Isabelle Brisbois And Her Tiny Christmas Revolution
It was Christmas Eve and her name was Isabelle Brisbois. She was the tiny person who lived behind the illuminated sign on the No.1 bus which travelled from Tottenham Court Road to Surrey Quays. And back, because that is what buses do.
Now I know you might all expect her bed to be a matchbox and her bath a thimble, but that would be daft. Maybe that would have been true for her great grandmother, but not for Isabelle. Her bed was a bed and her bath a bath – all ordered online from websites which sold authentic furniture for dolls’ houses.
Isabelle’s job was to read out the announcements. “Anchor Street”; “Southwark Park Road, St James’ Road”, she would intone in her beautiful crisp accent. Most people thought it was a recording, but that would, of course, be thoroughly ridiculous. How would a recording know when roadworks forced a detour or that “this bus will wait here a while, in order to regulate the service”?
The problem was that the belief she was a recording ran so deep and the deception so thorough, that even the driver, whose job it was to leave one cheesy wotsit and a drop of jam out for her every night, often forgot. She would be forced to scavenge. A dropped almond here, a forgotten piece of chocolate there. But a little person’s proper diet was wotsits and jam and she missed them.
The Brisbois family had always been responsible for South London Buses. It was their patch. There were other clans, firmly established. The Escobar family specialised in announcing floors inside lifts and the Farquhars did the announcements on the Central Line of the London Underground, being the only ones that could pronounce Holborn properly.
“Harris Academy”, Isabelle announced. And anyone really listening would hear an infinitesimal, but notable, break in her voice. But nobody really listened.
Harris Academy was the stop that most reminded her of her daughter. How long had Saffron been gone now? At least three years. She was a beautiful, bright child, shaping up to take over the announcing when she came of age. But like all beautiful, bright children she was sensitive and rather prone to ear infections. One such infection turned to meningitis and claimed Saffron, swift as a forest fire.
At first, Isabelle went to pieces. She thought the pain was too much for her tiny little heart – no bigger than a grain of pollen – to take. She turned to drink. There would always be a can or two left on the floor of the top deck in the evening. A drop for a human was a barrel’s worth for Isabelle. She would climb inside the can and drink herself into a stupor. Once the cleaner almost put her in the rubbish and she knew it was time to stop.
“Waterloo”, she announced, “alight here for Waterloo station and BFI Imax”. Alight. Who the hell says “alight” any more? What tourist could possibly understand it? She had many arguments with her supervisor about it, but the script was the script.
A thousand times she thought of sending a message to Saffron’s father. To share the grief with the tiny man called Joshua whom she had loved so deeply. But she knew it would cause him a lot of trouble. He was Farquhar, she was Brisbois and clans did not mix. His family had nearly disowned him when they found out the liaison. The script was the script.
Every time the bus would terminate on Tottenham Court Road, she would think of him. Might he be in a Central Line train passing right underneath her, at that very moment? She would stop breathing and keep as still as possible and sometimes she thought she heard his voice: “Change here for the Northern Line”. She would whisper back: “Our little Saffron is no more.”
Instead, she threw herself into her work. Taking extra shifts, working Sundays, Bank Holidays, double shifts, even the N1 – unheard of for an unmarried woman. And it was ultimately the night bus that saved her. Something about the revellers sharing love and drunken friendship in fifty different languages underneath her every night, lifted her spirits little by little without her even realising. Until one morning she woke up, had a shower and as she wiped the steam from the mirror she saw something other than pain reflected.
Weeks turned to months and months to years. She never stopped missing Saffy or Josh, but missing them got easier, more familiar. She would watch her large screen TV (an old flip-top Nokia, in truth) and the time would pass in numb indifference. But it was Christmas Eve and she dreaded Christmas Day. The last two had been very difficult. The bus, stationary, devoid of life. London, perfectly still like a mountain on a winter morning. And the sort of unforgiving quiet that has a way of screaming your thoughts back at you.
The bus pulled up. “This bus terminates here. All change, please. All change.” – the announcement never came. Only one passenger noticed, on the upper deck, as he reached down to grab his brown leather bag. He dismissed it. “The recording must have malfunctioned”, he thought, as he rushed to buy one last present for someone he didn’t like very much.
Alight here. Isabelle jumped out of the brown satchel and landed softly on a pile of rubbish by the side of the Dominion Theatre. The sharp evening air penetrated her tiny lungs like a stalagmite. She stood and looked at the London Underground sign in front of her and the steps disappearing into the pavement underneath it. “All change, please”, she muttered and strode forward. A giant stride, as big as three centimetres. Her tiny revolution had begun.