Thriller competition - Runner Up

Laura Jane Siddiky

Runner Up
Tuppence for the Ferryman
Thriller competition


Laura lives in Liverpool with her husband and three quirky children. She enjoys the diversity of writing for competitions and the challenge of writing for different genres so is delighted to be placed in a WM competition for a second time. Still apprehensive of travelling beyond the confines of the short story, this has provided a welcome confidence boost and the encouragement to keep going.


Tuppence for the Ferryman By Laura Jane Siddiky

“Want to see a magic trick?”
The old man shuffled up to our table uninvited, weaving a long, gold chain between his thick, callused fingers and carrying with him a strong smell of cigarette smoke.
In fact, the whole bar had a sort of musty, smoky smell about it. It was what I’d describe as ‘oldy-worldy’ – tiny, dark, barely enough room for its four small tables, and four stools along the bar; but it had a warm feel, like it had soaked up the atmosphere, along with the beer and sweat, of generations. Random nick-nacks adorned every space of every wall and the rustic, wooden furniture; smooth and worn; gave no clues as to its original colour.
This was typical. Our first date night in ages interrupted in the first five minutes. Jad said I was a magnet for these people: the oddities; that I had an inviting smile.
“Go on then.” I replied, sensing Jad’s rolling eyes.
The man held up the chain to show it was complete. “Examine it if you want,” he said offering it for inspection. I gave it a courteous tug and agreed that it was solid.
“Do you have a ring? Or bracelet?”
“No, sorry” I replied honestly, glad I’d stopped wearing my wedding ring.
“No matter.” He produced a gold ring from his shirt pocket and, with sleight of trembling hand, the ring was on the chain, sliding up and down as he pulled the chain this way and that. It was genuinely quite impressive and I gave a little clap, hoping it didn’t appear condescending.
Satisfied, he stowed his chain and ring into a pocket of his long overcoat and pulled a rickety wooden stool from under the table to sit on. “Do you mind?” He glanced from me to Jad, who shrugged as if to say, now what?
The man squinted at me, then at Jad. “Do you mind me asking where you’re from?” I noticed my husband stiffen, just for a moment. The question, innocently posed but often loaded with subconscious assumptions, was one he was used to.
“I’m from here,” Jad replied bluntly, an edge of provocation to his voice.
“Oh, right.” The old man shuffled uncomfortably on his stool as he tried to hide his momentary surprise. I could tell he was weighing up whether to delve further into Jad’s ancestry. I hoped he wouldn’t.
He turned back to me, clearly deciding I was a better bet for friendly conversation. “And you love, are you from round here too?”
“Pretty much. Just across the water.”
Jad was glaring at me now. I could read his eyes perfectly - wrap it up Alex, don’t encourage him.
The man turned, catching the end of Jad’s glare. I felt bad but, to be fair, it was our night out and he had invaded it uninvited.
“Anyway,” he drawled slowly, “it’s been a pleasure meeting you both but I mustn’t invade your night any longer.” Oh God, it was like he’d read my thoughts entirely.
He stood but, before he was fully upright, sat back down. “Tell y’what,” he said, “I’ll just leave you with one last trick for the road, what d’you say?”
I looked at him. His eyes, pale grey and sunken in his baggy face, looked lonely and tired. They pleaded for a little bit longer, a few more precious moments of interaction so, despite Jad’s barely suppressed air of resentment, I nodded encouragingly.
A twinkle; a glimmer of youthfulness; passed over those grey eyes for a moment then. “Do you have a coin?”
“I don’t, sorry -” I looked at Jad who shook his head, sighing, before delving into the pocket of his jeans and retrieving a handful of coins. He slid a two pence piece across the table; he wasn’t chancing anything more valuable.
“Don’t worry,” the man said, smiling now, back in his act, “you’ll get it back.”
He waved to the bartender who was collecting glasses at the next table, “excuse me, love?”
I cringed. She probably hated people calling her that, but if so, she didn’t show it as she turned and smiled.
“Yes Arthur, what can I get you?”
“Just a glass please love, a clean one. If y’don’t mind?”
“Not at all – y’all okay for drinks?”
I looked at Jad’s empty glass – he’d drank that fast – but he shook his head, “No we’re fine thanks, we’re moving on in a mo.”
She returned with a glass for Arthur, who thanked her and put it over the two pence.
“So, do you think that I can remove the tuppence, without lifting the glass?”
“Er - no?” I said, knowing this was the only acceptable response in such scenarios.
“You’re right, of course,” he said, and with that, he lifted the glass in a flourish and the coin was gone.
Even Jad looked slightly gobsmacked. “But you did say I’d get it back?”
“Of course,” Arthur replied, “lift up your glass.”
Jad lifted up his glass, glancing in it incredulously, half expecting to see a beer soaked two pence piece (and ready to be suitably irritated if he did), but the old man simply lifted the beermat that the glass had been resting on, and there, underneath, was the two pence piece – or a two pence piece; obviously there was no way to be certain that it was the same one.
“Nice trick that Arthur,” Jad said amiably, “now I’m afraid we’ve gotta move, but thanks for the entertainment.”
I smiled weakly, draining the last of my drink and stood up. Arthur also stood politely, picking up the two pence piece and holding it out to my husband, “Don’t forget your tuppence.”
