Station Waiting Room, by Simon Kurt Unsworth

(Story illustration by Nick Gucker.)

Station Waiting Room – illustration by Nick Gucker – click to enlarge

GASKIN HATED HIS JOB.

It had seemed like such a great opportunity; promotion within the company and responsibility for restructuring the Administrative Records Section, an out-of-town department in Low Hold. Only, ‘restructuring’ in this case, Gaskin soon discovered, meant ‘closing in preparation for the company developing the offices into a new corporate headquarters’, and Low Hold was a dismal place somewhere in the hinterland between the coast and the inland farms, nestling miserably in the neck of a valley called Middle Fell Drop.

As much as he hated the job itself, Gaskin found the commute worse.  Low Hold had its own train station, the last stop at the end of a decaying branch line, but to get to it, Gaskin needed to change trains three times. After each change, the train he went to was smaller, grimier and older than the last, the scenery outside the streaked windows flatter, greyer and more desolate. The third train was little more than a cattle truck, with seats too cramped and exhausted to be comfortable and isles whose narrowness forced him to move in a kind of crabwise shuffle. Handstraps dangled from the ceiling above the seats, anticipating (or perhaps pining for) a time when the carriage was full, but there was only ever Gaskin and one or two others using the service, and his fellow travellers got off at earlier stops. By the time the train reached the end of the line, Gaskin was alone in a carriage whose seats had been rubbed bare by countless buttocks and whose faded signs were dusty with old sunlight. Travelling into Low Hold felt like falling out of the world.

Evenings were worse. Instead of feeling happiness at going home, Gaskin was normally exhausted and miserable, and he found himself sometimes wondering if it wouldn’t be worth getting a flat in Low Hold and staying there. It would be convenient, and would mean he did not have to wait on the near-empty platform at the station for over an hour before the engine and its solitary carriage rattled into view and laboured to a stop. Most of his staff seemed to have done that; all lived within walking distance of the office, yet not one of them appeared to like Low Hold. When they spoke, they professed to hate its smallness, its lack of amenities, the weather, the way it made them feel, and yet they stayed. Gaskin didn’t want to spend his money to end up living in a place he hated with people he didn’t like, but could it be any worse than boarding that train each night?

It was the waiting as much as anything; uncomfortable, depressing and fiercely tiring. There was no waiting area on the station, just a wooden bench that fitted his body in all the wrong places and a ticket office that was never staffed and had a faded sign in the window that read, Closed – purchase tickets on the train. By his feet knots of weeds forced their way out from the grey cracks in the concrete apron of the platform and the painted line at its edge was faded and splintered. Down near the tracks, grasses sprouted around the rails and crept over the rough wooden sleepers in tangled whorls and the great, coiled springs of the buffers rusted disconsolately behind their metal pads. Litter staggered  in ragged circles around his feet when the wind gusted.

There was another bench at the far edge of the platform, and most nights, an old man sat on it.

He never got on a train and Gaskin never saw him arrive or leave. He simply sat and looked around, staring at the line or across the tracks and sometimes at Gaskin himself. Gaskin did not attempt to talk to the man, and avoided making eye contact in the hope of sending out a clear message: I’m not interested. Leave me alone. Sometimes, the man stood at the edge of the platform, his head cocked as though listening for something or peering intently at some unseen item of interest. One day in summer, despite Gaskin’s fiercest body language, he walked over to Gaskin and said, “All this used to be houses.”

It was such an unexpected thing to say that Gaskin responded with a polite, “Pardon me?” before he could stop himself. The man sat down on the bench beside Gaskin and said again, “All this used to be houses.” As he spoke, he gestured around slowly, his hand sweeping around and taking in the flat scrubland beyond the station and the distant offices. “All of it. Low Hold was a village.”

Gaskin did not respond. His initial surprise had hardened into wariness, but it seemed he was too late; the man continued, unbidden.

“It was a farming village, really. Most of the men worked the farms that covered the valley, although there was some industry. Small quarries, local stone, that kind of thing. It was never a very pretty place, and most of the people here had it hard, but they survived.”

