The word 'divorce' was becoming more and more frequent in his mind, as though pervading his consciousness like an unwelcome image, which to Neil Parker, it was. He had just ended a phone conversation with his wife. It was an argument over how much she was spending. It was quite petty really, considering it was simply about buying extra food for their dog. Neil had said they didn’t need it, as there was plenty to last until pay day. No, she insisted, it can never have enough.
It was a spiralling argument in the fact that their voices grew louder and louder until she had cut him off, leaving Neil sat in the car with an angry red face, clutching the steering wheel tightly after the link had been severed. He had pulled over to the kerb to take the call. He still sat there, his thoughts twisting and turning in disorder, but reaching the conclusion that he did not want to go home just yet. He did not want to face her, as home was where he had been heading when he had received the call to ask him if they needed anything whilst she was in the supermarket. It was one of a number of arguments they had had recently, over petty and trivial matters. Four years of marriage, he thought had dissipated what affection there had been in the beginning.
Now, the dying embers of the flame that they had once called love was almost extinguished, and divorce had passed the horizon and was becoming closer and closer. Neil was 36 and worked as a network administrator. He had been writing a firewall program for a mental health branch of the local hospital for their internal network, as some of the staff had been caught surfing the internet for nefarious sites that even the most liberal-minded person would be embarrassed at. They had been asking him to get a move on, as they were impatient to monitor their employee’s computer access in the interests of security. So a hard day would not be compensated for by an angry wife who increasingly picked arguments about insignificant matters.
He decided to go for a drive, basically to calm himself down, as his face was still tinged in scarlet.
He performed a U-turn, and after around a hundred metres turned right. Any further and he would have seen his place of work, and he didn’t want to think of that. He drove as straight as the roads would allow for around two miles and found himself in what was familiar territory. Even though he had not been there in over twenty-five years, as well as the fact that he only lived three miles away, he had never found reason to return, but now he found himself in the housing estate where he and his school friends used to play.
After a few minutes, he saw a house that made him brake. It was decrepit, and metal sheets covered the windows. Neil parked the car and stared at the house, smiling slightly. It used to belong to Gregory and his father. His mother had left when he was two years old, leaving his father as a single parent, so Greg’s anti-social behaviour could almost certainly be levelled at his parent who could barely look after himself, being as he was, addicted to sniffing glue. So no surprise then that Greg turned out to be the school bully, to show signs that he wouldn’t follow the rest of the children in class and get an education. Greg was the one who showed a penchant for outdoor pursuits, for survival tactics.
Basically, he always carried a pen-knife around with him and liked to carve sticks and twigs into arrows and spears. Perhaps, he ended up in the army, Neil thought. Maybe that was the best place for him. What became of him, though? He wondered. He remembered the last time he saw Greg. It had been the both of them and two other school friends, Ryan and Patrick, on an after school sojourn to the local abandoned railway to engage in exploration. With bushes and shrubbery sloping up on both sides of the embankment, they were shielded from even the most suspicious of prying eyes. Neil remembered standing at the entrance to a dark and gloomy tunnel, feeling a surge of fear at the prospect of walking in there, but putting a brave face on in front of his friends to show that he was fearless and courageous. The tunnel, though, was not the only source of interest for the boys.
Greg seemed to be in his element, with his pen-knife, slicing off blackberries and eating them raw. ‘I could live here,’ he had said. ‘I’ve got everything I need. Food and shelter’. None of the boys had doubted the fact that he would probably have tried if the lure of a house and a warm bed had not been available. Perhaps, it might have been better if he did, Neil wondered, considering the father that he had to go home to. They had begun to play a game of hide and seek, with Neil being the one who was to do the searching. As he had to count to a hundred, he sneakily looked through his fingers and saw Greg wandering into the tunnel, swallowed by the gloom. That was the last he ever saw of him, as two of the boy's fathers, but not Greg’s, and one of their mothers, appeared on the embankment, having followed the same path down. Their faces said it all. They were not happy. Neil’s father had strode towards him hooking a thumb behind him. ‘What have I told you about coming down here? Come on, home’. The other boys sheepishly emerged from their hiding places and reluctantly went back with their parent.
Neil smiled slightly, looking at Greg’s old house. In a way, he thought, the game of hide and seek was not over, and wouldn’t it be strange if Greg was still there, still hiding inside the tunnel, 28 years later? As the abandoned railway was only approximately one mile away, he decided it might be worth going down there, but thought that maybe he should be getting back to the house. The thought of going back to his wife answered that for him, and he drove along the deserted roads until he pulled up alongside a railing that bordered the railway. Two rails had always been missing, and like then, it was still the same, meaning that the path was still in use, use for other bored children to find fascination in exploring the unknown. He got out of the vehicle, a cold wind blowing over him, and opened the boot, retrieving a small torch he had hardly ever used. He crossed over to the makeshift entrance and looked around him to make sure nobody was watching. Suddenly, he felt like a child again, engaging in an activity that brought back more memories, especially as the surroundings were exactly as he had remembered them.
