Dun-in-the-MireDun-in-the-Mire

 

by M. Lazarus

 

 

 

 

Lark Publishing 2016

 

For more stories, visit http://subsidingsun.co.uk/lark/

 

Dun-in-the-Mire

 

 

1.

 

I had no idea what the noise was at first. An alarm? I must have dozed off on the train when that old woman with the mucous laugh had finally finished her epic phone conversation. I was up and out of my seat without even realising it, on groggy autopilot, eyes all blurry.

Oh hell, the train doors were closing. There's some sort of garbled droning announcement. We must have arrived while I was sleeping. My legs wobbled me out through the closing doors and stumbled onto the platform before I had the chance to think any more clearly than that. Sure was overcast. Maybe it got dark earlier down here?

I cracked my neck and watched the train shudder over the bridge, throwing sparks off until noise and electricity vanished in the distance. Funny, didn't realise they had a river down this way.

I scratched my head and looked around me. There were no signs, nothing to welcome me.

My brain was starting to wake up. From my foggy first memory when I was startled from my train snooze, I felt like there hadn't been many people left on the train. In fact, I didn't think I could remember anyone else in my carriage.

I looked up and down the single platform. There was nobody else around. The station was a squat concrete building. There were big frames along the platform, presumably for putting up posters and advertising and junk aimed at commuters. All of the frames were empty.

It was very quiet. It made the sound of me nervously scraping my heels on the platform more conspicuous than it should have been. I couldn't hear any traffic, any people. I couldn't even hear the twitting of the local birds. The only other sound besides my scraping shoes was a rhythmic rusty-sounding squeak. It took me a second to spot where it was coming from. There was a little sign hanging from a pole on the platform with a faded number 1 on it. Why did they need to tell me which one was Platform 1? They only had one platform. The sign creaked backwards and forwards.

I reached down for my bag and groaned because it wasn't there. I'd been in such a sleepy rush to get off the train, I'd left all my things. Not only had my bag huffed off on the train into the distance, I'd left my phone on the seat next to me. Brilliant.

I checked about me, and thankfully I had my cards, so money was still a possibility. That was something. When I got into town, I should be able to get in contact with someone about getting my stuff back.

This sort of thing probably happens all the time.

 

The more I looked about this one-platform town, the more uneasy I got. Even in my half-awake state, it was soon obvious that I had got off at the wrong stop. Goddamnit. I shouldn't have had such a big lunch. That always makes me sleepy. I shouldn't have napped. Now I was stuck who knows where.

 

When I could find someone to help me out, I was going to look a real idiot, not being able to tell one stop from another. Embarrassingly, I was also going to have to explain to someone that I didn't even have any idea where I was.

 

Inside the station building, I found some of what I presumed were the customer service windows. All of them had thick blinds drawn down. I knocked timidly on the glass of one, and waited a good two or three minutes, but there was no sign of life. Maybe there were staff cut-backs or something? In desperation, I wandered around trying to find a timetable that would tell when I could get back, or failing that, at least tell me where the hell I was. All I found was a bunch of wrappers thrown about the place and a toilet that was stuffed with paper and eternally slowly flushing. There was no other choice. I had to find an actual human being to talk to.

 

It was a curved slope down from the station into the centre of town. Some dark stone stack or tower appeared to be the mid-point around which the whole place was built. You could only see the edges of the column thing in this fading light. As I travelled downwards, the river followed on the right, half seen through the gaps between the rows of houses. My breath was a little sharp and painful. It felt like I wasn't getting enough air. Man, I must be more unfit than I thought. I'd have to try and get back into jogging a bit more.

 

I was going so slowly and breathlessly that I thought about stopping to sit down for a minute, like a wheezy geriatric, but I forced myself on. I wasn't going to make this day even more humiliating. Onwards and downwards, no matter how slow and how difficult it was to move and heave air in.

 

I finally caught sight of some people-shaped outlines just up ahead, standing by the river. The water was a rippling black, like the moving skin of an animal. I shuffled and scraped near these five or six individuals standing on the edge, all of whom had sagging fishing lines in hand. They were, to a man, dressed in army-surplus camo outfits, with hoods pulled up or hat pulled down so that they must have struggled to recognise each other. Maybe that wasn't such a problem, since none of the fishermen made eye contact with each other or even muttered a single sound of communication. I debated for a while which one to approach, but then since they all seemed equally disinterested in anything but the water, I decided to ask one of the shapes second from the end for some help.

