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Stranger on the Line, by The Birch Twins.

By The Birch Twins

“A parade tomorrow to mark the end of the Falklands war will go ahead despite threats from the IRA, Mrs. Thatcher said today…”

“Do you want this news on, Love? How were that tea?”

“Nice, Val. I love a good chop. Where the hell are those two?”

“They’ll be ok. Twins will look after each other. You want BBC on or shall I switch over?”

“I’ll bloody leather the pair of them” he said picking up his mug of tea, “It’s seven o clock and they’ve got school tomorrow. Keep this channel on. Bloody Thatcher, The BBC bloody love her.”

“You know what day it is, Roy, don’t you,” said Val suddenly, “I just noticed.”


“12th October. Brian.”

“Oh God,” said Roy, “is it? I’d forgotten. Poor Brian. How long ago is it now?”

“Eleven years,” she replied, “12th October 1971. We’d just moved in here.”

“I remember. He came round with that wood and we made that fence. Hadn’t he just retired?”

“I think so.”

They were both quiet for a moment as the news reader droned on. They remembered one dark day eleven years ago, when police had come knocking at the door of their neighbor, Brian and Betty, just after tea. They told Betty that the body of her husband, Brian, had been found. He’d parked their old Ford Anglia on Hyde Road and walked onto the main electrified railway line, where he was struck and killed by the down mail. The entire street was shattered. A likable little man, the 66 year old retired coal man had busied himself doing odd jobs for neighbors. Roy and Terry across had gone down to Hyde Road to recover the car.

The news report turned to the weather.

“Where the hell are those buggering twins,” said Roy looking out of the window at the evening darkness, “I’ll bloody kill the pair of them.”

“Time is it?”

Helen looked at her watch.

“Says its three o clock,” she said looking at her twin in the evening gloom, “I think this watch is still broke, though.”

“We best get back,” said Andrew, “mum will have had tea on the table. We’ll have missed it.”

“She’ll be ok,” replied his twin, resting against a boarded up building, “she’ll get over it.”

“We’ll get shouted at,” he said, his head down, “We’ll miss Coronation Street.”

“Well look…if we rush back now, we’ll still be shouted at. So we might as well stop out a bit.”

“What times bus due?”

“I don’t know,” she said kicking against a broken down wall, “Where are we?”

“Hyde Road.”

“We could go into town? Get that landlady from Tommy Ducks to give us a carry out.”

“That’s miles off” he said as they dodged past a battered Ford Anglia that had been parked half on the pavement,” that’s all the way across Manchester. I want my tea.”

“If we’re on Hyde Road, we could go over the main line and be home without the bus. Then we’ll have a pound spare. Bunk off tomorrow and spend it.”

He looked at his sister and they both grinned. Ducking down an alley between the bus garage and an old factory, they made their way towards the railway lines.

“We could watch trains for a bit,” suggested Helen kicking some puddle water at her twin, “if you want.”

“Leave off kicking water,” he said, “I’ll paste you in a minute. Look at my pants.”

She laughed as they walked.

“You’ll do what, dickhead?” she said turning to face him smiling, “go on then. Kick my head in.”

She kicked some more water at him and he playfully shoved her. They carried on walking, glad when the gloomy alley with its growing evening shadows opened out onto a large railway embankment.

They scrambled up the embankment, underneath the rusting and peeling signs that warned of overhead live wires, and informed potential trespassers that they could be prosecuted.

“Let’s have a sit,” said Helen plunking herself down on a rock, “see if any trains come.”

“Duck down,” replied Andrew, they can see us from that building over there.”

“Nah. It’s getting dark. We’ll be fine.”

Spread before them were four railway lines. Andrew liked trains, and knew the electrified two lines were the fast main, and the other two for the slow freight lines and passenger trains into Gorton and Manchester. A fifth line further away had been to the pit behind the park, but Dad had said that Thatcher had closed the pit. Bloody Thatcher, he always said.

“I’ve got a toffee in my pocket,” she said giving it to him, “have a suck of it if you want.”

He took the sweet, unwrapped it and began to suck on it. A local Fallowfield train rattled past on the slow line almost empty, the teatime rush having subsided, the travelling workers now home with their families. The thought of his tea made his stomach rumble, and he removed the sweet from his mouth.

“Here you are,” he said passing it to her, “you finish it.”

“Shall we go home?”


“If she shouts, just blame me.”

“No. Mum goes easier on me. Tell her it’s my fault. If the school ring tomorrow when we’ve bunked off, then it can be your turn.”

Hand in hand, they crawled under the protective fence that sealed the railway away from the public and began to walk across the lines. Then Andrew stopped. He saw a sight that, no matter how old he grew, that he would never forget.

“Who the hell’s that?”

“Who? Where?”

Andrew pointed to a figure walking down the down main line. An elderly man.

“Fuck’s sake! What he doing? Here, Mister?”

The man couldn’t hear them, or if he did, he didn’t turn around. Helen reached for her twin’s hand and gripped it. They watched as he walked along the line, stepping carefully between the sleepers, his head down. The twins, rooted to the spot, watched in terror as he made no attempt to move off the main line.

“Lights on green.”

“We have to tell someone!”

“Who? Where’s the nearest phone box?”

Andrew gripped his sister’s hand as he suddenly heard the gentle hiss of the rails, the familiar sound that signified an approaching train. The man, head down, walked on. The hiss and vibration form the rails got louder and slowly turned into the familiar roar of a train approaching at speed, an express from the south. The man trudged sadly along the line, turning one final time to stare at the twins with a hollow eyed sad look. They gripped each other, a sudden terror having taken them. The man turned back to face the oncoming train, hunching his shoulders sadly and putting his head down. Then the express was upon them. The 1745 Down Mail from London Euston to Glasgow Central, calling at Manchester Piccadilly. She roared by in the darkness, hurrying her 13 coach mail train past the twins with haste. And then she was gone, leaving only the gentle hiss of the rails. Of the man there was no trace.

“Let’s go for the bus,” said Helen, “come on. Let’s get home.”

“I didn’t shout at them,” said Val as she sat down, “they looked like frightened rabbits.”

“They shouldn’t be playing about on that railway line,” said Roy getting up to turn the channel on the TV, “I wonder how it was they saw on the line?”

“I don’t know. Poor little buggers. They said it was an old man. Should we call the police, you think?”

“I wouldn’t. I suppose if it’s in the local paper tomorrow, we’ll find out. If not, it must be poor old Brian come back to haunt us.”

Roy sat back, quiet. Val could hear the sound of the clock on the mantelpiece. She shuddered. Upstairs, the twins slept uneasily in their bed. All was darkness and silence.


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