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Short story By: Philip Roberts

Man surprised to see an ancient train pull up gets on, not realising it is a ghost train.

Submitted:Dec 19, 2010    Reads: 95    Comments: 0    Likes: 0   

Steve Brooks stood shivering on Flinders Street Station, at 10:11 PM, regretting his decision to work overtime that night.
"Oh Jesus!" he said after taking a sip of the god-awful vending machine coffee.
He glanced at his wristwatch and saw that he had been at the station for nearly twenty minutes. The train should be here soon...I hope! he thought. But, as though reading his thoughts, the station attendant wandered down from his box a few metres away to say, "Word's just come through, the train's been delayed outside Camberwell another forty minutes."
Steve gave the attendant a wry smile, thinking, So what else is new. The damn trains have never run to schedule in my lifetime, and I'm nearly forty-five!
When at last the train did arrive Steve shambled forward and collided with the door. "What the...?" he said. He staggered backward, wondering why the electronic doors hadn't opened.
Seeing the blood-red colour of train and the funny thin, sliding doors, he realised, "My god it's a red rattler!" The red rattler or "Tait trains" were Victoria's first suburban trains. Introduced in 1921, they had lasted sixty-one years, till in 1982 the government had finally phased them out.
"But I haven't seen one of these old rattlers since," Steve said. He had to stop to consider for a moment before saying, "Since the early 1980s. A good fifteen years. Surely they're not bringing them back into service?"
He remembered wistfully as a boy doing the "red rattler crouch" in winter. The rattlers had seats set out in pairs facing each other, with one small door, sliding open to the left between each pair of seats. By the 1960s the rattlers had been in use forty years and their catches were all shot. So as the train hit a bend the doors would all suddenly slide open. Or if already open slide shut with a bang rather than a rattle. So when it was freezing or raining it was necessary to hold the door shut and people would place themselves strategically around the carriage to try to cover all the doors in the compartment. But since an arm would soon be aching, it was easier to crouch down in the seat and put up your left foot to hold the door shut.
Steve smiled as he recalled seeing whole rows of accountants and professional people on the way to work all demeaning themselves by doing the "red rattler crouch" in preference to freezing. Suddenly having to sit up to allow the doors to slide open as they came into the next station; then they would crouch back down, left foot raised, as the train pulled out again.
As he stepped aboard he smiled to himself and said, "The red rattler crouch."
"Yes, I remember it too," said a voice in the carriage.
Startled, he turned and saw a familiar face. "Tod Savage," Steve said in amazement. "I haven't seen you in...?"
"In yonks," agreed Tod.
"It must be fourteen or fifteen years, since the red rattlers were." He paused for a second, "Were supposedly phased out."
"Yes, it has been a long time, hasn't it?" said Tod walking across to him. "Funny, it only seems like yesterday," he added wistfully.
Tod started to sit next to Steve. Then as the train lurched into motion all the doors slammed open with a crash. Tod said, "Sorry to be unsociable, but I'd better sit over here." And as Steve crouched down in his seat to hold the door shut with his left foot, Tod sat diagonally opposite him on the other side of the paired seats, doing likewise.
"God only knows what this thing'll sound like going through the underground?" Steve said. "I seem to recall these rattlers were, supposedly, phased out before the City Loop opened in the early '80s."
"It'd probably sound like an endless creeping barrage," agreed Tod. "With the already deafening rattle amplified by the tunnels...But I don't think we're going to find out."
"What do you mean?" Steve asked. Then he realised the train hadn't gone out toward Richmond to the nearest Loop entrance. Instead it was going down Flinders Street, toward Spencer Street.
Lord! thought Steve. It's weird enough to find myself on a red rattler in 1997! But a red rattler to Spencer Street! Aloud he said, "I haven't been to Spencer Street Station since the early 1980s."
"Who has?" asked Tod Savage. "That's when the underground Loop opened, remember?"
"Yes, but..." began Steve. He stopped as he realised what Tod meant. "Of course, they built one of the Loop entrances in the wrong spot."
"That's right," said Tod with a mirthless smile. "The first is between Richmond and Flinders Street, so the other should have been between Flinders Street and Spencer Street Stations."
