Cobley's Classic Rock and Prog Show

Short Stories

A couple of years ago, I was on a train back from London and overheard a conversation between two men in their early twenties. I took some notes, and it formed the basis of the following short story. This originally appeared in comic strip form with some extra stuff following it as a Hugo The Zombie story. You can see it in print in either my Bulldog Clips collection or the new 2ombies book from Accent UK.

I'd originally kept the zombie stuff in, but I used the short story with my top set Year 11 class earlier in the year as a way to demonstrate how to tell a story through a single character. They unanimously decided that the story was better ending when it does below and that the zombie stuff was better taken out. I agree - sometimes the best editors and most honest critics are teenagers! They then went on to write their own first person narratives which were highly inventive in many cases, and not as violent as this one, I hasten to add.

So here it is. Feedback always welcome.

It was the third time I had caught the train to London in my life. The first time, I was a young bride-to-be, on my way to shop for wedding dresses with Marilyn. She was my bridesmaid. We were both in bits, we were so excited. The second time, my husband had treated me to a theatre weekend. He chose Starlight Express. We never went again.
                This time, I was going to visit my son. He didn’t seem much older than the two boys sitting across from me. They had a table in the carriage and were facing each other. Both had a sort of Turkish look about them, all dark hair and London accents. The thin one wore a washed out tee shirt. His spiky elbows looked cold. His haircut was all close cropped and his features were pointed as if there was barely any skin on him, let alone fat. His companion made up for it a bit, chunky and huddled in his hooded top. His mound of curly hair made me jealous: I’ve never been able to curl mine very well. He had a little straggly would-be beard. It was like it needed plucking rather than shaving, poor boy. He stared absently at his mobile phone screen as his thin friend jabbered away. I did say they reminded me of my son. That was, of course, until they started speaking.
                The carriage was empty apart from the three of us. I sat reading my book, in my twinset and pearls, with my straight old hair. I could have moved up the carriage but that would have been impolite, and politeness is so important. Outside, the blur of the world sped by.
                “Round about here we was stopped last time,” said the thin one to his friend.
                “Here?” the other one replied, not looking up from his phone.
                The thin one jabbed a finger at the window. “Yeah, Levent. Here”.
                So. Levent was his name. Turkish, I think. I was right. I have an eye for where people are from. When Gladys moved in next door, the hairs went up on the back of my neck before she even spoke. I could tell from the look of her she was from Birmingham, and when she spoke it was confirmed. I wouldn’t mind, but that accent is so grating.
                We thundered through a level crossing, cars queued at the gate, waiting for us to speed past. The lights were flashing at the point where the thin boy was pointing.
                “It was this man, right,” he continued. “He stepped out into the road as the train went past”.
                “In the road?”
                “Yeah, and we had to stop, right?”
                “But the road...” Levent was smirking at his friend, still looking at the glowing screen on his phone.
                “The track, man. The track!” replied the thin one, throwing his bony arms up in the air. “He stepped out and I heard the crack! Right here was where we had to stop. Police, ambulance, the whole lot”.
                Not precisely ‘right here’, it must be said. The train had moved on quite quickly, clattering away into the countryside. But still, my interest was piqued. I had to keep listening. I stared at the words in my book but they were just pictures to me. My concentration was somewhere else, with these boys.
                “Yeah?” acknowledged Levent.
                His thing friend leaned on the table, waving his pointy finger about as if to prove he was telling the truth. “Yeah, we had to wait while they, like, were... picking up his bits. I think,” he said.
                Sometimes, one overhears the most unusual conversations in train carriages. I imagined the scene that he was talking about: a body in bits carried away piled up on a stretcher; ambulance men and police milling about in yellow visibility jackets; flashing lights from their cars strobing the night through the cold pouring rain. The thought was strangely comforting.
                “That’s the job to have though,” said Levent.
                “What, picking up bits?” said his bony friend.
                “Nah, train driver. You don’t even have to turn or nothing. Straight line, that’s it. Just keep the train on the - um - straight line. Thirty-five grand a year. Thirty-five K for doing nothing!”
                “Thirty-five is crap though”.
                “I wouldn’t sniff at it”.
                My son was a student doctor. Briefly, I wondered what these boys would grow up to be. Tax accountants, maybe? ‘Big Brother’ contestants? Prisoners? Neither of them could have been more than twenty, perhaps twenty-two years old. I flinched a little, although I didn’t want to. I wasn’t used to being on trains, which is ironic, given my late husband’s penchant for train-spotting.
                The boys were still talking. My attention had wandered, but I tuned back in to their chatter. I couldn’t help it. The thin, pointed one was talking again, spreading his hands wide to show he was telling the truth.
                “She was saying ‘I honestly want him to stop but I couldn’t stop him or do nothing’. When I’m with my boys, that’s when I do it. Skunk. Weed,” he said.
                “Things is, Erol, this is the age when you shoudn’t,” replied Levent. At last, his name. The bony one was called Erol, and now he was proving they were far from the potential lawyers, doctors or accountants that I wondered. Every time I give these types the benefit of the doubt, they show their true colours sooner or later. I buried my head in my book, but I could feel my cheeks burning red and the muscles around my lips tighten.
                Erol boasted, “Last week at a party I had four glasses of Bells and Coke, three WKDs, three Jack Daniels, and the next day I had this much Smirnoff”. He measured several inches high off the table with his hands. “And I tell you, man, I was sleeping on the floor. I didn’t know where I was”.
                I thought so. Scum in the making. Just like my husband. He used to drink. And drink. And drink. Sometimes he didn’t know what he was doing either. My hands were trembling. I put my book down. It was no use pretending I was reading it any longer. I reached into my handbag for what I needed to steady my nerves.
                Erol was in the middle of another tall tale. “...and then I slapped him, like that,” he said. “Then I called my boys, but I said, nah. But then I had to deal with his bits”.
                I stood up, rummaging in my bag. I crossed the aisle with a step. I was talking to those greasy youths before I realised it. “My late husband enjoyed slapping people too,” I said. “Me in particular”.
                Then the hammer was in my hand, and I continued, “At least, he did until I knocked him on the head... and he staggered into the path of an oncoming train”.
                Whiskery Levent looked up with mild surprise. I don’t think he fully registered what I was saying until the hammer made the first dent in the side of his head. Bony Erol started screaming right away, his fingers clawing at his sallow face in girlish terror. He was in bits. One strike in the middle of his forehead, a neat hole the size of a ten pence piece, and he was done. Levent made a mess of the table top when the blood started to well up and spill. I broke his nose and smashed his teeth. He was soon silent, staring into space instead of his screen.
                I looked down at the grubbiness. Without noticing, I had trod blood into the carpet.
                “Oh dear. What a mess,” I said to nobody in particular.
--- This short story is the opening shot in my 'Moving Targets' collection which you can buy from here


