One Siding In Time (published in IRON magazine in 1990)
When I first saw her sitting opposite me in the train carriage, I wondered if I’d travelled back in time, for she was too old to be as pretty as she was. Knowing this did not make much sense, even to myself, I decided to strike up a conversation: Anything was better than all that turning in on myself, following my recent bereavement. “Had many train journeys like this one?”
I pointed to the fields held in view by the train’s delay.
She shook her head, either to indicate a negative reply to my question or to give me no illusions about her reluctance to talk at all. Maybe it was because there were no corridors on the train, no other sign of life other than the fact that there must be at least a driver somewhere towards the front. I’d in fact been the second of the two of us to get into this particular carriage. I pulled down the window and leaned out, mainly because it told me not to do so. This brought the fields into sharper focus and I could just make out the blur of a figure walking slowly along the sky-line, to where the brightness of the late afternoon had been relegated. Night was too early, hustled from bed (I laughed) by the darkening of an unseasonable storm on the other side of the train.
I turned back to my fellow passenger to see if she was now in a more talkative mood.
As the train began to move and the rain spattered the window, I thought she must have silently slipped from the carriage, rather to negotiate the tracks than remain alone with the likes of me.
Then I realised that she had indeed been alone all the time, as I smoothed down the tweed skirt, on resuming my corner seat.
The Tsarina’s Wintercoat (published ‘The Master in the Cafe Morphine’ (Ex Occidente Press 2011))
The woman stood on the windswept platform with two children either
side of her, both clasping her hands, it seemed, for dear life. Occasionally,
she lowered her head to listen to their words which would otherwise
be lost to the wind, or to exchange with them her own choice of words,
in evident mutual encouragement.
The children knew they waited for a train: more likely to spot its
smoke first, snaking above the nearby hills, even in advance of the hooting
whistle being conveyed to them, even now, upon the driving wind.
They also retained a beady eye for scrutinising the silver runners of the
track for any telltale sign of the clacking’s coming.
From behind the derelict station house, I approached the solitary
threesome (guessing that such a few could sometimes feel more solitary
than being truly alone as one). I could see the woman’s wintercoat was
weatherworn, but a bright yellow scarf at her neck relieved the dowdy
appearance somewhat. She wore a large silver brooch depicting, I thought,
a lizard, which secured the scarf against the cold’s onset. The small
children were dressed in khaki jerkins, tangled laddered stockings and
threadbare berets with bobbles of hair poking through. They shivered
visibly. They failed to see me, since I now crouched in the old ticket
collector’s booth, untenanted for decades – yet I could still sense the
reek of that ticket collector’s rank shag doing its best to conceal the ripeness
of his soiled undergarments. Scattered around me were a number
of clipped platform tickets, among which I had long since ascertained
were no residue of used journeys from far off Leng, Samarkand and
St Pancras. Yet, who’d ever disembark at this railway halt’s neck of the
woods? Surely, nobody.
The wind, in the interim, had died down to allow me to catch a
good share of the threesome’s words together.
“We’ll be there before you can say ‘Knife’. A roaring fire right up
the chimney and you’ll toast your hands – with Nanny’s stories all
stocked up, just waiting to be told…”
“Shall Nanny be pleased to see us?”
“She’ll be so pleased, she’ll dance a jig of joy and give you both big
kisses on your rosy apple cheeks.”
“And shall we stay there…to live for ever and ever and ever?”
“We’ll live there so long into the future that the end will always be
too far away to worry about.”
“Look, I think I see black ghosts in the air.”
“That’s from the train’s funnel. An ancient train by the look of the
dark smoke it’s giving off, but a warm one, with an endless corridor.”
“I can’t hear it yet. Is it really coming?”
“Yes, it’ll be all darkness inside and those passengers in the Third
Class will just have the reddening ends of their ciggies to watch.”
Listening to them, I smiled to myself. I had feared that life outside
my little world had not subsisted, ever since they closed the station
waiting-room, the steamy buffet and the dark dripping Necessarium.
I had been solitary for too long and the vision of such happiness was
a tonic to my old heart. It was a pity that trains never stopped at this
particular halt any more.
Momentarily losing interest in the threesome, I nibbled at one of
the discarded tickets with my teeth, the taste of rich train smoke seeping
to my lowest tongue of all. I slumped back in some meditative trance
which was more than a little self-indulgent, because, by the time I
looked from the web-choked cubicle again, the platform was deserted.
Since I needed to keep exercising my limbs, I scuttled to where the
threesome had stood. The wind was filling its own cheeks, I sensed,
to fetch the tuggiest gust.
I picked up the lizard brooch that the woman must have accidentally
dislodged from her scarf as she hustled her charges aboard before
the train slid past them into the trundling echoes of darkness. The
brooch wriggled and its tongue flickered quicker than any eye could
see. Not a lizard brooch at all, but a large glistening insect the like of
which I’d never seen before, slugged out by the sudden arrival of winter.
But I was wrong. In the hazy lights of the compartment it turned into
a horned lizard again, now in the form of a brooch. I asked myself –
what if on the reptile’s back there was actually a tiny brooch? Wrong
again. No, not a brooch but a sort of emblem laden with glory and
decline – a crooked cross. The White Cross of St. Vladimiri. Mute spies
or perhaps living souvenirs for those who were forced to go into exile.
