10:10 to Throgmorten
Dark SolsticeNecromancy ...
10:10 to Throgmorten
10:10 to Throgmorten
Dark Solstice Necromancy ...
10:10 to Throgmorten by Tim Jeffreys
10:10 to Throgmorten
by Tim Jeffreys
It had been a long day at work, and, at dusk, I found myself walking along the main road towards home. A railway bridge crosses the road ahead of where I walked, and as I approached a train ran over it. The train was a mere black silhouette against the deepening sky, but all its windows were lit, which meant I had a detailed view of the interior. As I watched each carriage pass, I noticed all of them were empty. So many carriages. So many windows. So many vacant seats. A passengerless train; or so I thought.
In the final carriage, in the final window, a figure stood looking outwards. A young woman. I blinked twice at the sight of her, and in the time it took me to do this she, and the train she rode, were gone. All that remained was a fast fading rush of air and gallop of pistons as the train powered off towards its destination. But the image of the woman, if in fact it had been a woman, didn't depart so rapidly from my memory. I could still picture her stood there in that last window of that final carriage when I closed my eyes to sleep that night. She had been looking straight at me, I'm sure of that, mouthing something and slapping both palms against the train window in what I could only imagine was an urgent bid to get my attention. In the final second she had glanced desperately over her shoulder, and there, across the aisle, another figure stood. I say figure, but what I thought I saw was some kind of large man-sized insect. It had big black oval eyes on the side of its head and a pair of clacking mandibles, and two pairs of mantis-like legs were weaving about in the air above its head as if it were angry or agitated. The most bizarre thing was that it wore a smart grey longcoat with a white shirt and black tie. But I must have been mistaken. Like I said, within a few seconds the train was gone and I spent most of that time blinking in disbelief. Perhaps this second figure was a person wearing some kind of costume. Or perhaps there was no second figure. Perhaps there was no woman. I may very well have imagined all of it.
With the noise of the train gone, and only this lingering after-image remaining – the panicked young woman and the menacing out-sized insect – it was fortunate I chose to glance at my watch. The time was twelve minutes after ten. The station was only a few minutes away, so I was able to confidently deduce that the train which had just passed before my eyes had left the platform at ten minutes past the hour.
Whether real or imagined, I couldn't stop thinking about the woman I'd glimpsed in that train carriage, and I knew already, I think, that I was being drawn into something I might later wish I'd kept my nose out of. Curiosity killed the cat, as the old cliché goes. But I was more than curious. I couldn't shake the feeling that the woman on that train had desperately sought my assistance, and I, in my confusion and bewilderment, had failed her.
I've always had a keen interest in trains, and indeed once spent many an idle hour of my youth standing in the cavernous stations or on railway bridges or windblown platforms recording their comings and goings. Though I have little time for that now, I'm still a dab hand at decoding timetables. So it took very little effort to work out that the train which had departed the nearby station at 10:10 that Tuesday evening was bound for a place called Throgmorten. In fact, Throgmorten was not only the final stop along the line, but the only stop thereafter. It is a little town some twelve miles away from where I live; a place which, until that moment, I had never heard of before, let alone visited.
Now I found myself making plans to go there. Quite what I hoped to achieve, so many days after glimpsing that woman on the train, was anyone's guess. Perhaps all I wanted was to rid myself of the lingering sense of guilt at not having acted in her defence, although in truth what could I have done? Called the police? Called the train operator? A giant insect, you say? And wearing a sharp suit, eh? No. They would have laughed and thought me insane. Just some crank, to be humoured and gotten rid of as quickly as possible.
I planned to depart on the following Friday evening after work. I imagined myself as a knight charging in on a white horse. In truth I would be wearing my raincoat and riding the 10:10, since that appeared to be the only scheduled train to make a stop in Throgmorten. This fact alone I thought very odd.