"But the idiots placed it one station further out," Steve said, watching the pink and white neon-topped towers as they rattled down Flinders Street. "Between Spencer Street and North Melbourne Stations."
"So whichever way the trains enter the Loop, they always bypass Spencer Street Station," Tod finished for him.
"Which explains why I haven't been to Spencer Street Station since the Loop opened."
"Exactly," said Tod. "A pity. Spencer Street used to be such a beautiful station. The second largest in Victoria; the fourth or fifth largest in Australia. Yet because of a bungle by four state premiers during the twenty year planning and building stage -- Henry Bolte, Rupert Hamer, Lindsay Thompson, and John Cain -- that none of them noticed the error, Spencer Street Station has been reduced to a ghost station."
"God only knows what it'll look like after a decade and a half virtually out of service," Steve said.
They heard the clatter of doors up and down the train rattling open as the train roared round the sharp bend from Flinders to Spencer Street. Then, "My God!" said Steve as they finally pulled into Spencer Street Station. "It's even more dilapidated than I expected."
Dust and detritus ankle-deep covered the platform. The station sign had broken free at one end and hung down, almost touching a wooden bench.
"Surely no one can actually work here anymore?" Steve said, trying to peer up into the attendant's box on the platform. He thought he could see someone moving about in the dully-lit box, but couldn't be sure. "Oh well, I guess we'll never know."
But instead of starting again almost immediately, the train stayed put. And a metallic-sounding voice boomed over the intercom: "Due to a minor electrical fault, the departure of the train on platform number five has been delayed for at least fifteen minutes."
"Oh no!" said Steve. "It'll be well after midnight when I get home."
Tod Savage only shrugged his shoulders resignedly. "I'm not worried," he said. He picked up a newspaper from the seat beside him. "I've got my paper to read. Would you like the sports' section? I seem to recall you're a sports fan. You can see how the Aussie cricketers are doing against the West Indies."
"No thanks, I think I'll get out for a few minutes and stretch my legs. I've still got a long train ride ahead."
"Yes, a long train ride ahead," agreed Tod.
Steve opened the rattly door of the Tait train and stepped out.
When he stepped down onto the station his feet sank to the ankles in dust and detritus. He was tempted to turn round and step straight back into the train.
"My God!" he said. He stared in horror at the eight to ten centimetre thick layer coating the platform. Dust, orange peels, rotten fruit, discarded candy wrappers, and plastic and Styrofoam cups covered the platform from one end to the other.
"What a stinking mess," he said. He wrinkled up his nose at the smell of death and decay as he tentatively took a step forward. "How could it have got this bad since I was here last?" Then he thought, Still it's close to fifteen years since I was here last. Since anyone was here last? But then as he continued forward he thought, But in that case, why did the train stop here tonight? Spencer Street has been a ghost station since the early '80s. No trains are supposed to stop here anymore.
To assure himself he looked round and saw the red rattler behind him and thought, Well at least some trains must still stop here.
Tentative of every step, as though afraid of what he might step in, Steve continued forward. He sniffed at the musty air, sneezed, and thought, Well it certainly smells as though no one has been here in over a decade.
Despite wanting to look down to watch where he was stepping, Steve forced himself to look up, to avoid any allergic reaction to the puffs of dust that sprayed up each time one of his feet touched down. It's like walking on eight or ten centimetres of talcum powder, he thought.
"Talcum powder containing rotting oranges, apples, and dead birds," he said aloud. He stared in horror at the carcases of half a dozen sparrows and one great sea-gull, which he had almost stepped on. My God it has to be over a decade since anyone else has been here. Maybe I'm crazy to be walking in this? He thought, wondering if it were dangerous. Maybe I could catch something?
Then as something long and black scuttled out from beneath a potato crisp packet centimetres in front of him, to disappear down the side of the platform under the train, he thought, Or be bitten or stung by something!
Despite his lifelong dread of spiders and other hard-shelled creepy-crawlies, he forced himself onward. He carefully sidestepped any of the long, gossamer threads of spider web that hung down seemingly by the million from the rafters of the platform canopy.
