The cold clung; it infested his fingers and found its way into the heart of him. He pushed his spare hand into a trouser pocket and held his lamp up to the blackness before him. But he saw nothing. A squeal cut through the night and he jolted on the spot; carriages being stored on sidings for the night. The dull cracking of metal punctuated the silence that followed, and in the darkness he saw the red hot of cooling coal.
He had been handed the Christmas Eve shift but it hadn’t occurred to him to mind. All the lads had little ones to attend to, and he was just him. Besides it was a slow evening, and the world was shutting down, not much for him to do but stand, and wait. He looked up into the night sky, shining with stars; a smattering of Christmas lights put up just for him. It almost made the cold bearable.
From up ahead he heard the slow rumble of a train coming into stand, and he held his lamp aloft, readying to lead them in. But nothing came, no train, and still the rumbling grew. He turned in circles, looking for the source of the sound. It grew louder and louder, as though the train were bearing down on him. But still no train could be seen.
The noise became so loud that the world seemed to shake. He pressed his hands against his ears but still the sound thundered through. The hot breath of steam prickled his skin and he closed his eyes in pain, which only grew as he felt the fire, and the burning of coal against his skin. He screamed out in agony. But there was no escape. Through his closed eyes he could see bright lights pressing down on him, and they swallowed him up.
He awoke on the train tracks. He couldn’t tell how long he’d been there. He did not feel cold, or stiff. The stars had not shifted above him and the night was still heavy with darkness. He clambered awkwardly to his feet, and steadied himself. Looking around him he saw no trace of the train he felt he had seen. The only object paying witness was his lamp, which had smashed on the tracks. Bewildered, he looked up the tracks to the station. It was time for him to go home.
He looked hard into the distance, for the familiar glow of the shed lamp, but nothing could be seen. He stumbled forward, a step at a time. As his eyes adjusted he saw that the air was bathed in moonlight. He could pick out the tracks, and the trees that surrounded them. He felt sure there must be snow to come; the air was electric with feeling. What a beautiful night it was, he thought. Forgetting the train that wasn’t there, the injuries he couldn’t feel; what was he doing out here again? It didn’t matter. Oh, what a beautiful night it was.
As he moved closer to the shed the air brightened and he could see right through it. But there was no one there; no noise, no shadows to be seen. He turned to look around him, seeking out a friendly face. But there was no one, no sound at all in fact. How strange, no buckling of metal, no shuffling of birds in the trees. Perhaps he had slept into the morning. So dark though, and the stars, he looked up again, still hadn’t moved.
He put a hand to his head, and ran it through his hair as though to shake some sense into his mind. A memory lingered but did not show itself. There was something hazy, something that had happened that he should remember. But it didn’t occur to him to mind, he was just tired, confused. He should go find the lads at the pub. He walked through the shed, he felt fine on his feet now, nothing to worry about really.
He walked on to the station. All the lights were out, but his vision was as good as ever. He walked past the open side gate and up the ramp and on to the platform. No one there, but still the station doors were open. He wandered in. How strange, that the guards should have left it like this. Can’t think why they would have done that. Maybe they’d headed to the pub with the lads for a Christmas drink, and forgotten. He would go and tell them, get them to come back and shut up.
He walked through the station and out on to the empty lane. The cottages across the way were dark, he thought of the children waiting for Father Christmas. How sweet Christmas is when you’re a child. As he approached the main road he noticed no gas lamps had been lit, maybe the gas was off. Still the night was light enough for him to see The Station Inn not too far off, and the movement from within.
As he grew closer he began to pick out shapes moving behind the windows; figures in the smoke. It even seemed like that was all there was; smoke, a grey white haze, which walked, and whirled around itself. He narrowed his eyes as he approached, trying to recognise the people inside, but he could not. He stopped a few feet from the door. Everything inside the pub was dark, and seemed blurry and distant. He took a tentative step, and then another, until he was right up against the door.
He pressed his face against the glass, but still he couldn’t see. The shapes seemed like people, they seemed familiar. But they were like dark fog, just shadows of the people he thought he knew. He must know who they were. He placed a hand on the door handle and as he pushed down the noise from inside rushed out to greet him; a familiar roar of talking and drinking and laughter. His heart lifted and he made to push the door open, but he hesitated. There was something that didn’t feel right here. As if sensing his presence a shadow down the bar turned toward the door, and he froze in fright.
The shadow seemed to float toward the door. As it grew closer so it became a figure, with a flat cap, and a heavy gait. He felt a fresh cold wind blowing him forward, freezing his hand to the door handle. Somewhere in the heart of him he knew the figure that approached and it tore the breath from him. The man stopped on the other side of the door. But he did not seem like a man, he was blurred in his features, a shadow standing in a dark room. He peered out of the window, looking through him as he stood frozen in space.
