I can’t see much to gripe about today. Instead I have been wondering about putting all those old short stories into a book and putting out through Lulu.com which costs me nothing and can be a cheap download.
Here’s a sample. Unpublished until now. Obviously the published ones are better than this. A bit.
One stop after Marchway
There was only one seat left on the train, and it was opposite a man with a permanent grin. One look at his wild eyes and dishevelled clothes was enough to tell me why the seat was unoccupied. Nevertheless, it was the last seat, and I was tired.
He started as soon as the seat’s material stretched under my weight.
“My name’s Doug.” Hand outstretched, eyes showing too much white, he leaned over the small table.
Across the aisle, four strangers smirked into their newspapers. Through the window, the station slid away. Doug’s hand still reached out, his grin never wavered. He wasn’t going to give up. I took his hand and shook, once, then wiped my hand on my trousers.
“Thomas,” I said. “Tom.” I cursed myself for my familiarity. This was to be a short trip, the last leg of an all-day journey, but it would be interminable if this lunatic hooked me into a conversation.
“Ah, you should never abbreviate your name. Makes it sound like you can’t be bothered with all of it.” Doug placed his hands on the table. I felt a little relief at that. If I could see his hands I knew he had no weapons.
But isn’t Doug short for— I stopped the thought before it emerged as words. I travel often by train, and I’ve met the Train Looney more than once. Every train has one, and Doug was definitely the one for this train. I had sometimes wondered why there was one, and only one, per train. Maybe they had a union. My mind fast-forwarded into the logic-free argument that would ensue if I questioned his statement, so I just smiled a tight smile and watched the backs of houses passing the window.
I misheard Doug’s question at first and gave him a hard, questioning look. His grin remained plastered across his face. It would have been improved, I thought, if he cleaned his teeth.
“Or lawyer?” Doug nodded at my suit, fresh white shirt and perfectly aligned tie. “Businessman, perhaps?”
“Architect.” I settled back in my seat, resigned now to spend at least part of the journey in conversation with this idiot. Perhaps he would get off the train before I did, though from past experience I knew that to be unlikely. The Train Looney is a fixture. He never gets off. “Rather, I will be. I have a job interview tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Doug tilted his head to one side. “Why are you all dressed up today?”
“This is just the way I dress.” Already, the conversation was starting to grate on my nerves. The human shambles seated opposite was never going to appreciate why I took trouble with my appearance. Explanation was futile, but I felt sure he was going to ask anyway. He didn’t.
“It’s good to meet someone who takes the time to dress properly.”
My eyes threatened to roll. I forced them still, but could not stop one eyebrow rising. Doug noticed. His smile slipped for a moment, and I wondered if things were about to turn unpleasant. Train Loonies are unpredictable creatures. Doug glanced down at himself.
“I’ve been travelling a long time,” he said. “I’m not usually this scruffy.” His smile returned. “Never mind, I’ll soon be home.” The expectant look in his eyes made it clear what my response should be. I held back as long as I could, but I’ve never been able to stare one of these guys down.
“Where’s home?” I wanted to bite my tongue for asking. Doug had won, and the slight widening of his grin showed he knew it. The looney had hooked another conversation.
“One stop after Marchway. What about you? Going home?”
I hesitated before responding. I was going to Marchway. My interview was early tomorrow morning, so I had booked a room at the White Monkey hotel for the night. If someone asked me where I was going, would I have said ‘Marchway’ or ‘one stop after Weston’?
“I’m going to Marchway.” I spoke while my mind tried to make sense of Doug’s statement. “For my interview.” The train slid to a halt. The sign for Weston showed at the window. Only one more stop, then I’d be gone and the madman would have to start again with someone else.
“Your interview is tomorrow. Why go to Marchway today?” Doug’s head tilted to the other side. I wondered if his neck was loose.
“The interview is at nine. The earliest train gets into Marchway at five to nine. That doesn’t give me time to find out where the office is, so I’m staying overnight.” I explained all this in a slow, patient tone. I didn’t want to repeat it.
