The Path

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: February 26, 2018

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Submitted: February 26, 2018

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THE PATH  by Steve Harrison

 

The sound of the train whistle was Stanley Mason’s signal. He shuffled slowly forward, closer to the edge of the platform. Another few inches and the toes of his polished black shoes would hang over the edge. He grunted in satisfaction. They were so clean he could see his blurred reflection in the shiny leather. It just wouldn’t do to look shabby.

He pulled his hands from his pockets and straightened his greatcoat and adjusted his tie. Then he breathed on his hands and rubbed them together. England had been cold, but the Southern Highlands here in Australia were not much better in winter. Stanley had wanted to go north when they migrated, but his wife said Bowral reminded her of home, so they had settled here. It was fine for most of the year – warm or hot, just as he liked it – but the winter months made him long for warmer climes.

Stanley shuffled a little more and his shoes poked over the edge. There were a few other people on the platform, but he was careful to move slowly so that they didn’t notice him. Like his shoes, the rails below were shiny with use and they vibrated slightly as the unseen train approached. He nodded slightly. Determined.

It was true, just like they said. Memories flooded his mind. Not the memories of his privileged, middle-class youth. There was little of interest in those years. But the war. Oh, the war. That was when a man felt alive. The battle for North Africa, fighting alongside Monty. Then across the Med and the chase through Europe as they raced that other glory hunter, Patton. Glory days, indeed.

The train whistle cut through the cold air, startling Stanley. As did another whistle twelve years ago, two days before the end of the war, the screeching sound of a shell an instant before it blew his jeep off the road. The blast shattered both his shoulder and his dreams. Invalided out, he remembered bitterly. He had been a good soldier. The army was his life, the only place he ever felt at home. And it was all over at twenty-five.

The train was close now. He couldn’t see it behind the trees, but he could smell it. He felt a buzz of excitement, just like when a train arrived at a platform heaving with soldiers. Stanley rocked on his heels in anticipation of another, final adventure.

On the surface there was nothing to complain about in the years since the war. He went back to his very portable profession of accounting and lived a comfortable life with a loving wife and daughter. But the boredom, oh, the boredom. He watched as old army comrades went off to serve in Korea, then Malaya and, more recently, Suez. They were living, and sometimes dying, the life denied him. A life he deserved.

And then there were the nightmares. Those terrible dreams that started just after the war. Occasional at first, they grew in number and intensity over the years and he knew they would eventually drive him mad. Had perhaps already driven him mad. More recently he had begun to experience them during the day. He would suddenly be gripped by terror and would run and run and run, but could never get away. The horrified screams and anguished faces surrounded him and pressed in on him, desperate, bloody hands clawing at his face…

But no more. Stanley turned to see the train coming toward him, the tracks singing a high-pitched lament as the driver applied the brakes. He leaned forward over the tracks, past the point of no return and was vaguely aware of a woman’s scream behind him as the world thankfully exploded in a flash of painless, blinding light.

 

Not a flash, thought Stanley, simultaneously puzzled because the light had not died down and by the fact he was still able to think. He was in the light, so bright it was all he could see. But it didn’t hurt his eyes. It was a warm, nice – yes, that was the word – nice light.

His eyes adjusted and he could see he was not alone. Other indistinct shapes, people, stood around him, not close, but not far either. And no, he realised, they were not standing. Everyone was moving. It didn’t feel like movement. He just knew. And a good look around saw they really were everywhere, above and below, a motionless crowd in motion. It felt nice, a very unfamiliar feeling for Stanley.

Then other shadowy figures began to appear. They would pop up in front of a shape, then both figures would vanish. Only a few though; the majority of the crowd continued on their journey.

A figure of a man appeared in front of Stanley and he could no longer see anyone else. Just this man and the light. A short, stout man. Stanley was a head taller.

“Hello, old chap,” said the man. Stanley could see him clearly now, as though a lace curtain had been pulled aside. He had a round face with a ruddy complexion, in his late fifties or perhaps early sixties with a smartly clipped moustache. He was also wearing a military style uniform and carried a clipboard under his arm. He appeared very familiar and reminded Stanley of Colonel Philpott and a number of similar types he knew during the war. What’s more, he felt comfortable with this man.

“Come along with me, would you?” asked the man, very old school, officer class.

Stanley would have happily obliged, but they were somewhere else without him consciously moving. The light was not so bright here, a little grey, though there was nothing else to see but this man.

The man pulled the clipboard from his armpit, held it in front of him and read, “Stanley Ogden Mason.” His eyes flicked up at Stanley. “You can call me Farnsworth. How d’you do.”

“Hello,” answered Stanley. He went to shake hands, but Farnsworth appeared not to notice. “Do I know you?”

Farnsworth grinned. “We ensure that you see someone who makes you feel comfortable. As you can imagine, we host some very traumatised individuals here, so we try to ease them along, you know.”

“We?” asked Stanley.

“Helpers. Everyone who has trodden the path to the very end is a helper.”

Farnsworth held up a hand to stop another question and looked again at his clipboard.

“Your journey along the path, old bean, was interrupted when you stepped in front of that train.” Farnsworth shook his head sadly. “Not the best decision for your long term wellbeing.”

“What do you…”

“You will soon be able to ask questions,” interrupted Farnsworth, a slight edge coming into his voice. “But first I must show you what lies at the end of the path.”

Stanley was back in the bright light, floating, surrounded by beings, billions of them. He knew them all. He was them all. A feeling of pure bliss enveloped him. He was where he was meant to be. He was home. A real home. A place of ecstasy.

