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The Perfect Train Set

An old man needs one last thing to complete his train set but it will cost more than he thinks.

Jim jumped to his feet when the doorbell rang, not an easy task at his age. He could picture Marjorie in the kitchen rolling her eyes, wondering how much this one cost.

He wondered what would happen if he ever told her she only had herself to blame. She’d bought him a train set for their fifth anniversary, back when they were happy together.

If divorce hadn’t been a forbidden word he knew she’d have gone by now. But people like Marjorie didn’t do divorce and the one time he’d mentioned it she’d thrown a plate at him, picking up the pieces whilst weeping whilst he went back to his trains.

Not that she ever showed it. Whenever her friends were round Jim marvelled at how loving she appeared, kissing his cheek, introducing him to them all before giving him permission to go back upstairs whilst they started their Bridge game.

Jim didn’t mind too much. He would climb the creaking wooden ladder into the converted attic and there it would be, laid out waiting for him, the real love of his life, the one that never threw plates or ignored him when he spoke.

It had been a simple affair at first, a trestle table and an oval of train, one red locomotive running round and round, so cheap it didn’t even have a name. But as the years passed it became an almost complete rural town. There was a huge amount of tracks, passenger trains, goods wagons, buses on bridges, tractors in fields, seagulls on wire dangling down. Little buildings and streets crowded with people, roadworks and rivers. He loved more than anything to sit and picture himself in this miniature Elysium he’d created. He’d see himself wandering along the tiny streets, nodding good morning to Jonesy, collecting a paper, smoking his pipe on the platform whilst the 3.28 pulled in bang on time as always. Bliss.

There was only one thing missing from the set and when the doorbell sounded he was ecstatic because that meant it was here.

He’d only begun to think the train set needed this one particular object when he’d found the flyer in with his Class 37/4 BR Blue No.37428 locomotive. The letter looked handwritten, the words close together, hard to decipher.

Dear James,

As you know our facilities are renowned the world over for the realism and attention to detail of our miniatures. We are happy to offer you a unique opportunity to purchase a one off bespoke miniature figurine for your train set. Imagine one of your loved ones immortalised for you amongst the more mundane figurines available from any retailer.

Pay nothing now. Simply send us a likeness of your special someone along with a lock of their hair and leave the rest to us. Once we post your unique purchase, you’ll have 24 hours to observe its every feature. Once that time is up you’ll be invoiced separately. If for any reason you’re not utterly delighted with your purchase and don’t think your miniature is the most realistic you’ve ever seen, simply return it and you’ll owe nothing.”

He’d found the right photo after rummaging through the albums for an hour. There it was. It had been taken not long before their wedding day. He still remembered it. They’d been out walking together when one of his father’s friends had appeared, brandishing his new camera. He’d persuaded them to pose in the churchyard across the road, even giving them the print for free once it was developed.

Jim had sat looking at the photo with a tear in his eye. It was the last time Marjorie had been happy, a perfect time capsule of youth even with the wonky horizon and gravestone jutting into shot. The bitterness in her face wasn’t there, nor the resignation in Jim’s wrinkle free features. Anything had seemed possible back then, they were so in love and so…young.

He had no interest in a figurine of how she looked now but how she was back then, well that would be different. He could leave the angry spiteful woman downstairs and retreat to his train set to look at the woman he’d fallen in love with all those years ago. Somehow, he wasn’t really sure why, that would complete his train set, make it perfect.

He had the photo in his pocket as they ate dinner in silence, Jim grimacing his way through the burnt potatoes as Marjorie scowled across at him, desperate for an argument, daring him to complain.

He washed up as she shuffled upstairs to bed afterwards. She was asleep by eight and he was in the room ten minutes later, scissors in hand.

He stood by the bed for a minute, his mind filled with an image of a young Marjorie on the platform, smiling and waving as he leaned out of the train window, coming to see her for a weekend of walks and country pubs. He leaned down and snipped an inch of white hair from near her ear, slipping it into the palm of his hand.

The envelope was waiting for him by the train set. He slipped the photo and the lock of hair inside before carrying it downstairs and out the door, walking down the street to the post box.

