Wednesday, July 26, 2017

The Ox Bow Train

The Ox Bow Train  (From A Target For Tommy, reprinted here now that collection is no longer commercially available for charity. Please consider making a donation to an anti-cancer charity for reading.
This text contains one slightly rude joke excised from the published version.)



George Morrow wakes with a jolt.  Normally the train is crowded about now.  Some days the commute involves standing chest deep in people, but today the carriage is almost eerily deserted.  Just a few of his fellow wage slaves returning home.

The nights are drawing in and it’s dark at six thirty.  Outside the train window the meandering river makes a slow sweep across its flood plain. The track, newly repaired from the last floods, stands proud with a fresh concrete edge.  If it were day, he’d see under the waves (no not waves, silly, ripples – it’s a river not the sea), the artificial pylons – like the exterior supports you see on old churches, ah, buttresses – that’s the word.  George remembers how that would have made Charles laugh.  One for the Uxbridge English Dictionary that:  Buttress: Mistress who likes it up the arse – perhaps too rude to send in to Radio 4 though. Oh Charles, thou should be living at this hour – why should a worm, an ant, a rat have life, and you none?  He can’t remember the quote (Romeo and Juliet?) any more than before he had remembered the word.  It’s dark, he’s, tired and, frankly, old, and Charles:  dead at twenty, never aged.  In Georges mind he stayed young forever, a twin brother who – like the Dorian to George’s Portrait, preserves the best somewhere beyond time.  If only one could live on forever.

Elsewhere

The TARDIS  stood in a meadow, whose land long fallow had lost the contours of the plough, and either hunched itself up in some tremor, or been endowed by Neolithic burials with a low mound near the centre. Thanks to the mound the ship was on a slant, but that didn’t seem to bother the Doctor who darted out, hat in hand, and stood for a moment in his tattered jacket and checked trousers flinging his arms wide, and taking in a deep breath of the buttercup and daisy scented air.

Ben and Polly followed him, relieved at their arrival somewhere other than the mercury swamps of a lost planet. This newly renewed Doctor, whose different face and mannerisms were still causing Ben some qualms, was no more able to guide the TARDIS to a preselected landing point than his older pre-renewal form had been. Still, he seemed to have regained an almost childlike appreciation for the world which the Doctor who had collapsed at Snowcap Base, had lost – or perhaps hidden.

‘Where are we Doctor?’ Polly asked, willing – as Ben had not been – to at least pay lip-service to the idea that they might have arrived somewhere identifiable even if unplanned.

‘Telegraph Poles!’  The Doctor shouted, ‘lovely twentieth century, Telegraph Poles!
Adopting a declaiming stance like an orator on a rostrum, he proclaimed:

“I think no galumphing Black Hole, as lovely as a Telegraph Pole!  For one no information spares, it has no hair to mark it, the other helps men sell their wares and send demands to market”. Or is that Transmat.  Dear me, how it all runs together. I must look out my diary.’

‘What are you on about, Doc?’  Ben asked, not sure if he actually wanted an explanation. The crucial point, that the telegraph poles were even more familiar artifacts of his time, than the scents of the meadow were identifiers of his planet, he had already grasped.  Maybe he could get back to his ship, maybe even if he timed it right (by being a trifle early in time) manage not to be considered AWOL.  Of course that would mean loosing touch with the Duchess especially if she opted to continue with the Doctor, and he was starting to feel very fond of her.

His train of thought was interrupted, appropriately enough, by an actual train.

But not such a train as he had ever expected to see, passing along the rails, at the end of a meadow, half hidden by English hedgerows.

It was a black iron, parody of a modern train, its wheels silvered with skulls half-glimpsed as they spun, its coachwork dark liveried with baronial arms of monsters and mer-folk entwined in battle or lust.  It did not steam (although it had funnels and brass domes atop its modern lines), and it was only as it passed that the sheer silence of it stilled the birdsong of the meadow like a blanket of awful suffocating density.  At the windows faces white and dark alike pressed with a finality that suggested a terminus to its journey that ended at the world’s edge, or at a forest of gallows.

‘Well, that’s not a British Rail train,’ the Doctor said, affronted – ‘I knew denationalisation would end in tears’ (Neither Ben nor Polly understood this remark) ‘But this is ridiculous’.

Elsewhere

Sally Carruthers sat in her window seat, looking out over the downs and hoping that her journey would be in vain. In her bag a telegram crunched once in a fist that though dainty had closed with all the anger of despair, and then smoothed as best she could manage, spelled out her fears in cautious medical terms.  He might die before she ever saw him again.  If only she could avoid that meeting, if there were some honourable way.  If she saw him she would have to forgive him, and in her heart she knew she would sooner die.  No one could blame a daughter delayed by a train. If only she could just sit in this seat forever, or until his life had slipped away. 

