Roger Hall woke up early with a peculiar floating feeling. He felt as if he was in a dream world. At least he was much better than he had been the evening before, when he felt like someone was throwing bricks around in his head. Nauseous and weak he had flopped onto a soft pillow, falling into a deep sleep until the shrill buzzing of the alarm woke him. Stretching his body and peering through bleary eyes, he gradually became aware of his surroundings. The house was silent, Maria, his wife had already gone to work.
He was a tall slim man with short mousy brown hair, brown eyes and a curly moustache. You could set your clock by him. Working at Newtown College as a computer teacher meant he always caught the eight-fifteen train every morning. He liked the short, brisk walk to the station and leaving early after breakfast, picked up the paper from behind the door, tucking it under his arm.
Roger hoped his morning stroll would make him feel better. It was a bright sunny morning. The birds were unusually silent and the air was still. Charlie Thompson, the milkman was whistling merrily on his way. Roger liked him, a small jolly chap, who always wore a smile on his face and had a cheerful word for everyone.
“Good morning Charlie. Nice day.”
Charlie didn’t even glance in his direction.
He received no reply and thinking he had not been heard, continued, with a shrug of his shoulders.
Arriving at the station he decided a coffee would be nice. The station café was closed due to sickness; the vending machine would have to do. Fumbling in his wallet he found some change. The money clattered through into the reject tray. Picking it up he tried again, without success. He examined the shiny coins in his hand, checking it was the correct amount but still the machine would not accept the cash.
Still feeling strange Roger sat on the form and opened his newspaper. His eyes settled on page three of the Sun. He was admiring a skimpily dressed young woman, with all her curves in the right places and blonde hair flowing over her shoulders, when he felt the hairs on the back of his neck rise. Looking around he saw a tall man with icy white skin, wearing a black top hat and coat. As Roger glanced at him the man stared directly into his eyes. Roger shivered, he felt as if Mr Top Hat was looking right into his soul, as if the man could put his hand into his body and pull out his very being. Did he know what Roger was doing? He hastily folded up the paper and hid it inside his jacket. Blushing, he tried to look away from the man but found he couldn’t avert his eyes. There was something about him that he did not like. Eventually managing to tear his gaze away he glanced up at the station clock and realized the train was due any minute. To board he would have to pass Mr Top Hat.
A loud voice from the tannoy announced the arrival of the eight-fifteen train to Newtown, which was on time for a change. Roger moved forward to join the shuffling queue, which was smaller than usual. He looked for a familiar face but saw nobody he knew. He thought they must have caught an earlier train. The queue inched slowly forward. Mr Top Hat was greeting everyone as they boarded the train. He seemed to know everyone’s name. At last it was Rogers turn.
“Good morning Roger Hall,” said Mr Top Hat.
“How do you know my name?”
“I have known you since the day you were born. Have a nice journey.”
Roger trembled as he felt the frosty breath of Mr Top Hat and his freezing skin as he shook his hand. Taking an empty seat he settled down and tried to relax but his stomach felt as if it was in a meat grinder, turning over and over.
Gazing round the carriage at the other passengers he noticed they all had serious injuries. The man across from him had a gaping hole in his neck. A soldier in full uniform had blood oozing from his chest. On the seats behind him there was a woman with her neck at an awkward angle and a little boy with blood seeping out of his stomach. Roger wondered why they weren’t in hospital. They were of varying ages from the young to the very old. Gathering up his belongings he was about to make a hasty escape but was halted in his tracks by the Guard.
“Where are you going sir?”
“I want to get off the train.”
“I’m sorry sir but it doesn’t stop until journeys end.”
“What do you mean?” said Roger trying to push past. “I’m getting off. There’s something wrong with these people. Haven’t you noticed?”
“You’re meant to be here. You can’t leave the train. Please sit down sir.”
