When the stationmaster had gone, a strange silence descended upon us. I glanced around the table at my companions – Mary, the young couple, Arthur and Dickie, and the man in the Mac. We all stared at one another, our faces reflecting something of the horror we had just heard – shock, disbelief, apathy. Arthur was the first to speak:
“What a load of bollocks.”
His partner nodded. “Absolutely, but it’d make a rather good show, don’t you think?” And the two chums fell into a discussion about the staging difficulties involved in getting a steam train onstage at the Manchester Hippodrome.
Then the young man (who, together with his wife, still hadn’t uttered a word), cleared his throat noisily. We all turned to look at him, wondering if his first words might impart some deep and meaningful wisdom.
“Turned out nice again, hasn’t it? Hee-hee!”
His voice reminded me of someone, but before I could bring it to mind, Raincoat Man jumped to his feet and raised a quivering finger towards the station clock, high on the wall behind me.
“Look! Look at the time!”
We all looked, and as I expected, the little hand was at 11 and the big hand almost at the 12. As we stared at the dusty timepiece, the big hand moved into place, marking the hour with a loud clunk.
“Eleven o’clock…” It was Mary who spoke, her words barely a whisper.
Again that ominous silence engulfed us and I knew every one of us was listening out for the shriek of a train whistle. But no sound came to our ears, only the continued plink-plinking of raindrops against the windows.
After a moment, I stood up. “Right, I’ve had enough of this nonsense,” and I moved to the door that led to the unused line.
I glanced at my wife and saw that all-too-familiar gleam of excitement in her eye.
“I’m only going to have a look and see if there really is a leaver and wheel thingy out here.”
Mary was up in an instant. “Not without me, you’re not.”
And so we ventured onto the platform, keeping close to the wall to avoid the worst of the downpour.
Pulling me close, Mary gave me a quizzical look. “You do know the station clock’s five minute’s slow, don’t you?”
“What?” I took out my Half Hunter and peered at it. “Ah. How clever of you.” I shrugged. “Even so, it doesn’t prove anything.” And I set off along the platform.
Mary hurried after me. “Look, there’s something here.” She pointed to a dark shape ahead of us.
Sure enough, a large winding wheel jutted out of the platform, next to what I took to be the release leaver. Mary reached into her coat and pulled out a small battery-operated torch. Its meagre light was enough to illuminate the weather-beaten sign above the wheel:
Crouching down, I slid one hand around the rim of the wheel til my fingers encountered a tangled bulk of metal. “Someone’s chained it up.”
“Of course,” said Mary. “Someone’s locked it to keep the bridge in the closed position. But if no trains come this way, what does it matter?”
Any pondering I might have done was curtailed when a shout of anguish came from the waiting room.
“Quickly,” I urged, and we ran back inside.
Slamming the door shut behind us, I gaped at the man standing in the doorway opposite.
“Arrrgh!” Wailed the stationmaster, before collapsing in a heap.
“Bring him over here,” I said, clearing a space. While the others lifted the sodden figure onto the table, I fetched my stethoscope from my bag and began undoing his coat.
“No!” He wailed, struggling to sit up. “It’s a-comin’ I tell yer, a-comin’, and yous have ter leave, or…” He turned a bloodshot eye towards me. “You’re all goin’ ter die.”
I shook my head. “Now, you just lay back and be a good stationmaster. We’ll have you right as rain in tick.”
But before I could examine the man, a strange high-pitched sound echoed around the room. I looked up. “What the fu – ”
Mary grabbed my arm. “Listen.”
And as we stood there, the distant squeal of the train whistle came again, growing louder, nearer. As one, our heads turned incredulously towards the windows overlooking the old line, and as we stared wide-eyed, the whole room began to shake, the screeching of metal on metal leaving us in no doubt what was happening. A moment later, a flash of lights lit up the windows, and the ghost train thundered through the station…