NIGHT TRAIN

nighttrain

Night Train by Chris Green

No matter where you might be, the night train rumbles through every night at 3:05 am. Its low-pitched drone makes the whole room quake. Every time this happens, you find it disturbing. You briefly speculate as to what its ominous cargo might be and vow to find out, before going back to sleep. Your dreams for the remainder of the night are tinged with an air of menace but in the morning you are too busy to investigate what the lumbering leviathan that wakes you each night might be carrying.

Now and again you find yourself in conversation with a friend or a colleague about being woken by the train and they will tell you that they were woken by a train at the same time, but it never occurs to either of you that it might be the same train. The laws of physics suggest that this would be impossible. Yet, each conversation you have with anyone, anywhere about this will be a replica of every other one. The train woke you at 3:05 am, the train woke them at 3:05 am, even though you might live fifty miles apart, even though you are the other side of the continent. It never occurs to either one of you to investigate how this might have happened, what sorcery might have brought this about.

Explosives, spontaneously combustible substances and radioactive material are all on occasions transported by rail. You might imagine that the night train might be carrying one or other of these, but most likely it does not. We are talking here of a heavy, heavy cargo, a dark mass of considerable magnitude. Heavy metals would probably pale into insignificance beside the weight of what this sinister transport of the night is likely to be conveying.

Anyone really wanting to know what is aboard could do worse than to ask Stanislav Ruby. Stanislav Ruby is allegedly the leading authority in these matters. But nobody asks Stanislav Ruby. So the train keeps on coming, unobserved, determined, relentless. You will hear it tonight at 3:05 and there will be an air of menace in your subsequent dreams. Your friends and family will hear it too, along with the talk show host that you like, the jockey who rode the horse you backed in the Gold Cup, the man you bought your car from and all the people you met on holiday in Portugal last year.

……………………………………

I spend most of the day writing the introduction to a book on the history of the blues. I am writing about how the music originated from African spirituals and work songs, share-croppers singing in a call and response pattern to dull the monotony and pain of working long hours in the plantations of the Southern states. Early blues took the form of a loose narrative, relating the troubles experienced in Afro-American society. Ma Rainey, one of the first professional blues singers claimed to have coined the term, blues, although the term might originate from the pre-coital shuffle known as blues, popular in Southern juke-joints around the turn of the century. The twelve-bar delta blues format that we are familiar with was introduced by William C. Handy in his 1912 sheet music, Memphis Blues.

The 1920s brought big names like Blind Lemon Jefferson, Son House and Leadbelly, names that are remembered as blues greats today. Robert Johnson at the crossroads enacting the Faustian myth but still dead at 27, the first of many to join that club. The music then began to spread out from the Mississippi delta, upriver to Chicago where it became amplified and spawned legends like Muddy Waters and Sonny Boy Williamson. But it is getting late and this is something that Heather, who fresh from mixing herbs has joined me, feels I should leave for another day. She has some other ideas about what we might be doing on an April evening. I am pleased that she does. By and by, we play a post-coital shuffle. Before turning out the lights, we have our nightly chat about the nature of the night train. We conclude once more that there are many things we don’t know.

…………………………………

At 3:05, right on cue, the bedroom begins to vibrate with the portentous approach of the night train. It’s as if someone has left their eighteen-wheeler truck underneath the bedroom window with the engine running. The sound gradually grows louder. The walls begin to emit a bassy hum. Plates and cutlery in the kitchen begin to rattle. It feels as if the train is actually inside the house now. Just as she does ever night, Heather turns over and moans. Her wax earplugs offer little defence against the thunderous roar of the engine. In my head, I visualise the leviathan, shiny black with a bright, piercing headlight up front to signal its presence as it powers its way up the line. Or might its headlight be not light at all but dark like a massive black hole, sucking in everything in its path? Whichever, it leads the way to the murky depths of the night. The store of nightmares seems intact.

