The last tram of the day rattled into the shed, and Edward, staring out at the twilight-dressed trees, killed the power to its ancient heart and trudged homewards across the fields.
From the shadows behind the shed, a figure, skinny as a heron, clothed in grey, slid through the half-open window, crept over to the still warm tram and into the last seat at the rear. His blood-shod bony feet tapped a tune on the wooden floor – clackety clack, home at last, he hummed the words in a wispy whisper.
Louder, he repeated it, showing no pain as his damaged feet tapped away. The ignition light came on and the tram wheezed into life, asthmatic, almost protesting, at being woken again so late after its daily toil.
Its ancient metal frame shivered, and memories flooded its gear box. Its engine thrummed. The grey man sat back, pleased at what he had started in motion.
Half-way across the fields, Edward paused, knee-deep in mud, but hearing the familiar noise. “What’s? It can’t be . . . How?”
Turning, he tugged at his boots, the mud reluctantly relinquished him for a moment. “Stop! What are you doing?” he yelled to a nearby scarecrow, who did not respond, but his cry was heard by the grey man who turned towards the tram master’s sturdy figure, heading for home. So unsuspecting. His lips narrowed to a pencil thin line, his grey eyes blinked, once, twice . . . he opened his mouth and whispered, I am coming.
An owl screeched in the woods and the long distance staring stand-off was broken. The grey man stood up, bowed deep and raised his skinny right arm and brought it down, like a conductor of an orchestra.
The tram jolted once, twice, then breaking free of its moorings, it smashed into the wooden door, splinters and wood sprayed the air, and it surged down the track, with its solo passenger sitting enthroned at the rear, an emaciated emperor.
Edward raced, floundering, stumbling along the edge of the woods, searching for the cut through to the end of the line; the last stop. His heart pounded, sweat poured off him and rats tails of dreams nibbled at his mind.
Stories heard, long forgotten at his Granny’s knee – “If you see the Grey Man, skinny-slim, so lean; your days, they say, are numbered, his soul kiss is deadly keen.”
She would croon the ditty to him at bedtime and he’d lie awake for hours, terrified, staring at shadows, conjuring the grey man from them. When his Ma found out about the storytelling she’d stopped him visiting his Granny. The elderly woman had lived by the old tram line in Milner Woods all her life. “These woods are in me,” she’d tell him.
Granny May had died in her nineties, dementia-ridden, bed-bound, and Edward had, till this night, till this very moment, forgotten her fairy tales. Now, they rattled, like the trams’ wheels, around his skull.
Since his wife had left him, this job and the tram had become his entire life. That and The Red Lion with its casual comforts, of bar maids and whiskey. He had to stop the tram . . . had to face the grey man. To confront a fairy tale.
The tram was slowing, wobbling, stuttering . . . a deer leapt across its path, hind legs blurring in panic. The moon floated out, radiant and calm.
Not so poor Edward stumbling and puffing up the track towards the tram hut, on his way to . . . he knew not what.
The grey man stared at the stars above him, supped the night air, sniffed the animals’ spoors. He stood up and like again like a conductor, waved the string of tram cars to a halt, fitting them neatly into the hut, before he stepped, one stick leg at a time, out onto the platform. The trees huddled around, as though ready to receive his secrets. He had so many to share, their branches reached out, their leaves whispered to him.
He turned his head, cocking it like a hawk, listening. He was coming. The latest tram master. Good. Company at last. Soon he would sup and then sleep. A long, blessed sleep. At last.
It was lonely being a story, a fireside yarn, a warning to the young and foolhardy.
Edward burst out of the bushes, red-faced, wide-eyed, hair askew, cap missing. “You’re -” but he couldn’t speak for lack of breath. Pain wrapped around his chest.
The grey man smiled, nodded, and whispered, “Welcome.” In that moment the clocks paused, midnight stalled and Edward’s cells ceased to age. He felt the stasis – the sea change – but didn’t understand what was happening.
He dropped, as if weighted, onto the wooden bench. The grey man slipped down beside him, a sliver in the moonlight, so thin he could pass through the eye of a needle.
“What are you?” asked Edward in a mumble.
The grey man merely sat, peaceful, waiting, as time was on pause, until he took Edward’s cooling hand in his own bony one. At his touch, Edward’s heart, his very core turned icy.
“Just sit with me for a while. I am so lonely. I will tell you my secrets . . .”
The sun rose, buttering the woods in gold, its rays reaching out to touch the figure of a man, sitting upright on the bench, dressed in the tram master’s uniform, but minus the cap. He sat alone with his left hand resting on his knee, palm upright, whilst his eyes stared, without blinking, at the woods. He was so still, a beetle scurried over his boot without fear. His face showed no emotion; wiped clean, of sorrow and of joy.
His hair – was completely grey. Ashy, as was his skin, lips and eyes.
Alyson Faye lives in West Yorkshire, UK with her family and rescue animals. Her fiction and poetry has been published in a range of anthologies, Diabolica Britannica by Kandisha Press, in 2022’s Space and Time #141, and Brigid’s Gates’ Were-Tales. Her work has been read on BBC Radio, on podcasts (Ladies of Horror and The Night’s End) and placed in competitions. She swims, sings and roams the moor with her Lab cross, Roxy.