Monday, 8 December 2008

It happened on a Thursday.

It happened on a Thursday.

James Fields had woke early as usual, filled up on far too much muesli, downed a coffee, showered and shaved, pulled on his clothes (comprising of the usual grey shirt, dull tie and barely ironed trousers), grabbed his briefcase and jacket and bombed out of the door into the cold morning air. It was late December, and an unexpected cold snap had blanketed the capital overnight, bringing a shiver to his frame as he cursed himself for not putting on more layers. The sun was very slowly making itself present in the night sky, a rich royal blue creeping into the star flecked darkness which competed with the glow of the orange street lamps.

He made his way carefully down the steep road in Forest Hill, being careful not to rush as the ground had frosted. The dregs of a cold still clung to the back of his throat, which felt sticky and a little dry, the brittle air catching it and causing the ache to flare up. As he walked, he absent-mindedly cast his thoughts to the previous night relaxing with friends down at the local pub, wondered if that last pint was a good idea, then sighed out a breath that hung for a moment in the December sky before melting away.

Finishing his descent he rounded the corner to a junction, a few cars were beginning to fill the streets, and crossed over to the station. Only a handful of early risers milled around at this hour. James liked to get in as soon as possible as typically it meant leaving early as long as his work was done, plus he usually ended up beating the rush hour both ways. The IT department at Fosters pretty much ran itself with only the occasional hiccup, being a small company with few staff. It was a lucky gig, truth be told, as even though it wasn't particularly fulfilling nor demanding the money was good and the hours flexible. Plus it was pretty stable, something he was thankful for at this time of year.

The platform to London Bridge was almost devoid of life aside from a few dark-suited office types milling about. He walked towards the end of the platform where the first carriage would arrive, under a footbridge and in front of an old disused building where an attractive young Indian woman was talking quietly on a mobile. The journey from this station wasn't spectacularly long, but it was boring, and he made to stand close to her so that at least he had something to fantasize about on the way there. No eye contact, strictly peripherals, as after all chatting up random strangers on London trains was hardly a done deal. Besides, he'd noticed her before on a few previous journeys and welcomed the regularity of her appearance in his life, so the last thing he wanted to do was scare her off with a clumsy attempt at flirting.

He looked up and peered back towards the station to the train times. The red letters indicated a couple of minutes. James idly reached into his pocket for his MP3 player to pull it out, casually eyeing the girl as he did so, before unwrapping the wires and putting the buds in his ears. It was when he started to put the second one in he heard something behind him.

James turned back towards the footbridge. There was a bit of space between him and the next salary man down towards the station. Then the rustling noise infiltrated his consciousness again and he looked back towards the building that rose up behind the bank of brush near the platform. Peering into the dark, he could see a short, yet quite thin, figure stumbling away from a window in the half light that started to clumsily make its way down to the platform.

James looked about. His first thought was maybe he should do something, but who was he kidding, he didn't want trouble. Any Londoner knows the best thing to do is to ignore potential problems whilst on public transport. Don't get involved. But there was something about the spidery gait of the person tumbling onto the platform that caused him disquiet, registering unease with that tiny, sickly part of the mind that ignited whenever he'd read a ghost story as a child.

He turned away and popped the bud in his ear, vowing to mind his own business.

Fumbling for his MP3 player, he heard two solid heel clicks as the figure's shoes finally met the platform. The footsteps stumbled, then solidly walked to his immediate right, steady and strong. James couldn't place exactly why, but suddenly the world felt a great deal colder, and he froze before adult logic set back in, giving himself a little shake before returning to his playlist.

The man came to rest beside him.

James knew he couldn't resist glancing down at the presence that had interrupted his mundane daily routine. He took his eyes off his player and made to look across the platform, before dancing them downwards at the figure below.

The man stood to his front right and directly on the yellow line before the edge of the platform, at an angle where he couldn't quite make out his features. The morning was still a cold blue, although he was illuminated slightly by the lights further down the station. Whilst quite small, his tiny body was proportioned as if tall and thin, giving the impression of a shrunken basketball player. His hair was lank and black, twisted and a bit greasy, falling around to shoulder height and covering his ears. He was wearing a dark, velveteen suit, which appeared slightly worn and covered with flecks of dusty debris and wore black brogues that had been polished to a shine. The figures gnarled hands were clasped behind his back, appearing discoloured and pale in the dull light.

James had only regarded him for a few seconds when the stranger's head jerked to the side, surprising him and causing him to snap his attention quickly back to the MP3 player. He'd barely caught a glimpse, but the features he did catch were unsettling. The man's face gave the appearance of someone with a disability, although which he had no idea. However, it wasn't a look to inspire sympathy - his cheeks were gnarled up close to his odd almond-shaped eyes and a crooked, drooped nose melted down close to his top lip.