I find myself descending into a crepuscular netherworld. I am being led down into the abyss by a shadowy figure who seems half-familiar yet completely unrecognisable. He is dark with reptilian features. He carries a large hammer in his right hand and his left hand is hidden beneath a black leather duster overcoat. He takes his hand out to direct me down the steep steps. His hand is a scaly raptor’s claw.

The abyss is immense, a maze of stone stairs and echoing corridors. What rooms there are serve only to lead from one gloomy corridor to another gloomy corridor and we go, round and round, down and down yet somehow end up back at the beginning where the half-familiar man with the clawed hand utters something in some arcane guttural language.

The scene switches. We are now outside, on the edge of an old deserted town. I can wolves howling in the distance. The man who has been leading me has turned into a giant or have I become a dwarf. He motions for me to lie down. He points to a stretch of railway track. Hear my train a’coming, he sings, as he ties me to the track. What is the train carrying, I ask, although this seems irrelevant. He lets out a blood-curdling laugh. I wake up, screaming. But, this is not the end. I find I am not awake, I am still asleep. I cannot wake. There is another level, a dream within a dream. I am on a battle-scarred hillside now and insurrectionists are throwing American Civil War uniforms on to a huge fire. They are blue uniforms. The blues. Which side in the Civil War is that? The Union of the Confederates? It’s the Union. The Yankees wore blue. Wait! There are soldiers in the uniforms they are throwing on the fire. They are black soldiers. One of the insurrectionists points at me. I look down. To my astonishment, I am black and I am wearing a blue uniform. I turn around to flee. There is a resounding crash. …….. Heather has knocked the bedside light onto the floor.

‘I was having a terrible dream’ she says, clinging to me for dear life. ‘Has the night train gone?’

‘Yes,’ I say. ‘The night train has gone.’

‘But it will be back again tomorrow night, won’t it? Why does it keep coming? And what is it carrying?’

‘I wish I had the answer,’ I say.

The thing is, no-one knows what the night train is carrying. Not even Stanislav Ruby is sure. It could be carrying a colossal cargo of cosmic consciousness, he might say. Or, it might be loaded with metaphors, allegories, symbolism. There is the possibility that what is in tow is unknowable. But, wherever you are, be certain that the night train will rumble slowly through tonight and every night at 3:05 am.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved

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NIGHT

night3

NIGHT by Chris Green

In the middle of the night, Hank hears voices. He is not sure if this is the chatter of revellers coming home from the clubs, blown in on the wind or if Mrs Oosterhuis has left her television on. Alongside this, there is the noise from the night workers laying the new cables for the listening centre and the beefy Alsatian from two doors down barking flat out at a visiting fox in the garden. As if this weren’t enough, the ghost of crooner, Randy VanWarmer is at it again. Hank puts his wax earplugs in to try to block the noise out but still, he can hear voices. He tosses and turns. He knows from experience when the insomnia demons visit like this, they do not easily go away. Even if the voices stop, the door is open and they come flooding in. He is at their mercy.

The voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank gradually becomes aware that he is not going to get back to sleep. Finally, he wakes Linda up. It annoys him sometimes that Linda can sleep through anything, even Mrs Oosterhuis’s television on loud at 3 a.m.

‘Can you hear anything,’ he asks?

‘You’re not going to go on about Randy what’s-his-name again, are you?’ says Linda, moving restlessly in the bed. ‘Look! I can’t hear a thing. Now, can we go back to sleep?

Are the voices in his head, perhaps, Hank wonders, this not for the first time? Nothing more than figments of his imagination?

Clint, a colleague of Hank’s at Desperados, the country and western club where he helps out behind the bar at weekends tells him about Rose Pink, a therapist that his wife, Betsy Lou has been seeing and suggests that Hank makes an appointment to see her. Betsy Lou has come on in leaps and bounds, he says and can now even go to the gun shop on her own.

