|BACK||The exact date of this untitled and unpublished story is not known
Untitled Short Story
|John Perton got into the tube at Piccadilly and sank back in his seat with a sigh of relief. The carriage was quite empty. He had forgotten to buy a newspaper in his hurry so he studied his reflection in the window opposite. A nondescript little face with wide, gentle eyes and round, pink cheeks stared back at him. He smiled complacently. So did the face. He frowned. The face followed suit. This was becoming a bore, he decided, and looked down at his feet; even they, after a minute examination, proved uninspiring, so leaning back he shut his eyes and watched the electric-lights make a red haze of circles through his closed eyelids. The train came to a standstill with a violent jolt. He blinked and watched the mechanical doors slide noisily open. A long way to go yet, he thought, and returned to his recently discovered amusement. The train rattled on. The scarlet circles seemed to grow larger and larger till they looked like smoke rings. Smoke rings. That’s an idea, he thought. A cigarette. Why, I haven’t had one for ages. When was it that I – oh well, what does it matter? He opened his eyes and after fumbling in his pockets for a second pulled out a grimy pack of Player’s. He extracted one and was putting it in his mouth when he remembered he hadn’t got any matches. His forehead puckered into a frown. What a nuisance! Now you’ll have to go without. There was no one else in the carriage. He took the cigarette out of his mouth and was about to replace it when it slipped through his fingers on to the floor. He bent down to pick it up. As he did so his mouth opened in astonishment. A few yards from him there was a pair of very-solid-looking feet. He raised his eyes slowly upwards until they reached the face. But the young man did not appear to notice him; he was staring straight ahead as though deep in thought.
Perton sat back. Surely the stranger would see his trouble and offer him a light. Funny, the face seemed familiar, somehow. It was odd that he hadn’t seen him get into the train – very odd. He coughed hopefully but the stranger never moved except when his body followed the swaying of the train. Perton hesitated. Perhaps the young man would be annoyed if he were to ask for a light. His face was so pale and hard; he didn’t look like a smoker.
You’re a coward, John Perton, he told himself. Why don’t you ask him and see? He can’t bite you. But he might, his inner-self pointed out. Nonsense! Well, you never know, he might say you’d accosted him and get rough. Overruled, Perton leant back and closing his eyes tried to recapture the red circles; but they wouldn’t come. Only a procession of smoking cigarettes danced across his mind, their bitter scent tantalising his nostrils. He tried to visualise sheep jumping a brook, but each one as they passed had a cigarette dangling from its mouth. This was hopeless. He was stupid to be afraid. Anyone else in his position would have asked for a light long ago. He opened his eyes, and gripping the seat firmly with both hands leant over towards the other man.
“I say, have you got a match?” His voice sounded weak and thin through the rattle of the train. The stranger did not appear to have heard. His eyes were still staring ahead. A little nervously Perton repeated his question. There was no response. This was too much. He might at least have the decency to answer. Perton rose awkwardly to his feet. The train rocked viciously and he was flung sideways against the other man. Together they rolled to the floor. Perton sat up hastily, terrified at what he’d done, but the stranger lay quite still, his eyes staring blankly ahead. There was a wound in his chest through which the blood was slowly seeping. But this was awful, Perton thought, his round, blue eyes glassy with fear. He’d been talking to a dead man. He scrambled to his feet, clutching at a seat for support. He must pull the communication cord. The train must be stopped at once. He couldn’t stay alone with a corpse. Alone. Why, he almost cried with relief. He was wrong - he wasn’t alone. There was a woman sitting right at the far end of the carriage. He hadn’t noticed her, because he had been facing in the opposite direction.
He staggered towards her. She stared at him as he came and her face seemed familiar.
“Look!” was all he could gasp. “Look! Look what’s happened!” But she did not answer and her eyes never moved. “That man’s dead,” he cried desperately, leaning over her. The train swayed and her fur-coat fell open. There was a scarlet stain just in the centre of her chest. He grasped one of her hands; it was stiff and lay cold.
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