, laid.
Prison, he announced, was a piece of piss. It wasn’t his first time, he said, and he didn’t expect it to be his last.
I didn’t make eye contact or, I hope, show any sign that I could perceive his existence. I looked into the fog on the glass or at my hands and occasionally into the middle distance.
It wasn’t just me – nobody on the bus seemed to be aware of him which only made it all the more obvious that everybody was. He was a black hole.
That got me thinking about how people, and maybe especially British people, react in these situations. We’ll let people do outrageous things in public spaces because the alternative is too dreadful to consider: social awkwardness and the sapping of time and energy, with the risk of actual violence itself way down the list.
He’ll get off soon, we think, or I will – just a few more stops. But between stops, you’re trapped – locked in a box with a terrifying stranger.
What could a man like that get away with? I wondered. What would he need to do before anybody would stand up to him or push back?
And that’s where my character Aaron Greenslade came from.
I lived in Penzance for six years and didn’t run a car which meant I spent a lot of time on the so-called loser cruiser, rushing up the coast road to Helston, or winding around the lanes of Penwith.
It was on one of these expeditions that I saw a boy perched on the seat behind the driver’s cabin, reading a comic. The driver was evidently his father and talked to him, quietly and caring, before the bus set off and at stops along the way.
I guessed that the drivers’ rota and a custody agreement were incompatible – that every now and then, this child had to spend a day riding up and down in his dad’s bus, perhaps eating lunch in a depot canteen.
Something about it struck me as utterly melancholy – who, when they are eight or nine years old, wants to spend hours driving up and down in a fogged-up bus looking at the same industrial estates, hedgerows and bus stations?
Here was my protagonist, Ben Hodge.
* * *
How a writer’s brain works – or how my writing brain works, anyway – is to perceive entire stories in moments, or extrapolate entire lives from a few details.
Even more useful, though, is the capacity to store incidents and faces and then, later, crash them together like atoms in a reactor to create bigger, better, more complex stories.
That, for me, is what a novel is.