Hank makes an appointment to see Rose Pink the following Thursday morning. He is a little apprehensive as he has not done anything like this before. He has always seen therapy as some kind of punishment for drug addicts and psychopaths. Not something for average Joes who live a normal life. Despite his reservations, he steels himself and goes along to the house in the suburbs where Rose Pink practices. At first, she does not appear to hear him over the Black Sabbath track that is playing, an odd choice, he feels, for a psychotherapist. In the break between tracks, he manages to get her attention. She comes to the door. She is wearing ripped jeans and a Breaking Bad t-shirt. Hank guesses that she is a few years younger than him, the right side of forty, perhaps.

She turns the music off and apologises for keeping him waiting. She sits him down in a comfortable chair and after a shaky start, Hank begins to tell her about his nocturnal demons.

‘Who is this …… Randy Van Wormer,’ Rose Pink asks?

‘Van Warmer. It’s Randy VanWarmer,’ says Hank. ‘He’s a singer-songwriter. From Colorado but grew up in Cornwall. He’s a bit of a one-hit wonder. He had his big hit back in 1979. It was called Just When I Needed You Most. When my father left her and ran off with a waitress from Hungry Jacks, my mother played it over and over for days. It’s a truly heart-wrenching song. Have you never heard it?’

‘No, I don’t believe I have,’ says Rose Pink.

‘You are lucky, then,’ says Hank. ‘The ultimate unwelcome earworm.’

‘I see.’ says Rose Pink.

‘Anyway, Randy VanWarmer died in January 2004 on the very same day that my mother died. I was seven years old. From that time I became aware of his ghost.

‘Come on now, Hank!’ says Rose Pink. ‘You don’t believe all that crap, do you? You’re a grown man. I mean, look at you. You must be six foot, even without your Stetson. Don’t you think it’s time to get a grip? Pull yourself together!’

This is not the type of response that Hank expects. It says on the Internet that empathy and understanding are the bedrock of psychotherapy. Rose Pink’s take on it seems to be an unnecessarily aggressive one.

‘Look, here’s an idea,’ she continues. ‘Before you go to bed, why don’t you play Guns N’ Roses, Paradise City a few times. That’s what I do if I feel stressed. Paradise City will see off any other potential earworm. Guaranteed! Now! About these other things that stop you sleeping.’

Although he is beginning to lose faith in Rose Pink, Hank gives her a brief account of the things that keep him awake at night, the night workers laying the cables for the spy base, the singsong of chatter of revellers coming home from the clubs, Mrs Oosterhuis’s television, the neighbour’s Alsatian.

‘Let’s look at these one at a time,’ Rose Pink says. ‘There’s not much you can do about the cabling, or perhaps the revellers, but the other issues are easily resolvable. You could threaten Mrs Oosterhuis. You could tell her that the next time you hear her TV you’ll come round and put a hammer through the screen. And the fellow with the Alsatian. Why don’t you just go round and punch his lights out?’

‘But once I get the idea that I’m not going to be able to sleep, it stays there,’ says Hank.

‘For Christ’s sake, man! The answer to that one is easy,’ says Rose Pink. ‘Don’t get the idea in the first place. Drink a tumbler of rum or something before you go to bed.’

Hank suddenly begins to realise why Clint’s wife, Betsy Lou is usually swaying from side to side when he sees her.

Despite this, Hank decides to give the rum cure a go. He buys a bottle of Captain Morgan from BargainBooze and while Question Time is on, pours himself a generous tumbler. Although Linda gets upset about him shouting ‘post-truth’ and ‘fake news’ at the politicians, the public, the pundits and even the presenter throughout the programme, the rum seems to do the business. By 11:30, he is sleeping like a baby. He did not even need Gun’s n’ Roses.

Hank wakes at 3 am. however. Against the background of the neighbour’s Alsatian dog barking madly at a fox in the garden, he can hear the raised voices of revellers coming back from the late-night clubs and Mrs Oosterhuis’s television turned up louder than ever. Perhaps she has been out and bought a new 56 inch model. As if this weren’t enough, he can hear Randy VanWarmer’s ghost belting out his erstwhile hit. And more. The elaborate sonic picture reverberates around his aching head. Next to him, Linda is sleeping the sleep of the just.

Hank gets up and makes himself a cup of tea but it is no good, the demons are with him now. No matter what he does, he knows he will continue to be at their mercy. If just one of them would stop. For instance, why can’t the fox just slink off somewhere and what are people still doing coming home from clubs at 5 am?

Although it is the busiest time of year at the surfboard repair centre, Hank tells them he is sick. He says it must be something he ate. He phones Rose Pink and she manages to find a lunchtime slot in her schedule, one that she says she sets aside for emergencies. She does not hear his knock at first but eventually, the Sonic Youth track comes to and end and he knocks again. This brings Rose Pink to the door in her black t-shirt and punk Goth leggings. He notices that her hair is a different colour to the previous day, more purple.

‘This had better be good,’ Rose Pink says, by way of a greeting.

‘Thankyou for seeing me at such short notice,’ says Hank. ‘It’s very good of you.’

‘Just get on with it, will you?’ says Rose Pink. ‘Did you do what I said?’

‘I did. I drank nearly half a bottle of rum but I woke in the night and there was what I can best describe as a new intensity to the disturbance,’ says Hank. ‘As if it’s all closing in. And getting louder. And going on for longer. Added to which, Randy VanWarmer seems to have also found a new song. It’s called I Never Got Over You.’

‘Sounds pretty miserable,’ says Rose Pink. ‘But you do seem to like this …… slit your wrist country and western stuff.’

‘I like real country and western,’ says Hank. George Jones, Merle Haggard …… ‘

‘Now you are splitting hairs,’ says Rose Pink. ‘It’s all indulgent, self-pitying drivel. You have to distance yourself from all of that crud. You need to rock a little.’

‘But …… ‘

‘You have to take the rough with the smooth. Tackle things, head on. Take control of the situation.’

‘But ….. ‘

‘Christ, Hank! What are you, a man or a mouse?’

‘I thought that therapists were supposed to show understanding and compassion.’

‘Oh that’s what you read, was it? Well, buster! That’s not therapy, that’s babysitting. Real therapy requires shock and awe tactics. Goddammit! How else is anyone ever going to address their shortcomings? How do you think anyone is ever going to change if someone constantly mollycoddles them and says there, there?’

Following the session, Hank decides it is time he did something about his sorry situation. He wants to be a man, not a mouse. He begins by phoning Clint.

‘I’m not going to be able to help out at Desperados any longer, Clint,’ he says.

‘That’s a shame,’ says Clint. ‘Why’s that, Hank?’

‘All the songs we play at the club are so depressing,’ says Hank.

‘What! Willie Nelson depressing? Surely not,’ says Clint.

Next, Hank goes around to see his next door neighbour but one.

‘About your dog,’ he says.

‘What dog?’ says the neighbour. ‘Bruiser died three months ago.’

‘Why have you brought that hammer round?’ says Mrs Oosterhuis on his next call.

‘I’ve come to give you an ultimatum about your television,’ says Hank.

‘I don’t have a television,’ says Mrs Oosterhuis. ‘In any case, a television wouldn’t be much use to me. I’m blind.’

Hank thinks he spots a flaw in her argument.

‘If you are blind, how did you know I had a hammer?’ he says.

‘I have very good hearing,’ says Mrs Oosterhuis. ‘I grew up in the veldt in the Transvaal.’

Following on from his bout of assertiveness, Hank finds that things are a little better that night. Just a trickle of revellers speaking in hushed tones make their way home from the clubs, Mrs Oosterhuis’s television is much fainter and the dog comes out with little more than a muted ruff when the fox comes in the garden. And Randy VW barely gets past the opening line of his hit. This is, of course, comforting but Hank wonders why he can still hear any of these noises at all. At breakfast, Linda suggests that he must face the possibility that he is delusional. Quite forcefully, he feels.

