GONE AHEAD by DF Lewis
I came into it about halfway through, so what had gone before was a complete mystery to me. And I feared the rest of it must turn out to be pretty frightening.
Don Astaire had entered the waiting-room in a tailspin, greeting me as if I were an old friend.
“Hiya, Pinchbottom, how yer diddling?”
“Fine, I think,” I answered staring him straight into the eyes, to call his bluff, if not my own. I was intrigued, after all, how I knew his name was Don Astaire in the first place.
“When the others come, I’ll cut loose with all the info,” he whispered.
I now looked quizzically at him, or so I thought. I had only come into the waiting-room to kill time whilst waiting for the 11.09 to Lancaster. The flames were roaring in the corner, crawling all over the gas fire’s vertical bone-white grid – sucking draughts through the ill-shaped windows. Another traveller slipped quickly in through the creaking door – which continued to bang in a newly sprung wind in his wake.
At the back of my mind, I heard trains steaming in and out of the platform and carriage doors slamming. The hunched-up silhouettes of passengers and others merely with platform tickets passed beyond the smeared lenses of my glasses as I popped my head out for a moment to ascertain whether my train’s headplate had shuttled round on the departure board. I was particularly concerned to ensure that I reached the correct platform in good time.
I came back into the waiting-room to see Don Astaire chatting away with some other travellers – all were crouched over the gas fire rubbing their hands vigorously and grunting small talk.
I soon realised that matters were definitely out of my control. Why I had come into the waiting-room and become so embroiled, I didn’t understand. There had only been twenty minutes until my scheduled departure, in any event.
I shuffled over to the others and held my own mittened hands above the gas fire which, true, was feeding warmth into its relatively small catchment area but leaving the outskirts of the room, where the battered benches leaned against ill-plastered walls, even colder than they would have been if there had been no fire in the room at all.
Don Astaire, who abruptly stopped exchanging undertones with the others on my arrival into their vicinity, turned to me and said: “That’s right, Pinchbottom, come and have a warm.”
The others gave their agreement to this invitation by nodding. It was then I noticed that they wore identical badges on the lapels of their shabby jerkins, trinkets saved from a summer outing to a (God)forsaken seaside resort in the Thames Estuary, no doubt.
“Going for the 11.09, eh?” queried Don Astaire.
“Yep,” I answered.
“Pity the 11.09 don’t run any more,” said the other man with a suspicion of a sneer.
“Best you stay here in the warm and listen to our time-passing rtaveller’s tales,” suggested someone with distinct breeding. And indeed, that was what I did, against my volition and notwithstanding the timescale I thought I had to spare…
Once upon a time there was man called Jeremy Journey. He scrutinised the palm of his left hand as if it were about to reveal something about himself that he did not already know. He saw the date of his funeral (not too far off if you only count shopping days). What was perhaps more surprising, there was a divot in the soft flesh under the index finger which indicated the nature of his death in all its horrific detail. So what else could there be? Only the increasingly irrelevant details relating to his personality, the odd rough edge that he preferred not to acknowledge, even the smallest nick near an under-knuckle.
Sometimes, he saw right back to where Mind started in darkness, but he never dared pioneer those unexplored regions without the aid of a psychiatric prop … but where, these days, could one obtain the likes of a shrink? Few and far between in such times of universal madness, shrinks had never felt so diminished themselves.
There was knocking on the apartment door: more sudden than the flash of enlightenment that occurs when one finally breaks an impossible code. Probably, another one of those ne’erdowell do-gooders, Jeremy Journey thought. Someone who wanted to nurse him through the worst mantra of wrinkle maps and fingerstalls … someone who may even want to become Mrs Journey! He ignored the knocking, knowing from his palm that it would eventually cease and go away. But the audible pain of wood panels were relentlessly beaten. He pinned the blame on circumstances, if odd circumstances at that. There was one item about himself, however, that slowly dawned on him from a new nodule on the thumb’s heel: he was fast becoming someone other than Jeremy Journey. His hand flopped at the wrist like a suddenly untenanted glove puppet.
“Come in,” he said, in a voice he no longer recognised as his own. Still the plain knocking. Eventually, he got up and freed the door.
There stood a dumpy woman in a floral frock with unshaven legs - and feet that could easily be mistaken for cloven hooves. She held items of shopping in one hand, the other having been allowed to knock by the use of clenched teeth to hold her handbag strap.
“Blimey, Tom, you took your time about it! You know we’ve lost the door key!”
