Rhys Owain Williams
Illustration by Zuzanna Kwiecien
She greets me at the door in a bright red dressing gown and hair curlers, her smudged-lipstick mouth locked in a yawning ‘O.’
‘Hello, I’ve got a room booked—my office called to say I’d be a little late?’
It isn’t a question I need answering—I was there when Siân phoned this afternoon. But I find conflict is less likely if you allow your tone to rise.
‘Yes, yes. You’re much later than I expected.’
She has an accent that suggests undeserved privilege. I choose not to respond to her suggestion that I’m an inconvenience, and instead wait in silence for her to invite me in. A few awkward seconds pass before her breeding gets the better of her, and she opens the door wider.
‘Do come in. I hope your journey wasn’t too onerous?’
Creative train travel is economising—or so I’m told by Siân—but it usually means travelling in the dead of night, waking up the landlady of the B&B to get my room key. I don’t come across many landlords if I’m honest, not living ones anyway. There’s often a black and white photo on the mantelpiece—a shot of a bride and groom beneath a lychgate, or a portrait of a young man in the armed forces. I try not to draw attention to them; I don’t want to lose an hour to a life story. I suppose that’s another one of Siân’s cost savers: find the absolute cheapest place for me to stay. I’d prefer the anonymity of one of the budget hotel chains (not to mention their 24-hour check-in desks), but these widows marketing their spare bedrooms as executive suites must be cheaper.
‘Your room is just through there, in the annex. You can’t miss it. There’s an ensuite bathroom with a macerator lavatory, but if you must pass anything solid then please use the family bathroom upstairs.’ She makes an elaborate swish-and-point gesture with her hand, pausing to make sure I understand the concept of the house having a second floor. ‘Breakfast is served from 6:30 until 8, checkout 9:30. Sharp.’
I take the key from her and raise it slightly in the air, pursing my lips together to let her know that I’ve got a handle on things from here. The ‘annex’ is actually a converted garage at the back, linked to the house by one of those cheap extensions people put up in the 1970s. The extension isn’t big enough to be anything other than a corridor, though two mismatched dining chairs and a slim bookcase create a pathetic-looking sitting area at the end nearest the house. Moss is layered on the clear plastic roof, and there are long green streaks of dried rainwater down the single-paned windows on either side. A strip light whirrs above me. The extension isn’t that long, perhaps 10 yards or so stretching between the house and the garage, but walking down it I suddenly feel vulnerable—too exposed to the night outside. For the second time this evening, I can feel someone watching me.
I hadn’t wanted to get into it with my robe-wearing host, but my journey this evening was actually quite onerous. The train out of Cardiff Central was my fourth: a single-carriage affair, and the last until morning (I don’t really understand why four changes are cheaper than a seat on the earlier express train, or the direct bus, but Siân knows best). Each of the windows was open. The chill wind rushing through the carriage was invigorating at first, but as the journey went on I began to feel the cold in my bones. Of the handful of my fellow passengers, only one seemed to be similarly bothered. Watching him struggle with his window was enough to put me off attempting to close mine. Each time he managed to slam the window shut it sprung back open, causing the rest of us to look up from our phones and secondhand newspapers. Flustered by failure, after his final attempt he made a point of saying something to the carriage, but I don’t think anyone could really hear him over the wind. I decided to dig through my bag for tomorrow’s jumper instead.
Despite my hatred for Siân’s elaborate journeys, I do love travelling on a night train. Even if there’s been a big match on in Cardiff, by this point in the evening the carriages are quiet, and the world that flies past outside is pitch black, save for the occasional cluster of street lights in the distance. It’s the closest you can get to experiencing sleep while awake. Eventually I’ll start up driving lessons again (or get a better job, perish the thought), and these nocturnal commutes will be consigned to memory. I won’t miss running between platforms to make the changes, nor having to wake up the landladies of every crap B&B in the British Isles, but I will miss the night trains.
