Tales of High Strangeness - Vol 1
Going through iCloud backups makes you run into some treasures!
This is a short story I wrote about four years ago. It was always meant to become a series of stories, but plays and fantasy novels and sheer bloody overwhelmedness made me put it away, and not think about it.
I found it a few weeks ago and rather liked it. And Since I’ve been ill this past week, thought I’d do something low-maintenance and tidy it up a wee bit and see if I get inspired to write more.
“It was a pretty mutual thing if I'm honest. I mean, I'm over it. Just wish I had that closure you know; wish I had that chance to say: ‘Actually, love, I'm breaking up with you.’”
Joe hadn't yet received the closure he felt was richly owed him; in an attempt to mimic said closure, he had taken to detailing how ‘over’ his ex-girlfriend he was to random passengers on the tube.
Any daily commuter will tell you that this is a big no-no. But he did it anyway.
“I mean; I was saying months beforehand— months and months beforehand that we had troubles. Did I get all up on my high horse? No. No, I didn't. Cos I have something called emotional maturity. I want to try and fix things. Patch them up, y’know. But not her. She just chucks stuff out the moment it breaks.”
And on, and on he’d go. These outbursts had one of three outcomes.
One: The passenger would sit in silence, barely even acknowledging that they were being spoken to.
Two: The passengers would actively leave, or even sometimes literally ask him to stop talking. But by far the most dangerous was three.
Outcome number three would be the passenger taking an interest, and talking back.
“She's a pharma rep. Selling cosmetics. Says she does it cos she ‘cares about people'. She doesn't care, mate, she doesn't care. If she cared she wouldn't have pulled out my heart like I was a big fucking strawberry and then shat in the bloody gore-hole left behind.”
“I thought you said it was mutual?” she asked. And to clarify, it was asked completely sincerely. She was simply repeating his words back to him in hopes of understanding his position a little better. This did not sit well with Joe, who felt the raising of this understandable question from an unbiased stranger was a personal attack on his character.
“It was mutual.” He answered stone-faced. “Maybe it was a little more mutual on her side, than mine. I mean she did mutually keep the flat, she did mutually keep all of our Ikea furniture which we mutually assembled together. I had to mutually move back in with my mum, and mutually share a single bed with my little brother for three months, while she got an oh-so-mutual new boyfriend, double my size, and mutually speaking, probably has a bigger dick than me. So yes, it was very fucking mutual. Thanks for asking.” The stranger felt the conversation had gotten a little heated, and, perhaps understandably, chose not to pursue it further. She promptly left when they reached Camden.
“Do you—“ Joe stuttered after her. “Do you want my numb—” But she didn’t stop. She must not have heard him.
I hope she didn’t hear me.
The three or four people sitting nearby certainly had though. But that particular social discomfort would just have to be endured until they had all moved on. Which they did, thankfully, after two or three stops. This left Joe sitting by himself on the Northern Line, heading slowly up to Belsize Park. Where his mum lived.
The heartbreak of Joe, however sad it might be, was not the sole tragedy on that vestibule; though in Joe's mind, his heartbreak was the be-all and end-all of every fibre of every single being in existence. So one might forgive him for not noticing what was happening straight away.
Joe was a bit of a sad character in many ways, firstly; he was Polish on his mother's side and a scouser on his father's. Such a combination does not lend itself to a cheery disposition very easily. But for what he lacked in cheer he made up for with a completely unearned sense of superiority. A carefully nurtured contempt. For contempt, he carried in abundance, both self-contempt and the more commonplace variety. It was this charming vichyssoise of character flaws above all else that ended his last relationship... and would undoubtedly end a couple more in his lifetime. He sat alone, his earphones in, listening to dreary maudlin music whilst thinking what an excellent music video his life would make.