Her voice was harsher than his. He could see now that her so-called feet were not hooves, as such, but pretty outlandish clod-hoppers with which yet another World War had caused the shoe-shops to stock up … in some misbegotten imitation of the Utility Years. He yearned for the days when women dressed as ladies, elegantly and, yes, shapefully.
Tom lay beside the throbbing cairn of his wife, wondering who he was. He had just woken up for the second time that night. She was snorting like an oven-ready pig in labour … no wonder he couldn’t nod off. The advertising sign outside his bedroom window slowly flashed. He couldn’t recall the nature of the latest logo that the electricians had erected only two days before. It cast sufficient light, however, for him to scry the ill-ploughed mandala on the palm of his left hand. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It was smothered in goat fur!
He shrieked, running for the apartment window.
He dangled from the advertising sign like a dead marionette: caught on a green-pulsing inverted comma by the pyjama cord. In worse than slow motion, the pyjama bottoms split and his body flopped through. As the hard pavement drew nearer with tantalising dread, he thought he saw the sign was advertising a new brand of lightweight, but heavy-duty, stays:-
Jeremy Journey’s Boneless Corsetry.
He swept past the electric bulbs constituting a high fashion lady from the old school, one that flashed like a good time girl – but the speed of his descent pixellised the vision into a dumpy devil…
The Works outing was the one event to which the whole corset factory looked foward from one year to the next. Being an industrial concern near Birmingham, England, a visit to the seaside would put salt in their veins and the echoes of saucy promenade songs in their ears – memories for the long smokestack evenings when even sexual by-play became more wearing than getting up early on dark mornings.
Tom had worked for the firm, man and boy, since before those gathering storms which, some said, Hitler had magicked up from the blue sky of Europe’s new hope but which, in reality, as others perhaps suspected, had belched from the new sprouting factory-chimneys – betokening the conjuration of Man into Machine…
“Tom, I guess you’re not going on the trip this year.” The foreman smiled, whilst his eyes spoke sorrier volumes.
“Blimey, of course I am, Guv, never missed it before – just since I’ve been a bit dicky lately, don’t mean nothing…”
Tom’s dreams had taken a lot out of him.
“I don’t want you to overdo things…”
“Oh, I see, I see, dead man’s shoes, eh?” said Tom. “I know young Fred wants to come and there’s no room otherwise. I never thought it would come to this. I fought for this country, young man…”
The foreman, who wasn’t that young, shrugged. “OK, Tom you know best.”
Yet, Tom, naturally, died. It was two weeks before the outing. Some said he was like a little kid about the trip, full of eager excitement for the journey. It must have gone straight to his heart.
Young Fred tried to appear downcast but, in his heart, he knew he would now be able to sit only feet away from Susie in the lead coach. His ticket had Tom’s name on it, but no matter. He mourned with the best of them. Tom had been a fine chap, of the old school. And the Congregationalist Church was full to bursting not only with his well-seasoned pals, but with the young blades of the firm’s shop floor, all attending to show their last respects (even if they hadn’t shown any first ones).
Then August arrived and, with it, the Corset Works outing.
“Thunderheads are a-bubbling up,” said one old fogey, his spit mimicking the action of his premonitions at the corners of his mouth. He pointed into a cloudless blue sky, as he boarded the coach. The others jeered: they had forgotten that the weather on these excursions was more often than not just one piss away from a torrent.
The convoy of coaches left the Works car park, past the war-fallen arches, amid cheering and rude gestures. The boots had been stacked with crates of booze. Some of the young shavers, complete with their sparkling ear-lobe jewellery, chanted rudely, whilst the girls from the production-line adjusted their skimpy holiday gear to leave no possible enticements to the imagination. No corsets for them. Flirting as an art form. Flaunting as a subconscious precursor to innocent love.
Young Fred sat on his own at the rear of the coach, staring at his ticket, torn in half as if he had just been admitted to the one-and-nines at the local flea-pit … for poor old Tom’s last curtain-call.
But, then, as he spotted Susie in her brand new spankers bending down at the front of the coach, he soon forgot. And he joined in with the ritual sing-songs – dateless ditties old Tom would have relished from those good days before the clouds curdled the sky and hid Heaven from the masses for ever and ever…
“Bobbing up and down like this…” one song went. And up and down, up and down, went their heads, as drunk demons from above the rainclouds began to spatter the coach windows with brown-streaked gunge. Young Fred cursed his new sneakers, as they began to pinch his toes and deaden his soles. He should have got at least one size bigger, or more.
