The concourse at Bucksdown railway station proved to be full of lice in scratchy blankets. That’s how Horace Housetap saw it anyway when he arrived on that Friday afternoon. Horace wasn’t in a good mood. The bus had been full of fidgety freaks with masses of beard and halitosis, and he doubted that the handkerchief he’d used to cover his nose and mouth would prove to have been adequate protection from their germs. To cap it all, he’d had to dodge around a gaggle of geriatrics who’d forced him to tread on cracks in the pavement and even walk beneath a workman’s ladder. If ever doom were written in the stars, this was the day.
That wasn’t all. Today was the twenty-fifth: a number he regarded as ill-omened to the nth degree. Everything bad that had ever happened to Horace Housetap seemed to have occurred on a twenty-fifth or to have had the number twenty-five woven into it somewhere. Or nineteen. Yes: another bad number.
His estranged wife Penelope (she preferred Penny but he wouldn’t indulge her) had told him, ‘You’re a nutter. Numbers don’t come equipped with malevolence.’ She hadn’t understood the realities of life, that woman. Such as the time she yelled her frustration at him because he refused to allow her to adopt a black cat from the animal shelter. Anybody with even a turd for a brain knew that black cats were unlucky. But Penelope, contrariness built into the lace of her knickers, had declared the opposite. ‘Black cats are lucky, you moron,’ she’d screeched. Then she’d gone on to bawl a lot more tripe that he’d ignored and, truth to tell, he hadn’t wept when she walked out on him and emigrated to Canada with a bodybuilder with the name of Jonny Wint. Jonny Wint indeed. What a stupid name, Horace Housetap thought.
Sweating, Horace glanced at his watch and at the station clock as he negotiated a multitude of dawdling nonces crawling through wormholes of forever and who seemed to have no destination in mind other than their eventual coffins. His train was due to leave in another two minutes and twenty-three seconds but Horace wouldn’t hurry. He couldn’t, not with his high blood pressure and heart palpitations. Sometimes he felt as decrepit as Methuselah on a Zimmer frame.
Dr Nunn, a man with a pinched expression as though all forms of food disagreed with him, had accused Horace a couple of days ago of being a rampant hypochondriac. Which just illustrated why the National Health Service was going down the pan. As if Horace didn’t know more about his ailments, thanks to the Family Health Encyclopedia he’d inherited from his mother, than any doctor with a dangly thing around his neck could tell him.
The carriage doors were already being slammed by greasy men who worked for the railway when Horace stepped on to the train. Less than a minute later he was settling into an empty compartment. This was one of those old-fashioned trains with a corridor, allowing all sorts of oddballs to wander about spreading their diseases.
‘Thank God I’ve got the carriage to myself,’ he muttered. He didn’t want to be infected by the viruses other people habitually carried with them and that they spread with reckless unconstraint.
His sense of satisfaction didn’t last long. Within a minute or two another man entered the carriage. An unedifying specimen if ever there was one. The fellow was fiftyish (two times twenty-five, which made him doubly malign). Horace swallowed his exasperation and turned away after glaring at the individual. The man had codfish eyes and lips like blubber in butter. His gaze seemed to be fixated on something in the stratosphere, and a way of walking as if he’d come out of a strobe machine. In fact he resembled something designed by a computer with a dodgy hard drive.
‘Good afternoon,’ the man said. His voice seemed to emerge from a trumpet.
‘Not so good really,’ Horace responded. ‘Perhaps you’d be better in a different compartment. I carry a lot of health issues.’
‘I’ll take my chance, old chum,’ the man replied. His face was flushed as if he were on the verge of either an orgasm or a nervous breakdown.
Horace resented being described as an old chum. A man aged two times twenty-five ought to have grown out of that sort of playground familiarity.
‘You sit there in the corner opposite this gentleman, dear,’ the stranger said.
Horace turned, startled. The man seemed to be addressing someone who wasn’t there.
‘Now then, Evanora, I know you’re as gaunt as an anorexic sprat but the netherworld’ll soon have you well again,’ the man said.