“Good idea.” Doug nodded with such enthusiasm I pressed myself back into my seat. His head blurred with the speed of its movement until I honestly thought it would come off. He stopped with an abruptness that startled me, then said something that startled me even more.
“Your surname starts with H.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement. Doug’s eyes transfixed me. I could not look away from the abyss behind them, the blank, empty darkness where thoughts jostled in random patterns.
“Howarth.” I breathed the word.
“It doesn’t matter.” Doug’s voice had taken a deeper quality. The sounds of the train faded from my ears. “Only the H matters.”
I wanted to ask what was so important about H, but Doug kept talking. It seemed impolite to interrupt. I heard only his voice, though I could not make out the words. I saw nothing but the darkness behind his eyes. Time ignored me, it seemed, and the world was a place for another day.
A door slammed. The train started moving. I blinked and rubbed at my eyes, They felt dry, as though I had held them open too long. The last sign of the station passed the window, just at the end of the platform. It said ‘Marchway’.
“That’s my station.” I struggled to my feet. “I’ve missed it, listening to your nonsense.”
Doug smiled into my glare. “Nothing to worry about,” he said. “The next stop is just a few minutes away. You can get a train back from there, or even a taxi. It’s not far.”
“What’s the next stop?” I pulled the paper timetable from my pocket and opened it.
“New station.” Doug relaxed in his seat. “Doesn’t have a name yet. It’s not on your timetable.”
“A station with no name?” I curled my lip. The timetable showed no returning trains that evening anyway. It would have to be a taxi. I hoped I had enough cash. “What town does it serve?”
“The town where I live.” Doug’s evasive manner was becoming infuriating. I sank back into my seat and slipped the timetable into my pocket.
“Right. So what’s it called?”
“Doesn’t have a name yet.” His grin made me want to punch him.
This time, I did roll my eyes. “So how the hell do I call a taxi? Where do I ask it to pick me up?”
“Leave it to me.” Doug produced an expensive-looking cell phone. He punched a few buttons and held it to his ear. I rested my face on my hand and stared between my fingers at the countryside drifting by. Doug was right, it didn’t really matter if I checked into my hotel an hour later. Even though this idiot had made me miss my stop, I would still be on time for my interview with—
I closed my eyes. The name of the company I was to meet tomorrow had slipped my mind. Must be the stress, and fatigue. No matter. The invitation was in my bag, on the parcel shelf above my head. I didn’t need to remember it now. I’d read it over in the—
I opened my eyes. The train slowed. Doug put his cell phone away and rose from his seat. I offered no resistance as he took my arm and lifted me to my feet. My mind searched for the name of the hotel I had booked into.
Cold air breezed past my face, bringing the scent of diesel. The train pulled away. I stood beside Doug on an empty platform. No name boards. No people, no station staff, not even a waiting room or ticket office. The platform blended into a road that ran alongside.
“My bag.” I searched the ground. “I left my bag on the train.”
“Don’t worry about it.” Doug walked to the road. “They’ll take it off when the train comes back through here.”
“When’s that going to be?” I followed Doug to the road. “There’s no more trains until tomorrow. I need that bag. It has clean clothes and the address I’ve to go to tomorrow.”
“What was the name of your hotel?” Doug turned his grin on me. I stopped walking. Doug nodded at my silence. “You don’t remember. It’s not a problem.” He indicated the houses opposite. “This is your home now. Or will be.”
“You’re insane.” I shook my head. A row of new houses stood opposite the station. No two were alike. One had turrets, another had multiple chimneys, a third sported a precarious upper-story extension supported by concrete posts. The row extended in both directions and ended with bare fields. I closed my eyes and opened them, because what I saw made no sense.
The road ended where the houses ended. It went nowhere.
Doug took a deep breath. “One of these houses is mine. In a moment, I’ll find out which.” He turned his grin on me again. “We could do with a proper architect around here.”
“Who are you?” I grabbed his shoulders. “Where is this?” I shook him. His grin didn’t waver. “What the hell is going on? How do you expect a taxi to get here?”
