Perhaps I should have questioned why someone would anonymously send me a free ticket for a round trip train journey. Too late now however, for I was standing on the platform of Lydney Station with the ticket in my hand. Holding it up I re-read the words written there, ‘New Year Mince Pie Special’ When I first withdrew it from the envelope a few days ago I almost threw it in the bin but then I thought, ‘Why Not?’ Christmas had been a pretty miserable affair and if someone had taken the trouble to send a ticket to me I should not waste whatever money they had spent on my little surprise post-Christmas gift. The envelope had a local post mark on it, so clearly it was from someone who knew me, although why they hadn’t enclosed a note confirming their identity I had no idea.
There were about a dozen other people all waiting for the train which was chugging towards us down the track. One man, a tall, thin character seemed familiar to me but he didn’t acknowledge me so perhaps he was just another stranger awaiting his own New Years’ day train ride.
I waited until almost everyone had boarded before choosing an empty carriage for myself. I had barely made myself comfortable when the sliding door opened and the thin man entered my carriage. I frowned, not pleased that someone should step into my insular little world. I didn’t want to make idle conversation with a stranger. I just wanted to enjoy my solitary journey watching the passing views from my own carriage window. If he noticed my hostile stare he gave no indication, seating himself opposite me before meeting my stony gaze.
“Good Morning.” He said pleasantly and I had no alternative than to mumble a curt
“Good Morning.” in reply.
He had a book in one hand, a tatty paperback which he opened up and began to read. After a few minutes the train lurched forwards and our ‘Pleasure trip’ began. I was puzzled as to why someone would pay for a celebratory train trip and then bury their head in a book. Some ten minutes went by with not a word passing between us. The only sound the repetitive clack-clack of the wheels on the track and the barely audible sound of him turning pages. I couldn’t get out of my head that I knew him from somewhere and with his head bent towards his book I had ample time to stare at him whilst trying to bring to mind where I had seen him before.
Without looking up from his book he spoke and the suddenness of his voice when I didn’t expect it startled me.
“You are trying to place my face aren’t you?” he suggested.
“I-um-I thought you seemed familiar.” I stammered irritated that he seemed aware that I had been staring at him.
He now looked up at me, his hand lowering his book to his lap. “Hmmm-“he answered, “Yes you probably would think my face familiar although how you see me, is how you remember me. I look rather different now.”
The words had barely left his mouth when with horror I watched as the skin of his face seemed to melt before my eyes. His mouth drooped open as his lips dippped and turned wax-like before dripping liquefied ooze onto the book still held in his hand. I cried out in terror unable to turn away from what appeared to be his face dissolving before me. His now lip-less mouth curved up on one side giving the impression of a ghoulish smile. Leaping to my feet I tried to put as much space between me and the horror of his skeletal face, his white bony jaw showing all his exposed teeth. I was gibbering like a baby in my terror but he just sat facing me as his waxy face continued to dissolve. Turning towards the door I cried out calling for help at the top of my voice.
“No-one can hear you Thomas. No-one will come to your aid.” His words had a wet, watery sound to them, but then they would, being uttered from a mouth that seemed to be dissolving.
I turned back not really wanting to look at him but in the few seconds that I had been turned from him, his face had returned to normal. There was no sign of his white bony jaw now. I knew I hadn’t imagined the abomination of his lower face devoid of flesh, but was unable to comprehend what had happened.
“Aghhh –“ I gasped Reaching for the latch on the door. I just wanted to get away from him, out into the corridor where I could find other people…safety amongst normal human beings. My fingers closed around the metal latch and I yanked hard. Nothing happened. The door remained firmly closed as though it had been super-glued shut. I yanked again but to no avail.
“Sit down Thomas; you will give yourself a heart attack.”
I turned back towards the stranger. “Who are you? – what are you?” I amended.
Slowly he closed his book leaving it lying on his lap. “Perhaps you remember my name.” he said still as calm as he had been when he had been talking through exposed lipless teeth. “John Manners.” He added watching my face.
My mind searched the recesses of my memories. John Manners, John Manners – yes the name was familiar.
He spoke once more, “John Manners Builder and Decorator…No job too small…free estimates…”
His voice trailed off as he saw comprehension dawning on my face.
“But you died – you died years ago.” I gasped.
“Not strictly true Thomas.” He said, “Yes I am dead but I didn’t just die did I? If you remember I committed suicide.”
