Dedicated To Kate Vassalos – who gave me the title as part of her pledge to help in the creation and publication of the ONE MAN AND HIS DOGMA first print run. This story is dedicated to her with Love and thanks for allowing me reprint on this site...
You could barely see anything out of the window; it was so dark and lifeless outside. Lifeless but for the fast disappearing trees and bushes and estates that hid from view behind the branches as the train zoomed past on the way back to Oxford from London Paddington.
The show had been an amazing experience; the crowd so full of life and love; the venue was regal beyond description and the day was full of wine, laughter and love.
It was a good day.
Goodness knows that there had been plenty of bad ones recently, so this was a long one coming…
Palmer sat back on the hard, barely furnished chair and rested his feet on the one opposite him. He stretched out a deep yawn, trying his best to stifle the noise and keep it contained to his chest, but, the stretch felt good and so he let it all out loudly with a smile and a snorted laugh.
Hayley was sat opposite him fast asleep, she had passed out almost as soon as they departed Paddington, her head rested quietly on her shoulder, her chest rising slowly and calmly, drifting with the sleep people now.
Palmer had rested his foot under himself to keep himself awake; the awkward pose uncomfortable and aching.
He would deal with it whilst they flew at speed through these quiet country back gardens and villages.
Oxford was the end of the line, so should he fall asleep, at least he and Hayley would not wake up in the middle of Shropshire or Buckingham or somewhere equally as horrifying.
He had his book on his lap, open on a dog-eared page that marked his place in the story. His eyes were tired though so he could not focus, and the nagging ache in his knee from his pose distracted him further, but, it was all he could do to keep the sandman at bay.
Outside the window he could just make out the night. Deep blues and rich indigoes; intermittently a burst of yellow from a tall, semi hidden lamplight; the fleeting flash of a bedroom window, window purple or red behind curtains and nets.
The landscape indistinguishable, the world behind the glass furiously leaving as soon as it arrived.
In his mind he tried to play games to stay awake.
Counting the people he saw active in windows just glimpsed through thick branches and thicket. Or choosing two droplets of the light-heavy-light-heavy showers that cascaded onto the window as they travelled ever onwards, and guessing which would win in a race from one corner of the paneled glass to the other.
Losing almost every time.
Somewhere ten miles or so outside of Reading though, something strange happened which woke Palmer up in a cold stupor and shock.
Ice running over his skin and leaving goose flesh stood to attention in his usual smooth skinned norm.
On a wide stretch of rail, where the track suddenly opened up into a five berth gravelly yard, and continued this way for a mile or so, where the windows bright square painted itself bright upon the ground in the pitch dark, and the well lit cabin became a sudden contrast to the darkness outside, Palmer saw approaching a man walking down the tracks, in a blue pyjama suit, unbuttoned to the breast, hair straggly and nutmeg brown, hands as white and alabaster as a bone china set, and barefooted and bedraggled.
The man came into view about twenty yards down the track, but as soon as he caught the first peek of the figure, time slowed down to a crawl as the train went past him.
Palmers hand planted fingers outstretched and flat palmed on the glass, and he shifted off his sleeping leg and awkwardly crooked knee to see better the man who approached on the tracks; thin and tired-looking, the track was stone strewn and wet with dew, and the man so close to the cabin that Palmer could have touched his face had there not been glass.
The figure staggered in a shamble and a stride that made Palmer think of drunkards falling out of alehouses at closing after some wake or other for a departed friend.
Made him think of the students in the local union who would collapse half dead from lock-ins at 2am in the brisk winter mornings - no doubt going to lose marks for the lectures they would inevitably miss the next day.
He held the window pleadingly in both hands, his forehead touched the glass and as he passed by the man in slow, frame by frame emotion, the man turned and looked directly at the Palmer, his eyes were red with tears and his hands were wet with what appeared to be blood, or oil, or some other rich viscous fluid.