Horace blinked at the empty seat to which the oddball had addressed this nonsense.
‘Medical science in the afterlife is wonderful these days – wouldn’t you say so, old chum?’ the man asked, now addressing Horace.
‘I daresay,’ Horace replied. He wheezed the words, actually, as he felt an asthma attack coming on. He delved into the pocket of his anorak for the inhaler that Dr Nunn insisted he didn’t need.
‘There you are, Evanora – the gentleman agrees with us and he looks like a man who’s been through the mill himself. But then he would, wouldn’t he? Anything else would be as incongruous as the Pope on a pogo stick. Now then, my dear, I’ve done as you said and cursed that old witch who hangs around her garden gate all day never having a good word to say about anybody, and I’ve placed a hex on the window cleaner you disliked so much. The hex has worked, too. He fell off his ladder and broke his ankle.’ The strange man opened his blubber lips and let loose a bellow of laughter that sounded like a gale howling through a grotto.
Horace wondered whether to swap carriages but he didn’t trust the man not to be offended and pull a knife. Madmen were after all unstable by definition. So he sat tight, pretending to be fascinated by the view of wind turbines that dotted the landscape like aliens performing semaphore. He hoped the crazy oaf would leave him alone.
He jumped as the lunatic leaned across the carriage and touched his knee. Only then did Horace notice that the man wore enough rings to make even the planet Saturn envious. Some of those rings bore esoteric symbols and one even featured a golden skull with a red tongue. Horace shuddered.
‘You probably think I’m insane, old chum, but I assure you I’m not,’ the man said. ‘I’m talking to my late wife, who’s here with me in spirit. That’s right isn’t it, Evanora? She was a necromancer par excellence and inducted me into the dark arts too.’
‘Really?’ Horace said, cringing in the corner and wishing he could make himself evaporate.
‘She passed on from cancer but she’s still with me as you see.’
‘Ah!’ Horace said.
‘Or perhaps you don’t see her?’ the lunatic asked.
‘Indeed I don’t,’ Ralph replied.
‘Don’t let that worry you. The only people who can see my dear departed wife are those with one foot in the grave, so to speak – those destined to pass over within twenty-four hours.’
‘Or twenty-five?’ Horace asked.
‘Or twenty-five, indeed.’
The train slowed, hissing like a serpent with haemorrhoids, and pulled into a station with a clock that had only one hand. That hand was pointing to nineteen. Horace blenched.
‘Well, here we are, Evanora,’ Mr Blubber Lips said. ‘It’s been pleasant meeting you, old chum,’ he told Horace with a smile that belonged at the bottom of a gunge-filled lake. ‘Perhaps we’ll have the pleasure of travelling together again some time.’
‘Well . . . maybe.’
The weirdo alighted, still chuntering to no one. Horace stared after him and just for a moment he glimpsed a woman, a creature with long, straggly hair, walking arm in arm with the madman. She seemed to emerge from a cloud of bugs flittering around the station platform.
Horace shook his head in denial, telling himself his imagination was running riot. He probably needed a pill of some kind.
Glancing at his watch, he saw that precisely twenty-five minutes had passed since the nutcase had entered the carriage. That was enough to send his palpitating heart into overdrive. Incipient panic spread from the crown of his head to the end of his size eights, washing through him like diarrhoea. Then came a great, crushing, agonising constriction in his chest.
‘Dr Nunn, you’re a bloody idiot,’ he gasped, reeling back against his seat.
The last thing he saw was the oddball and absent wife looking back and beckoning. The woman’s lips were so scarlet and drooling that she resembled a vampire disturbed mid feast.
Then the train pulled out to who knew where.
Carl Hughes is an award-winning writer whose fiction and non-fiction has been published in newspapers, anthologies and magazines worldwide. He has also won many writing competitions and has worked for the national and provincial press in his own country, as well as for television and radio. He lives in the county of Norfolk, England, with wife Linda and specialises in writing about horror, the offbeat and bizarre.