“The 6:13PM service from Penrith to London is delayed by 23 minutes, Grand Central Trains apologises for any inconvenience caused,” mumbles a distorted voice over the Tannoy speaker.
Daniel clutches his weekend bag in one hand, the tattered leather handles worn away from excessive use feeling uncomfortable in his sweaty palm. In his other hand is a can of lukewarm local ale leftover from the stag do shenanigans of the night before. A long sigh exits his mouth as he deals with this minor inconvenience during an epic comedown, making life’s little problems seem ten times worse. He sits on an offensive lime green bench and pulls out at a Marlboro Red cigarette from a crushed packet that he taps twice on his leg for no other reason than he thinks it makes him look cool. It does not.
With his hand shaking from the fourth day of excessive drinking, Daniel places the fag between his dry, cracked lips, hoping to smoke the oncoming fear of his cumulative hangover away.
“Fucking stag-dos, fucking trains, fucking…fuck,” he mutters under breath to no one in particular while lighting up, ignoring the faded no smoking sign on the platform that has been battered by the violent North England weather.
This was Daniel’s second stag this month and sixth so far this year – it’s only May. He is 31 years old but feels physically 15 years older than that, yet somehow has the mentality of a university fresher. He is single, his favourite drink is Guinness (something easily identifiable by the dry black edges around his mouth and charcoal shade of his bowel movements), and he has a modestly paid job earning £44.5k a year in a beige office that deals with data analysis.
To most he is an average man with an average name. But there’s another side to Daniel that those around him don’t know; something that is common yet paradoxically perplexing. It’s nothing that he would boast about on his pretty inactive Tinder profile, but it is something that has become more popular for men under 45 and that is 75% more likely to happen to his gender specifically. Daniel wants to commit suicide.
He doesn’t want to kill himself in the figurative social media sense of “OMG I WANT TO DIEEE LOL” – he literally wants to perish. It’s the last thing he thinks of as he falls into a restless slumber, the first thought that starts a new day, and the nagging idea that bounces off his cubicle walls like a grim game of Pong.
Rope, knife, pills, he’s considered all the big players to exit this world, but they all seem a little too drawn out and a little too expected. But standing here, on the edge of a platform feeling like he does, he considers jumping out in front of a train and bursting like a fleshy water balloon. Quick, easy and dramatic.
Daniel doesn’t know why he wants to die, which makes him want to die even more. His life is perfectly adequate, and when compared to most of the Western world he lives a very comfortable existence.
But that’s where the problem is rooted: existing. He didn’t feel like he was truly living. He completed his 9-5, got the 37-minute tube home, had a wank, scoffed a high-quality microwave meal (if there’s such a thing), then nursed himself into a drunken coma by sinking 6 cans in bed while Grand Designs acted as background noise, all the while stalking secondary school flings on social media. Daniel was stuck in an endless loop of mundanity with no noticeable way out other than the termination of life.
“Suicide by train has increased by 7% in the last year,” a voice next to him on the bench says. A voice so similar to his that he thought he was thinking aloud.
Sure that no one was next to him a moment ago, Daniel turns his head to find where the origin of this unsettling statement emanated from. Sitting there in a black Puritan-esque wide brimmed fedora pulled down to cover their face, with hands placed neatly on a leather briefcase resting on their lap, is a figure in a tightly fitted black suit, black shirt, black tie and black boots.
The stranger reaches a hand to their hat and pulls it off in an act of archaic politeness and rests it on top of the case. Daniel’s mouth hangs open and his cigarette falls to the floor.
This thing’s skin is pale to the point of being translucent and is so tight around the skull that it looks like it’s being pulled back from behind the head. But this is only one disturbing characteristic of a plethora of obscene facial features, as the man (if that’s what it is) has no eyelids, which makes the two milky white eyes protrude from their sockets. He also has impossibly thin, dark lips that look like they’ve been drawn on with a freshly sharpened pencil, which expose crooked, yellow teeth that are chattering at such a speed it’s as if they’re comically cold.
