The Lightning Conductor

by Carl Barker

Charlie Wells is the man who might just punch your ticket one day son.”

So my father used to say to me on occasion, and when he did, he wasn’t just talking about the fact that Charlie rides as the conductor on our local village bus route. There aren’t many people in this world who can lay claim to have been struck by a bolt of lightning and lived to tell the tale, and my father used to say that in his estimations, that made old Charlie a fully paid up member of a very select club of individuals.

Charlie isn’t much to look at these days. At the age of eighty-five, he is, as local people are fond of saying, heading down the far side of the hill. A thinning streak of silvery-white hair atop his head, he stands a little over five feet six with a hunched back, and is about as sinister an elderly gentleman as you’re ever likely to meet. His manner can only be described as aloof, and if you encountered him in the street you might well choose to cross the road to avoid getting too close if you know what I mean. Always ready to meet his passengers with a withering look and a weakly counterfeit smile, Charlie has worked for the bus company just about as long as anyone can remember. Despite his long service, there’s still something decidedly unsettling about seeing his familiar face as you step up onto the hourly service into town and park yourself on the nearest empty seat. You certainly won’t find too many passengers eager to shake his hand in greeting as they step on board. Not that they’re trying to be rude or anything. It’s just that in a village as small as ours, there are always a few stories to be told to those willing to listen. Not so much stories, more tall tales you might say, and the thing about tall tales is, the longer they go on being told, the more people begin to believe in them.

I was six when my father first sat me down and told me the tale of Charlie Wells and I haven’t forgotten a single word he said in the thirty or so years since that day. I suspect that in a few years time, when my own son reaches a similar age, if Charlie Wells is still riding as conductor on the village bus, I’ll maybe think about sitting my boy down and explaining a few things to him.

My little speech may well start in much the same way as my father’s did all those years ago; by telling him that his grandfather once told the same bedtime story to me when I was his age. I guess that when I do, my boy will look up at me with the same mixture of childish curiosity and disbelief as I must have given my own father back then. I can only wonder if when my lesson is complete, whether my son will be as chilled to the bone as I remember eventually being that night.

Back in 1973, when my eyes were still bright with the innocent glow of youth, Charlie Wells was still driving buses rather than merely riding them. He worked not for the council, but as an employee of the education board, ferrying the local children of the outlying villages to school and back every day. The bus itself was one of those big bright red ones with a colour so vividly intense it almost hurt your eyes to look at it. The name of the bus company was emblazoned in large friendly letters on the side, beside the logo of a grinning rabbit emerging from a top hat. You might be forgiven for thinking that such a vibrant mode of transport would be a magical way to travel to school, but I can safely tell you that none of the children on Charlie Well’s bus would ever dare to engage in such foolishness whilst on their way to school.

We would instead sit bolt upright and still in our seats like an assortment of shop-window mannequins, either staring blankly out through the mud-smeared windows or gazing sullenly down at the floor beneath our feet. Every child’s eyes would be anywhere but looking towards the front of the bus, where they might well catch a glimpse of Charlie’s ice-blue eyes in the rear view mirror, fastidiously inspecting his silent cargo.

Even now, the neighbourhood kids still whisper to each other that if you make Charlie Wells mad, he’s apt to fry your brains with the cold blue lightning in his eyeballs. That idea may well make you laugh, but I swear to you now, as God is my witness, that back when I rode the school-bus there wasn’t a single child in this village who would have dared to so much as throw a paper aeroplane across the staid interior of that bus without fully expecting it to burst into rich turquoise flame as soon as it was spotted by their driver. Plummeting rapidly to the floor where it would lie smouldering in a heap, leaving the air thick with the choking smell of fear and burnt paper.

You might well say to me that such stories are exactly the sort of fanciful imaginings that one can expect from young children and that the memory starts to play tricks on you as you get older. Of course you’d be right in supposing that not one of us, or the adults we eventually grew into, can testify to having seen any form of blue lightning coming out of Charlie’s eyes. But then I’d have to counter by saying that children aren’t the only ones who have been known to tell a story or two about old Charlie Wells, the lightning conductor of Langdon Green.

Nobody can claim to have been present at the precise moment when the Almighty, in his infinite wisdom, chose to light up a twenty-three year old bus driver from Langdon like a Christmas tree. There are very few people still residing in the village who are old enough to remember the torrential rain that night. “Worst storm in history” we’re all told repeatedly by those few who were there and still possess most of their marbles.

