Strange Platforms Aren't Always For Hogwarts
23:10, London Victoria station. A cold October night. I regretted my assumption that I’d be warm enough after the gig and, shivering, I pulled my hoodie tighter around me. I also wished I hadn’t stayed behind to try and get a picture with the band - I had missed the 23:06 train by a matter of seconds and had to wait nearly an hour for the next one. The shops had closed early, damn Sunday trading hours. I wish I’d brought a book with me. With a sigh I refreshed Twitter, but most of my timeline had tucked themselves in for an early night, the lucky sods.
Too cold to go outside, so nothing to do but kick my heels and wander around the cavernous interior of the station. Due to how the two termini were knocked through to create one station, it had plenty of nooks and crannies to explore. The long platform 1, where the boat train used to depart from. The hidden exit by the Gatwick Express platforms. Platform 8b, behind the Wetherspoons- wait, wasn’t that where the lost property offices were? A bog-standard Southeastern commuter train sat thrumming in the platform, waiting to carry the drunks and late workers back home for the night. I continued my wander, casting an eye over the departure boards above the Millies Cookies to see where the train was going.
Platform 8 was empty, the next train showing the 5:30am train to Sevenoaks. Platform 9, the last train to Dorking was ready to go in ten minutes. Platform 8b - nothing. I wandered back to the platform, a curious look on my face. I had a good 40 minutes until my train left, nothing else to do. The electronic board above the gateline indicated that the train was the 2328 train fast to Horsted Keynes. It didn’t look particularly busy. In fact, I’d been alone down near the platform on both my visits. No matter, I thought, shrugging to myself; If it’s normally this quiet they’ll run the service down and stop it entirely in 18 months. A small voice nagged at me, but I went off to see if the platform for the last train to Brighton had been announced yet.
Maybe it was the late hour, maybe the tiredness from the gig, but it took me a good minute or two to realise what the nagging was. Horsted Keynes had been closed for 50 years. It was now run as part of a preserved railway society, and had no way of powering the electric train currently waiting to go there. I walked back, hoping to take a picture of the departure board - I knew a few people who would find it amusing at least. As I approached I saw a fellow passenger walk to the gateline, swipe their ticket and walk through the barrier towards the train. Sharply dressed, too. Must be a city boy working late, taking his backpack home with him for a few hours sleep before the return journey to work tomorrow morning.
I stood to one side of the barrier, trying to take a picture of the electronic departure board, but for some reason each attempt came out blurry and unreadable. Frowning, I shifted position, for a better attempt, only to be jostled by more passengers for the train. All different ages and looks, but all wearing similar styles. I don’t pay much heed to fashion, but this must be the current vogue style. Same backpacks, though. Maybe it was a company event in town? I pity any of their customers tomorrow, hopefully they won’t have high expectations of customer service. I framed the shot perfectly, but as I was about to tap the screen a person slammed into me from behind, knocking me to the ground. My phone skidded off under the barriers, being picked up by the short haired guy that hit me.
Standing up I brushed myself off, giving my assailant the frowning of a lifetime as he passed through the barriers and onto the train. Something felt off. My wallet! My phone! The git had pickpocketed me! I tailgated someone through the barriers, keeping tight against her backpack to sneak through. The bag compressed as I got close - not empty, but squishy. Strange. I walked along the train looking for my attacker, but the station lights glinted off the windows and all I could see was my concerned face. I took the chance and jumped on the train. I’d be quick, I could find this guy and jump off before it left, piece of cake.
The train was cold. Not like the usual British Railways habit of only having the train heating on during the summer, but cold as in “I can see my own breath”. I ducked into the carriage itself and saw it was full. Not with anyone standing, though. Everybody was sat peacefully in silence. The luggage racks above the seat were filled with those bloody backpacks, neatly lined up. I moved down the train, looking for the chap that bumped me, but I quickly realised how futile the effort was - each male seemed to have the same short haircut. They also seemed to all be listening to the same style of black earphones. Whatever, at least the brilliant white Apple earphones had finally been phased out. Sighing, I gave up. I’ll call the bank tomorrow and cancel my cards; filing a police report to claim the phone back on insurance. It’ll be a hassle, but a lesson learnt.
Except the doors had hissed closed. The electronic button to reopen them wouldn’t work. Dammit, I’d spent too long on the train. Great. I moved up the train and slumped down in the only spare seat that I’d seen, instinctively grabbing for my phone to find out whether I’d be able make it back to Victoria tonight. Not there, of course. Could my night get any worse? I looked around to see if any of my fellow passengers had a paper I could borrow. Nobody was talking or making eye contact - typical British commuters. They were all sat ramrod straight, staring off…at nothing in particular. Was this train going via Midwich or something? Sod it, what’s the harm in asking? I cleared my throat.
“Um, excuse me?”
Everybody turned to look at me. In unison. O…kay, that was freaky. Resisting the urge to shudder, I remembered why I’d spoken up in the first place.
“Does anyone have a paper I can borrow, please?”
Nothing. That’s pretty standard actually, you could get attacked in the tube and nobody would say anything. Still, the eye contact thing was pretty weird. Everyone was looking at me directly in the face. I couldn’t see the people behind me in the carriage but I’d bet pounds to peanuts they were the same.
“What’s the next stop? I’m not supposed to be on this train and I’d like to make it back to London so I can get my train to Brighton tonight, does anyone know, please?”
Still nothing. Vast acres of nothingness in which to plant crops. I looked out the window for a familiar landmark, but the inky blackness stared back. Were we outside London already? No, the train hadn’t been going that long…had it? I peered at my watch - broken, it had smashed in the fall. Wonderful. Did I walk under a ladder this morning or something? Right, that’s it.
“Does anyone mind if I listen to my music? I’ll turn it down if it’s too loud.”
Aha, they spoke. Literally. It felt like the reply came from all around me, yet nobody seemed to move their mouths. I looked around, for some indication of who spoke, but the blank faces stared back without expression.
“No you don’t mind, or no you’d rather I didn’t listen to music?”
That voice came from my left, across the aisle. I examined the four faces, nothing, except- were they smiling? Almost imperceptible, but the corners of the mouths seemed to be turned up slightly. Odd. I turned back to find a pair of headphones had been placed on the table in front of me. Again, nobody took credit for this. I resolved to find out which blasted company these freaks were working for and write their MD a strongly worded letter of complaint. Tomorrow. After calling the bank, fixing my watch, and claiming back my phone. Whatever, I’m keeping these headphones. Grumpily I unplugged my cheap pair from my mp3 player and plugged this new pair in. To my surprise the battery wasn’t flat, that’s something at least. Maybe it was past midnight and Monday was going to be better?
No. Flicking through each and every file was corrupt. Maybe while walking under a ladder I’d broken a mirror too. I looked up to find a replacement sitting in front of me. Of course. I didn’t dare look around openly at the faces - I could see out of the corner of my eyes that the smiles were wider. Sod it, at least with some music I could distract myself. Pocketing my broken device, I plugged their headphones into their mp3 player and wondered what crazy stuff they’d have pre-loaded.
“Good morning, James. We’ve been expecting you…”