I had been traversing the small island from Yorkshire to Sussex for eleven hours. I was now in Ashford, the last leg of my journey to Rye, and the train was down. Notice boards promised compensatory bus service to Rye, but there was no indication of from where, in or around the empty rail station, the bus would depart.
This worried me. It was close to eleven and I feared that my hotel would close before I arrived. It was off-season, it was November, and I was anxious that all of Rye would be shut and I’d have to make a midnight journey back to London.
After a lengthy episode involving a wrong number erroneously cited in my Lonely Planet guide, I managed get a ring through to the Mermaid. Fortunately they were still up, and I was told they even had a porter, which was impressive because I was tired of dragging my suitcase around the country. I had gotten used to leaving its burden with friends while taking mini-trips with a considerably less cumbersome backpack.
Relieved, I hung up and started looking for clues about the veiled bus. A woman approached and asked in a German accent where the bus to Hastings would arrive. This was my bus, which was supposed to stop in Rye and terminate at Hastings.
Together we dragged our suitcases around the entry and perused posters and timetables, all with times for trains, none with information about busses.
We went outside. There were one or two cabs around, no drivers inside, and no signs of life.
We trailed back inside and around the terminal. We stood at the foot of the stairs that led up to the platforms, contemplating the advantages of hauling our suitcases up the steps. I was drained—eleven hours of traveling—and my German friend had been laid over the previous night in Brussels, and had spent all of that day flying to various cities in the hope of eventually getting to Hastings. She said her name was Hilda, and then she turned around and noticed an elevator behind us. We rode up and asked the three people who were waiting for trains about the bus. They knew nothing.
Next we scoured the platforms for an official. We found no one, and, not expecting the bus to slide in on train tracks, we went back downstairs and outside, scanning the vacant station for one knowledgeable soul.
Hilda spotted a man sitting up in the backseat of a cab—he’d apparently been prostrate. She ran over and knocked on his window. She spoke with him briefly, and the instant she turned back, shaking her head, a bus pulled in to the drive-up and stopped. It was marked Hastings, so we got on.
I pulled myself and my suitcase up what I hoped would be the last set of stairs for the evening. I dropped into the first seat and hauled my suitcase up onto the seat next to me like a heavy, spineless companion. It was too fat to fit on the floor between the seats.
Hilda plopped behind me, her suitcase her seatmate, and asked me what I was doing in Hastings. I told her my plans for Rye—that it was supposed to be a lovely town and I was going to wind down there before returning to the States. She thought it was odd—women don’t usually travel alone on holiday. She was not on holiday; she was staying with a family in Hastings to “learn English.” I thought this was odd. Her English was substantial—we certainly hadn’t been communicating in my spotless German—and I enjoyed her reserve. She was versed in the art of understatement. She would get on well in England.
The driver had the air of a man with another job. I had the impression he’d been working all day, I guessed on the trains, and had perhaps an hour at home with his family or to sleep before he had to start second duty. He yawned as he poured tea from a thermos into a plastic cup and stirred in milk from a tin. He was well prepared: Either he was meticulous in his rituals or he had a conscientious wife.
I asked him, “About half an hour to Rye?”
His expression didn’t change and I wondered if he heard me. He sipped his tea and stared out the window.
Finally, after several long moments, he murmured, “I reckon about that.”
Three more passengers boarded, and then the driver closed the door and started the engine. My suitcase swayed into my lap as we wound around roundabouts toward the motorway.
I had full view of everything: The empty road, the wayside trees, the driver, the passengers–the latter two reflected in the windshield by dim aisle lights. Faces were superimposed over the road as we exited the motorway and turned onto a narrow, winding lane. The passage was dark, lined with stone fences. Sheep slept close to the stones, their closed eyes and somnolent faces illuminated by our headlights. For a stretch, tall beeches loomed like pale specters in an arch over the road.
Slowly we crept into a slumbering town, its shops unlit, its houses dark, smoke puffing from their chimneys. I asked the driver, “Is this Rye?”
He gave no indication of having heard me. He was consulting a map, which he held in his left hand. He raised his eyes to the road and dropped them back to the map. He steered cautiously.
Finally, after several long moments, he murmured “no” benevolently, as if to compensate for his strange pause.
We coasted through town and rolled through countryside, past stone cottages and more sheep, slowing when an approaching car neared to squeeze through the tiny lane. It was difficult to see: In spite of the clearness of the night, little was visible on the dark road.
Suddenly we slowed and stopped next to a solitary gate. This gate was closed. Behind it was blackness; before it was nothing. But the driver opened the bus door and waited.
I knew this couldn’t be Rye—Rye would have shops and houses and cobbled streets and half-timbered buildings. This was a vacant gateway, a darkened portico. Had there been a fog, it might have spread in through the door like the vibration of this queer pause. But the door opened to nothing—no one got in and no one got out. We just stood stopped for several minutes. Then, abruptly, the driver closed the door and plowed on, taking the bus to the very top of each gear before shifting, so that it lurched as we pressed on down the dark road.
Eventually we approached another town—shops with bright signs hanging from old brick facades, inns and pubs in stone buildings steeped in soul. We wound round a curve and stopped in front of a small rail station. I wished Hilda well, thanked the driver, and maneuvered my suitcase down the stairs, into the dark and vacant town.
I had few coins for a cab, but it didn’t matter. The streets were empty; there were no cabs. I pulled out my guidebook and consulted its token map of Rye. The Mermaid was uptown, straight ahead and then toward the right. The direction was clear, but it was impossible to estimate the distance.