Princes Risborough, that was good news. The train slowed down as we passed through the deserted and desolate station; small oases of luminosity above the station signs were the only indicators of civilisation.
The town lies at the north end of a pass through the Chiltern Hills and the railway links the affluent Buckinghamshire settlement with Birmingham and London, my destination.
A kiosk stood, black and shuttered, looking like a relic from World War Two. Hard to imagine people queuing, a young woman smiling as she handed over cappuccinos in cardboard beakers with plastic lids. Guaranteed to spill burning coffee over you if you tried to drink it once the train was moving.
Once through the station, we began to pick up speed and my small, dimly lit carriage began to sway, as a hubbub of rattling and clanking permeated the compartment once more. I looked at my watch. 1.30 a.m. I should be in London for 2.00 a.m. Though quite who or what would be waiting for me I was unsure.
I wound the window down and let a stream of warm summer air blast over my face. Heating was on in the carriage and despite the late hour, it was growing sultry. Now we were headed around a bend and I looked along the train at the elongated chain of freight that curved down and out of sight, wagon after wagon, perhaps thirty of them. Some resembled cement mixers, others, square containers with huge letters denoting alien products and companies, a world totally unbeknown to me. Ahead was another small carriage and beyond that, thundering ever onwards, the huge metallic leviathan pulling thousands of tons. My phone beeped.
‘Hi darling, I’ll be at Marylebone in ten minutes. What’s your ETA? xx’
Thank God! Fiona had got my text and was coming to pick me up.
The carriage was shaking and rattling, too noisy to make a voice call. I noticed the battery was almost flat too and rebuked myself for forgetting to charge it. I sat down on the ancient, worn seat, pale green with a barely decipherable floral design, and musty-smelling. How many thousands of people must have sat there? Briefly, I tried to imagine the lives of that inconceivable weight of humanity. I wondered if any murderers had sat here, right where I was sitting. I sent off a reply. ‘Half an hour with luck. Love you. xxx’
I thought of the incredible good fortune I’d had. Toting a small suitcase, I’d gone to Drierley station at about 11 p.m., a lonely halt in South Warwickshire, hoping I could get to London. There’d been a couple of lights on the single platform but there were no timetables anywhere, just an antiquated ticket machine that simply asked for my destination and gave a corresponding price.
I’d tried to phone Fiona, my fiancé, to get her to check train times, but there was no answer. After hanging around on the ominous, lonely platform for twenty minutes, I’d mooted returning to my guest house, no doubt to a disgruntled landlady, when the rail sang with an approaching train. Hope had burned in my heart, then was dashed as I saw it was pulling freight. But as the train grew closer, it slowed, groaning and creaking, finally pulling up at the end of the platform with a momentous sigh. Its waggons stretched the whole length of the platform and far beyond. Suddenly all was completely silent.
A huge man in a black uniform and cap lowered himself gingerly onto the platform from the cab and waddled towards me. I felt embarrassed, as if I had no right to be there.
“‘Ello, squire, all the trains ‘ave gone. Didn’t you realise?” he called.
“Actually no, there aren’t any timetables.”
Coming up to me, he laughed, “No, they don’t bother with ‘em anymore. People can look train times up online. Saves ‘em a packet.” He was very overweight, with a round, friendly face and small, widely spaced eyes that twinkled in the sparse light.
“Look, I need to take a leak … where are you off to?”
“Well, I wanted to go to Marylebone.”
He laughed, his double chin wobbling. “Ha, it’s your lucky day, squire, that’s where I’m headed, and I’ve got a couple of carriages in tow!” He gestured to two antiquated boxes, tucked just behind the engine.
“How much?” I asked.
“Well, I shouldn’t really take passengers but I’ll write you out a ticket, don’t worry. We’ll sort it out later. That OK?”
Well, it was more than OK. Here I was, just half an hour from meeting my sweetheart, against all the odds. True, I only had myself to blame for not checking the journey times or getting ready on time, but, well, that was in the past now. Everything had worked out fine in the end.
–I wondered about paying the fare. Maybe I could go and see the driver now? Perhaps he might even welcome some company? It must be lonely driving freight trains on your own at night.
I exited the carriage and went down the corridor, balancing against the movement of the train. Then, warily, into the next compartment, over the shaking, clanking join between carriages. The next one was dark, just a small yellow light in the ceiling showing all seats unoccupied. I reached a cream-painted door beyond. ‘Strictly no admittance,’ it said, in a forbidding font. I knocked on it.
No reply. I knocked louder, my knuckles smarting with the impact on the metal. “Can I come in?” I shouted. Again, no reply. I turned the handle and was surprised to find the door unlocked. It swung open to reveal the gargantuan form of the driver slumped over the controls. One look at the anguish etched on his greyish-blue face was enough to tell me he was dead. Presumably a heart attack.
OK, what to do? I tried to suppress a rising panic. These trains had a ‘dead man’s handle’ didn’t they? He would be pressing something with his hand or foot. When it was removed the train would slow and stop. Permutations rattled around in my mind. But then another train might crash into it. But then the braking would send a signal to some control centre somewhere, surely?
With difficulty, I shifted his bulk enough to determine, to my horror, that there was nothing resembling one. Stay calm! I took my phone out and typed a text to Fiona. She’d be at Marylebone by now and could tell the staff. They’d know what to do. Perhaps they could even stop the train remotely? ‘Train driver is dead. SERIOUSLY. Train still running. HELP!!’
It seemed like an age as, sick with trepidation, I watched the trees hurtling past in the powerful headlights to the body-numbing throbbing of the engine. Finally, my phone beeped. Thank God! I read the message. ‘You have insufficient funds. Please top up and try again.’
I looked at the huge corpse, propped in awkward, permanent repose. Why had he chosen this time to die? I didn’t want to join him; my real life was only just beginning. I felt fear and cursed a vengeful God.
Featured in the book and audiobook, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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