In my idle hours today I stumbled across The Daily Telegraph’s ghost story writing competition. I decided to while away my time contributing an entry, but had little idea what I wanted to do, other than something different. The result of my endeavours I entered into the competition, but I suspect it is nowhere near as cleverly composed and close to the original genre as required. I wanted to challenge the idea in the article by the Head Judge that comedy kills a ghost story, but my efforts may prove her right. I think the tension builds a bit too slowly and in the wrong places and the finale is rushed. But I like some of it and will post it here as evidence of my development and boredom
“May I sit here?”
“Excuse me, may I sit down?”
“Oh yes…ah, sorry. Of course.”
He was reading, wading through the thickets of what looked like a cross between an ageing government dossier and an academic paper. Thumbing down the page, he let the bulky scroll slap onto the table and hoisted his bag, a rustic looking holdall bursting at the seams, with a solitary wire peering out from within like a periscope or antennae, onto the seat next to him. I shuffled gratefully into the vacated space. I commenced a brief wriggling and squirming search for comfort. Ritual complete, I fixed my new companion of circumstance with my widest polite grin. His eyebrows flicked briefly in acknowledgement before darting back down to the task at hand. I remember thinking that he resembled Father Christmas on a business trip, a tedious contractual quest for toys that sucked the joy out of his life’s passion. Or Dickie Attenborough in Jurassic Park. Funny that even then his kindly, disinterested face had monstrous associations.
I didn’t so much as glance at the man with the white beard sitting across from me, with the mysterious bag and endless reams of type, for the next hour and a half or so. Once or twice I sensed him slowly twirling his neck in my peripheries but for the most part I was absorbed in my marking and he in his mammoth read. I had only bothered the poor guy, for that’s all he was to me then, a stranger I had briefly inconvenienced, so I could use the table to mark my lower sixth’s Crimea essays. I should have done them days ago but had got caught up in her company, as usual. It was typical of me lately to have left things for a last minute slog on the train, but at that moment I didn’t much care. I scrawled my half-thoughts in the margin, racing to finish and bathe fully in recollections of the weekend. I was oblivious to the gradually darkening sky outside and the black clouds amassing in the distance. I didn’t watch as the night was born prematurely of a congealed, thickening, all consuming blob that would quickly engulf the train galloping towards its jaws. I was blissfully unaware of the twitching forks of lightning flashing electric blue warning signals on the horizon. I did not then regard him or his eccentric belongings as suspicious. I did not regard him at all.
The next thing I knew the carriage’s sickening sway had jerked me awake. Shamefully my head was lolling lifeless on my shoulder, oozing an indulgent drool. The last essay lay untouched on the table in front of me. I wiped the slobber on the back of my hand and scrunched the sleep from my eyes. He was hastily stuffing wires back into his bag, snatching glances at me from the corners of his eyes. I observed him groggily in the black sheet that used to be the window. Total, absolute night had fallen during my slumber. The never-ending blackness was only interrupted by the occasional shaft of sinister blue, winking at me, warning me again. Again I was ignorant; choosing instead to gaze dreamily at the distant amber twinkle of streetlights, rendered a blur by the patchwork of water droplets. He was reading again, deep in thought. A frown furrowed his forehead as I watched his reflection in the mirror of night.
The wobble of the carriage really was unusually vigorous. So I was relieved when the automated squawk of an announcement about suspicious bags was interrupted by the neutral, but alive, voice of the on duty guard. He said something about stopping at the next station for maintenance in a barely audible mutter, laced with boredom and tiredness. I looked briefly about the carriage to find empty seats everywhere. The poor guy must know how few passengers he was addressing and how few were left awake to care what he was saying. I briefly considered hopping across the aisle to the now completely vacant table opposite. But my unintended sleep made this more awkward than staying put, I thought. The wind howled.
The promised pit stop seemed to stretch on and on. At first I was curious, then concerned, about a series of loud bangs and jolts that didn’t normally accompany such maintenance in my experience. Dickie too, was bothered; even pushing aside his report or whatever it was, going all alert like a Meerkat. Still though no words were spoken. Eventually sleep crept up on me again, tempting me to embrace the boredom and the rhythmic, soundless splashing of water visible through the gloom on the platform.
This time I woke up dying for a piss. We were no longer stopped. In fact we seemed to be hurtling through the blackness, the whole carriage snaking to the sounds of a gale. I think he was reading as I staggered past him to the WC, but now I’m not so sure. He might have already started. On reaching the toilet I find a makeshift “OUT OF ORDER” notice plastered across it. For some reason I decide it would be embarrassing to retreat past Dickie to the other end of the carriage and the other WC, so I head onward to the next carriage and salvation on the horizon. I considered simply going back to my seat, but I literally felt as if I was about to burst. I jabbed a finger impatiently at the button for the door to the next carriage. The doors didn’t open and the darkness beyond yawned at me through the glass as I hopped and jigged on the spot, frantically pushing the button and then scrambling ineffectively at the join in the door. I wheeled around in a complete circle; no one around to help, no one official. Suddenly the intensity of the blackness in the empty, unreachable next carriage struck me as odd. I peered through the glass at the rows of red seats shrouded in gloom, all the while shaking stupidly. Was there something wrong? Something going on here?
