Four Railway Stories

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
leather tongue.

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
one.

===================================================

House Trained (originally written in the 1960s but first published in the late eighties by ‘Amulet’ magazine)

My name is Matthew Shakewell and I nearly died yesterday.
I shall try to relate as closely as I can my experience, but please keep your hand on your heart and read this story in the clear light of day…for you may die of fright, as I so very nearly did. Please take care, make sure my words are not those of a mad man or one who wants to frighten you gratuitously; make sure you do not put too much credit in their meaning as appreciation of their truth could have damnable effect on the mild-mannered or the nervous…but, as I write this, I genuinely believe each word I am about to devote to paper.
So much for the warning, now for the facts.

***

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.

I slept for how long and with what vague dreams? Nebulous vistas of strange dimensional cities intruded, warped visages staring and tentacles clutching, wet lips and things sucking near. I awoke to the carriage, the formless darkness sliding away past me and an old man snoring in the corner. I was quite shaken by my dreams as the memory of them lingered incoherently. But I soon realized on looking at my timepiece that I should have arrived at my destination about an hour before!
It was then that I comprehended I had not seen one thing from the carriage window. True, I was travelling through a comparatively uninhabited part of England, but this was decidedly peculiar; even though there were no stars nor moon, I should have seen the distant glow of some big town or the lonesome light of a spinster’s cottage. But absolutely nothing could I see, presumably on acoount of the unusual blackness of the night through which I was speeding in a corridorless train. Might it be fog?
I relaxed back into the seat and viewed my sleeping companion. The fog would explain the lateness of the train, but what about its apparent speed?
I was convinced the train was traveling at a phenomenal speed, but it was now two hours overdue–without precedence on that line. I resolved to wake my companion and I stepped over to shake him. What curled from the hood of the duffel coat was an evilly scarred face and, on unwinding, gave me an imbecilic smile: a moon-face topped by a schoolboy’s cap, giggling in the depth of its rasping throat.
“Mutation” is a word too medical, too clinical, as what I saw was essentially unwholesome; nothing created by a mother on this world, but fashioned far away in dim lands beyond the galaxy we know. The transfiguration took me completely by surprise as, before my eyes, the monstrosity literally dissolved and dripping from the brown duffel coat was a green, sticky slime, forming a viscid puddle on the swaying floor.
It held all the smells which disgust man throughout the world and others completely new to his nose, recalling my dream vistas and certain other things I could not quite place.
My first thought was to pull the communication cord, but I felt the train was slowing down–presumably my destination had been reached. My mind was a maelstrom as the train drew to a halt. On jumping to the platform, I realized it was not my intended destination, but a strange station … and the nightmare train was drawing out, leaving me bewildered and valiseless. Amid the chaos of my mind, I knew I had to find a porter and share the horror I with him.
Empty tins and scraps of paper scuttled along the deserted platform, driven by the night wind. So, no fog! Visibility was excellent, but it still puzzled me why I could not see the moon nor the stars. I shouted for assistance, but none came: a forsaken station, forgotten by all who used to work there, those who, under a happy sun, waved green flags and blew whistles, carted parcels and drank tea. Dazed, I shuffled along the cluttered platform towards the station-house, sithouetted against the ceiling of the sky, ominous and spectral.
I came to a turnstile and, not surprisingly, it was enlaced with choking cobwebs, twining through the bars. The only exit I could see was through there, and so I pulled myself together to cut a path through its creeping entropy. As I entered, an over-nourished spider skittered to its lair. I wish to God I had not looked to the left into the ticket-collector’s cab, for here was not a deserted seat, but the ticket collector himself sitting, not as he used to be, but a decaying skeleton-creature with a puncher in the bones of a hand. A plump worm coiled through his skewered ribs … and I screamed … ran from that blasphemous railway station…