A moment passed between the two men. The one on the tracks held a hand high to touch Palmers flat hand, to mimic the gesture and as he did, Palmer watched as agonizing second after agonizing second ticked by – then – mere centimeters from the glass the concept and creature known as “time” – as was its flirtatious, deadly way – snapped back to speed again, with a jolt the train whiplashed the man on the thin service track, span him in a whirl of torn fabric and a flash of white into the murky darkness, or under the track and wheel of the thundering carriage.
A splash of black oil slashed across the window.
Palmer’s eyes opened wide in horror and shock.
He did not know what to do.
He was thrown by instinct from the window at the snap and force of time starting again, catching up with itself, and shuddering him back into life so confusing and terrible it was like a stab to the heart.
He tumbled from the chair to the floor on the centre walkway of the train.
Hayley’s leg under him she sat upright in a shock of pain and looked confused and annoyed at the rude awakening, rubbing her eyes, trying to make sense of the clammy skinned, red eyed, frantic boyfriend who now stood and searched in false hope of an emergency cord or alarm, which he smashed the glass on and pushed as soon as he located it above the doorway of the middle carriage by bike stand and toilet.
The train shook violently and then stopped…
A screech of brakes and the shuddering halt of the weight to a dead stop, Palmer fell again at the physics of the movement, landed at the feet of an angry looking red-faced inspector.
“Just what the bloody hell do you think you are doing?”
She said, spitting a half chewed sandwich at his feet, that she had been chewing on before the alarm had been pulled.
“There is a man… A man on the tracks.”
The inspectors eyes shot to alarming size, a bead of sweat swelled and dripped down her greasy forehead and on her pickled, sunbaked skin.
“Where?” she muttered in anxious shock.
Palmer pointed to the back of the train… his finger shaking.
“Back there. Just now… a minute, maybe less… He was on the tracks.”
The inspector heard this last line as she had spun tail and started already to head to the cabin to radio control and advise of the accident on the line.
“The same stretch of track.” She thought.
“The same damned stretch of track”
What was this?
Four this month?
She opened the door, heavier than it appeared, and entered the cab and touched the drivers shoulder, he was already sobbing.
He said. Turning half toward the woman.
“Again.” She said, and squeezed his shoulder.
* * *
The rain was bursting between heavy and light and somewhere in-between. Never resting on any one pulse for long, then, stopping all together.
The night air was crisp and cool, not cold. June had set its claws into the year, so it was fresh and smelled like approaching summer, even this late, you could smell the cut grass and the berries on the leaves, the faint pop and zing of rape seed and the honey sweet smell of blooming flowers in the fields behind the tree line on the far side of the gravel yard just over the three sets of tracks that shadowed this service track, narrow and long, that nudged the main track eight feet between them.
He had been walking for a while.
His feet had stopped hurting soon after he made the walk from his driveway, down the sloping grassland and into the stations car park.
He climbed the wrought iron gateway that was locked at 9pm every evening.
He pulled himself over the brick wall that stood five or so feet high and had creeping ivy climbing the surface.
Finally he casually dropped down from the platform of the quiet, closed, resting station and walked along the tracks.
Cold, brittle, sharpened stones under his bare naked feet.
Speaking to him in sharp stabs of Braille.
The stones telling him all would be ok, everything was going to be ok.
He walked on.
The cool nights air his mistress.
* * *
Palmer and the driver exited the train, the two dozen or so people in the five carriages were planted on the windows, leaning against them and peering out into the darkness, watching the torchlight waving and flashing over surface and ground, slashing across the side of the train looking for any proof or evidence of a collision or impact.
The night air was damp with a building threat of rain and the smell of a summery electrical storm.
The driver looked scared witless, Palmer had noticed, his hand shook slightly, the torch in his fist wavered and vibrated with reluctance and a preoccupation Palmer could not put his finger on.
Behind the two of them, the inspector walked with her torch lighting the trail behind them, she gently padded backwards, on tip toes, her torch inspecting the parts of the train that may have been missed, flashing the beam under the carriages and onto the roof, her breathing was heavy.
Occasionally she would swing the beam flying to the hedgerow on the far side of the wide track system, Bright eyes would flash and fade in seconds, witnesses from the bushes of this strange pantomime.
