Estimated reading time — 9 minutes
‘You need a holiday, Arthur’ spoke my good friend and business partner George Tabbert. We were sat in the clubhouse of Ridswell Golf Course having just completed our regular Thursday game and I was about to get the speech I had felt coming all afternoon.
‘It’s all very well getting in the odd eighteen holes now and then but you need a proper break; you’ve practically lived in the office since Anne…passed.’
I had been avoiding this conversation for weeks but knew it was impossible to deflect for much longer so I sipped my brandy and let him press on in his own awkward manner.
‘I don’t want you to think all of your hard work of late has gone unappreciated…far from it…but we are all worried about you. Burying yourself in company business may have been what you needed over the last couple of months…’
‘I know, George. I know’ I injected to avert his discomfort. ‘I was going to suggest a brief layoff myself once I had the Billingham account up to speed. In fact, I should have everything in hand by tomorrow so I was wondering if you could spare me next week.’
‘Of course we can, Arthur, of course we can.’ The brief tension dissipated and the relief on George’s face was palpable at such a facile resolution. In truth, I was glad of his concern. Attempting to cope with the sudden loss of my dear wife at such an early age was beginning to consume me and I had already planned to make a visit north to spend some time at my family home in Pendlebury. My parents had extended an open invitation and I finally felt the time was right to lift my head from the sands of abnegation and mourn my beloved in the familiar bosom of my childhood home.
‘You’re making the right decision, Arthur, you really are. After all, these long hours are starting to affect your game and there’s just no challenge in thrashing you week in week out.’ With that, a rare smile emerged from beneath his heavy moustache and I returned the look with an even scarcer specimen.
Having cleared my outstanding business by lunchtime the next day, I took early leave from the office and returned to my house in Ludgate Hill to prepare for my week away. I can no longer bring myself to call it a home; it is now merely the bricks and mortar that hold the memories I shall both cherish and agonise over for the rest of my days.
I packed the essentials with haste, taking only clothes that were lying in the bedroom as I still could not bear to open the wardrobe to be confronted with Anne’s dresses and coats. Just being in the house caused every fibre of my being to ache with loss and so I swept up my case and opted to dine out before catching my train at just gone eight.
I arrived at Paddington in good time and settled on a bench once I had found the relevant platform. Punctuality was one of my inherent traits but I had further reasons to be prompt on this occasion. Firstly, I still retained my boyhood wonder at the marvellous steam engines that filled the station; the hiss and chug of the pistons and the plumes of white cloud dispersing across the grand gambrel gave me a guilty thrill as I sat in perdition amongst the throng of living. My other motivation for arriving well in advance was so that I could peruse my fellow travellers and decide upon the most opportune carriage to take. The journey I had in store was long and I wanted to ensure I was afforded a reasonable amount of peace and tranquillity.
From my vantage point at the end of the platform I regarded the gathering passengers in order to make my initial assessment. Nearest to me were a couple of middle-aged gentlemen in business attire. Both carried document cases and displayed the air of barristers as they conversed just out of earshot. Further along were three couples; another pair of formally-attired men, two elderly women whom I guessed were sisters due to their shared posture, and two young beaus holding hands whilst they chattered in an intimate fashion. My throat constricted at the sight of this happy item and I instinctively thumbed my pocket watch, a gift from Anne on our first anniversary. The public nature of my location forced me to resist gazing upon the inscription as I feared the very real possibility of making an exhibition of myself in the company of so many strangers. Instead, I shook off my malaise and returned to my inspection as more latecomers joined the assembly. One group who had fought through the crowds was made up of at least a dozen children, all shepherded by an exasperated woman of considerable girth. The boys and girls were no older than six or seven and whirled around their aggrieved mistress like moths around a candle. I immediately made a mental note to avoid their cabin and stretched my gaze to the far end of the walkway where my eye happened upon a solitary figure that stood motionless, backed by the glare of the setting sun that blazed through the elevated arches.
