by Jean O’Donoghue
I am setting down this tale for you, exactly as it was told to me. My name is Canon Archibald Stanley and I am a retired Rural Dean from Kent. I trust that this will satisfy you as to my reliability and that you may give full credence to what I will relate.
On a chilly evening in November, I was making my way on the four o’clock train from Victoria towards my home in Hove. Whenever I am at Victoria I am in a good mood as I like its ecclesiastical proportions and its enigmatic sense of the unexpected. I settled myself comfortably into an empty First Class carriage. As we pulled out of the station, I turned my attention to Peake’s Commentary on the Bible. It was a handsome leather-bound edition that I had picked up for a song in Cecil Court.
At Croydon, a young man got onto the train. He appeared flustered and somewhat unkempt. I was surprised when he sat down in the seat opposite to me. I suspected that he did not have a First Class ticket. This young man seemed to be looking at my clerical collar, but then he abruptly closed his eyes and fell fast asleep.
Whilst he slept, I had the opportunity to study him more closely. He was, I estimated, around twenty-two years of age. His face was paper-white and his eyebrows inscribed raven arcs above his closed eyes. The flesh between his eyebrows was puckered as if, even within his sleep, he was troubled. His nose was unremarkable, but his lips were a startling cherry red, such as I never encounter within my circle of lady churchgoers. The young man had not shaved that day, and not for several days. His clothes were black, and his face was partially cowled by what I believe is termed “a hoodie”. Combined with his pale complexion, my fanciful gaze pictured him as an aesthetic young monk, persecuted by thoughts of an unwarranted nature. His clothes showed signs of wear and dusty marks. His hands lay in his lap and I noted grime beneath his ragged nails. For all that, there arose in me an unbidden and almost physical attraction toward him. I really am not that sort of person.
As the train drew into Croydon it jolted and the man was shaken awake. He looked at me with startled stainless steel eyes, like a wolf or a husky has. He began to speak.
“Are you a minister of religion?” he asked. “Can I talk to you about what troubles me?”
I was a little put out by this rude disturbance of my reading, and I am after all retired. But priesthood is a life-long vocation and I could not ignore my calling. I have often been commended by the Bishop for my inclusive approach to pastoral duties. In addition, I could not deny the strange attraction that I felt towards him. So, closing my book and folding it away under my hands I sat waiting and attentive, ready to offer what help I could. To encourage him, I leaned forward and gently touched his knee to reassure him, while nodding that he should go ahead. His knee felt wraith-like beneath his flimsy trousers. And so he began his extraordinary story.
As soon as I returned home to Mrs Stanley, around 5.30 pm, I put down the whole of this account in writing just as I heard it from him. I wrote in longhand using my Mont Blanc pen which was given to me by grateful parishioners on my retirement. I like to feel that I have a good hand, and I chose a special leather-bound notebook which I had picked up cheaply in a flea market some years before. Mrs Stanley says that I am very old-fashioned.
The Young Man’s Tale.
“ I live in Croydon and work at a big bank in the City. I have been there since leaving school. I am just an admin assistant and it’s not much of a job. I live by myself in a small flat and don’t see many people outside of work. I visit my widowed mother in Crawley at the weekends and usually have Sunday lunch with her. Sometimes I go to the cinema with an old friend from school. I have
tried going to the local camera club a couple of times, but everyone was older than me and my heart was not in it.
I used to sleep very well. I always have the same dream. There is a house, a big old house. I go to the house and it always feels familiar to me. I walk the empty rooms and shout out loud and my voice echoes back to me. The house feels huge with scores of rooms but I never see the whole of the house and I never see it from the outside. There are many dark corridors with closed doors that I have not explored. Sometimes I hear the tapping of a branch against a window, or the hoot of an owl outside. There are tendrils of dark green ivy encroaching through some of the windows, and the dusty curtains billow out from a gentle breeze. I have always woken from this dream feeling peaceful and collected. It is as if the rooms hold a desperately familiar sense of belonging that is as accustomed to me as my own bed. Or that is how it was until a few weeks back, until one morning in late October.