James realised that the man wasn't looking at him, but the same girl that had his attention only a few minutes before. She was staring down the platform past both of them, and when he turned his head to follow her gaze he was greeted by the sight of his train curling, snakelike, around towards the bottom of the station where it had begun to slow to a stop. The small man stepped up to the line with the rest of the small crowd of business men and women that had gathered at the edge of the platform, while James moved up to the top of where the first carriage would come to a rest.

The girl stood beside him, idly checking her messages on her mobile phone. James looked over briefly to see the nose of the man protruding out from the small crowd gathered around him, and seeing that nobody had really taken any notice of him, decided to put the uneasy feeling he had about the stranger aside. The train finally pulled up, and as he and the girl boarded he fetched one final glance to see that the figure had joined the throng and had hoisted himself onto the second carriage, out of sight, out of mind.

James was surprised to find the carriage relatively full that day. The seats were full of tired looking commuters, some rustling through papers, others reading books, but all generally ignoring each other with the glazed-over look so popular amongst public transport users in London. Moving out of the way of the doors, he put his case down between his feet, gripped the nearest handhold and queued an album up on his player just as the train started to pull out of the station. The Indian girl was stood a little further into the carriage, had produced a magazine from her bag and was doing a fine job of retaining her balance whilst reading. He allowed himself to stare for a moment. She was truly pretty. Big brown eyes set into a delicate face, full lips, her lithe figure betrayed by the way her coat clung to her form. She flicked her eyes up towards him and he immediately turned away to squint in faux interest at the train map splashed in the middle of the adverts up above the seats.

The train continued its steady rush to the next station. The sun had maintained its crawl upwards and the gentle light rendered the rush of grassy banks to each side of the carriage a dull blue, yet it was still dark enough outside for the lights inside the carriage to reflect the passengers like a mirror in its windows. The winter chill had followed James into the carriage and he pulled the lapels of his coat closer, continuing to cast his eyes vaguely in the general direction of the girl under the pretence that an advert for vaginal thrush cream was of great interest. It was then the door at the far end of the carriage opened.

James couldn't quite see who it was, and as he tried to catch a glance the cold morning air rushed over him from the other side. A few people shot irritated looks back towards the source of the gust, maybe thinking that some annoying homeless person had entered to pester them for their hard-earned shrapnel, only to turn away a moment later, satisfied that their consciences were safe for the time being. James, however, was still transfixed at the now-closed door, for right in front of the portal, as if ejected from some otherworldly dimension, stood the man. Through the line of commuters wobbling from side to side with the movement of the train, he could make out the tiny frame standing and peering about with jerky motions, putting him to mind of a penguin in a zoo enclosure.

Now James could see him clearly, he balked in disgust. The stranger’s eyes were a baleful, almost yellow colour, the pupils’ tiny black dots surrounded by inward slanted eyes that put to mind runny egg-yolks, deeps set into a pasty, deeply contoured face. The drooped nose hung crook over a mouth that was screwed up tight in concentration, folding his skin in waves, whilst his hands were raised and posed as if a chef deliberating over the taste of fine cuisine. He was sniffing the air.

James felt a chill run through his spine. As if the mere sight of the character was to inspire an unsettled feeling, his bizarre behaviour was enough to instil a twinge of fear in the back of his mind. Yet even so, his curiosity was sparked and he couldn't tear his eyes away. It was then he noticed that clustered around the far door to either side of the stranger, the commuters had moved apart as if unconsciously to let him through. The grotesque little head craned towards each on in turn, allowing a couple of sniffs, and with a feeling of creeping dread James watched as gnarled, thin little fingers reached out to each in turn.

The ghoul stiffened and looked down the coach.

James instinctively reacted, as any Londoner does, at being caught by hovering his eyes over another part of the carriage, still watching the man as his head turned back to his obsessive fascination with his fellow travellers. Keeping him in his peripheral vision, James, now having developed a cold sweat that ran thin down between his shoulder blades, watched as again the hands crept up to each commuter in turn, when suddenly one darted out and touched a fellow on the thigh.

The thigh's owner, a middle aged man of the age of forty or thereabouts, reacted instinctively as if being stung by a wasp. His hand reached down and brushed his leg, looked about and, not registering the bizarre hook-nosed dwarf, returned to his paper. Then as scanned across the days news, James noticed a minor transformation occur. His skin started to lose its colour, instead being replaced by a mild grey pallor. The eyes seemed somehow dead suddenly, as if the lights in the coach had dimmed and the shoulder slumped where once they were straight. It was as if the little creature's touch had sucked the life out of him, leaving only a shell where once a man stood.

James swallowed dryly, the soreness in his throat making him acutely aware of the reality of what was happening. Although he wasn't sure entirely what had happened, he was pretty sure it wasn't good, and certainly not something he wanted to happen to him. The man advanced a few steps down into the carriage and continued his erratic sniffing and James knew that whatever had taken place could easily happen to him – and he was stuck right at the end of the carriage, near the driver door, with no escape should they not pull into the next station before the character's advance.

