21:15 to Fort William

by Gaston Prereth

It is a simple fact of human nature that we place more reverence with the edge of things than their centre.  It is the extremities which rouse us to action, the threshold between the known and the unknown.  We settle by rivers and coastlines, we are excited by frontiers in both the physical and mental realms, and, most of all, we congregate at births and deaths. It was this latter boundary that found me on a dishevelled sleeper train dragging itself out of Euston station into the dark night towards Fort William.

My aunt, a woman I knew by name alone, had passed away the week before. The funeral was to be held on her vast estates near the base of Ben Nevis.  The letter informing me of this sad event had only arrived the morning before the day of her funeral, and so it was in a fever of desperation that I had handed over a small fortune to purchase a first class berth on the next train leaving London, to pay my respects to a woman I had never seen it important enough to visit during the middling period of her life.  It was only at this boundary, at her transgression into the next world, that I was roused to make the long journey to the North.

The speed in which I had had to book my ticket and set off on my journey had left me restless.  I have never been totally comfortable on trains and the squalid and cramped berth the porter had led me to did little to appease my mind. After about twenty minutes of fidgeting I decided to vacate my travelling cell and made my way down to the lounge car for a stiff drink.

The lounge car resembled a slender nineteen seventies bar, fixed in brown with small round tables running along either side of the carriage.  Each table was fitted with a small electric lamp, but only a few had been turned on, leaving the carriage in an artificial glooming.  An old man sat on one of the two leather settees by the door from which I had entered, and a younger couple sat at the far end of the carriage talking in hushed whispers.

I took a seat at the nearest small table, huddling myself against the window and toying with the lamp to turn it on.  The bulb must have blown because no matter how many times I flicked the switch, it remained stubbornly inert.

The clatter of the tracks beneath the rushing train drowned out the voices of the young couple and the old man seemed more intent on his whisky glass than anything else around him.  I felt as alone sat on that small table, as I had done in my berth.  Outside, the landscape was dark.  The lights of the city had melted away and now all I could make out were the vague shapes of fields through the glass.  It was a lonely spot on a sleeping train.  A place to reflect on the big questions that are so often roused in one’s mind when on an errant such as I was.

The waiter, a silent man in stiff clothes, took my order and quickly returned with a double whisky on the rocks.  He said nothing to me, as if in fear of breaking the vacant atmosphere, but gave me a single nod of respect as he placed my glass down.

I’m not sure how long I had been sat there before I was not alone.  It must have been some time because the ice in my whisky glass had all but melted. I was considering getting a refresh when, looking up for the waiter, I noticed the man sitting at my table.

He was older than myself, but not by more than a decade or so, and wore a dishevelled and ill-fitting suit that hung from his body like a sheet tented over a clotheshorse.  I was so startled to find him sat beside me that I did nothing but stare at him.  He returned my look with casual eyes and seemed unwilling to explain himself to me.  His face was puffy, his jowls hanging like a far older man’s, and the wrinkles around his eyes cracked his face like a pane of shattered glass.

Still he did not speak.  The train passed through a tunnel and the sound of the turbulence outside rattled through the carriage. We stared at each other, neither of us moving.

I drained the rest of my whisky and was about to question the man when the waiter appeared efficiently beside me.  I requested a refill and, in a desperate attempt to put our meeting into a standard social situation, I looked enquiringly at the silent man.  He nodded and I ordered a second whisky from the waiter.

“Do you mean a double sir?” said the waiter in a soft Scottish accent that told of many years down south.

“No” I replied, glancing up at the waiter. “Two whiskies, please.”  The waiter then nodded and wandered back to his secluded bar. I fancied that I saw him shake his head in disapproval as he walked away, but I had other things to occupy my mind and so didn’t give it a second thought.

I looked back at my new companion and was about to comment on the waiter’s strange behaviour, but as soon as I felt the man’s soft eyes on mine, words failed me and we resumed our silent communion. His eyes were so dark, they were almost black in colour but with a hint of blue.

The waiter was back within moments and placed the two glasses on the table in front of me, before shrinking away again.  I slid one of the glasses across the table to the man with a lone finger, and he wasted no time in clutching it.  He held it like it was a warm cup of coco on a winter’s day and I felt the hairs on the back of my neck raise as if to a silent command.

