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The Old Man and The Train
written by: Michael McCarthy
With the latest attack on an elderly train passenger on a railway platform, the tenth in 3 months, the public were stung into action; there were marches through town, the media jumped on board and newspaper columnists vented their spleens; social media sites went into meltdown; the train company pleaded poverty.
‘It’s a loss making rural line’, they said and also blamed ‘the darker winter evenings’.
‘Charles Bronson. Where are you, when we need you?’ Wailed an old man to a battery of TV and radio reporters.
That’s what did it. The burgeoning talk of vigilantism finally forced the authorities to act; questions were asked in Parliament; the police increased their presence and soon were proclaiming the line as the safest in the country.
But the offenders were never caught; nobody could give a description in spite of appeals in the media and a special documentary on television.
Meanwhile, the old man died alone in the hospital never having regained consciousness. His family or relatives, if he had any, remained untraced; he was soon forgotten, an adjunct to the proceedings.
Everybody knew the problem had just been shunted somewhere else. But let somewhere else start their own campaign. Somewhere else did, but public sentiment had moved on.
Meanwhile, a few stops further down the line Colin, early twenties, living at home with his parents, feckless, bored, broke, unemployed and with an increasingly frustrated girl friend, had been thinking about the attacks on the senior citizens; jobs were getting harder to find and he needed money to entertain his girl friend. There were so many easy targets just begging to be parted from the contents of their wallets, and in a pub he’d overheard somebody talking about a suitable target.
But Colin had scruples, he drew the line at actual violence, and he would never even consider a woman as prey; furthermore he decided he would work solo, it seemed a less aggressive approach, he thought.
He was an obvious target. That’s how he did it.
He was being watched and he knew it.
Only later, Colin, realised the old man had been the watcher.
Swathed in a huge, beige overcoat, the old man shuffled, head bowed through the train carriage, to the doors.
As he passed Colin a musty smell like an unaired room emanated from him and his coat brushed against the young man’s hand like a dead wing.
As the train slowed down he closed his eyes and smiled revealing only a few scattered teeth and looking, for a moment, with his wispy, white hair, more like a baby than an old man.
The train stopped and disgorged the passengers, and the old man walked slowly along the platform, moving his head from side to side, as though being told something he disapproved of.
The platform was poorly lit; the lights that were working were irregularly placed so that he was occasionally highlighted and bathed in a yellow triangle.
Before disappearing into the throat of the all encompassing darkness he paused like an old performer caught in a spotlight, reluctant to leave the stage.
But he wasn’t reluctant. He was waiting.
Now it all makes sense.
This was Colin’s target; he’d heard talk of some old man, new to the area; there was a rumor that he was very rich and, being an old eccentric, it was, so they said, more than likely that he kept the money at home in cash under his mattress.
Who'd started the rumour?
The old man, who else?
Colin had fallen for it.
Colin knew it was him, when he saw him on the train.
He’d thought it would be easy; he’d just follow him, threaten him, frighten him, nothing serious, just persuade him to co-operate and part with some of his money, not even all of it.
He’d followed him from the station through the dark, emptying streets but he’d kept losing him and he’d had to increase his tempo to a brisk pace, just to keep the old man in sight; Colin was tiring but the old man just kept on going at the same deceptive pace.
Every few minutes, when Colin thought he’d lost sight of him, the old man would stop as though waiting for him.
It made Colin feel uneasy.
Now they were climbing a hill through a steady drizzle, the old man, although clearly laboring, still maintained his stride while Colin was struggling and his unease growing, but the thought of not being able to keep up with this ancient ruin spurred him on. Colin followed his prey into the open door of a warehouse, in the abandoned industrial estate where he’d used to work until he was laid off. He’d never experienced such a depth of darkness. He felt a finger prod his back and whirled around……
Colin woke up. Trussed up tightly in what felt like a carpet, unable to move or speak, as though caught in a spider’s web. It was murky, silent and cold as though he was in a freezer.
