Long River Siding was a small rail stop up river from Lewistown. The boom days for Lewistown were long past, and the weathered signal-box at the Junction now only switched the occasional goods-train from the mainline onto the Lewistown spur.
The few remaining old steam engines rarely huffed into the siding any longer, to take on water from the tower that stood sentinel over the signal-box.
The railway bosses had downgraded the junction, so now only two men manned the signal-box. Eric had been with the railway for forty years; thirty of them spent at Long River Siding. Tom, a newcomer, had only been there ten.
The days weren't too bad. There were signal levers to grease, points to oil, rails and sleepers to inspect; the gantry platform that ran under the windows outside the signal-box continually needed painting with the official gray Railway paint. But the nights were long and lonely. The only job was to switch the 11:09 goods-train into the siding, where it would sit hissing as it took on water, and then switch the line back so the 11:13 diesel passenger-Express could power its headlong rush down the mainline.
The single naked bulb swung gently from its frayed cord, casting grotesque shadows onto the timber walls as Eric and Tom passed the time reading, playing cards, and chatting, as they waited for the 11:09 goods.
"Quiet night," said Eric.
"They're all quiet." replied Tom.
"Yeah, not like the old days. Jeez, Ol' Charlie 'n me was busy then."
"Yeah, you've told me."
"Well, it's nights like tonight that I remember Ol' Charlie. You know, dark 'n cold with that wind a-howling up the valley... the clouds hiding the stars... and them timbers of this old signal-box creaking with the wind."
"C'mon old timer. You shouldn't be thinkin' 'bout Charlie, you know how you get. He was crazy. They all say that 'bout him... 'Nother coffee?"
"Yeah, me mug's on the stove. And throw in another log, too, will ya? That wind's fair biting me ankles where it gets through them old planks."
"Yeah, okay. But, ya know, he was crazy, wasn't he? Oh, 'ere's ya coffee."
"Eh? Oh, thanks... oh, yeah, Charlie. Yeah, he was crazy all right. Fair cracked-up when the bosses downgraded the junction and got rid of the rest of the team. Just left me 'n Charlie. Sitting 'ere night after night, just the two of us. 'Nough to drive anyone crazy... maybe you and me is a little bit crazy, too."
"Not me. Not me. I've been 'ere the five years since Charlie kill'd himself and I ain't crazy. Ya just gotta keep busy. You, though, you'll go crazy if'n ya keep thinkin' 'bout Charlie."
"Well, I can't help thinking 'bout him. Partic'ly tonight 'cause, well, I guess it's a-comin' up for 'xactly five years since that night. I get the shivers just thinkin' 'bout it."
"For Chrissake just stop thinkin' 'bout it, will ya?!" Tom faced Eric, his face flushed, his eyes blazing. "You! You're driving me crazy with all this talk 'bout Charlie. Just shuddup, will ya!"
Tom slammed his enamel mug down onto the black pot-bellied stove, and turned his back to Eric.
A sudden silence engulfed the signal-box, broken only by the persistent whistle of the wind, and the ticking of the old railway clock on the wall.
Tom stared out into the blackness of the night. "Sorry, Eric," he mumbled to the chilled windowpane. "Sorry I blew up like that. But you do get to me at times."
"Yeah, guess I'm sorry, too. How 'bout 'nother game of cards, then, eh?"
"Yeah, alright, we've another hour before the 11:09 comes in. Deal 'em out, old timer."
"Hang on. What was that? Did you hear that?"
"What? I didn't hear anything."
"Sounded like footsteps on the gantry. Guess we've got a visitor."
"Who'd be comin' up 'ere at this time of night?"
"Dunno. I'll go 'ave a look-see."
"Jesus, close the door after ya, will ya?"
Eric closed the door behind him, shutting off the chilly blast of wind. Behind him, cards in hands, Tom stood watching him from a window as he made his way down the gantry-ladder, his tread clank-clanking on the gray railway steel.
Above the moaning of the wind Tom could hear the ticking of the railway clock. The hands clicked their passage past the black numerals... 10:01... 10:02... 10:03...
* * *
"Well, who was it?" asked Tom impatiently when he returned.
Eric rubbed his hands together over the warmth of the stove, "No-one."
"You took ya time, though."
"Had a good look 'round, didn't I. No-one there. But I was sure I heard footsteps!"
"Aw, ya hearing things, old timer."
"I tell ya though, I've been 'ere thirty years, and I knows this place backwards, but tonight it... well... it feels kinda different."
"What d'ya mean, different?"
"I don't know, just kinda, well, spooky. I feel like someone's watching me."
"Aw, c'mon old timer. Ya letting this place get to ya."
"Maybe it's Charlie. Yeah, that's it... it's Charlie! You know I can't stop thinking 'bout Charlie."
"Not that again! He's dead! It ain't your fault he's dead. But he's dead... and he was crazy. Now stop thinkin' 'bout it all, will ya?"
"When I think 'bout all them people he could've kill'd I get the sweats."
"But 'e didn't kill 'em, did he!?"
"If'n I 'adn't fought him and got him away from the lever, he would've though."