Elsewhere

The Doctor had bustled them back inside the TARDIS, and spent a minute ferreting about in a wicker basket under the Ormolu Clock marked, Pantoloon’s Props.  He stuffed something in one of his pockets.

Ben and Polly clamoured for answers.  ‘What what was it?’  Polly insisted, ‘some sort of fancy ghost train?’ 

‘I reckon you’re right Duchess’, Ben pitched in, more nervous himself than he wanted to show. ‘It’ll be an excursion tour, round the haunted castles and that.  All the toffs dressed up for a lark, like on The Good Old Days’.

‘They looked so scared, though’, Polly faltered. She was a kind hearted woman even if her kindness sometimes had a noblesse oblige edge to it that Ben teased her about.

The Doctor was pacing round the TARDIS’ controls, looking thoughtful. ‘I don’t like some of these readings.  Look at the colour of this indicator, would you say that was cerise?’

Ben and Polly exchanged glances – the TARDIS’ workings might as well be in black and white for all the sense they made to them. 

‘Yes,’ Polly said, and ‘No,’ Ben said – at the same moment.

‘That’s what I thought,’ the Doctor beamed, ‘hang on!’ and he flung the dematerialisation lever in a direction he’d never thrown it before, almost as if it were a gear stick going into reverse, or a switch being thrown on a railway.

Elsewhere

‘Are we nearly there?’  Jane and Bartholomew chorused, for the thousandth time.
Headache at full swell, their mother snapped.  ‘It would serve you right if we never get to Weston-Super-Mare, you spoilt children!  Now please try to be quiet, and look at the nice countryside.’

‘I don’t like it any more,’ Jane sniffed, ‘the trees are funny.’

Mrs. Merridew, squinted through the dark (really the clouds had rolled up suddenly, it would be typical if it rained all holiday), and saw the thrashing motion of the branches (were they branches, really?) against the awful horror of the sky.  This was dreadful, she would, she would write to the railway company, as soon as, as soon as...

Elsewhere

‘Now, listen this is important,’ the Doctor said, after the TARDIS had come to a shuddering and clunking halt.  ‘You have to remember three things’.

‘Yes, Doctor.’  Polly looked expectant.

‘Firstly, if you see the conductor don’t tell him your name.  Secondly don’t eat anything from the buffet or in the train at all – not even a pomegranate seed, and thirdly...’

Ben tapped his fingers on the consol edge impatiently.

‘Don’t do that you’ll leave finger marks, now since that’s all clear, I’m going to open the door.’

Ben, wondering if he’d missed something, asked ‘Should we not take a look on the scanner Doc, before going out.’

‘If we were going out, that would be very good advice, Ben, but I’m afraid we’re going sideways.’

Elsewhere

George Morrow wakes with a jolt.  Normally the train is crowded about now.  Some days the commute involves standing chest deep in people, but today the carriage is almost eerily deserted.  Just a few of his fellow wage slaves returning home.

The conductor is standing in the aisle of the train, he’s checking tickets.  His uniform is the colour of mottled grey velvet, or cold gravy. There’s a clacking sound as he moves, jerky as a stop frame animation.  George finds he can’t bring himself to raise his gaze up to the conductor’s face.

‘Charles Morrow’  -  The voice is sepulchral and also somehow unctuous as of a plump churchwarden imitating the tolling a bell.

‘No I’m George, George, I tell you.  I didn’t die.’

George/Charles voice rises in a nightmare scream, ‘I didn’t die’.

‘Oh but you did, see your ticket is punched clean through, it’s the Dark Terminus for You.’   And the Conductor put his bony hand on Charles Morrow’s shoulder and pushed him back down into his grave-soil seat.

Elsewhere on board the train

The TARDIS filled a whole private compartment, and the Doctor, Ben and Polly had only just been able to squeeze out (Ben by climbing over the seats). The upholstery was patterned with odd illustrations of toadstools, fashioned into little fairy houses.

Ben suspected that Polly had been about to proclaim them quaint, but the Doctor’s identification of the fungi as Death Caps (Amanita Phalloides), Destroying Angels (Amanita Virosa), Deadly Web Caps (Cortinarius Rubellus), Panther Caps (Amanita Pantherina), Fly Agaric (Amanita Muscaria), and False Morel (Gyromita Esculenta) – all of them poisonous (although as the Doctor said of the Panther Caps, still very desireable as residences) had taken the word from her lips.

‘Right, Doc, before we go any farther, I think you ought to tell us where we are.’ Ben said, keeping his voice as reasonable as he could.

‘Didn’t I?’  The Doctor ticked off three fingers – ‘I was sure, I’d been sure to tell you.

