The body had been found encased up to its neck in cement. Lying undiscovered for several months the flesh had not decomposed as it should have done; it was dry as if some mummification process was involved.
A hand-written note found nearby pronounced that the victim had done this to himself, though no reason was given as to why or even how.
Accompanied by the methodical clanketty-clank of metal wheel upon rail, the desert drifts slowly past. Above, high clouds fail to obscure a waxing moon as dizziness subsides and I take stock of my new surroundings. Another train, I curse. Always trains. Why?
Through wooden slats the pale moon slices up the boxcar's inventory: wooden crates, three in number; obligatory bales of straw, four thereof; bundles of wood, several; one empty cask, tied to a slat to stop it tumbling, housing long-handled tools. Losing interest I squint out into the night. American mid-west, I conjecture. Not a hard guess. But when?
Outside, a tumbleweed is tussled from where it lay by the train's passage. Blowing in the Wind, I think. I quickly suppress the thought before it can take effect. I need a rest from this. Oh god, just give me a few hours – is it too much to ask?
There’s something warm in my hand. Oh yes, now I remember. I push the remains of the burger into my mouth savouring even the gristle that clings between teeth. Licking ketchup from lips I lie down and, exhausted as usual, let the rhythm sway me into fitful sleep.
In the early dawn I wake and watch the desert, now streaked with extended shadows, lumber past. In my pocket the water bottle, constant companion, is retrieved and utilised. It is getting low.
"What's up, Ally? You look like you’ve just seen a ghost."
"Bloody hell, Jenny," Alison said, collapsing into the chair at her desk, "I think I damn-well did. Down at the burger stand near the tube station. This guy in front of me in the queue ... he just ... just ..."
"What? He just ... what?" Jenny brought Alison a cup of cold water from the nearby dispenser.
"Disappeared into thin air. Just like that!" Snapping her fingers to demonstrate, she spilled some water onto papers on her desk.
Jenny frowned. "What did he look like?"
After Alison had described the man it was Jenny’s turn to feel faint. She sat down.
The sound of Paul Hardcastle's N-N-N-Nineteen, the current 'number one', percolated through the office from an open window. Outside, a window cleaner whistled along to his radio while he soaped the glass.
To the raucous sound of a straining steam locomotive, I awake, and my eyes meet with those of a small woman opposite, the only other occupant of the small uncomfortable compartment. Her severe, dark clothing encases her from neck to floor, the equally dark bonnet enveloping most of her head reveals only the tiniest sliver of silver hair. I can imagine the scream that had just passed her still open lips.
I sigh and, for some reason, glance at my watch trying to recall the song that had brought me here. My watch tells me it is the middle of the night in July – the pale sunshine streaking across the snow outside begs to differ. Through the mist I am sure I can just distinguish the outlines of hills or possibly mountains.
The woman whimpers. The coach does not possess a corridor and, until the train pulls in at a station, she is trapped here with me.
"I won't hurt you," I tell her but, obviously, she does not believe me. Above her head a wooden, brass-edged case bounces precariously on the knotted string of the luggage rack. On the wooden seat, I try to sleep.
Martin had been given the task of removing the body from the cement. He blew on his hands, the room being refrigerated to help preserve the corpse, and his misty breath tumbled in the air before dissipating.
He hummed Bridge Over Troubled Water – couldn't get the damned song out of his mind – while he sorted out the tools, drills and cutters he was going to use for the job. At least, he thought, Simon and Garfunkel were preferable to Lee Marvin's recent, detestable Wandrin' Star.
"Sorry, no," Linda said to the caller. "The place was empty when I moved in. If there ever was a Jenny here then she didn't leave a forwarding address."
The man groaned and hung up. Linda turned the TV on – Top of the Pops were showing the video to Madonna's current release, Into The Groove.
The first impression is the sensation of being crushed and then I sense the speed. Around me, bodies press far too close. I am unaccustomed to such closeness and there is a different smell. As my eyes focus I see the shock of those around me and I recoil slightly as well. They are all oriental, Chinese or Japanese or something like that. Outside, the scenery flashes past at speeds I have never experienced on the ground. This is unnerving and I wonder which melody brought me here. The name of a band, the Vapours, pops into my head.