“Really?” Noncommittal, disinterested, almost rude. Go away!

“By the time the second war started, most of the farms were struggling anyway, so the army requisitioned parts of the land and built an overflow camp here. I came in forty one to run it.”

Gaskin stayed silent.

“Listen!” said the man, his voice a sudden, fierce hiss. He leaned over and gripped Gaskin’s wrist hard, squeezing so that Gaskin could not pull away. “Listen!” he hissed again, “I have to tell someone. I have to tell you. Someone has to hear!”

“Get off me!” said Gaskin, pulling back but the old man held on, his fingers digging into Gaskin’s flesh and making him wince.

“Do you feel that grip? Do you feel? It’s nothing like the grip that this place has over people. Nothing!” The man finally let go of Gaskin’s arm and he yanked it back, rubbing at skin upon which crescent bruises were already flowering an angry red.

“Please,” said the old man. “Please, just listen to me. I have to tell someone.” His voice cracked as he spoke, and the strength that had given his hiss venom was gone. He sounded lost and ancient, a tremulous thing sagging into his heavy suit and crumpling like old branches back onto the bench. Gaskin said nothing; old and weak the man may be, but he clearly had the capacity for aggression and there was no one here to help if he turned nasty again. Gaskin waited, resigned, for his story.

“Back when this was a village, it was bigger. It had a two-line train track. If you look, you can still see what’s left of the other line. There was a waiting room on the other platform as well; it’s still there, can you see?”

Although there was only one set of tracks, Gaskin saw that the old man was right: the cutting was wide enough for two sets of rails. There were faint indentations where a second line had been, a sign of Low Hold’s more prosperous past. Beyond this second, lost, line a disused platform faced Gaskin. It had been seized by nature and now, at summer’s height, was thick with bushes and plants. Flowers bloomed, but their scent did not reach him even though he was barely twenty feet away. The blooms looked unhealthy and he wondered if the soil was sick with pollution from the long-gone trains; the petals seemed drab and sickly and the leaves curled downwards around their own discoloured edges. Thick shadows, made solid with the trunks of the growing plants, pooled behind the flowers. Gaskin could hear the wind hissing through the foliage and tiny animals skittering as they dashed back and forth through the roots and branches. When Gaskin looked more closely, he saw that the ground on the second platform was thick with rotting vegetation.

Buried in the shadows of the foliage was a darker, regular shape. Interested despite himself, he leant forward, staring hard. By God, the old man was right! It was a building, squat and stretching most of the platform’s length, now buried in the rough ocean of root and branch. He made out the dark maw of a doorway and of windows, choked with twisting plants. Alongside, there was a wall stained dark grey and even, he saw, a clock hanging above the door, wrapped in leaves and vines and dust.

“That’s not where it started,” said the old man, “not by a long shot, but it’s where it started for me, so I suppose I’ll start my story there as well. That waiting room was the first thing I saw as the train pulled out of the station after I was posted here in forty one, when the war was still relatively young. Back then, the waiting room was in use, but it looked old even then. The paint was peeling around the door and on the window frames, and I remember thinking that it wasn’t a very welcoming place.

“Low Hold was surrounded by farmland, and a great chunk of it had been requisitioned by the government to set up what was essentially a sorting station. All the soldiers that hadn’t got regiments, or who were delayed and needed to be sent after units that were already overseas, all the sickly ones and the troublemakers that no-one wanted, they all came here to wait while someone decided where they should go. Discipline was a nightmare; it was hard to keep track of the men because they came in by themselves or in small groups, and left in the same way as they got their postings. Most of them were draftees, and none of them wanted to be here. They either wanted to be fighting, or back at home, and no one knew anyone. We had officers, of course, but they’d change as often as the men did, so no one really had any authority. I was sent here as chief officer, but in reality I was a glorified paper pusher, filing this form and copying that one, sending this form on and making sure that one stayed. It was a terrible job.”

The old man stopped and looked across the quiet train line; on the other platform, the plants waved gently as though in greeting. He stared, squinting as though trying to focus in on something, although Gaskin had the impression it was something further away that the platform.

