Where were we? Aye, I was slowly realising a nightmare I never thought I had. On a train, going at speed, with no one driving it. It was one of those moments where no one knows what to do. It’s the moment after you’ve been given some bad news and before you’ve had enough time to process and react according to your nature.
I began to feel a bit sick, my dinner mixing with a kind of fear I’d never experienced before. It’s the kind you get in situations where you think you’re going to die. That sense of astute panic that goes so deep it buries itself in your bones, and if you give into it then you’re lost. Over the years I think I’ve felt like this twice, maybe three times, and it doesn’t get easier.
Spoiler alert, I obviously didn’t die, but at the time it was a real possibility. Not many things could stop a train that was hurtling along a track, not one that we had much chance of surviving anyway. The academics did what they do best, keep calm under time pressure. They start asking questions. Where were we? Which station had we just passed? Was there any way to stop the engine and coast to a stop? A track switch to give us more time to contact someone and tell them what was going on?
Here’s the thing about a lot of academics, or at least the ones I ever met. They’re usually relatively calm people, so laid back they may as well be horizontal. Nothing ever seems to penetrate that exterior, not looming deadlines, and apparently not out of control trains. But the more time you spend with them, the easier it is to see past this. They may be serene on the outside, but if you look close enough you can see their inner self flapping about like any normal human being. They just keep that self under tighter control than the rest of us mere mortals.
The plan was the driver would call someone at the train controller’s office to tell them what was happening and see if there was anything that could be done. He’d already tried to radio the problem in, but it wasn’t working, along with most of the other controls in the driver’s cab. The rest of us would systematically try the emergency break handles they put on every carriage in case of an emergency.
One by one we smashed the glass and pulled on the levers, and unsurprisingly nothing happened, the train still flew down the track on its way to Ayr. It was difficult to fight off the panic at that point. The driver came back from his phone call and told us the train would be re-routed to an older line usually only frequented by freight trains to give them more time to help us. He went to get into his cab but found the door was now locked, from the inside.
Baffled, he shook that handle until I thought it’d come off in his hands. The man was a whimper away from a full-blown meltdown and before he could tip over the edge the rest of the team sat him down and tried to calm him.
You can’t see into the driver’s cab from the carriage, the slither of glass that runs down the centre is backed with a reflective lining so all you can see is your own panicked face staring blankly back. But the backing was old and peeling at the corners. Using one eye I squinted into the cab, slowly searching for what I was beginning to think was the cause of all the commotion. Sure enough, the ghost of the lad I’d spoken to earlier stood in the middle, staring out the front and watching as the living world flashed by.
I could say anything to him, shout through the door. I knew what was causing this entire thing and I couldn’t do a thing to stop it. Then I started asking questions. Why was he doing this? Why now, when this had never happened before? What did he mean earlier when he said we weren’t there yet? Was it because he thought we were trying to stop him?
That was when the scream of the engine was replaced by the squeal of the brakes. It was sudden, so much so that all of us ended up sprawled on the floor, sliding down the carriageways until we could find something to grab onto. It wasn’t so bad for me since I was already at the end, but I watched as the team clung on to the seats, even to each other, to stop their unwanted progress down the carriage.
The train juddered to a complete stop, and for a brief moment I felt a jolt of hope that it was all over, that all that lad wanted was to get to a specific station and then disappear. This was a short-lived hope. We all began to stand up, trying to get our balance on two legs. I managed to hoist myself upright using the handle of the door but when I looked down the train, through the small windows in the carriage doors, I saw a group of three lads get on.
I opened my mouth, gulping down the air, wanting to scream at them to get off, but before I could utter a single syllable, I heard the distant thunk of a door closing down the train. It was the only one that had opened, and I knew that no matter how hard we tried none of them would be opening again. The train groaned into motion before any of us could do anything. Following the direction of my stare Strother also noticed the lads and asked how they had gotten on. He wouldn’t have believed the answer.
I wasn’t stupid enough to believe it was sheer bad luck that had made the train stop and pick up those lads. They had to be connected somehow. Strother was already on his way down the carriage and I followed him. The lads all sat at a table seat, feet on seats, laughing at something. They had no idea what they’d just walked into.
Strother asked them how they’d got on the train. They paused, looked at each other with disbelief, then sniggered the answer that the train doors had opened. They then accused Strother of being pished*. Whilst Strother was explaining the situation to them, and their joy turned quickly sour, I noticed the spirit in the carriage, and he was smiling. Not the friendly way, but the triumphant way, the way you smile when you’ve killed the wasp that stung you.
What did these men have to do with the spirit? Why had he stopped the train just for them? Unsurprisingly, after Strother broke the news they all began to panic, spouting nonsensical shite about being too young to die and that it wasn’t fair. The spirit’s spiteful smile widened.
I began to scrutinise the lads, looking for something that would connect them with the ghost. Their tracksuits, their trainers, the hairstyles they wore. That was when I noticed that each of the three had a tattoo on their forearms. It was a word, mostly covered up so I couldn’t read it. I observed the ghost and noticed he also had a tattoo in the same place, but his was definitely a different word. Was I stretching? A word scrawled onto a patch of visible skin was hardly a niche thing. I was certain they had a connection somehow, but without the ghost showing me, or being able to speak with the gang alone, it was impossible to find it.