…into avenues of ill-lit horror, through lines of trees, black and twisted against the blacker sky, along country roads twining between untended hedgerows … until exhaustion put paid to my progress … I saw the House; it rose out of the darkness, looming forbodingly. It was more of a castle than a house, and had two towering wings, pointing and mocking at the sky.
I should not fear its occupants, I told myself–they would probably disperse my fears and show my position on the map – so I plucked up enough courage to walk to the main door. Its massive oaken surface and golden knocker filled me with awe, but I grasped the knocker, pulled it heavily from the wood, and let it drop with a crash echoing throughout the whole house. It was such a loud noise that it startled me and put the fear back. There, I waited for what Fate would bring to the door, waiting, eternally waiting. But no one came. No one deigned to answer my call for help, so I decided to force my way in for shelter, but the door looked too mighty for entrance there. But I was mistaken as a single trial caused the door to swing open with a splitting creak revealing … only darkness. I coughed as the atmosphere tightened in my chest and I felt for a suitable position to sleep the night out.
It was then that I heard something which I can hear even now inside my head, a funeral moan, harmonically illogical, resonant, deep but also shrill, coming from up above me, approaching down a rickety staircase, a moan carrying at one and the same time the horror of the graveyard, the scream of delight as ghouls ecstatically lift a prutrescible corpse from its resting place, the terror of a lunatic’s laugh as he carves his own flesh, and all the pain and panic of the Pit where shapeless elementals vaguely swim in fire, chewing off the heads of the human damned.
After, came a slithering and bumping above me: a thing was moving across the floor and, then, it was squelching down the stairs emitting the long drawn-out moan. The alternate slithering and bumping rode the creaking, teetering stairs, inexorably drawing closer, nearer, faster, down, down, down…
…it seemed as if I were in another world, sucked in by intangible forces to a revelation of the cosmos, a panorama of all time; stars and streaks of light reaching to infinitudes of chaos and cult, ethereal glows and fresh, unmathematical lands. I saw a city with dome-like, square buildings on plains of kaleidoscopic bubbles and, in each bubble, a grotesque gargantuan gargoyle leering at the citizens in the buildings. Those citizens themselves were immaterial, covered by jellified green slime and motivated by an ectoplasm of orange exactly in the middle of its soul-light.
I saw vague ski-runs of blue effulgence stretching for aeons from  the mamnoth, bubbly planet past the barrier of time and space, almost an interpenetration of two universes. I saw an enormous sled skim down the runnels, carrying those unfathomably huge monstrosities of green slime, and it looked as if they were waving and laughing, gobs of jelly forming into limb-strands and mouth-holes where the orange ectoplasm turned into a flickering tongue.
They laughed! They waved! They grew even larger! And on their interuniverse journey, they bred more and more of themselves as they neared a familiar planet…
The vision changed: I was looking at the cities of earth–London, Paris, New York, all empty except for ill-twisted skeletons littering the streets, doing exactly what they were doing when they died. Until the visions faded…
I was still in the House blanketed in darkness. The slithering and bumping grew yet nearer until I could see it!
It was a luminous blob of green pus – looking as if it had plucked itself unceremoniously from the incubating slime of its huge host monster following arrival on Earth. By turns it materialized and dematerialized as it squirmed and hobbled towards me… and I imagined I saw a crease of a wicked smile where the green fat folded and twitched. I screamed and screamed. It touched my foot. It actually touched my foot! My blood curdled as I felt it gradually creep up my body. The breathing gunge greened me over, covering my face like slobbering clay. I was then a gibbering, juddering puppet, insane with disgust, but tittering in ecstasy. I felt it enter my mouth, ooze into my throat, a seething, thickening mess of spitting, burping stew.
I found myself back in the train, watching an old man in a brown duffel coat sleep opposite me … and out of the window the distant glow of a city.
It must have been a nightmare.

***

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.

