Horla Flash Fiction (March 2021)

 

RETURN JOURNEY

by MALCOLM TIMPERLEY

 

“LOOKING for a seat?”

“Er, yes. Is this one taken?”

“No, no, it’s free, help yourself. Looks like you got the last empty seat.”

“Thanks. I’ve walked all the way from the front of the train looking for somewhere to sit. I was starting to think that I’d have to stand all the way. I don’t know why they don’t put another carriage on.”

“I’m not sure another carriage would make any difference. Or two carriages come to that. This train’s always full.”

“I, er, I wouldn’t know. I’m not a regular on this train.”

“I know, and it makes a welcome change to see a new face. I tell you, I’ve been using this service pretty much, oh… for ever really, and apart from you, who I’ve only just met, I recognise everyone in this carriage. Not that they ever let on, mind. They just sit there, staring into space. I mean, look at her, sat over there. In a world of her own, she is. I bet the last time she moved a muscle was when she first got on.”

“Well, nobody moves about much on a train, do they?”

“Yeah, but she’s not the only one, is she? Look around, it’s like a train full of dummies. Where’s it come from, eh? Madame Tussauds? Here, watch this… HELLO EVERYBODY! See? Nothing.”

“Er, well, maybe they find your, er… exuberance… a trifle intimidating. Or embarrassing perhaps.”

“Nah, that’s not it. Like I said, I’ve been travelling on this same train for ever and it’s always like this. Do you know, none of them would even blink if I was stood on that table singing Ave Maria at the top of my voice. Naked. The point is, they don’t react because they can’t react.”

“Oh, come on, you’re not suggesting that everyone on this train is paralysed or something, are you?”

“No, no, no, that’s not what I’m saying at all. The reason they’re not reacting to us is because they’re all dead, aren’t they?”

“What? Are you seriously trying to tell me that everybody on this train is dead?”

“Yeah. I mean, it’s the only explanation that makes sense, isn’t it? What else could they be? They never move, you know. All those grey, pasty-faced robots sat in the same seats, day after day. Same clothes, same blank expressions, same everything. Take it from me, you won’t see any of them get off at a station either. In fact, I’ll bet you any money you like that you won’t see any of them do anything.”

“But surely they have to move when the guard comes round to check the tickets?”

“Never happens mate. To be honest, I don’t think the guard’s ever made it this far down the train. If there is a guard, that is, I’ve never seen one.”

“But it’s only, what, three or four coaches long.”

“You reckon? Tell me, how many carriages did you walk through before you found that seat you’re in?”

“Two. Well, three, counting this one. That’s why I was worried, I thought I was getting to the end of the train and the whole thing was full.”

“Hmm. Getting to the end? Really?”

“Alright then, so how many carriages are there on this train?”

“No idea mate. I mean, you’re right, there’s two more that way, as far as the engine, but the other way, well, who knows? Look, when I first got on I went through to see if there was a buffet car or something, and I must’ve walked through about eight or ten carriages before I gave up and came back here. I’ve no idea how much further I could’ve walked if I’d wanted to. And it was packed as far as I could see down there too. This one was the first free seat I found.”

“And was there a buffet car?”

“No, course not. Then again, why would there be? I mean, it stands to reason, dead people don’t eat, do they? I felt a right berk walking back here, not that anybody let on or said anything, mind. But then, they wouldn’t, would they, you know, what with being dead and that?”

“OK, OK, just supposing you’re right and these people are all dead, what are they doing here?”

“Travelling. Same as you mate.”

“But they’re not the same, are they? Because you’re saying that they’re dead or paralysed or something but we aren’t. See, just a minute ago you were telling me about walking through the carriages – how come you say they can’t move about but you can?”

“Not can move about, could move about. Look, try standing up, go on.”

“I can’t move!”

“Course you can’t. Neither can I. It’s only once you’re sat down that it starts. Or finishes.”

“Oh my god. Do you mean I’m stuck here? And where are we going?”

“Wherever dead people go.”

“But I’m not dead, I’m alive. I’m a tax accountant in Swindon.”

“Not any more you aren’t mate. You’re now officially a daisy support scheme.”

“But look, answer me this, right. If I’d died, wouldn’t I’d have noticed my life ending?”

“Not necessarily. Look at it this way; as far as the person themselves is concerned, what difference is there between being dead and being alive?”

“I don’t know. It’s not really something I’ve ever thought about.”

“Well, go on, think about it now.”

“Well, all right, if… if I was dead, but still talking and thinking, like you say I am now, that’d make me a ghost, wouldn’t it? So, I imagine I wouldn’t be visible to any more than a handful of living people.”

“But visible to other dead folk?”

“Well, yeah, I suppose so. And probably the same the other way round; I’d only be able to see a very few living people.”

“But you can see everyone here? All of them?”

“So we’re all dead? Well, where are we going? To hell?”

“No, this is a commuter train, remember? We’re not going to hell, mate. We’re already there.”

 

***

Malcolm Timperley studied medicine at Liverpool University, spent more years than he likes to remember as a psychiatrist, and is now a writer and heritage steam railway signalman, living in the Highlands of Scotland. His published writings include non-fiction (railway history), horror short stories and comic flash fiction. Most recently his work was short-listed at the 2020 Edinburgh International Flash Fiction Awards. This is Malcolm’s fourth story at Horla. His previous tales can be found by entering his name in the search engine at the top right of any of our pages.

Title photo credit –  Antoine Boissonot on Unsplash

Horla standard disclaimer – image has no direct connection with the fiction