As his stomach began to rumble, he thought, Yes I guess I am long overdue for my dinner. Looking round the platform, he saw a brown metal vending machine and said, "I wonder if it would still have any candy in it?" And whether it would still be safe to eat! he thought as he wandered across toward the glass-fronted machine.
He stared in at the assortment of candy bars, potato crisps, and corn chips. Some of the bags had burst open, their contents scattered through the metal coils of the machine. "But the others look all right," he said. He started to hunt through his coat pockets uncertain if he had any change with him.
"After all, as long as they're still in their foil, they'll last forever, won't they?" he said, wondering if it were true. "They might be a bit stale, but I've eaten stale chocolate bars before."
For a moment it looked as though the decision would be taken out of his hands, as he struggled to find any coins. The new vending machines on Flinders Street Station could take $5 and $10 notes as well as coins. But there was no slot for notes on this rusty machine. It looks at least fifty years old! Steve thought. Machines clever enough to handle notes only go back a few years. In this country at any rate.
Then he located half a dozen twenty-cent and fifty-cent coins in an inner coat pocket.
"Well here goes nothing," he said dropping a fifty-cent coin into the slot. The coin was already rattling through the works of the vending machine when Steve heard a rustling inside the machine.
"What the...?" he said. Steve peered through the grimy glass as the rustling continued. After a moment he detected movement in a bag of corn chips near the bottom of the machine. He bent down until he was at eye level with the bag....
Which suddenly burst open to reveal the long-whiskered snout of a huge brown rat.
"Jesus!" cried Steve. He jumped backwards in fright and fell over in the thick carpet of dust, which cushioned his fall, but sprayed up over him as it fell back to earth.
"Oh God!" he cried as he burst into a fit of sneezing for a few seconds. You bloody idiot! he cursed himself as he quickly climbed back to his feet, ever wary of other scuttling things that might be lurking beneath the dust. Rats are omnivores, he reminded himself, not carnivores. They mainly live off fruit and nuts. Forcing himself to look at the rat in the vending machine he added, And corn chips when they can get them. Rats won't eat meat unless they're starving. And even then they usually won't attack humans.
"Isn't that right?" he said to the rat. At the sound of his voice it looked up at him. Then after a second it went back to nibbling the large yellow corn chip which it held in its front paws.
"Well I suppose I'd better forgo any snacks from this machine," said Steve. He pressed the reject button twice and scooped out his fifty-cent coin. At the sound of the coin ejecting the rat looked up and squeaked from fright, but stayed where it was. Obviously reluctant to give up its cache of goodies until certain it was under attack.
"Relax. Go back to your meal," said Steve pocketing his money.
Leaving the vending machine, he walked over to the back of the wooden attendants' box. Upon which were plastered numerous timetables in glass frames. "1980, '81, '82?" he read the dates off the timetables. "Well they certainly haven't been changed in a decade and a half."
He looked up at the back of the attendants' box in dismay. Once one of the highlights of Spencer Street Station had been the cheery yellow plaster tiles covering the outside of the attendants' box and the walls of the ramps up to street level. Now most of the tiles had fallen off and lay broken in the dirt on the platform, leaving behind squares of hard mortar where they had been. Or else the tiles were cracked or broken, or coated in thick, green fungus. "All because four state premiers, and maybe a dozen ministers of transport, were all too dumb to pick out the fact that one of the entrances to the underground City Loop was placed in the wrong spot!" Steve cursed them aloud.
He reached out to touch one broken tile, but quickly pulled his hand away as something scuttled around inside the crack.
"Surely no one actually works here anymore?" said Steve. But an announcement came over the intercom earlier? he thought. But then he realised, That could have been piped through from Flinders Street Station. As happens with small country stations where it's no longer regarded as cost efficient to have staff located.
He had started to go to investigate, but suddenly felt an itching in his bladder and knew he had to relieve himself. Let's hope I've got time before the train leaves! he thought. It will be 1:00 AM by the time I get home as it is, without missing the last train and having to camp down in this rat's nest.