One response to “Four Railway Stories

  1. TWO TRAIN THINGIES (written today as revisions of two speed-writing exercises yesterday at the Clacton Writers Group)

    Death on the 3.37
    John studied the timetable and eventually used his pen to mark the train he intended to catch. This was, you see, in the days before the internet when you couldn’t insert the stations of departure and destination – nor, later, keep an eye on whether the desired train was running on time, the up to date state of engineering works, special replacement buses, the latest number of changes you needed to make…even the name of the individual in charge of the buffet car. Well, that last bit was a joke, but you know what I mean.
    No, John’s timetable was a dog-eared book fixed with yellow patches and foxed with yellow stains … and probably at least a few decades out of date. So to precisely pinpoint your complete trust – with the sharp, scratchy business end of a fountain pen nib – at a train leaving at 3.37 from platform 17 was a trifle ambitious!
    He sat back, rested his head in his hands, and thought about the train that must have left platform 17, due to leave at 3.37, and indeed leaving only a couple of minutes late after the guard named Bob Smith waved his green flag, blew his whistle following the checking that all the old train doors had slammed shut – not slid together sweetly with a buzz or a whine…

    Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep…followed a little later by a falsetto tannoy as the train crawled, bumped, ground and shuddered through a built up area…
    “This is the 3.37 for Birmingham New Street from London Euston which is currently running 4 minutes late. We apologise for the current delay. Your train manager is Suzie Sykes and the driver is Tom Clark. The O2 Midshires Line wishes you a comfortable journey. Calling at Leighton Buzzard. Time of arrival in Birmingham New Street is estimated at 5.18. Please collect all your belongings when leaving the train.”
    Including ourselves, I guess.

    John placed the heavy timetable on the table. As he stared through the net curtains, he saw the taxi eventually arriving outside to take him to Euston. The vehicle had those indicators that sporadically poke from the side chassis like cheeky pointy orange flags.
    “There’s a lot of traffic,” announced the driver. “Is there any particular train you’re wanting to catch.”
    John told him the 3.37.
    “Lucky if you’ll catch the same train this time tomorrow,” said the driver with very little humour.
    John sighed with relief. Yet another whodunnit murder solved by it not having happened at all. Suzie Sykes and Tom Clark could live a loving future together, one they had ever promised themselves – both of them happy enough to bump and grind up and down the middle of the country as if forever in a train of slamming doors instead of those new-fangled sliding ones…except for the odd replacement bus that played havoc with the timetable.
    John shook the taxi-driver’s hand, gave him a large tip for a wasted pick-up and went back to his computer to plan the details of another aborted journey whereby destinies could be changed. But not always for the better.

    The Movie Set
    In this country they call it a film set, so when my chance companion on the 3.37 from Euston said with a drawl “Movie set”, I didn’t need to be Sherlock Holmes to work out where he was from. Not precisely of course, but certainly on the other side of the Atlantic where every town or city seemed like a movie set to me – mainly because I only saw them in films.
    Train small talk always seemed to be riddled with dogmatic opinions and today such opinions were set about with my chance companion’s tales of working in Hollywood and his rubbing shoulders with all the big stars…
    “No sooner did she come on the movie set,” he continued, “than she gave me a knowing wink. You wouldn’t credit it – one day going up on stage for an Oscar, the next giving the likes of me the glad eye.”
    I nodded, wishing there was an aisle through the middle of the seats – or at least a corridor. This carriage had neither – just a single door each side that opened and slammed shut when at each stop.
    I stared at the leather strap hanging from the nearest door’s window and I prepared to jump out as soon as I felt the train going a bit slower.
    I blinked and the strap had vanished – and the door slid aside with an irritating beep rather than simply opening outwards.
    “You know, she and me spent a whole night bumping and grinding…” continued the drawl. But luckily I wasn’t there to hear it as I watched the train trundling into the distance: leaving me to pick myself out of the prickly bushes. I was either dead or punctured like mad all over – which didn’t seem to solve the mystery as to what state I was in, even as to who I was.
    I wonder if Sherlock Holmes could have solved his own murder by an unknown hand? Or where the body had come from? Or had gone to?
    Which is the greater mystery: the identity of an unknown dead body or a missing dead body when you didn’t know it was missing?
    I sighed, pleased that the movie set had moved on.

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