‘One of you must have interrupted me.  This is a Fairy Train Of Granted Wishes and it’s possibly the most dangerous place a mortal can tread, but I don’t see how we can let it go by without trying to help its vict...er..passengers.’

‘Fairies? Polly simpered, ‘honestly Doctor you must think I’m eight.’

‘No, no.  I’m not talking about cardboard cut outs photographed by naughty school girls, or the Red, Yellow or Green Fairy Books of Mr Andrew Lang.   I’m talking about a very dangerous phenomenon indeed, to which the term Fay or Sidhe, or the kindly folk, has been attached in the past, but which your near future will come to know as alien abduction.’

‘What, kidnapping by aliens?’  Ben scoffed, pull the other one.

The Doctor took off his hat and rolled it nervously between his hands. For a moment he seemed as abashed as a schoolboy caught in some vulgar prank.  ‘Well you know my dears, there is a sense in which...I hardly like to say it, but there is a point of view from which it could, I suppose, be said that....’

‘Oh never mind all that,’ Polly jumped in, ‘we forced ourselves on you, you didn’t kidnap anyone. We wanted adventure and we found it. Just tell us what we have to do.’

‘There’s a good girl.   Well there are some corners of Old England that have bred the most terrible things.  The iron railways did for them mostly, but every so often the way the trains shift of the tracks, the masses of iron shunting to and fro – do you know how waves can resonate?  Increase or cancel out?  No?  Never mind.

Well, very, very, very, rarely something that mainly stops a thing, suddenly amplifies it, and then the ghosts ride the rails!   Then an ill-considered wish in a commuter’s noggin can send them sideways into the halls of hell.  Just remember what I said about the conductor and the pomegranates, and the other thing, and we should be fine.’

‘Pomegranates,’  Polly rolled the word around, and a memory from her Latin class surfaced.  ‘Persephone was kidnapped by Hades, and went into the Underworld and the Gods demanded she be released but she’d eaten three Pomegranate seeds so Hades had a hold on her, and she had to be married to Hades for half the year, and so we got the seasons.’ 

‘Oh well done.’  The Doctor beamed.  ‘Gold star, Polly.  Now come along behind me carefully, we’re going to go up and down the train and see who can get off at...’  He pointed at the ship: ‘TARDIS HALT.’  He paused and Polly could see the sadness in his eyes. ‘We may be here too late for some, but we can try.’

Here

Osmond, Elspeth, and Clive were bored. The holidays were almost over and the train taking them back to Whitemeadows School, was taking simply ages. Even the familiar countryside seemed grey and washed out, and Clive wasn’t helping by playing a game that involved pretending to see zombies every time they passed a level crossing or an abandoned siding.

‘There’s another one, Elspeth,’ he shouted. ‘A postman, with the bottom of his jaw hanging off’.  As before when Elspeth and Osmond looked the figure had been whisked away into the foggy murk.

‘You beast Clive, you wouldn’t carry on like this if Penelope were here.’

‘I did see zombies,’ Clive shouted, ‘drooling zombies!  Why won’t you believe me, I say I wish you’d...’

A hand clamped around his mouth, at the end of an arm clad in a misfitting black sleeve.  Almost convinced they were about to see a zombie, Elspeth and Osmond cowered back in their seats – but it was only a funny little man in an odd hat, with two teenagers (a man and a woman) with him.

‘Now don’t bite, my young master.’ the man said – with what Osmond later said had been a west-country accent.  Elspeth – incidently ­­- did not agree on this point and she always maintained that whatever accent it was, the man had only that moment adopted it, for she had been watching the faces of the teenagers particularly the man, whom Penelope would later josh her about, and he (so Elspeth said) had rolled his eyes to heaven with a ‘what now’ expression as soon as the Man in The Hat had begun to speak.

‘Those that bite, live and die as animals, or don’t they?   I’m going to take my hand away, and I’m a-askin’ you as a personal favour to an old Hurdy Gurdy Man – not to go making any wishes on this here train.  There’s been quite enough of that already.’

‘Are you a hurdy gurdy man?’  Clive asked, when the hand released him.  It had tasted of bread and butter, but he hadn’t been inclined to bite it even though he had been the biter of the family as a baby.  Something about the taste had suggested electric bread and butter, or an electric eel sandwich.

‘No he’s not, he’s the Doc..’  Ben began, but the whirl of flapping hands and panic from Polly, stopped him.  ‘If you see the conductor don’t say your name,’ she hissed. ‘Well I see him, so don’t say his.’  She was looking back over Ben’s shoulder.

‘That’s not his name.’

‘It’s quite enough of a name,’ the erstwhile Hurdy-Gurdly Man, said, ‘to make it inadvisable here.  How we’re known, lights us up, or doesn’t it.  Names end up in Lights or so they say.  Or maybe only named things can end. So my young friends (this to Osmond, Clive, and Elspeth) I won’t be asking your names either, and you should keep them behind your teeth.

