Midnight Sun

Ramsey Campbell


He was almost home before they noticed him, and by then he had crossed half of England. As the June day lumbered onwards, the railway carriages grew hotter and smokier and, like the stations where he had to change trains, more crowded. On the train out of Norwich he had to convince a motherly woman whose lap was hidden by a mewing wicker basket that he was being met at Peterborough. Having to wait for trains was the worst part; at Peterborough, and at Leeds almost five hours later, the stations were caves full of giants, any of whom might seize him. But once he was on the train out of Leeds to Star-grave, he thought he was safe. It never occurred to him that the closer he came to home, the more likely it was that someone would recognise him.

His breaths tasted of the musty carriage, his heart sounded loud as the train. He wished he could have bought something to eat, but the fare from Norwich had left him only a few pennies of his savings. He swallowed dryly and breathed hard until he no longer felt threatened by the early summer mugginess and the rocking of the train as it raced through the suburbs towards the Yorkshire moors. Each time it stopped, the bleak slopes beyond the houses seemed closer and steeper. Fewer people boarded at the stops than left the train, and by the time it reached the open moorland he had the carriage to himself.

The sky grew paler as the train climbed towards it. Slopes sleek with grass or bristling with gorse and heather bared limestone ridges above the track. Spiky drystone walls, which put him in mind of the spines of dinosaurs, separated fields crumbed with sheep. He felt as if the familiar landscape was welcoming him. That, and the exhaustion of so much travelling, allowed him to drowse, to forget why he was coming home.

When the train pulled into the small bare station before Star-grave, he blinked his eyes open. A headscarved woman in an unseasonable purplish overcoat, using a wheeled basket to nudge one child ahead of her while she dragged his twin brothers behind her, flustered onto the platform as the train gasped to a halt, and launched herself and her burdens towards the nearest door. Ben saw her face, which lit up red as she puffed on the perilously short cigarette stuck in the corner of her mouth, and he shrank back out of sight. She was a cleaner at the Stargrave school.

Perhaps she hadn't seen him. He slid down the seat as the last door of the carriage slammed open behind him. The three boys charged up the aisle, the twins pummelling and shoving each other while their little brother wailed at them to wait for him, and their mother seemed too busy following them to spare the solitary traveller more than a glance. 'Stop that or I'll give you such a thump. Sit down on them seats, right there,' she cried, and dumped herself across the aisle from Ben. 'Here, I want you here.'

She stubbed out her cigarette and immediately lit another as the train moved off. The gritstone houses of the village gave way to lonely slopes scattered with stones like eroded buildings, and Ben turned as much of himself as he could towards the window. He was afraid not just of being recognised but of losing control of the emotions he'd been choking down all day, saving them for when he reached his destination. 'Sit still when you're told,' the woman cried, and then he felt her lean across the aisle to peer at him. 'On your own, love, are you?' she said.

He tried to pretend he hadn't heard her, but he couldn't help turning further towards the window. 'I'm talking to you, love,' she said, raising her voice. 'I know you, don't I? You shouldn't be out on your own.'

The twins were whispering together. 'Is it him?' one said.

'It's him, Mam, isn't it? The boy whose mam and dad and everyone got killed on the moors?'

Ben squeezed his eyes shut to keep his feelings down, and then she lowered herself beside him on the seat. 'All right, son, no need to be frit,' she murmured, so close that he felt the heat of her cigarette on his cheek. 'I know you're the Sterling boy. Where are you coming from? They're wicked, them, whoever's meant to be looking after you, letting an eight-year-old wander about by himself.'

The idea that he might get his aunt into trouble dismayed him. She was doing her best for him as she saw it. He sucked his lower lip between his teeth with a sound that made the twins giggle, and chewed the flesh inside it to quieten himself. 'Don't mind us, Ben,' the woman said. 'You have a cry. You'll do yourself no good keeping that to yourself.'

His eyelids couldn't squeeze any harder, and so he opened them. His surroundings were blurred, as if the storm of tears he was struggling to control was already falling. He felt as if she was stealing his grief and putting it on show. He wanted to lash out at her pudgy face that looked heavy with concern for him, at her nostrils where snot peeked out and withdrew every time she breathed, at her mottled double chin whose dividing crevice sprouted a wiry reddish hair. 'You stay with us now,' she said, 'and we'll find someone to take care of you, poor lamb.'

He might have told her he was travelling beyond Stargrave, but she never took much notice of anything children said. All he could do, he thought with a clarity which made him feel cold and hollow, was open the door and jump. At least then he should be with his family. His hand crept behind him and found the handle, and he felt the door shake. He had only to lean on the handle and fall backwards out of the train. He'd close his eyes when the door gave way. The rocking of the carriage threw his weight onto the handle, and he felt it turn downwards – and then the door rattled in its frame, and she grabbed his arm and hauled him along the seat. 'Never play with train doors, son. You boys are all the same.'

Even more than her interference, her classing him with her children made him want to weep with rage. He'd throw himself at the door as soon as she let go of him, he'd show her that she hadn't summed him up – but the delay had let him realise how falling from the train would feel, and he hadn't the courage. He was scarcely aware of her children, except as a scabby sullen restlessness on the seat opposite, until she gripped his arm harder and flurried her free hand at them. 'Don't go rummaging. We'll be getting off in a minute.'

One of the twins was rooting in the basket, and her voice sent him digging deeper. 'I want my sweets.'

The youngest started wailing. 'Not fair. They always have the green ones.'

'Leave it,' she yelled, and let go of Ben's arm. Potatoes spilled out of the basket as the youngest boy snatched the bag of sweets and pranced away with it. The train was slowing as it crossed the bridge over the road on the outskirts of Stargrave, and Sterling Forest came into view, a shadowy mass of green and silver above the terraced streets of gritstone cottages and houses the colour of old parchment. The youngest boy had jumped on a seat at the end of the carriage and was brandishing the sweets above his head, and then the twins grabbed the bag so hard that it burst. The woman gathered up the potatoes and lurched along the aisle, shaking a finger like a yellowed sausage at Ben. 'Don't you dare move.'

He'd never disobeyed a grownup. He'd sneaked away from his aunt's house before dawn, leaving her a note which told her not to worry about him, and as he'd inched the front door open he had been terrified that she would waken and call him back. Now he felt crushed by dutifulness. The twins were laughing at the youngest, who was still clutching the torn neck of the bag, until he kicked one of them on the shin and poked the other in the eye. 'Stop that before someone gets hurt,' their mother screamed, flailing her arms at whoever she might strike. 'None of you's having any sweets now, nor chocolates neither, and no chips. And I won't be buying you them toys I promised, and them new shoes can go back to the market…'

Suddenly Ben was filled with contempt for her, so intense that it frightened him. The train had reached the station. He lunged at the door and shoved the handle down. The door swung open, stone bruised his heels, and he was running faster than the train towards the end of the platform.

The slow old station-master, whose handlebar moustache was the colours of pipe-smoke and nicotine, came out of the office to meet him. He glanced at Ben's ticket, and then past him so sharply that Ben had to look. The purplish woman was heaving at a window with one hand and labouring to open the door with the other, and shouting to the station-master to keep Ben there. Ben thought the whole of Stargrave must be able to hear, muffled though her voice was. 'You'll have to wait,' the station-master said.

He was between Ben and the passage out of the station. Ben's chest was aching with holding his breath by

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