“The first job I did was a complete inventory of men and equipment. It took me over a week, sorting out the records of what we should have had, and there were discrepancies. Men that weren’t there, equipment missing, men here that we had no record of. Some of it was easily sorted out; there were black market trades going on with the people the surrounding areas, easy enough to stop, and the missing records were almost always in transit from some other base or headquarters, but the missing men were a problem. No one seemed to know where they’d gone. We checked posting records, troop carrier records, even followed through with the various regiments that they were supposed to have gone to, but very few turned up. We had to list them all as AWOL and turn their details over to the military and civilian police. Low Hold camp had the highest AWOL rate among the British military during wartime. It also had the highest rate of soldiers who never turned up anywhere.”

“Where were they all?” asked Gaskin.

“The next problem was the villagers,” said the old man, ignoring Gaskin’s question. “They looked … wrong. The joke in the camp was that family’d been fucking family, and we were seeing the result. The people were stunted and sullen, twisted and bent like wood that’s warped because of sun and rain. They had no energy, and never seemed to do anything. The state of the waiting room was my first sign of it, but I soon saw others. Shops were dusty, houses badly maintained, people didn’t talk or socialise. Of course, it doesn’t mean anything these days, but back then the sense of togetherness was strong in these kind of villages. It was what kept them going through the poverty, the unemployment, the fear; at least they had each other. And you didn’t feel that in Low Hold, not at all. And that was another thing! There were no damaged men in the village, and no missing ones.”

“What?” asked Gaskin, surreptitiously peering over the man’s shoulder to see if the train was in sight. Nothing.

“After the first war, entire generations were gone. You’d see places were there weren’t many middle aged men, because the previous generation had gone off to fight and died in the mud and the shit, and if there were men left after the end of the fighting, they were the cripples and the cowards, but in Low Hold? It was as though the first war had never happened. It was odd; it was almost as though they were ashamed of it but defensive. People here had a way of trudging and dragging their feet when they walked, like their heads were too heavy or their feet were numb, but ask them if they’d ever been anywhere, or what they’d done in the great War and they’d get aggressive.”

The man slumped back against the bench with a sigh. Gaskin hadn’t realised it, but the older man had become tense, hunched over and bent at his waist as he spoke, his shoulders shaking as though the words were being released from him like bile or vomit. And, much as Gaskin would have preferred to be alone, his story was interesting. In the old man’s descriptions of the Low Hold villagers, Gaskin could see echoes of his colleagues. His staff.

“We tried to get some of the villagers to work for us, building other camps and stores up in the valley or in other parts of the area, but none would do it. None. They refused, even though we were offering good money, money they needed.

“I remember talking to one of my commanding officers about it and joking that it must have been a miracle that any of the Low Hold villagers volunteered to fight in the Great War, and he told me that they hadn’t. Not one.

“And then there was the farms. Most of the valley was farmland, mainly livestock but some crops on the lower slopes and around the village on the flatter areas, but I found that we were bringing food in from other villages and towns. When I asked why, Q took me to a local farm.”
“Q?” asked Gaskin, thinking of James Bond and the enigmatic inventions of his science officer.

“Quartermaster,” replied the old man. “In charge of stocks and stores. Our Q was a veteran wheeler-dealer called Culley, and I couldn’t understand why he wasn’t using local produce – it had to be fresher and cheaper. The farm visit explained it all. What came out of the ground around here was awful, practically inedible. Potatoes that were shrivelled and tough, carrots that looked desiccated, plants that wilted and rotted even as they grew and tasted foul when they were harvested. The farmer didn’t seem to care, even though most of his crops ended up ploughed back into the ground as compost or used as feed for the animals. And the animals! Sheep that didn’t wander but stayed in the same place and starved because there was nothing near for them to eat, cows that produced milk that was bitter and sour, and meat that was tough and tasteless. I asked the Q why, and he said that all the local produce was like that. ‘Nothing grows healthy here’, he said, ‘it’s like the soil sucks life out instead of putting it in.’”

