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Last Modified: January 19, 2023
Feature image for December Sunday Shorts: The book cover for "Fantastic Trains" by Neil Enock is beside the text "Sunday Shorts" on a dark green background.
Soul Train, Gavin Bradley

This month’s Sunday Short, “Soul Train” is taken from the anthology Fantastic Trains: (An Anthology of Phantasmagorical Engines and Rail Riders), edited by Neil Enock. It is reprinted here by permission of the publisher, EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing.

Soul Train

The train waited impatiently to depart the platform. It was a nightmarish mechanism straight from one of Dante’s worst nightmares; made almost entirely of black metal, with joints held together with blood-spattered bones, flesh, and other fortunately unidentifiable gristle. The station was nothing more than a huge, prehistoric cave, its dark corners illuminated by dim torches and the beady eyes of flitting, formless creatures. An eye-watering, acrid stench completed the general “damned for eternity” motif.

Rooted to the spot on a rusted platform stood a short, plump man in a yellow anorak. He clutched a thermos of tea, his eyes wide.

“Toll!” yelled Charon, appearing from a nearby cabin. The little man gripped his thermos more tightly, staring at the train.

Charon sighed. He strode down onto the platform, stopping to loom over the man. The ferryman’s skeletal body was interwoven with blue flames that some Ancient Greek poet had considered suitably occult for a vase. He wore a pair of blue and white striped overalls, a matching conductor’s hat, and a badge saying: “Hello! My name is Charon and I give a Damn about good service!”

He sometimes wondered if the badge undid all the work of the blue flames.

Charon looked at the little man with bemused concern; it was like seeing a teddy bear front and centre at an Iron Maiden concert. Another screamer, he thought wearily.

“Do you have your toll?” he asked.

“Erm, pardon?” said the man, peeling his eyes away from the train and seemingly noticing the enormous, combustible skeleton for the first time.

Charon groaned. He hated having to do this.

“Hark cowering spirit! I am Charon, Ferryman of the Dead, entrusted by the eternals to give passage to all damned souls of the earth to their place of eternal torment,” he said in the joyless tones of somebody for whom the phrase “I’m getting too old for this shit” would be the understatement of the millennium. “As each man must payeth his passage in life, so be it in death, and I, Charon, am burdened to collect or cast ye into the pit!”

“Payeth?” said the man.

“Pay, then!” said Charon testily. “If I don’t say it word for word, I get a pretty pointed memo from Inhuman Resources.”

“Inhuman Resources?”

Charon waved a hand dismissively. “Health and Safety meetings on a Saturday, emails about the coffee machine with the word ‘respect’ underlined, ‘team building’ exercises pushing some bloody boulder up a hill. Inhuman, get it?”

“Oh, I suppose,” replied the man.

“Listen,” said Charon, with the almost endless patience of a skeleton, “I need your toll for the train, right? Two pennies. Very reasonable. It’s the only rate that hasn’t gone up with inflation. Head office doesn’t think it’s worth it to price people out of a ticket I guess.”

The little man looked blank.

“Don’t tell me you haven’t got it?” asked Charon, rising to his full, imperious height.

The little man patted his pockets theatrically, in the universal gesture of all those who have discovered, lo and behold, that they have misplaced their wallet, only after ordering ten drinks at the bar (this is usually followed by a bartender looking toward the bouncers and making the universal gesture for “take them into the alleyway and, lo and behold, kick them repeatedly in the crotch”).

“I’m afraid I don’t have any change,” he said, “but do you take transit cards?”

“Transit cards!” laughed the ferryman. “I am Charon! I have taken your greatest kings and lowest monsters across the river! I am trusted by the King of Hell himself, and you want to know if I take transit cards?”

“Well, do you?” persisted the man politely.

Charon turned away briefly, pulled a small handbook out of his overalls, and ran a bony finger down a page. “Unbelievable,” he muttered to himself.

“Well, as a matter of fact, we do,” he admitted. “But,” he waved his hand in the air and a little card machine appeared, “we might not have done!” He sighed again. “Swipe here, please.”

The little man swiped, but made no movement toward the train, instead returning to gaze at the horrifying steam engine before him.

“Look,” said Charon, “what’s your name?”

“Name? Erm, Henry,” said Henry.

“Well, Henry, it’s really not that bad. Mostly for show, see? Head office thought that ferrying people four at a time was an ‘improper use of resources’,” he continued, spitting the phrase out like bad wine. “Not to mention, people kept pushing me over the side and legging it back up the hill. Bloody Orpheus.”

