Sunday, September 5, 2010


The Stranger
By Michael S. Collins

Everything used to be so different here. There was the old pub, the garage, and the wasteland. All gone, sleet and gravel where a childhood was once spent. The wasteland lay untouched a week ago, when I was last this way. And now, a place once fond of childhood bruised knees now resembles less an overgrown field and more an archaeological dig. They say Roman silver was found there, that it is an important excavation. To hell with that: what of my childhood memories?

Everything has changed. The monster red brick houses, once able to withstand the Blitz, now derelict and arthritic, ready to crumble at the slightest touch. The church has begun to do so, its roof having fallen in some years ago. The railway bridge over which we used to watch the trains go by and pretend we were in Thomas the Tank engine is considered unsafe, the railway line itself long since discontinued. Everything is changing forever, and none of it seems all that innocent anymore.

They say you get cynical in your middle age. Me? I am barely twenty and already I am filled with the cynicism of life. Pass exams. Get a job. Start a family. Pay your debts. Everyone has them. Pay some more. Horde your money. Fear for your life. Be miserly. Life is precious. Love it and what have you got? Schopenhauer was wrong, for life is the be all and end all point of existence. Everything leads to life. Nothing is more important than living, than being alive. Being more than alive.

But people never live forever, no matter how hard I try and hope and pray for them to do so. They die. They all die, in the end. And in the end does it even matter, really? The cause of existence is the lead up to death, so say Schopenhauer, so say life. But what of those left behind? I was left behind, I am always left behind whilst loved ones passed on. And what do we do then? No hope, no reasoning, no comeback. Nothing. There is no escaping the finality of death, no matter how hard you want that telephone to ring.

This is why it came as a bit of a shock to me to see you sitting on the bus this morning. The day was not one that signposted visitation. No rain, thunder or even a dark cloud on the horizon. Just another shapeless, humid day in the life of Glasgow’s South Side. I was naturally running late for work, the bus was slow and crowded full of undesirables. I elected to hide up the back of the bus with a trusty Metro and hope the driver would find time to get me to my destination sometime this century.

That's when I saw you. You weren't that difficult to spot, sitting in front of me. I saw you as I was flicking back to the football pages. You wore a green anorak zipped up to the neck. It looked familiar then. It still does. You looked up at me, from your own paper – a more respectable broadsheet – and smiled. I thought I recognised it then. The slowest trickle of recognition, forming at the back of my mind, scrabbling for attention.

Just a stranger opposite me at the back of the bus reading a newspaper. But there was something about you that I recognized. Something less strange. Something familiar. You know, as I was looking at you sitting across there, the slow spasm of recognition fully worked its way past my hangover and early morning blues.

It was you! Or at least, someone who looked the spitting image of you. Imagine that, you being dead all those years, and yet there you were, sitting in the seat opposite. A decade of nearly forgotten grief slowly rose from my heart and I had to blink furiously and screw my eyes into the paper to avoid a tear. The man looked so much like you. It was unfair. Even his hair and the way he wore he glasses reminded me of you. Even the way he would cough once as he turned the page. In every essence this stranger reminded me of you.

And then our eyes met fully. And he smiled. A warm smile, it broke through my depressions and lifted my soul, from beyond a veil of encrusted mourning. And then he spoke.

“Morning, Martin” he said.

So he was no stranger! He knew my name. And he looked so much and acted so much like you.

“It's been a long time, hasn't it? I've missed you.” he said.

“I've missed you too” I said, before I realized what I was saying.

The Stranger smiled and reached out for my hand. I let him hold it. His hand was cold but firm.

“You need to stop mourning, Martin. All things pass only momentarily. I had to go, but we'll be seeing each other again, in time.”

And then I realized that he was you, and you were he, and I was speaking to you, even after all those years. After all those years, you had listened to my little private chats to you, and you were here. My grandfather! How I had missed you!

The Stranger got up from his seat. “It's my stop”, he said, “I still need to be punctual about these things.” He moved down the aisle, stopping once to turn his head back to me. “It's not the end, merely a pause, you know. We'll meet again.” And then, with a thank you to the driver, he got off the bus.

I watched you as you walked slowly down the road, and as the bus moved further on, you paused to wave at me as we drove past. I waved back, and the depression was lifting as I did.

As I was hit by a sudden realization.

Sometimes loved ones come back. That not even death can get in the way of them checking up on those they loved, to make sure they are still being looked after. Only through doing that can they reassure us that death is far from the end, and only a temporary rest before we all met again.

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My name is Michael S Collins and I am a member of GSFWC (the Glasgow Strange-Fiction Writers Circle). I have been published in several countries (including Literature E-zine websites, ad writing for Bob Furnell) and do book review for magazines such as The Fortean Times. My short fiction has appeared in magazines such as Aesthetica, Clockwise Cat, The Short Humour Site, MicroHorror, TBD, and was included in the DemonMinds anthology in 2008.


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