Short Fiction ~ Oliver Barton
Honourable Mention, Strands International Flash Fiction Competition - 9
The train stops in a tunnel and the lights go out. I say to myself, I’m not going to panic, because you can feel the fear rising, you know, in spite of yourself. In detective stories and movies, things happen in the dark, in trains. Alive before the tunnel, emerge into the light; dead body. Remember Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes? I can do without this. I am tired of the boredom of it all. I just want to get home and have a drink and eat something in front of some stupid sitcom on the telly. Escapist unnatural jolliness. A ghastly hysterical studio audience.
It is dark, but your eyes adjust, of course. There is light here and there. Phones, tablets, laptops, all filling their humans with images and messages. Now the train’s generators stop. Those talking too loudly on their mobiles fall silent. Perhaps they can’t get a signal. It is uncanny, unnatural. Dark. Darkish. Silent. Fairly silent. I can still hear a tish-tish-de-tish-tish from someone’s MP3 player.
I wish someone would say something. ‘Perhaps…,’ I say. And stop because I can’t think of anything sensible. Then the computers and phones start winking out. In ones and twos. The tish-tish gets a bit louder. The last light vanishes, leaving a dwindling image on my retina. The tish-tish crescendos more and stops.
It is dark now, and it is silent. It is impossible. How can so many batteries run down at the same time? Why does nobody speak? There is a faint hissing. Is it someone whispering? I can’t make out words. My eyes are playing tricks. I keep thinking there’s a flickering glow outside on the tunnel walls. And the hissing. It is hissing. I’m sure of that. I don’t want to think what it might mean. What is leaking…
Take my word for it, in a situation like this, in darkness, when you don’t understand what is going on and something is hissing, your thoughts turn to mortality. The fragile span of life. Of what you were going to do, what you could do, today, tomorrow, next week, next year… I’m fifty-seven, I’m balding, I’m overweight, I admit it. I’m… I… Oh, be honest! I haven’t achieved most of things I thought I would. Just haven’t got around to them, put them off, couldn’t be bothered. Now, though, I terribly want to do them, to walk the Pennine way, to visit Malta, to write a book, to learn to swim, to get a more fulfilling job… Now there is an urgent need, now when perhaps it is too late.
It’s making me a bit light-headed. I feel I’m floating on my seat. And there seems to be a slight breeze. My hair is being ruffled. I think I can smell smoke. Total darkness is no good for the nerves.
Nor is the deafening whistle that drowns out the hissing, a whistle that echoes down the tunnel. Like a banshee. The train gives a violent lurch, and everyone is talking and we’re moving, picking up speed, and the smoky smell is getting stronger and I’m choking.
We burst into the light in a cloud of steam. Someone in a seat on the other side of the carriage comes over and tugs on the leather strap to close the window.
‘You should keep it closed when we go into a tunnel, sonny,’ he says. ‘Otherwise the smoke all comes in. Filthy stuff. Don’t know what they’re burning these days. Coal’s not what it used to be before the war.’
Tickety-tak, tickety-tak, goes the train. Tickety-tak, tickety-tak. I look down at the rather grubby and grazed knees sticking out from my shorts, I run my hand through my unruly hair and realise that possibly, just possibly, I have another chance.
Oliver Barton used to write Computer User Manuals, but having retired, now prefers to replace telling facts that nobody reads with writing whimsical fiction that lots of people enjoy. He is currently at work on his second novel. He lives in Abergavenny, Wales. Website: www.musicolib.net, though it’s more to do with his musical compositions.