Gaskin watched as the man, seemingly unable to remain still, leaned forwards with his elbows on his knees. He looked across at the far platform again. “Like everything was being poisoned or drained,” he said quietly. “I asked the farmer why he carried on, why he didn’t leave and he just said, ‘I can’t leave Low Hold’. Simple as that. Of course, at the time, I thought he meant because his family had been here for decades, or that he’d never sell his land, given how poor it was. I remember that as he said it, though, he sagged and just for a minute, he looked as twisted and shrivelled as one of his awful vegetables.”

The breeze turned, zephyrs dancing across Gaskin’s face and with them he caught the edge of a scent, something hot and unwashed and decaying. The old man’s coat flapped open, showing Gaskin a suit that hung in loose folds and that was decorated with old stains and fresh dirt. Above it, the man’s wattle neck sprouted from a shirt collar that was too big for him and was the sour yellow of white cotton gone too far from cleanliness to rescue. As though sensing Gaskin’s scrutiny, the old man turned his head to Gaskin. He looked tired. With a wintry smile, he turned his eyes back down to the floor, at his shoes with their splitting leather and trousers whose turned-up cuffs trailed loose stitches, and then said, “It wasn’t just the farmers.

“When I looked at the village after my trip out to the farm, everything was the same. Then women were quieter, sadder, more downtrodden, the children puling things that looked as weak as old milk. Even the buildings looked on the verge of collapse, and the worst of it was, no one cared. As long as they were here, in Low Hold, they put up with it all. They didn’t try to leave, they didn’t try to improve things, they just accepted it and sat around like they were all ill or too tired to move. I asked the Q about it, and he said that they’d been like that since the camp was set up. What was worrying was that you’d see it in the men in the camp as well. They’d arrive full of piss and wind, telling jokes or fighting or trying to fuck the local women or moaning about how none of the local women were worth fucking, and within two weeks, they’d have that same expression on their faces, as though they’d not slept for days. I think that, even then, I thought it was just the fear of being sent overseas. Perfectly normal, I thought, a perfectly safe and healthy response to the possibility of being sent to battle and being fucking killed.

“And then I saw what happened in the waiting room.

“We’d received orders to send a group of men on. They were given travel warrants, told which trains to get, and then left to get on with it. I was in the camp that day, and I saw one of the men when he should have been on the train; I know, because I had stamped his warrant and made all the arrangements myself, and yet there the bastard was, slouched against the wall in the exercise yard. I went to speak to him, but he just stared at me as I shouted. Eventually, I called the guards and had him placed under arrest, but it was only as I walked away that I suddenly wondered about the fucking others.”

Gaskin noticed that the man’s language was coarsening, his voice itself roughening, and in its new timbre, he could hear echoes of the soldier that the man had been. There was command there, and solidity and something hard to identify; maleness, or masculinity, or authority. Something unflinching, and for a second Gaskin wondered what would happen if this old man was young again and doing Gaskin’s job. There would be no delays and no staff ignoring his instructions, he was sure, and the realisation made him feel weak and small.

“I came to the station in time to see the train pull out,” the man continued. “I asked the ticket officer if he’d seen the men board the train, but he was a Low Hold villager and he barely replied to me. He waved in the general direction of the waiting room, though, and I remember becoming not just angry but furious, thinking that the men were still in there. I didn’t run, because I was an officer and I was fucked if I was running to find the men, but I walked fast and I was bubbling like a blocked kettle by the time I got there and looked in the window. They were inside.

“There were seven of them, and they were asleep. I swore, shouting at them through the window as I walked to the door, but none of them moved. Seven of them, sleeping like babes in that little waiting room as though they were on a Sunday outing rather than going to fight for their country. I was so angry that I kicked open the door and was in the room before I slowed, and that was when I saw it.

“The men were dissolving.

“Maybe dissolving isn’t the right word. I don’t know what is, really. They weren’t breaking apart or melting or dripping or anything like that. No, they were fading like old photographs. I thought for a second that it was me, that I’d got so angry that I’d given myself a stroke and that this distorted vision was the beginnings of it, but it wasn’t. I wish it had been.