Taking no chances he set off at a run past the attendants' box without looking round to see if it was occupied. As he ran the centimetres of dust puffed up around him, causing him to wheeze and cough.
Let's hope it's not so bad at the upper level? he thought racing up the lamp as best he could, sliding back occasionally in the dust. All the fast-food stalls were locked up for the night. But that's only to be expected, Steve thought, knowing it must be nearly midnight. But he noticed the wire guard-rails were heavy in rust and thought, Surely they couldn't open them with that degree of rust?
Just a few more paces! he assured himself as his bladder almost released. Then he was pushing open the squeaky door of the men's room, relieved the upper level was less grimy than the lower.
He grimaced as he struggled not to let loose until he had unzipped and taken out his penis. "Finally," he said, relieved as he let go at last toward the rust-stained urinal. Well this certainly hasn't been cleaned in years! he thought, trying hard not to gag on the overpowering stench of stale urine and faeces from the cubicles behind him. In the half dark of the one working light in the room, he scanned the rust-pocked chromium of the urinal in dismay.
"This was once such a beautiful railway station!" Steve said as he finished up.
It was only as he was zipping up again, that Steve had the feeling that he was not alone. Turning to his right he saw a tall, pale figure standing at the other end of the urinal in darkness.
"I'm sorry," Steve apologised, "I thought I was...."
He stopped to stare in horror at the sight before him....
A brittle, yellowy skeleton on the brink of collapse from decay, standing up as though it were using the urinal. One hand in position to hold its penis out. Although it had no penis or bladder to empty, and no urethra to empty it with.
"Holy Jesus!" cried Steve, startled by the reverberant echo of his words in the cavernous lavatory.
As the sound of his cry rang out, the aged skeleton started to twitch as though coming to life.
"Oh Jesus!" said Steve watching in horror. Too terrified to run, he stood rooted to the spot, expecting it to step down off the iron grate and turn toward him.
Instead the skeleton began to shudder and slowly collapse in on itself; so fragile with age that even the echoing of Steve's voice was enough to send it crashing into a pile of dust across the metal urinal, iron grate, and tiled floor.
As the skeleton collapsed Steve started running toward the door. "I've got to get back to the train," he said, "there's no way I could possibly stay in this hellish place overnight."
In the dim night he tripped and slid halfway down the ramp, before managing to get back to his feet again. Then -- not bothering to rub himself down -- he raced down to the platform level, back toward the train.
As Steve approached the small, glass-fronted door of the attendants' box, he saw a blue-uniformed Vic-Rail officer bent over the wooden bench along the back of the box. The man was poring over a plethora of faded timetables scattered across the desk.
Tapping gently upon one of the glass panes in the door, Steve said, "Excuse me, do you know...?"
"Yes?" said the attendant, turning round toward him.
"I wondered if...?" began Steve. He stopped in horror, staring in disbelief at the sight before him.
"Yes, what is it?" demanded the rotting corpse wearing the blue uniform.
My God, I must be hallucinating! thought Steve, staring in shock at the yellowing skull from which a few mouldering strips of dried flesh hung. A baby-blue eye stared from the left socket, the right socket empty, but for a large, yellow-white maggot squirming around.
"What is it?" repeated the lich. It took a lurching step toward the front of the attendants' box.
"Holy Jesus!" cried Steve, turning. Too quickly, so that he fell and sprained his left ankle.
As he fell the dead railway worker stepped down from the box and reached out a rotting hand toward him.
"No! Get away from me!" Steve shrieked. Despite the agony in his left ankle he pulled himself to his feet. Then he started half running, half limping down the station toward the red rattler.
Oh my God, I've got to warn Tod! Steve thought. What kind of insanity of death and decay have we got ourselves into?
"Tod! For God's sake, Tod!" shouted Steve as he lurched down the platform.
"Hey, wait up!" Steve heard the voice of the lich call. And behind him he heard heavy footsteps and the puff-puff-puff of dirt and detritus spraying up at each step as the corpse staggered after him.
"Tod! For Christ's sake! We've got to get out of here!" Steve shouted. He pulled open the sliding door and half fell, half leapt into the blood-red train.
"Got to get out of here?" echoed Tod Savage, obviously not understanding.