Tonight’s train journey began much the same as the others Siân had sent me on, as I alternated between enjoying the experience and absent-mindedly unlocking my phone and getting lost in clickbait listicles. I was thumb-deep in ‘47 Memes That Will Make You Feel Better About Your Life’ when we reached Newport, and vaguely remember a procession of tired bodies knocking into my seat as they exited the train. I didn’t look up from my phone again until we came to a standstill at some half-forgotten request stop. Porthsgiwed Halt read the bleached sign on the platform, then underneath in smaller lettering: Change Here for the Black Rock Ferry.
The windows of the station house had been bricked up, but—in the age of smartphone ticket apps—that didn’t mean the stop wasn’t still in use. I couldn’t see how anyone could reach the platform though; brambles and vines had filled the gaps surrounding the building, stretching out from the underwood behind. Porthsgiwed Halt must be one of those rare disused stations that had escaped both a taxpayer-sponsored demolition and a Channel 4-endorsed renovation. Probably closed for decades, but here it stood.
Returning to my phone screen, preparing to search for photos of Porthsgiwed Halt in its heyday, a shock of white caught my eye. I hadn’t glanced up to confirm, but after Newport I’d presumed I was the only remaining passenger on the train. Yet there he was, facing me from the seats at the other end of the carriage, staring a hole through my head. It was his hair I’d seen in my periphery—alabaster-white, swept back and swelling outwards. The rest of what I could see of him was white too, but more the colour of pale ash—save for two dark circles beneath his eyes, and a pair of fat purpled lips. Normally when I lock eyes with a stranger I look away quickly, hoping they won’t think I was looking at them first, but he was so unearthly I couldn’t help but stare back. One arm hung down at the side of his seat, hovering above the centre aisle, covered by a heavy-wool coat sleeve. Water dripped steadily from his long fingers, pooling on the faded carpet. It hadn’t rained for days. As the train finally began to move I managed to draw my eyes away from him, back to my phone. I prayed for a guard to appear collecting tickets, something to break the unsettled moment, but they never bother punching tickets on the night trains. I reckon you could cross the whole island of Britain for free if you travel exclusively between the hours of 11 p.m. and 3 a.m., though I’d never share this theory with Siân.
The train picked up the pace after our unscheduled stop, and the carriage was once again deafened by the wind. Every so often I looked up to check if he was still there, if he was still staring. He always was, his eyes never left me—an unrelenting gaze. I’d encountered the unsavoury on these night trains before—mostly drunks and smackheads, but also men who were just angry and looking for a fight, not influenced by substance. I’d learned to be passive, to let the drama play out. I’d never had one focus so hard on me before though, always lucky enough to meet them on trains a bit more populated. I thought about retreating to the toilet, locking the door until the next station, but it felt dangerous not to know where he was, what he was doing. I slowly typed the numbers 9-9-9 on my phone screen, let my thumb hover over the ‘Call’ button. It would be stupid to call the police, I told myself, nothing had happened. Just two men travelling through the night at opposite ends of a train carriage.
Suddenly we plunged into darkness, the whole carriage losing light. For a second I thought we’d entered a tunnel, then realised that wouldn’t explain why the lights in the train had gone off too. And I could still see him at the other end, moonlight illuminating the shock of hair, the surface of his pale skin taking on a waxen translucence. He stood up, his movement slow but deliberate enough to send a shiver. The wind continued to howl. As he began walking towards me, disappearing into the shadows of a darker space in the carriage, I looked down at my phone. It had locked itself. Desperately swiping the screen to bring up the passcode entry—or the flashlight button, the camera, anything—the whole thing slipped from my hands and fell beneath the seat in front of me. As I stretched down to grab it, his steady footsteps became louder, then his grim face was moonlit once more. Making one last attempt for the phone, I shot down between the chairs, reached my hand out in the darkness to feel for its familiar shape. Thump. A plastic bottle. Thump. A sandwich wrapper. Thump. A coffee cup. Though I didn’t look up, I heard him above me now, air rasping from that dreadful mouth. Why had I stayed in my seat? Why had I reached for my phone? Why hadn’t I run, when I had the chance?