“The men were vanishing, fading somehow. The colour was going from them, so that they got paler and paler, past white and into a greyness that was hard to see in all the shadows. Oh, God, the shadows! As I looked, it was as though the shadows around the men were thickening, sucking at them, drinking them, taking their colour, coiling around their necks and arms and legs like those snakes that crush you to death and eat you whole.”

The old man stopped again, gasping for breath. His whole body was shaking, trembling like the surface of the sea in a rainstorm. He looked at Gaskin and said, “You don’t believe me.”

Gaskin did not respond. The anger was back in the old man’s eyes and his hands were clenching and unclenching in a way that made Gaskin uneasy. Please come, he wanted to pray to the train, please come and let me escape this old lunatic with his fantasies and hallucinations, because that would be normal, the sensible thing to think, but he found he was more anxious about the idea of the train arriving, of having to climb aboard and surrender to his journey again.Over the old man’s shoulder, the train track remained empty.

“As I watched, the men faded even more. I saw the shadows tighten around them, squeezing, and then the first man just … went. Gone. For a moment, there was a thicker pool of darkness in his shape and then he was gone and the darkness was gone as well. Then the next man went. I saw the bench he was sitting on through his chest and belly, and then he and his equipment faded away. The others went quickly then, vanishing like steam in warm air. Before the last one went, there was a moment when the room was suddenly filled with countless darker patches, hundreds and hundreds it seemed, all of them in the shape of men. I could see the outlines of helmets and packs and hands holding cigarettes and one holding his tea mug, and then they were gone and there was just me. I realised that I was on the floor, sat against the closed door and that all around me the shadows were capering like mad children. Black tentacles of darkness were coming for me, slithering across the floor without making a sound, appearing from under the benches and from the corners of the room, and the worst of it was, I didn’t move. I wasn’t really frightened, not angry any more, not anything. I wanted to lay back, let the slipping things take hold of me, wrap themselves around me like tongues, and then let myself go. I was tired, so tired, and all I wanted to do was sleep. Just sleep, and I think that was what saved me. I felt sleepy, and even as I wanted to let go and let the shadows hold me, I couldn’t help but remember the poor bastards that had been in the waiting room just a few minutes before. Did they see the shadows move before they fell asleep, or were they gone before they knew anything was wrong? They had friends, family, that would never see them again because of what had happened here. Maybe it sounds ridiculous, but I’d rather they’d been blown to pieces in some pointless battle; at least then their life might have looked like it served some purpose. How pointless a way to go, to simply be taken from here”

“Taken?”

“Taken. I saw the truth of it then, realised something about this place. The poor crops, the attitude of the people, the disappearances, everything. There was something under this town, something that sucked at the life above it. Like a good parasite, it didn’t normally kill, just drew enough energy to live off, but with the war, there were people in and out all the time.  Maybe it got greedy, maybe it felt threatened by the constant change and movement, I don’t know, but it started to eat people, sucking at them ‘till they were nothing instead of stopping short and leaving them stunted and exhausted but alive, and now it was coming for me. I screamed, and kicked and thrashed trying to wake myself up and make those dark things back away, and it must have worked because the next thing I remember I was running as fast as I could back to the camp and to my office.”

In the distance, Gaskin heard the train. The old man heard it too and started to speak quickly.

“There’s little more to tell. No one believed me, of course, and no trace of the men was ever found. They were listed as AWOL along with all the other poor sods who must have been taken. I started to see things everywhere in Low Hold. Shadows seemed darker and thicker, and seemed to trail people, hanging on them longer than they should do. Every time I looked around, I saw great pools of darkness near me, darkness where there should have been light. I made sure I never stopped moving, was never alone, but even then I knew I wasn’t safe. Whatever was under this place knew I knew about it, that I was a danger to it, and it needed to be rid of me. I tried to get myself posted away, but was told that I had done too good a job here, that they needed me to stay. Even the food I ate seemed a threat, as though I could swallow some of the terrible thing by accident and be absorbed from the inside out. I was a nervous wreck, jittery and tired and I couldn’t concentrate. I knew I had to do something, but what? And then the Germans came to my rescue.

“There were more and more air raids happening and the skies above London and other cities were alive with fire and noise. Of course, they never bothered with Low Hold, because it was just an insignificant smear of shit on a map, but they did sometimes fly over it to get to Manchester or Leeds or up to Scotland. So, I committed treason.”

Gaskin started. “Treason?” he asked, surprised. He had no urge to hear a confession as well as a story, but had no idea how to stop the old fool.

“Treason. I waited until the next air raid was passing over on its way somewhere important, and I set fires. It only took a couple of burning bales of hay, and that was enough; one by one the German pilots started dropping their bombs early, fooled by the flames, and the town was filled by the brightest, most glorious light I have ever seen. The entire valley was on fire, and even the sound of the planes and the bombs was hot, as though the air itself was burning, and in the centre of the flames, I saw it. Great black tentacles writhed around, reaching out to the sky and across the hills, grasping things that looked like octopus arms one second and pincers the next, but huge and so many, all desperate to escape the heat but there was nowhere for them to go. The more flames there were, the more bombs fell, and the more bombs that fell, the more flames there were and the more the earth was torn apart and the flames burned at the darkness beneath. I killed it, whatever it was, and I watched it die and thrash out its death in the middle of a firestorm that people died in as well and which was my fault and I was glad. Better that they died in fire than allow the thing under the earth a chance to draw another person down to it.”

The old man stood. “I was a traitor, but no-one ever found out. Low Hold was practically destroyed and no one wanted to rebuild it. People had been released and they moved away, vanished, and the town simply rotted where it fell. The army rebuilt some of the camp, but they didn’t use it for long before it was decommissioned. I was posted to Africa, where the ground was hard and dry and there was nothing under it to feed on us, and despite the danger and the shells and the tanks, I loved it.”

Gaskin stood as well, his chest tight with the thought of the miserable train and the journey ahead.

“I killed it,” said the man, “and the town died with it. When the Beeching Axe fell, Low Hold was lucky not to lose both train tracks. It only kept one because there were still quarries near here that used trains to transport the stone. I lived my life knowing that I had betrayed the country that I love, but I was sure that I had done right, that it was worth it.” Gaskin saw that the old man was crying, tears rolling down his stubbled face as he walked to the edge of the platform.

“I was wrong. It is not dead. I must have injured it badly, because it lost its hold on the town, but just recently things have started being drawn here, growing here. Companies buying land, setting up offices, and the staff almost always move here to live. It’s been pulling at me, wanting me to come over to the waiting room. I think it’s weak, because it’s more like a whine than an order, but it’s stronger every day. I didn’t kill it but I hurt it and it has taken years to recover and now it wants me. It already has you, I can see it in the way you move and the way you sit and the shadows that gather under you.

“I will not go to it.”

The man opened his arms wide and, before Gaskin could move, let himself fall back onto the track. The train was still advancing, slow but implacable, and even as the brakes yelped to life the wheels ground across the old man’s chest and hips with a cracking, juddering wail that sent blood across the knotted weeds and Gaskin’s scream into the high summer air.

Gaskin’s two weeks off work did not help. The first few days he spent alternatively shivering and then crying, and after that he found himself restless, wanting to return. The old man had been mad, clearly; the police had implied as much after they finished interviewing Gaskin. Gaskin hadn’t told the police the story the old man had told him; they hadn’t asked, simply took his name, enquired what happened and sent him home. It was his doctor who told him to take time off work, but it was Gaskin who decided to return even though his doctor wanted him to take longer.

The first evening Gaskin sat on the platform, it was warm again. He could hear bees in the distance, and birds fluttering in undergrowth on the platform opposite him. It seemed a far remove from the horror of his last time here.  The old man’s blood had left rusting stains on the earth around the rails, and although Gaskin was sure it was his imagination, the plants looked thicker where the blood had fallen. Leaning forwards, Gaskin peered under the bench beneath him. Surely the shadows were thicker under him, darker than they should be? He could hardly see the wall of the deserted ticket office, yet it was only a couple of feet away. Maybe the old man was right?

