This is a selection taken from the stories I wrote between 2003 and 2011. Nearly all of them have been previously published, many in publications no longer extant. Where they are still available in existing books or magazines, sufficient time has elapsed to permit their re-publication without fear of ethical impropriety or breach of contractual terms. Check the Blog Archive at the bottom of the page for individual titles.

Please be aware that each story was written by the person I was at the time. In a sense, therefore, each one was written by somebody different. None of them was written by the person I am now.

Anybody wanting to view my novel Odyssey can do so here. I’ve set the price very low because I’m more interested in the story being read than in making money out of it. It’s about a goddess and her rabbit companion taking a mortal man on a journey to teach him a few lessons about the nature of reality and higher consciousness, and it's probably more entertaining than I make it sound. I never was any good at selling myself. The Gift Horse, a story of reincarnation and karmic balancing, is also now available at the same place.

February 15, 2011

L'Etranger.

The encounter with the enigmatic woman on the train from Nottingham happened just as written, right up to the point where she left me at Derby. The rest was easy.

It was first published in audio by Parade of Phantoms in 2008, and again by Title-Goes-Here magazine (see link at the bottom of the page) last month.

Approximate reading time: 25-30 minutes.

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The train now standing at platform 5A is the 1919 Central Trains service to Crewe, calling at Long Eaton, Derby, Tutbury & Hatton, Uttoxeter, Longton, Blythe Bridge, Stoke on Trent, Kidsgrove, Alsager, and Crewe.

The public address announcement on Nottingham station was clearer than it is on most. I heard every word distinctly and was relieved that I was only going as far as Uttoxeter. Old fashioned train services that stop at every pig trough and lamp post are very laudable in these rush-and-din days of expressway Britain, but I’m as guilty as everybody else in wanting to get to wherever I’m going as quickly as possible.

Not that I was in any particular hurry. I’d spent the day in the city with a friend and was now on my way home to nothing more than a quiet supper, a little reading perhaps, and bed.

At that moment I was sitting in the clammy, oppressive heat of a sultry June evening, drowsily regarding and being fascinated by the crumbling condition of the old, wood-encased walkway that connected the platforms. I felt hot and lazy from a day spent walking the hard streets among the noise and bustle of the city centre. The station felt less equatorial than the crowded uptown thoroughfares, but only slightly.

There were still twelve minutes to go before the appointed departure time, but I decided to climb aboard anyway. I would have a full choice of seats at my disposal, they would be more comfortable than the wooden bench on the platform, and it would probably be cooler in the carriage. I was right on all counts and was soon settled in a window seat, one of a group of four with a table between each pair.

In time honoured fashion I placed my bag conspicuously on the aisle seat to discourage anyone from sitting next to me. I am typically British in regarding the overly-close presence of strangers as an intrusion. There was, of course, nothing I could do about the pair of seats on the other side of the table. I leant back against the headrest and closed my eyes.

My brain settled quickly into a state bordering on sleep, but my instinct for caution held out its hand to prevent me slipping over the edge and into oblivion. I’d never fallen asleep on a train in my life. I’d always been stopped by the fear that I should wake up just as it was pulling away from the station where I needed to get off, causing me all manner of delay and difficulties. I suppose my concern was due to the universal human dread of losing control. Or maybe that’s typically British too.

And so I merely relaxed into a soporific haze, aware of the sound of unseen strangers taking their places at a respectful distance, fellow beings joining me for an hour or so on my journey through life. None of us would speak, of course. Our respective lives might come close to physical touching distance, but we would remain as disengaged as if there were a million miles between us.

I heard the sound of two voices, one male and one female, obviously a young couple returning from a day trip. I heard bags being thrown onto seats and newspapers being unfolded. I heard a child say something to its parent somewhere further down the carriage. I heard a guard’s whistle out on the platform, and the rising hum of a diesel engine preparing to carry another collection of strangers in another direction. I wondered how long it would be before we were due to go off in ours and opened my eyes to look at my watch. One minute to go.

A number of the seats around me had been occupied, but nobody had taken either of the two on the other side of the table. The carriage was quiet and settled. I hoped that everyone who was going to board the train had now done so and that we would soon be on our way. I looked out of the window, waiting for the far platform to begin slipping backwards as we made our move. It remained stationary and there was one passenger still to come.

I watched her get on, just before our guard blew his whistle. Something about her appearance aroused my attention and I studied her with interest as she moved slowly down the aisle in my direction. She was looking around with apparent concern, obviously seeking to make the best choice from the limited seating options still available. She appeared nervous and very particular about where she should choose to sit.

