Second place in phase two of The GKBC International Short Story Competition goes to Marion Clarke for her delightfully dark tale ‘One Stop Beyond’. Here’s what Tim Weaver had to say about it;
I loved this. The author has real skill in building tension and a palpable sense of dread, helped by the evocative backdrop of the London Underground at night.
One Stop Beyond
By Marion Clarke
A large rat accompanied Brenda as she slipped into the underground entrance, out of the annoying drizzle of Friday night. When she spotted it, she squealed, then blushed and looked around, shuddering as it squeezed its fat body into an air vent by the ticket office.
Brenda’s heels clicked on the tiles of the underground station as she walked briskly in the direction of the District Line, southbound. The office party had still been buzzing when she left, but she had to get the last train home.
An unpleasant blast of stale air rushed along the corridor, signalling a train had just pulled in. Brenda held her breath until it had passed to avoid inhaling it. She knew she was exactly six minutes too early for her train to Wimbledon, but still kept up a steady pace. In her black mac, she ticked along the corridor like a shiny beetle. When the air changed to an icy draught, she tugged her collar up to her ears.
Several giggling girls teetered towards her on ridiculously high heels. One wore a bride’s veil, the others sported sparkly wings. They advanced towards Brenda, arms linked. She side-stepped the pink platoon in their flimsy attire and clash of perfume. Rather them than me heading out on a night like this, she thought.
But something small niggled at the back of her mind, gnawing away. Who knows what might happen on such a night out. She might meet an attractive man, who’d tell Brenda that he’d been waiting all his life for her. He might propose to her after a while. Perhaps they’d jet off after the wedding for an idyllic honeymoon in the sun and return to work as bronzed newlyweds.
Don’t be silly Brenda, she scolded herself, I can’t even leave Mum on her own overnight, never mind for a honeymoon…. But she smiled and indulged herself the fantasy.
When she arrived on the platform, Brenda assessed the people around her. She didn’t want to get stuck with a drunk who might vomit on her shoes, or a gang of toxic goths.
A pretty young girl, probably from the make -up counter at John Lewis, she thought, flounced past her, leaving a sprinkling of floral perfume in her wake. A couple of teenagers skulked further up the platform. Two suited and booted business types chatted about shares, checking their watches and wincing every so often. Bet they’re late for dinner because they went for a drink. Now they’ll have to explain it to their wives, who are sulking over their second glass of Chardonnay.
Three thirty-somethings, who had obviously been to a pub or three tried to stop each other falling off the solitary bench on the platform. Brenda tutted as she noticed a tired mother-to-be beside them, shifting from one foot to the other.
Then she spotted him. He was a tall, thin man standing apart from the others in a dark trench coat, hat and horn-rimmed spectacles. He fissled with a grubby newspaper which he slotted under his arm as the last tube train arrived. Hmm, not sure about him, she thought.
The train shuddered as it emerged from the mouth of the tunnel, its fixtures rattling like mal-fitting dentures as it pulled in. Noting that Mr Sinister now stood about two carriages down, Brenda got onto the train and sat nearest the doors, settling her skirt around her. She released the clasp of her handbag and took out her novel.
Oh no, she groaned to herself as she heard raised voices and shuffling feet. The three men who’d been hogging the platform bench earlier veered in. When the train lurched into action, they ricocheted off the metal poles and landed on the seat opposite Brenda, the two on either side like bookends for their comatose companion. She looked away and tried to become invisible. When she felt sufficiently brave to cast an investigative glance, she was unnerved by the intense stare of the man in the middle. She dropped her eyes back to her book.
After a minute, Brenda jumped as a swift, sucking sound broke the rhythmic clunk of the train. An angry bang followed, announcing that the door to the adjacent carriage had been slammed shut. She sighed in relief and awaited the ticket inspector. When she didn’t hear his call for tickets, she looked up. To her horror, it was Mr Sinister… and he was headed in her direction.
Don’t look scared, don’t look scared, her mind chanted in time with her quickening heartbeat and the train’s gathering speed. As his shadow fell across the book on her knees, Brenda was certain that everyone could hear her heart hammering against her ribcage.
She gave an audible gasp and recoiled slightly as he sat next to her. Her nerve endings screamed. I can’t even get off and take another train, Brenda thought. Her only solace the fact that she was not alone with him.
His newspaper snapped as he straightened it out. She flinched, but didn’t look up.
The train stopped at West Brompton and a teenage girl got off. A boy greeted her with a kiss. Wish this were my stop, Brenda thought.
Next, Mr Sinister snorted a sneeze into a white handkerchief. Normally, Brenda would have said ‘Bless you,’ but instead she looked over at the men opposite. She froze when the middle man’s gaze fell upon her once more and promised herself never to cast eyes upon him again.
A few minutes later, they pulled into Fulham Broadway station where several people alighted from other carriages, but none of her travelling companions moved. The doors shut abruptly, silencing the bodiless drone that advised passengers to “stand clear of the door”. The train rolled on down the District Line. As each station approached she prayed, in vain, that her strange carriage mates would get out.