The inspector cut a look back to the driver, who shook his head and carried on walking.
Palmer missed this, dedicated to the train alone.
He stopped with a gasp.
A burst of cold mist blew from his mouth.
The night air catching his breathe and reforming it into icy fog before his eyes.
Below his feet was an oily substance; it had been spattered hard and sticky across the side of the carriages. It was all over the stones and gravel and under the carriage it dripped hard and thick, viscous, syrupy globules of it splashed from the wheels and the engines mechanism.
Stuck to the side of the train was a scrap of material, it looked just like the white and blue pinstripe of the man’s pyjamas.
It was ripped and stained heavily, yellow and brown and black from the tar.
It flapped absently in the night air.
Palmer reached for it his hand barely an inch away before the driver’s hand came shooting from the dark and grabbed his wrist gently, but with purpose.
“Don’t do that…” The driver said, staring at Palmer intently.
He lowered Palmers arm to his side, and brushed his shirt into a flat uniform neatness. He adjusted his own tie, and looked at the fabric, and then to Palmer.
“It would be bad for you to touch it… believe me.”
He waved his torch at the side of the carriage and along the next ten meters or so behind. The tar was all over the side and more fabric, ribbons of the material, torn and broken, ripped and sticky with the colour and intensity of the fluid.
The ooze dripped and ran down the side of the train like a treacle, forming pools of the liquid in the gaps between the stones, edging the side of the track itself, colouring the ground a black diesel hue.
Palmer looked at the floor, and caught the shimmer of rainbow in the liquid, he swore he saw it retreat at the flash of torchlight, and swell again as the light was waved elsewhere.
He looked up at the window, and staring out at him was Hayley.
She looked down and held her hand out fingers apart, palm flat, much like Palmer had himself when he saw the man on the track.
He looked up and waved a bleak, half smile.
Hayley smiled tired and confusedly back.
Palmer reach up to place the hand on the glass and mirror her gesture.
The oily tar that had slashed across the window was now wet an dripping, and as he put his hand against the glass he touched it.
there was stabbing pain, a burst of a sting – like a bee or wasp had let loose their stinger, and as he went to move his arm from the window, he felt something reach out and touch him, holding it still. He felt a cool grip take his wrist, he spun to tell the driver to get off him, but the driver was further down the track and speaking in whisper to the inspector.
He looked at his arm in the windows soda light – and he saw the shadow of the man from the track reaching out as well, in mirror of his own arm, the two images, one real, the other some ghost afterimage, looked like an unfocused cinema screen showing a 3D film, then the two arms blended and merged, and it was no longer his arm reaching out, it was the man on the track.
It was no longer Hayley looking down on his, hand splayed out in welcome on the window…
It was his own.
He was seeing what he had witnessed from inside, living the experience outside.
The ghost of the man on the track his suit.
Caught within the moment of the impact.
* * *
Bare feet on stones felt heavy and hard.
Cold and numb.
The man walked on. Each stone or shard of sharp glass or pebble that pierced into his flesh was a message. A unique and alien braille that was as easy to read under his feet as it would be for a blind man under fingertip.
“Walk on” it said.
“Walk on and on and ever onward.”
The message would then sing lyrical to him.
Every step a new stanza in the song edging the man onwards and onwards and ever onwards along the quiet, dark, midnight track.
From the bush greedy eyes were peering and watching and witnessing this mute mans journey down the dark ribbon of metallic track.
Silently, pink lips smacked hungrily against red lips and white teeth glimmered in the darkness.
The midnight shadows had awoken and were on the prowl, dizzy with hunger, they stalked their prey down the track.
The man walked on.
His feet ached, but they relayed the message from the cold stones without question. This sharp braille telling him he was ok, he would be alright, that there was love and escape and an end to the pain and the ache and the questions at the end of the track… That he was going to be ok and this would soon all be over and he would be full of light and happiness and love.
