Stanly Longo stood shivering on Flinders Street Station, at 10:11 PM, regretting his decision to work overtime that night. "The train should be here soon...I hope!" he hoped. 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."
When at last the train did arrive Stanly shambled forward and collided with the door. "What the...?" he said. He staggered backward, wondering why the electronic doors hadn't opened. Then seeing the blood-red colour of train and the funny thin, sliding doors, he realised, "My word it's a red rattler!" The red rattler or "Tait trains" were Victoria's first suburban trains. Introduced in 1921, they lasted sixty-one years, till in 1982 the government finally phased them out.
"But I haven't seen one of these old rattlers since," Stanly 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. 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.
Stanly 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.
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. "Rodge Hunter," Stanly said in amazement. "I haven't seen you in...?"
"In yonks," agreed Rodge.
Rodge started to sit next to Stanly. Then as the train lurched into motion all the doors slammed open with a crash. Rodge said, "Sorry to be unsociable, but I'd better sit over here." And as Stanly crouched down in his seat to hold the door shut with his left foot, Rodge sat diagonally opposite him on the other side of the paired seats, doing likewise.
"God knows what this thing'll sound like going through the underground?" Stanly 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 Rodge. "But I don't think we're going to find out."
"What do you mean?" Stanly 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.
"It's weird enough to find myself on a red rattler in 2003!" thought Stanly. "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 Rodge Hunter. "That's when the underground Loop opened, remember?"
"Yes, but..." began Stanly. He stopped as he realised what Rodge meant. "Of course, they built one of the Loop entrances in the wrong spot."
"That's right," said Rodge 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," Stanly 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."
"Exactly," said Rodge. "A pity. Spencer Street used to be such a beautiful station; the second largest in Victoria. Yet because of a bungle by four state premiers during the twenty year planning and building stage, Spencer Street Station has been reduced to a ghost station."
"Lord only knows what it'll look like after two decades out of service," Stanly 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 Lord!" said Stanly 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?" Stanly 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.
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 Stanly. "It'll be well after midnight when I get home."
Rodge Hunter 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? You can see how the Aussie cricketers are doing against the Pakistanis."
"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 Rodge.
Stanly 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 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 twenty 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."
Tentative of every step, as though afraid of what he might step in, Stanly continued forward. Despite wanting to look down to watch where he was stepping, Stanly 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 Lord it has to be over a decade since anyone else has been here."
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. "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!" Stanly 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 Stanly heard a rustling inside the machine.
"What the...?" he said. Stanly 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 Stanly. 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 damn 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 Stanly. 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.
Leaving the vending machine, Stanly walked over to the back of the wooden attendants' box. Upon which were plastered numerous timetables in glass frames. "1981, '82, '83?" he read the dates off the timetables. "Well, they certainly haven't been changed in two decades."
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 too dumb to pick out the fact that one of the entrances to the underground Loop was placed in the wrong spot!" Stanly 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 Stanly. "But an announcement came over the intercom earlier?" 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 set off to investigate the upper levels of the station thinking, "Surely it can't be as delapidated up there."
The centimetres of dust puffed up around him, causing him to wheeze and cough as he walked up the steep ramp sliding back occasionally in the dust. All the fast-food stalls were locked up for the night. "But that's only to be expected," Stanly 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?"
He started forward toward the front of the station, when he suddenly had the feeling that he was not alone. Turning to his right he saw a tall, pale figure standing a few metres away in darkness.
"I'm sorry," Stanly apologised, "I thought I was...."
He stopped to stare in horror at the sight before him....At first glance it resembled anexceptionally tall, black-robed man. But then, even in the poor light, stanly could see that it was manlike, yet strangely unmanlike. Not a man, not a beast, with no face, only a curious cone-like head, and tentacle-like appendages, as well as several hand-like growths.
"Who...? What...?" asked Stanly, unable to take his eyes from the blasphemous entity even as he began backing (he hoped) toward the ramp to the platform below.
The creature stood its ground, not following after the terrified trabellor and made an unEarthly bellowing. A noise like howling wind when there was no wind. Although it seemed to have no eyes, as it howled at Stanly, two great orbs flared like burmimg coals where eyes should be.
"Jesus!" cried Stanly, startled by the reverberant echo of his words in the cavernous station.
As his cry rang out, the non-man took one tentative step toward Stanly, wavering a little, almost falling, as though unused to walking in its current form.
"Christ!" said Stanly, watching in horror. And, as the man-like thing started shamble-footed toward him, Stanly span round and ran toward the platform.
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 Stanly 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, Stanly said, "Excuse me, do you know...?"
"Yes?" said the attendant, in an oddly snakelike voice, turning round toward him.