He was a rather slender man and wore a fine, close-fitted suit of pinstripe along with a dress-shirt and tie. The sun’s flare rendered his head almost invisible but from what I could ascertain he was perhaps an albino as I could only glimpse a dome of pure white above the line of his collar. My attention quickly moved from this individual however as the 8.15 to Pendlebury came into view and the bustling crowd readied to board.
The service did not fill as I had expected. Many of the people on the platform were simply waiting to see off companions and so I managed to obtain a carriage exclusively for my own use. The downside was that it was the compartment directly next to the squall of schoolchildren but as I doubted they could maintain such exuberance for too long I happily nestled into a seat at the opposing end.
As the engine pulsated into life and started to pull away I was momentarily able to forget my sorrows and bask in the wonder of the railways. Living near to my place of work was extremely practical yet at times I wished my daily routine included a commute on one of these fine machines so that every day could contain an element of such magic. The station slowly retracted from sight and we were soon off, out into the open and building up speed as we powered through the dimming streets. I noted with dismay that the majority of the journey would be made in darkness, denying me the magnificent views en route which would have been especially picturesque on such an early autumn evening.
We left the city behind before too long and I decided to lose myself in the novel I had brought despite the cacophony still emanating from the adjacent carriage. The undulating rhythm of the train soon soothed this distraction and I found myself immersed in my book, only pausing to turn on my small table lamp as the natural light eventually failed. For the first time in months I felt some semblance of normality and merrily ignored the outside world as the escapist prose evolved page after page until I was totally oblivious to my environment.
I was unsure how much time had elapsed when I finally lifted my head and took in the surroundings. Immediately I had the uneasy feeling that something was amiss without quite being able to ascertain its exactness. Laying my volume on the small table, I stood to stretch my legs and contemplate this sense of disquiet. My watch told me it was almost a quarter to ten and I tapped at it in disbelief. Unless I had been so engrossed that I failed to notice the engine stopping, we had yet to pull into a single station despite travelling for well over an hour. Having made this journey countless times before, I knew that this was utterly impossible. We should have made at least four or five stops by this point and so I peered out of the window and into the darkness to try to get an indication as to our current whereabouts. My nose fairly pressed against the glass, I shielded my eyes from the reflection of the carriage and stared out into the night.
Although we must have been deep into the countryside there should still have been the odd light from farmhouses and other remote dwellings, yet I saw absolutely nothing. It was as if my face was pressed against a black velvet curtain; no lights, stars nor moon were visible despite scanning every inch of the stygian canvass. It was at this moment of bewilderment that I also perceived the silence and stillness of the great engine. Not entirely sure how it had escaped my attention seconds before, I stood transfixed as my ears strained at the hush. It was true, we were no longer in motion and there did not seem to be any passengers emitting any concern that we had come to an unscheduled standstill.
Taking stock of this irregular situation, I moved warily along the aisle in the direction of the school party, hoping to communicate through the windows at either end of our cabins. Both apertures were closed and so I lowered mine in order to call through to the neighbouring passengers. Before opening my mouth I scoured their compartment for a sign of the matronly woman and her charges but curiously all seemed deserted.
‘Hullo! Hullo!’ I ventured timidly to no reply. By now I was truly vexed and turned my head back towards my own cabin. As I did, I caught a glimpse of a figure from the corner of my eye as it moved rapidly across the window of the conjoined carriage. It was only for the briefest of moments but I could have sworn it was the slender man I had spied at Paddington; his crisp, dark pinstripe suit unmistakable against the crimson upholstery. Again, I had failed to discern his face yet the presence of a fellow traveller certainly eased my growing sense of trepidation.
‘Hullo! Are you there? Hullo!’ I called, louder this time but still failed to receive any response. Irked by the stranger’s apparent disregard, I decided to exit the stationary carriage and visit upon the man directly.
