The Night Train
“It’s gonna take you ‘way, just don’t get on that Night Train…”
The sing-song voice echoed along the tiled walls of the near-deserted Underground station. The voice was that of one of the homeless who sometimes squatted the benches here. At least he looked like one. He was gently rocking backwards and forwards as he wailed.
I slipped my arms round Mary’s shoulders and moved her further along the chewing-gun speckled platform. She gripped my wrist more tightly. Usually when I had to accompany my sister somewhere, we took the bus, but today the traffic above was beyond chaotic, and that was before you took into account the changes of bus needed to get us across town.
As we walked away I heard for the last time what the guy on the bench was murmuring: “Whatever you do, stay off of that Night Train…”
For years afterwards those words haunted me whenever I waited, late at night, on an empty platform. Their simple evocative power sent shivers up my spine, and goose pimples prickled on my arms. That is, until the night when I found myself running along the corridor to the platform.
The buzzer sounded. The doors were about to close. The posters and stickers all over the place said you were not supposed to get on the train in that case. Wait for the next one, they said. Except that this was fine during the rush hours when trains rolled in every few minutes. But late at night, you could easily wait for a quarter of an hour, sometimes longer.
I sprinted forwards, and then leapt, propelling myself inside, the jaws just closing on my heel.
I picked myself up as the doors clicked shut.
The train lurched forwards and I grabbed hold as I nearly fell again. The black hole of the tunnel enveloped us.
Before I even had time to sit down the door at the end of the compartment opened with a rattle and a bang. A man in a rather scruffy dark blue uniform dotted with brass buttons and badges entered. For a moment, the sound of the wheels clacking over the rails filled the air. Then he slammed the door, locking it with some device at the end of a chain that he pocketed before turning to the other passengers.
“Tickets, please!” he called, over the muted rumblings and clankings of the train. “Hurry up please, I haven’t got all night!” he added, rather brusquely.
This was curious on a number of points: not only did these doors only serve in emergencies — it was written on the notice that I had read many a time during particularly boring journeys — but I have never seen a Ticket Inspector use it. Also, they tended to operate in groups and get on from the platforms.
The passengers in the carriage reached into pockets and bags, and started holding things up and waving them. But again, these didn’t look like tickets: one old man was held up a book; a couple were holding a sheaf of papers. I saw what looked like a chewing gum wrapper, and a business card too.
The Inspector walked down the aisle towards me, looking and nodding at the disparate collection of papers and objects.
Suddenly he pounced on a young man about my age, and pulled him up by his ear.
“Ha!” he exclaimed. “Thought I wouldn’t notice did you?”
The man looked sickly and ill at ease as he writhed in the Inspector’s grip. His shifty dark eyes seemed to be scanning the other passengers, trying to catch someone else’s eyes and summon help.
Quickly I looked away, wishing I had brought a book, or one of the free newspapers that were always lying around.
The man fell to his knees as the Inspector tightened his hold.
“Control! Hello!” the Inspector said to some sort of radio that crackled and hissed as he held it up to his face. “I’ve caught one! Come in Control!” The radio just hissed as he shook it. “Damn gadgets! Always breaking down when you need them,” he said to no-one in particular.
He pocketed the radio, and one-handedly tapped his pockets.
“Don’t you even think of giving me any more trouble!” he said to the man squirming at his knees. “Ah, here we are!”
He swung the man around, and I saw him handcuffing a wrist to one of the rails along the back of a chair. As he did this, his eyes swept over the carriage like a beacon. I inspected the marks left by chewing gum on the floor.
“There now, we’ll deal with you in our own good time.” I heard him say. “Now, where were we?”
He continued shuffling up the aisle, inspecting the various bills and papers people thrust in his direction.
“Tickets please,” he chirped, now standing opposite me.
I showed him my pass.
“Oh! Is that all you got?” he asked.
I looked up, not a little surprised at the question.
He had a wrinkled ruddy face, but there were beads of sweat around his eyes and forehead, perhaps from his earlier efforts.
I saw tufts of white air sticking out from under his cap. He looked altogether too old for the job.
“Yes, I’m speaking to you…” he said with a note of impatience in his voice.