A new noise drew her attention back to them. The man acting as right-hand prop to his friend had started to tap his foot. It was an irritating little sound. Brenda wondered if he was desperate for the bathroom and pulled her feet in a bit further, just in case. She was suddenly aware of the light dimming and looked up to the roof of the carriage. It flickered and teased a threat of darkness. Please God no! Brenda beseeched. But the bulb recovered and beamed down on the travellers once again.
Then, as they neared the penultimate stop, Mr Sinister coughed and nudged her sharply in the ribs.
“Pardon me, Madam,” he muttered, through a fake cough. Brenda stiffened. She found she was unable to exhale the breath she had just sucked in and did not dare turn her head. When he repeated his actions, she released it with a small cry. The foot opposite stopped tapping. She noticed that its owner was looking at her, frowning.
Despite her dread, Brenda turned and regarded the man beside her. He fixed his pupils on hers, widened his eyes and used them to drag her gaze from the top of the crumpled newspaper down along the inside, until it reached the bottom. A torn piece of notepaper was resting inside. Brenda stifled a cry as she read the words scribbled on it.
Get off at the next stop. The man opposite is dead.
Tears surfaced in her eyes and the words floated and blurred in a macabre dance. She looked over at the slumped figure opposite, then back to her neighbour. Something in his stare made her believe him. One of the men facing her leaned over the ‘dead’ man and mouthed some words to his colleague. They both narrowed their eyes and pointed their faces towards Brenda. She was reminded of vultures.
At that moment, the train’s brakes shrieked. Decision time.
Brenda inhaled, stood up and steadied herself as she progressed along the aisle, feeling the the men’s stare as she passed. She looked the other way and noticed her reflection in the window. Oh no! Mr Sinister had also got up and was moving along behind her.
Brenda hadn’t envisaged this scenario. Oh…God. What if he’s going to follow me…or strangle me? The platform might be empty…
She could almost feel his newspaper touch her back. Her spine tingled. As the train shrugged to a standstill, she lurched forward. She looked through her frightened reflection in the train door out onto the dimly lit platform. It was deserted. She could no longer see Mr Sinister’s face in the window and decided he must be directly behind her. As the doors parted and Brenda stepped down, she looked at her shoes.
Can I run in these? The hairs on the back of her neck stiffened in anticipation of some form of contact from the man. There was none. She could hear the swish of train doors closing behind her like a heavy curtain.
Immediately, she began to walk. She didn’t look back, nor listen for footsteps. She broke into a run when she saw the exit.
Oh joy of joys, Brenda cried inwardly when she spotted several taxis outside. She stopped at the first and opened the door.
“The nearest police station please…quickly.”
She glanced back towards the doorway. There was no one there. Brenda sank into the back seat.
When she arrived at Wimbledon Police Station, the front desk was abandoned. Strains of a conversation floated through from a nearby room.
“Victim….male…25 years…despatching car now.”
Two officers thumped open a pair of swing doors and rushed past. Outside, an ambulance wailed.
Brenda pushed the doors and edged in.
“Can someone help me, please?”
She leaned around the doorframe. A police officer was seated at a screen.
Brenda gasped at the image. It was her train. She could tell because she could see the back of her head. The officer turned towards her, one eyebrow raised.
“DC Blakely, Madam. May I help you?”
Just then, a fax machine spat out a photograph.
Brenda turned. “That’s him. He’s the dead one!”
“ ‘Dead one’, Madam?”
“The man sitting beside me on the train told me that the man opposite was dead. It’s him. Wait, you’ll see them both now. ”
But as they squinted at the screen, Brenda couldn’t see Mr Sinister. She saw herself get up and lurch forward, but there was no sign of him. As the train pulled away from the platform, she could just make out the shapes of the men opposite, in an otherwise empty compartment.
“I d…d…don’t understand.”
“I think I can explain, Madam. We’ve just had a report that an individual has been found on the tracks at the terminal. A GP at the scene has suggested the person has been dead for some time. No doubt the perpetrators were awaiting an opportunity to dispose of the body. Anyone left in that carriage would have posed a significant obstacle. You are very lucky you left the train when you did.“
“So that man might have saved my life…do you know who he is?”
“Well, this may seem a bit far-fetched, but I think so, Madam. Was he tall and thin, wearing a dark trench coat and carrying an old newspaper?”
“Yes, that’s him. How did you know?”
“Well, over the years, several members of the public have reported this particular gentleman warning them of potential danger on the Underground. We’ve been very sceptical, but this is the first time we can link his warning to an actual crime. His name is Edward Potter. Unfortunately, you can’t thank him in person. According to records, he worked on the London Underground for years and died a long time ago.”
Brenda’s face paled, “Was it on the 4th of November, 1945?”
Detective Blakely’s eyes widened. “Yes! But, how did …?”
“… I know that? You see, DC Blakely, it’s only just come back to me this minute. That was the date on the top of his newspaper.”
Featured Image: Scott1723