The only treasure a lady White was allowed to take with her on her
last one way journey. Whatever it was, I’ve put it carefully on my tongue
and let its golden fire warm my tired blood. A sweet taste of an ancient
atonement oil stuck to the back of my mouth, impure and soothing.
It is not well to spend such symbols in less than a providential way.
Nanny, awaiting the children’s arrival, sewed long stitches into a
battered wintercoat – listening to the wind howling the length of the
chimney. Or was it the sound of those spiny creatures with sticky wings
that haunted her dreams, now attempting to reach her in real life down
that very flue? She was pleased that she had the fire roaring in the grate,
serving both to warm the room and to keep such unwelcome chimney
visitors at bay. Still hemming, she moithered over mythic miscegenations,
versions of competing history, regal heirs and graces playing
Russian Roulette with Fate, tentacular monsters who, in the same way
as human beings, had insect-pests with which to contend – and, if only
in her mind, she plucked unwanted fruit off the well-mulched family tree.
The clock pendulum swung idly to and fro in rhythm to her
stitches. She still heard the mothballs clacking in the wintercoat’s lining
where she’d sewn them, but Nanny didn’t know that I watched her
from behind the clockcase, whereto I’d scuttled, black as coal, before
she’d ignited the fire.
The two children watched the wreaths of black smoke billowing
past the train window, as the wheels churned them through a wintering
dusk. The leather strap that was used for raising and lowering the
carriage window swayed gently with the clack-clack of bogies over runners.
They knew the woman sat between them, still in wintercoat and
yellow scarf, for the cold would have seeped otherwise into her every
bone. I could have informed her charges that if she had doffed such
impervious garb, she would have allowed the cold to seep out again.
A mature woman, at least, should show some semblance of common
sense. The children felt her shudder in tune with the train. On either
side, they had their hands tightened within hers. If they let go, they
sensed they’d never see her again. Or was I sensing it on their behalf?
The train entered the darkest tunnel. I lit a cigarette, so that they
could see I was there. There was no corridor, only autonomous carriages
– so I knew for sure they were still there. The train hadn’t stopped
since they boarded it in the middle of nowhere.
I knew exactly how long the train would take to pass through the
tunnel, having been on this journey, one way or another, for as long as
I could remember. But they were new to its foibles. I listened to the
children speaking, despite the surging tunnel.
“Why don’t they have lights on trains?”
“Is Nanny still expecting us? Won’t her fire have gone out?”
“Why don’t you answer?”
The train emerged into light, too quickly for a blink, and revealed
the answer. The two children were hand in hand, the wintercoat lying
like an empty rhinoceros skin between them. I had scuttled to the
window where, with jaws clacking, I pressed my suckers to the stained
glass to keep myself steady, as I stubbed my ciggie on the ‘out’ of ‘don’t
lean out of the window’ and stropped my beetle pincers on the door’s
With its heart of fire driving steam-power towards the almost prehensile
pistons, the Victoria-Vienna-Moscow-Kadath Express screamed
through the bewintered bewildered heritage of history: into another
horizontal chimney of smokes and spooks, this time, so far, an endless
House Trained (originally written in the 1960s but first published in the late eighties by ‘Amulet’ magazine)
I snuggled into the warmth of the carriage as the train churned through acre upon acre of English countryside. It was impossible to view the trees and village stations we must have passed through, for the night enshrined everything; so the most sensible thing to do was to try and sleep until the time for arrival at my destination, where my uncle would be waiting to greet me.
The train was three hours late when it arrived at my destination. I feel an impending doom on our world. Nothing to be done. As I lie here in a hospital, the doctors are amazed and disturbed by my body, which is dyed a hideous green in and out.
It’s A Funny Line (published in Purple Patch 1989)
There are few people who know that there is a part of the London Underground system where all lines cross.
With very careful signalling routines, the passengers are generally unaware of the interchanging points and their participation in a display much like unto the motor bikes at the Royal Tournament…
However, being one of those who spends all his time down there, tending to the turn timetables, I can tell you that there are a number of near misses and, one day, I’ll be bound…
CRASH! OOPS! I’ve left the Central open and the Bakerloo and the Northern are already on their way down…
But that’s for the future.
Let me tell you the biggest secret of all. There’s an extra shaft beyond the Circle, t’other side of the Jubilee, called the Earth’s Core line…
Not many people make the right changes, for its stations are beyond the back of the better known ones like Embankment and Angel. Its escalators are as steep as walls and it takes a lot of guts…
But, once on the line, it’s said, you’re in for an all night party, a real tarramadiddle. Jokes galore the whole way. They run a nice speciality in ma-in-law skits. And the ones they tell of God watching videos of Genesis, for the Garden of Eden bit, well…
Well, one day, when I’ve finished my jobs down here as under-caretaker of Multiplex Junction, I’ll make sure I jump on board the mighty Queen Elizabeth III Express to the centre of the world and laugh myself to death…
Edit – 21.2.14: two more train tales in comment below.