Mike Hollersly, who owns Bridleway Farm up on the hill, still remembers the “ruddy great fire” which destroyed most of his wheat crop that night. If you catch him in the pub some night, you should ask him about it. Buy him a round or two and he’ll be more than happy to tell you how that night he saw a flaming inferno of a figure standing in the middle of his wheat-field, aglow with a fire so hot that no amount of driving rain could hope to put it out. At this point in the evening, the more level-headed drinkers present will usually point out that it was most likely Mike’s scarecrow, set alight by a happenstance bolt of lightning. Mike, without hesitation, will reply that it wasn’t no scarecrow he saw that night, but Charlie Wells running stark bollock-naked through his wheat-field. His whole body apparently covered in an unearthly blue flame, as he razed that crop to the ground, leaving behind nothing but damp ashes come morning.

With a few more pints of ale in him, Mike will go on to tell you that after that night, Charlie was never quite the same man. The next morning the young bus driver was found face down in a ditch eight miles from the village, his rain-soaked clothes singed and tattered beyond all recognition. When he finally came staggering erratically down the high street some two hours later, around midday, people could clearly see that a jagged line of grey had appeared down the side of his previously jet-black hair. Though he’s long since gone completely grey, if you stare real closely at him in the right light, you can just make out that zigzag streak even today. With his ruined clothes hanging loosely from his limbs, Mike remembers that it appeared as if the Bride of Frankenstein had just come wandering into town, slowly ambling down the road with a wide grin on his face, his hair wildly stood up on end in eight different directions. Mike says that as he watched, Charlie’s arms and legs had shaken crazily at random intervals as he walked, as if the force of that terrible storm continued to course through his body in fury. Even now, Charlie’s legs can be seen occasionally jiggling as he walks down the bus aisle; evidence of a residual electric charge to people with a mind to use their imagination. Evidence of mild geriatric sciatica to most other folks with an ounce of sense.

If it’s a day of the week ending in ‘y’, a few seats further along the bar you’ll most likely encounter Mrs. Beverly Chambers; the chairwoman of our village W.I., spokesperson for the village green preservation society, and high priestess of the local stick-your-nose-into-other-peoples-business brigade. When not trying to ascertain the exact nature of what goes on behind nearby closed doors, Mrs. Chambers will happily tell anyone who cares to listen that Charlie Wells can see your future just by touching your hand. It’s something to do with “di-eclectic dischargement and atmospheric pheromones” is what she’ll probably announce to you in that special way that only ignorant people who learn all they know about modern science by falling asleep in front of bubblegum documentaries can do. If she does, it’s probably best to just smile politely and listen as she begins to regale you of the time that she happened to brush up against a young Mr. Wells in a crowded post office some years back and had a decidedly funny turn as a result.

You’ll see her pale grey eyes, which don’t see quite as clearly as they once did, glaze over a little as she remembers the jolt that suddenly coursed through her body as she connected with the skin of Charlie’s right hand. “Like sticking your fingers in a plug socket” is how she likes to describe it. She’ll inform you, in slightly slurred speech, that she let out a little gasp at the sensation as Charlie turned round to look at her, and that when he did, his eyes were completely blue; no white of the iris and no black pupil at the centre either. Just an opaque lifeless blue, staring at her in mild curiosity.

The next part of her story is a little vague and has a tendency to change each time she tells it, depending on whether she’s nursing her first or sixth brandy of the evening at the time. As Mrs Chambers frequently recalls, she felt a momentary dizziness (ninety-nine black spots all in a row dancing across her vision), and in that moment she saw herself as clear as day, standing in front of the parish church beside a handsome young doctor, swept up in his strong arms with the sound of bells chiming all around. Ever since then, she’s been keeping an eye out for any attractive young men from the medical profession moving into the area. That day in the post office was forty-seven years ago now and Mrs Chambers is still waiting for her handsome doctor to happen along and sweep her off her feet.

Our local constable, George Fareham, sits quietly in the corner nursing a lager and lime and has a slightly different take on the bus conductor’s talents. George swears that Charlie Wells can always tell if someone is lying, just by being in the same room as them. Says he’s seen the man do the very thing in the Fox & Hound of a Saturday lunch-time more than once. Not one for letting the wool be easily pulled over his eyes, our George has observed that the under-age drinking teens of the village have all but given up on frequenting the pub whenever Charlie is seated at the bar. They take one look at that ageing conductor’s cap waiting on the bar beside a freshly pulled pint of Summer Lightning and don’t even bother trying to convince the barmaid with their recently acquired fake IDs. George often comments that he’s got half a mind to enquire as to whether Charlie wouldn’t mind popping down the station some time to sit in on one of his interrogations. It would certainly cut down on both time and paperwork he quips, not to mention tape requisitions from the central office.

