Killing Time

Written in response to: Start your story in the middle of the action.... view prompt

18 comments

Coming of Age Drama

Throughout the afternoon, the old man had been there in the background in his sun-bleached work overalls and faded denim shirt. Watching me with a perpetual squint, he followed my meandering course up and down his high street. It was as if he recognised me from a previous lifetime and couldn’t remember my name. He was distant enough to be minding his own business, but present nonetheless and attached to me like a dark midday shadow. 

 #

I’d first encountered him, resting in a tilted back chair, when I stepped down onto the empty platform at Moss Side Edge. His eyes flicked past every door on the locomotive and stopped at me; a solitary midweek visitor. Apart from narrowing his eyes, I detected no outward sign of either surprise or recognition. He neither tipped his cap with a gnarled forefinger nor raised a wizened hand to greet me, and yet I sensed a mighty weight shifted inside him.

  I walked down the platform with my suitcase and paid the old man no further mind. He rocked forward as I passed by and his chapped-leather boots clumped onto the gritty concrete. Clearing his throat, he whispered, ‘Good day.’

  Without turning, I said, ‘Good day.’

  I passed the empty ticket office and paused in the station’s entrance, looking for a timetable. A uniformed porter spotted me and wandered over, inhaling a lungful of smoke.

  ‘Are there regular trains going west?’

  ‘Next one’s the midnight milk-train, buddy,’ he said, grinding his cigarette underfoot. ‘Or noon tomorrow, if you’re still here.’ 

A shrill whistle gave me an excuse to look back, and I noticed the old man was still in his chair as my train departed. He turned his head and stared at me as if he was probing me or challenging my existence. I hurried on my way to discover the delights of this isolated town and uncover its secrets.

  Moss Side Edge reminded me of an Edward Hopper painting; sunlit, silent, and underpopulated. The main street boasted a variety of independent shops and a bank, three bars and two cafeterias, and a family-run hardware store. There was little passing traffic and only a handful of parked cars along its entire length. I strolled across the wide carriageway to the sunny side and entered the nearest café. 

  I picked up a local paper and selected a table by the window. The menu was hand written and laminated for longevity. It offered a limited selection of hot drinks, toasted sandwiches and homemade cakes. The proprietor’s humble fare reflected the town’s provincial temperament; it was a modest place with good reasons to be modest.

  A plain-looking waitress in her mid-thirties approached, chewing her upper lip. She pulled a pencil from behind her ear, licked its point, and extracted a notepad from her front pouch. Without a word, she took my order for black coffee and cake of the day, returning with a generous wedge of carrot. I thanked her, smiling, and she responded with a curt nod before attending to her troublesome gum again.

   It was while I browsed through the Moss Side Echo that I noticed the old man from the railway station. He was perched on the bonnet of a dusty old Volvo, rolling a neat cigarette between his agile fingers. I thought nothing of it, left a tip, and continued on my way.

  My initial analysis of Moss Side Edge was confirmed. The newspaper contained information about local events, church fetes, closing down sales, births, marriages and deaths. There was little in the way of national news and no mention of global events. It was a town where not much changed from hour to hour, where time was marked by the following incidents: 

  At three o’clock on the dot, the bank doors clanged shut, and the manager closed the vertical window blinds. Between four o’clock and four-fifteen, a tsunami of SUVs roared down the high street, bearing troops of screeching school children chaperoned by their harassed mothers. They colonised both cafeterias, demanded fizzy drinks all round, quenching their thirst with a straw-slurping cacophony. At about four-forty-five, the grocer’s lad in a camel brown work-coat removed the roadside display of fruits and vegetables. By ten past five, most merchants had retracted their awnings, lowered cotton window blinds and secured their premises.

   The only venue still open for business was the barbershop. The owner spotted me as he brushed assorted tufts of hair over his threshold. ‘Haircut, sir?’ he said, beckoning me inside.

  ‘Have you time for short back and sides?’

  ‘Yes, of course,’ he said, holding the door open. ‘This way, sir.’ 

  ‘I’m just passing through and wondered if---’

  ‘Please, sir,’ he said, wiping down a seat. 

  ‘How’s business with you?’

  ‘Always busy, sir,’ he said, wrapping a towel over my collar. ‘And you, sir?’