I waited alone on the platform as the sky darkened and the silhouettes of birds or bats – I couldn't tell which – flitted about the poplar trees lining the track. The departure board made no mention of the 10:10, and I began to think I'd been mistaken, until -- precisely on time -- the Throgmorten train eased into the station. I glimpsed the dark head of the driver, but every carriage appeared to be empty. On boarding, and making my way along the aisles, I found this to be true. There was not even a conductor. I took a seat in the final carriage as the train departed. Speeding over the railway bridge, I glimpsed the road below and noticed a figure walking. I remembered how a few days ago it had been me walking down there, and the window beside which I sat was where that woman had made her futile bid for assistance. Thinking this, I couldn't help glancing around the carriage, half-expecting to see a giant insect rearing up from behind one of the seatbacks, and a little frisson of terror ran down my spine. Within minutes, though, the train entered a long tunnel and all I saw out the window was my own ghost gazing back at me from a sea of black.
Throgmorten's train station was brightly lit, but deserted, and on leaving it I found the streets unpeopled too. By blind luck I discovered what appeared to be the high street, and began searching for a hotel where I could spend the night. I would begin my investigations in the morning, in daylight. I found a place at the far end of the high street called the Cow Hollow Hotel. I knew upon entering that this would not be a five-star experience. A cheerless little man, sat behind the reception desk, slung a key at me and said, "Upstairs." A worn leather fob on the key read 1010. I knew there could not possibly be more than a thousand rooms in this building. I had fallen further down the rabbit hole, it seemed.
My room was small, windowless, and, as I saw when I turned on the single lamp, decorated with some headache-inducing wallpaper from the 1970s which had orange flowers with yellow vines on a dark green background. Even when I clicked off the light, I could still imagine those flowers pressing in on me like some fast-expanding jungle thicket.
There was a single bed pushed to one side of the room, a writing desk, and on the wall opposite the bed, a hideous black-framed ornate mirror. It was as I stood looking at my reflection in the mirror that I had a sudden sense that something was not right. There appeared to be a delay, as if my reflection's movements were a step behind my own. I moved closer to the mirror and noticed it again. This was no reflection! To be certain, I put my back to the mirror but then span around suddenly. A-ha! The man in the mirror still faced away from me! He glanced over his shoulder and was startled to see that I'd caught him out. He made some half-hearted attempt to adopt my current stance, but then he simply threw up his arms in defeat.
He gestured to me then and held out a hand, and after a moment's pause I reached out and took the offered hand. He guided me forward as I lifted one foot high over the black frame and stepped inside the mirror. I was now in a room exactly like the one I had just left. My twin and I faced each other, and he spoke, but I couldn't understand his burbling words. After a few moments, I realised all his sentences were spoken backwards. I made some effort to try and reconfigure his words in my mind, but he saw the futility of this before I did and instead he motioned for me to follow him to the door.
The hotel corridor was exactly like the one in my world. He ushered me down the stairs and into the lobby. The reception desk was unmanned. Crossing to the main door, he opened it and peered out into the street. Then he beckoned for me to join him, pointing out of the door as if there was something he wanted me to see. I went to his side and looked out. Oh the horror! For a few moments I stood there blinking, unable to believe what I was seeing. In the street outside, instead of people, giant insects strolled. Spiders and woodlouse and beetles and crickets! They wore suits and dresses and overcoats, some even wore hats, and they carried umbrellas and handbags. Some walked arm in arm, others singularly or in groups. And in doorways and alleyways, I saw people. They kept to the shadows. If one emerged into the streetlight, the insects would swat at them with flailing legs or strike at them with handbags or walking sticks, sending them scuttling back into the dark.
My heart faltered. I was aware I had entered a nightmare. Letting the hotel door swing closed, I left my twin and fled back up the stairs. On the first floor, I grew panicked as I couldn't find the room from which I'd entered this hell, but then my twin came and guided me back, glancing over his shoulder all the while as if we were being pursued.