Good morning,” chimes the voice in the phone. “Welcome to MidWest Bank. If you are a customer, please enter your sort code and account number”.
I obey. “If you require information about balances and withdrawals, press ‘one’. To open another account, press ‘two’. To enquire about an existing complaint or register a new one, press ‘three’…” I stop listening to the details. I just want to know how I can get to speak to a person, or what passes for a person in some automated call centre in Glasgow or Bombay or wherever it is. “…customer service advisor, press ‘zero’”. I press. I wait.
You are in a queue. Your call is important to us.” The voice thanks me for my patience; then it plays me a tinny panpipe version of Wind Beneath My Wings.
While I wait, I lean against the brushed steel rail. The food court is behind me, busy with shoppers, the escalator below. I could really do without having to phone the bank on my mobile in the middle of a shopping mall. I could just go to the nearest branch – there’s one on the floor below – but by the time I’ve queued only to be told I need an appointment, I might as well stand here looking spare. Besides, I have another reason for not going. There might be people I know working there. I am shivering. I really wish I’d worn a coat, but, well, I don’t have one. This jumper has to do. I could put on another layer but I need two hands to do that and it would be just my luck to get through at that exact moment. I wish I could buy a hands-free kit.
Hello, MidWest Bank, how can I help you?” It’s a Scottish accent, possibly Edinburgh, and quite friendly. I tell her my problem. She takes my account number, sort code, security number and my mother’s maiden name, and then puts me on hold. Maybe I didn’t give enough information. Blood type needed, maybe?
Another voice in another department interrupts the wispy panpipes of My Heart Will Go On. I explain again. “I applied for a credit card almost two months ago. I sent in the forms, and since then I’ve heard nothing”.
Yes Madam, let me look at your details on the screen.” This involves forty-five seconds of static silence. “I can see here that your application has not progressed since 21st April.”
I think I just told you that. I’m calling to find out why.”
I don’t know. I’ll have to transfer you to the relevant department…”
I have to resist the temptation to throw the phone down towards Tie Rack. “No, hang on. Can’t you tell me anything?”
I can see that you were sent a letter on 11th May. Have you received that?”
Letter? No. What does it say?”
I can’t tell you that. It’s confidential information.”
But it’s addressed to me, and you’ve just verified who I am. Emma Green”.
The voice, disembodied and dispassionate, ignores my rising frustration. I feel my own voice reaching squealing level. I swear I’ll stamp on this handset in a minute. I should know better, but I’m feeling desperate. “I can send you another letter, Miss Green.”
I’ve lost. I could let off some steam into the phone but I’d only get a pre-programmed response and probably look pretty undignified in front of dozens of strangers. “Do that, then.”
Can I help you with anything else?”
No thanks.” I hang up; thrust the handset into my pocket. I look around; I suppose to check whether anyone had been listening. No, everyone has better things to do. None of the countless people going about their own business even notice me.
I lean forward on the rail, looking over the edge at the people standing patiently on the escalators, moving between layers of shops, boutiques, cafes and more people. So many are clutching bags splashed with the names of chain stores. How do they all afford it? They’ve all got credit cards, that’s how. Until payday, I can’t even buy myself lunch.
My foot kicks against the black bin bag at my feet. It bulges with old clothes. My gift to Oxfam or whichever charity shop will take it. I had sat down, once I had put Tom to bed, and gone through the wardrobe. I tried to slide the wire hangers along the rail but it was too full. Spilling the clothes onto the floor, I was searching for anything new-looking enough to put up on EBay, but it seemed so thin, cheap and washed out. Like me. So I bagged it up, brought the bag with me.
