Wednesday Write-In #31

This week’s prompts are:

sniffle  ::  font  ::  northern  ::  powdered  ::  pick a card

A Game of Chance

I couldn’t remember how long it’d been since I’d last taken the Northern line, but I’d been glad to see the station hadn’t changed a bit. It had settled around me like a favourite dress, comfortable and familiar, as I’d waited to depart. I had no luggage to speak of, besides one small valise, and so I felt I’d made a neat and pretty package as I perched on the platform. I’d almost wished there had been someone to see me, but the place was, as I’d expected, cavernous and deserted. The train had hissed into the station without conductor, guard or driver; there had been no whistles or flags. It had just waited, patiently, for me to board, and so I had. I hoped it was the correct service – but then, I thought, this train only has one destination. I knew where I was going. I checked my ticket against my seat number one more time; all was well. This was where I belonged. I tried to settle against the uncomfortable springs, realising the sniffle I’d had upon leaving home was beginning to turn into something more substantial. My throat ached, and I wished for the liberty to press my forehead against the cold, condensation-covered window beside me. I was alone, of course, but I had to maintain standards, nonetheless. I had a novel to read, but I’d long put it away; my mind was too full to focus on it. My eyes fell upon a notice – perhaps a map of the line, for some strange reason – pinned to the wall a few feet away. It was faded around the edges, as though it had been there for many years; it was, nevertheless, new to me. My vision swam as I tried to focus on it. The elegant font nipped at my eyes, at first like a playful pup and then – painfully – rather more like a biting wind. I blinked away tears as I fumbled for my handkerchief.

‘So,’ came a voice, as sudden as lightning. ‘Here again, are you?’ I tried to cover my shock by turning a gasp into a delicate cough. My eyes were still running, but the pain had eased.

‘I beg your pardon?’ My eyes refused to open fully. I couldn’t clearly see the figure seated opposite me. The only impression I could get was one of bulk, and a colour like powdered darkness, soft and smudged as a charcoal drawing.

‘You beg my pardon,’ repeated the strange voice, its tones warm. ‘Isn’t that amusing. I suppose it’s appropriate, considering you’re taking this journey again, without so much as a by-your-leave.’

‘Whatever do you mean?’ I asked, dabbing at my eyes. The dark shape before me was beginning to solidify. ‘I am in the correct seat, on the correct train. I made sure to check most thoroughly.’

‘Yes,’ agreed my companion. ‘You are nothing if not thorough.’

‘I am not sure I quite understand,’ I replied, hoping my words would not sound impertinent. ‘Have we met?’ My burning eyes had finally begun to calm. I could make out that my seatmate was a lady, older than I and corpulent with it. Her dress was dark as eternity, her head adorned with jet beads. Her hair, where it was not speckled with grey, was a similar colour to my own. Her eyes were steady.

‘Shall we play a game?’ she asked, smiling. Even as she spoke, her fingers slipped into the black bag she wore at her wrist.

‘A… a game? Of what sort?’

‘Oh, it’s not a difficult game,’ she hastened to reassure me as she withdrew her hand. I saw she clutched a pack of playing cards.

‘I’m afraid I do not gamble, ma’am,’ I said, straightening my back.

‘Not with money, perhaps,’ she said, beginning to shuffle the pack. ‘You take your chances only with things more precious than mere currency.’

‘I beg…’ I began.

‘My pardon, yes,’ she finished. ‘You may beg, but I will not grant it.’ She continued to shuffle the pack, her movements hypnotic. ‘You will draw a card,’ she instructed, ‘and then I will draw. If your card beats mine, you may continue your journey. If I beat your card, however, you must disembark at the next stop and turn back. Those are my conditions.’ Her hands kept moving, gracefully and quickly. Her fingers were pale against the darkness of her dress. I noticed she wore a ring not unlike the one my father had given me for my last birthday. My pulse began to beat, painfully, in the hollow of my throat.

‘But this train does not stop,’ I objected, in a small voice. ‘It… it is an express service.’

‘Not this time,’ she said, her shuffling movements slowing. ‘Can’t you read the map?’ I forced myself to look upon the pinned-up notice once again. This time, my eyes stung but they did not fill. My companion was correct. There was a junction up ahead. To make my destination, I would need to change trains. I wondered when that timetable alteration had been introduced, and I fought my feelings of irritation.

My companion cleared her throat, drawing my attention. She had finished shuffling. A strange trembling overtook me as she pierced me with a look. Her eyes were so familiar.

‘Pick a card,’ she said, smiling gently. She looked almost kind. ‘Any card.’

18 thoughts on “Wednesday Write-In #31

  1. Sam E.A.B. Russell (@thequietscribe)

    Oh my … SJ forgive me but I need to sit and explore this a few times before I put my thoughts down, though I will say for now that my spine is aching!