I deliberately hum another tune, and darkness again enfolds me.
Jenny contacted the police a few hours after Stephen had gone missing. They asked her what had seemed like endless questions, which she answered as best she could, while the fingers of her right hand twisted the engagement ring around and around on the third finger of her left hand.
Yes, she had last talked to him by phone and, in the middle of the conversation – actually in the middle of a word, if she remembered correctly – Steve had suddenly stopped talking and she had heard the phone drop. Yes, she had hung up and tried ringing his number again, several times in fact, but the line had remained engaged. In a panic she had driven across London to his flat, letting herself in with the key he had given her.
Inside, she had replaced the phone on its cradle and searched in vain. In the kitchen a half-eaten cheese sandwich, starting to curl, had sat on a plate alongside a cold cup of tea. In the lounge the hi-fi, still turned on, had finished playing the first side of an LP, Junk Culture by Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark, Stephen’s latest acquisition. She recalled that the track, Locomotion, had been playing in the background while they were talking on the phone.
The policeman wrote it all down. Somewhere in the night she could hear Duran Duran.
I awake, mind-numbed and exhausted as usual, a bouncing Charleston fading from my mind – where had that come from? At first I think I am standing on pavement or road, not on a train for a change. Then comes the clank and rumble, roar and crackle, and a faint whiff of ozone hits my senses. The rumble crescendos and I take my eyes from the ground as, barely inches from my face, the roar from the tunnel just to my right erupts into a red and cream blur that squeals like an avalanche of manic pigs being deposited violently into a giant liquidiser.
Jumping back I gaze at the train as it shudders to a halt.
Back in – no, under – London again, I groan. The attire of the crowds suggests late nineteen-twenties or early thirties, evidence backed up by the adverts that adorn the muted cream and green walls, and the dim bulbs that fail to adequately illuminate this man-made cavern. The train disgorges a fair proportion of its passengers, replaced immediately by those waiting and, with a mechanical sigh, the doors close and the carriages accelerate to flee the meagre light.
"You all right, son?"
I look to my left into the concerned, middle-aged face. His clothes suggest he is fairly well off; he wields an umbrella and a leather briefcase but not threateningly. Standing an inch or two higher than me, his eyes range over me – maybe he cannot imagine why I am dressed the way I am.
He wants to help, but he cannot help me; I am beyond help. So I ignore him and stare back at the curved wall opposite until I hear his footsteps hesitantly retreat.
I try to stop my mind thinking of a song. Curse all songs! Dangerous, they brought me here, and there, and all the everywheres I had never wanted to go. I wanted to stay in one place more than a few minutes, more than a few hours.
Then I see the electrified tracks before me, and think of a way out of this mess once and for all. Somewhere in the twisting tunnels another rumble grows. Without further thought I step forward and over the edge. A cry from along the platform comes too late as I make sizzling contact and a welcome thrill of electricity surges through me. But it conjures a dangerous song: OMD – why them? As I begin to burn, their song, Electricity, thunders into my mind, and the burning stops and reverses.
And I am away again to another time, another place.
Wayne screamed again and was restrained.
"I saw the living Christ!" he shouted as the orderlies tied him down.
"Yeah, Wayne," one said, "course you did."
"He was real. He still had part of the cross nailed to his hand. I saw it with my own eyes."
They secured the writhing Wayne to the trolley and wheeled him off.
"He appeared to me on the subway," he whimpered. "He did. He did."
Medication was administered by hypodermic.
I realise I can carry small things with me such as clothes and food. So I try an experiment. I grip hard onto a tree and hum a song. It conjures up a place and time, another railway station, and I go, but I materialise gripping nothing but air. So, in another place, I tie myself to an armchair and hum, and the chair comes too – I leave it blocking the small carriage compartment, too large to be easily removed. Possibly a perplexed guard will chop it into pieces later on in order to clear it from the train.
Weeks later, or years earlier perhaps, and with the aid of several shots of whisky and an electric nail gun, I attach my hand to the wood of a large crate. The pain is amazing, excruciating, and I grit my teeth as I hum the tune. There is a wrenching of wood and more pain, and part of the crate accompanies me. After scaring a man with my sudden appearance I rip the nails from my flesh and hum again. In the next place, on a narrow-gauge mountain railway where people babble some kind of French at my sudden appearance, my wounds are instantly healed.