The carriage lights sprung back on. I saw my phone immediately, but there was no set of legs next to my chair, no pools of water collecting on the faded carpet. From what I could see, when I finally lifted myself up from the floor, the carriage was completely empty. A tinny voice emerged from the tannoy and announced our imminent arrival at Chepstow, my final stop. The sight of the platform was welcome. I grabbed my bag and got up from my seat in one movement. Not looking back, I quickly left the train. I rushed across the footbridge as fast as my slippery work brogues would take me, then practically launched myself into the single taxi parked outside the station. Only as we drove away—the driver holding Siân’s handwritten directions to the B&B in his hand—did I look back to see if my fellow passenger had followed me off the train. But there was no sign of him. The station was deserted.
I’m surprised to find that, despite being located in a converted garage, the B&B’s bed is on the comfortable side. A mattress topper hides all manner of hard springs and other ills, and the bedding is clearly from one of the more upmarket department stores. My host has even sprayed the pillows with essential oils, though no amount of lavender scent will allow me to close my eyes. I can never sleep the night before a client presentation anyway—nerves getting the better of me—but tonight I can’t get that man out of my head. Only a few hours have passed since I was on the train, but I’m wondering if I’ve already begun to make the experience more disturbing in my mind. Was his face really the colour of pale ash? His hair alabaster? Surely not. Perhaps he wasn’t even staring at me. He may have been looking at a space slightly above my head—the train’s scrolling announcement board perhaps. No, he was definitely staring at me. I could feel those unwavering sunken eyes.
Could I have imagined him? Might I have been half-asleep, dreaming? That might explain the blackout. But Porthsgiwed Halt certainly seemed real. I could have touched the vines surrounding the station house from the train’s open window. I reach for my phone on the bedside table and unlock the screen. 3:30 a.m. A search for ‘Porthsgiwed Halt’ only brings up a small number of results: a miniscule entry on disusedstations.com, an eBay listing for a colourised postcard, and a decade-old Western Mail article: ‘125 Years On From the Black Rock Drowning.’ I open the article link but a mass of adverts on the page make it largely unreadable. In the introduction, the journalist calls it one of the River Severn’s worst disasters, a passenger ferry overturning on a sandbank early one autumn morning. Then a video detailing Swansea’s ten hippest nightspots begins playing without my permission, and I quickly lock my phone to stop the stock music. But the station was real. No surprise really, I would never have dreamt up a name like Porthsgiwed Halt. I don’t even know what a ‘Halt’ is.
My phone back on the bedside table, I return to staring at the closed curtains. They cover a long squat window, probably the length of the old garage door, and don’t quite meet in the middle. There’s a sliver of darkness between them, only a small amount of moonlight hitting the fields behind the B&B. In a few hours I’ll be in another taxi headed back to Chepstow, this sleepless purgatory at an end. I wonder how close this B&B is to the banks of the Severn, to the Black Rock—if I’ll be able to see either from the window when the sun rises.
I’m not sure how much time passes while I lie staring at the curtains but, like clockwork, as soon as I begin to feel close to anything that resembles sleep, there’s a pang in my bladder. I throw the heavy duvet off, shuffle across the room to the ensuite. Lifting the seat, I notice a scrap of paper on the cistern: Please only use during daylight hours. I don’t understand; that’s not what she said when I arrived, was it? I stare at the ornate, cursive handwriting for a minute or two, once again pining for a budget hotel chain. Eventually I make up my mind to proceed, but then I’m stopped by the faint memory of an ancient macerator toilet rocking my grandfather’s house to its foundations. Best go upstairs.
Water finally passed, and with an almost-soundless flush to boot, I pause on the landing outside the family bathroom. Next to the stairs is a large stained-glass window, the type of Edwardian single-glaze that’s never replaced. It’s not much to look at, a few waning pink flowers framed by green rectangles, but beyond it the dark fields stretch towards a glistening blue-black body. Above the trees at the edge of the fields, the safety lights on the Severn Bridge cast four blood-red strips upon the water.