He wore a blue corduroy jacket with a Black Sabbath t-shirt beneath it. He hadn’t ever heard much Black Sabbath, but he imagined that had he, he would probably like them. He wore purposefully scuffed-up jeans he had worn for nearly three weeks without a single wash and those square, thick-framed glasses that he would probably be wearing even if he didn't have a legitimate prescription. Though the most striking thing he wore was invisible to most eyes. Some wear it for but a single second, others wear it all year round... most never wear it at all.
‘It’ in this sense, is a rather curious combination of distraction, thoughtfulness and vacancy. A combination so difficult to balance that very few ever get it right. But when one does... they may see something.
In this instance, it was an elderly man holding an old, odd lamp. One that still used oil and wick. The lights flickered very subtly as he approached, choosing a seat adjacent to Joe and settling down with a long, beleaguered sigh. It was the flickering that suddenly alerted Joe to the new arrival, he took out one earphone and caught the old man’s eye. He wore these dark green overalls with scuffed black boots. His sleeves were rolled up and a handkerchief was tied loosely around his neck. His hands and face were covered in soot. But beneath that, he looked to be in his late fifties, though worn, wrinkled and weary. He set his lamp down and folded his arms.
“You okay, buddy?” Joe asked, but the old man did not answer. “Cool lamp.”
“Prefer these,” he said. “Good for the job.”
“Ah, you work on the tube?”
“I did,” he nodded. “Walked the lines after dark, when the trains had gone to sleep. Keeping them clear of vagrants and animals and such.”
“Are people stupid enough to try and sleep in the tunnels?”
“Used to be,” he coughed. “Most of them clear off by morning. Some don't, mind. They don't hear the train coming I 'spose. Easily done.”
The tube came to a stop. Chalk Farm. A girl walked onto the carriage. Pretty enough for Joe to turn his head, with a peculiar dress sense; more Camden than Hampstead. A draping loose-knit jumper, dark grey, almost black with a long wavy asymmetrical skirt that dragged on the floor on one side and sat mid-thigh on the other, showing the ripped, laddered and generally ineffective black tights beneath that tucked into her heavy, black docs. Her hair was a shoulder-length wash of blacks and purples, culminating in a vibrant streak of indigo through her fringe. Her skin was unblemished, but pale and covered in a very light wash of freckles. She wore a piercing below her bottom lip that moved as she walked, Joe could see her playing with the bar with her tongue. Stranger still was the tattoo on her left eye, like a hieroglyph. The Eye of Horus, maybe. But different. Jagged. Crude even. The tattoo looked more sliced into her skin than jabbed with a needle.
Joe had been so distracted by the arrival of this girl that he had lost track of the old man and his odd lamp, who must have gotten off at Chalk Farm. The new girl came and sat exactly where the old man had sat, directly opposite Joe. She lay a long mahogany box along her lap before pulling her phone from her waistband and busied her thumbs with a message.
Probably her boyfriend. Joe thought with a silent sneer. He tried a few times to catch her gaze, as they were the only two on the carriage. It would be the perfect scenario to meet ‘the one’, but Joe was not feeling his bravest, nor his most assertive. The only conversations he knew how to start were about the mutual breakup he shared with his ex, and he had already chased away a few potential ‘ones’ with that peculiar brand of flirting. So he left it. Choosing instead to let the silence do the talking.
Maybe I should smile at her, but the girl refused to look his way.
Maybe I should cough, and then smile, but clearing his throat bore no better result. And just when he thought the moment had passed…
“When’s your stop?” She asked him. Joe sensed a trace of insistence, but he could well have imagined it.
“Belsize,” he answered, and quickly tried to smile, but she looked away before it had a chance to germinate.
In Joe's mind, this was the final straw. This girl had fobbed off his advances for too long and then she, very rudely in his opinion, asked— no, demanded to know his stop. Such impropriety would not stand. He was going to give her a piece of his mind.
“Why do you ask?” he smiled again, affecting a slightly more renounced accent than was usual for him, something he had never done before. But the question had the desired outcome. She looked up and met his eyes. They seemed to linger too long. Joe nervously scratched at his stubble but did not avert his gaze.
