Klaxon City (part thirty-three) 

Klaxon City (part thirty-three)

The dowager stood on the windswept platform with two children either side of her, both clasping her hands, it seemed, for dear life. Occasionally, she lowered her head to listen to their words which would otherwise be lost to the wind, or to exchange with them her own choice of words, in evident mutual encouragement.

The children knew they waited for a train: more likely to spot its smoke first, snaking above the nearby hills, even in advance of the hooting whistle being conveyed to them, even now, upon the driving wind. They also retained a beady eye for scrutinising the silver runners of the track for any telltale sign of the clacking’s coming.

From behind the derelict station house, I approached the solitary threesome (guessing that such a few could sometimes feel more solitary than being truly alone as one). I could see the dowager’s wintercoat was weatherworn, but a bright yellow scarf at her neck relieved the dowdy appearance somewhat. She wore a large silver brooch depicting, I thought, the angel megazanthus, which secured the scarf against the cold’s onset. The small children were dressed in khaki jerkins, tangled laddered stockings and threadbare berets with bobbles of hair poking through. They shivered visibly. They failed to see me, since I now crouched in the old ticket collector’s booth, untenanted for decades – yet I could still sense the reek of that ticket collector’s rank shag doing its best to conceal the ripeness of his soiled undergarments. Scattered around me were a number of clipped platform tickets, among which I had long since ascertained were residue of used journeys from far off Whofage, Innsmouth, Agraska and St Pancras. Yet, who’d ever disembark at this railway halt’s neck of the woods? Surely, nobody.

The wind, in the interim, had died down to allow me to catch a good share of the threesome’s words together.

“We’ll be there before you can say ‘Knife’. A roaring fire right up the chimney and you’ll toast your hands – with Nanny Sudra’s stories all stocked up, just waiting to be told...”

“Shall Nanny Sudra be pleased to see us?”

“She’ll be so pleased, she’ll dance a jig of joy in her special shoes and give you both big kisses on your rosy apple cheeks.”

“And shall we stay there...to live for ever and ever and ever?”

“We’ll live there so long into the future that the end will always be too far away to worry about.”

“Look, I think I see black ghosts in the air.”

“That’s from the train’s funnel. An ancient train by the look of the dark steamy smoke it’s giving off, but a warm one, with an endless corridor.”

“I can’t hear it yet. Is it really coming?”

“Yes, it’ll be all darkness inside and those passengers in the Third Class will just have the reddening ends of their ciggies to watch.”

Listening to this chatter, I smiled to myself. I had feared that life outside my little world had not subsisted, ever since they closed the station waiting-room, the steamy buffet and the dark dripping Necessarium. I had been solitary for too long and the vision of such happiness was a tonic to my old heart. It was a pity that trains never stopped at this particular halt any more.

Momentarily losing interest in the threesome, I nibbled at one of the discarded tickets with my teeth, the taste of rich train smoke seeping to my lowest tongue of all. I slumped back in some meditative trance which was more than a little self-indulgent, because, by the time I looked from the web-choked cubicle again, the platform was deserted. Since I needed to keep exercising my limbs, I scuttled to where the threesome had stood. The wind was filling its own cheeks, I sensed, to fetch the tuggiest gust.

I picked up the megazanthine brooch that the dowager must have accidentally dislodged from her scarf as she hustled her charges aboard before the train slid past them into the trundling echoes of darkness. The brooch wriggled and its tongue flickered quicker than any eye could see. Not a brooch at all, but a large glistening insect the like of which I’d never seen before, slugged out by the sudden arrival of winter. I forthwith popped it between my jaws to allow its flavour to wash through me.

