This story was submitted as part of my Creative Writing Dissertation project at Kingston University in April 2018. It was written as homage to, and in the style of, one of my favourite authors, James Herbert.
by Richard Holliday
Hasty footsteps thudded on the cool pavement. The sounds of exertion and fast breathing approached the station, out of the evening’s quiet, up the slope. With a heave, two young figures let their backpacks swing around, the weight threatening for a moment to drag them down. A hand stopped them, held aloft.
“Sorry, just missed it. Too late,” the man on the gate grunted. His voice was almost completely obscured by the wailing metal of the gate in his grip. Behind him, as his boots clomped on the tired concrete, the zigzag barrier unfolded across the entrance to the railway station.
“Oh, come on!” the young man gestured, his backpack flailing. The weight gave it the movement of a constrained pendulum, straining at the nylon straps that wrapped around the young man’s coat. He pulled up a cuff theatrically, looking at his watch. “It’s not even time yet!”
“You’re too late. I told you.” The barrier clanged shut and he turned his back on the young man and the woman. The two now-stranded travellers looked at each other.
“Oh, fuck off then!” the young man swore, rattling the barrier. Then he turned around. He looked at his watch again, peering through the crack toward the big station clock, the seconds ticking away with a loud clatter. Six minutes out. “Cheap shit!” he cursed at his watch, half wanting to tear it off his wrist. A voice distracted him from that.
“Shit, Jimmy, what are we going to do? Are there any more trains?” asked the young woman. Her words came out with the fog from her mouth.
Jimmy gave a half-hearted laugh. “You booked the ticket, Connie, the last train was the cheapest,” he said in a derisory, mocking tone. Her scowl made him stutter for a better response. “I guess it’s a night in Medford for us. Then back to London in the morning. Classic British Rail isn’t it?”
Connie snorted. “Great, just great. Plus, the coach would break down, then we’d spend an hour in the back of a minibus, all to end up…”
“Don’t give me that,” Jimmy snapped. A furrowed brow curtailed any further bickering. A chill in the air terminated the discussion. “It is what it is. Not much we can do, is there?”
Jimmy and Connie finally, with a shrug, turned away from the station. They now faced the rusty sky that hung above the silhouettes of buildings opposite and in the distance. A few lone trees nearby moved gently, rocking against the breeze. Their skeletal branches were now void of any leaves. It was autumn and the breeze brought a chill as it brushed away the remains of the day, leaving a dirty smear on the sky behind. It was transient; both Jimmy and Connie knew it.
She looked to him as they pawed the expanse of concrete that surrounded the station entrance. There was the distant rattle of a train – the one they’d just missed – audible just below the breeze that wasn’t letting up, hefting in great gusts one after the other. He’d taken his gloves off to reach for his phone. It proved fruitless.
“You found any way home? An Uber?” she asked.
“Nope,” Jimmy said. His eyes were fixed to the phone, his fingers dancing across the fingerprint-marked screen deftly. “Nowhere to stay either.”
“How do you know?”
“Look,” he coughed. Connie took the phone, and sighed herself, taking a big breath of chilled air that induced a shiver. What the phone said didn’t dispel the shiver: No network connection. She passed the phone back irritably. Jimmy took it and pocketed it.
“Medford really is a dump in the middle of nowhere,” she said. Jimmy shrugged. She looked again. “Why didn’t we know the coach would go this way? And not all the way to London. As advertised.”
“Hey,” he protested. “I thought it’d all be plain sailing from Salisbury.”
She snorted. “Yeah right. Dumped in a dump.” There was silence.
“Look,” Jimmy said again, this time smiling. His sudden optimism piqued Connie’s interest. She followed his gaze to a sign, tied loosely onto a lamppost and obscured by ivy. It protruded from a fence that looked over the cutting containing the railway platforms. He approached it, crossing the deserted street.
“Holman Hall,” he read aloud, his voice trailing off as Connie joined him.
“You sure it’s a hotel? Sounds more like some old dive house.” She looked at him and he almost winked. “It was a phrase, Jimmy!”
He stopped laughing and looked at the poster again. “Yeah, look,” he said, beckoning her over. “Bed and breakfast, rooms to rent.”
“I’m not sleeping in the cold,” she said curtly. “Let’s go there.”
“Are you sure?”
“Look at that sign, Connie. It’s been here years. The place is probably a pile of rubble now. Or a Nando’s. Or worse.”
“What could be worse?”
Jimmy looked at her gravely. “A Wetherspoons.”
She laughed for a moment, but the cold wind brought back the severe look. “Well we’ve not got any better ideas,” Connie said, skewing her head. She met his sceptical gaze and whined. “It’s cold and late. I don’t wanna be out any more!”
He gave his watch another quick glance but remembered it was unreliable. “Fine.”
He looked around, turning back to look at the station entrance across the road. It was now shrouded in a blackness against the deep orangey brown sky that wasn’t there before. The station had been consumed by shadows that light would never penetrate. He took a deep breath, suppressing the cough. It was colder now. He felt the goosepimples under his coat, and the jumper nestled against his flesh there. Jimmy looked to Connie, a few feet away, and saw she was shivering too. He took her hand. Perhaps the warmth of this bed and breakfast would lead to other warmth, too. He saw that Connie liked that idea. This trip had been too long, at the wrong time of year.