  ‘I’ve a couple of days between appointments and I---’

  ‘Thought you’d stop and explore, maybe?’ he said, adjusting my seat.

  ‘Pretty much,’ I said, pondering my hasty decision. ‘I was inquisitive.’

  ‘It’s fine to be curious, sir,’ he said, ruffling my hair.

  ‘Unless you’re a cat, of course.’

While he stropped his glistening razor, I noticed the old man from the station. He was loitering across the street, on a paint-flecked bench. Between snips and cuts, I heard the metallic ching! of his Zippo’s brass lid and watched him chuff on his rollie, then examine the tip and occasionally rekindle it. He remained there until I re-emerged into the orange afternoon light. Pulling down his peaked cap, he’d avoided eye contact when I paused on the doorstep. It was his cue to relocate to a fresh vantage point and gauge my next move. 

  The barber had recommended an early evening stroll by the river to a well-known beauty spot. He assured me I’d have time to walk there and return by nightfall. I was intrigued when he described the waterfall and its elevated view of the watercourse, surrounded by overhanging willows, meandering into the distance.. It sounded picturesque, worth the effort and a satisfying way to pass the time before my departure. He offered me a bottle of water from his fridge for the trip. I thanked him, settled up and set off towards the river.

  Before long, I noticed my accompanying shadow following fifty yards behind me.

The old man hovered at a discreet distance, like a raptor tracking its quarry. Maybe he hoped I’d collapse through exhaustion and succumb to his wizened talons. He was an unlikely assailant, but his presence unnerved me. Had he nothing better to do?

  The entire walk was ambitious to achieve before sunset and I’d made it impossible by dawdling to admire the scenery. I completed the final ascent by eight o’clock and it was twilight at the waterfall when I heard the old man’s footsteps beside me. I turned to see his unwavering eyes seething like two cauldrons of lava set within a calcified façade. His laboured gasps rasped past discoloured incisors like a sirocco whistling around sandstone outcrops.

  ‘It’s been a long time coming,’ he whispered, catching his breath.

I furrowed my brow, resisting any immediate comment.

  ‘I’ve waited on that platform forever.’

  ‘You?’ I said.

  ‘Me.’ He nodded, flaring his nostrils.

  ‘Were you waiting for someone at the station?’

  ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You.’

  ‘But you’ve never seen me before,’ I said. ‘How could you---’   

  ‘Did I say I’d seen you before?’ he said, growling. ‘I just said I was waiting.’

We were poised on the top of the waterfall when he sidled closer, glaring at me.

  ‘But you know nothing about me,’ I said, checking my footing.

  ‘No,’ he said, stuffing his hands in his pockets. ‘It’s much better if I don’t.’ 

The sun’s power had faded and without its warm rays, the air felt cool. ‘I’m just surprised you’ve arrived—-’

   ‘Surprised?’

   ‘And pleased.’

   ‘How long have you waited on that platform?’

   ‘Ever since I retired, twenty years ago,’ he said. ‘I’ve waited for something to happen. I didn’t know what exactly or if I’d recognise it, but when it happened today, I knew it was time.’

   ‘Time for me?’

   ‘Or someone like you,’ he said. ‘I wish I could say—-’

   ‘Try to say, I’m all ears.’

   ‘Have you ever hated people?’ he said, leaning forward.

   ‘Not really, well, maybe a few.’

   ‘It’s normal to feel that way,’ he murmured, ‘And sometimes you’ll want to kill them.’

   ‘Most people hide those thoughts, don’t they?’

   ‘I’ve a lifetime of burying them,’ he said, lifting his skeletal left hand. ‘But nothing’s going to get rid of that hatred.’

   ‘Some fellas go hunting or—-’

   ‘I’m talking about those that don’t,’ he said, clutching my elbow.

   ‘Where’s this heading, old man?’ I said, bracing my body.

   ‘What I’m talking about is a chance to work off that load.’

   ‘Why now?’ I said, steadying my balance as he tightened his fingers.