Nanny Sudra, awaiting the children’s arrival, sewed long stitches into a battered wintercoat – listening to the wind howling the length of the chimney. Or was it the sound of those spiny creatures with sticky wings that haunted her dreams, now attempting to reach her in real life down that very flue? She was pleased that she had the fire roaring in the grate, serving both to warm the room and to keep such unwelcome chimney visitors at bay. Still hemming, she moithered over mythic miscegenations, versions of competing history, regal heirs and graces playing Russian Roulette with Fate, tentacular bird-monsters who, in the same way as human beings, had insect-pests with which to contend – and, if only in her mind, she plucked unwanted fruit off the well-mulched family-tree. The clock pendulum swung idly to and fro in rhythm to her stitches. She still heard the mothballs clacking in the wintercoat’s lining where she’d sewn them, but Nanny Sudra didn’t know that I watched her from behind the clockcase, whereto I’d scuttled, black as coal, before she’d ignited the fire.

The two children watched the wreaths of black smoke billowing past the train window, as the wheels churned them through a wintering dusk. The leather strap that was used for raising and lowering the carriage window swayed gently with the clack-clack of bogies over runners. They knew the dowager sat between them, still in wintercoat and yellow scarf, for the cold would have seeped otherwise into her every bone. I could have informed her charges that if she had doffed such impervious garb, she would have allowed the cold to seep out again. A mature dowager, at least, should show some semblance of common sense. The children felt her shudder in tune with the train. On either side, they had their hands tightened within hers. If they let go, they sensed they’d never see her again. Or was I sensing it on their behalf?

The train entered the darkest tunnel. I lit a cigarette, so that they could see I was there. There was no corridor, only autonomous carriages – so I knew for sure they were still there. The train hadn’t stopped since they boarded it in the middle of nowhere.

I knew exactly how long the train would take to pass through the tunnel, having been on this journey, one way or another, for as long as I could remember. But they were new to its foibles. I listened to the children speaking, despite the surging tunnel.

“Why don’t they have lights on trains?”

“Is Nanny Sudra still expecting us? Won’t her fire have gone out?”

“Why don’t you answer?”

The train emerged into light, too quickly for a blink, and revealed the answer. The two children were hand in hand, the wintercoat lying like an empty rhinoceros skin between them. I had scuttled to the window where, with jaws clacking, I pressed my suckers to the stained glass to keep myself steady, as I stubbed my ciggie on the ‘out’ of ‘don’t lean out of the window’ and stropped my beetle pincers on the door’s leather tongue.

With its heart of fire driving steam-power towards the almost prehensile pistons, the Victoria-Vienna-Moscow-Megazanthus Express screamed through the bewintered bewildered heritage of history: into another horizontal chimney of smokes and spooks, this time, so far, an endless one.

Another or the same train disappeared with great whinings of fire-cranked pain (fed upon nuggets of blackened Angevin) … down the steep slope towards the centre of the Earth, ratchetting upon funicular gravity-braces. Aboard this corridorless vehicle, mock-timed for other eras when steam was the only motive force behind such iron beasts of transport, those in one carriage were immediately disappointed that there was no on-board lighting. Amy and Arthur were scared, but Greg managed to light a spill (one he used for his pipe). The glow upon their faces was more than just ghostly. It was comforting, too.

They felt the juddering of the gravity-braces as they slipped across the sleepers of time as well as of dream upon another set of sleepers: themselves. The Sleeper Express for the ends of the world.

In timely fashion they skirted a visibly far-stretching dune-curved lobe within a gigantic cavity, lit only by a subdued Sunnemo. Greg quenched the spill as they watched awe-inspired the glistening tracks vastly undulate into the numinous distance with a renewed flurry of choking smoke or steam: inferred to be thus choking since plumes of such emissions had only been cursorily test-run within mock-ups of these cavities or chambers, but the authorities had hoped for the best – in that the natural vents of an organic planet would naturally cope with such human interventions as fire-cranked transport.

Then utter blackness again, eventually dimly inflamed by another spill.

Followed, a few hours later, by a bright chink of a few seconds as the pyloned city of Klaxon was by-passed – viewed between the margins of a lightning crack in an otherwise unilluminated cavity of Earth’s most elephantine junction of rail-tunnels. The train’s whistle – becoming more like a siren by dint of the echoing cavity’s configuration of space and sound – blasted out for the first time (with the shuddering imminence or immanence of seemingly religious ‘antipodal angst’) as it continued its nigh unstoppable steam-driven course through a more benighted night than even those previously imagined.

(to be continued)

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