A Journal of The Plague Year, And Other Tales

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Hear My Train

Hear My Train

“Good morning, ladies and gentlemen, and welcome aboard your new provider, Veritas Rail - the train service which tells it like it is. My name is Mike and I am your guard.

“We sincerely apologise for the late departure of this service to London Waterloo. Our excuse for you today is a signal failure at Hilsea. We are currently running 23 minutes behind schedule, which is pretty much on schedule by our standards.

However, you should also expect severe congestion between Wimbledon to Clapham Junction – which again is par for the course. After that, you’ll be sitting like plums somewhere near Vauxhall waiting for a platform to become free at Waterloo.

“So cancel that first meeting of the day, sit back and concentrate on your sudoku. It’s simpler than trying to puzzle out how we won this franchise.”

The intercom, which has been carrying Mike’s words with an unpleasant, metallic distortion, gives a final crackle – like a stylus scratching across a record – and falls silent.

Passengers look one to another, roll their eyes and exchange rueful grins. A new firm has taken over and is trying to win our hearts and minds with a blast of disarming honesty. It can only be a matter of time, we all tacitly agree, before the guards at the mike revert to their usual form of gruff apologies and guilty silence.

“I tell you what,” says Mike over the intercom. Silence is not his style. Maybe this job is his Plan B after his dreams of becoming a radio presenter fizzled out.

“Us guards did something funny, the other day. We created an app which we call the Shoddy Service Excuse Generator.

“The first column has all the things which cause you daily misery: trains cancelled, trains delayed, your train suffocatingly overcrowded, and your train sitting in limbo for fuck knows what reason somewhere outside Berrylands. Add to that the occasional derailment and collision – because that’s been a bit of an occupational hazard when you travel via Clapham Junction these past few years.

“The second column is a list of all the pitiful reasons behind the shoddy service we provide - signal failure, points failure, brakes failure, power failure, driver shortage, defective locomotives, leaves on the line, ice on the rails and rails bucking on any day which is vaguely hot.

“Then there’s this third column. That’s the places where these mishaps have occurred, like Pokesdown or Hook. The more obscure the location the better, because you might just forget you’re frustrated - or that you’re facing the sack for being late for work again - and you may wonder, instead, what these places look like.

“So let’s say I select options 5, 7 and 13 from the drop-down lists. It comes up with a fatal derailment due, to defective points, at Pinhoe.

“Now at this point you may conjure up in your mind a lonely village ranged around a charming scallop-shaped cove – the sort of place where smugglers used to off-load rum, sugar and spices from the Bahamas to be lugged across the eerie moors of Devon by low-lives and ruffians in battered tricorn hats.

“Image not getting conjured? Still scared stiff by the news of the derailment? Well, it was worth a try.

“I just try to keep you all cheerful, and keep your minds off the grim economics behind it all. My bosses at Veritas have been trying, ever since we took over this franchise, to get a smidgeon of extra profit by driving down the fees they pay to Network Rail for the upkeep of the track and signalling. Network Rail are retaliating by not doing any upkeep at all. You suffer. I suffer. The only people getting rich from this are the lawyers.”

At Surbiton, half the carriage empties, the alighting passengers rubbing their ears from the continuous crackly, tinny din of the PA system and muttering that this new guard is the bloody limit.

A woman with a bun of grey hair stays put in the seat opposite me, horn-rimmed spectacles perched on her aquiline nose as he scribbles on a scrap of paper in her lap. She had been marking schoolwork, but she has torn out a page from the chemistry exercise book of Marie Curie, Class 3B, and is hurriedly taking notes from Mike the Guard’s rambling revelations.

“This is definitely going on the rail user forum’s chatroom,” she mutters, without looking up. “It’s an outrage, what we have to put up with.”

“I hope so,” I reply, bending my head to try and make eye contact with her. “The guard seems to be some kind of whistle-blower - I mean, figuratively speaking. Not literally. Well, maybe literally. But will his candour really make the service any better? I have this horrible feeling that things will be like this until we die.”

The bun-haired woman gives me a withering look. Maybe it is for the unintentional pun, or maybe for my lack of faith in the pressure her rail users forum can apply.

“But just think of all the fare rebates that’ll mean,” pipes up a young man with yellow hair who is sitting two seats across from her. He is dressed in a dark suit and an open-necked, brushed cotton shirt. He has a copy of the Investors Chronicle on his knee which he hasn’t been reading.

“I mean, every time they’re late, or derailing a train, they’ll have to compensate us, right? It might get to a tipping point where the service is so shoddy that they start to pay us to travel on it.”

The bun-haired woman jabs her biro at a notice on the window. “This is the quiet zone. You’re supposed to keep talk to a minimum, you know.”

Having scolded her rowdy class of two, the school ma’am attends once more to the scientific errors and ignorance of Class 3B.

A few moments later,Mike is back on the mike.

“You’ll see that our service has now come to an unscheduled halt just short of Richmond. That’s a stroke of luck, actually. Because it means you can get a good look at the house Virginia Woolf used to live in, and where she set up the Hogarth Press.