 

I said hello and asked the fisherman where I was, and what time the trains ended. He (I presume it was a he) said nothing, but held that fishing line limply in hand, bending into the water.

Flustered, I tried another two or three of the people hypnotised by the water. The best I got was something that sounded like a far-away grunt.

Eventually, I gave up. I had been travelling all day and was worn out, not to mention that it was getting dark. If none of the fishermen could string a few civil words together, I'd try my luck in the middle of the village.

 

Bloody small towns.

 

I trudged back uphill again towards the barely-visible tower. I found some light there coming from shop fronts with flickering dim bulbs, but it looked like nothing was actually open. My shoes had become muddy, which annoyed me because I didn't remember walking through any mud. There was also a smell everywhere. It wasn't nice, but it wasn't always noticeable, either, as if a smell could be just out of sight, just out of the corner of your eye. I only noticed it when I wasn't trying to sniff it out, suddenly getting a horrible whiff of something and then it was gone. What was that stink? Eventually, it came to me: it was the vague smell of a shower plughole in a hotel, one that has been clogged up with pieces of hair from years of visitors. A damp, noxious, drain-and-human smell. Could be something wrong with the sewers here? These forgotten old towns have a lot of slowly collapsing infrastructure that nobody has maintained for decades. The locals didn't seem to be too fussed about staffing the train station or interrupting their fishing, so I could imagine that they wouldn't be too worried about their drains clogging up. They weren't going to be winning tourist destination of the year or anything, that's for sure.

 

If there were no more trains running this evening, I was going to have to spend the night here. I just wanted somewhere to sleep and then to get out of this place as soon as humanly possible tomorrow, bright and early in the morning.

 

I arrived in a square somewhere near the centre of town. A bunch of shuffling figures were converging on a light in the middle of the square.

Unfortunately, these shufflers were hardly any more help than the fishermen. After the fourth or fifth unintelligible muttering or dead-eyed and open-mouthed stare, I gave up and drove my tired legs in circles looking for a hotel, or a B. & B., a hostel - any damn bed that was going. It was a struggle to keep my eyes open.

 

How long had I been walking? It's hard to tell when you are so worn out. Felt like hours of trudging around, getting heavier and finding it more difficult to breathe.

Eventually, I came across some sort of cardboard sign in the window of a two-storey building. The cardboard in the window had faded, and was hard to make out since there was hardly any light in the street, but at this point, I figured I'd pay whoever was inside to sleep on a couch or something. I didn't care anymore.

I banged on the door. It was thick wood and muffled the sound of my knocking.

Someone opened up the door. I was dozy and lightheaded. I think I might have swayed a little bit from side to side, like a worn-out drunk. It's hard to remember exactly what the transaction was. The building must have been some sort of hostel, because I ended up with a room. I have a fragile flake of memory of discussing the room with someone, but I must have been dead on my feet, because I couldn't remember much about the person I had talked to. The landlord. Or landlady? Yeah, I think it had been a woman. But I couldn't remember what she had looked like. If I screwed up my eyes and concentrated and tried to summon up any of her features, an unfinished human-shaped lump was the best I could do. Her voice had sounded like it was coming from another room, distant and hard to hear. It didn't matter, anyway. I just needed a few hours of sleep. As soon as the sun was up, I was getting out of here.

 

2.

 

Some sort of scratchiness on my face woke me up. I felt my cheek. My fingers found a rough patch, a pattern of lines from the cheap, nasty pillow. I punched at the pillow. It had all the consistency of a sack of rags. I had definitely been exhausted last night. Neither the lopsided rough pillow or the worn blanket, not even the bowed mattress kept me from a dead sleep. It can't have been a very good sleep, because I still felt tired. Nevermind. I would be in a proper bed soon enough.

 

What time was it? I squinted out the window, but the glass was so dirty and it was so gloomy outside that I could hardly see a thing. All the houses here were built so close together anyway, the view from my window was probably just the back wall of another squat dark building.

 

Time to get going. I didn't want to hang out in this town any longer than I had to. I had to get to the station, get in touch with the railway and see if they had my phone and my things, and then get out of here.