I walked briskly back into our carriage, Dickie now the solitary occupant. He had definitely stopped reading by this point and he had his wires out. This time there was no attempt to hide the contraption he cradled on his lap. The luminous green digits on the carriage clock had faded out to almost nothing, with the exception of a “1” and a “7”, which flashed on and off every few seconds, broadcasting the message “17”. Despite my still swelling bladder, I can’t help but stand rooted to the spot, transfixed by this. I hadn’t been following the time, but I’m sure it must have been approaching midnight when I got up for the toilet. I still needed the toilet. This basic urge and the spectacle of the clock meant I didn’t hear Dickie speaking.
“Spooky isn’t it.”
At first I ignore him and make to head off down the carriage towards the other toilet, but something held me back. I didn’t want to be alone. So I flopped, no for fear of an embarrassing mishap I eased myself back into my seat, and indicated his pages and pages of text.
“Quite the mountain you’re climbing.”
“Oh this? It’s alright really; I’ve read it all before but needed to recap some things. I might have missed something important…”
His voice trailed off. I was about to ask what exactly he was reading when he spoke again, raising his eyes from the device he was fiddling with for the first time.
“You went to the toilet and it was out of order.”
“Yes…” full marks Dickie, I thought.
“Would you like to know why it was out of order? Why so many things have been malfunctioning, why they’ve discretely cordoned off these three carriages, why it feels so cold, why the power fluctuations? Why the number seventeen?”
He reeled off these enticing questions not with any air of mystery or power, but with one of indifference, whilst he went back to manoeuvring wires and turning a large dial at the centre of his gadget, his toy, his gizmo.
“How can you…? Do you work for the train company? Did I miss an announcement? The number is just a coincidence…”
“Oh no it’s all connected. And I work for humanity.”
“That is to say for the good of mankind. For its protection.”
I stared at him blankly. I still needed to pee and didn’t have time for this old guy’s games. Just my luck, Dickie was insane. Bad choice for a partner in a power cut. I started to get up with the intention of finally relieving myself in the other toilet. I told myself to man up and get over my stupid irrational fear of the lonely rattling murk.
“A paedophile slashed his wrists in that toilet almost six months ago and this train has been plagued with problems ever since. It’s riddled with faults. They refuse to admit that the issue is supernatural. I’ve told them again and again they would need my help. The number just confirms it.”
“What!? What are you…?”
Dickie wasn’t finished.
“His case notes show that the deceased consistently claimed that the girl he raped and later murdered, claimed she was seventeen years of age. She was eleven.”
I had frozen in the aisle. Dickie was sick, I thought. Could Dickie, I wondered, also be dangerous? At that moment the dial on his blob of wires clicked loudly into place. My whole frame shuddered involuntarily. Dickie twisted the dial and a high pitched beeping began.
“Yep. He’s here.”
The remaining lights went out.
I’m pretty sure a lot of what happened after that is still suppressed somewhere in my mind. She keeps telling me I should get some therapy to sort it out. But why inflict that on a therapist? They’d either label me insane or join me in the madhouse if they truly understood. I don’t understand what happened, neither could they. Why spread the misery? I do remember Dickie telling me not to move. For quite a while I remember him urging me, in a low, gentle voice, how imperative it was not to move, not to disturb his “zone”, not to anger him. Then the monologue began.
It was definitely Dickie’s voice doing all that ranting and raving, and yet it was not Dickie’s voice. Every now and then what sounded like the real Dickie would break through and manage to say something to interrupt the flow in a choking, rasping croak. Distressingly though whenever it did really sound like him, he simply reiterated the same unhelpful advice; do not move. I wanted to run and keep running. I remember staring at the only source of light left; that blinking 17, trying to block out the tortured tale emanating from Dickie’s body, which I could feel writhing in its possessed state over my shoulder. My natural defences have done a reasonably good job of deleting that twisted monologue, but certain phrases still come to me at night in dreams, vivid and alive like he were whispering in my ear. Then I wake up, sticky and warm all over with sweat. And in my half-awake, half-asleep state, I imagine I am covered in blood, his hot, dirty, vile blood in that clattering WC. Then I vomit and an attendant comes in with a mop.
I really wish I could remember how Dickie came to be on top of me, covered in blood, a cold corpse. How the window came to be smashed, how his beeping gizmo had vanished. How the howling tube, speeding through the storm, came to be serenely waiting at the platform, undamaged, unblemished. How the knife got into my pocket, covered in my DNA, my fingerprints, Dickie’s blood. But I don’t need counselling, therapy doesn’t work and I don’t believe in ghosts.