I slide down the barrier and sit beside the bag. I clutch it on my lap, like a teddy bear. I think of Tom when I do this, biting my lip. I have no idea what to do next. My other three credit cards are at maximum. I can transfer at least one of them to another zero per cent interest rate for a few months when it finally comes through, but in the meantime I’ve still got to make this month’s payments. The monthly bills are going out by direct debit in the next couple of days, including the electricity, the rent and repayments on the two loans. Yesterday, I went to pick up the phone to “consolidate” my debts into “one convenient monthly payment”, but then I realised I had already let BT disconnect me. I survive on the mobile, with the pay-as-you-go. Most people ring me. Most of my friends and Mum know how hard it’s been for me and Tom, managing on our own, without The Bastard. Mum calls him that now as well. It’s kind of funny. Except it isn’t.
I had met Darren at work, at the bank. Midwest. How ironic is that? Not the one in this shopping mall, mind you, another one. We were both behind the counter, young (well, youngish) and enjoying life, such as it was, with no responsibility and no chains. He was confident, good-looking in a cheeky sort of way, and I was probably an easy target: quiet, not a party girl, but slim and pretty and, to be honest, grateful for the attention. He scooped me up, moved me in, got me pregnant, then moved out. It wasn’t that simple I suppose, but it felt that quick. I couldn’t keep working after Tom was born. It was too much, on my own. I went into the bank one day to try to see him, to show him what he’d walked away from, but the word was that he’d taken a transfer to another branch. In a way, it’s a pity. He’s got a beautiful son that he’ll never know anything about. In another way, he’s a total and utter bastard and I want to stick hot knitting needles in his eyes.
I’m not really very comfortable, sitting on the cold, hard floor. My knees, tucked up to the bag, are starting to ache. I stretch my legs out to help the muscles back into a more comfortable shape. As I do this, the tip of a bulbous white trainer glances over my scuffed shoe. It isn’t that exactly that makes the teenager trip, though; it’s the fact that a stray thread from the frayed hem of his dragging jeans catches my toe. He trips, skids, falls on his knee. He swears as the lid of his tub-sized industrially thick milkshake clips off and the contents spill down his hand. His friends laugh through their baseball caps as he blushes through his spots. Embarrassed and angry, he sees me getting up, trying to apologise. Or maybe he just sees red.
Half of the milkshake lands on my chest, a lump dropping to my lap. The remainder hits the polished floor. I don’t react, I just look. He looks back for a moment, then runs towards the escalator with his friends. Other people also look, but they have their own concerns and look away, suddenly interested in a shop window or their fingernails.
I’m lucky that I have a change of clothes with me. As furtively as I can with half the shopping centre regarding me with a mixture of suspicion and sympathy, I jump the queue for the ladies’ toilets. They can all see the state of me: no one argues. In the cubicle, I tear open the black bin liner. I sift through the old t shirts and threadbare jeans and pull out the warmest thing I can find. I peel off the milk-caked clothes that I am wearing and pull on an old musty, bobbly half-zip fleece and a pair of cheap supermarket jeans, dark blue with a knee-sized hole in one leg. I stuff everything else back in what is left of the bin bag, but I can barely hold it together.
On my way to the exit, outside the bank, the ripped bin liner finally gives up and empties its guts onto the floor. On my hands and knees, I gather it all together: some clothes a picture of who I am now, some a faded reminder of what I once had. One is even an old hat that I bought on a whim and wore once. I leave it upturned and, tired, I sit with my back against the glass of the bank’s display window, my head below a sign offering fixed rate mortgages.
My eyes are closed when I hear the first tinkle of coins. I look. Someone has dropped two ten pence pieces and two five pence coins in the hat. Whoever it was has moved on.
Then there is someone else. A man, six feet tall, slightly chubby but good-looking in a cheeky way, drops a pound coin and a handful of coppers in the hat, seemingly his change from buying the Marks and Spencer chicken salad wrap that he is holding in his other hand. He winks at me as he chomps down on it, then walks into the bank.
He doesn’t recognise me.
Maybe I’ll go in.