Excerpt from “Piece,” in State of the Art

Iain M. Banks

It was ... 1975, I think; have to check my diaries to be sure. I’d finished at Uni that spring and gone off hitchhiking through Europe over the summer. Paris, Bergen, Berlin, Venice, Rabat and Madrid defined the limits of the whirlwind tour. Three months later I was on my way home, and after staying with Aunt Jess in Crawley, I’d used the last of my money to buy a bus ticket from London to Glasgow (hitching out of London was notoriously awful). Night bus, and it took ages, staying off the motorways would you believe. This was in the days before videos and minibars and hostesses and even toilets on buses. The old coach groaned and whined through the rain-smeared darkness, stopping at breeze block and Formica transport cafes; cold islands of fluorescence in the night.

Especially then, buses were for the not so well off. I was the scruffy hitcher with long hair and jeans. I was sitting beside an old guy wearing shiny trousers and a worn tweed jacket; thin limbs and thick glasses. In front of us, an old lady reading People’s Friend; behind, two lads with yesterday’s Sun. The usual girning1 baby and harassed young mother, somewhere at the back. I watched the sodium lights drift by in droplet lines of orange, and alternated sitting upright in the cramped seat, and sliding down into it, aching knees against the back of the seat in front. And, for the first couple of hours or so, I was reading some SF novel (wish I could remember the name, but can’t).

Later I tried sleeping. It wasn’t easy; you swung fretfully in and out, never fully awake or completely asleep, always conscious of the growling gear changes and the creaky ache in folded knees. Then the old guy started talking to me.

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