Cheap Day Return

Malcolm Timperley

Benson had to get back; the last train was due. Where was the station? He squelched through the sleety rain. It spattered his glasses, but he had learned decades ago that cleaning them was pointless. Within five minutes, soaked again, the haloes around the lights and the filmy distortions would return. Leaning forward, he trudged into the wind, which veered spitefully to ensure that the stinging rain was always blown into his face. As he stumbled from one puddle of sickly light to the next, his coat afforded no protection. Below it, his trousers no longer flapped but clung sodden to his legs. His hair was plastered to his head, and icy water dribbled down his neck. He felt wretched as wetness seeped into his shoes, his feet pushing cold sponginess back and forth with each step. The wind forced raindrops down his throat. They tasted of tin.

Finally, through his smeary spectacles, he made out the wooden station building crouching at the end of the street. A dying fluorescent tube in the waiting room spat flashes of antiseptic light. He swallowed down rising despair that he’d missed the last train. He had to get back. As he approached the building the flashes petered out. The station was locked up for the night, a hurriedly scribbled note clumsily taped to the inside of the waiting room window. He squinted at the scrawl – When station closed access platform via gaite. Below the writing, an arrow pointed to where the station building ended and a decrepit wooden fence lurched off into the blackness beyond. One section of the fence clutched the posts on either side for support, and he guessed it to be the gate. On the far side, a solitary platform lamp hung from a pole, creaking back and forth in the wind, gibbet-like.

Benson was reluctant to leave the shelter of the station doorway. Shivering, he stared through the grimy glass into the waiting room. A final flash of light from within left him blinking and gasping – who was that inside, looking out? He cupped his hands to the glass and peered through. The face rushed towards him in frantic foreshortening. His reflection, surely – wasn’t it? He backed away from the other Benson, panting, then staggered off, following the arrow, refusing to look back.

The gate was wedged. He shoved at it, but the sodden wood squealed and refused to move until suddenly it juddered forwards. The spongy, rotten timbers crumbled under his grip as he tumbled onto the platform. Under the squeaking, shifting lamp he noticed his fingers now had small damp fragments sticking to them. Benson thought it was the swaying light and the rain on his spectacles that made them appear to move, until, aghast, he realized that they were actually woodlice. He shook his hand wildly, jerking the creatures away into the night, then frantically wiped his hands on his coat. Wheezing and dripping, he tottered away from the gate and onto the dark platform. He had to get back.

A red light blinked green, followed by a mournful blast from the gloom and an advancing rumble. The diesel trundled closer, then squealed to a stand, the headlights revealing swirling curtains of rain. The engine stood throbbing alongside Benson, who shielded his eyes from the glare and peered into the cab. In the anaemic glow of dashboard lights, a lifeless figure stared unblinking into the night, clutching the dead man’s handle.

Benson ran alongside the first carriage. Blurred silhouettes within observed him, heads turning in unison. Alarmed, he backed away, then checked himself; he had to get back. He stumbled forward to the apparently empty second carriage, pressed a button and the door sighed open. Benson stepped inside. Once certain that he was completely within, the door hissed shut peevishly – SiiiiiiiiiiT! With a triumphant hoot, the train lurched forward, and Benson half tumbled, half collapsed into a seat. It was threadbare and slightly sticky. As the train gathered speed the carriage lights dimmed to an unhealthy glow. The warm, syrupy air misted Benson’s glasses. Removing them, he fumbled for a handkerchief or something, anything, dry. Finally, he found a small section of shirt the rain had missed. He replaced his newly wiped glasses, looked up, and jolted.

Opposite sat a frock-coated man, cachectic, long-armed, and unnaturally tall, holding a large, square, leather-bound book. Emaciated and embalmed-looking, he stared down at Benson as though examining a specimen in a killing jar. His thin-lipped face slowly moulded into a cadaverous rictus as he resumed peering down at the book. For some reason, Benson assumed it was a bible. The priest, if that’s what he was, or perhaps had once been, alternately stabbed a spindly finger at the pages, or raised them to his face. With each jerky movement, dandruff fluttered down from his greasy hair.

Queasy, Benson turned away and stared out of the carriage into the night. Beads of dirty rainwater hurried down the window like woodlice scuttling away from the light. His reflection was superimposed on the blackness, but, twisted by condensation and rain on the glass, the other, colder Benson appeared warped and deformed. The other Benson avoided eye contact, and instead studied the window frame intently from the dark outside, as if looking for something, such as a way in.

“Tickets, please!”

Benson spun round. The jaundiced light was obscured by a waxy-faced figure leaning too close, and clicking a shiny metal device with one hand. With the other, he slowly smoothed an oily comb-over, as though he was considering whether he should help the Vice Squad with their inquiries. Benson groped nervously in his sodden coat. The pockets felt full of soft, damp things. He extracted a soggy ticket and it was snatched away with distaste. The guard turned it over, noticed a woodlouse on the underside, and flicked it off with a sneer. It landed on the priest’s book. He slammed it shut with a triumphant sniff, then slowly reopened it and raised the stained pages to his face. Benson looked away uneasily. The other Benson outside grinned, then resumed its search for weaknesses in the glass.

The guard clipped the ticket with the shiny metal device and Benson watched a small paper fragment flutter to the floor. Trembling, he retook the ticket, noticing that where the destination had been printed was now a small, heart-shaped hole. “What’s going on?” he blurted, the loudness of his voice startling him.

“Slyness. Bleed,” snarled the priest.

“What?”

“Silence. Please,” he repeated from behind the book.

The carriage lurched downwards and the train accelerated. Increasingly sweaty, Benson removed his coat, tossing it anxiously onto the seat next to the priest. “Can you help me?” he mumbled. “Please, I have to get back.”

“Jet black,” snorted the priest, scratching the stained bible with a dirty fingernail. Benson looked pleadingly at the guard who clicked the shiny metal device and began to speak. A sudden hollow rushing sound muffled his words. “Eternal,” grinned the priest with a phlegmy chuckle.

“What?”

“A tunnel,” repeated the priest. Panicking, Benson turned to the window. The other Benson clawed at the rubber seal around the glass, prising it free. Cold and rain screeched in from the tunnel and Benson recoiled into the seat. The priest dropped the bible and rifled through Benson’s abandoned overcoat, pulling handfuls of woodlice from the pockets and tossing them in the air like wriggling grey confetti. The train raced as the carriage tilted more steeply. Rearing over him, the guard clicked the shiny metal device ominously. The priest tottered towards him, hands churning with wriggling woodlice. The other Benson finally freed the glass from the frame. Shrieking echoed from the tunnel walls. The Tannoy crackled “All change. End of the line. This is where we terminate…”

Malcolm Timperley studied medicine at Liverpool University, spent more years than he likes to remember as a psychiatrist, and is now a writer and heritage steam railway signalman, living in the Highlands of Scotland. He has published non-fiction (railway history), comedy (he was short-listed at the 2020 Edinburgh International Flash Fiction Awards), and horror (most recently in Horla).