Time Out by Chris Green
The train has never been this late. It is nearly 10 o’clock. Max has been waiting for over an hour. He has been through nearly all of the Thelonious Monk selections on his iPhone. He may have missed something but so far as he can tell, there have been no announcements giving a reason for the delay. Before the departures display stopped working for some unexplained reason, it stated that the 8:39 to Broadchurch was on time. Thus, Max kept thinking it would soon be along. One or two trains going in the opposite direction have stopped at the other platform and a trickle of people have got on and off. Churston Stoney is not a busy station
Max is in no hurry. It doesn’t matter what time he opens All About Jazz on a Tuesday. Few people come in to buy anything so early in the week. For most, jazz seems to be primarily a weekend fascination. But, curiously, the handful of other passengers waiting on platform 2 for the 8:39 seem similarly unperturbed by the train’s delay. From time to time, one or other of them wanders up to the Take the Train poster to see if it provides a clue or feigns interest in the safety procedures notice but, in the spirit of train travel, each keeps his distance and avoids conversation or even eye contact with the others. The cordylines in their raised wooden planters have never attracted so many admiring glances.
Max is beginning to suspect that something may be wrong. There should be some news by now. There are no railway staff on hand to ask what the issue might be and the ticket office is on the approach to the other platform over the bridge. He takes his earbuds out and sidles up to the broken bench where a young girl in a purple duffle coat is sitting. She is probably a student, he thinks. At Broadchurch College. Positive Pathways, most likely. This would explain why she herself is not in a hurry to get anywhere. In fact, it’s probably a little early for her first class. Most of the students there don’t turn up much before lunchtime.
At Max’s approach, the girl’s fingers stop playing with her phone for a moment.
Max does not want to sound too hung up about the lateness of the train, but equally, he doesn’t want it to seem like he is chatting her up. He is more than twice her age.
‘Good tune?’ he asks.
She looks the newcomer up and down. She is wary of middle-aged men wearing striped linen jackets and Fedora hats thinking they look cool.
‘You wouldn’t like it,’ she says, taking her buds out. ‘Rat Boy. Probably not heard of him, have you, Granddad? It’s called Get Over It. Essex hip-hop.’
He seems undeterred by the offhand way she addresses him. Perhaps she should have just blanked him, she thinks, and turned her head. Now he wants to chat about trains. Is there an 8:39 train? What has happened to it? How would she know? She is happy to sit here until one comes along. She has nothing pressing to get on with. She is often the only one at her mime class, so it probably doesn’t matter if she attends or not. The world as she sees it is on her phone. This is where the important things happen. People of a certain age don’t seem to have caught on yet that there is no need for personal interaction.
‘I’m sure the train will be along soon,’ she says, turning her attention to the screen once more.
‘I manage a jazz shop in town,’ he says. ‘You might want to pop in sometime to see if there is anything you like.’
Why is he telling her this? Does she look like she cares?
In the nick of time, she is saved by another passenger coming along. This one seems happy to talk to Max about trains and timetables. The new arrival, she thinks, looks considerably more sinister than the other. Although it is Spring, he wears darkness like an overcoat. There is no mistaking that look of serious intent. It does not belong in her world. She puts her head down and gets back to her hip-hop. Best to leave the two men to their concerns over punctuality.
‘I’m hearing that this section of the line is experiencing some unexpected temporal turbulence,’ the newcomer says. ‘A rupture in time, you might call it.’ He has that look of dark formality about him that Max notices when he visits his accountant. But despite his seriousness, there is something other-worldly about him.
‘A rupture in time?’ queries Max. ‘Is that an elaborate way of saying that the train is late?’
‘No. Not exactly,’ the shadowy figure continues. ‘While, yes the 8:39 is indeed late, it is on its way. However, you may notice some ……. differences.’
Detecting some activity, at last, other passengers have begun to gather around the two of them, curious to know what the new developments might be.
‘How are you getting this ……. information?’ asks the man in the ill-fitting beige zip-up jacket and the striped shopping bag who is probably younger than he looks.
‘Or lack of,’ adds the woman in the orange shell suit carrying a small child in a papoose.
