Posts Tagged ‘Short story’

The reluctant traveller

Tom Walker reflected on the story he had just heard from his patient.  ‘Fear knocked at the door,’ he mused ; then,  ‘Faith answered – and  no-one was there.’  Oddly, flames raise (in the imagination’s eye) the unspoken terrors that too often trouble us.

In his well-practised way, he gave a slyish glance at the clock on the wall opposite.  It was important to get the timing right in a psychotherapy meeting, so as not to end with anything substantial unresolved.  He mustn’t open up new, sensitive issues near the end of a session.  On the other hand, he mustn’t let his patient think that he is trying to draw the meeting to a close before the allotted fifty minutes.  He wished that he had unlimited time to give his patients, for he loved his work and hated having to end a session without reaching a definite milestone in the scheme of treatment.  However, time was pressing for he had other patients to see.

But the astute lady he was with caught his glance and studied her watch.  ‘Goodness, Mr Walker!  Is that the time already?’ she said.  ‘But I’ve hardly touched on what I came to see you about.’

‘That’s all right, Rosalind,’ said Tom, ‘I suspected you had more to say, and to be honest, I didn’t really expect to get around to it in our first meeting.  It doesn’t do to rush important things.  Besides, we do still have time left, so why not tell me what the matter is just to get it off your chest for now?’

‘Why did you suspect that I hadn’t told you about the real problem?’

‘Just a hunch,’ he replied, ‘It often happens that way.’  He lowered his voice and smiled conspiratorially.  ‘How can I expect you to reveal your real fears to a perfect stranger?  Surely you’d want to weigh me up before you’d risk it !’

Rosalind gave a bright laugh and said, ‘How right you are !’  Then she added, also as if sharing a conspiracy,  ‘But I think I can trust you, so I’ll tell you more.’

‘Excuse me a moment,’ said Tom.  He pressed the intercom button to the reception desk.  ‘Hello, Maggie, do I have anyone for three o’ clock?’  Then, returning to Rosalind, ‘We’ve got another hour if you’d like it.’

‘That’s fine,’ she replied.  ‘And please, do call me Ros.  May I call you Tom?’  And then, settling back in her easychair, ‘That’s an interesting painting you have up there.  Where did you get it?’
‘In Bristol,’ he replied, ‘I have always wanted a garden like that but, you know … there’s never the time to do all we want, is there?’
‘So you content yourself with just admiring a painting?’
‘No, not quite.  You’ll laugh at me, I know, but I’ve actually tried to make my garden at home like that one in the painting.’
‘Any luck?’
‘No !’  he laughed, ‘I just don’t have the eye for it, even if I had the time ; and my fingers are just not green enough.’
‘But I can tell that you greatly desire it,’ Ros said.
‘Yes.  In fact, I think of it much more than I should.  But, hey !  Are you trying to analyse me?’

Ros  laughed again and said, ‘Well, there is such a thing as being afraid of success, isn’t there?  Maybe you’re not bold enough with your gardening.  And maybe you try just a little too hard?  What do the four gods in your painting say?’

At the mention of the gods, Tom felt uneasy.  He felt that his deepest privacy had been violated.  He suddenly felt his advanced years.  The pain in his shoulder – with him fifty years – grew intense.  Perhaps it was time for him to retire from all this?  Then he could finish his garden.  On the wall he looked up at Nyx, born of Chaos, who was gazing at Thanatos her son.

That first meeting had gone well for Ros, Tom thought, as he drove home in the early evening.  It is not  uncommon for an intelligent person like her to be highly-strung. So when she had been assigned a difficult task by her employers, it might be expected that she should be anxious about it.  In such circumstances, dislikes might evolve into fears ; and fears into phobias.  The important thing was to catch it early, and she had done this.

His mind was set to devizing a programme for Ros.  Probably the best way to tackle her agoraphobia would be to arrange, when she has been prepared for it, a practical session in which he would accompany her to a place which gave her the worst difficulties.  It’s all very well merely to tell the patient to remember the tactics for dealing with the problem-places, just as it is well to rehearse them off-line ; but an irrational fear is a terrible thing, and may be sudden in its onset ; and it may drive all the good sense out of a person.  That’s where companionship on occasions of trial makes all the difference between lengthy treatment and brief.

But, before he could prepare Ros for the test, he must prepare himself, so he decided to visit to the place which she had said filled her with absolute dread.  It wasn’t that far.  On his iPad he found the place on the map and then entered the co-ordinates into his satnav.

He was perhaps a mile from the place when he remembered that he already knew it.  He had been there many years before, as a cyclist, keen and very fit.  It was an old railway station on a disused track that ran between Chester and a salt mine, also now disused.  It had long since been a country path for hikers and cyclists.