"My God he's following me! That damn thing is following me! It can't be far behind me!" cried Steve. Yet when he sat up, with Tod's help, there was no sign of the mouldering station attendant.
"But he was..." began Steve. He stopped as he heard the whistle to start the train. Looking down the platform to his left he saw the lich, no longer interested in him, standing three or four carriages away, raising the white flag in its left talon to start the train rattling out of the station at last.
Realising Tod had also looked back at the sound of the whistle, Steve asked, "You saw it too, didn't you?"
"Of course I saw him," said Tod, sounding unconcerned. He returned to his seat and picked up his newspaper again.
"How can you say you saw that...that thing and then sit there reading?" demanded Steve.
"Relax, it comes as a shock to all of us at first."
"What comes as a shock?" demanded Steve. He stared in disbelief and horror at two skeletons sitting further down the carriage.
Seeing his friend's terrified look, Tod handed him part of the newspaper and said, "I think you'd better read that."
"But what about them?" demanded Steve.
"Oh don't worry about them," said Tod. "They're perfectly harmless. They're what we call the Older Ones...."
"Older Ones?" echoed Steve. He stopped, shocked, as he read what Tod had handed him.
It was the obituary section of the paper. Circled in red ink was "Steven Jonathan Brook 1952-1997."
"I'm afraid you never even made it to Flinders Street Station tonight," explained Tod. "You were cut down by a red sports car crossing over the intersection at Swanston and Flinders Streets."
"Never made it...cut down...?" muttered Steve in disbelief. Yet the obituary repeated what he had just been told.
"This is what you might call the death train. Express from Spencer Street to Heaven, Nirvana, Mecca, or wherever you believe in."
"What if you don't believe in anything? If you're an atheist?" asked Steve thinking, I must be going mad! Or lying in a coma in hospital dreaming all this!
"Then you're doomed to ride the red rattler to Spencer Street forever. That's their trouble," said Tod nodding back toward the two skeletons. "The Older Ones just never know when they've reached their station."
"But why a red rattler and why to Spencer Street?" demanded Steve.
"Why not. The red rattler is a dead train -- no longer in use. Likewise Spencer Street Station is now only a ghost station. So what better way to travel to Heaven, Mecca, or wherever?"
"But why...?" began Steve. He stopped as he noticed that instead of going on to North Melbourne, the train was turning off. "We're heading into a siding..." he said. Then he realised, "No, a tunnel. We're going down into the underground Loop after all."
Then he quickly realised, "No, it's much too large to be the claustrophobic Loop. The walls of the Loop almost touch the sides of the train." Whereas this tunnel seemed to have metres to spare all around the train.
At first there was near total darkness within the tunnel, for perhaps half a minute or so. But finally Steve called to Tod, "It's beginning to lighten up at last."
"Yes, I can see," agreed Tod.
"We're coming out into..." began Steve. He stopped in amazement at the great array of twinkling yellow lights. Like some kind of gigantic Christmas lights display, yet many times vaster than any Steve had ever seen before.
He stared at the lights for a moment before realising, "My God, they're not lights, they're stars."
"Of course they're stars," agreed Tod. "We have to pass through them to go up to Heaven, Mecca, Nirvana or wherever you plan to get off. It's nothing new to me; I've been through this before."
Unable to take his eyes away from the sight of the star-lit heavens the red train was now travelling through, Steve asked, "Don't tell me you're one of the atheists doomed to travel the red rattler to Spencer Street forever?"
"Good heavens, no. I died two years ago and went on to my reward. But I was sent back to help you through your ordeal."
"Then this is the only departure place from Australia?" asked Steve.
"Oh no, there's about twelve spread round Australia. This is just the only one in suburban Victoria."
As they spoke Steve hung out the open doorway of the train and watched the twinkling stars whiz past. Suddenly he was almost blinded as they approached a great luminous ball of yellow-white light.
"My God, looks like we're heading straight into the sun!" cried Steve. He collapsed back into his seat, tightly clenching his eyes against the glare.
"Relax," said Tod, "it's just our first stop."
© Copyright 2010
Philip Roberts


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