“Tickets and passes, please! Tickets and passes!” bellowed the conductor, startling John awake from his slumber. His eyes snapped open and he lifted his head from the table. Panic jolted into his veins like crackling electricity. His stomach lurched.
“Ticket?” said John with a frown, wiping the sleep from his eyes. “What ticket?” In his half-dozing state, the phrase came out as, Wha’ tic’?
“Tickets and passes, please! Tickets and passes!” repeated the train conductor, who was now moving into view, walking down the train carriage towards John. He was a portly fellow, wearing a navy-blue uniform. There was a cap on his head and a thick moustache on his upper lip. His dark eyes twinkled with kindness. Once more, he echoed his request for tickets and passes.
John sat upright in his seat, looking around at his surroundings with growing confusion. “Where—” he began to ask, but then he caught the sight outside of the window and the question died in his throat. The evening sky – for it was quite clearly approaching night, in spite of the strangeness – was purple. And not just a little bit purple, but purple purple. John’s eyes soaked in the colour, jaw dropping down comically. He squinted at something flying in the distance. Was that a whale? In the sky?
There was the sound of someone clearing their throat behind him. John twisted around from what was surely a hallucination to look at the train conductor. At least the man before him looked normal enough. A golden nametag on his breast declared the man to be Dorian May-Thompson. “Sorry to distract you from the lovely views, my dear chap, but I regrettably must ask to see your ticket. Or pass.” He smiled at John. The expression was warm, and soothed John immediately.
“Where… where are we?” asked John. He tried his best to keep the awe out of his voice. He also tried his best to not keep glancing out of the window at the violet heavens and the oceanic goliaths that were soaring through them. John didn’t want to appear insane to the man. He could still see the vibrant colours, though – out of the corner of his eye.
“On a train, my dear chap,” responded the conductor, matter-of-factly.
John gave in to temptation and stole a furtive look over his shoulder. Yep. The skies were still purple. And those things were definitely whales. They were flying closer, now. There were three of them. John guessed they were a family. He rubbed his eyes tiredly and sighed. “I’m sorry, but…” John exhaled slowly. “Could you please tell me what colour the skies are?”
“What colour the—” The conductor’s eyes widened, and he chortled. It was a pleasant sound, somehow big and round. “What colour the skies are? Why, they’re purple, of course!”
“They’re purple… of course,” parroted John. He looked back out the window. What was happening? “So…” John licked his lips. “Where are we, exactly?”
“On a train?” offered Dorian, with a slight furrow of his brow. The expression wasn’t enough to rob him of his charm, however.
“Excuse me,” John asked, a tad more timidly than he’d have liked. “But… a train to where?”
Dorian’s smile widened at the fond thought of the destination. “Why, to Pinea, of course!”
“Pin—” John shook his head, a thousand questions bustling up inside of him like bubbles rising to the surface of a fizzy drink. “I’m sorry, but… where on earth is Pinea?”
The conductor chuckled. “Ha! It’s not, my boy!”
“I…” John was at a loss for words. “I’m sorry, I’m very confused. I’ve never been to Pinea. I don’t know what it’s like. I don’t know anyone there. I don’t know where it is. I don’t—”
Dorian raised his hand with knowing understanding. “It’s your first time?” The conductor then nodded to himself, as if in answer to his own question. And then, quietly: “Isn’t this journey always the first time?” He seemed to have posed this riddle to himself, as his eyes glazed over, somewhat wistfully. After what felt like a minute of silence, John decided to interrupt the man’s daydream.
“Um… excuse me? Mr., ah, May-Thompson? Sir?”
The conductor shook his head, waving away the vision. “Hm? What? Oh! Right, I’m sorry! Oh yes, yes, where was I…” Dorian raised a finger to his lips and tapped thoughtfully. “Yes, you’ve never been to Pinea. Of course you haven’t. You’re on this train, aren’t you? People only go to Pinea, they never return from Pinea. So, if you’re here, you’ve never been there, right?”
John was dimly aware that his mouth was hanging open. Catching flies, as his grandmother used to put it. He shut his mouth with a snap. “I… don’t follow, I’m afraid, Mr. May-Thompson.”
Dorian smiled at John. The smile contained an eternity’s worth of wisdom, a universe’s worth of knowledge. “Don’t worry, my dear chap, you will understand in due time. Pinea is a lovely place, I’ve never heard a complaint about it. After all, there’s a reason why nobody ever wants to leave, eh?”
“I’m still lost…”
“Of course you are. But you won’t be, fairly soon. Please trust me,” said Dorian tenderly. “You might not understand now, but I do.” The conductor placed a gentle hand on John’s shoulder. His touch was soft and soothing. “I do. Everything will be okay, my dear fellow. You’ll come to see that.”
John nodded slowly. He wanted to say, If you say so, but found that no words escaped his lips. A low squeak emanated from his voice box. He felt quite breathless.
The conductor removed his hand and raised his ticket machine, tilting his head in a way that said, Now, back to business, I’m afraid. “Would you mind showing me your ticket? Only, I’ve got the entire train to get through, I’m sure you’re aware.”
John swallowed hard. There was a click in his throat. “I—I’m afraid I don’t have a ticket to Pinea. I’m awfully sorry. I’m really sorry. In fact, I don’t even know how I got on this train. Or where I got on it.” And then after a pause, he added: “I’m very confused, I must admit.”
