‘Ticket Machine’

His voice was high-pitched and powerless, as if held handcuffed, captive and starving by the remainder of his drooping body. It came entirely from the front quarter of his mouth.

“…and so I said to Kelly, no point now, he’s already said he’ll be back next Thursday, but who knows if he’ll turn up…”

His hair was silver, wiry. Shabby brown cords. I squinted in the sharp midday sun. Four minutes to go. If he finishes up in thirty seconds, I’ll still be able to get a ticket in time, I reassured myself. The voice paused. He was rummaging in his pockets. Come on. He pulled out his wallet, and with it came a scrap of paper. It landed on the ground by his feet. He hadn’t noticed. I picked it up.

“‘Scuse me,” I said, pressing his right arm gently.

He turned around and as soon as he caught my eye, he stopped talking. His eyes grew wide. It was unnerving.

“This just fell out of your pocket.” I held the scrap of paper towards him.

“No. That’s not mine.”

“But I just saw it.”

“Not mine.” He turned to insert a note. His voice sounded even thinner now. It trembled. “Best throw it away.”

I unfolded it once, twice, three, four times. It turned out to be a long strip of paper, almost as thin as tracing paper. I straightened it out. “Nothing important, is it?” I held it in his eyeline.

The man glanced back. The paper must have meant something, because he stood frozen, with his mouth ajar. His eyes flittered over the markings. Was it panic she was seeing? He seemed more than afraid; broken, haunted.

Coins clattered out of the ticket machine, rattling in its metal mouth. He grabbed the tickets, a handful of change and began to run out of the station, back up to the main road.

I extracted the remaining coins and studied the markings on the paper. What was so frightening about them? It might have been Japanese or Korean. I didn’t know much of these languages, but it was somehow sparser than I imagined them – almost like runes or an elaborate binary code, written in black ink. I rubbed my thumb over the characters, and felt a shiver come over my forearms. The sun disappeared behind a cloud. The rails rattled. The train was pulling in.