There seemed to be a lack of ensemble about her mode of dress. At first glance I thought she looked scruffy, and yet there was no particular item of her clothing that was in any way shabby or unkempt. Her thin coat, lightweight sweater, silk blouse, long skirt, and plain shoes were all perfectly tidy and well ordered.

Perhaps it was the fact that she was wearing so many layers on such a warm day that made her seem out of place. Perhaps the colours and styles just didn’t hang together as they should. I considered both and dismissed them. I concluded that she was just one of those people who didn’t wear clothes well. I had often been struck by the fact that some people can throw the most ill-fitting and badly chosen combinations about themselves and look wonderful, while others can wear the best there is and still look wrong.

But then I looked more closely at her face, and that seemed somehow “wrong” too. For the life of me, I couldn’t work out why. She looked oddly familiar, and yet there was something out of place. Whatever it was, it was vague and elusive, too subtle to identify. I saw that she had caught me watching her and I felt embarrassed. Staring at strangers is not polite, and so I turned my head away to glance idly around the carriage.

It seemed that my interest had given her something to latch onto. She stopped searching and made straight for me, taking the aisle seat of the pair on the opposite side of my table. She placed her shoulder bag on the other one and began moving the contents about. I took the opportunity to sneak another look at her face.

It only took a couple of seconds to make a quick assessment. Her dark, short-cropped hair was tidily cut but untended. Her cheekbones were widely set and prominent. Her nose was a little longer than normal, with a slightly hooked appearance, and her chin was small and unusually pointed. Her skin looked over-washed, freshly scrubbed as it were, with red blotches that were all the more prominent for the lack of any trace of make-up. She found what she was looking for and took out a magazine. It was a copy of National Geographic.

In a way, I was pleased that she had chosen to sit opposite me. I knew that unaccompanied women often felt vulnerable on trains and I understood why. The fact that she had chosen my little bit of the carriage meant that she must have thought me trustworthy. On what basis she should have made such a decision, I didn’t know. I put it down to feminine intuition and it bolstered my ego. I like being thought trustworthy. And the fact that she was reading a journal of such stature made me feel more comfortable. If I had to have a near neighbour, better someone like her than a self-obsessed young executive playing noisily with a laptop and a mobile phone.

And yet there was something about her face that made me uneasy. I glanced briefly at her again and the impression was the same as before, only stronger: the same suspicion of familiarity, now grown to near certainty, and the same elusive sense that something was out of place. The feeling gelled fleetingly into a sudden, strong impression that she didn’t belong here. She belonged to another place or another time, or both. And then it faded again.

By then the train was moving. The platform had been replaced by anonymous suburbs gathering speed beyond the carriage window. The rural landscape of the Trent Valley would soon be upon us and I settled back to await its appearance, turning my face away from the woman and towards the glass.

But the view to be seen in a carriage window carries images of two worlds. There is the moving panorama projecting itself through the window from the outside, and there is the still image of the carriage interior reflecting its ghostly picture from the glass. It takes a momentary shift of focus to see either of them, and it was the latter that caught my attention. I could see that the woman was not reading her magazine. She was looking over the top of it and staring intensely at me.

Like most people, I dislike being stared at - especially by a stranger who has already aroused a sense of disquiet in me. I chose not to look around and face her. The combination of practised reserve and my seemingly unfounded suspicion held me back for a second. I did look away from the window eventually, glancing around the carriage with a pretended show of indifference. The woman pulled the magazine back in front of her face so that only the top of her head was visible.

I looked out of the window again to watch the panorama of the green countryside slip silently by. I wondered how many natural dramas were being enacted under cover of the lush summer vegetation, dramas that were invisible and meaningless to me but inevitably carried matters of great import to the creatures involved in them.

I was struck again by the way in which individual lives touch each other as we walk our solitary roads, and how that touch can vary from a mere second of unrequited awareness to meetings of the greatest consequence. I shifted my focus and saw that the woman was staring at me as before, unmoving and with such apparent intensity that I began to feel pressured. No, “pressured” won’t do; I began to feel chilled. A phrase suddenly flashed into my head, almost as though someone had held it up for me to read. “A matter of life and death,” it said in big, bold letters. Where had that come from, I wondered?

I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. The woman was putting the magazine back into her bag and I wondered what would happen next. I hoped she wouldn’t speak to me. She didn’t; she relaxed back into her seat and stared dead ahead, her hands resting easily on her lap. As far as I could tell, she was no longer taking any interest in me but had become the very model of an average, unconnected fellow passenger. And so she remained until the train began to slow.

We were approaching the first stop on the line. The board that read Long Eaton came into view and the guard’s announcement added unnecessary confirmation. I saw a hand stretch out. The woman was reaching towards my arms which were resting on the table between us.

My inclination was to recoil, but I managed to avoid doing so. That would have been impolite. But I did feel a sense of something amounting to mild dread as I realised that contact was about to be made.

She stopped an inch or two short of touching me and I felt compelled to look at her. Her expression carried a hint of a smile and the look in her eyes told me that she was about to ask me a question. Suddenly I realised what was out of place. She was French. Even before she spoke, I knew it. That was why she hadn’t seemed to fit in. I was certain she was foreign.

She proved me wrong, or appeared to, by asking her question in a typically North Midlands accent. Foreigners might learn to speak perfect English, but they always have one of two accents. Either it carries the unmistakable sound of their homeland, or they have gone the whole way and learned to speak the language with Received Pronunciation. They never speak with a regional accent. This woman did, and she addressed me with a note of nervousness in her voice.

“Excuse me,” she began, “does this train go straight into Derby, or do we have to get off here and cross over?”

Her question threw me for a second. The logic and grammar were fine; it was the idiom that was wrong. Anyone familiar with rail travel is also familiar with its common expressions. Such a person would ask “Does this train stop at Derby, or do we have to change here?”

She looked to be around forty years of age, but I assumed that she was unfamiliar with rail travel and its commonly used phrases. It occurred to me that what is normally referred to as “changing” at a railway station does involve getting off one train, crossing over to another platform, and getting on another one. It’s just that people don’t put it that way. And it seemed that her unusual choice of phrase was curiously in keeping with the enigmatic air that hung about her. I muttered a simple reply, telling her that the train did stop at Derby and that it was the next station on the line. She looked reassured and continued.

“Oh good,” she said. “Only I get very confused, you see.”

I could only manage a nod in response. I wondered whether she might be, as the vernacular so graphically puts it, “a penny short of a shilling.” She seemed to read my reaction and hurried to explain.

“Of course, I’m very experienced in... experienced in...” She was struggling to find the right word. “Travelling!” she said suddenly and with a note of triumph. “I’m very experienced in travelling. But I still get confused.”

This was hardly an explanation. If anything, it only served to further my belief that there was something distinctly odd about her. But she hadn’t finished yet. The strangest statement was yet to come. She fixed me with a piercing stare and said

“I still can’t believe how easy it is.”

I didn’t know what to say. Having lived all my life using the various forms of transport available in the modern world, it had never occurred to me to consider whether they were easy or not. And I felt nonplussed that someone claiming to be an “experienced” traveller should make such a statement. I said nothing and she must have detected my bemusement again. The red blotches on her face all but disappeared as her skin coloured up with embarrassment. She turned to look out of the window, pressing the side of her head hard against the seat.

“I’m sorry,” she said suddenly, and then laughed in a way that didn’t sound embarrassed. It sounded menacing.

I looked out of the window too, hoping she would attempt no further contact. Her close proximity had begun to feel threatening. I was coming to wonder whether she had been recently released from some sort of institution. Worse still, had she escaped?

My mind was wholly preoccupied by the disquieting sense of her presence as the train sped on through the countryside. I hardly saw the landscape. For some reason I still had the feeling that she was French, despite the contrary evidence of her accent. I assumed that to be the reason for the moving picture that came swimming strongly into my mind and kept me rapt for several minutes.

It was a gruesome image that played out its tableau realistically and in real time. I saw the tall frame of a guillotine and, at its base, a woman leaning forward with her head already on the block. The sun was shining brightly on her white gown that looked to be of fine quality. She remained still for some time, apparently resigned to her fate since she needed no restraining.

My position was higher than hers and so I couldn’t see her face. Neither could I see anyone else around her; the periphery of the picture was a blur. But I did see a hand stretch out and take hold of her long, dark hair, pulling it sideways to hang down alongside her cheek. No doubt that made the work of the blade easier. There was no barked order, no sound of a restless crowd, and no drum roll, nothing to announce the sudden flash of steel that was followed by a dull thud.

I saw the head fall and disappear into a basket, part of its long hair remaining draped over the top. I saw blood spurt violently forward and spatter on the decking in front of the apparatus. I fancied I could almost smell it.

I think my eyes must have been wide and staring as they refocused on the image reflected from the carriage window. My companion’s head was still turned towards it. She appeared to be looking out of the window too, but I soon realised that she wasn’t. As the sound of the train wheels clattering on the track brought me back into my own time, I saw that her eyes were looking directly into mine. And there was a hint of a smile on her lips.

I shrugged the whole thing off and watched the scenery again. It wasn’t long before we entered the outskirts of Derby and I feared that the woman, unpractised as she apparently was in the ways of rail travel, might miss her stop and I might have to deal with her consequent dismay. That was an unpleasant prospect. I would be very glad to see her get off the train.

I plucked up the courage to speak to her again, pointing out that we would shortly be entering Derby station. Her reaction was predictable. She became anxious and took hold of her bag.

“I’d better hurry,” she said. “Wouldn’t want to miss my stop.”

She began to get up and I felt obliged to point out that it would be a few minutes yet before the train came to a halt. She sat nervously on the edge of her seat, holding her bag close to her, until two other passengers rose to make their way to the door. She got up immediately and followed them. She offered me no form of acknowledgement whatsoever - no nod, no smile, no “goodbye.” I was not offended, merely relieved.

I saw the trio standing in line, waiting for the train to stop and the carriage doors to slide open. I watched the three figures move forward at the appointed time and saw them disappear, one by one, behind the bulkhead at the end of the compartment. I looked out of the window and saw the first passenger get off, and then the second. I waited for my erstwhile companion to follow them, but she didn’t. Only two people got off the train. I could see most of the platform clearly and she wasn’t on it.

I looked back to the end of the compartment, expecting her to reappear and make her way back to the seat. Maybe she had decided not to get off at Derby after all. Maybe she had got her destination confused. She did say that she got “confused.”

She didn’t reappear. I heard the doors shut and felt the train start to move. Now I was confused. I got up and walked up the aisle to see whether she was standing by the doors. Finding that part of the carriage empty, I looked down the rest of it, and also out of the window to that small part of the platform that had not been visible from my seat. There was no sign of her anywhere.

The train was beginning to gather speed again as I lurched back down the aisle. I re-took my seat and pondered the apparent mystery. I could only assume that there must have been some way in which she had been able to get off the platform without my seeing her. I mentally ran through the scenario again and couldn’t see how. I decided to put it behind me. She was gone now and that was all that mattered.

But was she gone? As the train sped on through the Derbyshire countryside, I was quite unable to settle. Every time I looked out of the window I kept feeling a compulsive need to look back at the aisle. I kept expecting to see her again, and was almost surprised every time I looked along it and she wasn’t there.

I kept remembering the apparently nervous way that she had moved down it when we were standing on Nottingham station. I wondered again why she had chosen to sit opposite me. I had thought that she was simply looking for someone trustworthy. Suddenly, I realised the truth. She hadn’t been looking for a safe place to sit; she had been looking specifically for me. That was why she had made a bee line for me as soon as she caught my eye.

I found the realisation disturbing. For that’s what I knew it to be - a fact, not a theory. I was certain of it. Why me? What was my connection with her and what purpose could our brief train ride together have served? And how had she managed to disappear at Derby? I realised something else too. The image of the guillotine kept running through my head and it gave me the clue as to what I had sensed as being “wrong” about her. It was her hair. It should have been long, not short. How could I know that?

I began to feel that there was some sort of unfinished business between us. I didn’t even know who she was, much less what the issue could be; but it didn’t feel good. There was a hint of retribution in the air. Another notice flashed before me. This one read “Nemesis.”

I felt nervous when the train stopped at Tutbury & Hatton and the doors slid open. I looked for the woman to reappear, but she didn’t. We were soon on our way again and the weight of something long forgotten continued to press, something that had no conscious identity, no picture to give it form, nothing I could describe except to say that it was a feeling without a source. It was like being frightened when there’s nothing to be frightened of; but I sensed that it had something to do with a past crime that was waiting to be revisited.

Whose crime, I wondered? I had read a book of true stories once, about ghosts that haunt the railway network. I began to think I might have encountered one. Perhaps she had been murdered on that stretch of line; perhaps she had been decapitated; perhaps the image of the guillotine was meant to be a symbolic representation of the crime.

The theory had a few things to commend it. It would explain her disappearance and some of the odd things she had said. It might even explain her nervousness. But it didn’t explain why she had been dressed in modern clothes, nor my curious certainty that her hair should have been long. And it didn’t account for the fact that she had apparently been looking for me. I wasn’t convinced it would do.

I felt some relief when the train slowed and I saw Uttoxeter racecourse over to my left. I would soon be off this haunted vehicle and on my way home. I could put the mystery behind me and wash away the sense of dread that had been troubling me for the last half hour. I set to thinking about what I would have for supper.

I rose as the train came slowly to a halt. I threw my bag over my shoulder and made my way down the aisle behind the only other passenger who was getting off there. We stood for a few seconds, waiting for the doors to open. There appeared to be no one waiting on the platform. The doors slid aside and I followed him down the step and onto the concrete platform, turning right to head for the footway that crosses the line and leads to the car park.

As my foot touched the ground, my eye was caught by a movement to my left. I turned to see the strange woman who had been the object of so much mystery. She was hurrying towards the doors from the other direction. I stopped and stared at her, but she ignored me. She climbed aboard the train and turned to look down the aisle, towards the end where I had been sitting. She appeared to be looking for something. And then she turned and looked at me, while I could only gaze back in blank amazement. As the doors began to close, she lifted the palm of one hand towards me and smiled knowingly.

“Au revoir,” she said, in a perfect French accent.

The doors slid together, removing her image from my astonished eyes. The driver gave a loud blast on the horn and the train began to move. I looked through the carriage windows as it eased past me, but saw nothing of the woman. I continued to stand in a state of bewilderment until the vehicle passed under the road bridge and disappeared around a bend.

The stranger’s final words echoed in my head. There was something terribly ominous about them. I know what “au revoir” means. It means “until we see each other again.” I realised that she was my ghost, not the railway’s. And it seemed little short of a certainty that she would also be my nemesis, either in this life or another. The crime, I now felt sure, had been mine.

They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.

I had heard that excerpt from Hosea as a child, and I remembered how uneasy it had made me feel. I also remembered that I had always been fascinated by the guillotine executions so commonly associated with the French Revolution. The obscene spectacle of the public occasion, the unparalleled drama of the final split second, the sudden splattering mess, and the theorising around the question of whether the victim remains conscious for a while, staring helplessly at the inside of a wicker basket before darkness mercifully descends. I had listened to the fourth movement of the Symphonie Fantastique many times and had never ceased to be enthralled by the images that ran through my mind like a videotape.

Maybe now I knew where they came from. Maybe now I could stop feeling slightly ashamed of my ability to imagine such horrors. Maybe I hadn’t imagined them; you don’t need to imagine a memory. Or could such a memory, however well hidden, carry with it a cause of infinitely greater shame?

I drove home knowing that the sense of dread would never be entirely washed away; and so it hasn’t. It has faded, of course. I have to get on with my life and the business of living brings many distractions whose immediacy cloaks this imp of unwelcome knowledge sitting quietly on my shoulder.

It whispers to me occasionally though, usually late at night when I’m tired. And sometimes it shakes me roughly when I hear references to Robespierre or Les Tricoteurs. At such moments I wonder whether my nemesis and I are about to come face to face again.

It hasn’t happened yet, perhaps because I’ve never been on a train since that day. But how do I know that the train was significant anyway? Our next meeting could happen anywhere, and it might be scheduled for tomorrow or a thousand years from now. And I am still at a loss to know why she has chosen to give me notice of her impending retribution.

So how long do I have to go on waiting for the moment when I hear a female voice say “Bonjour” and I have to turn and face her?

It probably won’t be that straightforward; the workings of the universe rarely are. But when the whirlwind does eventually strike, no doubt she will be in the middle of it. And I know that any attempt to escape her will be pointless.

2 comments:

Anthropomorphica said...

I can't believe this has no comments! Brilliant and utterly chilling, I might need to sleep with the light on!
Wonderful story weaving Jeff, so glad I read this!

JJ Beazley said...

This is the one I mentioned in a couple of posts, Mel. Most of the other stories had between 30 and 50 pageviews. This had 4. I can only assume the title put people off. Pity, since it's one of my favourites.

Thanks for reading it and thanks for liking it.

About Me

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I've never had money because I've never been driven by money. I received little formal education beyond the age of sixteen, which isn't such a bad thing since you get a different angle on life that way. Learning what you want and need to learn often reveals things that the system's road keeps hidden.
JJ Beazley asserts his ownership of copyright in all works of fiction and non-fiction contained herein unless otherwise stated. Feel free to quote anything if you want to, but please don't nick a story and claim it for your own. That would compromise my chances of getting an anthology published and I'd be a bit miffed.



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