Nonsense.

Only it wasn’t, not really. Throughout his time away, he felt an urge to return to Low Hold, a sense of being pulled and called and cajoled and ordered all at the same time that had eventually proved impossible to resist. There were other things as well; Gaskin had spent his first day back looking, really looking, at his fellow workers, and had seen, or thought he saw, what the old man was talking about. They walked as though something below them was pulling down, weighing them with a terrible burden. Looking at himself in the mirror at lunchtime, he had seen the same mark on himself, a deepening of the ridges along the side of his mouth and a rounding of his shoulders that made him look as though he were being yoked and crushed.

The buildings were as bad; even the newest of houses appeared to be crooked, falling apart. The office, which was comparatively new, felt old and brittle, with pale yellow stains to the glass in the windows and doors that didn’t hang quite true and electrics never worked just they way they should. It was as though something was drawing the energy away, leeching it off and causing decay in even the most solid of structures.

Total, total nonsense. Bullshit. Wayward dreams and an old man’s nightmares and he was a fool for listening, and a bigger fool for giving them credence.

And yet, he could not convince himself not to. As he looked at the opposite platform, long abandoned, he saw the shape of the waiting room through its fur of plants and bushes. It was there that the old fool had believed this thing was concentrated, wasn’t it? Where all those men had been taken? Perhaps, though Gaskin, if I look and find nothing, I can put this rubbish behind me. And as simply as that, it was decided.

He left his bag pushed under the bench and walked down to the end of the platform. Here, under a sign that read No unauthorised personnel past this point, the concrete apron sloped away to the weed-entangled earth of the track bed. Looking up at the solitary CCTV camera and seeing the rust that streaked across its lens and the fraying wires that slipped from a crack in its skin, Gaskin decided that no one could see him. No one cared. Very carefully, he walked down the slope.

It was like entering another world. Even though he was only three feet lower, the air felt warmer and more sluggish and the sound of the insects’ buzzing was louder. There was another sound, a metallic tension that he took a moment to identify; the rails, humming with pent-up electric intent. Looking to make sure that the train was nowhere in sight and remembering uncomfortably the terrible grinding of the old man by the wheels, Gaskin took several cautious steps over the rails. He had no idea if one of them was a third rail, or dangerous, but knew that he could be careful and stay safe. One step, two and his heels felt alive with shocks and trembling and then he was over and the other platform beckoned.

Beyond the rails, the ground became uneven, with sunken ruts where the second set of rails had been and plant roots bucking under the surface of the grass and weeds. There was an increasing smell, of old metal and wet soil and something else, something unhealthy and rich and fizzing with decay. Gaskin pushed on, wincing as the plants left streaks of green and brown moisture across his neat trousers and his shoes started to pick up lumps of dark brown matter that he could only hope was mud. By the time he reached the platform itself, he was sweating with the exertion of forcing his way through the tightly wound plants and he was beginning to wish he had left his jacket with his bag. He debated dropping it on the edge of the platform and leaving it to pick up later, but one look at the grime and liquid glistening there convinced him not to.

The platform was even harder to walk across that the track bed. Bushes had wound around each other and resisted his attempts to separate them, springing back to wrap around him even as he pushed them apart. Birds flew, twittering angrily at the disturbance, and at least once something small skittered over his foot, making him jump. The smell was worse here, the aroma of old meat roiling heavy in his every breath, wet and clinging and slippery. He scratched his hands on tough branches as he pushed his way through, leaving bloody markers behind him on the leaves and stalks. He tried not to imagine them being greedily absorbed as soon as he passed.

