The Journey Is Long
And the train waits for no-one.
There's blazing sunshine through a dirty window. Outside there is the constant stream of forests and fields all blurring into a sea of green - it's beautiful here. Here. Here is a place I do not know, not quiet yet.
I have awoken from a slumber deep and satisfying; there is rheum in the corner of my eyes and my brain hasn't focused yet, not fully at least.
So, at first, the sun and the outside world is mesmerising. Then, like the crashing wave of an ice cold sea, the truth hits me.
I am on a train I have no recollection of boarding. I am on a journey I have no need of taking. I look at my watch.
12:34pm, so it's afternoon.
There are other passengers aboard my carriage. Three in total. A brunette woman who sits furthest away from me, between the rows of seats I can only see a portion of her head. A teenager with headphones sits nearby - I cannot see them, not exactly, but I can hear them. Their music is loud and obnoxious and, for lack of better word, hardcore.
One man in a brown suit and black shoes sits two rows down from me and is the only person I can see fully. His head is buried in a newspaper so I do not see his face, but his black shoes are scuffed at the front and his brown suit is tarnished with the spill of toothpaste. I would tell him about it, but I have more pressing matters.
I am on a train I have no recollection of boarding. I am on a journey I have no need of taking. I pat down my pockets.
The shirt pocket is empty. My jacket is slung on the seat beside me but it too holds nothing but a used tissue and the foil of a chewing gum stick. I pat my trousers and find nothing - no belongings, no identification, and certainly no ticket.
I wonder if the guard will tell me off.
Outside, a bird flies along with the train. It moves at a rapid pace, it's wings flapping in time with the chugging of the train. We're going fast, I'm impressed.
The gentleman with the newspaper pulls a pen from his shirt pocket and the rustling of the paper draws my attention to him. I lean slightly in my seat to get a better view. He's attempting the crossword.
I watch as he methodically traces the lines of the clues, then brings the pen up to tap his bottom lip three times before connecting the ink to the paper and writing his answer. He does this three times.
His face is round and his cheeks are rosy, like someone who is perpetually warm. His eyes remind me of a bird's and the hair on his head could resemble a nest. It is brown and blond, but only seems to be thick around the edges - a small bald patch is making itself known. I am observing all of this when we make eye contact.
There's no smile, no acknowledgement, nothing in his eyes that indicates he was ever looking at me. I pull away, and look at my watch.
12:34pm. Has time really not moved at all? It feels as though I have been on this train for hours.
With a sudden discomfort I realise I need to use the restroom.
My eyes flicker to the end of the carriage and the doors that sit right behind me. There's no sign for a toilet, no neon light that reads: occupied. I slip out from my seat and stand up.
Only now does the gentleman with the newspaper peer up from his crossword. I catch his gaze before he can look away, "Are there any toilets on this train?"
The gentleman sets down his pen with the purpose of someone who's finished writing something important. I wonder how many times he has done this. He straightens his suit jacket once and smirks, "Only three hundred carts that way, lad." He points behind him. I believe I've misheard.
"Sorry, three hundred? Are you sure?"
"Aye lad. We're in the waiting rooms now, son. If you want the bathroom, you'll have to take the trip. Mind you, might miss your slot."
The way he smirks while he talks bothers me. The fact he knows something I don't bothers me. The fact I am on a train I have no recollection of boarding is bothering me. The fact I am on a journey I have no need of taking is bothering me.
I say none of this. Instead I say, "My slot? For what?" There's a pause in my confusion, then, "Three hundred carriages, you say? When's the next stop?"
My conversation with the gentleman with the newspaper has earned the attention of the brunette woman at the end of the carriage. She turns to face me. Her face is oval shaped and slender and I believe she is the most beautiful woman I have ever laid my eyes upon. She's wearing a pink blouse and her eyes are a wonderful shade of green. She stares at me with a sad disposition.
"It doesn't. You'll get used to it. You'll see." Her voice is as lovely as her face, though it is a shame her words are like gibberish. I wish someone would speak without the nonsense.
"I don't understand." I'm still on my feet, still stood in the walkway of the carriage like an idiot. If the guard sees me, I'm sure he'll tell me off.
The constant rutting of the tracks beneath my feet provide a pendulum that vibrates itself through my body. It's rhythmic and steady and I have a sickening feeling that if I check my watch for a third and final time it will still say 12:34pm.
"The train, lad. Get with it. Stop gawking and listen." The gentleman with the newspaper is talking to me, his voice more stern this time. He looks older when he frowns. "It doesn't stop, you understand? We were all new to this once, I get it. But like I said, we're in the waiting room now. So you either pee and miss your chance, or hold it."
With that the brunette woman turns away. The gentleman picks up his newspaper and his face is hidden from me once more. The teenager shows no recognition that the conversation ever happened. Their music is still...I don't know hip words...totally tubular?
I sit back in my seat and do as I'm told. I do the right thing, I guess. I hold it and wait.
Eventually the feeling of needing the restroom passes. The feeling of confusion passes. I'm now curious and cautious. Curious to see if I have been fed a pack of lies and cautious that the people around me are pathological liars.
I am beginning to suspect I have been kidnapped. Or perhaps this is some sort of social experiment. Either way, I dislike the feeling I get in my stomach each time I glance at my watch. I hate the way the hairs on the back of my neck stand up when I realise there is nothing outside but greenery - no houses, no cities, no planes, no red kites flying high above the fields. No sign of life.
I begin to sweat.
There's no air conditioning in the carriage, nor is there any cameras and - like I said - no indication of a toilet or a sign that reads which station is next. There's nothing but this train, and this track, and the three passengers I sit with.