"Well forget it will ya? You did get him away, and he didn't switch the points, and the Express didn't hit the goods, so forget it. He cracked up, and you stopped him from killin' them people, so just forget it."
"Charlie weren't always like that ya know. He was always laughin', 'e used to--"
"Shuddup, will ya! You're fair gettin' on my nerves tonight, you are."
"But Charlie, 'e was a good Joe before 'e cracked up."
Tom stood rapidly, and jabbing the older man in the chest with his forefinger growled, "Now, listen, I ain't takin' any more of this, ya hear! I'll knock ya block off if'n you even mention Charlie again. Right?"
He stood, towering over Eric, breathing hard, his face flushed, his eyes hard.
"Alright. Alright, Tom," the old man pleaded. "I'm sorry. Don't get so hot-headed, eh?"
"Hot-headed! Being here with you day after day is bad enough, but tonight! It's enough old timer... okay?"
"Okay. Okay. I'm sorry. "
Tom eased himself back onto the wooden chair, and gathering up the pack of cards, sighed, "Alright, then. Let's play, eh?"
"Yeah. Yeah sure. Ya wanna 'nother coffee, too?"
"Okay, then. Hey, is there more sugar, old timer?"
Eric opened the cupboard over the rusting sink and as he reached into the depths of the untidy cabinet, he suddenly turned and blazed at Tom, "What the hell are you laughing at then!!?"
A stunned Tom quietly lay down the cards, looked pityingly up at the angry face of the old man and gently replied, "What are you talkin' about? I didn't laugh."
"You did. I heard you!"
"Listen, you silly old bastard, I never laughed, I never said nothing."
"But... but you did," stammered Eric, now unsure of his ground. "I heard you. I'm sure I did."
"Aw, ya 'earin' things again, old timer. Now just calm down, eh?"
"Yeah... okay. I guess I'm just edgy tonight. I can't seem to get Ch--,um, him out of my head. Sorry."
"C'mon that's enough, eh? I'm really goin' to get angry if'n ya keep goin' on. Now let's play cards, eh?"
"Yeah. Yeah, okay. You deal, eh? You wanna bet a penny a point, eh? Make it more interesting, huh? 'Ere's the sugar ---Hell! What's that? There it is again." Eric frantically looked around the signal-box. "Someone's laughing. Didn't you hear it? Listen."
"I don't hear nothing, old timer."
"But you must! It's Charlie! It is... I know, it is! It's him laughing. Listen to it! Can't you hear 'im?"
"Christ! Just cool it, will ya, old timer! I don't hear nothing! It's ya imagination. It's just the wind or somethin'. I knew you'd crack up if you kept on thinking 'bout Charlie."
"No. No. Honest, I heard somethin'. I heard 'im... laughing just like 'e did on that night."
"Come on will ya? He's dead. You told me the story. He cracked up. He tried to switch the Express into the siding. You fought him away from the lever. You fought him, and he ran and jumped off the gantry right in front of the Express. He killed himself! He's dead! You got it? He's dead!"
"But, but... aw, I don't know, Tom. Aw, Gawd, I guess you're right. I guess I'm just really edgy. I'm sorry."
"Okay, then. Let's leave it. let's just play cards, eh? We've still got half-an-hour or so before the 11:09 comes in. Let's just relax, eh?"
"Yeah, you're right, we'll just play---Oh, hell! There it is again. Didja hear it?"
"Right, that's it! There ain't nothing to hear 'cept the wind. I've had it with you!"
"No. No. Honest. I'm sorry Tom, but I heard footsteps and laughin'. I know I did."
"For Chrissake, go outside again and have a look around, but there ain't nothing or nobody out there. You're fair cracking up you crazy old bastard. Go on, go look. I'll fair belt you one soon unless'n you give it a rest."
"No, I'm not goin' out there again. Really, Tom, maybe I am cracking up. But I'm spooked. You go out and look. You listen for yourself, but I'm sure I 'eard something."
"Okay, I will! I'll look around and prove to ya that you're hearing things, and that there ain't nothing weird goin' on around here, 'cept inside your own head. Then, I'm comin' back and beltin' ya one!"
Tom took a lantern from a-top a packing case in the corner of the signal-box and slammed the door behind him, leaving behind just the muffled howl of the wind, the creaking of the old timbers... and the ticking of the railway clock. 10:43... 10:44... 10:45...
* * *
When he returned, he stepped into the relative warmth of the signal-box and shut out the wind once more. "There ain't nothing there," he began. He stopped short. "Hey, you alright, old timer?" He looked closely at Eric, who sat white-faced and shivering, staring at the bank of switching levers against the far wall. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Ch.. Charlie... he was here."
"What are you talkin' about?"
"He was here! Charlie! I didn't see 'im, but 'e spoke to me. 'E said 'e was goin' to do it right this time. 'E's goin' to switch the Express into the goods-train. 'E said it... I heard 'im... and I 'eard 'im laugh."