The man believed it all, despite his aching feet, despite the cold biting into his flesh as if he was food for the frost, despite every fibre of his mind screaming that he should turn around and ignore the voices - that this was all a trap and he had to wake up…
He believed the stones and the Braille and the message it sent.
He had no choice.
The stones, the darkness, the hungry eyes from the sidings had him now and he could no sooner end this journey as he could stop the Earth from spinning.
As he walked his skin began to feel tighter on his bones, his muscles were gripped and stretched taut against the skeleton. His skin was turning white like fine rice paper, like a pearlescent shell.
His eyes were wide open, unable to blink, and he could feel the redness and the tears freezing onto his cheeks; his auburn nutmeg coloured hair bedraggled and messy becoming brittle twigs in this midnight freeze,
the rain dripping from his skin like water off oiled glass.
He marched on, toward the lights that were visible up the track.
The approaching juggernaut.
The teeth chattered and chittered in the bushes.
The convergence was about to happen.
And they would finally feast…
And maybe, just maybe, another evening bounty would make itself apparent.
So the hunt could begin anew.
* * *
A burning sense of Déjà vu rippled through his bones and Palmer forced himself to pull away from the window, but he couldn’t.
Instead, he felt himself pulled backward, through a split in the crease of reality, and he tumbled into a milky whiteness as the world shuffled around him like a deck of cards in some gargantuan gods hands.
And the world rearranged and then was shuffled into prominent shape again around him, and he was sat on a different train, wearing a suit of muted navy blue, he was holding in his hands a copy of some broadsheet paper.
Outside of his window he could see there was a moon high in the sky, a slither of crescent hung wearily and sharp in the weak, thinned out clouds.
And on the track, in front of the train, there was a woman walking down the side-track, naked and staggering.
As before, the world slowed down, and the connection of eyes between the man and woman lead to a moment of frozen time, hands reaching toward each other, before the snap of reality pulled the world back to normal speed and the fragile, thin, beautifully white, waxen skinned woman span with such ferocious force, that he was sure he could hear her smash like porcelain against the impact of the train.
Oil splashed and spattered against the glass window, and the man jolted for the emergency stop as the train rattled to a jagged halt, and the man and inspector and driver ran to the tracks, and the same routine played out.
The world turned again to white as the deck was shuffled again, and Palmer was thrown off the window and landed hard onto the gravel, his hand bleeding from a puckered circle of bites on his palm.
Like a limpet or a leech had drawn his blood.
The driver and inspector ran down the track toward him lights flashing.
Palmer was confused and dizzy, he could see Hayley holding her mouth in shock, and she bolted for the door.
“Stay there Hayles!” he screamed to his beautiful, confused, teary eyed girlfriend.
“Don’t come out here, stay right where you are.”
He raised his hand to stop her, and the palm was red with the pucker of the bite, and droplets of oil and tar and blood dripped from his hand.
The inspector and driver stopped in their tracks as he raised the hand to them, and helped himself up with his other free arm.
They held their mouths and backed away slightly, worried, upset and sad looking.
“What the bloody hell is happening? What did we hit?” Palmer demanded.
The driver looked at him sadly, his mouth downturned and quivering for an answer.
“It must have been an animal or something… that’s all.” He stammered.
Palmer lunged a step forward his hand raised the blood more apparent now, his whole hand laced with oil and flecks of the tar.
“An animal?!” he shouted.
“A bloody animal? What kind of animal bites like this, eh?” and he grabbed the driver with his uninjured hand and pulled him close to the wounded palm.
The driver tried to shake free but Palmer was stronger and held him by the scruff of the neck and waved his hand in front of the drivers terrified face.
“You tell me what kind of fucking animal can cause a bite like this… go on? Tell me what the hell is happening here.”
The inspector started to step backwards, her torch slowly dropping and a flicker of convulsive fear on her face.
Both the driver and Palmer noticed her turning in sudden fright and stood mute and confused as she bolted down the track away from the train only to be suddenly ripped and wrenched from the track by darkness and thrown into the bushes.
Violent shakes and growls and flashes of silver eyes peered out as the Inspector screamed horrifyingly and then a crunch and silence.