“I am Aaron-dot-Doug-root-G. This is home. I’ve arrived, you’ll arrive soon, and there’s no taxi.”
“What?” I released him and stood back. I had categorised him as Train Looney, but I had clearly been wrong. This man was a full-blown psycho. “What kind of name is that?”
Doug sighed. “Outside, we all refer to ourselves as Doug. Well, the men do. The women are all Lucy. Here, we use our full names. I am Aaron-dot-Doug-root-G. You are Thomas-dot-Doug-root-H.”
“You’ve really lost it.” I took another step back. Tired or not, I was ready to stand on the platform all night. To hell with the job. If it meant living close to this nut, it wasn’t paying enough. I’d catch the first train tomorrow and go straight home. My brow furrowed. Where was home? I pressed my fingers to my forehead.
“Don’t try to remember.” Doug’s voice sounded calm. “It hurts, and there’s really no need. This is home now. As soon as you find Doug-root-I, you can come here for good.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You will. It only takes a few hours on the train. The words I spoke to you will come back, and you’ll know what to do.”
“This is insane. I am Thomas—” What was my surname? H?
“Thomas-dot-Doug-root-H. On the train, you are Doug.”
“No.” I raised my head. Doug grinned. Another man approached us, an older man. Smart suit, well fitted. The image of sanity and stability.
“You have no family, few friends. That will change when you settle here.” Doug tilted his head to one side again. Somewhere inside myself, I knew he spoke the truth. The older man stopped beside Doug.
“Aaron-dot-Doug-root-G, welcome home.” The man held out his hand. Doug shook it. I groaned. If there was one thing that disturbed me more than lunatics, it was cults. I had been kidnapped by some kind of cult. The man pointed to the house with the floating extension, and Doug clasped his hands.
“I was hoping it would be that one,” he said. “Every time I passed, I wished for that one.”
The man smiled. “I know.” He held out his hand, palm upwards. Doug fished out his cell phone and a train ticket and placed them in the man’s hand.
“Goodbye for now, Thomas-dot-Doug-root-H. I only rode the rails for a few days. I hope it takes even less time for you.” Aaron-dot-Doug-root-G set off towards his house. I swallowed hard. The lunacy here was catching; I had even started referring to Doug by his insane made-up name.
The older man put his arm around my shoulder and led me back onto the platform. I should have pulled away then, should have run, but I had no place to run. I had no memory of places outside this one lonely street. There was nowhere else to be.
“You have questions.” The old man spoke. “They will fade in time, and you will not be troubled by their nagging. I am Doug-root-A. Welcome to our family.”
“What are you?” It felt wrong to question this man. Guilt rose to choke me as I spoke. “Are you a devil-worship cult or something?”
Doug-root-A laughed. “We are a group of friends, that is all. Your job now is to find the next in line.”
“How do I do that?” I felt a genuine interest in the question. I really wanted to know.
“You already have the answer. Aaron-dot-Doug-root-G put it into your mind. You will know Doug-root-I the moment you see him. He will be self-absorbed and alone, and he will regard you with contempt. You will bring him here. Then you can stay.” He pressed the cell phone and ticket into my hand. “Here. Only use the phone when Doug-root-I is coming. The train will stop for you.”
I slipped the phone and ticket into my pocket. The house with turrets caught my eye. It had a pleasing symmetry, and I’d always liked turrets. Doug-root-A smiled.
“Your house will be waiting for you.” He stepped away from me and winked. “Don’t be too long. The girls have overtaken us. Yesterday, Lucy-root-A welcomed Helen-dot-Lucy-root-K.” Doug-root-A shook my hand and walked away. I faced the rails.
The sun touched the hillside opposite. I pulled my jacket tighter to ward off the rising wind. The rails below me whistled. In the distance, the clack of steel wheels signalled an approaching train. I took the timetable from my pocket, the timetable that showed no train should be coming, and dropped it onto the platform. It didn’t apply to me any more. Train Loonies don’t care about timetables.
Criticism welcome. I have no ego, I sold it to some red guy with horns, years ago.