In my dream that night I had walked into a ground floor room that I had not seen before. There was nothing in the room save for a very large mirror in a battered gilded frame. This hung haphazardly on the wall opposite the window. The mirror was taller than I am and was as wide as my arm span, with tarnished glass through which you could see the silvered backing peeling off. As I went up to the mirror and smiled at my reflection, I heard the shriek of a vixen outside and in the same moment a torrent of hailstones battered the windows. These noises startled me and I turned to look out of the window. There was nothing to see, the night was clear and calm with a full moon hanging in the sky though it struck me as odd that I could not make out the cheery features of the man in the moon. Then, turning back to the mirror, I caught sight of a shadowy head that had appeared in the glass. Its face was obscured and within a few seconds it had vanished. I was not really sure that I had seen anything. Then I looked for my own image in the murk of the glass but my head was not reflected back to me. Then I woke up, not with the usual sense of peace and harmony but with a chill and a shiver.
When I arrived at work that morning, I had the usual chat with Doreen and Sheila who share my section of the office. Gary from Despatch butted into the conversation, as he always did. We talked about dreams. Sheila said mine was about identity and that I should “get a life”. She told us about a dream she had had involving an encounter with members of the Congolese army. It had not ended well for her. Gary talked about his wet dreams until we shut him up. Doreen sat and listened while she filed her nails and smiled.
The day passed slowly. Oddly, when lunchtime came, the sun was shining and it was hot outside. The four of us ate our sandwiches on the small patch of grass that squeezed into the narrow gap between the office blocks. Through the railings we could see the tube station, the passers by and the stooped back of a Big Issue seller by the steps down to the tube.
“I have never seen him before,” said Sheila, the words muffled because she was eating cake. “I bet he’s not as nice as that young red-haired chap that used to be there. He was fit.”
Doreen said that she would never give money to Big Issue sellers because, “It’s a crap magazine and they are all illegal immigrants from Romania.” She turned back to her Daily Mail.
Gary ventured his opinion, too. “They all have BMWs at home. I saw it on the telly.”
By the end of the day I had forgotten about my dream and felt in a good mood. That was why, when I saw the new Big Issue seller I decided to give him something. I would not buy the paper, which now cost £2.50, since that is a lot of money for a thin magazine and anyway I agree with Doreen about its quality. As I approached him the seller looked up and I was distracted by the intensity of his stare. His black eyes seemed to have no depth to them, and while looking towards me he was not really looking at me. As I moved toward him, I felt in my pocket for change but found that I did not have more than thirty pence. It would be an insult to give him that so I smiled and said, “I will be back. I‘ll get some change.” He said nothing and seemed to look through me even more. “Sod him,” I thought as I ran down the stairs to use my Oyster card. As I went down the stairs I seemed to hear the shrill squeak of a bat behind me, but when I looked around the Big Issue seller had gone.
On a whim, I decided to get off at Oxford Circus and look around one of the big stores. Perhaps I would have more of a life if I bought some new clothes. As I wound my way through the lavatorial corridors of the tube station I came across a sort of crossroads in the passageways. Seated on the ground was a small woman wearing a bright flowery head scarf. I could not see her face fully as she was bending down over a small accordion on which she played abrasive notes with two fingers. Suddenly it was as if all the other rushing passengers melted away and I was alone with her. She did not look up but stretched out both hands. Her sharp dirty nails nearly touched me. I felt frozen, as if the brief moment were lasting for hours. All of a sudden, her tuneless dirge transformed itself into a gutsy mazurka, even though she was not touching the keys. Puzzled, I shrugged and moved on.
I found shopping for clothes in Oxford Street a dispiriting task. Exasperated, and in a frustrated rush, I bought the first thing my hand alighted on in Top Man. This was an expensive orange sweater with an impenetrable logo that did not suit me. Fed up and weary, I picked up my carrier bag and turned towards Marble Arch station in order to make my way to Victoria. At the mainline station I found that I had twenty-four minutes to wait before the next train to Croydon, and I shuffled from foot to foot impatiently as I stared at the departures board as if that would hurry it up. At Victoria, you can never know which platform the trains will go from so I hedged my bets by standing between the two most commonly used ones. I badly wanted to get a seat on the train as I was tired from my shopping, and had had enough of the day.
As I stood there, my head in a sort of irritated reverie, I felt a tap on my back. Turning, I found a woman holding out a bundle that looked like a baby or small child swaddled in a washed-out pink blanket. The woman had long black hair which was held back by a flowery woollen scarf. I noticed that one of her eyes was a startling bright green, the other a nondescript chestnut. She scowled at me, and asked harshly, “Money for my baby? No food.”