The train set off, gathering speed. Roger sat down, grinding his teeth. Glancing through the window he noticed it was getting dark. It was impossible. He had only been on the train a few minutes. He looked at his watch to see what time it was but it had vanished. He examined the floor, looked under the seat and turned his pockets inside out but couldn’t find it.
“Have you lost something? asked the man with the gaping hole in his neck.
“You won’t need that. Time is not important,” said the man.
I must be imagining things, thought Roger, sitting back in his seat and closing his eyes. As he shut them he heard Marie call his name. It can’t be, she’s at work, he thought as he drifted off to sleep.
Some time later a hand on his shoulder jolted him awake. It was the Guard.
“Excuse me sir. Can I see your ticket?
Studying it for a minute he frowned.
“I’m sorry sir but you don’t have the right ticket. You will have to get off at Half Way station.”
He didn’t recall the name from his previous journeys to work. The train juddered to a halt at the station, which thick with fog looked deserted. Roger and a small girl with blonde curly hair, tied back with a silk pink ribbon disembarked. The little girl was crying.
“Don’t cry. What’s your name?”
“Where are your parents?”
“I don’t know,” she sobbed.
“How did you get here?”
“I can’t remember. I just woke up her. Please help me.”
“Don’t worry. We’ll try to find someone who can help us.”
A figure carrying a lantern emerged from the fog. It was a tall man with green eyes and white curly hair, dressed in flowing golden robes.
“Ah, I see we have two lost souls.”
“Who are you?” asked Roger.
“I am your guide. I am going to show you the way home. Please follow me.”
Roger and Jodie exchanged puzzled glances. He grasped her firmly by the hand.
“I’m not coming with you. I don’t know you,” she said, trying to tug away from Rogers strong grip.
“Jodie, come on let’s follow this man. I want to go home too. Maybe he can help.”
The guide led them to the edge of a dark forest
“I can go no further. The rest is up to you,” said the man. “You must follow the path.”
“I’m scared,” whimpered Jodie.
“You’ll be alright. I’ll take care of you.”
Looking round for the man Roger realized he had vanished.
“I don’t want to go in the forest, it’s dark,” said Jodie. “Where’s my Mum?”
“Come on Jodie. We’ll soon find her.”
The path was rocky and hard. It was very slippery. They both kept stumbling and the long tree branches caught at their clothes. Tears ran down Jodies face when her ribbon got entangled on a branch, coming out of her hair. Roger put the ribbon in his shirt pocket, intending to tie it in her hair once they had got out of the forest.
They continued walking until they came to a fast flowing stream. Jodie must have been feeling tired, she stumbled and fell in. Roger reached out to save her but her head was sucked under the water. He splashed his hands about but there was no sign of Jodie. He sank to his knees with his head in his hands. A strong undercurrent must have pulled her down. She had drowned.
Roger became aware of a presence by his side. Turning round he gasped. It was his Grandmother, who had been dead for twenty-five years. She looked much younger. Her hair was a light brown color, not the silvery grey he remembered. She was wearing her favorite light blue spotted dress.
“What are you doing here? You’re much too early.”
“I don’t know. Where’s Jodie?” asked Roger.
“Jodie is safe. She has gone home.”
“She can’t be safe, she fell in the water.”
“It is the stream of life.”
“What’s that?” asked Roger.
“It will take you home. Take off your shoes and stand in the stream, let the water cover your shoulders and close your eyes.”
Roger took off his shoes and waded into the stream until the rippling water covered his shoulders, he closed his eyes. His Grandmother kissed him on the cheek.
“I love you Roger,” she said.
Rogers eyes fluttered open to a dazzling light. Slowly he became aware that he was lying in a bed and the feeling of soft lips on his cheek.
“I love you Roger,” said Maria through her tears as she kissed him.
“Where am I?” whispered Roger.
“In hospital. You’ve been in a coma for a week since you had a stroke.”
“Let me wipe away those tears,” said Roger putting his hand in his pocket and pulling out a pink silk ribbon.
“Where did you get that?” said Maria.
“I really don’t know.”