Once we were inside the room, he closed the door carefully and gestured at the mirror on the wall. I took his meaning – I had to go back to my own world. Bracing my hands against the frame, I stepped up and through the mirror and fell to the floor on the other side. At once I scrambled to my feet and patted myself down. I noticed the man on the other side of the mirror doing the same. He had returned to the pretence of being my reflection. Opening the built-in wardrobe, I found a ratty blanket folded on the high shelf, and taking it down I made to drape it over the mirror. My twin made a gesture of protest at this, but then his face became resigned and that was the last thing I saw before I threw the blanket and covered the mirror. Then, exhausted by my exertions and still filled with horror and bewilderment at what I'd seen on the other side of the mirror – a world just like my own, but one where giant insects ruled! – I lay down on the bed without undressing and fell into a deep, troubled sleep.
Opening my eyes, and turning on the bedside lamp, the first thing I saw was an earwig making an unhurried path across the wall to my side. Without thinking, and using a disproportionate amount of force, I flattened it with my fist.
After this I lay on my back staring at the ceiling, trying to make sense of what I'd seen the night before, until there was a sharp knock on the door. Opening the door, I found the little man from the reception desk stood on the other side holding a breakfast tray. Without saying anything, he thrust the tray at me so that I had no choice but to accept it. At that moment, though, I had a strong urge to escape that wretched room with its garish wallpaper flowers which gave a sense of being trapped and entangled. So I set the tray on the bed and rushed down the stairs and out through the main doors before the man – who'd returned to his station – could say anything.
What a joy to see daylight and breathe fresh air! I felt immediately invigorated. I began to think the events of last night might only have been some strange fantasy, a delusion. Though it was still early, there were a few people walking the high street. I made my way along the row of shopfronts, looking for a café. Finding one decked out with a lot of reassuring dark wood, I ordered coffee and toast and took a seat by the window.
As I sat idly watching the passers-by and sipping my drink, a woman passing along the street stopped to look in at me. She was young and petit, with a tussle of blonde hair, big brown eyes, and very red lips. Not until she put her palms on the glass and mouthed something at me did I realise it was the same woman I'd seen on the train a few days ago being terrorised by a giant insect; the very reason I had come to this town in the first place! I stood up at once, but the woman peeled away from the glass and took off down the street at a fast walk.
"Wait!" I called. Heads turned to look at me. I made a gesture of apology and bundled out into the road, just in time to see the woman look back once before taking a left into a side street.
"Wait!" I called again, and broke into a run.
By the time I reached the side street, quite deranged in my pursuit, I could see no sign of the woman. I hurried along a row of shops: a tobacconist, a second-hand bookshop, a jewellers. My quarry had evidently ducked inside one of these establishments, but which, which? One shop window was full of mirrors, and in all of them I saw my reflection, my twin, not standing stupefied as I knew I was, but thumbing over his shoulder and nodding towards the rear of the shop. I took his meaning. Chimes rang as I entered, but there were no people inside. The walls were dark blue and covered by three tiers of mirrors of all shapes and sizes. As I passed along the rows I saw in each mirror my reflection gesturing frantically towards the far end of the shop. There, a spiral staircase descended into gloom. I glanced uncertainly at my reflection. He nodded vigorously. I must have had some sense of what awaited me at the bottom of that staircase, as I paused before descending to pluck a golf umbrella from a coat-rack stood against the back wall of the shop. Brandishing this before me like a sword, I began down the twisting staircase. Had I known the extent of the horror waiting for me in the dim-lit basement room below, I suspect my courage would have failed. To what extent is heroism simply ignorance backed into a corner? I ask you.
There were ten of them, or so I estimated, and they passed the woman between them like a gang of children squabbling over a doll; violating her hair and clothes with long hairy appendages, feelers, and snapping pedipalps. The woman's mouth gaped in a silent scream and her eyes were wide with terror. A wave of revulsion went through me, quickly turning to anger, and I grit my teeth. Without thinking I gave a cry and speared one of her assailants, a giant black beetle, through the middle with the umbrella. Transparent wings erupted from behind its back as it struggled. Feeling the strength of the thing as it tried to pull away, I bellowed and put all my weight behind the umbrella, forcing it deeper into the thing's underside until at last it slumped forward and was still. But now the others were upon me. Drawing the umbrella from the beetle's innards, I swept back the legs of a massive tarantula as they tried to encircle me, then speared it too. A sideways swipe took the head off a mantis and green goo sputtered upwards from its neck cavity, spattering my face. I reeled around in disgust, then skewered a massive ladybird through the centre as it tried to come at me and rolled it from my path; then without pause I spun the umbrella around and used the handle to beat an enormous woodlouse to a grey pulp. A great wasp attacked me then. Though I swiped at it, it ducked away, then came back on the attack, thrusting its stinger, again and again, until I managed to rip one wing with the point of the umbrella and it fell to the floor, buzzing furiously and twisting in half-circles until I lifted my foot and stamped down hard on its head.