 

I swung my feet slowly over the edge of the bed. The carpet under the soles of my feet felt like worn hessian. The bedroom was tiny and loveless - room only for one person to lodge there in misery. The walls were a very off-white, presumably from years of indoor smoking and neglect. Rusted gurgling pipes lined the length and height of the room, accompanied by lots of little small cracks in the nearby plaster, like the walls were slowly straining themselves into soggy pieces. I noticed with disgust that there were patches of black mould beneath the window-sill and next to the head of the bed. I couldn't remember what I paid for this room, but it had probably been too much. How hard is it to give it a regular lick of paint and to wipe down the walls? A bit of effort makes a place much more homely.

There was no sign of the landlady in the place, no sign or sound from anybody. They must have all still been asleep. And here I thought country folk got up before dawn and went down with the sun.

 

With a bit of exploration I managed to find the bathroom, at least what there was of it. Behind what looked like a cupboard door was the shower - a poky dark cubicle that looked like it hadn't had a scrub in a good while. There were yellow-brown stains on the walls. The shower itself was an antique, clearly from a time when plumbing was much more experimental and confusing. It took me ages to get the thing turned on. With a sigh, I stepped into the shower. I wished I had something to wear on my feet. The floor looked like it had a good chance of giving you something medical you didn't want.

I tensed when the water hit me. It was horribly cold, and no amount of fiddling with the stiff shower knobs and levers made it even a degree warmer. At least there was a lot of water pressure. I couldn't see any sign of complimentary shampoo or a bar of soap, but I made do by splashing and scrubbing myself with my hand. Unable to bear the temperature for long, I rushed through my scrubbing routine, got out of there as quickly as possible and returned to the room. I was dripping and cold, and worst of all, I didn't feel cleaner. My hair felt stringy and my skin felt oily. You need a proper hot shower to get clean.

 

There was still nobody about to say goodbye as I left. I struggled up to the top of the bump in the centre of town on the way to the station. It must have been earlier than I had figured if it was still so dark. The sky was covered over, armoured with overlapping grey scales of cloud. I could make out a little more detail on the tower, although I couldn't guess what the thing had been built for. It wasn't connected to any building or little chapel, and although it was hard to tell in this dim light, as I walked around, I couldn't see any windows that would make it useful as an observatory. When you got close up, it was so worn and mossy that it looked more like it was a sodden fat oak trunk than a stone tower. A rotting petrified tree growing straight out of the hill. I almost tripped over some slabs in the ground when I was circling around the tower with my neck craned, trying to make out details. The slabs looked liked tombstones, and were scattered here and there in the ground around the tower, but there was no writing or anything on them. They were weathered and covered in green-grey moss like the tower, and long, thick, bulbous grass sprang out from around the slabs, grotesquely waving back and forth. Slowly back and forth. I shivered. Felt cold. Forget sightseeing.

 

My lungs got sore again and it felt like I was struggling through something unseen as I walked back to the train station, but I made it through sheer bloody-mindedness and my overwhelming desire to travel somewhere else where I could understand what the hell the locals were saying and where they had half decent accommodation for a poor weary traveller.

 

I shouldn't have got my hopes up. As soon as I set foot inside the station I groaned. The stupid place was closed again. Did anyone ever do any damn work in this town? I tapped quietly on the closed shutter at what I assumed was the front office, quietly and politely at first, and with an increasingly angry drumming as I lost patience. Nobody answered.

 

I wandered around the building, peering through dirty windows, looking for some sign of life, but I couldn't even find one of the local gargle-mouthed residents.

I even stood for what I guess was a good twenty minutes on the single platform, on the off chance the train would come through. Nobody and nothing turned up. The only sound was the metal whimper of the number one platform sign swinging back and forth. I stared down at the bridge over the water and wondered what was over the other side. Not far off, the whole thing was lost in fog, and there was no pedestrian path alongside the train tracks to allow me to have a wander.

 

After almost an hour of wasting time at the station, I was furious. I was going to have to head back in to town again in a last ditch effort to get some sense out of somebody. Gawd, I missed my phone.

 

I travelled back towards the mossy tower and into the village. The shufflers were starting to come out, and already some were taking their positions by the river with their fishing poles. I didn't bother trying to interact with the fisherstatues this time. They were probably too busy just staring into the water anyway. But there must be someone in town who would talk to me. I walked back to the square, past those badly lit display windows that I had taken for pubs and shops. Most of them had random junk stacked in the front rooms, odd flotsam that nobody could possibly want, like rusty bicycles and ripped umbrellas, broken furniture, unidentifiable coins and that sort of thing. Maybe this place specialised in esoteric antiques? Some of the dim glass panes probably were pubs, since I caught sight of a few sombre locals standing about with drinks. There was never any music in any of these spots, mind, and not much life. The social scene here wasn't up to much.

 

Something clicked in my mind. Maybe they started drinking earlier here, as it could only suit this dreary place, but it was getting darker, not lighter, and the mossy tower was fading away to just a bare outline again.

 

I hadn't woken up so early that it was still dark, I'd slept through the whole damn day! What the hell was wrong with me? I'd missed every single bloody hour of daylight! No wonder I couldn't find a single useful person at that pointless train station. Knowing this place, these sluggish locals probably shut up shop as soon as it got dark. I was so angry at myself, I hit the crumbling wall beside me. It hurt like hell. There was a big gash on my hand from the second knuckle back, and it was deep too. Too deep. I inspected it, waiting for blood to ooze out. Something cut that badly must bleed, but after I counted out a minute, nothing came out of the ugly gash.

 

On the ground there were cigarette packets and crisp wrappers swaying to and fro on the ground, like plastic and paper autumn-fall. The dropped garbage moved with a familiar hypnotic motion, swaying slowly back and forth and back and forth, just like the number one platform sign and the thick swelling grass growing at the tower.

 

In the square I saw some of the drifting residents moving into line. I chased after one and demanded they speak to me. The person I had tried to stop ignored me and hunched-over, plodded onwards. I called over to another, but with no more success. Frustrated beyond measure now, I forgot about manners and civility and grabbed hold of a third by the arm. The one I had stopped was in saggy shapeless clothes flecked with mud. The jacket the figure was wearing was zipped up to cover the face and a shabby beanie was pulled down low on the head, so I couldn't tell if this was a man or a woman, a pensioner or a youth. All I could see was their empty eyes, like this person couldn't even see me, like I wasn't important enough to take notice of. That look rattled me, and the local went free, walking slowly to join the line of other figures. They stood in a silent queue, with the shopfront window's sickly yellow light behind them. Almost imperceptibly, the line would shuffle forwards into the lit shop, and a few slow moving individuals would come out with what looked like polystyrene yellow bowls, almost exactly the same yellow as the light coming from the shop. I crept forward to see what could hold the attention of these sullen folk. Nobody was bothered about me anyway.

There was a strong smell as I got near, a sort of combination of bad vinegar and fish-sauce, that stuff made from old rotten fish guts. The smell was coming from whatever they carried out in their yellow disposable bowls, but it stunk so strongly that it almost burned my nostrils and it seemed impossible that anybody could actually eat something that smelled so toxic.

 

I kept time with one of them. The putrid stuff they carried looked sort of like food - some sort of white, brown, and green wet mush. I thought I could see some shapes in the bowl that might have been something like soggy chips. I figured that this must be the only chip shop in town if this is what the locals ate for dinner.

 

I had stepped too close to one of the shufflers coming out of the shop with their mush, and the stink was now mixed with that rotten drain smell I had noticed before. It made me gag and cough, and once I'd started retching and coughing, I couldn't stop and I couldn't breathe. I fell onto my knees and hawked until I threw up watery spurts on to the ground. It was only by holding my throat and taking slow cold breaths that I managed to stop the gagging and the vomiting. I felt disgusting, but nobody else there seemed to care. They just kept shuffling in line to dinner.

 

The choking rotten smell was still too much. I had to get away from the vinegar queue if I wanted to avoid retching again. I stumbled a bit, my feet struggling to find the ground. Whenever I saw my reflection in the smeared shop windows, it was warped and rippled.

 

Moving desperately away from the square, I found myself at a spot by the river where there was a wild patch of wet grass squeezing out from the soil and concrete. I flopped down and tried to fight the swelling nausea. The cold of the damp grass was spreading through my bones, but that was good, it helped fight the feeling of sickness.

Although I had my breath under control, I still kept thinking about the smell. Even just the thought of the stink made me sick. I was pretty sure that there was nothing left in me to throw up. All the water had been vomited up, and I felt like I should eat something. Luckily, I remembered that I'd kept a couple of chocolate bars in my pocket when I'd gotten off the train. I unwrapped one and ate it slowly. It wasn't a great dinner, but better than what they ate around here. Anything was better than that reeking mush. The chocolate bars would help the emptiness after my vomiting, if I could keep it down.