“Trains are a peculiar beast.” His words appeared in the carriage like an ice cold wind.  I was so taken aback by his strange opening statement that I could not think of any meaningful response. I took a sip of my whisky to cover my silence and he took this as a signal to continue.

“They slice through the landscape, creating edges where before there was one continuous space.  They take us through civilisation, splitting towns, taking us through people’s back gardens, and yet leave us completely isolated from the rest of the world, in a little box. Totally alone.” He fell silent once more and stared at me, his eyes daring me to contradict him.

“I don’t see how it’s any different to an aeroplane, or even a car.” I replied, feeling myself being drawn in against my will.  The man steepled his fingers over the top of his glass and cocked his head to one side. We rocketed through another tunnel, the sound crashing around us.  He waited for the pop of fresh air until he spoke again.

“In a plane, you are far from the world, tens of thousands of feet away.  Isolation is natural.  In a car, you have the ability to stop whenever you like, wherever you like. The corner shop, a petrol station, a restaurant. Only in a train do you graze so close to civilisation and yet are so cut off from it.  It is a separation equalled by only one other instance.”

My face must have given away my scepticism, for he let out a sigh and glanced around the carriage, leaning in a little closer over the table.  He rested his fragile frame on his elbows and spoke in a soft low voice.

“My uncle was a ghost hunter.  When I was a young boy I used to go with him on his trips, helping him carry his equipment.  It was fun, for a young lad, getting to sleep in creepy old houses and sitting up late into the night with my uncle listening to his tales of past jobs.  It was all just a big game to me.   We never saw anything out of the ordinary and I was sure it was all just a scam that my uncle was running to make money from gullible manor house owners.  That’s what I had thought anyway.

My uncle had been engaged to ‘clean’ a signal box just north of Oxford.  It was on a quiet line, one of those local backwaters which got closed down when the rail systems were privatised.  At the time it had just a single a train rattle past at around midday.  My uncle was unusually silent on the reasons why he’d been hired, but I assumed that the place was apparently haunted by the first signalman or his wife or something along those lines.  The jobs themselves were never the things that interested me, it was the stories and late nights that I enjoyed.”

Our train shot through another tunnel, and I sipped my whisky waiting for the old man to continue.  I was resigned to let the man talk, allowing myself to relax into my chair and letting his voice lull me. His eyes had taken on a sparkle, like the reflection of firelight, and his hands no longer held his whisky glass with as much vigour.

“The signal box was old and looked like it hadn’t been used in years.  It sat on the slope of the railway sidings, its front held up on stilts and an old half rotten wooden staircase climbed from the bank to the door.  A thin, overgrown path led from the stairs along the bank and up towards the road above. It was overgrown with brambles and long grass and it had taken some time for us to force our way through to the signal box.

The train track ran below, arriving in a straight line from the way our path had come but twisting gently round a corner as it continued past the signal box. There was a dip in the railway sidings as the bend curved, showing the path of the old railway junction that the signal box had once served.   That route was now a thicket of bushes and the last remains of the tracks had long since been salvaged.

Inside the signal box, I poked around a few of the antiquated machines for a bit before laying out my sleeping bag in the middle of the room.  The floor was coated in a thin layer of dust and, as I spread my bag out, it billowed into the air causing a thousand dancing particles in our lamp light.

My uncle set about his work, sprinkling water into the four corners of the signal box before drawing a chalk circle around us and scratching some weird letters or symbols around it’s circumference.  I watched him go through his ritual in silence, anticipating what story he would tell me this night.  I should have paid more attention.  If I had done, I would have realised that this was going to be no normal night.  My uncle usually took around thirty minutes to complete his ritual, but this night it was well over an hour before he climbed into his own sleeping bag and turned to me.

I looked at him expectantly.  The lamp light cast long shadows along his craggy features, making him appear older and more care worn.  His eyes had none of the sparkle which they usually gathered as he told his stories and I could see from the way he was curled on the floor that his body was tense.

There was no story that night, no fantastical tale about his exploits, just a singular warning. As he reached between us to turn out our lamp he whispered “stay within the circle.”

