The Ghost Town
By James Gray
Joe said good night to the porter and wished him a pleasant weekend, stepped out into the street, and was glad to let the door behind him close on another week. It was a day in July much like any other, except today was July 23 and it was Joe’s birthday.
Standing on the edge of the pavement, Joe looked up at the sky and frowned at the grey clouds overhead, wondering what had happened to another British summer. He instinctively looked at his watch, a gunmetal digital Casio on its umpteenth strap and with a deep scratch across the screen, the legacy of a drunken night in Godalming. The screen was blank; another dead battery.
Joe heard the distant rumble of thunder and pulled up the collar on his jacket, watching the crowds file past like the flow of an angry river. Slinging his messenger bag over his shoulder, he dived in among the masses and set off in the direction of the train station, almost carried along by the tide of commuters. As he passed the Builders Arms pub, he remembered the tentative arrangement he had made with Dave to meet for a drink later that evening. Tentative on his part, but he knew what a hard time Dave would give him if he came up with another lame excuse.
Joe would have preferred a quiet night in with a DVD and a tube of Pringles, but he didn’t want to disappoint Dave, and this was a milestone birthday after all. As he approached the entrance to the station, Joe released the catch on his relic of a wristwatch. He slipped it off his wrist and dropped it ceremoniously into the nearest waste paper bin. Forty is the new thirty, he said to himself.
A train was approaching the platform as Joe arrived at the bottom of the stairs. He quickly checked the destination on the front of the train as the wheels squealed to a halt. The doors slid open to allow the ritual spilling of passengers onto the platform, the gap they left behind quickly filled by others making their impatient commute home. Joe staked his claim on a seat, his selfishness justified by the fact that his stop was the end of the line and a good fifty minutes away. He breathed a sigh of relief.
The moment the doors closed a young guy in a grey Boss suit flipped open his cell phone and began talking. His action seemed to be a tacit nod of approval to fellow cell phone users, who began to extract their phones with the virtuosity of a team of synchronised swimmers, clicking, swiping and tapping in unison. Joe dived into his messenger bag and surreptitiously flicked a switch on a device the size of a cell phone. And one by one, the passengers in the carriage began examining their phones, followed by cries of “Hello? Hello?” and looks of bewilderment. The expression on Joe’s face, had anyone bothered to look, was of satisfaction as the carriage slowly fell silent. He opened his bag again and brought out the latest Jack Reacher novel, removed the bookmark and settled in for the duration.
With the steady rocking of the train, the rhythmic clackety-clack of wheels on rails and the rain that began to lash against the windows, Joe soon fell into a light sleep. As the journey progressed, more and more passengers alighted and by the time the train reached the terminus and ground to a clumsy stop, Joe realised he was the only person left in the carriage. He found his book on the floor, picked it up and stuffed it into his bag before stepping out of the open doors onto the platform. His foot had barely touched the concrete when the doors swished closed behind him, as if the train was telling Joe that he had outstayed his welcome.
Joe looked left and right along the train. Nobody. Not a single passenger. He looked up towards the front of the train, expecting to see the driver climb down, but there was no movement. The station was empty and completely silent, except for the flutter of a few pigeons in the arches above and the drumming of rain on the roof, and for a moment Joe thought he had ended up in the rail yard where the trains were left overnight after a hard day on the tracks.
He checked the station sign and shrugged. He was in the right place; the same place he returned every night. Making his way to the exit, he saw that the newspaper kiosk was closed and padlocked. The shutters were down on all of the ticket counters, too. Joe descended the stairs to the underpass, then made his way towards the dim light at the end of the tunnel, climbing the stairs and emerging on the street side. He was immediately hit by the wind and the rain and almost regretted being one of the few Englishmen who refused to carry an umbrella.
Joe flicked his wrist out of his sleeve to check the time and… Damn! He instinctively knew he was late and there wasn’t enough time to go home and change, so he put his head down and started off in the direction of the pub where he knew Dave would be sitting, nursing probably his second or even third pint of Guinness and tapping his fingers on the table. The wind whistled past his ears and when he raised his head he saw that the High Street was deserted. Not only that, not a single light was on in any of the houses and not a street lamp was lit. He half expected Clint Eastwood to appear in front of Boots the chemist, smoking a cheroot. Even the litter breezed past him like tumbleweed.
A flash of lightning lit up the desolate High Street and Joe felt suddenly alone in a moment of silence, the kind of heavy, suspended silence that gives way to an ear-splitting crack of thunder. When Joe blinked he was left with a visual imprint of the street, a black and white film reel effect, stripped of all its characters. Joe began to notice the number of shops that had closed for business and were now boarded up. As he walked he saw layer upon layer of torn posters flapping in the wind, a chronicle of bands, concerts and theatre productions from years gone by. He saw broken windows and phone boxes without phones.
Joe arrived at the pub, and was surprised to see that the lights were off. He tugged at the door. Locked. Right place, almost the right time. Where was Dave? Why hadn’t he tried to call? Then Joe remembered. Of course… He reached into his bag and flicked a switch. And for the next thirty seconds the only sound in the High Street was the beeping of Joe’s cell phone as it found the network again and a flood of text messages arrived to wish him happy birthday. And there were three missed calls and a voice mail message from Dave.
In that same moment the lights in the pub came on, the street lamps lit up and the rest of the High Street was bathed in yellow light. Joe heard the latch on the pub door and the landlord came out and propped it open. In the light of the pub Joe could see a lonely figure standing at the bar. Dave, seemingly the only customer, turned his head towards Joe, then held up his wrist and tapped his watch.
As the wind caught, Joe was hit in the face by a stray, soggy flyer. He held it up to the light and smiled as he read the print that had run slightly in the wet. “New out-of-town shopping centre opens July 23!”