“Er… Yes,” was all I managed to say, keeping an eye on his hands in case he made a grab for my ear. “What’s the matter? My pass is up to date and everything. I mean, it got me through the turnstile with no problems.”
“You haven’t got… you know, something else?”
He was looking me up and down, and I could feel the eyes of the others all staring in my direction.
“You mean like ID or something?”
I tapped my pockets, but I didn’t think I had anything useful on me.
“No, not really…” he said. “I fear you may have got on the wrong train.”
“But this is—”
“The Night Train, they call it.” And he pushed his hat back on his head. “And I’ve got a wee problem, and the radio’s on the blink. Oh well, it never rains but it pours.”
Nobody said anything. The train sped through the tunnel splashing light on the walls. Which was curious as we hadn’t yet stopped in the next station.
“Suppose you’d better come with me. We’ll go see what Control has to say…”
He set off back up the aisle. I didn’t see what else to do except follow.
As we neared the man attached to the handrail, he pulled himself up.
“What about me?” he snarled. “Gonna leave me here? Gonna forget me, are ya?”
The Inspector didn’t break his step as he glided round the obstacle.
“Oh, I won’t forget you. I’ll see with Control about you, too.”
As I passed, the train jerked sending me in his direction. He grabbed at my coat with his free hand, pulling me towards him.
“Don’t let them take me,” he pleaded. “Make sure you come back for me.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t really know what’s going on myself.”
“That’s it. Play the innocent. But you’ll remember me, when they come for you too.”
“We haven’t got all night,” called the Inspector, standing at the door. “Come along there!”
I pushed myself away from the other’s grip. As I did, I caught his look of disgust. He threw himself back on a seat, his cuffed hand sticking up and out in at an uncomfortable angle.
The Inspector was now using the brass instrument to unlock the door. The sound of the wheels on the rails underneath, and the wind from our movement buffeted into the compartment. He was now leaning over and unlocking the door to the next wagon.
I looked down at the empty space below. From time to time sparks flashed from the conducting rail and I had a picture, frozen on my retina, of the gravel down below. The wind tugged. The noise echoing from the walls around was deafening and oppressive.
It wasn’t far, just a large step, but I hung back, paralysed, gripping the bar that ran along the edge of the door for dear life.
“Hurry yourself up then!” the Inspector’s voice called over the slamming and jarring and shuddering of the train.
I launched myself forwards.
He caught me, and with a laugh — or it could have just been the effort — helped me up. Shaking, I gripped a support while he busied himself locking the doors.
“Is it far?” I wanted to know.
He looked me up and down.
“Other end of the train… Control is in the driver’s cabin.”
I looked up the aisle and saw the next compartment snaking ahead. I had only just made it onto the train. In the very last carriage. We had to walk up all the wagons to the front. With the same mad jump between each carriage.
“Can’t we just wait for the next stop?” I asked. “Then we can just walk along the platform to the driver..?”
“There’s no stopping on this train,” he said, pocketing his keys and mopping his face with a large handkerchief. “Not till the end of the line.” He set off down the train. “It is the Night Train, after all.”
Again, there was nothing left to do but follow.
Eyes turned to us as we moved along the carriage. I noticed that old, grey-haired couples and watery-eyed old ladies seemed to make up most of the passengers. The man now chained to the seat in the previous carriage and, I suppose, myself, really did stick out.
The Inspector opened the doors and we moved through to the next carriage. The jump was still a little unnerving, but nothing like the first one.
“Just what exactly is this Night Train?” I asked as we walked along, catching hold of a rail as the train shuddered and twisted in the curve.
He stopped, turned, and again looked me up and down before answering.
“Look son, if you really don’t know, then — truly — this isn’t the train for you.” He pushed his flat cap back on his head and strands of white hair fell on his forehead. “Had to happen to me, and tonight of all nights…” he muttered.
Suddenly in a scream of metal, we were both thrown to the ground. The train shuddered. Some of the passengers were also thrown off balance, shouting and crying in surprise.
Slowly the pressure and the noise eased off, leaving a powerful hiss that filled the surrounding tunnel.
Shakily, I pulled myself up, then helped the Inspector to his feet. We looked around but no one needed help. The Inspector reached down and picked up his cap, dusting it off before setting it back on his head.
“Everybody all right?” he called. “Nobody hurt?”
The general mutters and comments indicated that, generally, all was in order.
“Well, just stay where you are for the moment,” he ordered. “I’m sure Control’ll have everything as right as rain in no time.”
At that moment the radio in his pocket started crackling and hissing. Above the static we could hear it calling: “This is Control. Come in. Over. Control here. Where are you? Over.”
He pulled it out, and pressed a button, silencing the hissing.
“Control? I’m in Wagon Three. What happened? Over.”
The answer came in a sea of crackles.
“Someone in Five pulled the emergency alarm. Blocked the train. Over.”
The Inspector gave me a penetrating look.
“Had a customer in there. Locked him up. He must have an accomplice. Over.”
There was a pause while the radio hissed and crackled, then voice came back.
“Well, we can’t leave them loose out here. You’ll have to contain them. Do you read me? Contain them. Over.”
“Control, I’m on my way. Over and out.”
He pocketed the radio.
“Looks like I’m going to need some help,” he said. “I’ll go along the tracks while you go back the way we came.”
“Look!” I said, lifting my hands to keep him away. “I still don’t know what’s going on, and now you expect me to jump in and catch some I-don’t-know-what. I don’t even know why you treated him like that. Perhaps you’re going to do the same to me…”
“Listen Eric,” he said — he must have seen my name on my pass. “While we’re talking there are eighteen innocent souls in that carriage, and I’d hate to think what could happen to them. Either you help or you don’t, but I can’t waste my time debating here with you.”
With that he turned and unclipped the nearest door. With a loud hiss of air, the doors slid to the side before blocking halfway.
“OK!” I called, as he struggled to push them open wider. “I’ll help.”
He turned and looked at me.
“You can start by helping me get these open then. Push the other one.”
We each pushed a door until they had both slipped to the side, allowing him to grip the outside rail to lower himself to the gravel below.
“But how do I open the doors?” I called down.
“Ah yes, you’ll need this…” he said, unclipping the chain that held the brass key, before passing it up to me.
“And you might need this too…” He reached into a pocket that ran along his thigh and pulled out a long shiny spike. “If you get a chance, you should stick it to him. But keep it well hidden, until you need it.”
It was quite heavy and sharp and looked unbelievably dangerous.
“How do you know I won’t attack you with it?” I asked. “I mean, I could be with him…”
He looked up and smiled.
“I know, that’s all. And besides, that’s solid silver. If you’d’ve been one like him, it’d already have burnt your hand off.” He turned to go. “Now get off with you. And don’t forget to lock both of the doors after you once you’re through.”
With that he crunched away along the narrow track that ran along next to the tunnel wall.
Moving between the carriages was much easier now the train wasn’t moving. And once I’d figured out how the curious locks functioned.
As soon as I was through the door, I was assailed with questions: What was happening? Where was the Inspector? Why had we stopped?
I raised my hands for silence.
“There’s been a slight problem. The Inspector is down on the tracks checking everything’s OK and he asked me to meet him in the last carriage…”
I was glad I managed to reassure without really lying, without creating panic, and without letting on that I didn’t actually know much anyway.
“Is everyone all right?” I asked as I progressed the aisle. “Nobody got hurt?”
“We are all fine,” said an old man wearing an old-fashioned large-brimmed hat. “A few bumps and bruises but no one is hurt.”
An assortment of murmurs confirmed his observation.
“Well, let’s keep it like that then,” I said. “Stay in your seats. I’m sure everything’ll be back to normal real quick.”
I had reached the last door and was unlocking it. As it opened, I guessed something was wrong when the smell hit me. Luckily, I was blocking the passage so that no one could see. I locked the carriage door before stepping over the gap to the mess ahead.
Someone had painted the wagon red. And he hadn’t done a very good job of it.
No passengers were visible so I crouched down to check below the seats. And immediately regretted it. The stench was stronger here, and pieces of what I took to be the other passengers were scattered in lumps all along the floor under the seats.
My mind was racing just as fast as my heart was pounding. What on earth could have happened here?
I pulled out the silver spike. Its solid weight in ly hands felt reassuring as, through the open doors further down the carriage, I heard the crunch of feet on gravel.
I was tempted to call out, but how could I be ure it was the Inspector.