A loud gasp escapes my body when I see her standing in the nearest field, the wind whipping her dressing gown around her legs. She’s facing away from the house, looking towards the trees, to the river. My initial reaction is to return to my room, not get involved. Then I think of my grandfather again, his neighbours finding him in their front garden after dark, bringing him indoors still shivering. The beginning of his quick decline. I can’t see her face, but she looks lost. Perhaps this is her first night-time outing, perhaps she isn’t used to the cold. I might wake up to her dead in the field next to my window, and then who would serve me breakfast? And throughout this rapid track of thought, one phrase keeps repeating: do the right thing.
The front door is locked, but there’s a set of keys hanging to the side of the coat rack. It doesn’t take long to find the right one. I borrow a coat too, thick and scratchy. The old wool bristles against my forearms. Outside, the wind is far colder than it was earlier on the train, hitting me full force in the face. Jogging to the back of the house, past the annex, I climb over the back wall into the field. She isn’t there. She isn’t anywhere I can see—no sight of her bright robe across any of the low fields. I stand up on the wall, try to see beyond the trees. Nothing.
It’s when I look back at the house I see him. The curtains in the annex wide open, him standing centred in the window. Alabaster hair. Pale-ash skin. Fat purpled lips. Staring. Staring. Staring. Without thinking I start running, running away from the house into the dark, flat fields as fast as my work brogues will take me. A hazy plan forms to reach the river, follow it down as far as I can, back to bright lights: a new housing estate, a road, a petrol station, the bridge itself. At the edge of the fields I reach an old cycle path, glance back for the first time as I scale a fence. My stomach drops when I see he’s following me—running too, perhaps half a field away. Just aim for the bridge, the red strips upon the water.
The cycle path is overgrown, full of potholes. I’m glad my distrust of other people’s carpets made me put on my brogues, as stupid as they looked beneath my jogging bottoms. There’s no way I could have run this path without them. It’s winding, and each time I look back I can’t see beyond the last curve. What if he’s overtaken me in the undergrowth, is ready to jump out onto the path in front? I spy a set of concrete steps leading down to the river, make a quick decision to run down them. The river’s rising, but there’s just enough of the bank still showing to avoid getting stuck in the mudflats. I keep following it, aiming for those lights on the water. Beyond the bridge, the first hints of dawn extend across the horizon. The lights don’t feel like they’re getting any closer.
Eventually the bank opens up, and I reach a picnic area above a sea wall. All paths from here go inland, the span of the river growing even larger than before. Across from the sea wall a rusted lighthouse sits on a black rock, jutting out of the water. Beyond it I can just about see a passenger ferry, overturned in the darkness. Faint cries of Help. Help, please. Help. The hints of dawn have disappeared, thick fog rolling up the river, surrounding the Black Rock. The passenger ferry becomes a discord of shapes, fades from view. But the cries continue, louder. In the water between me and the rock I see a woman, white dress billowing around her. She clutches a wailing baby to her chest. I look back up the river, for the man that was following me. It’s clear of fog, he’s nowhere to be seen. I can’t leave them. Can’t keep running while they’re in danger. Just do the right thing. There are no lifebuoys in the picnic area. My phone is still in the room at the B&B. I wade out, the water freezing. The wool coat becomes heavier, drags my shoulders downward. Help. Help, please. Help. I shout to her that I’m coming. The current gets faster, the water deeper. I begin to swim. Help. Help, please. Help. Somehow I reach an almost-touching distance. I should have removed the coat. She keeps shouting. Help. Help, please. Help. I’m so close to her now, but she doesn’t look at me. She just keeps shouting, her lifeless eyes never moving from the shore. Help. Help, please. Help. I begin swallowing water. The current is too fast. Help. Help, please. Before I go under, I look back at the river bank. See him standing there. Alabaster hair. Pale-ash skin. Heavy-wool coat.
When the train arrives, the man squinting out at the bleached sign on the platform, the bricked-up station house, is familiar, though I’m not sure why I recognise him. What I do know, though, is that this is the beginning of the coil—the last moment before the descent begins. Once he reaches the next station it’ll be too late. I have to warn him.
I’m not sure how long I’ve waited for this train, but I board it slowly, quietly. Sit as far away from him as I can. He hasn’t seen me yet. The lights flicker. I hope a plan comes to mind quickly. Soon enough, a shock of white will catch his eye.