   ‘The perfect opportunity,’ he muttered, peering past me at the water cascading down the dark ravine. ‘An unexplained death when nobody would guess who’d done it or why they did it or who they did it to. An accident by a river. A body washed up downstream. Maybe it would never be found. Who’d think of looking for him in Moss Side Edge when he was never going there? That’s my idea. I got it twenty years ago. It was a passing notion at first, but it kept recurring, like a skin lesion that blossoms, and refuses to heal.’

   ‘Somebody would know,’ I said, smirking. ‘There’d be a trail leading here.’

   ‘Who’d think to look in a town where there’s one train a day and nobody ever thinks to visit?’ he said, his left hand still holding me and the other hidden. 

   As he held my gaze by the waterfall, it occurred to me that my choice to alight at Moss Side Edge was determined by the flip of a coin. Day after day and week in and out, I crossed the continent on a mission to promote products I loathed to clients I despised. I didn’t know what I was doing here, but he did. Alighting at Moss Side Edge had a logic to it. He’d been waiting for me for over two decades; stuck in a town nobody visits with nothing going on and nothing to lose. The old man was just killing time until his life passed away.

   ‘You know what?’ I said, as we stared at each other. ‘You’re right.’

   ‘You understand, then?’ he said, maintaining his hold on my elbow.

   ‘It’s funny,’ I said, snorting cold air. ‘I’ve often thought the same as you as I’ve passed by endless small towns.’ 

   He tilted his head to one side and wrinkled his nose as if adjusting spectacles.

   ‘Earlier today,’ I said, ‘before I got off the train I thought, right here’s perfect and how perfect it would be.’ 

   ‘What would?’ he said, swallowing his breath.

   ‘It’s a place where nobody knows me,’ I said. ‘I could get off the train in here, with this gun under my arm, and find someone to kill. Nobody would ever know who did it for the reasons you’ve outlined. There’d be no connection and no reason to suspect me. I could bury the victim out of sight and go home on the next train. Nobody would ever know who did it and I knew it’d be perfect.’

   We stood in the dark staring at each other. For an unbearable minute we listened to the thump-thumping of our hearts. I clenched my fists into solid mallets. I knew that what I’d said wasn’t a lie to save my life. It was all true, I’d made choices that had led to this watrfall tonight. We were high above the town with nobody around, and I’d feel better about it all, afterwards.

  The old man clenched his teeth. I leaned towards him and he leaned in towards me. It felt as if we’d combust under the pressure of that moment.

   ‘Why should I believe you?’ he said, hissing at me like a coiled serpent.

   ‘You have no choice.’ I said, narrowing my eyes to slits. ‘You can’t take the risk.’

   I could feel his arm shake as he released his hold on my elbow. He clamped his mouth tight and shuffled a step away from me. Looking down at his right hand, he removed it, empty, from his pocket. 

   We both retreated along opposite edges of the cliff top and walked away from each other in the darkness and followed the separate paths back down the river to the town.

   The midnight train delivered mail to Moss Side Edge, unloaded its consignment of milk churns from the dairy and collected one passenger to travel west.

   Only when the train was pulling out of the station did I peer through the steamed-up window. The old man had resumed his position on the tilted-back chair on the platform. He’d be there when I passed through Moss Side Edge next week, no doubt. 

   I recalled the dreadful thoughts that I’d dismissed and disregarded at the waterfall. How simple it seemed to extinguish his life like a candle, and watch that thin trail of black smoke disperse into a sooty nothingness. Maybe that’s what he wanted, what he’d prayed for since he retired twenty years ago, before consigning himself the rubbish heap and counting down the clock.   

   The old man didn’t return my stare and was gazing into the night to the east. There would be another train on its way and maybe it would stop to let off a passenger, but not tomorrow or the day after that one. The old man could wait forever for another chance.



The End




June 24, 2023 03:58

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18 comments

Carina Caccia
12:37 Jun 29, 2023

Stunning imagery, Howard. I was spellbound. Thank you for sharing!

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Howard Halsall
14:05 Jun 29, 2023

Hi Carina, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your positive feedback; it’s much appreciated. Take care HH

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Helen A Smith
09:31 Jun 28, 2023

On the one hand, this is entirely feasible. A retired man in a town where little happens could feel like exactly this. Or is it the MC’s feelings about himself and his life reflected back at him? A little creepy. You portrayed the sense of isolation and loneliness of the human spirit well.