A crack of light appeared from somewhere and then the old man slowly and with a grimace squatted down beside Colin and began clumsily to roll him out of the maw and onto the street partly lit by a blinking lamp nearby.
The drizzle had increased to a heavy rain which Colin could feel soaking through his constraints.
The only parts of his body he could move were his eyes and tongue, but his mouth was sealed. He knew his eyes revealed his growing fear as he was propelled towards an unknown fate.
He remembered somebody had dictated a book by blinking his one able eye.
He had two functioning eyes. If the old man dared to look into his eyes, they would speak volumes. And surely he would relent from whatever intention he had.
‘I’m stronger than I look. Aren’t I?’
The old man said, breathing heavily as, bent over, he trundled Colin across the empty, wet and shiny road; there was no sight or sound of traffic.
The old man’s foul breath gushed out of him with every effort.
Colin could see his rheumy eyes, count the hairs in his nostrils and the yellow stumps of his teeth.
A string of saliva from the old man’s mouth dropped onto Colin’s face, like a feculent kiss.
They stopped after about ten minutes, the old man had propelled the tightly bound figure to the highest point in town.
Slowly straightening up he placed one foot on Colin for support and leant on an old, black metal barrier, rested his chin in his cupped hand and gazed into the near pitch darkness like a landowner surveying his domain.
Colin had never known fear like this, if he hadn’t been so tightly bound he would have been paralyzed by terror.
He knew where they were but he couldn’t understand why there wasn’t even a solitary figure walking the streets and no traffic not even a taxi or a lorry.
Beyond the barrier was a steep drop down to a tall, wire mesh fence behind which lay the railway line.
The fence was regarded as a hopeless deterrent against vandals, young kids who always picked this point where the fence was at its weakest, to pull it up, squeeze through and throw stones at the passing trains.
Colin’s horror intensified spreading over him like a crawling warmth, frantically he began to make grunting sounds through the wet tape over his mouth, the old man looked down on him and smiled.
‘Not long now.’
He said as though to a child awaiting a long promised present. Colin started to twist his head from side to side his grunting becoming louder as the wet from the slick street seeped into his bones.
‘You’ve made a career out of terrorising and attacking the old, weak and defenseless haven’t you?’
The old man said as he bent down and ripped the tape from Colin’s mouth. Colin took in the cold, night air in huge gasps.
‘No, no. It’s not true.’ He rasped.
‘Your luck’s run out, hasn’t it?’
‘No, no. You don’t understand.’
‘There’s at least one death you have to answer for…..’
‘No. no. I’m unemployed. I just wanted a few pounds off you.’
‘...another old man. On the way home from the station one evening. He fell and hit his head on the kerb, with a little help from your foot, no doubt.’
‘No. I swear. It’s not true. You were the first.’
‘And the last.’
The old man shoved Colin under the barrier and positioned him on the soggy grass on the knoll.
‘Anything else to say for yourself?’
The old man asked. Tears filled Colin’s eyes and then with a thrust of the sole of his shoe the old man sent him spinning down the hill.
Colin could feel the sharp stabbing of stones and branches penetrating his mummy like covering as he jolted faster and faster, then he heard the distant but growing rumble of an oncoming train, then a thud as his head made contact with a larger stone and he blacked out as his body crashed through the fence skidded down the muddy embankment and into the path of the approaching train.
A few days later and a few stations further down the line the old man walked unhurriedly along the sparsely lit platform, he turned around and saw he was the last passenger from the now departing train.
Further along the platform near the exit he saw a trio of young men blocking the path of an elderly couple.
The old man approached the youths, staring at them. They smelt him before they saw him; a musty smell like an unaired room emanating from him; as he stopped his coat brushed against the hand of one of them like a dead wing; the elderly couple took advantage of his arrival and hurried towards the exit.
The youths looked at him and one of them snarled,
‘What the fuck are you looking at old man?’
‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘It hasn’t got a label.’