Daniel does not scream at the appearance of the suited man. Nor does he shudder, wince or freeze in shock. What is next to him is unsettling for sure, but in no way does it make Daniel run for the exit. He recognises this face and presence from somewhere he can’t pinpoint. It’s as if he’s seen him a million times in the corner of his eye, ever so slightly out of sight.
“It would be an acceptable way to die, it fits in with my statistics for this calendar year,” the snow-white man claims before returning back to his distracting teeth chatter.
“Apologies, let me introduce myself: I am your case worker, my name is #5233. I am here to make sure the loss of your life runs smoothly today.” He attempts an unusually wide smile that doesn’t fully register thanks to the lack of lips, but Daniel gets the gist. Even though his statement is really nothing to smile about.
“The loss of my life?”
“Yes, you are scheduled to die today to fulfill the male suicide quota for this year. Your cause of death will be suicide by train. Would you like more details? I’m sure I have the exact time of when your heart will stop, as well as when your brain will cease functioning.”
An awkward silence falls between them. Daniel doesn’t even seem to hear the clinking of teeth anymore, only an overwhelming ringing fills his ears followed by the quickening beat of his heart that travels up his chest and into his parched, tobacco scorned throat.
Daniel snaps out of the potential panic attack and does a 360 of the busy station to see if anyone else has noticed the deformed angel of death sitting by his side, but no one seems to acknowledge its existence. Even when he shouts ‘DOES ANYONE SEE THIS CORPSE?’ at the top of his voice to grab the attention of his fellow travelers, they just look at him with a mildly shocked squint that silently says ‘tut tut’ in a very British manner.
“Why the fuck are your eyes…like…like that?”
He chuckles dryly in response, almost like it just learned how to laugh from reading a dictionary definition of the human action.
“I cannot miss a thing,” #5233 explains. “The statistics are very important; I need to have eyes constantly on the present to determine the accuracy of my findings. I’ve watched your whole life…every second. Today is the result of my calculations and I’m here to make sure everything is…hunky dory.” The last two words brings back that wickedly wide smile.
Daniel’s hand is shaking as he brings his lukewarm can to his mouth, something to help calm the nerves and hopefully shake off what he hopes is a bad trip from one of the dodgy pills he’d taken over the weekend. A rancid curry, perhaps? Or maybe the years of substance abuse has just finally vanquished whatever was left of his sanity.
“Oh, I am not a hallucination. I am here because you thought me here. You’ve been thinking about me for a while and I’ve felt it. But your time is finally here! You will finally be free.”
Daniel knows in his heart and mind that it doesn’t lie. This is not some psychological reaction to bad ecstasy. But now that the moment of reckoning is finally upon him, he does not want to go.
“It was…it was just a thought. I didn’t really want to throw myself on the tracks,” he lies as a droplet of sweat trickles from his forehead to his jaw.
“We both know that’s not true. I have been in there,” #5233 taps Daniel’s head, who was expecting to recoil at the unnatural cold touch of a bony limb, but in fact did not feel anything at all.
Daniel masks his tears by reaching into his 10 pence carrier bag for his last can, making the process last longer than it should just so he can escape the caseworker’s gaze for an extra few seconds. He cracks it open and the foam spits out onto his cheeks, warm lager mixing with salty sweat that he doesn’t wipe away.
“What can I do to stop this?” he bargains.
“It is already too late,” his caseworker explains as it begins to roll a numbered code into the suitcase. “I have paperwork here that shows the likelihood of your return to good mental health – and it’s not good.”
Daniel slams his hand on top of the case, forcing it shut as a mouthful of beer escapes the can and lands on his sticky nightclub scented jeans. They look each other dead in the eyes, neither of them blinking this time.
“I am not a fucking number,” he aggressively whispers under his breath, just in case anyone looked his way and seen him arguing with thin air. The last thing he needed now was to be sectioned.