I stared at him. I knew my mouth was gaping but then that was to be expected. I was talking to a dead man. Oh God I was trapped in a railway carriage with a dead man.
“Right after you ruined my business Thomas – I committed suicide when my world fell apart…all because of you.” He went on. “Have you any idea the Hell you put me through because you wouldn’t pay what you owed me? Twelve hundred and fifty pounds, a small amount for someone like you. A successful Author who would be paid ten times that amount just as a retainer from your publisher. To me it was what paid my bills, what put food on my table —.”
“Stop this!” I cried, I don’t know who put you up to this or how you tricked me into believing what I just saw…” I still had my hand on the handle of the carriage door and tried once again to force it open. It still didn’t budge. I gave him what I hoped was a ferocious glare. “You will be sorry when we get back to Lydney.” I snarled. “I’ll have you arrested and charged with…with…”
He smiled, “You can forget about returning to Lydney Thomas.” His words were so quietly spoken, I barely heard them.
“What? What do you mean?” Once again I yanked at the handle. “This is a pleasure trip.” I said. “A couple of hours, no more. We will be back in a little while and then you can look out.” My courage was beginning to return. This was just a stunt of some sort. I had no idea how or why someone would pull such a vile trick on a stranger but there had to be a plausible answer.
The smile never left his face as he spoke once again, “You will never see Lydney again Thomas. There is only one way you will ever leave this train.” He looked towards the opposite door. I followed his gaze and saw the countryside whizzing past. Flat fields and trees flashed by. “There is the door Thomas. You may leave whenever you want. This is not the ‘ New Year Mince Pie Special’. This is your journey to Hell. A journey that will never end. It will go on and on with just me for company…unless…” He trailed off.
My bravado was again beginning to desert me to be replaced with a growing fear that this may not be a stunt after all. Was this really John Manners, a man who I recalled reading about a few years ago when he had indeed committed suicide? My eyes narrowed as I looked at him, “What do you mean…unless?”
He gave a casual flick of his hand towards the door, “You can stop this journey right now Thomas.” He paused. “You can step off this train whenever you want.” The smile never left his face, “Just open the door and step out and it will all end.”
I gave a humourless bark of laughter. “Yes, Right. I’ll just open the door and walk off a moving train. You may be bloody insane but I’m not.”
He shrugged and lifting up his book, opened it and began to read. I had had enough of this. I lunged for him making a grab for his throat. With renewed horror I felt my hand pass through his skin and my fingers closing around his bony spine. His eyes held mine totally unfazed as mine widened in panic. I released him and staggered backwards looking at not a human neck but in a space where it should have been I could now see only the vertebra of his spine. Oh God would this nightmare never end. I came up against the carriage door which momentarily shuddered against my weight. All at once my dealings with John Manners flashed through my mind. I had indeed refused to pay him some years ago for work he had carried out at my home. I had complained that his work was shoddy and I refused to pay hoping he would reduce the bill. It was a ploy I had used many times with tradesmen and it usually worked. In his case it ended up with me paying nothing at all as within weeks he had killed himself by jumping from the old Severn Bridge into the cold grey waters of the River Severn. I had congratulated myself with the outcome never once considering that it was possibly my fault that he couldn’t face bankruptcy.
As he looked at me impassively, his open throat gaping above his collar I was now facing the realisation that it was indeed my fault that this man had ended his life.
He spoke again and it was with a fascinated abhorrence that I saw the white vertebrae bobbing up and down with his words. “This journey will never end unless you choose to leave this train Thomas…” He sighed and I heard the faint whistling of the air passing over the bones of his throat. “The choice is yours.”
With those words he bent his head and went back to reading his book.
The next edition of the Citizen Newspaper had a short report about the tragic death of local business man and author Thomas Carter who it appeared had fallen from one of the carriages of the New Year Mince Pie Special on New Years’ Day. There had been no witnesses to the accident as Mr Carter had been travelling alone in one of the carriages.
Maureen Turner Bio:
I am a wife, mother and grandmother living in rural Gloucestershire, U.K. I started writing my debut novel ‘First Breath’ about a year before I was made redundant. I had worked as a Classroom Assistant for twenty five years. It seemed an ideal opportunity to finish the book and following several rejections I decided to self publish. Since that time I have written a further three novels and two collections of short stories. At present I am compiling a third selection of shorts whilst penning another novel. My writing choice is Fantasy but I also enjoy delving into other genres.
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