“Not that bad?” said Henry dreamily.

“That’s right,” said Charon encouragingly. “If it helps, think of it as a big prop.”

“Not bad?!” repeated the man.

Charon hesitated. There was something different in the small, chubby man’s eyes. They were twinkling.

“It’s the most marvellous thing I’ve ever seen!” Henry yelled.

“Wait … what?” said Charon, but the little man had already scampered excitedly into the closest compartment.

“Wait ’til I tell our Marnie!” echoed Henry from inside the train.

“Come back here!” yelled Charon, striding arthritically after him. The whistle was blowing.

Inside, Henry was flitting excitedly from one part of the compartment to the other, running his hands down the brass rails, the black, mahogany panelling inlaid with bones and teeth, staring open-mouthed and occasionally unscrewing the lid of his thermos to take a nervous swig. “And I thought the 2:13 from Portsmouth to Weymouth was good! Wait ’til I tell our Marnie; she won’t believe me!”

“Will you please take your seat,” pleaded Charon, grabbing Henry by the arm. “We’re leaving!”

“Sit? How can I sit? Look at this thing! It’s incredible!” He shook free of the conductor’s grip and scampered off to the far end of the cab, toward the other passengers.

Oh, Hades, thought Charon. Not another one. Over the millennia he’d had screamers, gigglers, cacklers, and for some had even had to venture to the supplies cupboard for a mop and bucket, but there was nothing like a hobbyist to take all the fun out of eternal damnation. What if Prometheus, chained to his mountain, had turned around and said, “Oh my! The quite rare, exceedingly vicious Aegean eagle! I must tell our Marnie!” There wasn’t a special circle of hell reserved for people who travelled the world to take pictures of roundabouts or who spent hours, years, and marriages building scale replicas of naval ships from popsicle sticks in their basements, but, thought Charon, there really should be. The man who will spend a small fortune on a misprinted stamp is a man to be kept away from any metal cutlery.

“Just sit down would you?” he hissed.

“I couldn’t possibly! Do you know where we are?” asked Henry.

“Do you know where we’re going?” replied Charon, incredulous.

“Like that matters!” said Henry, waving a hand. “We’re sitting inside Bar Car 3674!”

“Well actually, there’s a lot more than three thousand, believe me.”

“No, Bar Car 3674! Agatha Christie? Murder on the Orient Express?” He waited expectantly.

“Christie, Christie…” mused Charon. “The name rings a bell. You wouldn’t happen to know if she was a cat person, would you?”

“Cats? I don’t know,” replied Henry. “Is that important?”

“I should say so! The boss is very keen on cats. Says if he spent the rest of eternity, he couldn’t come up with a more naturally malevolent creature. You don’t know how many people have booked their ticket on this train because of a stray kick to one of the little bastards,” said Charon, whose own feelings toward felines were somewhat jaded by their prevalence to use his legs as scratching posts and, occasionally, toilets.

“Well, I don’t really know about that,” admitted Henry, “but Old Aggie certainly knew her trains. That’s why she was our Marnie’s favourite.”

“Aggie!” Charon clicked his fingers, something which comes naturally to a skeleton. “Short lady? Curly hair? Always scribbling?” he asked.

“That sounds right. Did you know her?”

“Know her? She’s given us some of our best ideas!” enthused Charon. “Only been down here forty-five years, but that woman’s moving down in the world, believe me! The things I could tell you…”

But Henry had stopped listening. In fact, he was not even in the same compartment.

“The rest of the train is even older!” he yelled from the next carriage, which was packed with the type of people you wouldn’t want to meet on a sunny day at the beach, never mind in a dark alley. Oblivious to the glares, grumbles, and growls of the other passengers, Henry continued to inspect the roof, windows and seats, vibrating with excitement and occasionally murmuring, “Wait ’til I tell our Marnie!”

He began to speak to the other passengers. “Excuse me, would you fellows mind moving out of the way? I really would like to see what you’ve got under there!”

Charon grabbed Henry and yanked him out of the carriage just as the first knife buried itself in the wall behind him. He was dead already, of course, but souls tend to remember things like: “a knife in the head really hurts.”

“Why did you do that?” protested Henry.

“Not everyone appreciates being here as much as you do,” said Charon.

“Oh, you think so?” said Henry, disappointed. “Well, trains can’t be everybody’s idea of a good time I suppose.”