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Howard Halsall
17:55 Jun 28, 2023

Hi Helen, Thank you for reading my story and sharing your thoughts. As you noticed, this submission is a deceptively simple idea that’s very much open to interpretation…. Take care HH

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L J
19:28 Jun 26, 2023

This was a good read, although I agree: It didn't match this prompt. Possibly it could go under the one "..event that changed their life..". This story has many interpretations. I am understanding it to be actually his conscience grappling as to whether he should kill himself that night. Perhaps he had demons for 20 years that he couldn't work through so , that night, by the waterfall, was going to be his final night. Before he could do it, the aged man that had been following him was actually himself 20 years in the future. He was wrestli...

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Howard Halsall
09:48 Jun 27, 2023

Hey LJ, Thank you for reading my story and taking the time to respond with your thoughtful analysis. I’m pleased you discovered its various levels of meaning and glad that it’s proved so thought provoking. It’s interesting how a simple idea can take on a life of its own. Take care HH

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17:51 Jun 26, 2023

Hi Howard, Interesting story - two guys with oddly similar outlooks in one way or another, running into each other completely by chance in the middle of nowhere and coming close to killing each other! It was intriguing. I enjoyed the read. If you want any crit - the only thing I would say is that I'm not sure it meets the prompt. For me - if this were to start with the two guys grappling with each other over the waterfall - that would be the middle of the action. Burt the story is great. The setting is interesting, The characters made me ...

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Howard Halsall
09:52 Jun 27, 2023

Hi Katharine, Thank you for reading my story and taking the time to share your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. Yes, I agree, in retrospect it doesn’t fit the prompt which is why I didn’t enter it this week, however I had so much fun writing it that I thought I’d place it on my page anyway. It’s certainly proved to be thought provoking and I’m pleased to get your considered feedback. Take care HH

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Colleen Ireland
17:41 Jun 26, 2023

Two men who, when confronted with the ultimate choice, choose wisely, but appear to learn nothing. An interesting paradox; I like the simple complexity of this story!

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Howard Halsall
09:58 Jun 27, 2023

Hey Colleen, Thank you for reading my story and taking the time to share your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. I’m aware it doesn’t fit this week’s prompt, however I had so much fun writing it that I thought I’d place it on my page regardless. It’s a simple idea, as you say, but it’s certainly proved to be thought provoking and I’m pleased to get your considered feedback. Take care HH

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Colleen Ireland
11:25 Jun 27, 2023

You're welcome and I say you can make anything fit a prompt theme; these men wanted some revenge on where they landed in life. I'd call your piece cutting-edge before non-conformist. Better to write and post than not at all!

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Howard Halsall
12:06 Jun 27, 2023

I love that spirit, Colleen. “Publish and be damned!” as someone once said, although that was concerning blackmail not a weekly prompt submission :)

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Colleen Ireland
12:38 Jun 27, 2023

Hahaha! Regardless of the quote's origin, keep that spirit alive. Cheers!

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Lily Finch
14:36 Jun 26, 2023

Howard a symbiotic relationship where both men want something from the other but when confronted let sleeping dogs lie for whatever reason. Perhaps the men believe they could do something until they were faced with doing something, only to realize they couldn't. Such is the case with small town existences where retirements occur with no hobbies for some. Either way it was an interesting read Howard. Thanks. LF6

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Howard Halsall
10:00 Jun 27, 2023

Hey Lily, Thank you for reading my story and taking the time to share your thoughts; they’re much appreciated. It’s certainly proved to be a thought provoking idea and I’m pleased to get your considered feedback. Take care HH

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Lily Finch
11:48 Jun 27, 2023

You are welcome, Howard, as always. Lily. LF6

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Mary Bendickson
16:14 Jun 25, 2023

Sorry, don't think I understand this one. The old man wants to shove the visitor off the cliff? The old man wants the visitor to shove him off the cliff? Thanks for liking my 'Hour-Glass Fogure'

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Howard Halsall
18:08 Jun 25, 2023

Hi Mary, Sorry…. This is still ‘work In progress,’ which is why I didn’t submit it to the weekly competition. Apologies if you found it confusing, however you’re not far from the mark in terms of conclusions Take care HH

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