I curse. I need a sudden death, one that prevents accidental escape. But how?
Harry, squinting close to the computer screen, played the clip once more. It depicted the grainy view taken from a pedestrian bridge over the platforms of London's Paddington station. People in their old black and white world jerkily alighted from the grey carriages. Crispy-attired businessmen spring to their places of work in the city, their seats on the train taken by holidaymakers seeking escape from that same city.
In the nineteen-forties an ancient railway fanatic had filmed the scene for his own enjoyment and, six decades later, after a degree of electronic restoration, his work had been deemed worth presenting to a wider audience on DVD. But, for a change, it was not the trains that occupied Harry's attention, it was the character standing unmoving next to a trolley packed with suitcases. He was out of place, his clothes an anachronism and, despite the density of the crowds, people obviously sensed this and tried to give him a wide berth.
And suddenly, he was gone. Harry hit pause and shuffled back a few frames and then forwards again. In one frame the man was there, the next he was not, and Harry hunted in vain for evidence of him walking away. It was obvious that some on that crowded platform had also witnessed the disappearance.
Harry showed his discovery to others, one of whom took it further and, for a short while, it became news and then, just as quickly, forgotten.
But Jenny, alone and with a failed childless marriage behind her, saw it and could not forget. She obtained a copy of the original so she could watch Stephen disappear over and over again.
With a nail gun I secure myself to a tree and hum. I go nowhere but the pain is too intense and I rip my flesh from the tree. I scream out a song that whisks me away to heal.
Martin carefully cut away pieces of cement. It was taking days as it was not known exactly where the man's limbs were located within the block and Martin had been instructed to do as little damage to the body as possible.
The corpse and his enclosure had been carefully toppled so that the man now lay on his back, head supported so that the brittle neck did not snap.
Martin had already discovered that there were ropes, also embedded in the cement, tied about the body.
The radio played Edison Lighthouse ... again.
My watch tells me it is February – it lies.
But I have found a good, dependable song. It is the one song that is my friend – all others are unpredictable. This one always brings me back to the same place and almost the same time. Here I can make plans and that is what I do. So often do I come here that I regularly meet myself, but talking to myself is unnerving, so we just work together as one plan suggests itself. Talking is unnecessary as all of me know the plan and what is required.
The place is deserted and probably has been for at least a year. Long ago, the arch was made into a place of work by enclosing both ends and installing lights and sanitation. The door no longer locks but that is unimportant as at least one of me is always in residence. Above my head, on top of the viaduct, the trains rumble along almost constantly.
Jenny spent her retirement accumulating stories from around the world; it was amazing the things people would record on the Internet.
Always he was associated with trains and stations, and her mind constantly popped back to that last moment on the phone. She pondered putting the stories together as a single book.
But what was the point? It wouldn't bring Stephen back.
In near darkness, cursing Vera Lynn, I follow the determined stragglers as they exit the station. Far in the distance, anti-aircraft fire arcs up into the sky as the droning comes closer, now almost overhead. Shadows of buildings surround the station; I can make out houses framed in blackness against the stars.
Shouts and a scream are barely audible as German bombs begin to fall. Spurred into unthinking action, I run towards an alleyway but suddenly halt in the middle of a road, watching as a line of punctuated destruction booms closer. No longer trembling, I dare them to gift me with a very instantaneous end. But the droning passes overhead leaving me depressingly unscathed.
I wander, cursing.
After some minutes I come to a makeshift hospital; a tent erected in a park. On a whim I pick up and don an abandoned white coat while others, too occupied to take notice, rush to and fro in their own organised panic. There are occupied beds here – hardly beds, merely blankets on the ground – and I stand over a shivering, bloodied man who begs me to ease the pain from his shattered legs. He asks for morphine – and a plan enters my head.
A nurse enters and sees me. I shout for her to bring morphine, which she does unquestioningly. More bombs drop while I hold the bottle and a syringe. While the injured man lapses into unconsciousness the nurse stares wide-eyed as I hum the song.
Martin continued chipping away at the block. He had exposed much of the man's front and was working on freeing the left hand and arm. The strap of a wristwatch could already be made out underneath the remains of the shirt cuff. More cement was removed allowing the fabric to be pulled to one side.
He frowned over the timepiece. Its face was hidden under a thin layer of cement grime, but he could make out the several buttons on each side none of which looked like the winder. Damping a cloth he wiped the face of the watch clean and stared in amazement. Instead of hands the device sported pulsating black numbers on a yellowish-grey background. Smaller numbers constantly counted off the seconds. He had never seen anything like it.
The Beatles sung Let It Be on the transistor radio.
With renewed purpose I gather my resources: money I steal where I can, dipping hands into tills before humming that old Bud Flanagan song. Why it should deposit me nearly forty years after its creation I put down to a childhood memory centred on the late nineteen-sixties. I remember that, while accompanying my father who was purchasing some furniture, we visited such a place as this – I had stood mesmerised while passenger and goods trains thundered overhead.
Any time I discover myself near a hospital I attempt to steal morphine and syringes, the more the better. They are stored along with several large bags of cement underneath the arch. I had the cement delivered, paying cash-on-delivery with the stolen money. In the middle of the room under that arch stands also the box I have constructed. It is just over five feet in height and just under three feet on each side.
Upon returning home Geoffrey, as usual, checked the answer phone – it held a single message. He rewound the tape and listened.
"Jenny, are you there? It's Steve," came the muffled voice. In the background Geoffrey could hear sounds that suggested the caller was at a railway station. He raised his eyebrows and rewound the tape again without listening to the rest. Obviously a wrong number but, as far as he knew, no one called Jenny had ever occupied this flat and he had been the owner for nearly twelve years though, having just put the place on the market, that was about to change.
Three weeks later something nagged at the back of his mind while he was showing the girl – Jennifer, she had said her name was – around the place. However, it had completely slipped his mind by the time he had accepted her offer to purchase.
I am ready. I know it must be so as more of me turn up and we all start mixing the quick-drying cement. After a while one of me shouts, "It's time," and, as one, we arm ourselves with the syringes and plunge them into his arms. He slumps but does not lose consciousness as we load him into the box, using ropes to bind him in an upright position as cement is poured all about him. He smiles and drifts into sleep but does not disappear as we had feared.
I return time and time again to be the other incarnations of myself and perform the cement mixing and morphine injecting until, at last, there are only two of us left. Me and the future me held solid in the cement. The next time I return I will be him and, finally, I will be at peace. On the back of an invoice for the cement I scribble a farewell note, hesitating to mention Jenny's name as, at this time, she would have still been a child.
Jenny sat in the chair staring out through the windows of the home. About her, the other residents either did likewise, played cards or watched TV.
"Stephen, why didn't you come back?" she murmured, fingering the ring dangling from a chain around her thin neck.
The injections hurt for a moment but a fogginess overcomes me and I drift, thankfully without song, into a deep darkness.
"Goodbye, Jenny," is my last thought.
The hour was late but Martin was too intrigued to halt now. What other treasures would he find about the corpse? The wristwatch still ticked off the time though Martin knew that it told neither the right time nor the correct date.
One piece of cement was still locked about the legs and, once removed, the man could be lifted from his prison. Using his drills and cutting wheels Martin carefully freed that final block, prising it up gently, making sure that he dislodged as little of the tattered clothing as possible. Ascertaining that no further damage would be done, he lifted it clear, placing it with the rest and looked at the fully exposed man. His job was now over and those responsible for carrying out the autopsy would be arriving tomorrow.
On the radio the DJ started playing the Move's new single and Martin, being a fan, walked over to the set and turned it up, its tinny, tiny speaker distorting the sound.
Then he turned back to the corpse and became aware of something very wrong. The body was no longer static; instead, it pulsated and squirmed, and within ten beats of Martin's accelerating heart, the dry flesh filled out.
The eyes snapped open and, seeing Martin, locked onto his own eyes.
"Nooo!!!!" the former corpse screamed as it faded from view.
Martin stared, mouth unconsciously open, at the now empty depression in the cement, but all he could remember was the expression of horror that those eyes had held.
On the radio the Move played Brontosaurus.