The Conductor [1/9]
I'm a conductor on a train that runs an unusual route; a ghost voyage, with no passengers. Tonight, however, there's someone on the train...
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The route between Greycastle and St. Joseph’s Stand is, and always has been, empty.
If anyone is left on the train by the time we reach Greycastle station, they depart. No exceptions.
No-one gets on. It’s as simple that.
Sometimes, on occasion, a couple of passengers board once we reach St. Joseph’s Stand, but it’s only a tiny little station. Out in the middle of nowhere. Surrounded; completely enclosed by grey-green fields and hills of wild grass. A ruined church watches silently over the trains that come and go.
They’re far and few between.
The route lasts for about an hour. It takes us wildly off course and it’s always empty.
No-one boards at Greycastle.
No-one departs at St. Joseph’s Stand.
….I don’t even know why we make the journey at all, to be perfectly frank.
But we make it nonetheless.
Twice a week, every week, we depart from the line that runs between the cities, and we head out deep into the countryside, and we let the stragglers off at Greycastle. Then sometimes, if it’s a particularly busy night, we’ll let maybe a couple of new passengers on once we reach St. Joseph’s Stand.
But we never take any between the two. It’s a ghost voyage.
I’ve been a train conductor for three years now. It’s an okay job, I suppose. I used to be an editor, for TV; that was my real passion. I worked so hard to get into it…
…But I couldn’t take the stress, if I’m being honest. For months on end it was live show after live show. The editing has to be done the same day, ready to be broadcast the next. I let it overwhelm me, sadly.
Train conducting… ticket collecting… it’s not exciting. But it’s relatively stress-free, so it makes for a nice change of pace, I guess.
As always on this leg of the journey, it’s quiet. Peaceful. Late at night, with nothing to do, no passengers to collect tickets from, I usually sit myself down in one of the seats, stare at my phone.
Every time we make this trip, every time we take the route between Greycastle and St. Joseph’s Stand, I try and summon the courage to call my daughter.
Haven’t really had a proper conversation with her since the divorce. I just want to tell her I love her. Ask if she’d want to meet up. But I can’t think of a way of doing it that doesn’t sound weird. Just me calling her, up out of the blue.
And so, I stare at the phone. Today is no exception. I bitterly continue my sad little tradition. The time drags on and I always, without fail, eventually decide that it’s gotten too late. I can always try again next time.
Sometimes I read a book at this stage, or listen to a podcast. I’ve still got about forty minutes to kill before we reach Greycastle.
I stretch. I’m particularly tired tonight.
Can’t be falling asleep on the job.
So I choose to stand instead, cracking my back and lifting my knees, encouraging the blood flow.
I turn and amble my way through the empty carriage, stopping for moment, resting on the headrest of a nearby seat to look out the window.
Dark and sleeping hills, clusters of trees, low green mountains, they all roll steadily by.
My eyes defocus and I find myself looking at my own reflection. We regard each other for a long moment, then sigh as one, and I rub a hand over my tired eyes. I move on. Pressing the button to open the sliding doors, and stepping on into the next carriage.
Wanna take a second to share this with a friend?
I come to an immediate stop.
Fucking hell! There’s a PASSENGER in this carriage!
I stare at the man, I can’t believe it!
There’s a passenger, an actual passenger! Sat alone in a section of seats made for four- two facing forwards, two facing backwards, with a table in-between.
He’s looking out the window. I can scarcely believe what I’m seeing. This is massive! Wait til the lads hear about this! Even my own predecessor, he’d done this route for what, five years? He told me hadn’t seen a single passenger, not one, not ever on this particular route, and yet here’s a man, plain as day, on the very route- the route between Greycastle and St. Joseph’s Stand.
I chuckle and shake my head. Amused at how I could find such a mundane and, in the grand scheme of things, really rather uneventful development on this train to be so exciting.
I walk over to the man, reaching for my ticket stamper. He glances anxiously at me, twitches.
And suddenly, just like that, my mood drops.
Something about this man has put me on edge. I stop, and I look around the otherwise empty carriage.
It’s gloomy. A flickering light at the far end of the car has made the hair-raising transition from irritating, to downright unnerving. There is no sound, but for the soft, steady chuntering of the wheels against the steel tracks below. I look back down the aisle towards the man.
He’s fidgeting. Sweating. …A junkie perhaps?
…A part of me wants to just turn back.
Maybe I should.
It’s one route. One route that no-one ever takes. Maybe he can’t afford a ticket. …Maybe I should just let him ride.
…But I have to know why he’s on-board. I just have to know, he must have a reason. No-one is ever on-board, ever. So why him? Why now?
And so, cautiously, I walk over to him.
I clear my throat, surprised by own sudden anxiety. I’ve never been a hugely... confident man… but this was my job, for God’s sake. Where has this ridiculous fear come from?