However, on opening the heavy door I experienced another peculiar sensation. There was not a trace of wind to break the absolute silence and I could still not make out a single feature in the pitch black. It was as though I stood on the edge of a void. Unsure of my footing, I gripped the handles and hesitantly lowered my left leg into the abyss. My foot passed in pendulous motion as I reached for solid ground but without success. It suddenly occurred to me that we must have come to a halt on one of the bridges that marked the route and so I hauled myself back into the carriage in a swift act of self-preservation.
Crossing to the opposite side of the compartment I paused to listen for oncoming engines before opening the door that led out onto the tracks. Again I strived for a foothold but again I was met with an inky expanse of nothingness.
I paced the compartment in a state of perplexity and called out again to no avail. My anxiety was reaching unwelcome heights and I felt as if I ought to take some semblance of positive action before my frail nerves finally gave out. Remembering that the side of the train featured many handles as well as foot panels I mustered my last shred of courage and decided to edge myself along to the next cabin in order to engage with the inhabitants. If our only stop had been at this precarious position then the children and mistress must all still surely be aboard, along with the evasive stranger who had ignored my cries.
The same eerie sensation greeted me on opening the door for the second time and I gingerly circumnavigated the opening. Knowing not whether the earth lay inches or a hundred feet below me, I calmed my shaking limbs as best I could and eased myself along the wooden ledge, step by cautious step. The intense concentration I focused on my brief but harrowing escapade left me both physically and mentally exhausted by the time I had shuffled the short distance to the neighbouring window. Ensuring my hold was steadfast, I levered myself sideways and examined the compartment.
How I resolved to maintain my grip when I caught sight of the interior I still do not know to this day. I had expected to see rows of slumbering children weary from their travels. The reality that confronted me was almost too much for my already fractured spirit to bear. I could indeed make out the group of innocents but these lay broken, stretched out in unnatural, impossible angles; their limbs defying all pretence of inherent design. I saw too their unfortunate chaperone; her head wrenched in incongruous juxtaposition to her lifeless frame. A silent scream resounded in my head although not so much as a breath escaped my lips. I was frozen in a terror so pure that my entire being had ceased to function on a corporeal level. As my splintered mind fought to regain some cognitive control I then spied another occupant hunched in the far corner; the slender man of the pinstripe suit.
Gripped in my paralysed state I could only watch as the tall figure slowly arose and turned deliberately in my direction. I saw then why I had not previously managed to glimpse his face; for by some ungodly practice, he had none. His head was as smooth and featureless as a mannequin yet I could still feel his intense stare despite being devoid of any discerned eyes. He…it took a step towards me, sparking a survival instinct that cured my immobility and sent me racing back to my carriage with little concern for the likely danger below.
Seconds later I lunged into the compartment and turned to slam the door behind me in one frantic movement. Barely making it off of my hands and knees, I scrabbled to the far side of the cabin and tried to cower out of sight in the dark recess beneath a table. My racing mind was torn between comprehending the nightmare I had been thrust into and desperately searching for some way of defending myself against such an abomination. I could not imagine what corner of hell this demon…this thing had spawned from.
I suddenly remembered that the toiletries in my case included a sturdy straight razor but before I could move from my refuge, the stranger ghosted into view, making for the carriage door. It was too late. I had no way to escape the willowy beast and the same fate as the school party surely awaited me now.
The door swung outwards and in he stepped. I clasped my eyes shut tight and a torrent of prayers poured forth from my trembling lips. After a torturous period of silence I opened my eyes again to see the slender man still motionless at the door, his empty countenance turned upon me. I now wish that he had advanced; had relieved me of my misery as he had snuffed out the lives of the children. But the lot he had chosen for me was unimaginably crueller. My punishment was four short words. How he spoke them I cannot possibly know but before he turned and disappeared back to his underworld, he hissed my eternal affliction; she is mine now.
Credit: Steve Lucan