The night is indeed dark, but probably not so dark as the inside of Tom’s head. He feels his way by brushing fingertips along the tops of garden walls. Evidently suburbia, just as he was told. No longer lit by the nation’s power industry, but merely dependent on separate private electricity companies. The one round here seems to have a monopoly in going out of business.
Tom dreams he is a government policeman hired by a private detective agency to seek out wrong-doing in its own ranks. A bad apple sniffing out others of its sort by the art of self-understanding. The agency is in turn investigating the same government department for which Tom happens to work. We are all windfalls off the same tree. All bones in the same corset.
But, little does he care for such incestuous circles of self-interest. He likes incomplete things. He thrives on broken links. He lives at the sharp end. His whole well-being depends on misunderstandings and cross purposes. He lives off shattered mirrors. Even if he bridges one rupture temporarily, he ensures that an even wider one gapes open in another neck of the woods, so that he can offer his expertise in repairing it.
But tonight’s mission is one that even Tom has his doubts about. A huge purse is laid upon the head of one womam. A dumpy creature that spreads wider than her own hips. She derives from the vine which connects parts that the normal grape versions cannot reach and lurks in this omega-grey suburbia of privet hedges and tree-lined avenues. The residents will be huddled round their flickering screens, trying to ignore the likes of Tom shaping up in the night outside their Englishmen’s castles. The target woman may be disguised as such a goggle-eyed squatter, if not intrinsically being a real one.
Which window to tap? Which keyhole to set my ear to? Spoilt for choice, Tom has a long torch down his trouser-leg ready to wield at the slightest suspicion of the scent growing stronger.
Apparently – and this is the brief given him by a top dog in the detective agency – the woman is running law enforcement from behind the scenes. Pulling strings, as it were, so that crimes are not only left unsolved but, in the main, unperpetrated. The reasoning is that there is no need to bother with committing felonies and muggings and burglaries and murders and rapes, when the term “law enforcement” is so fluid it can even be called “crime enforcement”.
Maybe, maybe, Tom is confused, but no matter. The proof of the apple strudel is in the eating and the gnawing and the sucking. There is only one pie that holds the bittersweet fruit of fortune. Many the time Tom has snapped off his teeth on gold pieces masquerading as dried apricots.
He now knocks on the first door that takes his loose fancy. Even fate’s on the side of a chancer like him.
Bleary-eyed, the dumpy lump of fur stood at the door which it had instantaneously opened, almost as if it were waiting for Tom’s arrival. But how was Tom to know it was a booby trap? A bullet-proof body trap? Mirroring his own beauty trap? The torch spat bouncing bullets as well as godgiven light upon the beaming face. The skull cracked louder than any of the shots and not only could Tom easily accept that the creature had evidently changed identity since Tom first saw it, but also that it spilled a redness so dark, such redness rivalled the night…
Tom was to be smoked from his dream burrow by the fostered forces of his daughter, wife and mother.
He’ll probably blink wildly as he staggers out into the late afternoon sunshine: amazed to see that his life-time friends and acquaintances were members of the crowd that had mustered since early morning … on hearing that good old dependable Tom had threatened some form of felo de se. If even men like Tom could consider just a smidgin of self-annihilation, what chance them? Depressions being two a penny these days, half the world should have met their maker in this fashion long before the likes of Tom, or so the crowd thought. Even Young Fred had arrived to return the shoes.
But none could quite believe Tom’s choice of venue. Secreting himself in the coal bunker and waiting … just the sheer waiting for the Heavenly tip-lorry to disgorge its freight of Earth’s black curds upon him.
Tom’s womenfolk had searched the house long and high for some sign of his living body … but none thought of the bunker … until the youngest called Susie tossed her hoop randomly round the yard and it glided like a dream through a narrow gap between the hinged slats of the coal bunker door.
To Susie, the rooms of the house were dark enough. So, imagine her consternation when she heard stifled breathing from inside the bunker when she approached to rescue her hoop. If she’d known it was the breathing of her father, the terror of the situation may have reduced.
“Mummy, mummy,” she screamed, as she escaped into the house.
But none answered, for none realised to whom she called…
The sun had come round to the bunker’s side of the house. It fell in streams of golden light, bathing the early evening in an aura of non-reality. The leading lights of the neighbourhood shuffled into knots of further onlookers, as the Broughton womenfolk sidestepped into the assumed roles of Earth Mother, Half Daughter and Sibling Wife. Each hung upon the same set of constricting bones.