Superstition is a black mark that stains small country villages like ours. No matter how many times you try and wash it away with modern ideas, that smudge will stubbornly stay put right where it is, all through the generations.

The young woman who works in the building society outright refuses to serve Charlie when he comes in to make his weekly withdrawal. She says that after being in the vicinity of Mr Wells, she finds that coins have an annoying tendency to stick to each other and that she has to use a nail file to prise them apart before she can count up at the end of the day. Charlie has complained that this is very unfair and that somebody has to serve him, on account of him not being able to use the automated hole-in-the-wall machine. As far as I know nobody has ever plucked up the courage to ask him why though.

Dave Travers, who services the fruit machines in the Fox & Hound has repeatedly asked the landlord not to let Charlie anywhere near the damned thing, as he’s sick of having to replace mysteriously burnt out circuit boards once a month. There’s no earthly reason why the machine keeps breaking in exactly the same manner, but Dave says he can always tell when Charlie’s hit the jackpot on account of him being called abruptly down to the pub with his toolkit.

Myself, I’m a man of science with a career built upon the solid foundations of logic and reason. Despite hearing all the stories from my father when I was a boy, when I finally managed to escape from this microcosm and head off to university I promised myself that I was going to put all this nonsense behind me. That I was going to be the one little fish that managed to escape the pond and swim upriver to freedom. In all the years I was away, I can honestly say that I never once lay awake and thought about old Charlie Wells and all the times as a boy I felt his icy gaze fall across my body, paralysing me with childish fear.

Then five years ago, I finally decided to return home with my family in order to care for my ailing father as he slipped gradually and peacefully off this mortal coil. He’s been gone some eighteen months now, stolen from us by cancer, and we reside in the family home, where I continue to conduct my expanding business via the wonder of the internet super-highway. Despite having not needed to sleep with the light on since I was a boy, I have to admit that now I have swum home and find myself once more in deeper darker waters, I have been troubled by the unsettling dreams I sometimes have.

I don’t know exactly what the thing that stalks my nightmares is, but I can tell you this much; it bears a shock of wispy white hair almost completely hidden beneath a tattered conductor’s cap. On the few occasions that I have seen that shadowy figure moving toward me in the darkness, reaching out for me with sharp claws and eyes dripping with cold blue fire, I have awoken in a cold sweat, sat bolt upright in my bed and heard a low voice rasp in my ear “Fares please”.

My grandma used to say that when you finally passed on to the other side in Langdon Green, it wasn’t the Grim Reaper on a pale white horse who came for you at the end. She said it was old Charlie Wells driving that bright red school bus of his, only this time it was daubed with fresh human blood. He would be screaming your name at the top of his lungs with his silver-white hair flashing brightly in the moonlight. Cackling behind the wheel like a maniac as he ferried you down into the fires of Hell. See Grandma, she wasn’t one to mince her words, and maybe she was just a few cards short of a full whist drive if you catch my drift. But I have a funny feeling that when my time does finally come, if I’m still residing here in the village, then it will be the ghost of Charlie Wells that dances a merry jig atop my headstone.

You must think me as crazy as the rest of them to have given into foolish superstition and be talking like this. But then my story isn’t quite finished yet and there is as folks round here like to say, one last twist in the tale.

See we had a bit of a commotion down at the parish church yesterday. It seems Mrs. Beverly Chambers took it upon herself to take full leave of her senses during the early morning mass. She was screaming so bad that in the end the men in white coats had to come and take her away. They found her swinging from the bell rope in the tower so they say, yelling something about a bad man behind blue eyes. Had to wrestle her from the church and strap her into a strait-jacket before they took her away, the poor dear. There’s a picture of her here in the morning paper, taken in front of the church. Her arms are strapped securely across her shoulders with one of the young orderlies standing beside her, holding her firmly by the arm in case she tries to run off again. Real nice looking fellow he is too, clean-cut and dashing in his long white-coat with a stethoscope hung casually round his neck.

You see there are many things in this world that I understand, and there are some that I must confess I don’t fully comprehend. But I’ll tell you this for nothing friends. In Langdon Green, when you climb aboard the 9:15 service into town, you can always tell when there’s a bad storm coming in by the way that our bus conductor’s shock of wispy white hair is apt to be standing up on end above those lifeless blue eyes of his.

The End