‘Tickets please,’ the Conductor said, looming up like a cloud or a special effect. ‘Osmond James, and Elspeth and Clive Moonshiner, isn’t it – all bound for Summer’s End term in the Whitemeadows. No Penelope...?’

‘She’s ill’. ‘We don’t know any Penelope’, and ‘My name is Violet actually, so much more sensible than Elspeth’, were uttered almost in one breath, and with the same
Panic.

Seeing the conductor was almost impossible, but feeling you were about to see him was horrible. He was like something behind a curtain or edging around a corner that you were certain would be awful when it came fully into view, but which seemed the worse for the way it prolonged the process.

The Hurdy Gurdy Man shouted that they should close their eyes tight, and trusting him, they did.

Much, much, later the three (who were all saved) would try to tell Penelope what little they had seen but the best they could manage was:

(Clive) – He was like Major Shuttler at school, the one who keeps trying to be friends with the younger boys, but who looks as if he’d eat them up if he could.

(Osmond) – It wasn’t a man at all, but a thundercloud in a conductor’s uniform, and where there should have been a face, there was only a billow of cloud and two glints of lightning.

(Elspeth) – Well I didn’t see a cloud, or a teacher, I saw three dwarfs crammed into a conductor’s outfit, trying to make it look as if they were a single man. How you couldn’t have seen that Clive, I’ve no idea. 

Penelope said the dwarfs didn’t sound that frightening, but Elspeth refused to say any more after that, and there was bad feeling between her and Penny for a week until the Joint Fete with St. Mumin’s and their triumph on the coconut shy.


Here

Once Ben had bundled the three into the TARDIS with firm instructions to keep their eyes closed tight.  He hurried back along the train’s corridor (a stone clad corridor on a train?) in the hope of catching up with the Doctor and Polly.

He found them leading a harassed mother and two children (all blindfolded) back in his direction.  

‘But I don’t understand why we can’t see the way to Weston,’ the mother was grumbling. ‘This isn’t like any security exercise I’ve ever been involved with. I shall certainly write to the papers about this.’ 

The Doctor was making placatory noises and speaking soothingly as a person might to a horse that having been lead to water had still to be persuaded to take a drink.

‘It’s the meteor shower,’ he said ‘best you don’t see it or you’ll have no end of trouble with weeds.  We in the Gardener’s Question Time Tactical Response Unit are very quick on Triffid outbreaks’.  He winked at Polly, ‘I always say if you have to have a catastrophe you should try to have a cosy one.’

He past the woman’s hand to Ben, ‘take her off the train at TARDIS HALT, and make sure she and the children keep their eyes covered until the emergency is over.  It’s best no one sees anything alarming, on the train or off.  Come on Polly, more people to see!’

Here

‘Sally Carruthers, your ticket please.’  She had been staring at her hands for maybe an hour, and hadn’t decided what she could, what she’d say if her father wasn’t dead, and she hadn’t heard the conductor come close.  A sound of rustling leaves came from the
direction of the voice, and the sound was odd.

Her father was wearing a conductor’s uniform, and his smile hadn’t changed. But it wasn’t leaves that were rustling, and he hadn’t used to have snakes in his hair.

Recalling the myth of the Medusa, she clamped her eyes tight.  What the hell was happening. She must have fallen asleep, be dreaming.

Her father’s voice.   And another man?  Talking.

‘You don’t fear me.’

‘Oh, that’s not true at all.  But I know better than to let it get a hold of me, and Polly and Ben have their eyes closed by now.  So it’s just you and me.’

‘Their lives are mine by the old rules. They wished in my place of power.

‘I wasn’t in time, not for everyone. Let me take this woman and go. You have no hold on me.’

‘You may have no fear, you may not have wished, you may have no name – but she is fearful, she has wished. Her name is on my lips.  She must get out at the Dark Terminus.’

‘What if I stayed instead of her?’

‘What is she to you that you would do this?  What are you to us that we should value you above her?’

‘Oh, I’m a genius: I’m sure I could be more fun to boss around for an eternity, and she?  I just think maybe she’s suffered enough.  Besides, look see, I have something in my pocketses.’

‘A sandwich…?’

‘Indeed, and you know that anyone who eats in your world is yours for the taking.
So promise you’ll let her go, and I’ll promise to take a big bite. Yum Yum!  You know promises bind here.'

Elsewhere

The Doctor flung himself through the doors of the TARDIS, creatures in conductors’ uniforms gibbering and moaning at his heels, and spitting chunks of polystyrene from his mouth.  His fingers stabbed at the dematerialisation switch.




1 comment:

Asif Ahmed said...

It was just amazing . Though it was lengthy but still good work.