I shook my head “No” and edged away along the concourse. She pursued me for a few yards, walking alongside me and repeating the same words over and over. Her clever face grew darker and darker. I outpaced her but she kept up her whining. When I stopped to send her off with a few choice words I found that she had disappeared and I could not see her anywhere as I scanned the concourse from left to right. My train was still fifteen minutes away from departure. I felt that I needed to go to the lavatory before catching the train, and I calculated that I would just have time to get to the gents and back. So I made my way to the dark archway that led onto Victoria Street. As I passed through it, I spotted a dark bundle of clothes on the right of the walkway. On looking more closely, I recognised the woman and her baby. Something made me say, “Hullo, how are you?” This time she smiled ingratiatingly and asked, “Would you like to see my little girl?” I could see long blond curls escaping from the blanket which lay over the baby’s head, and I felt drawn to see what sort of child the woman’s bundle contained. The mother encouraged me, “Look, go on. She is pretty – yes?” And with this, she slowly drew back the blanket.
The curls were pretty enough. But the face I saw had no eyes, no nose, no lips. It was like a puffy oversized thumb with hair on the top. Or like a ghastly huge white featureless potato. This baby had no face at all.
Since that night, I have dreamt the same dream many times. I am in the large dark house again. Each time I look into the gilded mirror and each time there appears the faceless head of the child, in place of my own. I imagine it is looking at me, blaming me. I feel this though there is no expression to read from the absent features. Every night I wake up screaming in the early hours and I spend the remainder of the hours of darkness trying to calm myself by making tea and watching TV.
This week that has just passed, I have found that I cannot even catch a short nap within the warmth of my own bed. I have taken to sleeping in an old armchair in my kitchen where I turn the radio up loud. It does no good. The dream haunts me there as well.
I am very tired and I have become distracted at work. Doreen and Sheila say that I need a tonic and should see my doctor. They say that I am becoming very scruffy and when I ask them to come out for lunch they say yes but then they make excuses and say they are not free. I get the feeling that they no longer like sitting next to me and the other day Doreen would not lend me her calculator. Gary just laughs at me and calls me “Sick Carrot Boy” because of my orange sweater. None of them know how desperate I am feeling. That is why it was good to sit near you, Vicar. I felt I could catch a little sleep sitting here. I thought I might sleep safely because you’re a vicar.”
“And what, dear boy, are you going to do?” I asked of the young man when he at last paused. He had recounted all this in a breathless and pressured manner and I had not interrupted him. I considered that as a churchman I was obliged to offer what comfort I could once he had concluded his appalling story. He looked so weary that I felt sorry for him. He then told me what he would do, and the reasoning behind it. I listened intently and leaned forward to hear him as he replied in exhausted yet excited tones.
“I have decided to run away. Even sleeping here, next to you, and lulled to sleep by the movement of the train I have had that dream again. The dream terrifies me more and more each time. I have decided that I must go to Australia. This will put distance between me and the horrors within my head. In Australia, there will be daytime when it is night-time here. The things that persecute me at night are English and so must keep English hours. It is in the southern hemisphere that I will find relief. And I will find a camp of Aborigine people who will help me with their magic should that baby come back.”
After telling me this he forthwith rushed to get off the train at Gatwick, our next station stop. I had not time to answer him. At the door he uncouthly pushed past six commuters who were neatly queuing, in their smart city suits, to get off the train. They were all, men and women, outraged and vocal in their protests, but such was his insistent jostling that they had to let him through. The young man had no luggage. His dishevelled appearance, his reckless burst of speed and the continued echoes of outrage from our train caused a brief pause in the sedate commotion of the station as other scurrying passengers stared to look. I watched the young man running at break neck speed along the platform towards the connecting train to Heathrow. The Heathrow train was ready to go and about to move off. As the guard blew on his whistle the young man hauled himself aboard a first class carriage. The guard crossly slammed the door shut behind him.
As the train pulled out, my young man turned to look at me from the corridor window. I waved towards him, half regretful at our parting and half relieved at last to go back to my reading.
The jarring sound of the Heathrow train made me look up again. As I watched, his train inched away from the lights of the station and into the deep twilight of Surrey. My young friend was still looking through the train window.
My heart lurched within me as I saw his face and registered that the raven brows, his lupine eyes and those carmine lips had transformed into a blank and awful facelessness.