Unable to stand the stink of blood, of putrefaction, of other things I didn’t even want to think about, I forced myself up, holding onto the back of a seat with my free hand.
It was then, even though I was moving down the train with great care, that I slipped and fell flat on my stomach, knocking the wind from me. I let go of the spike.
I struggled to get up from the slippery pool of liquid on the floor, rolled onto my back and saw… the dark-eyed man lying spread-eagled across the ceiling, just above me.
He was staring right down, straight at me.
Then he let himself fall.
Everything happened so quickly I’m still not sure what exactly went on — and to this day, I wake up at night gasping and clawing at him, until I realise if was just a dream.
I scrambled on the slippery, slidy floor, unable to get a grip or move away. But as I was reaching out, trying desperately to find a hold, my hand met the spike. I pulled it towards me, and he fell straight onto it.
It was deafening, louder than the emergency brakes, and my whole body shuddered.
At the same time, he burned. Starting at the point where the silver spike had pierced his body, he burned in a ring of fire that turned him crisp and hard, until he fell away to cinders. And all the while, I writhed and tried to pul myself away.
I opened my eyes to see the Inspector leaning over me.
“Nasty piece of work, that,” was all he said, before steadying his feet and lifting me up. The smell of my singed hair accompanied me as he helped me to the open doors.
We sat down, our feet dangling over the tracks below. We breathed in the musty air, and I tried to ignore the stink coming from behind.
“What was it?” I asked. “And what’s going on?”
He took off his cap, wiped his eyes and forehead, then blew his nose.
“You’re still young,” he started. “I suppose you’ve never asked yourself what happens to all those who die. What happens afterwards, I mean. Traditionally we used to go round with a horse and cart, collect the souls of those who were ready to move on, accompany them like…” He sniffed, the stench from inside was slowly seeping into the tunnel. “Here… Well you can see for yourself. A cart would never do, and so…”
“The Night Train,” I said, finishing his sentence.
“But from time to time, it just happens that someone who shouldn’t, takes the train…”
“Oh you? You were an accident. But him, he was waiting. They never get through the controls, but… Well, you can see, they can make a pretty mess of things.”
“But what about all those people?”
“What can he do to them? They’re already dead—”
He span round, the silver spike suddenly piercing the air above my head. I fell forwards, down onto the tracks. As I looked around I saw another figure, writhing and dancing, being devoured by the growing ring of fire from where the stake had transfixed his body. His scream grated in my ears and then died as ashes fell about.
“What was that?” I squealed, gripping at the open doors as the cinders crumbled to nothing all around.
“The other one,” said the Inspector, reaching in for the spike, and then slipping it back into the pocket on his hip. “How do you think he got out of the cuffs? There had to be two of them. I bet you forgot to close the wagon door when you came through.”
I looked down.
“But…” I started.
“Did I know it was there? And coming for you? Of course. You’re the only one who’s really alive around here. He’d have found you very difficult to resist…”
“A bit cavalier? Yes, you’re probably right. But I figured you could manage. And besides, you need to pay for your ticket one way or another—”
“But I’ve got a ticket!”
“Not for the Night Train you didn’t. But I shouldn’t worry about that now.”
He started to get up.
“Just walk along the tracks here, and round the next bend you’ll come to a station. There are steps up to the platform, and something tells me there won’t be anyone around to see you when you climb up.”
“And that’s it? What about the people who were in that carriage?”
“Oh them? They just got to their destination a little bit quicker. No harm done, I assure you.” He paused. “And you can give me the key back now. I don’t think you’ll be needing it anymore.”
“So that’s goodbye, is it?”
“I hope so. I don’t think I’ll be seeing you again for a good long time.”
A slightly more grisly tale, that one, no?
For the train buffs among you. The details concerning the way of passing from wagon to wagon and the unlocking of doors, are accurate for the Paris Métro. I don’t know any other Undergound system well enough. And yes, I have already been evacuated from a train in mid-tunnel, and had to scrunch along the gravel path at the edge of the rails, on to Père Lachaise station. A most curious experience in itself.
After I finished this story, while I was typing it up, it put me in mind of Eoin Colfer’s The Wish List. Although that book is vastly superior to this little tale, I hope mine did give a little shiver at the end…
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Last edited: Thursday, August 27th, 2009blog comments powered by Disqus