At this point it would be easier getting the truth from the living rather than the dead. I went on the theory that the three lads must’ve had something to do with the ghost’s death. Why else would it go to so much trouble to get them on the carriage?
Thankfully, Strother was summoned by Ken, giving me the opportunity to do something I took immense pleasure in. Making immoral people afraid of me. Were they immoral? Perhaps not, but they were certainly something bad if a spirit had decided it would rather stay just to torment and kill them.
“Who did you kill?” I hissed at them.
An eerie silence settled, pushing out their panic.
“You killed him on this train, didn’t you?” I demanded.
To be fair this confrontation could’ve gone either way for me. If I was right then these three lads had killed someone, what was stopping them from doing the same to me to shut me up? But I figured it was the same reason I was using such a forceful and dangerous tactic. We were on a train that was hurtling towards our deaths.
“He’s going to return the favour, unless you tell me what happened.”
The spirit didn’t like my line of inquiry and using more force than the last time decided to push me out of the way. I went sprawling down the aisle, stopping my landing with my hands and feeling as the pain spread through them like a bad case of pins and needles. By this point in the study I hadn’t met Ewan and he hadn’t given me my moonstone bracelet that protects me from ghost’s power. I was completely at the mercy of the spirit.
I pleaded with the three lads to tell me the truth about what had happened, and my fall seemed to have shaken some realisation into them. Under no other circumstances would it have been so easy to force their confessions, but their panic, the imminent threat of death, and my impossible knowledge about their crime were all working in my favour.
The three of them couldn’t speak quick enough, and it was hard to hear as they were all talking over one another, correcting each other. From what I understood, the three lads were members of a gang, they were all street dealer level, carrying the odd bag of cocaine and weed. The spirit was from an opposing gang. The group of them had some kind of turf war going on. One night, coming back on the last train doped up on their own product, the spirit had got on by himself, and the three lads decided they were going to teach him a lesson.
The spirit never had a chance, it was three against one, and it had spiralled out of control. The three lads were quick to pin the blame on each other, and then try to wriggle out of the responsibility. None of them knew who had dealt the final blow, but when they realised he wasn’t fighting back, or even moving, they began to panic.
It may be an empty train, and they may have covered the CCTV cameras in the carriage, but there was very little chance they wouldn’t be seen by someone alighting with a corpse. That’s what their drug addled minds thought at the time anyway. They decided instead that they wouldn’t get off with the body, they’d just hide it somewhere in the carriage.
I know, none of them strained a muscle thinking of that plan. They managed to find a loose panel of the wall, just behind the toilet, and bundled the corpse inside, breaking bones just to get it to fit, then covered it back up. How the smell hadn’t seeped out I’ll never know.
They’d then got off the train at their stop and never told a soul what had happened. Words were tumbling from their mouths quicker than I could keep up, but I hauled myself from the ground, trying to concentrate on what they were saying, when they all suddenly fell quiet. All I could hear were choking noises, the desperate sound of someone swallowing trying to claw air into their lungs but failing. The spirit was in front of one of the lads closing their fingers around his throat.
I know I say that humans frighten me more because they can do more harm. That doesn’t mean ghosts can’t do their fair share – it’s just rarer. The remaining two stared wide eyed at their friend, unable to see what I could.
I shouted at them to find the remains, not really knowing if that was going to help any. I had no idea how to force a ghost to move on, all the ones I’d ever met and helped chose to do so, but this one wanted his pound of flesh before he left.
Frantically, the two clambered over each other to the toilet, which was in the same carriage we were, and clawed at the panel to pry it off. With their combined strength they managed, and they fell backwards taking the piece of metal with them. The near mummified remains of the spirit fell onto the floor with a dry, brittle sound that wasn’t drowned out by the engine. The smell erupted everywhere and the lads began to wretch.
The ghost still remained, my plan hadn’t worked, and there was about to be another corpse on the train. Out of the corner of my eye I saw a flash, a blip of ash grey smoke, like the wisps that trickle from a candle wick after the flame’s been blown out.
I couldn’t focus on it, sometimes I thought I could see the outline of a person, then others it was back to being a shapeless, ethereal being. The same ash smoke swirled around the spirit of the murdered lad, engulfed him until I couldn’t make out his arm from his leg. He began to frantically shake his head, screaming that he wasn’t ready to go, but the smoke didn’t appear to care.
Then it dissipated, faded into the air, taking the ghost with it. The lad who was being strangled crumpled to the floor as though someone had pulled his bones out, gulping air as if he’d never breathed in his life.
That’s when I felt the train begin to slow down, my body swayed forwards, the screech of the engine died away and the scenery outside didn’t rush by so quick. Strother arrived in the carriage and announced that the driver had managed to get back into the cab, and that the controls were working again. He was stopping the train.
That’s when Strother saw the mess. One lad on the floor rubbing his throat, another two being sick, and then the gruesome remains of the boy they’d murdered.
He asked me if the bones were what he thought they were. I nodded absently. He got his phone out and began to dial the police, muttering under his breath that it was the second time we’d found remains on a case. Little did he know the number was much higher than that.
The lads were all charged with various degrees of murder and accessory and did prison time. As for what happened to the spirit. At the time I didn’t have a clue. I’d never seen anything that could whisk away a ghost like that before. I didn’t even think it was possible. I hadn’t really seen what it was either.
I know now, of course, but that’s experience, and don’t worry, I’ll tell you soon.
*Pished – a Scottish slang word for drunk.