She flew from the dark track as if catapulted from the gravel itself.
A single scream echoed into the shadows.
The driver gently shook himself from the grip of Palmer, Palmer dropped his hands to his side and pulled a hankie from his pocket and wrapped it quietly and efficiently round his wound, he shone his torch toward the track where the inspector had been thrown to the bushes.
“What the hell is going on…?” was all he could say.
The oil and tar and splashed fabric had oozed together and was now pulsing toward them on the track, from behind them in the bushes they heard the growl of a creature.
Whether one extraordinarily loud and angry creature or the small growls and grumbles of ten thousand tiny ones – it made no difference.
The bushes were alive, the track was alive, and whatever had consumed the man who walked the track, and the woman who had haunted his journey, and the countless other journeys before – had made themselves known and were no longer prowling or hunting - they had decided it was feeding time.
Palmer grabbed the drivers collar and pushed him toward the train.
“Go… Go now… we need to move!”
They turned toward the door of the train to make a run, but blocking their way was a fragmented, shattered shell of the pyjama wearing man, like a twisted marionette, hanging from invisible strings, the parts of his ragged, smashed body held together by the tar-like substance that dripped and leaked thick and wretched from the cracks of his skin and his ragged, ripped clothing.
The figure pointed at Palmer.
Upon its shattered and ugly fractured face a grimace of need, of want, of famishment.
And reached for him jagged and sharp fingered.
Palmer reflexively parried the grab and kicked out with his leg and took the broken shell of a man down, where he shattered into a million tiny pieces, like the thin fragile shell of an egg.
The tar like substance popped like yolk cooking on a griddle, and splashed the Driver and the carriage, the driver gave a scream, and then suddenly was flung high into the treeline, as if the tar had lassoed and trebucheted him.
Palmer jumped over the broken remains of the shell-man, and grabbed onto the rail of the door, in front of him was Hayley, who reached out and grabbed his arm, covered as it was in ooze and tar, there was a sudden convulsion as the bite ran through her flesh and she bounced back as if shocked and crashed into the far door of the carriage.
Palmer ran to her, grabbed hold of her body, the pain in his hand was intense and throbbing now. Hayley was unconscious and her arm swelled as the tiny pock-marks of the limpet bite dotted her arm like needle marks.
The sores spelt out a pattern that read like Braille upon the skin.
Palmer did not know what it meant, but felt the language of the wound speaking to him.
“Time is up.” It said.
And the lights in the carriage went out one by one.
The carriages were full of two or so dozen screaming, anxious, terrified people.
The darkness permeated the air like a thick soup of confused fear; the silence was foreboding and horrendous.
A single approaching light shone in the darkness ahead.
Palmer could see the shadows it created on the track from the open door.
He stepped out, calmly and quietly onto the dark track – aware of the eyes and the teeth glistening in the trees and the slither and trickle of ooze all around him.
He looked up the track and saw the light approaching, fast and angry.
It looked like another train, the speed was awesome and breath-taking, but, there was no train.
It was ghost lights, and below it, teeth, chattering and chittering away.
Palmer closed his eyes.
And below him, even through his socks and shoes, he could feel the braille of the gravel speaking and pulsing through his skin.
“Time is up.” It said.
“Time is up.”
“We feed now.”
And the light smashed into the train and carriages with such force and unrelenting anger that it was ripped to shreds as though made of paper.
Palmer held his hands up to guard himself instinctively, stupidly, as if such a gesture could help in the wave of a million nuclear explosions.
The light seared onto his skin and he felt its expert sharpness cut perfect incisions to his core, every inch of his skin shredding and folding back to muscle and sinew and nerve and bone and marrow and then – to the idea that was once Palmer, the concept of the man, the psychic shadow of what was once a man was all that remained.
A wisp of an idea.
The last thought running through Palmers mind as the track, the treeline and the train were obliterated in light and hunger was simple…
“I wish we had of driven to London now.”
There was nothing.
Just darkness, and silence and cold.
The feast over as soon as it had begun.