The newly kindled fires inside the house found exits for their heavy smoke, as the main chimneys expelled it fitfully … thus darkening the sky in tune with day’s war with night. Having himself by now fed on coal till his belly was a ruptured carrier bag, Tom eventually floated free, in equal ghostly garments of choking grey … and disappeared into the gaping cellar of night, the proud wielder of death’s golden hoop of halo-light.
Those who were left below wended back to their tasks and re-apportioned roles; they soon reminded themselves that ghosts can only appear in dreams.
Susie pointed into the sky at the fading ring of light. None could reconcile her lisping tears with any feasible sadness. If it were indeed sadness at all and not anger…
Despite the re-onset of another traveller’s tale, a train, I could hear, was drawing into a platform close by. The noise of escaping steam concealed what Don Astaire had earlier replied to my questioning surprise at the non-running of the 11.09 to Lancaster. Whatever, he didn’t bother to repeat it when the hissing eventually stopped.
The bright fizzing glow of the gas fire suddenly dipped and spluttered for a few seconds, as someone else opened the door and, on entering the waiting-room, allowed a cold blast of wind to reach even as far as our hot zone…
This new person Don Astaire welcomed with a hearty embrace and offered the best place by the fire, nudging me out of the way in the process.
I could not guess the exact nature of the sex of this new arrival, because of the dumpy clothing, but I suspected it must be a woman. It’s funny how you can tell that from the sound of lungs. She, if she it were, also wore the same badge on her beret.
They must have been on a Works outing together and today was the occasion of another.
All the time, several blurred shapes of other pasengers trooped outside and I wondered why none ventured in here with the certain knowledge that, as was common with most waiting-rooms those days, it would provide a modicum of comfort for the weary, bitter traveller.
Don Astaire had visibly calmed down since his arrival in the waiting-room and was now questioning all of us on the provisions we had brought with us.
I looked blank and dodged off to the door where, much to my disbelief, icicles had formed from the seeping of the rain that had evidently started slanting across the tracks. The train departure board was busily shuttling but still no sign of the posting for the 11.09 to Lancaster.
I braced myself against the cutting wind and went to look for the ticket hall where I hoped to obtain more sense from a real railway man. Then the tannoy put me out of my misery – it choked out a garbled message that the 11.09 would depart from platform 3.
Damn! I had left my soft luggage in the waiting-room. I did not really relish returning there only to find myself debating with Don Astaire and his cronies over the tossing existence or not of the 11.09 to Lancaster. Still, nothing for it.
Imagine my relief when I found the waiting-room empty. No sign of them at all – nor of my soft luggage! But what made me think that I was carrying soft luggage anyway? I must have sent it on ahead, as one could in those days at 7s 11d for each case. The fire was out, but I was relieved to see that I was not going crackers, for a hint of heat still hovered, together with a faint aroma of gas. I had not dreamed it all, then – and the icicles hung like bones from the top of the door.
I hoped Don Astaire and his companions would have a good journey on their Rail Rover ticket. I bore them no ill – why should I? True, they had told fibs about my train, but fellow travellers are often wrong. It’s not their job to give information on the arcane mystery of Northern Railway timetables. But on consideration, they probably weren’t going anywhere at all, just masquerading as seasoned train-hoppers on the strength of a single unclipped platform ticket. But, no, give them their due, they probably knew all the interconnections spider-webbing out from Crewe like the back of their hands. Just a few seconds in Leighton Buzzard to fix their bearings before being gathered up by the Post Office’s catch-net like inert parcels…
“Come and give yer mittens a toast, Tom.” The voice was a sexless, breathless ghost in my head. And the river delta mapped out on the palm of my hand began to fade. I quickly realised that, like my soft luggage, I had GONE AHEAD of myself and was already halfway to Lancaster on the 9.09, probably at Wigan by now. Thank goodness, I had missed the horrors of the end as well as those of the beginning – by squeezing myself into the middle!
But then Tom looked up from his revery – to see, plastered to the outside of the waiting-room window, what the dumpy woman’s face would resemble if its inside was at the front. It was flanked by others which, if clumsily fashioned snowmen were to have personalities shining forth from their moonbear faces, these were they. One was even pretty enough to be less than frightening. Another held up a pair of black shoes. A size too small to pinch his toes.