Then it was gone. He was back with Farnsworth. Stanley felt an overwhelming and heartbreaking sense of loss and released a heart-rending sob. “Send me back!” he wailed. “Please, I beg you, please…”

“Sorry, old fruit. No can do. Now stop that blubbering and pull yourself together. Stiff upper lip and all that, eh?”

Stanley instantly responded, feeling ashamed of his reaction. The bliss – he fought back tears at the thought of it – was still attainable. Hadn’t Farnsworth said it lay at the end of the path and that his journey along the path had only been interrupted? He must hold his nerve. Something Stanley prided himself on.

“What must I do?” he asked.

“After all those lives, you still have to ask.” Farnsworth studied him. “Listen to me, old boy. You must follow the path through your lives. You haven’t had a good run, obviously, but you are still not progressing the way you should.”

“I lived a good life,” protested Stanley. “I…I went to church every Sunday.”

Farnsworth snorted. “Did you, indeed?” He checked his clipboard. “Yes, here it is, attended church every Sunday. Laudable effort, old chum, but sadly and completely irrelevant. You can’t buy your way to the end of the path.”

Stanley was enveloped by misery. “I’ve been a good man…”

“Stop that!” snapped Farnsworth. “I know everything about you. And look at me when I am talking.” He fixed Stanley with a steely gaze. “You were not a good man. You mistreated your family with indifference. You gave no thought to how they would survive without you, no thought to the people who witnessed your suicide. Do you have any idea of how traumatic that was for them?”

Sobbing, Stanley covered his face with his hands. “But I couldn’t take the nightmares any mo…”

“Dammit, man! You earned those nightmares. You deserved them.”

“If only I could have stayed in the army,” cried Stanley.

“Just as well you didn’t,” said Farnsworth coldly. He looked again at his clipboard. “Do you remember November the second, nineteen forty-two? Couple of days after the battle of El Alamein?”

Stanley said nothing.

“I see you do.”

Stanley gasped. He was standing with Farnsworth at the top of a sand dune. Below them a ragtag band of exhausted soldiers staggered through the sand under the burning sun.

“How many Germans?” asked Farnsworth. He looked at the men, then at his clipboard. “Twenty-seven.”

Stanley watched as several British army vehicles raced across the sand and stopped in front of the soldiers. He saw his younger self step out of the lead jeep, revolver in hand, and wave for the rest of his men to join him.

“Did you know twenty-one of those German men were married? That seventeen of them had children? One had eight, you know, three boys and five girls. That one, sitting on the sand with his hands in the air.” Farnsworth pointed.

“They all knew the German army was beaten. That’s why they are unarmed. And that’s why most of them are smiling and laughing. They can now surrender and one day be reunited with their loved ones.”

“We were scouts,” Stanley protested, “we weren’t equipped to take prisoners.”

“So you discussed killing them with your men. Right in front of your prisoners.”

Stanley and Farnsworth were now down between the dunes, only feet away from the young Stanley and his sergeant.

“Do you remember how sergeant McCluskey argued with you.

McClusky was outraged and red in the face. “Ye cannae, Captain, ye cannae do it!”

“He was right,” said Farnsworth. “And you knew he was right. Those men would have sat there for days waiting for the main army, they were carrying enough food. But he was wasting his breath.”

Stanley watched himself reply to McClusky. “We have our orders, sergeant. I will not allow these Germans to jeopardise our mission.”

“Did you know McClusky hung himself five years later. He hated himself for not killing you at that moment, when he realised what you were.”

Now Stanley and Farnsworth stood directly in front of the Germans as young Stanley turned to face them. There was something cold, black and horrible in those eyes. Something very familiar, yet unsettling. He was enjoying himself.

“Shoot them!” he screamed.

But his men wouldn’t do it. The Germans had realised something was wrong and some of them panicked. Young Stanley snatched a machine gun and sprayed those soldiers who were running away, more than half of them. The gun was empty, so he grabbed another and shot the remaining eight who were on their knees, begging for their lives.

“Much easier targets, eh?” said Farnsworth.

As his men looked on, young Stanley walked through the carnage and finished off the survivors with his revolver.

Stanley and Farnsworth were back in the light.

“You kept a steady hand, I’ll give you that,” allowed Farnsworth. “It must have been difficult with the distractions of all those agonised screams and pleading going on. Still, you got your campaign medal in the end, so it was all worth it, eh?”

“There was no other choice,” whispered Stanley. He felt cold and empty.

“Well, that’s where you are wrong, old thing. Choice is very much what the path is about.” Farnsworth softened. “It is time to go.”

“Go?”

“To your new life, old sausage. Back on the path. Tally ho! And all that.”

“But what do I do?”

“You must be better, old boy. You will have no conscious memory of this meeting, but the essence of what you must do is inside everyone. For want of a better word, it is goodness. And goodness, as you grow into your new life, will present itself to you. You must embrace it to progress.”

“And if it doesn’t work? Will I go to hell?”

“Remaining on the path is the same thing, old chum. I have shown you what is waiting for you and it is within you to progress. It will not be easy, judging by your record…” - Farnsworth frowned at the clipboard – “… but it can be done.”

Stanley tried to smile. Was there really hope? He saw that Farnsworth was fading away. “Where am I going?” asked Stanley.

“You will be glad to hear it’s somewhere very warm.” Farnsworth again consulted his clipboard. “You will be born a boy again, close to the time that Stanley died.” Farnsworth’s voice sounded distant and fragmented. “…wealthy family… Arabia…”

I will progress, thought Stanley, I will.

“…bin Laden…”

The light switched off.

THE END


© Copyright 2018 Steve Harrison. All rights reserved.

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