Are we... falling in love? he wondered. Is this what love is? And if so why does it feel so awkward?
He caught a strange glint in her eye, a flash of purple on black that perfectly matched her hair. However, this interesting staring competition was cut short by the re-arrival of the old man, holding his little lamp. The girl looked up suddenly and scooted over one seat, allowing the old man to sit where he had sat before. He rested his lamp on the seat next to him and let out a long, beleaguered sigh. The girl looked from the old man to Joe and furrowed her brow in confusion. At this point, of course, we do not know why.
“I thought you'd got off, buddy,” Joe laughed, overtly trying to make it look like he was one of those guys that were friends with everybody. He wasn't. He was barely friends with anybody.
It was at this point that Joe noticed the odd look this new girl was giving him. His mind tried to convert her look of bemusement to a look of awe, maybe. Admiration, perhaps. It was difficult, but by god, he was trying. He smiled to gain the attention if nothing else, but it soon wandered to the old man. Her face softened and she tucked the phone into her bag.
“Hey Frank,” she said, her voice softer now. (And it did not go unnoticed by Joe what a beautiful smile she had.) “Still have your lamp, I see.”
“Prefer these,” he said. “Good for the job.”
Joe had wanted to say something, something inane along the lines of: ‘Oh, you two know each other?’ But a stronger feeling kept him silent. So instead he watched, not realising his mouth was open.
“Do you know who I am, Frank?” She asked, softly. Frank did not respond, instead, he looked straight ahead of him. Not at, but rather through Joe.
“Frank,” she said again.
“Frank,” a third, but this time the softness dropped and the stern knit of her brow came back. The old man turned his head, looked her up and down and slowly shook his head.
“I don't want to,” he said, Joe could have sworn he saw a shimmer of tears in his eyes.
“I know, I know,” she nodded, the softness returning. “But you should. It's seventy years, Frank. Did you know that? Seventy-three years. It's high time you moved on.”
“I don't want to,” he said again, turning away from her and retrieving his lamp. “Duty calls. I walk the lines after dark when the trains have gone to sleep.”
“Don't walk away from me, Frank,” the girl warned, though with a softness still. “You put that lamp down, or you’ll force me to get mine.”
“I keep them clear of vagrants and animals, most of them clear off by morning…” he said, in a dismal monotone. A sickening atmosphere rippled through the vestibule. Humid. Damp, almost. And thick with static, as though a storm cloud was drifting overhead.
“But some don’t. Do they?” she asked. The old man shook his head.
“They don't hear the train coming,” he said in a slow whisper. His bottom lip quivered and the lights flickered with it.
“It’s easily done, Frank,” the girl said, almost inaudibly. “It’s very easily done.”
There was a silence then, nothing but the crackle of the static air and the sound of the train as it rumbled its way to Belsize.
“Come on, Frank,” she said after a moment. “It’s time to go.”
Frank looked up at her and the dim glow of his lamp began to shine. Almost seeming to swallow the light that surrounded it. And for a moment there was darkness. And silence. Not even the rumble of the train. Joe felt very sleepy suddenly, but could not understand why.
“God damn it, Frank!” the girl called out, going back to her seat and opening the mahogany box.
“What’s happening?” Joe finally spoke up, more than a little unnerved by the constant disappearances and reappearances of Old Man Frank. His question went unanswered as the pretty girl with the purple streak in her hair stood up grandly, holding in her hand a skeletal arm, just the forearm, complete with bony fingers and several colourful trinkets. The finger bones twitched and sparked, a phenomenon Joe felt happy to ignore.
“Frank, I will not ask you again, I need you to move on.”
The train suddenly rocked from side to side, making the girl lose her footing, tumbling and catching herself on the overhead rails.
“Right! Okay! Fuck you, Frank!” with this she flicked her wrist, seeming to ignite the skeletal hand, the palm of which erupted into a bright blue flame. This seemed to extinguish all other lights on the train, with only the bright blue glow illuminating the strange, purple-eyed girl. Joe retreated into his seat as much as he could, which was very little. When at first he felt he should not speak, now he felt too scared to.
