Friday, September 4, 2009

Pact With the Canal Folk



Dusk was beginning to encroach.
The train doors rumbled shut behind me, trapping some of my nagging anxiety in the empty compartment. As I walked along the platform the residual paranoia attempted to claw its way out of my aesophagus and leak its way out of the pores on my clammy hands. I stepped out of the station concourse and was struck by the absence of late afternoon traffic. The streets were deserted, and there was not a pub in sight. My country's infamous drinking culture had failed me in my hour of need-a vodka tonic would really calm my nerves right now. The only place open was a dingy milk bar next to a car-less parking lot. I crossed the road toward the fluorescent light spilling from the doorway. In the absence of alcohol, a cup of strong coffee would just have to do.
A small Chinese man greeted me as I walked in. His shop was outfitted with standard fast-food d├ęcor: the sacred trinity of deep-frier, grill and glass display counter. The counter was fogged up from the heat of the Chinese man's deep fried efforts. They glistened against the aluminium foil trays like failed genetic experiments, ramming home the fact that I really wasn't hungry. Fading posters, decades old, adorned the off white walls. One particuarly large one hung over the counter, depicting a young man with dated sunglasses and a garish fluoro-green singlet holding a coke bottle out to the viewer. He had a completely deadpan expression on his face. The mid 90s were a weird time for advertising firms I guess.
I ordered my coffee and the Chinese man valiantly tried to engage me in converstaion. My responses were so delayed and awkward that he eventually gave up. While he was frothing my milk , I picked up a copy of the Daily Telegraph lying on a table in an attempt to take my mind off what I was about to do. It proved futile though, and despite the tabloid headlines screaming at me about the extramarital affairs of the Health Minister, I skimmed through barely reading a word. Finally my coffee was done and I left the nice Chinese man to his greasetrap.
I walked further down the street, sipping my coffee from its cardboard cup. It was awful-an unhappy marriage of burnt milk and the oily bitterness characteristic of bottom-shelf grind. It did its job though, replacing my anxiety with caffeine's restless compulsion to action.
The shopping strip ended, and I was walking along the edge of a cricket field. My destination, the rail bridge, loomed in the distance. An afternoon game was in its last innings and I could hear the crack of the ball hitting the bat, and distant white-clad figures frantically scrabbling to catch it.
I pressed on, the green Woolworths bag heavy on my shoulder.
I reached the rail bridge as the last rays of afternoon sun were fading from the purple-orange sky. Retracing my steps, I slipped through the hole in the fence and stepped into the weird space beneath the bridge. The underside of the railbridge towered above me, its iron and wood scaffolding like the vaults of a cathedral. The ground beneath had been covered with grey gravel, but that was when RailCorp maintainence workers actually visited the place. Since then, wild grasses and even small trees had taken root in the ground, making the place resemble some sort of surreal garden. A canal ran alongside: dark, deep and empty save for a slow trickle.
I followed a path cleared through the undergrowth, coming to the clearing directly under the bridge.There was an omnipresent tension in the air, as if a thunderstorm could erupt above my head at any moment. I took the jar of dirty water out of the Woolworths bag, but my hands were shaking so badly I could barely open it. It finally yielded with a pop, and I sat cross legged in the middle of the clearing with the jar beside me. Taking a deep breath, I plunged my hand into the jar.
There was an immediate darkening around the edges of my vision, and an odd coppery taste in my mouth. The dimensions of the jar seemed to have altered themselves somehow; it was impossibly deep, like I was thrusting my hand into a subterranean lake, and yet it had an inexplainable warmth to it. I probed further, until it felt like my entire arm was submerged. When I touched the slimy sediment on the bottom, a hush descended over the clearing. A tingling sensation spread from my fingertips to my elbow until a sharp pain shot up my arm, making me gasp. A harsh buzzing sound began to grow in volume until I thought my ears would rupture, but ceased suddenly when a bright light flashed before my eyes in what must have been a milisecond.
It was then that I saw the figures in the canal.
At first, they came by in isolated groups of two or three, but then an eerie procession of shadowy beings began to emerge. They were vaguely human in shape, but had an unreal physiology of long, ropey limbs. They looked like they were made of condensed smoke, and a grainy quality to them, as if they were being viewed on a bad TV channel. Most unnerving was the way they moved-for the most part they had a slow, exaggerated gait but at intervals they would break into a manic, flailing speed as if some hidden observer was repeatedly pushing a fast-forward button.
One of them stopped abruptly and turned to face me with an eyeless, faceless gaze. There was another flash before my eyes, and suddenly the figure was in the clearing before, looming tall against the rail bridge scaffolding.
What do you want?
The voice rang deep and clear, like a gong being beat in my subconscious. My pulse raced, and I fought to keep a tremor from my voice
“Are you a ghost or a spirit?”
I am neither of these things
“I-I need your help”
The figure squatted in front of me, and extended both its arms past my head
What do you want?
“Tell them to leave my brother alone.”
The figure leaned its large head within centimetres of my face
I will do this for you. But know this, man-thing..I will see you again
I was awoken suddenly by a the clattering roar of a train going over the bridge. The gravel was damp against my back, and my clothes were soaking wet. It had been raining. I pulled my phone out of my pocket and checked the time. 5 AM. The jar was lying beside me, completely empty. Inside was a thin slip of cardboard that looked like a train ticket. On it was printed in red ink:
ADMIT ONE

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