“Working the printing press saved her from suicidal thoughts, according to the book I’ve got on the go here in my guard’s compartment. In her diary, she described dappled sunlight shifting on the bedroom wall like waves, making her happy in her madness.”

“He’s getting off track,” tuts the teacher, patting her bun of hair in irritation.

“I agree,” I say. “I mean what’s the point of having a quiet zone, where passengers are sworn to silence, when Mike the Tour Guide is making a racket on the PA system?”

She frowns at me, lips pursed, and returns to her marking. Her horn-rimmed spectacles are secured around her neck with a leather strap. I wonder whether she has used it in the past to throttle chatty commuters. Out the corner of my eye, I notice City slicker’s face has broken out into a boyish grin. He winks at me, then starts tapping out a rhythm on his knee with his Investors Chronicle.

“I’ve got a little cat and I’m very fond of that,” he warbles, tunelessly.

The school ma’am slams her biro on the table in irritation, removes her spectacles and fixes him with her most forbidding glare yet.

“I’ve warned you once about making noise in the Quiet Zone. I won’t do it again.”

“Good,” says the man tartly, meeting her eye. “That means I won’t have to listen to you doing it.”

Picking up the rhythm again, he declares that his utmost wish, this Christmas, is for someone to give him a bow-wow-bow.

The school teacher takes a deep breath, as if to pronounce her punishment, but as timely as a bell in a boxing match Mike comes back on the line.

“Well, our service is trundling forward again, which is the good news. The bad news is that the congestion around Clapham Junction is so bad this morning that we’re terminating the service here at Richmond. You can take the District Line into central London, if you like. You can also download a compensation claim form from our website and re-live this miserable journey in your heads as you fill it out.”

As we commuters alight – some incensed and some relieved – I am surprised to see the school ma’am and the City Slicker walking down the platform together.

The next morning, I catch the train as usual from Overspill Town. I am back in the quiet carriage. My two new commuting buddies are there already, sitting side-by-side.

Ms Spruce is marking some child’s homework with a red pen. She is driving gashes of ink across the page. She seems to be in no mood to be twitted.

As I take my seat, Slicker grins and winks at me again, turns to Ms Spruce and – in a wavering baritone - offers his listeners directions to Heartbreak Hotel.

Abruptly, she crams her biro and the worksheets into her satchel and rises to leave.

“Where are you going, Miss Spruce?” The City type asks, in the tone of a cheeky fourth-former. “Are you going to tell on me to the guard?”

He chuckles to himself and calls after her.

“Good luck with that. He’ll chew your hind leg off before you’ve had a chance to open your mouth.”

Ms. Spruce hesitates. I imagine the thoughts she is juggling in her mind. To report Slicker to the guard would be like going to the principal and demanding expulsion for a disruptive pupil in your class. It’s the nuclear option. But because it the nuclear option, there’s a risk the principle may not take it, in which case the child has scored a huge victory.

Sighing, the teacher returns to her seat, puts her satchel primly in her lap and fixes her gaze on a diagram of the carriage’s emergency exits, the better to avoid her tormentor’s triumphant leer.

She is fiddling with something on her finger. It is a wedding ring. I wonder how her other half might react, seeing City Slicker taunting her like this. Give him a punch on his snub nose, maybe?

The PA releases a large guff of static. It is Mike again. Mike does not like uncomfortable silences.

“Brookwood is interesting,” he volunteers. “I’ll tell you something about it, since we are stuck just outside the station at a red signal.

“So, what do you see, outside the right-hand side windows? A sea of headstones, that’s what.”

With exaggerated enthusiasm, City Slicker leans across Ms. Spruce’s lap to get a better view. Strangely, she doesn’t try to extricate herself. She sighs and closes her eyes.

“Did you know?” Mike continues. “In the early twentieth century, the government decreed Brookwood should be Britain’s national cemetery. Hundreds of thousands of people were buried there before the plan was abandoned. The operators of this line - our predecessors - put on a special Sunday service from Waterloo so people could go and replace the flowers at their dead relatives’ graves. It was called the Dead Meat Train, or the Stiff’s Express.”

“My, my!” exclaimed the City gent, pushing his face insolently close to the schoolteacher’s. “What a joy it is to be educated. I never learnt about that at Oxford. Did you learn about that at your teachers’ training college in Yeovil?”

With surprising force, the teacher shoves the City gent away from her, stuffs her schoolwork into her satchel, and stalks up the carriage aisle.

“Plenty of room in First Class,” the City gent calls out. “That’s if you can afford it on your state school salary.”

He turns to me with another one of his winks.

“I can afford First Class myself, but I like to have more fun than that. For the best part of a year, I’ve been going back and forth from Micheldever with nothing but a Zone 1 - 6 card. They never check. If they ever did, I’d just say I’d fallen asleep and I’d missed my stop.”

He closes his eyes and dozes, complacently.