“Come on then! If we’re going let’s go already!” she nudged, her movement guiding them both down the deserted road past the station, glancing up at the office block just behind. The browny-red rendering blurred into the sky, which shone on the windows. It wasn’t a welcoming shimmer, but an impersonal, ugly one. She took a breath, feeling observed. The chill made her shiver. It ushered Connie and Jimmy away, between the rows of equally deserted shops, all shrouded and silent. Something about the sky made Medford gloomy and the tingle of despair was like an electrical charge in the air.
“Wonder what this is like during the day,” Jimmy huffed.
“Probably still a dump.”
Only the wind seemed to guide the two travellers slowly forward, toward the shadowy coldness, the spirit of Medford itself almost. It seemed to be quickly enveloping them.
The road led straight down, terminating at a T-junction facing onto trees.
“Which way?” Jimmy asked, his voice hushed. They’d seen no-one for what seemed like hours, meandering along a silent street.
“Checked your phone?” Connie replied. The reaction seemed instinctive.
Jimmy patted his pocket with a single laugh. He checked. “No service,” he said. “That’s a surprise. Can’t see anyone to ask either.”
“That’s weird, Jim,” Connie breathed. A gust of the cold wind took the hood of her coat like a scoop that covered her head. It was unexpected, almost arctic, at odds with the screen on the calendar of her useless phone. She jumped, yelping. Jimmy laughed, quickly, but it passed. She glared. “It’s not funny, you dick!”
“Let’s go this way,” Jimmy suggested, turning left along a dingy alley that was almost completely grey, hidden from any iota of the dying sunlight that hung overhead.
“Please,” Connie protested, but followed. She felt it must be the right way. Something in her… half of her brain told her the alleyway was ruinous, but the other pressing her to go with it. Connie followed quickly. She didn’t fancy lingering in some dark alley, and she didn’t want the wind to catch her again, that was for sure.
The path led down some steps, and into a dim underpass with strip lights embedded in filthy diffusers in the wall. Most were smashed, most extinguished. Their footsteps echoed, sending ripples through puddles of stagnant water that had collected and remained, perhaps for years, in the grotty artificial cavern. It seemed to lead downward and toward a gloomy portal that, with each step, grew gloomier.
Connie reached out. Jimmy was a few paces ahead. “Jim,” she called.
He stopped, looked and walked back a few paces. He gripped her gloved hand. In the dimness, he smiled, the light barely enough to pick out his teeth. But he reassured her. “Nearly there. I…”
“… just know it?” she finished.
Jimmy considered it for a moment, feeling the clock ticking inside his brain. “Yes.”
He checked his watch. He shook his head.
They continued through the dank underpass, trying not to breathe through their noses. There was a stale, lingering stench that seemed to ooze from the tired brickwork and gaps the darkest crevices. Distantly there were the echoes of birds cawing. But the underpass curved around, lazily, and headed down a stretch. Jimmy and Connie felt the slope; rivulets of the dirty groundwater ran down ruts in the uneven paving. Soon even the birds trilling was unable to penetrate; the only sound being the hasted footfall of the two backpackers.
Then, around the last abrupt part of the curve, a steady trickle of flowing water. The underpass – well, more a tunnel festooned with grime and dirt – burst through the ground with an angular, cement-formed portal opening onto a towpath. Jimmy and Connie stepped out, back into the cool open air. The canal was to their left; to their right a high wall of brown bricks. A short distance away the ground flattened to a row of tall firs. Taking a couple more steps, the roofline of a lone house peeked into the dusky sky. The angular blackness pieced through, creating a triangular void in the twilight.
“How long was that tunnel?” Connie asked, breathing heavily. Her pack’s weight made itself known against her shoulder. Jimmy turned and peered. He considered the tunnel entrance for a moment, but saw it was shrouded in a fine mist. Strange, he thought. No cloud. His head felt compelled to look forward, not back. The mist, propelled by the wind, buffeted past. It urged him onward.
He shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know, but let’s get inside.”
“Yeah,” Connie said, her voice almost optimistic. Jimmy snorted with a suppressed guffaw.
Jimmy looked skyward. There was a layer of grey cloud now obscuring the sky. He shook his head. How long had that tunnel been? But the sky rumbled as he peered, and, like before, his head looked forward, toward the looming form of Holman Hall.
The house stood alone in a lawn that stood sentinel despite the cold breeze. The frontage looked like a classic thirties semi, the entirety of which now formed the hotel. But either side, where other identical houses would have been, was a black void of nothingness. Bare earth.
The pathway sloped up a dying, still lawn. The wind that had steadily pushed Jimmy and Connie persisted. It accompanied them to the doorstep, waited for them to push on the round enamel button. The breeze died away just as the door creaked on its hinges.
“Can I help you?” the catty, squat old lady behind it mewed.
“Er,” Jimmy started. Connie looked across, and then to the old lady’s weathered features. She smiled, her baggy face relaxing.
“We’re looking to stay the night,” Connie said.
The old lady was surprised. Her eyes narrowed, and she fumbled behind the door. “Are you now?”
“This is Holman Hall?” Connie enquired cautiously. “We saw your sign outside the station. I was expecting…”
“Ah,” the old lady said, relaxing fully. A light came on in the hallway. She stood aside from the open door and gestured eagerly. “Come in! Of course, you can stay the night. Come in, come in!”
They stepped forward into the warmth of the hallway. The ceiling felt low and it compressed the space. Jimmy instinctively took a breath in, as if to squeeze into the void. To the left were two closed painted doors set into dark, deeply-wallpapered walls. To the right was a stairwell, again fashioned of ancient-looking wood. At the end was the orange glow of the lights in the kitchen. The hallway was illuminated by two brass uplighters affixed to the wall, showering a low, warm light that lit up countless motes of dust.