‘Aliens landed in Westmallow this morning,’ says the man with the long hair and the Syd Barrett t-shirt, who has just arrived. This overshadows all the other comments and gets everyone’s immediate attention. Westmallow is just five miles away, in fact, the next station up the line.
‘Only joking,’ he adds. ‘Got you going, though, didn’t it?’
‘So tell us! When will the train be here?’ says Beige zip-up.
‘And what is happening?’ says Orange shell suit.
‘Just be aware that the train might seem a little strange today,’ says the shadowy figure. ‘I will not be travelling with you.’
With this, he takes his leave. They watch him aghast as he makes his way down off the platform and hotfoots it down the steps. No sooner has he gone than the train drifts into the station. It appears to be the usual two-car multiple unit that is used for this service with the usual shabby dark blue livery.
Max gets on and takes a seat. He glances around nervously, trying to spot anything that might be considered odd. The layout of the carriage is familiar. There is the usual amount of grime suggesting it might be due for a deep clean. The proportions of old and young, men, women and children are what you might expect at this time of day. In fact, Max recognises many of them. Not that he is in the habit of speaking to any of them, but they are regulars on the route. He decides to settle back and listen to a little Miles Davis. He finds Miles’s mellow mute is perfect for relaxation. He selects Miles Davis from the playlist. To his alarm, what he hears is not Miles Davis at all but some terrible hip-hop music. He glances at the cover art on the phone’s display. The track is called Get Over It by Rat Boy. How could this have happened?
Then he remembers. The girl in the purple duffle coat had been listening to Rat Boy. Perhaps she has somehow Bluetoothed the tune to his device. He looks around for her, half expecting to see her somewhere in the carriage laughing, perhaps with Syd Barrett t-shirt sharing the joke, but neither of them is anywhere to be seen. He makes his way down the aisle and into the adjoining carriage. They are not there either. Did they not actually get on the train? The assumption is that passengers waiting for a train board the train but, at the time, he had been too pre-occupied with his anxieties to notice who did and who didn’t get on.
Puzzled, Max returns to his carriage. There now seem to be extra passengers. He is certain, well, almost certain. The lady with the bichon frise was not there previously. Nor the two soldiers. Sometimes the memory can play tricks, especially at times of stress, but surely he would have noticed the soldiers. Shouldn’t they have got off at Gunleigh, where the army base is? That’s two stops back up the line, no wait, three stops. The man in the mac is no longer there, nor the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses who kept blowing his nose. He can’t see the man who was reading the book on string theory either. Max takes a look at his watch. 8:56. The train now appears to be on time. Proper time. Well, perhaps a few minutes late, but certainly no more than you would expect on a normal working day. Unless. ……….
The train passes through the Blackstone tunnel. This is definitely further back up the line. The tunnel is before you reach Gunleigh. How can this have happened? Max continues to puzzle over this as the train pulls into Gunleigh, where the soldiers leave the train. The train stays in the station for several minutes. There is no explanation for this and the restless murmur of conversation around the train reflects the growing frustration of the passengers. No-one seems to know what is going on.
‘I’m going to miss my connection,’ says the man in the mac. ‘If I miss it, I’m going to be writing to someone.’
‘I’ve got an important psychiatric appointment in Broadchurch,’ says the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses, the one who keeps blowing his nose.
The man who is reading the book on string theory nods his head.
‘Insulting, the wait they treat us,’ says the man in the mac. ‘It never used to be like this.’
‘Not so much as a word of apology,’ says the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses, who keeps blowing his nose.
The man who is reading the book on string theory shakes his head.
Max tries his phone to see if he can find out anything from the internet to explain what is happening but predictably, given the unusual circumstances, he cannot get a signal. He is struggling to work out what he might be doing on the train on this part of the route when he lives in Churston Stoney, which is still eight or so miles up the line, coupled with the fact that he remembers getting on the train at Churston Stoney, just now. To go to work. He is dressed for work.