Daniel expects another eerie smile to cross the face of the icy white messenger, but instead it drops the suitcase to the floor and stands up for the first time with an expression devoid of any emotion. Its tall, gaunt shape only comes as surprise, as it towers over him like a teacher looking down on a student during an exam, expecting them of cheating.
“Please stand away from the edge of the platform, the next train will not be stopping here,” says the Tannoy speaker.
“But death is so easy,” it says.
As the unstopping train glides around the corner, #5233 begins to float towards the tracks, its feet never moving at all. Daniel doesn’t find this surprising, after all he is speaking to his very own personal demon. However, realising that a shadow isn’t being cast on the ground as it hovers to the edge does make his penis shrivel.
“Look,” it pleads.
It levitates down to the tracks and turns towards the oncoming locomotive, arms outstretched ready to embrace hot metal at 120 mph. Daniel looks on transfixed; wanting his new companion to be torn apart. Not only because this surreal ordeal would be over, but because he wanted to experience death up close, to see, smell and taste what he thought he craved.
If this thing had eyelids, Daniel is sure it would’ve winked at him. The train collides into the thing in the suit – but no gore splashes the platform. Instead clouds of black smoke explode from what once took the form of man, which caress and travel down the side of the train as it makes its way through the station. This smog starts to make its way towards the bench Daniel sits on, which he clutches now with jittery, sweaty palms. First it is shapeless, but a form of a hand starts to take shape. A finger becomes clear and it moves back and forth as if to say, ‘come here’. Daniel does not.
Instead, he storms to the station bathroom to get away, knowing that he cannot escape something which is obviously in his head. But sitting there on that cold bench being groomed into killing himself was making him want to do it, just to get that thing away from him. He didn’t want to be in a world where something like that could have access to his darkest thoughts.
Daniel splashes ice cold water from the one working rusty tap in the bathroom and looks into the mirror, only to find that his reflection has been stolen and replaced with that of #5233 straightening his chunky black tie.
“What’s the problem? Before you were born you weren’t alive, you’re just coming full circle,” the caseworker says as its hand comes through from the mirror and rests on Daniel’s shoulder in an aid to comfort him.
“The void is so nice and warm…I’ve been there a couple of times myself. It’s just like sleeping…you like sleeping, right?”
Daniel’s wet face stares dizzily into the mirror as he becomes mesmerised by the voice. What was once unsettling and unreasonable is now starting to make sense.
“I do…I do love sleeping,” he confirms, smiling in the same unnatural way this thing does.
“Then let’s get you ready for bed,” he says as a reassuring hand slowly moves from shoulder to a firm grip around Daniel’s throat.
As he is about to succumb his phone vibrates, waking him up from his trancelike state. He opens up WhatsApp and sees a new message posted by the groom-to-be in the stag group chat.
ADAM: “Lads just wanted to say thanks for a sick weekend. Know it’s soppy as balls but I love each and every one of you. I can’t wait to have all of you there by my side on the big day. Couldn’t do it without you. Have a safe trip back y’all and see you at the wedding x”
Daniel cracks a smile, but not like the corrupted one from moments ago. He stares into the mirror again and for the first time the thing looking back at him shows a different emotion: anger. A low primal growl begins to rise from #5233’s throat as its eyes roll into the back of its head so only dirty whites are visible. Its jaw then rapidly unlocks and stretches vertically, showing a swirling pool of murky darkness beyond the yellow teeth that seems to call to Daniel. He doesn’t listen though, instead he brings his tensed fist back and throws it towards the centre of the mirror, breaking it into a multitude of shards that litter the dirty floor and make his personal grim reaper disappear.
“The delayed 6:30pm train to London Euston will shortly be arriving on the platform. Please stand away from the yellow line,” says the conductor over the tannoy.
Daniel wipes away a rogue tear and nurses his grazed, bloody hand.
“I’ll be OK…I’ll be OK,” he whispers to himself, now fully believing it.