He summoned up the courage to let go of the handle and duck to the ground. He closed his eyes and pressed himself against the door, hiding below the man’s sight. Then he heard a noise, and looked up to see the handle being worked, from the inside. His heart beat ferociously in his chest, and with a trembling hand he reached out and pushed the handle up, locking it in place. He braced himself for what might come next. But the pressure on the handle ceased, and the man on the other side of the door retreated.
He trembled in place, his legs pulled up tight against him. Where was he? What was this? He had felt the presence on the other side of the door; he had smelled its scent. He reached into his memories and pulled out an image. It was of his grandfather; his flat cap, his tobacco smell. His grandfather who had died working on the tracks, his grandfather who had been standing on the other side of the door. Waiting for him.
He shivered with cold, or so he thought. He had stopped being cold long ago, why was that? He got to his feet gently, backing away from the door, his eyes fixed on the figures inside. He found his way back to the road, looking around him for some kind of answer to where he was, when he was. This was all too strange, he shouldn’t be here. But then where should he be. He turned over his memories in his mind. Had he been on the tracks? Before he knew it he had picked up his feet and felt himself running back to the station, to whatever it was he had forgotten.
As he got closer to the station so his awareness grew, he didn’t want to be here. He needed to get back to where it all began. He ran quicker and further, through the still open gate, out on to the tracks. He ran in the direction he believed he’d come, and as he did the darkness grew. He slowed, stumbling on the gravel between the tracks. Eventually there was nothing but black, and he slowed to a stop.
He walked slowly, unsure of what he was looking for. Then his foot hit something soft and he looked down, to see himself. There he was, lying prone on the train tracks. The terror hit his chest and he took a great lung full of air in panic. But he didn’t feel the cold air he breathed in. He couldn’t feel anything. He stumbled down to his knees and reached to his own body. But his arms were nothing but a dark fog that passed right through him. No, no, he muttered to himself. No! No! NO! He said louder and louder, over and over, until he sobbed.
He screamed into the night. The scream was loud and guttural and shook the world around him. As he wailed the world seemed to growl at him in response. The air began to shift and the ground rumbled. He shouted again; No! No! NO! NO! Then the rumbling grew, like a train approaching in the distance, coming faster and faster. As it bore down on him he pressed his hands to his ears and screamed. Then a memory reignited itself and he looked up into the lights approaching him. He turned to face the oncoming danger, and held his arms out to it.
He opened his eyes. He was lying on the tracks as before, his body was stiff and the cold gripped the core of him. He lifted his head and pain bolted through it, into the backs of his eyes. Sitting up, he raised a hand to the back of his head. He felt the gash and the blood that soaked through his shirt and sleeve. Raising his head he could see nothing in front of him, only black. But what was that? In the distance he heard the distant cooling of an engine, an owl hooting gently in the trees. He let out a deep breath of relief. Everything was as it should be.
But he was not content. He rose to his feet and stumbled down the tracks, his body heavy and cold, his head in agony. As he approached the shed he saw the familiar lamp glowing in the dark and his heart rose. He walked on to the station. There he walked up the ramp to the platform, the doors to the station were shut and so he walked back to the gate, but found it locked. His mind was starting to fog; he fumbled with the keys in his pocket, dropping them twice, before opening it.
He wandered up the lane, his vision blurring. The houses across the way had candles in the windows. He heard the quiet noises of family festivities. The gas lights gave a glow to the lane end and his courage grew. As he approached the light it burned his eyes, he stopped and looked to the ground. From his fingers blood was dripping to the floor, he held up his arm to examine it and found it red and sticky with the blood that ran down his neck. He grew unsteady on his feet; he wouldn’t be able to walk much longer.
He stumbled on to the main road and there he saw The Station Inn glowing in the darkness. As he grew closer he thought he could make out the people, the friends whose laughter lit up the pub within. He made his last faltering steps and took the door handle in a hand now slick with blood. Through the glass he saw something he recognised, something that felt right, and he pushed his weight against the door and fell through.
He did not see the friends that rushed to his side, and he did not hear the shouts of instructions, of concern, as the doctor was called for. He did not feel himself being lifted on to a table, or hear the worried cries of his family and friends. When he woke he was only vaguely aware of the whiskey that was placed in his hands, and the doctor who gave him a reassuring nod.
He tried to piece the night together through the blur of his memories. Where had he been? Where had he gone? Hadn’t he been right here all along? As friends gathered he tried to find the words to describe the night’s events. As he did his eyes wandered past the familiar faces and to a lowly figure in the distance. A shadow, in a flat cap, who leaned against the bar. A figure he recognised, who nodded and raised his drink to him, before disappearing into the smoke.