Aberystwyth University student Nina Byrom offers a uniquely uncanny short story inspired by the history of the town’s funicular railway. This feature is published as part of Aberystwyth University’s Ambassadorship scheme and hosting partnership with Planet.
The Constitution Hill project is already considered the new, popular attraction for Aberystwyth by the time the Cliff Railway is opened to the public, directly connecting the arcades at the base of the hill with the amusements at the peak. Bridges cross the rails, allowing visitors who take the new footpath instead to watch the cars pass beneath them, one pulled up as the weight of the other is drawn down. The area is known for the air and the views of the bay but the railway provides access for visitors who cannot take the footpath; it is these visitors that begin to complain. An unsociable individual, a person who never leaves the car, one who does not pay. This complaint is of course the loudest, but the ticket office never finds evidence of this ‘well-dressed and clearly influential’ person and so can do nothing. Complaints of a different nature begin to surface.
Children cry for no reason, which is blamed on the irregular clunking movement of the car against the rails being unsettling to the young.
Some passengers will not sit in the lowest section of the car, which is blamed on the unusual design and then on superstition.
A woman suffers a nervous fit and when her husband attempts to confront the individual responsible, he too suffers one, which is blamed on his constitution and goes unspoken of.
An understanding is reached that the unknown individual is responsible, and that the improprieties which occur must not be talked about. It must be avoided, to maintain the way things are. The understanding remains an unspoken truth for everyone who is not a visitor. It is something without origin, that is simply known.
The attractions of the town are usually quiet outside the season, with the coastal border casting a net of grey skies across the town and surrounding hills. In spite of this, the view of the bay is still an inspiring one for anyone willing to brave the hill to see it. Today however, nobody is there to see the full scale of the last night’s events. Instead in the still-overcast morning, the focus of the townspeople is on attending to the injured, clearing flooded houses and boarding broken windows to try and prevent more damage. Men line the seafront, clearing broken paving stones and shards of wood from the beach in wheelbarrows; large debris must be moved as quickly as possible before the weather sweeps in again. Some residents lean in broken doorways, or sit on porches without a road to lead to, watching the recovery effort slowly make headway. The damage will take a very long time to repair.
At the top of the Cliff Railway a figure sits in the car, looking out at what can be seen of the view. Nobody is there to see them watch, in their thinning clothes, as unaffected by the weather now as they were the night before. They have yet to change, even if the town has. They go unseen as the rain comes in again, the wind screaming across the peaks of the hills before retreating just as quickly as it came. As the efforts of the people get pushed back by nature, they sit and observe in silence. When the gulls cry out with the dying of the storm, the recovery begins again.
The weather is worryingly hot and every hour brings a new group of visitors from the station who know where they are and where they want to be, but don’t want to ask how to get there. The sun makes the promenade look more like a seaside postcard than a place that’s lived in and the families filling the beach are joined by students enjoying the weather, or watched by those moving from home, to lectures, and back again. There’s an unspoken understanding that this won’t last.
Some of the visitors seek out the cliff railway, wanting to see the vista of the bay and take pictures to prove they were there. Others run out of promenade to walk along and eye the footpath before deciding against it. The wind is warm, but still strong. Inside the station, a family decides to wait for the next car and go up together, rather than be split up; their fellow passengers crowd the stairs, trying to get a window seat, the car filling from the top down.
‘…rather not talk about it while we’re here.’
A girl shifts up to let her friend sit next to her, ignoring the protests of the other riders.
‘Yeah, but if you had to pick then…’
‘That’s not fair.’
‘Why not? It’s just a thing – it’s there, I don’t want to understand it.
The argument seems like it’s going to continue, but a man trying to mind his children cuts them off. ‘Can you two please move down? There’s no room here.’ He gestures to the lowest portion of the car.
They both look at him as though he’s suggested they ride on the outside and one of them shakes her head. ‘No, we rode in there last time.’
The engines of the railway start up before there are any more protests, and all the passengers are suddenly made aware that they are being pulled up a steep hill by a steel cable. Some try to shift between the jolts, to get more comfortable on the wooden seats without accidentally falling on to someone. By the time it reaches the top some children are demanding to go back down again and others are crying. Parents placate them as the car empties. One of the stragglers notices the unmoving figure in the car and approaches. ‘Excuse me? Are you getting out, it’s going back down soon.’
He gets no response, so he ducks down to try and see their face. As the engine starts up and the car begins the shuddering descent, eyes fix on him in passing then leave him behind on the edge of the platform, mouth agape and mind hanging on by a thread.
Above the station a flock of gulls begin to cry out, bringing the postcard appearance back to the fore.
Nina Byrom is a second-year undergraduate student studying Creative Writing and Film and Television Studies at Aberystwyth University.
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