“Keep it,” Jad waved, dismissively, adding in a private whisper, “for the ferryman.”
Arthur shrugged, pocketing the coin, “I’ll return it on the other side.”
It had gone dark while we’d been inside and the warm evening breeze had been replaced with refreshingly cool night air. “Well, I don’t know about you, but that’s ruined my evening,” Jad declared, the silence making it sound too loud; too cruel. I turned, hoping the bar door was closed – insults have a habit of reaching ears with nothing else to hear. My heart sank, the door was ajar; but there was thankfully no sign of the old man. Probably gone out back for a smoke, I thought.
I shivered, feeling guilty. Arthur had clearly just wanted someone to talk to. He’d asked us where we were from; why hadn’t we returned the question? And, if we hadn’t responded so bluntly, might he have asked more? That’s part of the problem nowadays though isn’t it – you’re taught so much about the importance of keeping stuff to yourself, of not trusting people, that you end up suspicious of everyone; reluctant to engage in, what might just be, pleasant conversation.
“So, where next?” Jad asked, linking my arm.
I shrugged, “Not sure I’m in the mood now.”
“Come on. Let’s not let the old man spoil our evening.” He led me towards a swanky-looking wine bar that we hadn’t been in before; a place with glossy wooden tables, mustard leather stools and minimalist light fittings; a place that hadn’t had time to age and which simply wasn’t designed to soak up an atmosphere borne of lives changing between its walls, of make-ups, break-ups, announcements shared, secrets confided; and that, this time next year, would likely have a different name, different staff, different furniture.
That night, I tossed and turned, unable to sleep. “Can we go back to that bar again next week?” I asked quietly.
“What, Conkers?” I didn’t think it was anything special to be honest. The beer wasn’t a patch on the ale in Old Smithy. Though,” Jad snorted, “at least we got to drink it in peace.”
“No, I meant Old Smithy,” I paused, “I feel bad about Arthur; I think he just wanted someone to talk to and that maybe it’d be nice to be a bit friendlier next time.”
“I think we were a bit too friendly to be honest. And I’m sure he’s got his own family and friends to talk to. Or perhaps he could start doing kids’ parties with his magic tricks.”
I smacked him half-playfully on the arm. “Don’t be mean. It must be lonely getting old. I just feel like we ran off when he was just trying to be nice.”
So, a week later, we returned to Old Smithy, ordered our drinks and sat down at the same table as before. I looked around but there was no sign of Arthur. When a bartender came to deliver our second round of drinks, I asked her, “Excuse me, do you know if Arthur is coming in tonight, y’know, the old man with the magic tricks?”
“Arthur? Oh no sorry, haven’t you heard? He passed away oh, it must be two months or more now. I’m so sorry. Did you know him well?”
I froze. “Are you certain? The man with the gold chain?“
She laughed fondly. “Ahh, yes, he loved that trick.” She nodded her head up to where a gold chain was hanging over a couple of nails on the wall, one of the nails piercing a photo of an unmistakable but slightly younger Arthur, sitting in front of a bar, laughing. “His daughter gave us it. He told her he was trying out all his tricks on us until his grandson was old enough to appreciate them. She said he always produced coins from behind her ears when she was little but, after she emigrated, he was working on more visual tricks, ones that would work over Skype. Shame he won’t get the chance now.” She shivered, “Anyway, I’m really sorry.”
As she walked away, Jad picked up his drink to take a sip, his beermat sticking to the damp bottom of the glass. He removed it, was about to place it back on the table, and stopped. There, where the beermat had been, was the two pence piece; or a two pence piece; obviously there was no way to be certain that it was the same one.


Judges Comments

Tuppence for the Ferryman, the runner-up in WM's Thriller Short Story Competition, is, like the winner, a story that blends effectively realism with the supernatural. Laura Jane Siddiky has woven a really compelling story with a quietly sinister finish that works really well as a ghost story and as a thriller.

The location  – an old pub – is interesting because pubs are where characters gather and stories get told. The contrast between the soulless bar, Conkers, and the Old Smithy, amplifies the contrast between old and new that is played out in the contrasting characters of old Arthur, with his magic tricks, and impatient, possibly even brash Jad, who wants to get on and do what he wants to do. The bridge between the two – rather like a spirit medium – is the narrator; right from the beginning she lets on that her husband is impatient about the uncoventional characters who are drawn to her.

Laura Jane presents the reader with the dismissive way that Jad treats Arthur and his telling remark 'for the ferryman', which is an obvious reference to the fee paid to Charon, the psychopomp of Greek mythology who ferried the souls of the dead to Hades. The sinister thrill at the end of the story is all to do with the carefully placed implication comng after the revelation that Arthur has been dead for months. The tuppence that Jad found could be just loose change. But, equally, it might be something much, much nastier, and in this well-told tale, the reader feels the frisson as they're left to interpret it and let their thoughts play out.