It was then, with that alarm ringing in his head, it occurred to James that the train hadn't slowed down. It had been racing continuously through the high-banked gully for nearly five minutes without slowing, and yet nobody had noticed. They sat around as before, absorbed in their books, music and own little worlds, utterly oblivious of the fact that the train had hurtled onwards without respite. James ducked his head past a suited couple next to him and peered diagonally forwards through the door window on the platform side. The scenery tumbled by as if in a late seventies children's cartoon where the scrolling backdrops were on continuous repeat.
James was really sweating now. He peered up at the face of the man next to him. The guy, in his late twenties, stared at him blankly. James quietly moved his hand in front of his eyes and waved, but nothing registered. He merely stared straight ahead as if James didn't exist. He still appeared to be breathing, his paralysis seemingly solely located in his mind. The body kept functioning.

James straightened, his head now a mess of conflicting thoughts. This was impossible, unreal even. Staring back down the carriage the little figure had ventured further in, and was now near the halfway point. Like zombies the passengers shuffled aside to let him through without looking, and every now and again he would stop his ceaseless sniffing to touch one, only for them to react exactly like the first before slumping down into a monochromatic stupor.

But what to do? James' first thought was to warn everyone about what was going on, as it seemed to him that he was the sole person who was aware of their predicament. Maybe moving around and making a noise would attract the attention of the gnomelike entity that was now passing over into the half way point. The rhythm of the train and the ever loudening sniffing made James realise that whatever music he'd idly put on was now stopped, or that the MP3 player wasn't working any more. It was as if the carriage was travelling along another plane of existence where everything was half frozen and time had marched on, leaving an imprint of what had gone before.

The creature’s pin-like fingers reached up and stroked the face of the first person sitting down to the right of the doors, and the teenage girl lapsed back in her seat as if melting into her own shadow. There was a few people between him and the man, the closest being the Indian girl he'd so been admiring shortly before. She appeared to be in deep concentration on her book, but her eyes were no longer scanning the text and were instead frozen in the spaces in between the words.

James felt a twinge. What if he touched her? In the back of his mind, he thought briefly about the utter, utter stupidity of what he was thinking, but for some reason some protective instinct had kicked in over the cold fear. What difference did it make to him, if she was? What made her different to anyone else in the carriage, why would he potentially risk his life to save hers? The sniffing permeated his consciousness. He was the only one who could see this creature and the only one who could make a difference. A small, possibly selfish one, maybe, but a difference nonetheless.

He reacted without much more thought, and grabbed the girl as the creature twisted his head away towards his next victim, eyes closed. She barely reacted as he clasped her forearm, and he found her surprisingly easy to pull towards him. The little man was bent over an old woman who was in the middle of reading a thick tome, his hand arching over her head as if in deliberation. James twirled the girl around so she was against the far corner of the door away from the platform side of the train and stood between her and the ghoul. If he was going to be taken, then so be it, but at least he'd made a small gesture in his final minutes. He allowed himself to look at the girl's face once more, her face frozen in the middle distance, beautiful and dark-skinned. She'd probably never know what he'd done for her should reality return, he thought, wondering what her reaction might be should she snap out of whatever had her ensnared.

He looked out at the scenery rushing past, and then adjusted his focus to the reflection of the demonic figure behind him. The man had now moved to the metal bars at the end of the seats and held his head high with nostrils flared. The eyes were slits in the mush of folded skin creasing up around them, the demented face framed by the lank, greasy black fronds of hair. The fingers waved about in the air, and it was then that James noticed that the tips glowed with a soft blue light. The freakish head that rose out of the tight-fitting suit swayed around, ever searching for the next victim, when suddenly it stopped.

The watery yellow eyes opened. The pursed mouth under the icicle nose retracted into a mirthless, empty smile, full of black, crooked teeth. James then noticed the smell, like mothballs and dust that filled the corner of the carriage. The hands were still raised but now the fingers had stopped waving, and he realised that the next victim was going to be...

He span about with a yell.

* * *

It wasn't so cold on Friday.

Ankita walked to the end of the platform, clutching her book in one hand and her purse in the other. It'd been a hard week leading up to Thursday afternoon's appraisal and she was looking forward to unwinding that evening, thankfully the day was hardly packed with things aside from a few dull tasks to do. Her eyes passed along the platform and she noticed with a slight note of disappointment that the cute guy who'd been eyeing her up for the last few weeks wasn't there this morning. Not that she'd meant to do anything about it, but she'd been toying with the idea of finding an excuse to talk to him at some point.

The platform seemed slightly emptier in general. She'd been lucky that the lay-off's hadn't affected her in any way, she noted absentmindedly.

Then her mobile went off. As she flicked it open, she didn't notice the little man standing further down the platform.

But then, nobody ever did.


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