“That’s true,” agreed the skeleton, who knew that for many of the passengers a good time involved a pair of garden shears and a game of “Find the Fingers.”

Henry brightened. “Perhaps if I just had a little chat…”

But Charon was ready for this, and before Henry could move toward the door he had a bony hand on the little man’s shoulder, holding him back. The conductor could see the other passengers through the window and was grateful that they were only staring daggers. He looked down at Henry with exasperation. Suddenly two pennies per ticket and free rail travel didn’t seem worth it. He decided to try reason.

“Listen, Henry,” he said, “you do understand that this is the train to Hell, right? Eternal damnation, demons, pitchforks, bagpipers, lakes of fire, all that?”

“Yes, you mentioned that,” replied Henry, smiling happily.

“And you’re okay with that?”

“Well, it’s not ideal, but Marnie always says: ‘It’s not where you’re going, but how you get there.’ And just look at this thing — it’s amazing! It’s like the grandfather of all trains!”

“That may be, but we can’t have people running around enjoying themselves, got it? It’s bad for morale. Well,” Charon conceded, “it’s good for morale, which is bad for morale, you see?”

“Not really,” admitted Henry.

“What I’m trying to say is…” Charon hadn’t slept in over three millennia, but suddenly he felt very, very tired. “What will it take for you to just sit down?”

“Well … if it’s not too much bother, I would like to see the engine room?” ventured Henry.

“Bother? Of course not! I wouldn’t want you to feel as if you’re imposing…” said Charon bitterly.

“Thank you, it’s very kind of you.”

“Lower your voice, would you?” hushed Charon, looking around nervously.

He clicked his fingers and, in an instant, they were standing in the train’s engineer cab, with a great medieval mess of a boiler in front of them. Behind the firebox door, flames roared over sulfuric coal, bones, teeth, and other fossil fuels. Above them crisscrossed a maze of release valves and pipes, creaking and groaning with the pressure from the steam that leaked out of every joint.

“Amazing!” exclaimed Henry.

Charon looked down immodestly at his fingers. “Well, I have been doing this a long time…”

“What? Oh, I suppose that was a nice trick, but I was talking about the boiler. And couldn’t we have just walked?”

“It’s a long train,” said Charon defensively. “And an even longer walk without it,” he hinted.

“But we could have stopped to look at…”

“Exactly,” cut in Charon.

“Who’s there?” said a haggard voice from somewhere around the back of the boiler. “I’m warnin’ you, I’ve a shovel here! It’s not very sharp, but I can use it to stoke the boiler with the bones of you thieving basta— Oh, it’s you Charon.” A face (by technical definition) appeared. Exposed bone with some defiant fragments of skin and flesh clinging here and there gave the impression that the skull had been dunked in superglue and rolled around in some grizzly arts and crafts supplies. The supporting body made Charon look positively plump, and bore the tattered remains of a brown suit that had presumably gone out of fashion with the Victorians. Its occupant was obviously, undeniably, and pungently, dead.

“Who’s this with you then?” asked the walking corpse. “Not giving tours again, are we Charon? Remember Orpheus?”

“Don’t remind me Gresley. You know the Harpies won’t let me forget that one.”

“Won’t stop harping on about it, eh?” There was a sound from Gresley, as he nudged a bare elbow into Charon’s ribs, which could have been either laughter or tuberculosis.

“Did you say Gresley?” asked Henry. “Not Herbert Gresley?”

“That’s right,” said Gresley, tightening his grip on the shovel. “I don’t owe you money, do I?”

“Every Raily knows Herbert Gresley!”

“Really?” asked Charon, surprised.

“No— Raily!” There was that small, embarrassed silence that is the natural successor to all really terrible puns. Charon, despite being the ferryman of the dead for millennia, had never actually taken a life, but he found himself seriously reconsidering this stance.


Gavin Bradley speaking into a microphone, reading an excerpt from a book in his hand. Gavin Bradley is an award-winning writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland, currently living in Edmonton, on Treaty 6 territory. His work has appeared in The Irish Times, The North, Best New British and Irish Poets, and Glass Buffalo.

Book cover of Fantastic Trains edited by Neil EnockFantastic Trains (An Anthology of Phantasmagorical Engines and Rail Riders)

Edited by Neil Enock (CA)

Published: September 01, 2019 by EDGE Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing
ISBN: 9781770532014