Like the sarsen stones and sequoias that lined the frozen rails from City Junction to the rumbling oak mines, Philip emanated heft. To strangers, he appeared to possess a petrifying and feral strength. However, once acquainted, they saw he directed his brawn with dignity and was no more threatening than the quaking dogs the president, it was rumoured, used to warm his bed.
Forsaken at the station gates and pressed into service still barely able to say his name, Philip had grown – composted in coal dust and fertilised with cruelty – into an impeccable employee of the North-Eastern Train Company. As such, he favoured new overalls over boiled, cultivated no beard or sidebrooms and since keeping secrets was discouraged, kept only one: when doubt and unease called, he would touch the tattoo of Mellusa, eternal pacifist and gentle dissident, that tumbled in pale inks down his side.
Each morning, before attending to the matters a train driver must to ensure no calamities occur down the line, Philip placed a hand across the silver button pinned to his chest and opened his lungs:
Through the fiery forests
And the fields that feed this land
Whether worker, child or soldier
We’ll lead you by the hand
His rendition of the company anthem never failed to enthral, but today, as he watched the thin man board his train, Philip eschewed the desire to entertain and bawled it to mask his charging heart as fury saddled up and dropped its whip hand hard. He’d first encountered him as he hurried to work along the pavement skirting the station’s walls and had immediately – and correctly – taken him for a bureaucrat from the Department of Probity and Guidance: the type that drank before breakfast and although from a distance appeared respectable, up close smiled like a starving fox and dripped with countless unsavoury infections. As the man approached, Philip – knowing the fear his stature inspired – had stepped from the pavement to let him pass. However, rather than mutter a customary thank you, the thin man had tightened his arm and jabbed Philip’s side with such force, for a moment he could hardly breathe.
And so, beneath the station’s crumbling wall, the same scenario repeated each day: as Philip stepped aside, the thin man would strike – always where Mellusa knelt and sang as the president’s confederates bore down upon her. After two weeks, he could take no more: he pined for nightmares as his battered ribs tossed him about the bed as surely as a spatula flips steak. He needed to act and rather than exercise insults and accusations, he would, in an attempt to facilitate a sincere accord, present the thin man with two gifts.
First, he imported wool shorn from the bluehorns that pirouetted atop the Badazol mountains and spent his nights knitting it into a blanket so sumptuous, each time he touched it, he thought he might cry. Next, he made pastries – palmiers and cardamom madeleines – so diminutive and delicate his fingers destroyed most before they reached the oven. When he was done, he scraped the remaining flour into a heap and resting his head upon it, finally fell asleep.
The following morning was glorious – Spring had arrived and was busy shooing Winter from the city’s streets as Philip tucked his gifts beneath each arm and set off. By the time he’d reached the station wall, he was so buoyed by good spirits he doubted he would need them – surely, he concluded, ill feeling could not survive such fine weather. Ahead, the thin man appeared and as Philip lifted his offerings, he bent and ran and contorting into a trident of clavicles and crown, slammed him centre-chest. As he fell, Philip felt the elbow again, deep in his side and watched as his pastries scattered under tyres and his blanket twisted skyward until snatched by the antenna of a garish refrigerator truck spray-named The Iceman Cumeth. Unperturbed, the thin man continued on.
As the engine tugged the train forward and the city unravelled into countryside, Philip spotted a worker in the distance, standing between the tracks, signalling frantically with red flags. Behind him, villagers in company tabards worked with bare hands to shift a slurry of broken trees and boulders blocking the track. Panicking, Philip stood and stomped on the brake.
While waiting, he pulled off his overalls and inspecting his side, was shocked to discover his tattoo so vandalised by injury, he barely recognised it. Mellusa’s countenance – once delineated by subtle and nimble variegations – was now bloated and jaundiced and twisted into a depiction of hostility so contrived, it appeared the thin man, using some peculiar talent, had re-drawn it upon his skin. Her eyes – those eyes – those covenants of forgiveness and comfort – were now marked by mauve nodes; swollen vesicles seething with all they had seen.
The tattoo felt terrible upon him – Philip needed it gone: he started with fists and fingernails, then with whatever he found rusting in the company tool box. He granted his suffering no concessions and cleaved and clawed until he’d reduced his side to a quivering confiture and nothing of Mellusa remained. Then, seeing the worker still standing with flags aloft, he slammed the accelerator forward and seconds before passing out, jammed it with his foot.
Hearing the unmistakable shufflings of rancour from behind the cab door, the thin man removed his pocket-book and placed a tick beside Philip’s name. Then, since he was due to meet Isobel – a decorated soldier who disguised herself to read tender idylls at cafés in the artists’ zone – he slapped his knee with glee as the train rattled and stuttered and began to gather speed.
GJ Hart currently lives and works in London and has had stories published in The Molotov Cocktail, The Jersey Devil Press, The Airgonaut, The Harpoon Review, 99 Pine Street, The Jellyfish Review and others. He can be found arguing with himself over @gj_hart.
Written with language so “diminutive and delicate” that each word is like one of those pastries, finely dusted with icing sugar that does not quite hide the sharp cinnamon bite. Thanks.