Today's Story by Derek Thompson

“May I speak with you in private, sir?”

Night Train

We were strangers on the train, staring blankly at the dark glass, reflected in ebony sheets of remembrance. If I pressed my face to the pane, I could tell we were rushing by. But apart from a pale, flickering shadow on the window, we were nowhere.

No one spoke at first, too awkward among strangers I suppose. Then a woman searched in her bag and offered some sandwiches across. Polite conversation ensued. It was as if we had discovered the power of speech, testing our voices in low, hallowed whispers. I didn’t notice at the time that nobody ventured their name, but that was the first clue.

How do you judge a voyage without daylight? Time holds no power in darkness – a minute, an hour, a lifetime? As we talked on, the mood raised itself to one of conviviality. In the far corner of our carriage, a family began to sing songs, clapping their hands to a familiar childhood ballad, breaking sharply from their revelry as the wooden door unlatched.

The conductor passed silently through the carriage, pausing here and there to hold the paper slips high against his lantern before returning them with a purposeful nod. But for all our merriment, something of his somber nature trailed him like a shadow and when he arrived at my seat I shrank in his gaze.

“Good sir” I forced myself to a cheery voice; “Can you tell me, is our train on time?”

He looked at me over the rim of his ancient glasses, and then back at my ticket, as if I had disturbed his lassitude. Those onyx eyes diminished for but a second yet I saw all too readily how he questioned my presence aboard. Finally, reluctantly, he approved my ticket as valid for travel and cast an oaken glance back at me as he walked at a measured pace to deliver his small service to my companions.

Other passengers drifted in to join our scattered throng, each untroubled by the lack of amenity, and each a welcome addition to our party. Never had I heard such a wealth of discussion and exchange of ideas.

Our host returned on a second trawl through the carriage, and reviewed my docket again. This time his gaze was less guarded, his grey face crinkling at the edges as he wrestled with an enigma.

He shook his head meaningfully, save that the meaning eluded me still.

“May I speak with you in private, sir?”

His words, though couched in hushed tones, conveyed so dire a sense of importance that I immediately left my companions and followed him to another part of the train.

“The thing is, sir, you appear to be on the wrong train.”

For the first time I saw lines of tension in the lantern glare, and if I were to need further convincing, I could no longer hear the laughter and merriment I had left behind.

The fellow outlined a plan of his own devising, a scheme which disturbed me to the core. Since the train could in no way be greatly delayed, the conductor had taken the good measure of calling on ahead and arranging for the train to reduce to a crawl, allowing me to disembark at a suitable port of call. He assured me any danger in the procedure was minimal – a small risk besides the inconvenience to the other legitimate passengers. If I tell you I agreed, it would indicate some measure of choice in the matter, which is assuredly not the case. Let me simply say that I took one harrowing look at those dark pools of emptiness, and prepared myself for a literal step into the unknown.

The train slowed to a grinding tremor and the conductor stood beside me at the doorframe, ready. A black shadowy mass crept towards us as the station platform approached.

“Farewell sir, and Godspeed you on your journey,” The fellow told me, putting forward an arm to assist me as I gripped the door-handle.

It moved lightly, so lightly in fact that had it not been for his sturdy arm (which I mistook at first for gentle persuasion) I would have overbalanced altogether and tumbled out. As it was, my feet found the comforting shingle of gravel, which moved to accommodate me in murmurs of indefinable patience. My task met, the conductor reached forward and pulled the door to, tapping his hat to me generously as he closed the door against me.

I stood, utterly alone, watching the train lights retreat into the darkness.

The stationmaster’s office shone like a beacon at the far end of the platform, and I made my way towards it, masking my apprehension in solid footholds of stone.

The unlocked door yielded without pressure, which in my strange night foray came as no surprise. Inside, a fire crackled in welcome, and for the first time on that long night I was weary for warmth. I entered the room with less fear than perhaps I ought to have felt in a stranger’s domain, and crouched by the flames.

I found a waiting seat and must surely have dozed, for when I opened my eyes I was in my hearth chair at home, a farewell note from my dearest Charlotte crumpled at my side. An empty bottle lay at my feet and the remnants of powders upon my kerchief. Had I dreamed in my turmoil, and in dreaming chosen life over death? I cannot say for certain. I only know that I clung to life that night, my heart’s blood roaring deep as any furnace. And I came to realize that however alone I felt in this world, death without companionship is a far lonelier business.


Derek Thompson writes articles, comedy and fiction. He blogs at Along The Write Lines.


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