    I would utterly crap myself if this happened to me. You have a chilling flare for this approach. I’ll give further feedback tomorrow when I’m not so shattered from the day!

  2. runwithbulls

    Wow – I just loved it. Super mysterious! I really liked the old-fashioned tone of the narrator and her determination to be a lady – I could just see who she was, lovely characterisation. I particularly liked the line: “..and a colour like powdered darkness, soft and smudged as a charcoal drawing.”

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks! I liked that line, too. I’m also glad you liked the old-fashioned tone, and that you thought the narrator was well drawn.

      Thanks so much for your kind comment. 🙂

  3. Elaine McKay

    Like every other reader, I find this wonderfully mysterious. I read, but I might be way off, that this is an attempted suicide but some version of herself doesn’t let her complete it. Your use of descriptive language is brilliant. The charcoal, the nip of the playful pup are just a couple of examples of what made this a great read. Well done.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Great reading! Yes, that is what I intended when I wrote the story, but I love that other people had different interpretations. Thank you for your wonderful feedback and your kind words. I’m really glad you enjoyed the story. 🙂

  4. Anthony Martin

    First of all, I am a sucker for stories that take place on trains, involve trains or have scenes on trains.

    Bias aside, I think you danced the give-hints-but-not-too-many waltz well here. I found myself compelled to dig deeper in my mind, piece together the unspoken subtexts. I like when texts inspire that in me.

    To me, the first paragraph could be pared down a bit, or at least split up into paragraphs for readability’s sake if you want to keep all of those rich details.

    Nice job this week.

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks – I totally agree with you on the first paragraph. To look at the rambly mess it is, you’d never guess at the amount of sweat and tears that went into writing it! It didn’t really work, and it is too long. Perhaps, as you say, breaking it into paragraphs would help.

      I really appreciate your thoughts. Thank you. Funnily enough, another entry this week used the idea of a meeting on a train too, and I absolutely loved it. I guess we’re not the only train-nerds out there. 🙂

  5. Patrick

    Spooky. I read it as something like the boatman (old lady) and the river styx (rail tracks). With a second chance. I felt comfortably uncomfortable.

  6. Sam E.A.B. Russell (@thequietscribe)

    Hi again SJ – apologies for being a day late with my response.

    Your story for this week sent shivers down my spine. There is something about being confront with yourself that is terrifying. I think you’ve tapped into a universal and unconscious human fear.

    I love the line about the station settling around her like a favourite dress. It’s a great way to convey that comfortable familiarity with her surroundings with brevity.

    The first large section will benefit from being arranged into paragraphs as it’s quite a large chunk to read all in one go!

    Your dialogue moves back and forth between the characters but it feels slightly unnatural because it’s so reserved, as of your main character is hardly phased by any of it.

    The moment where she begins to feel unwell is very convincing – even I started to feel a bit worse for wear as I read it. I’m curious as to why you chose this as a way to introduce her alter, however.

    What do you think would change if this mysterious woman appeared as if she were simply another traveller? What would the impact be?

    It wasn’t clear until I read the comments, that your character was setting out to end her life. Going back and reading it in this light, her precision makes sense and is an authentic portrayal of how someone might go about the matter. It made me think of Anna Karenina!

    I like the way you’ve used the rail network as a contemporary representation of a fork in the road. I’m also intrigued by how such careful plans have been manipulated by a future self, and the hint that time is delineated which means that there are multiple outcomes at any given moment – if I’ve read that correctly!

    Overall, this is a great bit of flash imbued with fine detail and a beautiful, terrifying tension. Nice job 🙂

    1. SJ O'Hart Post author

      Thanks, Sam. Your response, and your carefully considered comments, are a treasure.

      I’m glad the story gave you shivers, but I’m sorry that the bit where the character feels unwell had the same effect on you! I wrote the part where the ‘second’ traveller appears without even questioning why the ‘first’ traveller starts to feel unwell, or why her vision fails. I’m afraid I don’t know what difference it would make to introduce the other woman as simply another traveller, but I’ll certainly think about it. The sickness seemed natural to me; if the woman’s body is dying, or sick, I thought perhaps her ‘mental body’ should be suffering, too. Does that make sense?

      I admit I did write the story from the point of view of the character having made a suicide attempt – not her first, if her alter is to be believed. I’m delighted that a lot of readers weren’t quite sure what was happening, or didn’t pick up on it, because I didn’t want to slap the reader across the face with it. I think you’ve read the story exactly as I meant it to be understood, so thanks for that!

      Thanks, also, for your comments re. the first paragraph. Other commenters have said just the same thing, and you’re completely correct. I should have broken this paragraph up, or shortened it. Thank you for your thoughts, as always. 🙂


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