As he pushed the envelope inside an image flashed in his mind, he couldn’t help but picture the post box as a gaping mouth, biting down on his hand if he leaned in too far. He shook the head, his thoughts moving to where he was going to position the figurine, which place would be the perfect spot for her?

He was surprised Marjorie hadn’t shouted when the bell rang, if only to blame him for frittering away their savings on more and more trains. But there was no sound from the kitchen as he snatched the parcel from the postman. He didn’t even thank him, in too much of a rush to get it open. The door swung shut behind him as he stood in the hall and tore into the packaging.

Inside, wrapped in soft tissue was a tiny figurine, about an inch tall. He held it flat in his palm, squinting to examine its features. It was incredible, an exact likeness of Marjorie. The photo had been black and white but somehow they’d been able to work out the correct colour of her dress. The paintwork was exquisite, it even looked as if she was smiling up at him, her mouth about to purse into a kiss. He let the remains of the parcel fall to the floor, rushing upstairs, holding the miniature carefully in one hand, not wanting to risk damaging it.

He spent a long time pacing round the train set like a prowling lion. He looked at number 32, the house with the red curtains and openable windows. She could be leaning out, waving at the train. No, you couldn’t see her from the controls.

The bridge over the station? The bakery queue? The memorial garden? Then he saw it, the place where she had to go. There was the church, the gate open, the steps so empty without a person on them. He set the figurine down on the bottom of the steps, picturing himself beside her, ready for that one idyllic photo before it all went downhill.

The trains were set up for the Tuesday schedule and he sat at the controls, flicking each button and twisting each knob until they began to weave their steady way round the track.

Two hours passed in a flash. Each time he glanced at the churchyard, he smiled to himself, picturing that summer’s day all those years ago.

The sun was setting when he descended from the attic, visiting the toilet before glancing at the clock on the wall, surprised to see how late it was. Where had the day gone?

The bedroom door was closed, Marjorie presumably fast asleep in there. What harm was there in popping back upstairs for a while? He felt so happy up there, it was heavenly, the train set needed nothing else, it was complete at last.

Jim came down bleary eyed the next morning, having woken up slumped over the controls with the trains still running in their endless circuits of the little town.

Marjorie wasn’t in the bedroom or the kitchen. He was walking back into the hallway when he spotted the letter on the doormat.

It was written in the same flowing handwriting as the flyer.

Dear James,

We’re delighted to know you’ve decided after 24 hours to keep the miniature we’ve produced for you, the perfect likeness of your loved one. We enclose an invoice for your consideration and we must advise that payment is non-negotiable. On behalf of the designers and artists here, please accept our thanks for your valued custom.”

He unfolded the invoice, his hands beginning to shake as his eyes scanned down to the total at the bottom. It wasn’t possible. It just wasn’t. It had to be a joke.

He threw the invoice in the bin, shaking his head at the sick minds who’d thought that would be funny. He felt a longing for his train set, a desire close to withdrawal. He ran up to the attic, his heart thumping in his chest, his ears ringing as he staggered breathless into the controls by the table, knocking the bus off the bridge onto the track below.

He felt a sharp pain in his left arm as his skin turned pale, sweat pouring down his face. He reeled round, falling back into the table again. The bank roof crashed to the road below, sending cars skittering sideways. He stumbled away, hand outstretched, trying to reach the phone nailed in place on the sloping wall to his right.

He didn’t make it. He turned as dizziness washed over him, his body crashing into the train set, his head coming to rest on the church steps. He saw two things before he died. One was the figurine of Marjorie, its face turned to look to the left. The other was a new figurine stood beside her. It looked an awful lot like a twenty year old Jim.

Nobody who came to the house later thought to look in the bin. Not the police, nor the paramedics. If they had they might have noticed the screwed up piece of paper on top of the banana skins and potato peelings. If they had seen it and opened it out to read, they’d have found themselves looking at an invoice.

In the price column there was neither pounds nor pence. Instead two words summed up what was owed for the goods received, written in a flowing handwriting that was hard to read.

Your life.

And below that, stamped in red ink.

Paid in full.

This story is protected by International Copyright Law, by the author, all rights reserved. If found posted anywhere other than with this note attached, it has been posted without my permission.

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