When he got there, he barely recognized the place.  Of course, he knew already that the track had long gone, but he was unprepared for the sheer overgrowth.  The modest buildings were completely covered by ivy, and the trees of the surrounding forest had advanced so as to entirely overhang the track.  But, curiously, they had not taken root on the trackway itself ; for that was now a clear path gently covered by the autumn leaves of the last century or so.  And it looked as if people still used it for recreation, though it was now a rather gloomy passage.  The only sunlight came from above the station platforms, where the treetops did not meet.

‘I wonder what on earth brings Ros out to this place?’ he thought.  ‘When she told me she took walks here, I imagined it to be as I now remember it – open, sunshiny and always with cheerful hikers about.  And, thirty years ago,  wasn’t there a helpful old chap who lived in the keeper’s cottage over there?’

It was then that Tom began to feel uneasy.  That old chap.  He had been rather odd, with a strange look about his eyes.  Ever watchful.  Missing nothing.  Weighing everybody up with unnatural care.  But saying almost nothing.  Wearing an old-fashioned railwayman’s uniform, he would sometimes find – as if he had sought out – some person, usually elderly and unaccompanied, whom he would invite to his tiny home ‘for a nice cuppa tea an’ summat wholesome.’  Tom looked sharply about as if he half expected to see him.

As Tom paced the station platform, trying to recognize the features he had once known, and his head buzzing with thoughts and questions, he tried to compose himself by imagining what Ros actually experienced in the place.  And, as the shadows lengthened and sky above darkened, he thought that he must be getting on to her wavelength.  He felt a chill in his whole body, though there was no breeze in the deep cutting.  He gazed up and down the trackway, through the tunnel of trees ; but saw no light, for there it had failed.  And, with the dying of the light, all natural life seemed to desert his presence, so that what was left were mere shades of sounds and withered odours of decaying leaves and branches.

And the cold.  He felt his pulse quicken and falter, even as his breathing did likewise.  Was it merely a dislike?  Or was it fear?  His thoughts turned involuntarily to his beloved garden, neglected.

‘Well, I’m sure not bringing Ros to this place,’  he muttered under his breath, ‘As far as I’m concerned, she can scrub it forever from her list of holiday haunts, and without any loss at all !’    He regretted that he had ever come there : or had even thought of coming there.  It was as if these thoughts reminded him that he was a therapist ; and right then it was he who needed the therapy, for his apprehensions were growing uncomfortable.  He had to admit that he was more than a little nervous, and he knew not why.

But he did know that there are two main possibilities with an emotion like fear.  (Why mince words? for he did indeed feel fear.)  You can either experience that emotion or you can think about it ; but you can’t do both at the same time.  If you can think about your fear and also feel afraid, then you are not thinking seriously enough.

And what if you don’t think at all?  What if you simply abandon yourself to circumstances?  You will experience the fear, and you can let it do what it likes to you.  If you are healthy and in a physically safe place, you might feel as awful as you like, and the fear might reach a dreadful peak, but it will then evaporate.  This is the bolder step to take deliberately.

‘Which do I do?’ thought Tom in his confusion.  But before he could decide, events took a new turn, and denied him all notions of controlling the situation he was in.

For it was just then that he became aware that a shadowy mist was emerging from the tunnel of trees over the rail trackway.  The mist was not so much drifting from the tunnel as being gently expelled from it, and it was engulfing him and the entire station.  And, mixed with the vapour was the smell of smoke.  And in a few seconds, he was just able to make out the front of a mighty steam engine which seemed to drift before his eyes, slowing all the time so that it came to a silent halt just as an old-fashioned carriage appeared right before him.

And that was not all.  For he then heard a voice, evidently of a native of these parts, ‘C’mon now, Mr Walker, it’s time for your journey!’  It was the ancient railwayman who had lived in the keeper’s cottage all those years ago!  Dimly in the cloud of steam, Tom could see the rickety, shadowy old man, very business-like and fussing as he opened the door of the carriage.

‘But … surely you must be dead !’ Tom managed to stutter.

‘No time for talk, Mr Walker.  Hop aboard now ; you can’t keep the train waiting.’  And grasping Tom’s elbow he pulled him gently but briskly to the door and then pushed him up into the carriage.  ‘There you be now !  Na’ticket needed for this one.  An’ that’s a job done good !’

The door slammed, and the old man blew his whistle.  Immediately the train pulled away with a jerk that staggered Tom into his seat.  And, for the first time, he heard the chuffing of the steam engine, soft and slow and unstoppable.  He heard also the click of steel wheels on a track, and wondered what on earth was happening to him.  But he saw nothing, for the steamy fog outside was denser than ever, and the carriage was unlit.  He felt nothing beyond a guess of a dream ; a perilous adventure ; but he could not guess what that adventure might entail.  He was left with only a succession of fleeting images ; from thoughts that did not seem to be his own.

Thus it was that Tom succumbed to the rhythmic thrum of the train’s wheels as it sped through the darkness.  Was it this, or was it the smooth swaying of the carriage, that overwhelmed  his mind?  The image of beautiful Nyx, goddess of the night, appeared to his understanding – and he smiled in fond recognition.  Then blessed Hypnos came, and he was aware that his eyelids had relaxed and met.  Then all was forgot as even Morpheus slumbered.

When Tom came to his senses again, it was the brightest day in his living memory.  No cloud marred the even blue of the sky ; a sky that seemed to shine without the aid of sun.  The sun himself (if indeed it was he) bathed the landscape and all that it met there with a gentle warmth ; it filled the carriage as if from the bottom up, and he felt its life enter his limbs.  For a minute or two, he reflected on the dream he knew he had had ; a dream that had left no trace but perfect calmness.  Then he roused himself and lowered the carriage window.  He marvelled at the fuller scene outside.

The train stood at a deserted platform set in rolling countryside.  How long it had been standing, he knew not.  Nor had he any idea where he was, though he had a vague feeling that he had known the place.  Was it from long ago in his youth?  or was it somewhere he had read about?  No nameplate announced it, and there were no staff to be seen.  All was calm and undisturbed.

Since nothing seemed to happen here, Tom decided to explore further.  He reached out of the window and twisted the big brass handle of the door.  It opened easily.  He wondered if he might cause a disturbance if he slammed it shut in the usual manner, so he pressed it shut soundlessly.  And, at the instant he did so, the train began to pull away, as if by a secret signal ; for there was nobody to be seen.  Now he found himself in the centre of that wider landscape ; in the centre of that broad and perfect day.

The station was very neat, clean, and well kept, but there were no buildings at all.  No timetable poster and no warnings about trespassing on the track.  Nothing that might identify the place.  No people.  The track curved away both to the left and the right, set in a high hedge ; the train could be known only by its receding trail of steam, for it was now beyond earshot.  The only feature he could see, that indicated human habitation, was the feint line of a footpath that wound its way across the lush roll of the meadow beyond.  He did not so much decide to follow it, as felt drawn to it ; as if in answer to a call.

The going was surprisingly easy.  He passed cattle here and sheep there, but he saw no fences and no gates.  The path took him through several copses and across streams at suitable places.  Tom looked back only once or twice, but marvelled at how far he had come in what seemed such a short time.  Looking ahead, he saw the path descending towards a great wood that covered all that was visible in the balmy haze.  Through that wood he continued, for the way was clear, and there he heard an endless chorus of birds who seemed to take up a theme as he approached them, and quieted as he passed.

So he continued until, at last, he came to a glade, and here he himself rested, not from weariness, but gladness.  He slept.  When he awoke, it was to the sound of a woman’s voice.

‘You have slept well, Tom.’
With a little start, he turned towards her.  ‘Ros !’ he cried, ‘Can it really be you?’
‘Yes, my friend, it is me.  And now we meet again, as we should.’
‘Surely I am dreaming …’
‘No, Tom, this is no dream, though it may seem so.’
‘But, where are we?  And why are we here?’
‘We must all come to this place when our work is nearly done.  That is the way of things.’

Without another word, she led towards the far end of the glade ; and then briefly through the wood until they came to open country again.  There they passed through an arch of green and into an area bounded by an antique wall of stone.

‘Why !’ exclaimed Tom, ‘This is my garden !  The garden in my painting !’

‘For indeed it is, Tom, and here lies your final task of this kind. This is the garden that you must finish before you may move on. I thought I should never get you here. I thought I should never even get you to the railway station. I am sorry to have been so devious, but it had to be done. Your time was up, you know, and you had such a fear of that final journey – and I wanted so much to make things easier for you.’

‘And so you decided to come with me?’ A light flooded Tom’s mind.

‘Except … well … no-one may accompany you.  But I determined that I should be here to welcome you – that much is allowed us.’

Raggedly and in confusion, Tom whispered, ‘Where are we?  Are we in ….’

‘I think not !’ she said, with her silver laugh, ‘But, if all goes well, you are on the way.’  Then, adding gravely,   ‘Ask no more questions of me, Tom, for I may not answer.  There is much yet for you to do, and it must be entirely on your own account.’

Even so it was that Tom set to work in his garden.  It simply had to be finished – brought to perfection – before any more progress could be made.  It was a hard and taxing labour.  But it was truly a labour of love.


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