As they did when he was eight, branches and leaves seemingly tried to hold him back, but he emerged onto the embankment, and there it was, the entrance to the tunnel, as oppressive and formidable as ever, around twenty metres from where he stood.
He slowly approached and stopped when he reached the entrance. The surge of fear came back to him, and he was glad nobody could see his reddening face, as embarrassment of that coursed through him. He walked in, flicking on the torch when the gloom overwhelmed him. Nothing, in particular, caught his attention. It was simply debris and rubble as old as the tunnel itself. On the right side wall, there were regularly spaced alcoves, each one boarded up, except one, further along, its board split and splintered, as though wrenched aside, leaving enough room for perhaps a small boy to squeeze through.
Neil walked across and shone the torch inside. The light caught something metallic that did not gleam very brightly. He found it a tight squeeze to force himself through, and he ended up on his knees, the torch beam wavering. He eventually stood up, dusted himself down and corrected the light beam. It came to rest on a steam powered locomotive. The torch only picked out a small section of what was clearly a beast of a machine. He wandered around to the front and picked out the words ‘British Colombia’ on a large plate stretched across the face. What on earth was this doing here? he thought, and realised that it had been walled up. He had never known about a parallel tunnel and realised now that the bricks where the entrance would have been were not the same as those of the rest of the tunnel. They were newer, even though they were probably more than thirty years old. With bushes and weeds being allowed to grow across it, he’d never given it a second thought, and even the first thought was a glancing, split second observation that barely registered in his mind. He guessed that there was probably a wall behind the train as well.
He slowly walked along the engine’s length and saw that there were carriages attached, the door to one up to his left, looking locked and tight, but he decided to try anyway and was surprised to find it open. He clambered up and walked inside, turning to close the door, but not really knowing why. He was surprised to find it already closed. I don’t remember closing it, and didn’t hear it shut, he thought.
For a few seconds, he simply aimed the torch beam at the door, then turned and walked into the carriage. It was simply a passenger vehicle, albeit expensive, as there was a carpet, and expensive looking teak seats and tables. This was probably first-class. He progressed through into the next carriage and found it to be similar. The third and last carriage was also similar. This was obviously a train that only the richest of the upper-class would have travelled on, he thought, yet, left abandoned, not even in a transport museum, shut away to all eyes, save for those nosy enough to go exploring. He made his way across to another exit but found that he could not open the door. It would not budge. He pulled down the window and went to reach outside, but something stopped him. His hand touched some sort of obstruction, yet the torch told him there was nothing there. It seemed to be some kind of force-field.
He slowly backed away and stopped when he thought he heard something coming from somewhere within the carriage. It sounded like breathing. He spun the torch around, and its beam picked out the source beneath one of the tables. The little boy scrunched his eyes against the light, but Neil kept it steady. Who it was, was obvious to Neil, as it took him a few seconds to realise that it was Greg.
"Greg," he said, "Greg, you’re still here?".
"Neil!" he said, "You’ve found me. How did you get so big?". Neil said nothing for a while, just kept the torch trained on the boy who looked not to have aged at all. He clambered out and stood with his hand before him in an attempt to shield his eyes from the light, but still it was not taken away.
"Game over," Neil said. Greg smiled, his face looking hopeful.
"Did I win?" he asked, and it was Neil’s turn to smile, even though he couldn’t understand what he was seeing.
"Absolutely, you win."
"Yay," said Greg, a fist raised. "That’s top." Neil took the torch away, and sat down at another table, his mind racing. Neither he nor Greg knew that this train was sealed away because of its dangerous qualities, by those who had died with this knowledge, some through age, and some through choice. Its occupants, once onboard, could never leave, could never age. They were frozen at the age they entered in a kind of stasis and would remain so permanently.
In a way, it was perhaps a blessing and a curse. They were never to age, and never to die. Yet, they could not leave the carriages. The force-field wrapped around it would keep them inside, keep them prisoner. It did not account for the effect that being trapped; there might have on the mind. Should one be shut away for any length of time, then the crushing effect of boredom and inactivity on the mind has a warped effect, proving that the removal of a person’s freedom is perhaps the worst punishment possible. When liberty evaporates, madness abounds, and with the torch on the table, Neil saw that on the fringe of the beam, Greg was simply staring at Neil, his expression one of wonder, one of intrigue, one of dementia.
"How’d you get so big?" Greg asked again, but Neil didn’t answer, his chaotic mind wouldn’t give him a response, so he simply smiled a humourless smile, and Neil could see that that was good enough for Greg. His question, in Greg’s mind, was answered. There was silence for a while. Greg simply stared at the newcomer, his old friend and new company, stuck on the express to nowhere, for all eternity.