The waiting room door had long since rotted away from its frame and was tilted crazily across the entrance, stopped from falling by a thick mat of foliage. Gaskin stepped on it, balancing on its flat surface until it cracked loudly under his weight and shifted loosely. He pulled himself through the doorframe, hating the way his fingers felt as though they were digging into wet mulch as he heaved but needing to get inside now, determined to finish this idiot’s quest that he had started. In the distance, he heard the sound of the train and knew that he did not have long and then he was through and in.

There were fewer plants in here, although the windows on the far wall were thick with some crawling vine that had spread across most of the floor. There was the odour of piss, and the blackened remains of a fire in the far corner of the room. A solitary bench was pushed into the centre of the floor, its varnish peeling to reveal wood that was stained and swollen by years of damp and cold. There was nothing else. No monsters, no ghosts, no terrible sucking, clawing things. He was relieved, but oddly disappointed.

Gaskin turned to go and caught movement from the corner of his eye. He glanced around expecting to see a mouse of rat or even bird, but there was nothing. The sounds of the train were louder now, its rattle an insistent message for Gaskin telling him to move, to go now, but he ignored it. In the far corner, what he had taken to be the remains of a fire was opening, tendril arms fluttering apart like some night-blooming flower. At its heart, Gaskin saw a shadow as deep and rich as anything he had known before. Terror came to him on arachnoid legs, yet still he did not move. He could feel it in the palsied skitter of his heart and the clench of his bowels, but it felt as though it was happening to someone else. Or to him, but to a version of him that was somehow unreal, separated away by a sheet of glass or a dense wrap of plastic and untouched by the churning, lapping reality at his feet. Run he told himself, run! The old bastard was right! But even that knowledge did not start him to movement. The dark thing had left its mark on him, as surely as if it had branded him, marking him as one of its own. Could he run far enough? Fast enough to avoid it? Or would he end up here eventually, no matter what he did, too scared to fall beneath the great steel wheels of the train and find the release that the old man had achieved? And in his heart, he knew.

The shadowed thing parted itself around him. With the sounds of the train in his ears, a tattoo beating to the rhythm of a life he had left the second he stepped away from the other platform, Gaskin fell into its wasting embrace.

Simon Kurt Unsworth was born in Manchester in 1972 on a night when, despite extensive research, he can find no evidence of mysterious signs or portents. He currently lives on a hill in the north of England with his wife and child awaiting the coming flood, where he writes essentially grumpy fiction (for which pursuit he was nominated for a 2008 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story). He is tall, grouchier than he should be and the owner of a selection of really rather garish shirts. His work has been published in a number of critically acclaimed anthologies, including the critically acclaimed At Ease with the Dead, Shades of Darkness, Exotic Gothic 3Gaslight Grotesque: Nightmare Tales of Sherlock Holmes, Never Again and Lovecraft Unbound. He has also appeared in three of Stephen Jones’ Mammoth Book of Best New Horroranthologies (19, 21 and 22) and is due to appear in 23 due out later this year, and also The Very Best of Best New Horror. His first collection of short stories, Lost Places, was released by the Ash Tree Press in 2010 and his second, Quiet Houses, from Dark Continents Publishing in 2011. He has a further collection, Strange Gateways, due out from PS Publishing in 2012 and his as-yet-unnamed collection will launch the Spectral Press Spectral Signature Editions imprint in 2013, so at some point he needs to write those stories.

Buy Simon’s short story collections: Lost PlacesQuiet Houses, and Strange Gateways.

Story illustration by Nick Gucker.

If you enjoyed this story, let Simon know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.

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8 responses to “Station Waiting Room, by Simon Kurt Unsworth

  1. An exceptionally rich tale that continues to linger in my mind. SKU is, in my humble opinion, a modern master. ‘Lost Places’ — magnificent!

  2. Just a fantastic story. I think it captures the essence of the Lovecraft tale, with the growing horror mixed in with the doubt of the protagonist. Simon, a very good tale. Nick, love the artwork as always. The only thing I missed was that the story teller should have resisted more, perhaps fighting the embrace rather than succumbing without a fight.

  3. Cheers all! Appreciate the feedback – and Dave, most of my heroes (and I used the term advisedly!!) are a bit useless….dunno why….

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