The waiter reappeared next to me and silently took my empty glass.  He was gone before I had the wherewithal to order another, and I suddenly became very conscious of my hands, having nothing to occupy them.  I fidgeted in my seat, but the old man seemed to take no notice.

“I woke at some time past midnight, possibly an hour or so before dawn.  The signal box was dark, a small slither of light from the half-moon allowing me to at least see the rough outlines of the leavers and the heavy frame of the door.  I rolled over and closed my eyes, shifting my arm under my head, but there was urgency in my bladder that prevented me from getting back to sleep.  I tossed and turned a few times, before deciding my attempts would be fruitless until I relieved myself.

It would be easy enough now, I suppose, for me to say that my mind was fogged by sleep and I had forgotten my uncle’s words, but that was not the case. Like any young boy, full of spirit, I treated words of caution merely as obstacles to overcome.  Taking great care, I slid my sleeping bag down over my body.  I lay for a moment, only in my underpants, letting the cool night air calm my beating heart.

You understand that it wasn’t ghosts or ghouls that I feared.  I had been with my uncle long enough to form the opinion that they were merely fantasies of over privileged estate owners.  No, it was the anger of my uncle which was keeping my nerves on edge.

I climbed into a crouched position and then slowly raised myself to my feet.  My uncle was sound asleep, his breathing heavy and laboured as always, and he showed no signs of being disturbed.  I walked, one pace at a time, towards the door.  My heart leapt at every creaking floorboard, but before too long my sweating palm was holding the cold metal handle of the door.

Still my uncle slept undisturbed. It must have taken me near to five minutes to cross the couple of metres to the doorway and my bladder was screaming at me. A soft breeze crept from under the door, chilling my naked feet and making my shoulders shiver.  I paused a moment, steeling myself for the cold of the outside, then in as smooth a motion as I could manage, I turned the door handle and stepped through the threshold. My uncle didn’t even stir.

The moonlight gave the steps from the signal box a silver sheen and allowed me just enough light to see my way down.  Instead of following the path at the bottom of the steps, which I knew would lead to thousands of brambles, I pushed my way through the bushes to my left, and stumbled along the siding for awhile until I reached the dip of the old abandoned track.

I had been so focused on the bushes around me and keeping my footing, that it wasn’t until I was relieving myself that I noticed them.

At first they were nothing more than blue pockets of mist, collecting along the sunken track of the railway. They drifted along like ambling gentlemen out for an afternoon stroll. Miniature clouds of dew, sliding along the tracks below me.  As I watched, the pools of mist seemed to gather and bunch.  From what had been a light smoke blue, more colours started to appear, greys and blacks, even the odd glints of gold and ruby reds.  It was like the northern lights sliding below me along the line of the railway tracks.

It was such a beautiful sight, I was pleased I had taken the moment to slip away from the signal box to witness what I thought was a spectacular natural phenomenon. There must have been hundreds of clouds travelling up and down the tracks.  Drifting past each other, sometimes brushing up against each other, but never joining. More colours and intricate patterns kept appearing as I watched.

I had been focusing on the current railway, trying to count how many there were, but as I finished my business I glanced back down to button myself and my eyes crept over the gap in the railway sidings where the old track had once been.  Coming through the thicket, as if nothing were there, were more of the bunched pockets of mist.  They were much closer to me then the ones drifting along the current track.  As I watched, one drifted through a bush not more than a metre from where I stood and I could see it in far more clarity.  It wasn’t a cloud. It wasn’t a pocket of mist.  I could see now the fine tailoring, I could see the arms, the legs, the fingers, the hair.  It was a man, the shape of a man made from air.

I let out a yelp of surprise and the figure turned its head towards me.

His face was like the rest of him, detailed as any man’s but lit in a light blue glow that made him feel vaguely transparent.  If you had seen him walking down the street, you may not even have noticed he was anything other than an ordinary man.  Unless you had seen his eyes.

His eyes were dark sockets.  Black balls with a single prick of deep navy blue at their centre.  I could feel them on me, crawling on me like a thousand ants, pricking every hair on my body.  He stared at me with such force.  It was like the stare of a lover deep into your eyes, touching your inner core, touching every part of you, but unlike a lover, there was nothing but hate glowing from him.