“I warned you, Frank, I did,” she cried out to the empty train. “You cannot stay here, you have no idea what you invite in just by being here!” There was another silence. “Frank? Frank, are you listening?” The visage of frank suddenly appeared opposite Joe, where he had sat before. He looked up at him and with tear-stained eyes said:
“I don't want to go. Tell her, tell her I don't want to go.” Joe felt an overwhelming sense that he should do as the old man asked.
“He— he says he doesn’t want to go.”
“Don't bring him into this, Frank,” she said, as though talking to a child. “This is between us.”
“If they hadn't slept down here…” he grunted through clenched teeth, the lights flickered, and the blue fire of the skeletal hand roared its defiance. “If I hadn't tried--”
“I know, Frank,” she interrupted. “I know. It’s not fair. It rarely is. But you need to calm down and you need to move on.”
“I can't!” he roared, getting to his feet, the wick of his lamp erupting with a grey flame, it should have burnt as bright as the blue, if not brighter. But the flame gave no light, the air seemed grey and colourless around them, shifting and breaking like white noise.
“You can,” she said softly. “You must. Or I’ll take you there myself.”
“I can't!” He roared again, the static of the air thickened, making Joe's skin pimple and his hair stand up on end. The roar of the old man was coupled with the sound of a steam engine, the high whistle and the constant shunter of the engine. And then; an ungodly scream. A desperate scream, cries and pleas of 'stop, stop, stop'. But the whistle of the steam train all but drowned it out. Joe closed his eyes and hoped it would soon be over, as the noise grew louder, a cacophony of screams, whistles and roaring of fire. When he opened them again, the lights had flickered back on. The air had thinned and the static was gone. As was the old man. The girl sat opposite him, looking at her phone.
“He's gone,” Joe whispered. The girl looked up and nodded once. “Who—”
“That was Frank,” she said sweetly. “You won't be seeing him again.”
“For seventy-three years now,” she turned her attention back to her phone. “He walked the lines after dark, saw some kids camped out in the tunnels and knew the trains would be running again soon. So pursued them, to warn them. They got out safe. He didn't. He didn't hear it, not until it was right there; whistling. Screeching at him. He pleaded for it to stop, but he knew. Deep down he knew. It wouldn't. It couldn’t. Poor Frank.”
“Where did he go?”
“Oh, pass,” she laughed. “I don’t know. But hopefully, that little knot of energy he got caught up in has been dispersed and will now get to where it needs to go.”
“Something, somewhere, in space or time, is a little more mended now than it was before,” she smiled again. “One hopes, anyway.”
“Who are you?” He asked timidly.
“Carly. Pierce,” she bowed her head. “If you're hoping for any more explanation than that, you’re going to be sorely disappointed I’m afraid.”
“Right,” Joe nodded. He had not realised that he had been crying. He sheepishly wiped the tears from his cheeks and sniffed away what he thought were the sole remnants of this trauma. He had wanted to ask something else, but couldn't find the words. Just sat there, mute. Like an idiot.
“Are you going to be alright?” she asked gently. Joe took a second to respond, lifting his eyes to meet hers and grinning a little too much.
“Yeah. Yes. Of course,” he tried to act nonchalant, as though such things happened to him all the time. “Yeah, I'm just going through a breakup. I mean, it was mutual but still…”
He hadn't the energy nor focus to finish the thought. He just stared, vacantly. More vacant than he had ever felt before. Oddly euphoric. Sleepy. The train came to a slow stop. He stared straight ahead, unblinking.
The doors closed and the train continued forward.
“Wasn’t that your stop?” she asked, trying to meet his eyes. He looked as the last tube signs that read 'Belsize Park' rolled past.
“Oh,” he realised. “Shit.”
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I am a fantasy author, illustrator and aspiring poet. If you’d like to help support my projects, you can find my fantasy work here. Thanks for reading Greenjack's Journal! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.