From the teenager's loud headphones I hear the song change: Should I Stay or Should I Go by The Clash. It's a good choice, a great choice, even. But it causes my breathing to become laboured. My hands are shaking, why won't they stop shaking?
It's because I am on a train I have no recollection of boarding. I am on a journey I have no need of taking.
I fling from my seat before I can stop myself and find the teenager in a ball on the floor between the seats. It's practically claustrophobic in there and when I sit on the seat beside her she flings her head up, smacking it against the carriage wall.
"What in the blazes..." I hear the man with the newspaper make a startled comment, but he makes no effort to stop me. In front of me, the teenager says nothing, just stares. Her eyes flit between myself and the carriage walkway behind me, as if she could escape me. I wasn't going to let it happen.
"Tell me." I say to her with a voice that doesn't sound like my own. It's rushed and panicked and I have never felt like this in my life. Many people talk about the flight or fight response as if it's engrained into you, as if you already know what you're going to do as though it was assigned to you at birth, as though it's inevitable.
I don't know which I'm going to do; my fists are clenched but I keep myself sat, legs bouncing on the ball of my feet. I am ready for both, and suddenly I don't care if the guard will tell me off.
"Tell me what's going on. You know. I know you know."
The girl's eyes are wide. Somewhere behind, I know the woman with the beautiful face is watching, silent but observant.
The headphones slip off, and the music gets louder.
If I go there will be trouble, and if I stay it will be double.
"You don't want to know." Despite the hardcore music, the girl's voice is small, timid almost. It's not what I expect. She's wearing a black tee with some old band on it, with a black denim skirt. Her tights have holes in them and her shoes are the same colour as the rest of her outfit, only they're chunky with buckles and they seem lethal. I think that's the point. The shoes are there to protect her - protect the small girl that lives behind the big persona.
"I do. I want to know." My heart has stopped hammering against my chest and I speak in a level tone. I don't want to scare her off. It reminds me of approaching a rabbit - right before you snatch it and send it to its death.
"You're not going to stop it. It's already done."
I frown, "The train? I'm not going to stop the train?"
The girl shakes her head. "No. Yes. Both." She gives an exasperated sigh.
This indecision's bugging me. If you don't want me, set me free.
"Both?" I run a hand over my face, this is getting tedious now. I want to go home.
The thought of home sends me spiralling. How long has it been since I have been home? Was I there before I was here?
Here. Here is a place I do not know, not quite yet.
"This train, it won't stop." The girl's voice is barely a whisper and I strain to listen. I pray the man with the newspaper and the beautiful woman pay no attention. I pray they go back to waiting for...whatever is to come. "And you can't stop what's coming. Haven't you worked it out yet? We're not going back."
Suddenly the girl bursts into tears. It startles me and I back up, nearly falling out of my chair. The beautiful woman side-eyes me but says nothing. She looks devastated, and I wonder if I've said the wrong thing. But her eyes aren't on me, they're on the teenager.
The music has stopped, the mixtape seemingly come to the end of it's cycle. I expect the girl to reset it, carry on the music, but she doesn't. She takes the headphones off and lobs it over her head with an angered screech. It lands on the seat two rows in front of her.
She stands up, wipes the tears away, and stares at me. The small girl has been replaced with her large persona; there's venom in her glassy eyes, and it drips slowly down her face.
"What year is it?" Her voice is full of aggression.
There's the rustling of papers. I turn my head to see the old man, he's shaking his head. "Don't, kid. He needs to figure it out himself."
"No. I've had enough. People coming and going and never knowing. I'm sick of it." She spits, her venomous eyes leaking and staring right through me, "What year do you think it is?"
"1998. It's 1998. December. My birthday is next month."
The silence that follows digs a hole in my stomach. The sounds of the train seems miles away, as if I'm floating.
"For me, it was 1985. Melvin thinks it's 1979. Lucy thinks it's '96. Do you understand?"
I don't. I don't understand but I can't find the words. My head is spinning. How fast is this train going?
I lose my footing and stumble backwards. I'm prepared to wipe-out, to find myself falling and slamming back into the floor of the carriage with a thump. I'm bracing myself to get a knock on the head, but it never happens.
Instead, a hand clamps against my shoulder and I steady myself.
The three other passengers, pathological liars or not, have revealed something to me and now they stare directly behind me, focused on the hand on my shoulder as if their secret has come to life and taken form. The secret speaks into my ear.
"I'd sit down if I were you, John. It's a long ride for most." The voice is chilling and sounds nothing like a person. It's melodic and beautiful, but cold and deep. It's a million voices crushed together, all of them fighting for dominance.
The hand lets go of me and I spin on my heels. The guard has come to tell me off.
He looks like every other train guard - blue suit, white shirt, navy shoes, a name stitched onto a patch on the jacket. But, he is nothing like any other person I have seen. His skin is too gruesome to describe and his eyes make me want to look anywhere but. There's a chilling aura about him and I realise after all this time I did need to go to the bathroom. No need now, I suppose. The sight of this man is enough to relieve myself, only accidentally.
"Sit down, John. The journey is long, and life after death is even longer. Enjoy it."
The man smiles and in a blink of an eye I find myself sat in my seat. I did not move. There's blazing sunshine through the window. There are other passengers aboard my carriage. Three in total. It's 12:34 pm.
I am on a train I have no recollection of boarding. I am on a journey I have no need of taking. I am here - here is a place I do not know, not quite yet, but I will. The train will take me where I need to go.
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