The figure opened a mouth, wisps of mist tricking from his upper lip down to his chin, and let out the screech of a soaring eagle.  Immediately an eruption of similar yells echoed down the railway tracks.  It was the call from the other side.  The voice of the unknown world.  And it was angry.

Despite this, my legs would not move.  The transition from the beauty of colourful pockets of drifting mist, to screeching banshees of the netherworld was so subtle that my body and mind was still trying to catch up with what had happened.

The calls of hate continued around me, like the excited calls of a flock of sea birds as a trawler heads in to port.  Like the call of vultures as they circle above a dying wilder beast.  Like the call of hyenas as they close in upon an injured gazelle.  And still I could not move my legs.

The spectres had all turned to look at me, but none had moved yet.  They were all watching me, waiting for me to play my hand.  There were thousands of them now, like a packed market street, the railway line below me was a sea of faces staring at me.  Black eyes piercing into me and pinning me to the earth.  My brow was damp with sweat, causing the cold night air to sit heavily against me, and I could feel the siding beneath my feet sway and buck in the storm of yells.  I wanted to move, but I could not, my body would not let me escape.

Through the darkness behind me came a loud thunk of wood on wood, and then I heard my uncles voice calling my name.  It was like his words were a key in the lock, everything clicked and I started to run.  I let out a yell and I heard another call in reply.

As I ran I felt the shapes from below stream up the bank towards me.  I couldn’t see them as I ran through the bushes, but I could hear the delighted howls of wolves on the prowl as I fought my way through the undergrowth towards my uncles warming shouts.

My breath was burning in my throat within seconds and every step I took I felt like my feet were going to slide out beneath me.  Branches whipped against my naked torso, tearing at my skin and dragging blood from within me. Rocks and stones disappeared from under my feet down the slope towards the railway tracks, and yells and screeches came back up, always closer, forever getting closer.

I have never been gripped with so much certainty about my impending death as at that moment.  It felt like hours, although it was possibly no longer than a minute, before I pushed through the final curtain of branches and landed in my uncles arms.  His strong muscles closed around me and I felt him kiss my forehead before he released me and thrust me behind him, yelling at me to return into the signal box.

I scrambled up the stairs, watching as he backed slowly with me.  He was chanting something, muttering some words under his breath that I couldn’t hear, but as he said them the yells and cries of the beasts in the bushes seemed more distant and they cut into my inner being with less ferocity.

Once inside, I dived into my sleeping bag and cowered within it.  I didn’t stir as I heard the door of the signal box close, or the grip of my uncles arms around my waist.  He didn’t say a word to me, he didn’t chastise me for leaving the circle or ask if I were all right, he just continued to chant some words in a language unknown to me.  Outside, I could hear scratchings against the wood of the signal box, and the occasional howl bounded into the small room, but I never saw any sign of the spectres again.

The next day, my uncle carried me from the signal box, but he never spoke of the nights horrors.  He retired shortly afterwards and he never took me on a job again.  I was thankful for that.”

The old man fell silent, and I realised that I had been gripping the top of the table as he had finished his story.  My knuckles were white and I wished that I had ordered another whisky when I had had the chance.

The old man smiled at me and steepled his fingers over the whisky glass once more.

“You see,” he continued, “railway tracks are boundaries, dividing lines.  It is in the human spirit to congregate at these points.  It is human spirit to stay at the edge.”  As he finished saying these words he had stood up, and without anything else he wandered down the lounge carriage.  I glanced down at his untouched whisky, then looked back up at him.  He was gone, the carriage walkway was empty and there was no sign of him. I took a deep breath, thankful to be alone once more, and grabbed at the man’s drink.

Outside the train soared past a small village and the few lights that shone out from the station flashed through the window.  Out of reach. It is a simple fact of human nature that we place more reverence with the edge of things than their centre.  It is the extremities which rouse us to action, the threshold between the known and the unknown.  We settle by rivers and coastlines, we are excited by frontiers in both the physical and mental realms, and, most of all, we congregate at births and deaths. Could it be possible that the latter is no obstacle to this desire?


3 Responses to “21:15 to Fort William”

  1. Absolutely wonderful! Your writing is powerful, evocative and has that special subtlety and ambiguity that MR James mastered in. I think we have a sub-genre in common…


    Regards, Paul


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