Playing truant was always appealing. Always. Two nine-year-olds deep into their school days would always know better than what adults told them. Your years in school were not the best days of your life, and you don’t need to attend classes to get clever to get good jobs. They knew it all, so didn’t need to bother attending, and why do maths lessons and cross-country runs when it was much more appealing to play on railways?
Which is what they did.
Two pupils who should be attending music class were walking along a rail track embankment, with bushes, trees, and shrubbery on either side, sloping high to shield them from any prying eyes. It was a sunny day and a few insects flew around happily.
Tubby Baxter, as his friends called him, real name Charles Baxter, was exploring along the edge of the undergrowth, looking for anything of interest, whilst Kenneth Wright wielded a piece of wood he used as a baseball bat to hit stones.
“Look, a dead rat,” said Charlie, pointing into the undergrowth where a small thin-skinned skeletal corpse of a rat lay. Their interest in that lasted seconds before they moved on around a gradual bend, the only sound that of their footsteps under the trackside stones, and those stones as they were cracked on the baseball stick.
“Tubby!” shouted Kenneth. Charlie turned to see Kenneth swinging the stick in his direction. His mind, in a split-second, thought a stone was flying his way and he ducked, raising his hands in defence.
No stone came his way.
“Only messin,’” said Kenneth, and they continued. Tubby was one of those kids that were always teased and made fun of and never gave it back. It all just went over his head. Kenneth always thought he was more mature than he really was, as though in a rush to be an adult.
As they walked further and further around the curve, the track straightened out where just up ahead there was a tunnel. The dark gaping maw did not look appealing as such exploration did to a lot of children. There was nothing here that beckoned them inside.
There were no other exits. They either braved going through or simply turned and went back.
A slight rumbling on the tracks caused them to think a train was coming, and they were right.
“A train,” said Kenneth, and he and his friend simply stood there looking both ways, not knowing from where it was coming, and both instinctively stepped away, pressing themselves into the bushes. The 14.21 from London to Newcastle emerged from around the bend, and as it approached, a moustachioed driver saw the boys and shook his head. He probably knew exactly what they were doing, as he will have seen school children playing truant before, hiding down railways instead of town centres in their uniforms because they should have been in class.
The train thundered past, swallowed by the tunnel.
“Do you think he will radio the police and they’ll come and get us?” said Charlie.
Kenneth thought for a moment.
“Nah,” he said. “By the time he radios the police, and get told where we are, then the police have got to get in their cars, drive here, then come down and find us. It’ll be a while before they get here, and we should be gone by then, cos’ I’m not going in that tunnel,” he said.
The gaping maw was around fifteen metres in front of them. Angry twigs and undergrowth threatened on both sides.
“Look at that,” said Kenneth, pointing to the trackside, where several bunches of flowers were long dead.
“Someone’s been here before us,” said Charlie, “wonder what for?” They both stared at them for a while when Charlie suddenly said, “Let’s have a game of dare.”
Kenneth threw away his stick.
“Okay, what shall we do?”
“I dare you to stand on the railway in the path of a train.”
“That’s easy,” said Kenneth, approaching the trackside, but then stopped.
“I heard that rail tracks are electric or something like that. If you touch it you could die.”
“That’s the dare,” said Charlie, “if it was easy then it wouldn’t be much of a dare. Stand in the middle of the tracks and wait for a train, then see how long you can stay there before you move.”
“That’s chicken,” said Kenneth, and a sense of fear swept through him before exiting, replaced by courage, by confidence to step up over the steel tracks to not lose face in front of his friend.
“The other line,” said Charlie approaching the trackside. “The train on this one has just gone and might be ages before there’s another one, so go on the other track.”
“But that will mean the train comes out of the tunnel. I’m going to need more time to get out of the way.” He turned and walked back several metres.
“Don’t go too far back,” said Charlie, “you don’t need all that length to get out of the way.”
“Yes I do, probly more,” and he walked further.
“No you don’t!” said Charlie, “stop there, that’s plenty of space.” Kenneth stopped and nodded, carefully stepping over the tracks to stand around thirty metres away, facing the darkness of the tunnel.
“Now you just got to wait for the train,” said Charlie.
So they stood there for a few moments, looking at the darkness, and Charlie went back to the undergrowth to explore.
Kenneth felt the wind getting up slightly coming from the tunnel, and could hear a distant rumbling.
“Tubby!” shouted Kenneth, but his friend was engrossed in trying to decide whether the blackberries he’d come across were edible.
“Tubby!” Charlie’s eyes widened and he ran back to the trackside, smiling at the tunnel.
“Your turn after this,” said Kenneth.
“What? no,” said Charlie. “I can’t, we need to go in case the police come.”
“No, it’s your turn. Don’t be chicken.”
“I’m not a chicken! I can easily do it, but we need to go after this cos’ the poli…”
“You’re a chicken!” Kenneth shouted, pointing at him.
“I’m not!” Charlie shouted back, and the wind from the tunnel grew more forceful over the boys, and Kenneth looked back into the darkness, bracing himself for the train, only for something within the tunnel to catch his eye. Something which slowly emerged to walk and stop at the entrance.
It was another schoolboy.
He seemed around the same age, had bird's nest blonde hair in a different school uniform that looked old and worn. It almost seemed as if he had stepped out of a photograph years past, and he was slightly transparent.
Charlie was staring at him, unsure how to react.
Then lights lit the tunnel up, and the train thundered out.
Charlie watched as Kenneth was struck by the powerful vehicle.
The driver slammed on the brakes, but the train would not stop for a while yet, and its last carriage had gone beyond the bend, out of sight.
Yet, there was Kenneth, standing exactly where he was. The boy came further out and stood by him.
Charlie noticed that he could see through both boys.
“Sorry,” the new boy said, “but I don’t see many people. This tunnel keeps me here. Ties me to where I died. Like it will you. I did it because it gets lonely down here, and you’re like me. A schoolboy. I only wanted a friend.”
Kenneth knew what had happened. His sense of shock had been taken with the train. It seemed shock and surprise at dying did not continue beyond, and his soul was left with a sense of calm. Of acceptance.
He looked at Charlie and drifted slowly across to him, who still had shock and fear, and wide eyes with a complete lack of comprehension that his young mind could not understand.
“Sorry Tubby, you’re not a chicken. You’re a good…” but then the whirling cogs racing in Charlie’s mind stopped, and locked into place. He screamed, turned, and ran as fast as he could away until he came across the train, which had stopped, and the employees on that train were getting off. Charlie shouted and waved at them, running as he had never run before.
“Bye mate,” Kenneth said.
He drifted back to the schoolboy who said, “There’ll be a lot more people around for a while.”
Kenneth replied, “You just killed me so I could join you. How can I be your friend?” He then turned and drifted away. Only to get around five metres away before something stopped him, like trying to walk against powerful wind.
The boy joined him.
“It’s the tunnel. It won’t let us go”.
The sense of acceptance that Kenneth had then intensified. He knew there was nothing he could do, and could see the boy was genuinely sorry. He just wanted company. Just a schoolboy like him, and schoolboys did stupid things like play chicken on railways.
“Okay,” he said, and they both drifted into the darkness of the tunnel.