"Christ!" Tom bellowed. And then, as he laid his hand gently on the old man's shoulder and looked into Eric's frightened eyes, he continued in a kindly tone, "C'mon Eric. Relax. It's just ya imagination. Tomorrow mornin' I'll take ya into Lewistown and we'll see old Doc Perkins. Maybe a tonic and a few days off will--"
"No! There ain't nothing wrong with me. You see it's Charlie. 'E's come back... and this time 'e's goin' to do it!"
"Oh, hell, old timer, you can't believe that."
"No! That's it! You sit there. You drink ya coffee. Look at the time; I've gotta switch the points to turn the goods into the siding."
Tom moved to the bank of levers as Eric sat staring at him. He gripped one of the shiny black rods, braced his feet and pulled it steadily towards his straining body. There was a clunk as a cog slipped into place. Tom released his grip and turned back to face Eric. The old man sat rigidly in his chair, staring at the levers.
"There," said Tom. "That's done. Five minutes 'til the goods gets here. We should hear its whistle as it comes through Dry Creek cutting in a minute or so. Right, now no more talk 'bout Charlie, eh? And when the Express has been through and we clear the goods from the siding, I'll take you home to bed. That okay?"
"Oh, Tom, I think I must be cracking up. I really thought I heard 'im. It was so real. I ain't heard 'is voice in five years, but it 'ad to be 'im. Who else could it 'ave been? The things 'e said 'bout the Express 'n everything? You sure you didn't 'ear anything?"
"I told ya I didn't hear nothin'. Now don't trouble ya-self, old timer. Drink ya coffee."
"Hell! What was that?"
"Jeez, you are jumpy. It's the goods comin' through the cutting. Be here soon. I'll go and release the filling-hose on the water tank for 'em. You just stay here, eh."
* * *
Again Tom disappeared into the night, his dark form silhouetted against the windows as he crossed the gantry. The wind blew discordantly trying to harmonize with the chuffing of the steam engine as it slowed into the siding. The goods-train screeched and shuddered to a stop; the howling wind got the harmony right, and together the wind and hissing steam of the boiler shushed the dark night.
Tom returned to the signal-box. The floorboards creaked underfoot as he crossed to the table where Eric sat slumped in his chair, his hands over his ears. Tom glanced at the railway clock on the wall; 11:10. The black hands clicked... 11:11.
He ignored the old man in the chair, walked to the lever bank and moved one black rod backwards.
"There," he said. "The line's switched back so the express can go straight through. Bit close, what with just me doing it all." He turned to the older man, "Now, that's all fixed. Are you alright?"
Eric lifted his head, and looked up at Tom, fear showing in his eyes. "No. No. I'm not alright. I heard him again. He was here. I heard him! Hell! I can hear him now. Can't you hear 'im laughing? Can't you hear that?"
"Bloody hell, you old bastard, all I can hear is the double-diesel haulin' the Express through the cutting. You can hear it pickin' up speed for the run down the flat to the junction. That, and the wind... that's all there is to hear."
"No! It's Charlie. He's talkin'. He says he's already switched the points. Oh, Christ! I've got to switch 'em back!"
Eric stood quickly to his feet, knocking the wooden chair to the floor in his haste. He rushed to the lever bank. The younger Tom grabbed him from behind as he reached for a lever.
"No, you fool! He hasn't switched it. I've just switched it back to the mainline for the Express. It's alright I tell you! Leave it!"
"No. He says he's switched it! I know he has!"
"Christ--" Tom struggled with Eric. Although younger, Tom knew the older man's strength. They swung around, dancing a grappling waltz, muscles straining. Eric raised his fist. From the corner of eye Tom sighted the hands of the clock as they clicked further around the face; 11:12...
The deep throbbing rumble of the diesel was overtaking the howl of the wind. Eric's fist connected with Tom's jaw. The younger man fell to the floor. He lay there dazed, feeling the signal-box begin it's vibrating answer to the roar of the on-coming Express.
Slowly he managed to raise himself on one elbow, and watched helplessly as Eric pulled the lever. Eric was laughing madly, and cursing the unseen Charlie.
Then, the gates of hell opened to the rising crescendo of noise: the shriek of steel against steel as the Express driver desperately applied the brakes; the reverberating shuddering and clanking as carriage couplings banked up; the constant howl of the wind; the shaking and rattling of the signal-box as the Express passed underneath the gantry.
Then, the final incredible thundering... smashing... crushing... roar, as the passenger Express ran headlong into the rear of the stationary goods train, followed by the crunching, tearing of wood and metal as the carriages concertinaed; and the thump-thumps as others derailed, to tumble like discarded toys down the embankment.
The clock ticked. And as the caterwauling wind again achieved dominance over the abating pandemonium below the still shaking signal-box, Tom looked across to Eric. The old man was huddled over the bank of levers, sobbing, his head cradled in the crook of his elbow as it rested on the black lever. The flicker of flames from the wreckage below reflected in the windows.
The old man collapsed to the floor, whimpering and mumbling. Tom smiled. He walked across the room, and moved aside some packing cases and timber toolboxes. He chuckled, his eyes wide and fiery.
Reaching behind a packing case, he switched off the tape-recorder.