…Except it doesn’t feel ridiculous. It feels urgent and immediate and pressing. And I wonder if I’ve made a terrible mistake, here in this dark carriage. But it’s too late. I’ve begun speaking.
"Excuse me Sir", I say, the words coming out before I can stop them, an attempt at a good-natured tone, "we don’t get many passengers on this route! I was just wondering if…"
…I was going to ask him if he wouldn’t mind sharing a little about his journey. But my voice catches in my throat, my mouth dries. The man, after a moment or two, responds to my words, and violently. He throws himself back up against the window, with terror, sheer terror in his eyes, a hand clutching at the front of his jacket. I take a step back in alarm, and my eyes are drawn to something on the back of his hand.
…It’s carved. A symbol, carved into his skin.
I realise then that I have, truly, made a terrible mistake in the decision to engage with this man. But it’s too late.
The symbol looks like a capital ‘R’, made of 4 straight lines, the curve of the R’s top half replaced by a rough triangle.
I look up into the man’s eyes. They are stricken, pleading, he shakes his head, sweating.
I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to deescalate. I don’t know how to disengage or to calm him down. I’ll think of a hundred things I could, or should have done in this moment in about an hour’s time, but right now, my mind is blank.
So I do what I am supposed to do. I follow procedure. I have a job here, after all. Keep this unfortunate encounter brief, professional, and I’ll be on my way. To the opposite bloody side of the train.
"May I uh, may I see your ticket, Sir?" I ask, trying to sound neutral.
The man freezes. Tensed. I can see the veins in his neck. In the back of his hand, contorted grotesquely around the carved ‘R’.
We stare at one another in cold silence.
And then, it shatters like ice.
“NO!” he screams, and I clench my jaw, retreating in panic as his hands fly to his head, rocking forwards and backwards, “NO! It’s too soon! It’s too soon! I haven’t even been given a fair chance! I’ve barely BEGUN!” he shouts, his voice strained, banging his head against the window.
Shaking, I reach down for my radio.
The man looks wildly around, at the ceiling, out the windows, his arms outstretched- “Does this count!? Has my journey begun!?”
I begin to draw the radio up to my mouth, but the man looks directly at me, and I freeze. He glances down at the radio in confusion, looks me over, properly, for the first time, uncertainty contorting his fearful expression. He stands suddenly, with a quick smack knocking the radio from my hand to the floor.
“Are you even a real conductor at all?” he hisses into my face, “are you part of the train? Are you human, conductor?”
I just stare back at him. I don’t know what to say.
The man sees my ticket stamper. Takes real stock of my own expression, and he puts his head in his hands and starts to laugh, great heaving bouts of laughter that shake his shoulders. “You haven’t a clue, have you?” he screeches, “you have no idea what I’m talking about!”
This is all too much. The lunatic is clearly on some serious shit. I glance down to the radio. Screw it. I’m just going to make a break for it. To the engine at the front. I prepare, just for a second, shifting my weight, ready to run, but the man moves his hands from his face at just the wrong time, and he anticipates what I’m about to do. He jumps on me, and we stagger to the floor with a crash.
Panic overtakes me.
“No!” I cry out, “get off me! Let me go!”- punching, pushing my fingers into his eyes, anything to get him off, but a furious grin is etched into his face. He pulls a knife from his pocket, and I tense up, flinch, withdraw my hand from his face with pure instinct and use it to cover my neck.
But he grabs my wrist, and with an elbow to keep me down, ignoring my cries for help, he begins to carve the same symbol on the back of his own hand into mine.
“You’re insane!” I shout into his face, I try to pry away his arm, try to push him back, but the aisle is narrow, he has his foot on a nearby chair, he’s using all his weight to keep me down.
The junkie’s grin quivers- “I’LL BE DAMNED IF YOU END MY JOURNEY BEFORE IT’S EVEN BEGUN YOU BASTARD" he screams into my face, dragging the knife through the skin on the back of my hand, holding it as steady as he can in a painful, vice-like grip, his knuckles turning white as I flail and heave to little avail. He completes the symbol, and he laughs, bitterly, exhausted, relenting, and it’s enough, it’s enough for me to force him away. I stagger to my feet, still in deep shock, clutching at my bleeding hand as it leaks down my forearm and drips onto the floor. The man just laughs. He laughs and laughs in the aisle, and I realise to my horror, that the seats around me, the seats…. They’re full of people, now.
Silent. Staring. Expressionless. And their eyes…. Their eyes are all red.
I swivel in horror, looking this way and that, but all of them, all of their eyes are red, red red red.
Not bloodshot. Not red-coloured. Just deep, dark red, no iris, no pupil, just dark, wet red stains.
I stagger in horror, unable to even scream.
The junkie only laughs. He slams his fist against a nearby chair as he rolls around on the floor.
I turn, and I run.
Written by Darkly Gathers