On through the throng I went, stabbing and smashing and slicing, until finally the only creatures left standing were the human kind: myself and the woman. She cowered against the back wall, beneath a tiny, grime-covered window against which regular-sized flies butted, and looked at me in fear and trepidation. I made it clear in my expression that I meant her no harm. I held out one hand and she took it.
Together we fled, up the spiral staircase, through the mirror shop, out the door, and down the side street. I had no idea where I was leading her. I just knew we had to get away from there, away from Throgmorten, away from the reverse-world horrors of that place and back to reality. Then I saw a sign for the train station and struck for it. As we hurtled hand in hand into the station, I head a whistle blow and cried out: "Wait!" A train stood alongside the platform. I tugged the woman's hand harder and ran so fast we were almost falling, until we tumbled, laughing, through the sliding doors of the train a moment before they closed.
"Oh my God," the woman said. "We made it. I didn't think we'd make it."
Looking at each other's bewildered face, we laughed again. We went on laughing as the train lurched away from the platform. We might just as easily have cried.
In time we picked ourselves up and made our way through the carriages. The train was empty. When we reached the final carriage, the woman fell down in a seat whilst I sat across the aisle from her. She turned her head and looked at me in admiration.
"I can't believe you rescued me," she said. "Why did you do that?"
I thought a moment, then said: "Because you asked for help. Remember? You signalled to me." I pointed at the window behind her.
The woman looked confused a moment, glancing at the window, but then she smiled and said, "My name's Betty."
"Pleased to meet you, Betty," I said. She laughed. I was about to add something when the train entered a tunnel and our world went black for a few moments. Silent in the darkness, I thought about our life together, mine and Betty's. For I was certain she would want to stay with me forever. I'd rescued her, after all, from the topsy-turvy horrors of Throgmorten, hadn't I?
When we emerged into sunlight, Betty's head was turned away from me. She looked out of the window. Following her gaze, I recognised the road below as the one close to my house, the one where I'd been walking the evening I first saw Betty. Indeed, someone walked there now. A man. Realising that in a matter of minutes we'd arrive at the station, and at the start of our new life together, I rose to my feet in elation. At my movement Betty turned, and on sight of me her expression opened out with terror and she screamed. When I lifted my arms, she screamed again, so loud it made my head hurt. I reached out to comfort her, and she threw herself at the train window. I noticed it then. Reflected there, beyond her, was a giant cockroach wearing a long raincoat. Its antennae waved in the air menacingly, and its big black compound eyes stared straight back at me. I saw its mandibles slick with saliva, and two pairs of long, segmented legs topped with mean-looking claws reaching out to Betty even as she screamed and pressed herself flat against the windowpane as if she thought she could escape that way.
I do not know what happened after that. Perhaps I fainted. When I came to my senses I was stood on the same train station platform from whence I had started my adventure. Dusk was falling. There was no sign of Betty or – thank God! – any giant insects. I had an unpleasant feeling of fullness, as if I'd just got up from a large meal. As I turned in bewilderment, my gaze caught a movement in the brambles beyond the low platform wall. It was the struggle of a butterfly caught in a spider's web. Something in me wanted to free the pretty, fragile thing; but another voice in my head – a new voice I thought – told me: no, leave it alone, let nature take its course.
It was full dark by the time I arrived home.
Life goes on just as it always did. Only one thing has changed. Now when I'm walking home at night and trains stream across the railway bridge above, I shift my eyes to the ground. It's clear to me now that I'm nobody's knight in shining armour, nobody's hero. I'm just an insect, grubbing around in the dirt with the rest.