"I wondered if...?" began Stanly. He stopped in horror, staring in disbelief at the sight before him. Although this one had a human face, the face was strangely waxen, like a mask. "Or a badly preserved face cut from a corpse and worn like a mask!" thought Stanly. And even as he thought it, the creature reached up with a sucker-tipped tentacle to remove the face as though taking off a hat, to reveal one giant eye placed oddly off-centre amid a foaming mass of jelly-like matter.
"My God, I must be hallucinating!" thought Stanly, staring in shock at the gigantic amorphous, protoplasmic mass, whose physical form seemed to be in a state of constant flux.
"Yes, what is it?" demanded the creature, taking a lurching step toward the front of the attendant's box.
"Holy Jesus!" cried Stanly, turning. Too quickly, so that he fell and sprained his left ankle.
As he fell the attendant stepped down from the box and reached out a sucker-tipped tentacle toward him.
"No! Get away from me!" Stanly 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 Lord, I've got to warn Rodge!" Stanly thought. "What kind of insanity have we got ourselves into?"
"Rodge! For God's sake, Rodge!" shouted Stanly as he lurched down the platform.
"Hey, wait up!" Stanly heard the sibilant, snakelike voice of the attendant call. And behind him he heard shuffling footsteps and the puff-puff-puff of dirt and detritus spraying up at each step as the attendant lurched after him.
"Rodge! For Christ's sake! We've got to get out of here!" Stanly shouted. He pulled open the sliding door and half fell, half leapt into the blood-red train.
"Got to get out of here?" echoed Rodge Hunter, obviously not understanding.
"My Lord he's following me! That damn thing is following me! It can't be far behind me!" cried Stanly. Yet when he sat up, with Rodge's help, there was no sign of the station attendant.
"But he was..." began Stanly. He stopped as he heard the whistle to start the train. Looking down the platform to his left he saw the attendant, no longer interested in him, standing three or four carriages away, raising the white flag in its left tentacle to start the train rattling out of the station at last.
Realising Rodge had also looked back at the sound of the whistle, Stanly asked, "You saw it too, didn't you?"
"Of course I saw him," said Rodge, 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 Stanly.
"Relax, it comes as a shock to all of us at first."
"What comes as a shock?" demanded Stanly.
"When we're chosen to ride the unholy railway as guests of the Great Old Ones."
"But the attendant?"
"Oh don't worry about old Ni."
"Ni?" asked Stanly.
"It's short for Nyarlathotep. But he's had dozens of names down the ages of man: the God of Resurrection, the Black Messenger of Karneter, the Mighty Messenger, the Messenger of the Great Old Ones, the Demon Messenger; the Stalker among the Stars, the Lord of the Desert, the Master of Evil, the Dark One, the Dweller in Darkness, the blind, faceless Crawling Chaos, the Howler in the Night, the Haunter of the Dark, the Blind Ape of Truth in ancient Egypt ... and others to numerous to enumerate. But recently we've been calling him the Unholy Attendant. Since he took over the running of Spencer Street Station, which he turned into what you might call a pick-up point for new devotees to Great Cthulhu, Father Yig, , Azathoth,and the other Great Old Ones....
"This is a very special train ... very special indeed. Express from Spencer Street to Yuggoth, then on to Yaddith, Kadath, Arctarus, Gak, Bethmoora, Sarnath, Lomar, Cathuria, Celephais, Hatheg-Kla, Ib, Zimmeria, Ulthar, Dylath-Leen, Leng, Irem, Geph, Nir, Y'ha-nthlei, Zar, or almost anywhere else you wish to go. In either the Dream World or the Waking World."
"What if I don't believe in any of those places?" asked Stanly, thinking, "I musst be going mad! Or lying in a coma in a hospital!"
"Then you're doomed to ride the red rattler to Spencer Street forever. That's their trouble," said Rodge, nodding back toward two dark-robed figures squatting, hunched forward oddly in seats at the opposite end of the carriage. "The Older Ones just never know when they've reached their destination."
"But why...?" began Stanly. 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 Stanly called to Rodge, "It's beginning to lighten up at last."
"Yes, I can see," agreed Rodge.
"We're coming out into..." began Stanly. 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 Stanly had ever seen before.
He stared at the lights for a moment before realising, "My Lord, they're not lights, they're stars."
"Of course they're stars," agreed Rodge. "We have to pass through them to go up to Yaddith, Kadath, Yuggoth, or wherever you plan to get off. It's nothing new to me; I've been through this before."
As Rodge spoke Stanly hung out the open doorway of the train and watched the twinkling stars whiz past. Until 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 Stanly. He collapsed back into his seat, tightly clenching his eyes against the glare.
"Relax," said Rodge, "it's just our first stop."
© Copyright 2011
Philip Roberts, Melbourne, Australia