Hank debates whether he might need another session with Rose Pink to clarify exactly what is wrong. Her unconventional approach to therapy appears to have given him a nudge in the right direction but perhaps there are more holistic ways to address his …… what should he call it? Confusion? Anxiety? Phobia? Neurosis? Not that he thinks it is going to be a walk in the park but half the battle, as he understands it, is admitting that you have a psychological problem. He is pleased to see on Facebook that a group of neuroscientists have discovered a song that reduces anxiety by sixty five per cent. If he could perhaps replace Randy VanWarmer’s heartfelt lament with this, then he might be in business. He could play the tune, say five or six times during the day and then another five or six times before going to bed.

After several hours of listening to Weightlessness, Hank’s breathing is barely discernible. When Linda comes home late from the salon and finds him motionless in his chair with his eyes closed, she thinks he is dead. She turns off the ethereal music that is coming from the hi-fi system and calls the NHS out of hours service. She tells them that she does not know what has caused Hank’s catatonia but that lately, he has been showing signs of ……. confusion.

‘Don’t do anything until the doctor gets there,’ she is told.

To steady herself, she pours herself a glass of the rum that Hank brought home. She calls out his name repeatedly to try and rouse him but he remains immobile.

‘I’m sorry about this morning,’ she says. ‘You haven’t gone and done anything silly, have you? You haven’t taken anything?’

She goes over to him and puts her hand on his wrist. She thinks she can detect a faint pulse but not being medically trained, she can’t be sure. She might also be imagining it but thinks she senses a slight movement in his chest.

‘Hank!’ she says, gently shaking him. ‘Hank! Wake up, Hank!’

There is still no response. It is at this moment that the doorbell rings. Linda rushes to the door.

‘I’m Dr Spurlock,’ says the diminutive man in the overcoat and the large black bag standing there.

‘Thank God you’ve come,’ says Linda. ‘Come on in.’

‘Any changes with your husband, Mrs Hank?’ Dr Spurlock asks.

‘No. No changes.’

‘Shall we take a look?’

Dr Spurlock puts his bag down and begins to examine Hank. He feels for a pulse and then takes out his stethoscope.

‘Now, tell me,’ he says. ‘How long has your husband been like this?’

‘It is hard to say, Doctor,’ says Linda, pushing her tumbler of rum out of sight, behind a potted plant. ‘He was like it when I came home from work a little while ago.’

‘It looks as if he is …… floating, Mrs Hank. My guess is that Mr Hank is somewhere up there on the ceiling. Not usually a common condition but we’ve come across this a lot lately. Has he been listening to …… Weightlessness by any chance?’

‘He did have some strange music on when I got home, yes.’

‘That will probably be Weightlessness, Mrs Hank,’ laughs Dr Spurlock. ‘Now if you’ll just stand back, I’ll just give your husband a shot and that should do the trick. It will bring him round and in no time, he will be as right as rain.’

In the middle of the night, Hank hears voices. He is not sure if this is the chatter of people coming home from the night shift at the foundry, blown in on the wind or if Mrs Oosterhuis has left her television on. Alongside this, there is the thumping bass from the Reggae sound system at number 44 and the fierce Rottweiler from across the way howling defiantly at the moon. As if this weren’t enough, the ghost of crooner, Randy VanWarmer is at it again. Hank puts his wax earplugs in to try to block the noise out but still, he can hear voices. He tosses and turns. He knows from experience when the insomnia demons visit like this, they do not easily go away, even if the voices stop. But, the voices don’t stop. Nor does Randy VanWarmer. Hank gradually becomes aware that he is not going to sleep. There’s something inherently treacherous about night.

© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved