I love writing short stories with a twist. They leave a reader with an open door, or even better a series of open doors that they can walk through, so I hope that readers who like such stories will enjoy the story below
Is the main character alive or dead, has the story been a dream or re-incarnation? You read the story, and you decide
By Chris Wilson
“Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen, This is the East Bedford Midlands service 15.29 service from London St Pancras International to Nottingham, calling at Luton airport Parkway, Bedford, Wellingborough, Kettering. Market Harborough, Leicester, Loughborough, Beeston, and Nottingham. Please have your tickets ready for inspection, as the ticket inspector will soon be passing down the train
I had to be 15.29 service to Nottingham, and it had to be a Thursday. On Thursdays he, Edward Carson of No 18 Violet road, Nottingham always caught that train from St Pancras, as that was the return leg of his weekly trip to London and to their Head Office. His day in the big smoke, as his Office manager, ironically described it, and his day to rumble in the Jungle before coming back up the line.
He never expected to be on the train when he was dead though. By his reckoning, a scaffold pole through the cranium and body, courtesy of a clumsy high level scaffolder, would normally lead to a mortuary slab, or a graveyard, so what was he doing why he was sitting in a first class compartment of a high speed train. Why was he looking out over North London Suburbia as it lay gray and sodden in the pouring rain, and who had provided the very welcome, and very fresh, cup of coffee and a Danish pastry that so happily lay by It side.
Where was the tunnel with a light at the end of it, he wondered, the celestial gates or, more likely, as he thought back to his teenage adventures, the red hot pits of Hell. Cadavers, as far he knew, only travelled courtesy of the London Necropolis Company, if you died before 1941, or by special permission from the presiding coroner, and he had no such official paperwork to hand.
Questions, too many questions, and yet no answers, but he was tired, so as the train now cruised along the tracks, he settled back to enjoy the ride. Someone would be along to explain things to him, but in the meantime, there was no harm in enjoying the coffee, and the pastry, and having a bit of a snooze.
The ticket inspector would have to wake him if he wanted to inspect his ticket. I was strange though, he couldn’t recall buying a ticket. Yet he always bought a ticket. He was a safe pair of hands, as his office colleagues frequently reminded him. Steady Eddie, the youngsters called him, the office gofer, the guy always guaranteed to have the right travel documents, and always the guy to be on time. It would be in his suit inner pocket, he always put it into that pocket, and he would take it out nearer the time. As the most senior member, in years, within the office, he knew he should seek redress with his office manager regarding the names that other staff called him, but he was nearing retirement, he didn’t want to stir up any trouble, so what did it matter if they called him a few ridiculous names.
“I’m sorry to disturb you Sir, but may I see your ticket. Everyone, on this journey, has a ticket to ride”
Edward shook himself out of his sleep, and, for a moment looked lazily around him. Not for long though, as everything in the carriage had changed. It was clean- by East Midland Standards — it was almost comfortable, and an immaculately dressed ticket inspector was standing beside him, bearing a cheerful face and a sympathetic grin. This wasn’t the 15.29 service he was used to, for where was the ever-present accusative and distrusting ticket inspector’s stare. He fumbled in his pocket for his ticket.
It wasn’t there, but his fingers fell upon a firm plastic edge, of what felt like a swipe card, and he picked out the object, curious about what lay inside
It was a swipe card, yet it said it was a travel ticket, and his name was upon it. Yet it had no destination or price tag, and it was unlike any card that he had seen or owned before.
“ Well done Sir, I see you have found your ticket. May I see it, please?”
Edward watched the inspector carefully as he checked the ticket. The inspector nodded, smiled, and then recorded a note in a pocket book that hung on a slim chain by his side.
“Very good Mr. Carson. Everything is in order, so now we may proceed. You have a little parcel on the table before you, would you like to open it Sir, and see what lies inside”
There was a parcel on the table in front of him, wrapped up in brown paper, and tied up very precisely, with string. Edward stared blankly at the object before him, and idly played with one of the ends of the string to buy a little more time. He hadn’t brought a parcel with him, yet, upon closer inspection, the parcel bore his home address and name.
“Don’t worry Sir, this is all perfectly normal, for where we are at the moment. What lies inside will assist you on your Journey. A few little tokens, you might say, a little keepsake of what has befallen you, and an indication of your final destination over time to come. Just touch the string once more Sir and the parcel will do the rest for you.
As Robert touched the string it untied its own knot, and the string, plus the brown paper wrapping peeled away to reveal a plain wooden box. Parcels, in his experience, never unwrapped themselves, but as he picked up the box gingerly, something softly rattled inside. Was this some form of cremation Jar, Edward thought ruefully, as the box lay mutely before him? Was this all his 56 years of life of quiet conformity and acquiescence to all those around him, amounted to.
Just a bit of string, a sheet of brown paper, and a little box with no markings; yet his fingers still fluttered over the box that, once opened, would allow him to see what was inside.
He was scared as to what lie hidden from him. It was such a small box that he couldn’t imagine how it might cause any pain, but letting go of known facts and certainties within in his life had always scared him. Ever since losing his parents in a car crash when he was 10 years old.
“You’ll be all right!” His foster parents had told him.
“The memories will fade with time and you’ll grow bigger and stronger” had been the doctors refrain.
Sadly they were wrong.
Unmarried, socially inept, and rarely in any kind of a relationship, let alone anything physical, he had always hid behind an inner mental wall of a self built castle. It was a cold and lonely castle at times and more than once, when he was younger, he had yearned for laughter and a little company, but within such walls, he always had control, and he could keep most of life around him at bay, Yet he couldn’t ignore life completely, as, occasionally, out of nowhere, it still came knocking at his door.
This was death, though, his old life was finished, and in death an insignificant box and a ticket inspector were about to do something which had so far proved impossible. They were about to smash open his castle door. The box had to be opened; it silently commanded him to do so. Somehow he had no choice about the matter, so, like an errant schoolboy entering the headmasters study for punishment, he slowly lifted the lid of the box, and cautiously peered inside
Three small pieces of rock stared back at him. Edward picked them up and studied them carefully before placing them in a neat line on the table.
When he was alive, he had studied mineralogy and geology as a hobby, and had created his own rock and semi precious stone collection. He had done so even before his parents had died, but since then his collection had become more important to him. They had represented stability in his life as they sat neatly displayed in a glass cabinet. They were a comforting barrier from the real world around him, and they had long since become his perfect, if forever, silent friends.
These weren’t precious stones; they were just small lumps of sandstone, granite, and basalt. He pointed at the stones, and raised a quizzical eyebrow towards the ticket inspector. Curious about what death had in store for him, he wanted to find out more.
Regrettably, there was no time to for an answer, for the train now entered a tunnel. The lights went out, and the carriage was filled with a thunderous roar.
Bugger it, Edward thought to himself. The Elstree Tunnel and a lighting failure. Yet it was only a 1, 072 yard long tunnel. They’d soon be out of it, and with the weather by now clearing up rapidly, they might even emerge into the sun.
They certainly emerged into something and somewhere, but an enveloping luminous mist had descended around the carriage, and the carriage was spotlessly clean as if it had just been sent from the factory.
Could anything be better, Edward thought to himself, as he sunk back into the luxurious seat behind him. A brand new carriage, no external distractions, and best of all thick shag pile blue and green luxury carpeting. If this was the new style of carriage that the railway company had been boasting about, then he could easily become used to it. Standard class might become history, if he could get away with it, as now he wanted to travel in style.
What wasn’t right is that the Inspector now sat opposite him, and that a bright red folder with Edward’s name upon it, lay all too readily by the inspectors right hand. The inspector should be standing, not sitting, and what was with the folder, let alone with the contents that Edward anticipated lay inside. As far as he was concerned his personal folder in the hands of a presumptuous ticket inspector was out of order, and definitely as a step too far.
Yet he still held his tongue.
I’ll let the inspector do the talking, he thought to himself. Better to keep your breath to cool your porridge, as his mother always told him, and she was a very wise woman and a certainly nobody’s fool.
The inspector leaned forward, opened the folder, and placed it before Edward
“Right Mr. Carson, to business, as I’ve got several other clients to serve. You will see, by the contents of the folder, that I know all about you, but to summarise what lies within my folder I believe the following to be true. You’re Edward Andrew Carson, aged 55, of 18 Violet Road, Nottingham. Single, never married, and orphaned at an early age, you are a deputy office manager at the law firm of Barnaby and Fitzsimmons, in Nottingham, England, and your interests include mineralogy and geology.
Robert silently nodded
“ Very good, I always like to make sure I am helping the right client. Now, to begin with, do you know that you are dead?”
Straight to the point and no messing, thought Edward wryly, if a little perfunctory at the same time. He nodded again, intrigued at what the inspector might have to say
“Good, it’s always good to get that one out of the way. Now what do you think of the stones in front of you? Why do you think they have been prepared for you, and what message do you think they bring?
Robert leaned forward, inspected each stone carefully, then leant back with a smile.
“You’ve given me Arenite Sandstone, Pre Cambrian Granite, and tholeiitic basalt. They are fine samples, and I’d love to know where you got them from; but I’ve no idea why you have given them to me, or what they mean”
The inspector just laughed and, drawing three vertical columns on a sheet of paper, he labeled them as past, present, and future.
“Oh, you’re good, Mr. Carson, better than most people I deal with. Now if I may borrow the rocks I have just given you, I think I can help you to understand.”
Soon the rocks sat on the piece of paper. Sandstone in the past, Granite in the present, and Basalt in the future. A curious little arrangement, thought Robert as it sat before him, but as every rock holds a story, a college professor and geologist had once told him, he was interested in hearing their tale. Now all they needed was a pair of scissors, and they could play one of his favourite childhood games.
This was no game though; this was important, so he listened to the inspector carefully as he touched each stone in turn.
“Past, present, and future, Mr. Carson, and an individually tailored setting, through which many more journeys will come. Everyone goes through such a transition, for this is the resurrection special, or the crossing of the river Styx, as some classicists like to think of it. Yet they are wrong when they think of it as a one way directional journey to the underworld. There is no such country or domain, or a single direction of travel; not as most people think of it, or understand. The underworld, like all such worlds, is in the mind. A state of mind that can travel in any direction, and through any stage of enlightenment. It can be categorised by the clients variable perception of themselves and other forces around them. Most souls start at a lower level of self awareness where, like living in a dense fog we barely perceive who we are, let alone what lies about us. Mercifully, it is only a temporary destination, although for some it can last for all eternity, and as we progress through various stages of reincarnation, most of us, at some point, have our time in the sun.”
Robert looked around him and gestured around the carriage, then out of the window.
“So this is my life to come is it? The 15.29 from St Pancras International, with a cup of coffee, a Danish pastry, and three lumps of rocks or minerals, drawn up carefully in a line. I never have believed in any religion, the coffee was good, as was the pastry, and it’s great to be sitting so comfortably, but is this to be my future? I’m disappointed, as I’d hoped for better things to come. Who are you by the way, who do you represent, and where do you come from”
The Inspector shook his head, and smiled.
“Who I am, and what I am, regarding my physical appearance is unimportant, as I have as many names as I have physical appearances. I represent Life and Death, Mr. Carson, and as such I am in the service of an organic presence which began when life began to stir within the universe, of which there are many. Yet I am just one thread in a glorious, if at times cruel tapestry that surrounds us on all sides. Life and death have no council chambers, organizational structure, computers, or file cabinets full of folders, yet woven into an unending and ever connecting strand; it has a power beyond our wildest dreams. I am a facilitator, Mr. Carson, an official go-between who helps souls like you; get from one life to another. You may call me Charon or the Hades Ferryman, if it helps you, although I dislike the negative connotations that come with the name and title. If it makes you feel any happier I’ll even provide a river and a boat upon which you may carry on your journey. Yet such names or such beliefs are unimportant, as they are no more than reference points that people can understand.”
The inspector paused and swept his arm across the carriage in front of them.
“This train, this conversation, is just the beginning. It is but one of many skeletal frameworks, upon which your future reincarnations will hang. These rocks are like stepping stones to the future, and, stone by stone they will guide you towards your future lives to come. There are as many buried in the past as will appear in the future, but every step is different, for all that lives, and for all time to come. For some the steps become a ladder, for others a deep sea cavern, a set of pearly gates, or a turreted castle soaring high in the sky. Your steps, carried on a transportation system which is familiar to you, as are the minerals you see before you. Now I’ve put you in the picture, what you think such rocks mean?”
Robert frowned and idly turned the rocks before him. He picked up the basalt, felt the lichen, then chuckled wryly
“I don’t know, but Frances Bacon once said that-
If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties,
so maybe there is hope for us all. Sandstone could be my past, as so much of life has incessantly shifted and been worn away around me. Granite could be my present, as I keep everyone at a distance. I have few friends and even fewer relationships, and so as I can get through life and thereby survive, yet the basalt puzzles me, as does the lichen. I love the conjunction of the three rocks. I’m fascinated by the sedimentary nature of sandstone, and appreciate the meeting of the oceanic crust and continental crust as the granite and basalt lie side by side, but what lies ahead in the future I can’t decide. Yet all this is guesswork. You’re the boss, you tell me. You’re the ticket inspector, and this is your train. I’m only a passenger, and I’m only along for the ride.”
He looked up towards the inspector, but the train and the inspector had disappeared. He was now at one with the patch of lichen, and the basalt, and awash with sea spray from rough seas and an incoming tide. Yet caught in the hissing foam and the booming sea breakers, a lone voice still patiently spoke to him. It was the inspector’s voice, it was urging him forward, and step by step, it was still showing him the way.
“Now I must leave you, Mr. Carson, but this, for now, is your future. This has been your train, you’ve been no passenger. This is your life and your future; you have done so much more than come along for the ride. You have become part of the colony of lichen. A symbiotic rock eating algal and fungal colony which has seen life over thousands of years. You have become one small piece of its long history, but you will watch, you will listen, and absorb so much natural wisdom that, unseen at present, flows all around you. One day you will die, as all life must die eventually, but death in not the end, it is reincarnation, and the promise of a new life and a new future to come. Enjoy this new life Mr. Carson. You will learn to give and take in harmony with nature, and as share your life with other life around you. You will learn much from this life that you are now part of, as we all learn from contact with others, and that will help you on more journeys to come. One day we will meet and talk again.”
A rogue wave rose up and crashed over him. He couldn’t breathe; he was drowning; he was….
“Tickets please. Please have your tickets ready for inspection,””
Robert sat up sharply, grunted himself awake, and blearily looked down the carriage. Un-refurbished Standard class East Midland rolling stock glared back at him, and a burly, sour faced Ticket Inspector began to walk down the carriage aisle.
Normal service had been resumed on the 15.29 service to Nottingham, even down to the wreckage of a half eaten stale Danish pastry, and a stained and crumpled coffee cup that mournfully looked up at him. It seemed to be a sad reminder of a hungry passenger, and of a futile search for a decent coffee and enjoyable railway food.
He had been dreaming, only dreaming.
Or had he?
Putting his hand inside his inner pocket to bring out his ticket, his fingers fell upon three rough edged objects. Ignoring the oncoming inspector, he fished them out, and placed them on the table
Three small rocks stared back at him. Three small samples of Arenite Sandstone, Pre Cambrian Granite, and tholeiitic basalt; the last of which was partly covered by lichen.
His past, his present, and his future, according to the previous inspector. Yet where was he, andand who or what was he now? Was he alive, was he dead, or was he dreaming. Maybe, for all he knew he was somewhere else in between!
As the burly inspector now lumpishly stood before him, a wave of stale sweat and garlic, washed over Edward like an incoming spume laden high spring tide. All Edward could hope for was that this part, if only this part of his life, as it opened up before him, was nothing but a dream.