Max closes his eyes and begins to count slowly from one to a hundred in French, German and Spanish, a distraction exercise he taught himself to overcome confused states of mind. Sometimes he uses this exercise to help himself get off to sleep after a busy weekend at the Broadchurch Jazz Festival. By the time he has reached ochenta y siete, it is ten past ten and the train is pulling into Churston Stoney station. To his amazement, there on the platform are the girl in the purple duffle coat with her head in her iPhone, the man in the beige zip up jacket with his striped shopping bag who is probably younger than he looks, the woman in the orange shell suit with the baby in the papoose, the man with the long hair wearing the Syd Barrett t-shirt and to his great horror, he notices the sinister man from earlier is just leaving the station, hot-footing it down the steps. To his greater horror, there by the cordylines in the raised wooden planters, he himself is, dressed in his striped linen jacket and his Fedora hat, carrying his leather work bag. Up until this moment, déjà vu had been just an expression that he had heard bandied about by people who, he realises now, had no comprehension of what it might feel like to really experience the trauma of it.
The train is soon on its way and hurtling down the line. For the benefit of those who boarded at Churston Stoney, the conductor apologises for its lateness. The delay, he says, was due to a giant clown on the tracks. He goes on to announce that the train will be stopping at Bymoor, Pitfield, Littlechurch and Broadchurch. The man in the mac and the man with the Ronnie Wood haircut and the dark glasses, who keeps blowing his nose are in Max’s carriage, along with the man who is reading the book on string theory. He has been joined by a man who looks a little like him, but is perhaps a little thinner. His lookalike companion, Max notices, is wearing a Heisenberg t-shirt and reading something called The Uncertainty Principle.
The girl in the purple duffle coat, who seems to have made a point of taking a seat opposite him says, ‘There was no need to copy that bloody jazz to my phone. It was terrible. How can you listen to it?’
‘What?’ says Max. He is still trying to imagine what could have possibly happened to his doppelgänger. Perhaps he is the doppelgänger.
‘That Duke of Wellington, or whatever he is called,’ says the girl in the purple duffle coat. ‘That Mood Indigo.’
‘Ellington, it’s Duke Ellington’ one or other of him says.
‘Whatever!’ says purple duffle coat.
This development suggests to Max that not only is there a rupture in time which is turning all rational thinking on its head but music is getting muddled too. Music and time makes him think of musical time. Musical time makes him think of Dave Brubeck and Time Out, the seminal album based on the idea of unusual time signatures, 9/8, 5/4, 6/4 and the like.
But, Max realises none of this explains what is really happening or why what is happening is happening. Reduced to its simplest form, he had a long wait on Churston Stoney station for the 8:39 train to Broadchurch, during which he had some unaccountable experiences, including travelling on the train that had not arrived. The train that had not arrived has since arrived and he is on it, again, possibly along with his doppelgänger and the other passengers who were waiting at Churston Stoney station, who have not previously boarded the train, with the notable absence of a mystery man who had maintained that something was wrong with the universe.
But, it’s all part of life’s rich pageant. What’s past is prologue. Max must move on. Take what comes and do what he can to have a say in this. This is as much as anyone can do. As the great novelist and jazz enthusiast, Haruki Murakami says, ‘don’t let appearances fool you, there is only one reality.’ But is this really true, Max wonders as his eyes are drawn once more to the man reading The Uncertainty Principle? As he recollects, the principle states that nothing has a definite position, a definite trajectory or a definite momentum. Trying to pin something down to one definite position will make its momentum less well pinned down and vice-versa. What about the other fellow, Max wonders, the one that is reading the book on string theory? Perhaps he would have an explanation for what is going on. String theory, as he understands it, proposes that the fundamental constituents of a nine or ten-dimensional universe are one-dimensional strings and not point-like particles. Thus, the universe that we are familiar with is not the only one; multiple universes exist parallel to each other. Any number of different realities then? He could, for instance, also at this moment be still waiting for the train at Churston Stoney, travelling on the train further up the line and travelling on a different train and in another dimension, he could never have been on a train in his life. Equally, the girl in the purple duffle coat and all the others might be on multiple trains or not at all. He decides it might be best not to talk to the fellow reading the book on string theory just yet.
‘Tickets please!’ says the conductor, making his along the aisle. ‘Anyone who got on the train at Churston Stoney.’
Max fishes around in his jacket pocket and finds that he has dozens of tickets. Baffled, he turns them over in his hand. The conductor eyes him suspiciously. Max glances once again at the man reading the book on string theory. Perhaps he does need to speak to him after all.
Copyright © Chris Green, 2021: All rights reserved