Daniel returns to the bench to grabs his bag and walks to the beginning of the platform to find the correct section to board the train, eager to sit down in his reserved seat and make plans for a positive future free of the substances and life choices that have put himself in this self-destructive mindset – but not after one last drink.
He fumbles around in his bag for his final can and opens it with a satisfying crunch, thinking to himself that he’s never deserved a beer more in his life, but also that this would be his final drink if he were to truly get on the road to recovery.
He sticks his head back and takes that first fizzy swig, but instead of instant satisfaction a wave of panic engulfs him as he belches up a sour bile in an attack of acid reflux. He looks down to the ground to spit it out and sees a white skeletal hand emerge from the tracks. His case worker tries to pull himself up to the safety of the platform by latching his unnaturally long fingers around Daniel’s ankle. This time he can feel the touch and it sends lightning bolts right up his spine and into his head, making his scalp tingle like thousands of tiny needles are stabbing it rapidly.
“Please, sir, I must insist that you step in front of that train. I’m simply doing my job,” it says with mild annoyance.
His breathing intensifies and loses its steady rhythm, an hors d’œuvre to an inevitable panic attack. He turns around for assistance he knows he cannot receive, only to notice something that definitely wasn’t there before: more caseworkers, hovering around a select few people. A teenage girl that’s picking a fingernail past its wick, a solo father with bags under his eyes being accosted by three screaming toddlers, and a homeless man with a brutally honest sign that reads ‘NEED £££ FOR BOOZE’. Unlike him though, they seem to be blissfully unaware of the tailored monsters intruding on their lives.
“Why is no one else seeing this?”
“Because it is not their time, they are just being prepared for their exit” the caseworker softly says, intensely glaring at Daniel with no way of blinking. “Their worlds are not yet ready to meet. But you are ready…you have been chosen to help fulfill this year’s statistics. Your death will have meaning.”
The comfortable numbness that washed over Daniel in the bathroom returns, warmly inviting him towards the tracks to become just another statistic. But the human mind is a curious thing, because when we get what we thought we wanted, most of the time we realise we never really wanted it in the first place. Eternal darkness is just a couple of steps away, and with that stark realisation he realises his life of normality didn’t have to be normal. It was his need to self-anaesthetise through soul destroying vices that warped his views of what was existing and what was living. Sadly, this epiphany often comes at the 11th hour when it’s too late to turn back the clock.
“No, I choose to live, you pasty mother fucker,” Daniel shouts as he shakes the tight grip from his ankle. “This is my choice and no one else’s, and I choose to get better. I am more than a number.”
Daniel drains his can, drops it on the floor and goes to kick it at #5233 in a petty act of defiance. But his rebellion fails. After the deadly mix of one too many cans of 5.6% craft lager and a mental spasm of terror he becomes unsteady on his feet. He loses his balance and tumbles forwards onto the track, hitting his head on steel as the delayed 6:13pm from Glasgow finally storms towards the station.
#5233 pulls himself to safety, leaving his ‘work’ on the rails. He looks down at another successful case. “Accidental train deaths resulting from drunk, negligent behaviour will be up by 4% this year, with alcoholism in young men aged 18-35 expected to rise by 13%,” he says staring into Daniel’s confused eyes, just before the passengers on the platform shriek from seeing (and hearing) his body crushed by the force of the 466-tonne train, breaking his bones and squashing his internal organs. Rather than the water balloon effect he was hoping for, this is a much slower and intimate way to go seeing as the train was slowing down as it made its approach. It looks more like squeezing the last bit of toothpaste out of the tube.
#5233 returns to the bench and picks up his briefcase and hat, placing it on his head before marching to the exit, satisfied with a day’s work.
“You can’t argue with the statistics,” he says before returning to an erratic teeth chatter, which slowly fades away into the sound of sirens coming for the drunk man who was talking to himself a little too close to the tracks.
Credit : Jamie Carson
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