Jimmy and Charley were engrossed in Saturday morning TV when the exciting adverts for toys and sweets suddenly gave way to something much darker.
A bleak safety film, probably from the seventies Jimmy thought, depicted a fog shrouded railway track with two small shadowy figures stood beside it. A tall man with a thick moustache and dark eyes stepped out of the mist. He wore the peaked cap, long blue, silver buttoned coat and pocket-watch of an antiquated railway guard.
“I am The Conductor. You will find me by quiet railways helping naughty children make their connection.”
Two pale, miserable children stepped out of the mist.
“This is Suzanne. Her friends bet she wouldn’t take the shortcut. Now they won’t be teasing her ever again.” The Conductor motioned to the boy “Darren was looking for his ball.” He smirked “I helped him find it… and the 8:15 from Manchester.”
His face grew until his eyes filled the screen. In his left eye, the reflection of a train approaching a child from behind, and in the other, a terrified girl who raised her hands to her face and screamed. The camera pulled back as the shriek transformed into a piercing whistle.
“All aboard!” called The Conductor, now on a platform; the mist was issuing from an old steam engine’s funnel.
The carriage doors sprang open and the children shuffled glumly onto the train. As it pulled away, disappearing into a tunnel, The Conductor pointed directly at Charley (at least that’s what it felt like to him) uttering “Don’t play on train tracks or it’s the end of the line for you!”
And then colour came bursting back with an enthusiastic advert for mouth-watering fruit chews.
“Charley… you’ll never guess what?”
“The Conductor. He’s real. Rob’s sister says her boyfriend seen ‘im down the tunnel entrance last week.”
Charley’s eyes widened. “Shut up! He’s not real. It‘s just an advert.”
“I swear. ‘e lures bad kids onto the tracks where they get knocked down or ‘lectocuted, or somefink, then ‘e takes ‘em straight to hell and drives ‘is train over ‘em… forever! Poetic thingy… justice innit?!”
“MUM! Jimmy’s scaring me!”
“Honestly, you two!” came a voice from upstairs. “Go outside like normal children and don’t come back until lunchtime! And Jimmy… look after your little brother!”
As they rode their BMX bikes over the field behind the estate Jimmy said with a mischievous grin “I know where we can play.”
The boys weren’t normally late when food was on the table so their mother was getting worried. She sat down in the lounge, noticing that the TV was still on. A bleak safety film, probably from the seventies, was playing but she was too concerned to pay it any attention.
“I am the Conductor. You will find me by quiet railways helping naughty children make their connection.”
Two pale, miserable children stepped out of the mist.
“Jimmy’s mother told him to look after Charley… But I took care of them both…”
This story was written in the summer of 2013 for the second Den of Eek competition, run by the website Den of Geek. The rubric called for a scary story containing no more than 500 words with a theme of Urban Legends. The prize was for the two winners to read their entries alongside professional writers at a storytelling event in London in the September of that year. I had entered the previous year too (the theme was Ghost Stories) and got the short story writing bug. Sadly I did not win but it was published in 2015’s edition of Hallowscream, a fan created annual tribute to the fondly remembered Scream! comic from 1984.
A digital edition of that comic can be downloaded for free from Back From The Depths.
The stories from both Den of Eek events are available to buy in eBook format from Amazon with the proceeds going towards “Geeks vs Cancer”. More details are available on Den of Geek.
I felt that this story fitted Den of Eek’s remit as the children in the story have created their very own Urban Legend.
The inspiration for The Conductor story comes from a handful of things.
While the first ideas of this story were beginning to gestate in my mind I researched old black and white photos of rail staff and came across a website detailing the 1928 Charfield rail disaster in which two trains collided in fog, killing a number of passengers and crew. Amongst the dead was John ‘Jack’ Johnson (pictured), a guard. His intense look in the photo, along with his general appearance heavily influenced my physical description of The Conductor. The cause of the Charfield disaster was also responsible for the swirling mists in the story.
The safety film in the story is partly based on a real life example from the 1970s called Lonely Water which was narrated by horror legend Donald Pleasance and scared a generation of children into keeping away from reservoirs and gravel pits. Films of that ilk really did frighten and are quite possibly responsible for saving a lot of young lives, if not scarring the psyche of many more!
The two main protagonists, Jimmy and Charley, both take their names from characters in well known safety films from the period. Jimmy was the poor unfortunate who met his fate at the receiving end of a 66,000 volt shock while breaking into a substation to retrieve his Frisbee in one of the Play Safe films.
Charley is named after the eponymous cat, voiced by Kenny Everett, who doled out safety advice (in cat language of course) to his young owner in the Charley Says series of films.
At one point The Conductor mentions, seemingly off the cuff, the time and destination of a train. However The 8:15 From Manchester was actually a British Saturday morning magazine show for children and was exactly the kind of thing children would have been watching on a Saturday morning although that show actually started in 1990 – at the time time the story is set (around 1983) they were more likely to have been watching either Saturday Superstore on BBC1 or No. 73 on ITV.
The quintessential ghost story The Signalman by Charles Dickens was also influential in the writing of this tale.