I chewed slowly and stared at the flexing river. Even if I couldn't see through the distant fog to the other side, there must be something over there.

I had to get out of this damn place.

 

There were oily pools where the river had crept upwards onto the land, and one of my shoes was dipping in that muck. When I stood up from the swollen grass, the cheap chocolate and the taste of bile in my mouth, I didn't feel much better. I forced myself to walk on, ignoring how heavy I felt. I told myself that I'd be out of here soon and on my way.

 

I followed the curve of the water, not sure where I was going. It was hard to think. My thoughts floated and swayed in time with my limbs. I shuffled in wave patterns and bumped into the trees by the waterside. I must have got an illness. That was why I vomited and felt so unwell. Maybe I could find a doctor here, or at least a pharmacy. Yes, I'd go look for that.

With slow difficulty, I weaved drunkenly back towards town. Everything was too quiet. I almost tripped over three stocky dogs that were so still and unresponsive they may have been statues, some local art. They didn't react to me at all, these barrel dogs. I couldn't tell if they were alive or not.

 

Then I was stumbling through constricted alleyways. There were collapsing stone walls all around me and when I leaned on them they felt sticky and cold. I couldn't think and every part of me was numb and worn. And then I wasn't conscious of anything.

 

3.

 

I woke up back in the room I'd used the night before. I couldn't remember, but I must have returned here just to rest, to get over that illness. I didn't feel any better, but at least it should be morning now, and I could leave and find someone to fix me up.

 

Shifting out of the comfortless bed, I got a whiff of myself. There was a stink of blocked drains and vinegar about me. I tried hard not to gag. I was still in all my clothes, so I must have passed out without undressing. Even my shoes were still on. I had mud all over me, so I made a feeble attempt to scrape it off. Some of it flaked onto the floor, but I couldn't see much of a reduction in the muck plastered on my clothes, so I gave up. I was too tired to try and face the antique shower, figuring that if my clothes were dirty, it didn't matter too much what state I was underneath.

 

Outside it was dark.

I had slept through the whole day again.

 

Something was very wrong with me.

 

It took me so long to walk back to the station. There was nobody there, of course. You could hardly believe that trains ever came through. I don't know how long I waited there for something to happen. At some point, I started wandering aimlessly about the place, and I barely had control over my slow drifting limbs. I was following the river again, on my left side this time, the rippling black curve in the corner of my left eye and the only thing that was in focus.

 

Who knows how long I dragged myself around?

I came to a clump of trees crawling from the water. I'd seen them before.

I had walked the whole circumference of the town inside the water and not seen a single bridge. Who builds a place like that? There was no way out but the train tracks over the water and there never seemed to be any trains. Maybe the locals had boats. Maybe I could swim across and leave. I stood at the edge of the river. It was wider than I had thought before, and even if I was brave enough to jump into that stuff, who knew what was actually in the fog on the other side? What if I passed out from whatever was wrong with me half way across? In fact, I wasn't sure that I could swim through that stuff even if I could keep my head up and my limbs moving. It was so thick and such a deep black. I had an irrational but irresistible idea that nothing could survive in there.

 

A strange noise made me give up the thought of trying to cross the water. I couldn't think about that now. I moved slowly towards the noise. It was like a muffled bell ringing deep underwater, the sound waves wobbling and distorted back and forth.

 

It was coming from the column at the centre of this place, the centre point of this island. I wasn't sure what the bell in the tower was marking. It sounded and wavered too many times to be telling any time.

 

My drifting feet had brought me to the main square again. The locals were lining up outside the yellow light from the big shop window again. It must be feeding time. The old vinegar smell, the scent of fish and flesh left to melt down into a putrid sauce, it was still strong. But I was hungry. I didn't have any food left in my pockets. I had to eat something, even if it was the formless slop served in the yellow plastic bowls. I shuffled over and joined the line, making no effort to talk to anybody else or to even look them in the eyes.

 

Maybe tomorrow I could wake up early enough to get the train off this island, maybe tomorrow I'd feel better. It was a small quiet maybe as I stood in line, my head and eyes tired and empty, and I didn't really have the strength to believe it any more.