Going Back

......Phew! Only just made it. Another couple of minutes and I'd have been left standing at the platform. Ten o'clock - bang on time. Very unusual for British Rail.
Now, where's my seat?
......C8, C10... Ah, here it is: C12.
......I seem to have a travelling companion. He doesn't look over-cheerful, though - downright sour-faced, in fact. Very forbidding. Still, I may as well make an effort: "Morning..."
......Miserable sod! He just looked straight through me. You try to be civil and what do you get? A blank, stony stare. I was only bidding him good morning, not asking him to commit himself to a lifelong, meaningful friendship.
......Look at him. He's still staring at me. I've seen more expressive eyes on a fishmonger's slab. I hope he's not going to keep it up for the entire journey - he's giving me the willies.
......Smiling at him doesn't work either. Not a flicker of acknowledgement. He keeps right on staring straight ahead as if I wasn't here - as if I were invisible. I'll just have to try to ignore him.
......I'll just read my paper: hide myself behind a wall of newsprint and pretend he's not there.
......Full of bad news as usual. They're still talking about last week's derailment. All those people dead: horribly crushed and mangled, and not one single survivor left to tell the tale. How terrible.
......He's still staring at me. I can feel his eyes boring through the paper. I wonder if I can sit somewhere else? Probably not. This seat was reserved for me; I suppose it would cock up some complicated system if I moved to another.
......Still, I don't fancy sitting opposite fisheyes for the duration of the journey. There are plenty of empty seats... I wonder? No, better not, they're probably reserved for people getting on at other stations. I suppose I'll have to put up with him. It's a pity you can't choose your travelling companion when you reserve your seat.
......They've printed a list of the dead: 247 names, all in alphabetical order. Names, just names. Squiggles of ink on cheap paper - that's all they are now. They used to be people, human beings. They had lives and hopes and dreams; they meant something to other people. Now look at them: a column in a newspaper, a catalogue of lost lives for vultures to drool over.
......Christ! This bloke is really getting to me. I don't think he's moved a fraction since I sat down opposite him; not even blinked so much as an eyelid. I'll be as rude as him; stare back at him over the paper, that'll make him look away.
......I feel like a schoolboy having a staring-out contest with the class bully. This is childish: just like when I was a kid I don't want to be the first one to look away - I'll have lost if I do.
......He's a weird-looking fellow, that's for sure. So pale. Ashen, that's a good word for him; white as a ghost. And his eyes, so wide and staring and fixed. He looks like he's in shock. There's certainly something wrong with him, anyway. He's definitely not normal - normal people don't sit across from you on a train and stare at you like you're a two-legged television set.
......Perhaps I shouldn't be staring at him like this? I mean, he might be deranged or something - not right in the head. If that's the case, he might suddenly decide to jump on me.
......Christ! He might be a homicidal maniac!
......Oh shut up, Tony. He's probably completely harmless. You're just making excuses. You can't stare him out - you were never any good at it at school, either, so you're inventing honourable reasons for backing down.
......Do you remember Bernie Bridges? Now he could really stare people out. He had it down to a fine art. He must have practised in a mirror; no one could stare like he did without dedicated training. Thirty seconds was about all I could ever manage against him.
......Mind you, this chap would have beaten Bernie hands down. He could stare-out for Britain - he's probably got medals for it. Wow, I'm sitting on a train with the World Champion Starer. I should ask him for his autograph: "Excuse me. I wonder if you'd mind... This isn't for me you understand, but for my young nephew..."
......Shut up, Tony. He must be making you nervous - you nearly giggled out loud just then. Look away from him or you'll be imagining all sorts of crazy stuff.
......We're picking up speed now; soon have left Stella far behind. I thought I'd never get away from her. It's a wonder she didn't lock me in her flat - so desperate was she for me to stay.
......Christ, what a clinger!
......I wonder how fast we're going? The scenery is rushing by at a fair old lick now. These intercity trains reach over a hundred miles an hour - can't be far off that now.
......It's hard to believe now: that a one-night stand could turn into a fortnight of virtual captivity.
......How did it happen?
......I went up North to try to get some work - so much for Mick's tip that there were plenty of jobs in my line there. What did I get? Zilch! I'll not take notice of him again. But I did get something, didn't I? Stella. On the very last night, when I'd given it up for a waste of time and decided to drown my sorrows in a few pints before I set off back home.
......There she was, all innocent and demure and... and so lovely, sitting in that grotty little pub all by herself.
......You should have known girls don't usually drink on their own.
......Not your average girl, anyway.
......You couldn't resist it, could you? She looked so lonely and defenceless. And when she smiled at you... that shy little smile that somehow lit up her whole face... you just had to go over to her.
......All she said was, "Can I buy you a drink?" and you were hooked. Before you knew it you were back at her place. You thought your luck was in at last: a cosy, no-strings night of passion with a very willing participant to wipe away the disappointments and frustrations of pointlessly wandering streets as work-starved as those back home...
......"Excuse me, do you mind not staring?"
......I don't believe this! There's something seriously wrong with this bloke. Even when I confront him outright it makes no difference. He still sits there like a tailor's dummy gawping with those vacant eyes. I can't stand it.
......"Look, I have to say that I think you're extremely rude. Didn't anybody ever tell you it's not nice to stare? If you don't stop it I'll..."
......This is incredible! He didn't even flinch.
......I've had enough. I'm moving to another seat.
......There, that's better. A whole section of the train to myself, room to stretch my legs and no demented idiot staring at me. Until some interfering guard comes and tells me I shouldn't be sitting here, that is. Oh well - enjoy it while you can.
......We're really moving now, fairly eating up the miles. The scenery is flying past. Funny how as we go forward the outside world seems to go backwards. It's almost as if time itself is going backwards; as if we're not travelling across distance but reversing the clock.
......I can't say I've noticed that effect before, but that's the impression I'm getting now. That tree next to the line, for instance, it suddenly appeared at my side, was present in every detail for a moment, and is now dwindling to the rear of the train and will soon disappear. There it goes: vanished from sight as if it only existed for a brief span. Or, more correctly, is going to exist. Because, if time is going backwards, then the tree has gone off into the future where it will exist in some time yet to come.
......You get some weird ideas, Tony. As if time can go backwards. What a crazy notion! Anyway, if I were to sit with my back to the engine then it would have the opposite effect: it would be as if time was speeding forward and I with it.
......You're going to boggle your brain if you keep thinking that way - Stevenson invented trains, not H. G. Wells. Time I brought myself to the real world... Where's my paper? Oh shit, I've left it on the other seat with Goggle-Eyes.
......Well, are you going to get it, or what? Or are you going to sit here twiddling your thumbs because you're suddenly too nervous about approaching the Mad Starer again that you daren't even claim your own property?
......Oh sod this, he's only a harmless imbecile; he can't hurt you. Up you get. There it is, still on the seat where you left it. Just get the paper and go back without looking at him...
......God! He's still in exactly the same position: sitting immobile and staring straight in front of him. He hasn't moved an inch. There's definitely something wrong with him... I wonder if I should tell someone?
......No way! Why should I get involved? If he chooses to sit like a stuffed dummy it's his business; not mine.
......Now where was I? Oh yes, last week's derailment. To think: I could have been on that train - should have been. If it hadn't been for Stella I would have been. I had a seat reserved on it and fully intended to be sitting in it. If she hadn't persuaded me otherwise they would have had to drag my mangled body from the wreckage.
......Persuade is the wrong word. Lure and seduce, wheedle and beg are better ones. I've never known a woman so limpet-like, so desperate. All I wanted was a single night of solace and no complications. But not her, she wanted more - too much more. She would not let go.
......Oh it was flattering at first: to have someone so lovely be so attentive, so all over me. Oh yes, I enjoyed it: her treating me as if I was the most special person in the world. She couldn't get enough of me. One night turned into two then, before I knew where I was, it had become a week.
......It was then it began to pall, to become too much. Suddenly she wasn't so lovely anymore: there were lines on her face that I hadn't noticed before, her skin wasn't so soft and clear, and the figure I thought so perfect sagged and creased. Worst of all, she became cloying, suffocating.
......I couldn't breathe. What had been hot embraces were strangleholds; what had been passion was predatory greed. It was like she wanted to suck the life out of me and use it for herself.
......I had to get away. I reserved a seat on the train, the one that went off the rails, told her I was going. There were tears and promises: she would give me space; do anything for me. I didn't get the train. She made me feel so guilty: perhaps I'd been wrong - no one could cry like that without being deeply hurt.
......And then it was like at the start: she was lovely and loving again and I didn't care about anything. I didn't even cancel the reservation. Then her claws came out, and the ropes and chains - not real ones, though they may as well have been. I felt bound and tied once more, imprisoned, enslaved. I should have caught that train. Another week passed and it was much harder to leave. This time she didn't helplessly cry, but screamed and threatened, insulted and humiliated. I virtually fled from her.
......So here I am, going back at last to sane old humdrum London - free. It's odd how things work out: staying another week with Stella against my better judgement probably saved my life. If I'd been stronger I would have been on that train and they might well be writing about me in this paper. Instead I'm alive and well one week later and being whisked across the country towards home.
......Strangely enough, this is the same day the derailment happened; not only that, but it was the 10 o'clock too. Come to think of it: this could even be the exact same train, were it not lying at the bottom of a steep embankment smashed to pieces.
......You had a very lucky escape, my boy. If it hadn't been for Stella...
......If it hadn't been for Stella you'd have been back home a week before the disaster. You don't owe her anything; so don't be going all dewy-eyed now.
......A week on, and everything's back to normal. The line's open again and the trains are running as if nothing ever happened. Nothing to show that over 200 people have lost their lives. Nothing but this alphabetical list of names and ages.
......Hang on; I know that name. J. Arbuthnot, 45 - now where do I know it from? It's not a common name and I don't think I've ever met anybody called it, yet it rings a bell. Funny, I'm sure I've seen it recently.
......So many names.
......Now this is really weird! There's a name I certainly recognise - because it's mine! T. Driver - even the age matches: 27. That's a bit of a coincidence - especially when I was supposed to be on the train.
......That's the answer, though, isn't it? I was supposed to be on it. I never cancelled my reservation, so they've got my name from the passenger list and assumed I was on board.
......I'm presumed dead! Anyone back home reading this will think it's true; they could be mourning me at this very moment. They'll get a shock when I turn up live and kicking.
......Dead. The late Tony Driver. It doesn't bear thinking about - it was so nearly the case. If I'd caught that train...
......You didn't. You're alive and soon everybody will know it. Still, it gives me the creeps to think how close I came.
......Don't think about it. Finish this piece and do the crossword.
......Apparently the derailment was due to the brakes being faulty. It probably wouldn't have occurred under ordinary circumstances; the train would have slowed down when they were applied. But, for some unknown reason, somebody pulled the communication cord. The train was going at full speed; the line was icy; the brakes locked... and the rest is history.
......It must have been terrifying rolling over and over down that embankment; trapped in a steel tube; unable to escape; knowing you were going to be smashed to bits. What a horrible way to go.
......Wait a minute! This is a mistake surely. It says here that the line hasn't been reopened yet, that repairs are still being carried out and the wreckage removed.
......How can that be? The line is open; this train is running on it. Useless paper. I don't know why I buy it, it never gets its facts right. I mean, they've got me down as dead when I'm not; though closeted up with Stella for the last two weeks, for all anybody knows I am.
......Two weeks. It's like a chunk out of my life. Anything could have happened out there in the world and I wouldn't be aware of it. It's amazing how soon you lose touch with things when you're separated from TV and radio for a while and not being fed a constant diet of news. I only heard about the derailment when Stella told me of it, and that to let me know how lucky I was not to have left her when I first planned.
......I wonder how she knew of it? We spent most of the time in her bedroom; hardly the hub of worldwide communications, yet she was able to tell me all the details. Maybe she's got psychic powers. Who knows? Who cares?
......That name, J. Arbuthnot, keeps niggling me. Where have I heard it before? None of my friends are called that; yet it seems so familiar. It's so annoying when that happens: it's like when you know the solution to a crossword clue but just can't call it forth. The answer is not to think about it too deeply - it's bound to come to me.
......We must be at top speed now: the click-clack of the wheels has merged into a smooth rushing sound and the scenery outside is whizzing past like a video being rewound. If time were going backwards I wonder what rate it would be going at? A minute a second? An hour a minute? A day an hour?
......Just think, if I stayed on this train long enough I could go back to the day I was born. Imagine that: I'd actually get younger and younger until I ceased to exist at all. No- I'd stay the same age, but all my life would unwind; everything I've done would be undone; everything I've said would be unsaid. I could start all over again with a clean slate. Then again, knowing my luck, I'd probably end up doing all the same things over again: meet Stella; get on this train and go back to the beginning to repeat it all over and over forever. What a dreadful thought - especially the part about having to endure Stella at regular intervals for eternity.
......I'm bored. I must be to be getting all these nutty ideas. I think I'll have a walk to the buffet car and have a drink.
......My legs have seized up from sitting. Nice to stretch them. Shall I take the paper? No, I'll leave it here...
......J. Arbuthnot... J. Arbuthnot...
......Hold on! No, it can't be. Goggle Eyes... No, it's too much of a coincidence.
......But yet... When I was sat opposite him, when I was trying to avoid his eyes, there on his reservation card fastened to his seat - didn't I see his name? And wasn't it..?
......I've got to check. All I have to do is go to his seat and look. I'll just walk over casually. I wonder why I suddenly feel nervous of going near him? He never made a move before; why should he now?
......Don't stand here dithering; he won't hurt you. That's it: one foot in front of the other. Here he is: still sat like a zombie...
......"Oh Christ, I'm sorry. I didn't mean... The train jerked - I tripped. Are you alright?"
......God, he's flat out on the seat. I only fell onto him gently - hardly touched him. Certainly not enough to knock him over.
......"Are you alright?"
......Why doesn't he get up?
......"Here, let me help you. I must have fallen harder than I thought. Up you get, mate..."
......Sod me! What's wrong with him? He's a dead weight.
......Shit! What's this? His legs are all smashed up. There's blood all under the table - a big pool of it - I didn't see that before. Did I do that? Don't be an idiot! I couldn't have caused so much damage just knocking him over... But what..?
......"Hey! Come on!"
......What am I supposed to do? Slap his face? Shake him?
......Pulse. Where's his pulse..?
......Shit, I can't find it, and he's cold - icy cold.
......Christ Almighty! He's dead. Stone cold dead.
......Got to get some help... Hang on - I knew it. I knew I'd seen that name recently. There, on his reservation card - J. Arbuthnot. What the hell's happening here?
......Got to get somebody.
......Run! Run to the back of the train. Get the guard.
......Other passengers here, sat like statues... Get them to do something: "Hey, you. Help me. There's somebody injured down there..."
......Oh good God. Another one. Just propped up in the seat - all smashed up like a broken doll. What is this?
......And another. Bloody hell. She's lost her arm.
......Got to get to the guard.
......Through the next carriage.
......There are more people in here. Maybe one of them can help. Maybe one of them knows what's going on.
......Oh God, no. I can't stand this! They're all the same. All dead. All mangled and bloody. It's like an abattoir.
......Look in the next carriage. Oh no, no!
......Got to get off this train. Got to stop it. I'll go mad... Where's the communication cord?
......Not a cord - a lever in a box. Got to smash the glass.
......God, what a noise. Brakes screeching like ten thousand pieces of chalk on a blackboard, carriages banging together, things being thrown around.
......Slow down. Slow down. Why isn't it slowing? It should be slowing now.
......Can't keep my feet. Being thrown all over. What's wrong?
......Slow down!
......The noise has changed - not screeching... We've stopped!
......Going up in the air.
......Over and over.
......Screaming metal.
......Flying glass.
......Flying bodies.
......Oh the pain.
......I can't stand it.
......Please make it stop.

Copyright Scorpio Tales 1994. All rights reserved.

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