14th November 2002
Midland Mainline Train, 21.15 to Derby
“Do you know why you are here?” I ask, looking up from the thin file on my lap and towards the reflection of the young man sat next to me in the window opposite. The description on the yellowed pages is disturbingly accurate, right down to the bloodshot eyes and the gash across the forehead. The kid is in his early twenties, and dressed a little out of date for the time, in slightly flared jeans and a bright yellow sports top. He carries it well, all except for the fleck of deep red across his breast and left shoulder. I’m in a black suit and a white shirt, unbuttoned at the neck. I look like I should be advising him about his future career options. Or on my way home from a funeral.
“Because I fucked up,” replies the kid.
I look down at the file, then back at the reflection opposite.
“Why would you say that?” I ask.
The kid looks down at his feet, revealing a slick dark liquid dashed across his scalp, then back at the window, meeting my gaze in the reflection.
Neon streaks by the window and mixes with spots of rain as the train rocks slightly to take a turn. The carriage lights flicker.
“I… I don’t want to talk about it. Things… they changed. Got too much.”
The only other person in the carriage is an elderly lady sitting several rows away. She turns and looks at me with a slightly concerned expression on her wrinkled face, then gets up and leaves the carriage.
“You need to move on from this,” I say to the window.
“Tell me how I can help.”
In the reflection, the kid looks away.
The door at the end of the carriage clunks, and I see the old lady whispering conspiratorially in a conductor’s ear. The door clicks and opens and the conductor steps in and moves towards me.
I glance back at the window and see the kid’s eyes begin to blacken with rage.
The carriage rocks and the lights dim, before returning to full strength.
“Stay calm,” I whisper, my eyes fixed on the reflection.
The lights flicker repeatedly, more violently this time. A slight breeze begins to coil around the floor.
“Stay calm,” I repeat.
“Excuse me, sir,” says the conductor, gruffly, a skinny bald man in a polyester uniform. “Who are you talking to?”
I look up at the conductor, then to my right at the empty seat next to me. The conductor raises an eyebrow, before following my gaze as I look ahead, to the window. As he does, he catches the reflection of the kid, seeing his bloodshot eyes ablaze with anger and registering the gaping wound across his head. The conductor gasps and drops his hand-held ticket machine.
The train jolts violently and the lights dim again, deeper, and for longer this time. The breeze turns into a gust and blows through the carriage, lifting the flotsam and jetsam of the day’s commute across the floor and the hairs on my neck up and away from my skin. Somewhere along the length of the carriage, a pane of acrylic glass cracks.
When the lights come back on, the reflection of the kid is gone.
There is an moment of awkward silence as the conductor gawps at the window, now empty except for the occasional trackside light flickering by. His face has turned an ashen colour not normally seen on the living.
“I’m Doctor Gotobed,” I say. “Your bosses should have told you I would be here.”
“I’m… I’m sorry, Doctor,” stutters the conductor, picking up his equipment. “We were expecting you earlier.”
“Looks like I’m going to be here for a while.” I turn back to the file on my lap. “I’d appreciate it if you’d keep this carriage clear for the next hour or so.”
The conductor leaves, and the train rumbles on.
Eight stops later, it reaches its destination, and then turns back. I’m still on-board, in exactly the same seat. I run my fingers through my hair and sigh. This is taking far too long, and I definitely don’t want to go around again and spend the night in Derby.
The lights flicker intermittently for a few seconds.
I look up at the window. The kid is back, bloodshot eyes calm now. We sit in silence for a while. “Do you…” I begin to ask, eventually. “Sorry, did you see a light?”
“At first. But I have to stay. I can’t go there. I’ll stay here. With the shadows. Until she knows.”
A single tear rolls down the kid’s cheek and mixes with the blood that’s dripping down from his scalp.
“That I love… that I loved her. I didn’t want to go like this. I’m so sorry.” A sniff, and the kid continues. “Can you tell her for me?”
The lights flicker once more.
“Of course. Tell me more about her and I’ll find her. Tell me exactly what you want to say, and I’ll be back here next month. I don’t expect you to be.”
The train rumbles on, and the kid tells me about his girl.
Back in Nottingham, the train groans to a halt. I pick up the file and step off, heading through the high ceilinged Victorian building, its grand archways a testimony to the architectural skills of men long since buried.
“Doctor Gotobed! Doctor Gotobed!” A gruff voice shouts along the platform, and the tall, skinny and bald shape of the conductor jogs towards me. “Excuse me, Doctor. But was that the… the…” I can tell he can’t bring himself to say ‘ghost’. He settles on: “What was that?”
Tucking the file under my left arm, I reach into my jacket for a cigarette. “A request for help,” I reply, lighting the cigarette as I turn towards the marble steps that lead to the exit.
“There’s no smoking in the station I’m afraid,” replies the man in the polyester uniform, all back to business.
I flick the cigarette onto the tracks and head up the steps, out onto the street and into the wet November night.
The rain falls like heartache.