The conductor waved the concern away, rosy cheeks shining under the light of the train carriage’s lamps. “Let’s have a look in your wallet, my friend. I’m sure you’ll find a valid ticket in there. It’s impossible to get on this train without one.”
John got the distinct impression that the conductor was asking for money. “How much is it?”
“How much is it?”
“How much is what?”
“A ticket to Puh…”
“Yeah, that’s the one.”
“So why do you—”
“Let’s just have a look,” prodded Dorian. He wasn’t unkind with his words or mannerisms, but he was firm in his insistence.
Having neither the will nor the mental capacity to argue, John obeyed and pulled the old brown wallet from his pocket. He flipped it open on the table before him. “Look,” he said to the conductor. “There’s nothing here.” John spread open the back pouch revealing several crumpled notes. “I can pay you now, if you’d like, but—”
“No, no money, my friend.”
“Well, there’s no ticket here. I’m sorry.” Exasperated, John flicked through the few sections of the old leather to show its ticket-lessness. A picture of John with his arms around a smiling woman and a small girl flashed briefly before their eyes. Upon seeing it, the train conductor perked up.
“Ah, yes! That’ll do! Perfect.”
Frowning, John slid the picture out from behind its transparent plastic protection. “This?” He looked at the photo as if he were truly seeing it for the first time in his life, despite having had it in his wallet for as long as he could remember. It showed him grinning whilst embracing the woman and child on a sandy beach, a bloody sunset burning the ocean behind. In the picture, John was wearing an open shirt and a straw hat askew on his head, and his eyes were closed with the intensity of the laughter. The woman, who was gazing at John with an expression of utter adoration, was garbed in a long flowing skirt that was adorned with bright, summery patterns. The pigtailed little girl’s attention appeared to be wholly focused on the dripping ice cream she was holding, the melting cream dribbling over her hands.
John remembered that day clearly; there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky. A gentle summer breeze had been kissing their skin, drying them after their swim in the ocean. He didn’t remember having a camera with him, however. Now that he thought about it, who had taken the picture? Frowning, John leaned forward to get a closer look, but, before he could, Dorian was talking again.
“Great!” said the conductor as he delicately picked the photograph from between John’s fingers and clamped it into his ticket machine. Click-click! “Thanks fella! Knew you had one on you, or else how else would you have gotten on to this train?” He then laughed at that, as if he’d just told the funniest joke ever. Before John could respond, the conductor dropped the photograph onto the table and moved on, repeating his rallying cry for tickets and passes until the shutting of a door silenced him.
John sat in stunned silence for a moment, letting the bizarreness of the encounter soak in. One eyebrow was comically cocked, and his head was tilted ever so slightly to one side – like a puppy that’s heard a baffling sound and is trying to decipher the audio stimulus.
John glanced back out the window again, just to verify that the absurdities were still present. They were. Purple sky, flying whales. John nodded to himself, in acknowledgment of his fracturing mind. He let his eyes roll over the flowing scenery – the fields (at least those were the right colour), the hills, the grass, the clouds. When you ignored the oddness, it was really quite beautiful. When you ignored the oddness.
It was as John was staring out of the train window at the alien landscape that he slowly became aware of something. John could see his own reflection in the glass of the window. And in that reflection… something was moving. Something on the table. Moving in slow motion, feeling like a character in a teen slasher movie, John turned his head towards the table where his old brown wallet and family picture were still lying, the tendons creaking audibly in his neck.
It was the photograph. Or, more specifically, the people within the photograph. They were moving.
Absolutely positive that he was on the brink of a nervous breakdown, John reached for the picture with trembling hands and picked it up. Slowly, he brought the photo up to his eyes. As he looked at it, he realised his initial perception had been slightly inaccurate. It wasn’t just the people that were moving. It was the entire scene.
John stared at the image, feeling the air escaping his lungs, his heart thrumming in his chest like a hummingbird in a cage. His was entirely unaware of the reflective grin that was growing on his face. The smile lit up his features, bringing life to eyes that had previously seemed dull.
In the picture, the woman was saying something to him, but John couldn’t make out the words. The look on her face and the glint of her eyes told him everything, however. I love you. Her hair was windswept and gorgeous, and her pretty dress was fluttering in the breeze. And in front, the child was trying to lick her melting ice cream and catch the falling drips with her tongue before they plopped into the sand. The girl’s eyes were overflowing with giggling happiness.
And he, John, was laughing. He was laughing, he was laughing, he was laughing.
John held the photograph tightly and closed his eyes.
Now that he thought about it, he could still feel the soft summer wind cooling his slightly sunburned cheeks, could feel the droplets of moisture in the air from the crests of the breaking waves, could feel the soft white sand – still warm from the day’s sunshine – silky smooth beneath his naked feet.
Somewhere, the seagulls were flying overhead, riding the warm updrafts and crying in the breeze. Shhhhh, said the ocean waves, shhhhh. Everything will be okay, so just shhhhh. We’ve got everything from here, so shhhhh, my child, shhhh. John could smell the beach’s bouquet; sea air, salt, water and sand. The rich smells of love; the aromas of life.
Somewhere, distantly, oh so distantly, a voice over the speaker was saying, “Next stop, Pinea. Next stop, Pinea.”
Letting the scene take him, John slipped into the photograph, a boyish grin lighting up his face.
7th February 2020
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest