Slipping, by Prue Bon

The streets were quiet, the rain keeping most people inside, away from the city. Heavy, dark clouds hid the stars. Strands of moonlight occasionally mingled with the dull light from the gas lamps that lined the streets.

She made her way slowly down Swanston street, humming the music from the show she had just seen. Adrenalin pumped through her, the excitement and atmosphere of her evening lingered.

Groups of soldiers stood huddled in doorways, smoking. Thin wisps of smoke wafted into the dark night, the tips of their cigarettes glowing. She smiled at them, content and friendly, but carefully stayed on the other side of the road, skipping over the puddles in her way.

She approached Flinders Street Station, stepping cautiously along the wet pavement lest she slip in her new heels. It had taken months to save up for these new shoes, and she was desperate to keep them looking that way. If not for the fact that she was down to her last pair of stockings, she would have taken them off and walked barefoot.

She glanced at her watch, wondered where he was. He had told her to meet him at ten o’clock; not to be late. The bells of the cathedral chimed ten as she climbed the last step and stood in the station entrance, underneath the protection of the clocks.

It would have been easier for her to share a cab home with her friends. They had questioned the sense in her walking to the station on her own. She’d shrugged, her face flushing, not wanting the girls to know how difficult it had been for her to convince him to let her attend at all.

They had argued about it for hours. In the end, she had relented, as usual, promising to meet him at the clocks in order to ensure the night out. Compromising on how she would get home seemed a small price to pay in exchange for the few hours of freedom he had granted her.

“I’m not having you out wandering the streets. You should be here at home” he’d yelled, his arms flapping wildly, accusing her of something not yet done.

“It’s just a show, Robbie. All the girls are going.”

“All of them, aye?” he sneered. She ignored him, turned away. He grabbed her arm.

“I’ll catch a cab home as soon as the show’s over,” she promised. “I won’t be late.”

“You already bought the ticket?”

She nodded. “The clocks. Soon’s the show’s over. I’ll be there. Don’t be late,” he’d finally conceded.

The light that dribbled out from the station was dull; a tepid white glow that was mostly drowned out by the steady stream of drizzle. A few people sheltering under umbrellas hurried past, but they were becoming few and far between. A pair of soldiers ambled past, staring at her, but then continued on their way, deciding against any attempt at conversation, perhaps because of the rain.

It was getting late. It was dark, cold, unwelcoming. The night was not kind to unescorted young ladies. She shivered, a ripple of dread creeping up her spine.

She poked her head back out into the street, peering through her wet bangs, blinking away tears of frustration that mingled with the rain. It was nearing 11pm and she wanted to be at home, dry and tucked up in bed.

Turning to look at the clocks, movement caught her eye and she turned quickly, following it through the station foyer. Moving slowly, and keeping low to the ground, the shadow wandered closer to her, stopping at the curb below the steps. Her pulse quickened, the hair on her arms prickled. She stood still, holding her breath, waiting, trying to see what it was. It turned a few circles, moved a little closer to the wall and lifted a leg. Steam drifted out from the wall where the dog had just peed. She released the breath she had been holding, a rush of quiet noise. The dog looked at her, woofed. It came closer, sniffed her and then moved off, seeking someplace warmer, drier. She laughed quietly at herself, for being nervous about a dog.

The rain was getting heavier, big splotches dropping onto the ground. Large puddles had grown steadily in the low spots of the stairs. There was a constant flow of water from one end where the pipes had broken. The ground beneath was green, slippery, the smell of mildew floated across the empty space.

The air in front of her froze when she exhaled, chilled the inside of her nose when she breathed in. The tips of her fingers were numb, and even with her hands jammed tightly into her pockets, she was unable to get any feeling back in them.

If he didn’t show up soon, she thought, he would likely arrive to find her frozen solid, a statue underneath the clocks. She checked her watch again, yawned, covered her mouth quickly, savoured the precious few seconds of warmth it provided.

The city was quiet; a solitude brought by the rain had descended upon it, rendering a certain peace rarely encountered among a city that never slept. She relished the silence, wrapped the cloak of it around her, hoping that the absence of sound would translate as an absence of fear.

She was not yet worried. The last train did not depart for another half hour. Even with the rain, she could make the short walk back to East Richmond on her own. If she was lucky there would be a cab and she could get home quickly, and stay dry. She could deal with his arguments in the morning.

He was probably at home anyway, drinking. He’d be distracted by the booze, have simply forgotten the time. It wouldn’t have been the first time.

But the sky was getting darker, the night later and the city was nearly empty of all life bar her. Soon it would simply be her and the steady ticking of the clocks, the inconsistent thumping of rain drops on the uneven surfaces. Not even the dog was left to keep her company.

A noise, loud, indeterminate, shattered the silence. She turned around, her eyes searching the darkness. But she can’t see anything. There is nothing, no one but her. Her breathing becomes shallow, tense. More noise, a crash, and fear ripples through her. Her palms become slick – sweat, rain maybe. Her hands are numb, frozen. She cannot feel anything.

Another noise, she spins again, loses her balance for just a second, rights herself. She wipes her hands down the side of her jacket, but it’s drenched and doesn’t help.

The distinctive sound of breaking glass caused her to pivot, facing back into the station. It was dark now, the few gas lamps that lit the paths to the platforms caused only muddy puddles of reflection directly below them, leaving the rest of the station foyer a yawning cavern of darkness.

She shivered, and stepped outside, towards the road. There was still a lamp on outside St Paul’s Cathedral. She could go and wait for him over there.

Glancing back into the station entrance, she searched again for the cause of the noise, but she saw nothing, heard nothing. The dog barked, she jumped, held her hand over her racing heart.

“You are being ridiculous,” she scolded herself. Another crash, deep within the station, she saw a single light shone out from the other end of the foyer. The light was slowly moving towards her, but it wasn’t attached to anything. She could see no one holding it aloft. Squinting through the darkness surrounding the light did not help, and yet another crash left her trembling.

The rain had picked up, a steady downpour now, slickening the road and the footpath. She could hear the drops hammering the pavement, like a thousand horses pulling their carriages up Swanston St. Lightning cracked apart the night sky. The rain became even heavier, the wind shifted, driving it in cold sheets across and under the clocks.

One more crash, the bells of St Paul’s Cathedral, the start of the witching hour.

Mustering her courage, she looked back towards the light. Her heart raced, blood pumping in her ears. Goosebumps covered her body and her stomach churned like a glass of milk solidifying to butter. It sat, heavy in her gut, fear spreading slowly from it the way cracks appear in a window.

The weak light still hung suspended, in mid-air, but it was no longer moving. She glanced nervously at it, blinking a few times to attempt to dislodge some of the water stuck in her lashes, blurring her vision, but it was definitely not moving.

A scream, piercing, echoed off the walls around her. Turning, frantic now, trying to see where it had come from, she tripped, wrenched her ankle, fell. She screams, turns, slips in the water. She puts her hands out to break her fall, the sickening crunch of her knees hitting the tiles hard, the shock coursing through her body. She cried out, no one heard her. Sitting on the wet step, she breathed in, deeply. Valiantly tried to stem the tears that threatened to fall.

Composing herself, she crawled back up the stairs towards the light. There was a hole in her stocking, and she could feel the blood welling up, spilling down her leg, mixing with the rain. It was fluid, steady, bright.

Her cold and leaden arms, her numb fingers, prevented her from moving further under the protection of the station canopy, which now stood still and silent. One tear fell, then another, followed by wrenching sobs that wracked her whole frame.

She curled into herself, a tight ball of fear, hurt and pain and let the tears fall. She was already so drenched, a bit more water wouldn’t matter.

After a few minutes, her sobs quietened, her breathing ragged, but starting to calm. She took a few deep breaths, hiccups threatening, and listened to the eerie silence that enveloped her. Unfurling herself, she sat up, looked around nervously, but saw nothing. Heard nothing. She scolded herself for her over-active imagination, focusing her energy on that rather than the dark station that surrounded her. Calming herself down and then slowly standing up, she gingerly tested her ankle. It wasn’t that bad, especially with her heels off, and since she’d already shredded the knees out of her stockings in her self-induced moment of hysteria, it would make no difference if the bottoms were ruined too. There was no other choice for her but to begin the walk home to East Richmond. She was a fool for waiting for him this long anyway, and the walk home would allow her to compose herself more, to think of an explanation as to her appearance, to come up with a reason as to why he should have just let her catch a cab home with her friends.

Drawing her soaking coat around her as tightly as she could, she pushed herself to her feet, reading herself to step out again into the inclement weather, the random and unreliable cover of the trees the only protection she would have.

Slowly, gently, she puts on foot in front of the other. A great sound rumbles from the belly of the station and she flinches. Her fingers clenched into fists, her heart pounded against her ribs, each beat trying to make a hole in which to escape from. She is stuck, rooted to the floor of the station foyer with fear. It lays heavy around her, her fear, smothering her, holding her tight.

She can hear her breathing, thudding in her ears. It is loud, constant, consistent. She pulled her purse up onto her shoulder, firmly gripping her shoes in her other hand. She holds her breath for a moment, listens, can hear nothing. It is silent, a soundproof bomb shelter, and her heart skips a beat at the thought. Never again did she want to be caught in that vacuum, completely unaware of everything going on around her, oblivious to any other sound of life.

She paused, listened again. Her breathing has slowed, her heartbeat steady. She was being ridiculous, her imagination working overtime. She took a deep breath, another one, one more. The tension building inside her had lessened, unwound itself, and the butterflies in her stomach had started to settle.

But her hands still trembled. She clasped them together tightly, bringing them up underneath her chin, tucking in her elbows. She was chilled through and wet. She could not stop shivering.

A crash resounded through the station, echoing off the tiled walls. She was still, waiting. Another crash, closer this time. She backed up, closer to the steps of the station, preparing to run.

Shaking, she lifted her head, seeking out the source of the noise. She couldn’t see anything. There wasn’t anything to see. Standing unsteadily, she leaned against the wall beside her, willing herself to stay upright. There was a knocking sound in her head, her temples throbbed.

Her heart was pumping. Her skin crawled. There was a deafening thumping in her ears, the blood pounding through her.

Movement; a flicker of white. Her eyes darted around the darkness, trying to focus. Again movement caught the corner of her eye, but before she could register anything, a thin, bony hand shoots out from the darkness and clasps her shoulder. Bloodshot eyes and a sharp nose jutted out from the gloom, a flash of teeth, yellowed and rotting, the distinct scent of decay settling around her. The corners of the mouth were curled up, snarling, like a rabid dog. The hand on her shoulder squeezed tightly.

She screamed, lost her footing on the slick tiles, falling. With a smash, her head hit the unforgiving station floor. The blood pooled its forces with the rain to clean away the dirt and grime of the past day.

Across the road at the Young & Jackson, Robbie sat slumped at the bar, his hand wrapped around a pint of beer. He hated waiting. It bored him, made him angry. The boys had all left hours earlier, gone home to their good wives, a home cooked meal waiting for them on the table. He chugged the last few mouthfuls of his beer, tapped the bar impatiently for another one.

“Don’t you have somewhere better to be, mate?” the barman asked.

“Mind your business, and just give me another beer. I’m a paying customer” he growled. He looked at the clock above the bar. She could wait for him. He would make her wait. She shouldn’t have gone out anyway, left him to his own devices. She should be at home, in the kitchen, right where any good wife should be. Scare her into submission, this would. Make her see that he’s the boss.

The barman shrugged, placed the fresh beer in front of him.

“Last call in a half hour, mate,” he said and turned his back on the arrogant prick.

When he finally stumbled up the stairs of the station some time later, having been thrown out of the Young & Jackson, he found her sprawled across the tiles, her limbs stiff and unyielding, a look of pure terror frozen on her face. He reached out towards her, his fingertips tangling in her hair, his heart thumping hard against his ribs. Touching her pale face, he saw a flicker of movement in her eyelids, a flutter, and her head lolled to the side. A groan, a horrid death rattle, escaped her lips. His pulse quickened, and then she was silent. Grabbing the purse from her clenched hands, he ran out into the street, away from the gaping hole of the Flinders Street Station entrance; away from her.

***

The Australian Literature Review
www.auslit.net

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4 Responses to Slipping, by Prue Bon

  1. Pingback: March Short Story Comp – Shortlist | The Australian Literature Review

  2. Pingback: March Short Story Competition Winners | The Australian Literature Review

  3. Sam Stephens says:

    Congratulations Prue, nicely done!

    cheers
    Sam

  4. Rick says:

    Great, fantastic all that I have come expect from such a talented young niece.

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