Now, in the stifling heat of a stationary train, I stare through the black iron fence running parallel with the railway line and across the sloping lawns - teeming with headstones - I find myself transported back to the time when the Stiff Express was at full steam, in a world of stifling manners, stern duties and small pleasures.

On the platform of Brookwood station I picture an Edwardian family, recently alighted from the down train from Waterloo. The mother in grey crinoline, carrying a spray of lillies - purchased that morning in Covent Garden. The pater familias, in Sunday best, carries the family’s leather-bound breviary, for prayer readings at the graveside of their loved one. After this, there will be a stroll around the cemetery, pausing to study headstones, and then tea and scones in the station buffet.

A boy, dressed in that junior version of Sunday best: a sailor’s suit, stands to the side, studying a timetable board nearby.

He eyes scan down the names of all the stations, connecting Brookwood to the length and breadth of Britain - from Alton and Alchester to Yateley and York. He wonders how many he may visit by the time he is 21 and grown-up, and how many more by the time he is 40.

And then a thought springs to his mind which causes him to catch his breath and stare vacantly towards the slopes of the Surrey wealds, rising beyond the cemetery grounds. Now, a thought strikes him: of all the lines he may take in his life across the country’s thousands of miles of criss-crossing lines all of them, ultimately, will bear him back here – to this fold in the hills: the shadow of Britain’s valley of death.

There is a rustle on the loudspeakers. Mike coughs, coughs again, and speaks.

“This is a message for the man who’s been having fun at the expense of – what’s your name, love? – Mizz Spruce. Any more of that and I’ll have to get up and do something about it, like ... I don’t know ... check your ticket.”

The City gent reaches inside his jacket and defiantly slaps his Zones 1 - 6 card on the table.

“There it is. He can bust me if he likes. I can afford the fine. What gets me is how people like that Spruce woman always get to have the last word. You can never win against them.”

“How are you not winning against her?” I ask. “You probably earn ten times what she does, not even counting your bonuses. Plus, you speak to intelligent adults every day of the week while she’s stuck with the chemistry-challenged juveniles of form Class 3B. I’d say that you’re well ahead on points.”

“It’s not the money. It’s not the job. It’s more than that. It’s her type. They just assume they’re in the right. Say they’re involved in some sort of quarrel with someone. They’ll call over a police officer and expect him come down on their side. And do you know what? He will. People like that assume authority is their private possession. They think they are part of the system and that everyone else in the system will rally round them. It’s how they derive their status.”

“I see you’re talking in the quiet zone again, Mr Biggart.”

Ms. Spruce has returned and is looking at him with a grim smile.

“I told the guard your name, but it turns out everyone in Veritas Rail knows you already. They know about that scam you’re pulling with your travel card. They’re just letting you carry on for a few months longer so they can the longest sentence possible for you. It’s not a question of you paying a fine, my dear Mr Biggart. It’ll be jail time.”

The train is slowing for Surbiton. Biggart folds his magazine and moves hastily to the door, muttering about taking a taxi from here.

“Mind the gap,” suggests Mike, on the PA system, sounding like a Hampshire man doing an impression of a terribly posh dictator.

Then, warming to his task, he does his impression of female blokie, Britain’s trusted elder sister, guardian angel againt terrorism on the rails.

“If you see something that doesn’t look right, come and speak to good old Mike. I’ll see it, say it, sort it.”

Ms. Spruce produces a black leather notebook from her satchel and unsheathes her red biro.

“Taking security notes from Mike?” I ask her.

“No,” she says. “I’m writing an official complaint against him, for speaking imbecilities and letting passengers onto the tracks.”

“An official complaint?”

“From the Rail Users’ Forum. We’re an official body.”

I had felt for Ms. Spruce when Biggart was tormenting her. I really had. However, I was beginning to see what he meant about her wielding authority like a personal weapon.

“So, you’ve snitched on Biggart to the guard,” I said, to the top of her head as she scribbled. “Now you’re snitching on the guard, and he’ll probably get the sack. Just tell me: why all the snitching? Were you like this at school?”

Ms. Spruce continues to write her damning words in black ink in her little black book. It is the report which will lose Mike his livelihood.

“I enforce the rules,” she says. “They’re important.”

“Or they make you important, maybe.”

I’m sure she will punish me for talking back to her. She’ll think of something she has on me. That jaunt onto the tracks at Richmond. That’ll be enough for her.

“Actually, I am important,” she replies. “People don’t like it, I’m sure, but I lay down the lines for people to travel on, where they’ll be safe. I stop my pupils from burning down the school with Bunsen burners. I punish train guards who open the train doors for scenic tours and who my rail users to distraction with their incessant chatter. And I do what I can to stop Mr Biggart from derailing his life and his career by playing stupid pranks with his railway ticket.”

“But why,” I ask, “are Mr Biggart’s life and career any your business?”

“They have to be, I’m afraid,” says Ms. Spruce. She lays down her pen. For the first time, she looks at me. Her eyes and cheeks are haggard.

“You see,” she says, “Mr Biggart is my husband.”

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